In his light we shall travel…
Remembering some eventful moments in the life of Thanthai Chelva, of historical significance to Eelam Tamils, looking through both A J Wilson’s book: S J V Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism and the late Nadesan Satyendra’s Tamil Nation web portal and from tributes at his death.
“Throughout the ages the Sinhalese and Tamils in the country lived as distinct sovereign people till they were brought under foreign domination. It should be remembered that the Tamils were in the vanguard of the struggle for independence in the full confidence that they also will regain their freedom. We have for the last 25 years made every effort to secure our political rights on the basis of equality with the Sinhalese in a united Ceylon…It is a regrettable fact that successive Sinhalese governments have used the power that flows from independence to deny us our fundamental rights and reduce us to the position of a subject people. These governments have been able to do so only by using against the Tamils the sovereignty common to the Sinhalese and the Tamils…I wish to announce to my people and to the country that I consider the verdict at this election as a mandate that the Tamil Eelam Nation should exercise the sovereignty already vested in the Tamil people and become free.”
Such were the evocative words spoken by S J V Chelvanayakam QC MP (quote taken from Tamil Nation website) after he won the Kankesanturai seat convincingly with a sweeping majority, having resigned his seat in October, 1972 to re-contest his parliamentary seat in September 1975 (in a by-election that the Sirimavo government wilfully delayed) to seek the peoples’ mandate for Tamil Eelam.
Earlier, challenging the Sirimavo government’s decision to establish a constituent assembly and formulate a new constitution, Chelvanayakam took the “momentous decision” to submit himself to the people’s will, “on the issue that the Tamil people had rejected the 1972 constitution.”
A J Wilson writes in his book: S J V Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism that, “for Chelvanayakam and the Federal Party the most disturbing aspects of this constitution-making process was the decision to enshrine the Sinhala language as the one official language, to reduce the status of Tamil to a language requiring translation, to provide special provision to Buddhism and to do away with section 29 of the Soulbury Constitution which had hitherto been a covenant for the protection of minority rights.”
“The decision will be that of the Tamil people. My policy will be that in view of the events that have taken place , the Tamil people of Ceylon should have the right to determine their future, whether they are to be subject race in Ceylon or they are to be free people. Let the government contest me on that position. If I lose I give up my policy. The government loses, let it not say the Tamil people supports its policy and its constitution.” so saying Chelvanayakam resigned his seat risking his political future on the critical issue of rejecting the 1972 republican constitution for Tamil self-determination.
Samuel James Velupillai Chelvanayakam was born in Ipoh, Malaysia . At age four he, together with his siblings and mother arrived in Jaffna, Ceylon where he started his schooling in Union College, Tellipalai and later in St Johns College, Jaffna. “it was then the practice of middle class Tamil parents to send their children to schools in the Jaffna peninsula,” from Malaysia, writes A J Wilson.
Beginning his career as a teacher and then a “highflying lawyer” with a lucrative practice he was married to Emily Grace Barr Kumarakulasinghe and was blessed with four sons and a daughter whom A J Wilson married.
Chelvanayakam entered politics in 1944 and was elected to parliament in 1947. A J Wilson writes Chelvanayakam went, “with no ambition whatsoever to become a leader, but only to be ‘the dour guardian of Tamil interests’…circumstances and historical processes turned him into the commanding figure he became…”
Although Parkinson’s disease took its toll, he was a revered leader who, A J Wilson writes, gave his people, “a sense of pride, self assurance, an ideology of defensive nationalism and a vision of a national homeland, who until then had almost reconciled themselves to a perpetual minority.”
A devout Christian he was the leader of a people who were mostly Hindu. despite that he never changed his religion for political expediency, “unlike a number of Sinhala leaders who abandoned Christianity in favour of Buddhism to improve their electoral chances,” writes A J Wilson:
“Despite his Christianity, Chelvanayakam absorbed much of the Hindu ethos during his youth… He made the paradoxical claim that ‘he was a Christian by religion and a Hindu by culture’. Chelvanayakam had learned to move in two worlds, the other being the modern Christian anglicised world of Colombo,” A J Wilson writes.
To those opponents and rivals who referred to him as a, “Christian outsider “, once replying to a Buddhist monk he wrote: “You referred to my religion as Christian and therefore I had little in common with the Tamils who were mainly Hindu by religion. It stands to the credit of the Hindu people that they have not forced me or other Christians to change our faith before we lead them,” A J Wilson writes about Chelvanayakam’s Christian faith that he never had to compromise to win the love of the Tamil people.
In his early years he was a member of G G Ponnambalam’s ACTC (All Ceylon Tamil Congress) and then formed his own party the Federal Party (ITAK) founded on a campaign for a federal constitution. As Sinhala Buddhist hegemony became more and more a pervasive force, Chelvanayakam realised the futility of pursuing the demand for federalism.
Between the resignation of his parliamentary seat and his re-election, A J Wilson writes, “the Tamils had established their claim to a sovereign nation-state and Chelvanayakam became its father.”
As a boy who grew up without a father by his side, Chelvanayakam came to be affectionately referred to and venerated as Thanthai Chelva and Ezha Thanthai.
The TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front), at its first national convention, with Chelvanayakam as Chairman, ratified the historic Vaddukoddai Resolution on 14 May 1976 calling , “the Tamil nation in general and the Tamil youth in particular to come forward to throw themselves fully in the sacred flight for freedom and to flinch not till the goal of a sovereign socialist state of Tamil Eelam is reached.”
With this historical document, the Tamil nation made a monumental stride towards articulating its aspirations for a separate state:
“The first National Convention of the Tamil United Liberation Front meeting at Pannakam (Vaddukoddai Constituency) on the 14th day of May, 1976, hereby declares that the Tamils of Ceylon by virtue of their great language, their religions, their separate culture and heritage, their history of independent existence as a separate state over a distinct territory for several centuries till they were conquered by the armed might of the European invaders and above all by their will to exist as a separate entity ruling themselves in their own territory, are a nation distinct and apart from Sinhalese and this Convention announces to the world that the Republican Constitution of 1972 has made the Tamils a slave nation ruled by the new colonial masters, the Sinhalese ,who are using the power they have wrongly usurped to deprive the Tamil Nation of its territory, language citizenship, economic life, opportunities of employment and education, thereby destroying all the attributes of nationhood of the Tamil people…And, while taking note of the reservations in relation to its commitment to the setting up of a separated state of TAMIL EELAM expressed by the Ceylon Workers Congress as a Trade Union of the Plantation Workers, the majority of whom live and work outside the Northern and Eastern areas, This convention resolves that restoration and reconstitution of the Free, Sovereign, Secular, Socialist State of TAMIL EELAM, based on the right of self determination inherent to every nation, has become inevitable in order to safeguard the very existence of the Tamil Nation in this Country.”
What was important to note as A J Wilson points out was that, “the convention blamed the Sirimavo government for ‘callously ignoring’ the TULF’s attempt to win constitutional recognition of the Tamil nation without jeopardising the unity of the country.”
A J Wilson writes, “that Chelvanayakam stood unflinching for a separate Tamil state was clearly enunciated in the last important statement he made a few months before his death on 19, November 1976 in parliament.”
“We have abandoned the demand for a federal constitution. Our movement will be all non-violent.. We know that the Sinhalese people will one day grant our demand and that we will be able to establish a separate state from the rest of the island.”
Weak and frail as he was in health, Chelvanayakam, A J Wilson writes, “lit a candle that could never be put out, that candle is Ceylon Tamil nationalism creating a strong Tamil self awareness that refused to bend to the will of the Sinhala Buddhist state.”
“Chelvanayakam had fulfilled his historic role by the time of his death. he had awakened the Tamil people from a deep slumber to an awareness of the danger lurking in the shadows. In so doing he created a strong Tamil self awareness which, in the course of his relatively short involvement with his people, evolved into a Tamil solidarity which refused to bend to the will of the Sinhala Buddhist state…”
Shiva Pasupati, Attorney General, in his tribute at Chelvanayakam’s death talked about his sound grasp of legal principles and of the trust people placed in him which he never betrayed: “Those who had the privilege to have worked in his chambers often recall with warm affection the patience he often displayed to instil in them a sound grasp of legal principles and more important, an unswerving adherence to principles in their conduct in the profession … the unprecedented mass of humanity from every walk of life who gathered to pay their respects at his cremation will forever be a silent reminder that as in law, so in politics people will never forget those who never betrayed the trust they had reposed…”
From the many tributes at his funeral one by Rt. Rev D. J. Ambalavanar was particularly significant for the message it carried:
“He died like Moses himself without reaching the promised land but the vision he saw, he leaves behind as the heritage and challenge to his people,” he said.
Today as we commemorate the life and legacy of the father of Tamil Eelam, S J V Chelvanayakam, affectionately and with veneration, referred to as Thanthai Chelva and Ezha Thanthai, we the TGTE draw inspiration from his profound vision for the Tamil people and promise to dedicate ourselves to fulfilling his dream of restoring a free and sovereign Tamil Eelam .
In his light we shall travel, never giving up, and arriving at our destination whether in our lifetime or in our children’s lifetime. We will do it for him who pointed to the goal, for our martyrs, and for the Tamil people who gave their lives for freedom.
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