Today, 15 September, 2018, saw one of the few really intellectual activities in Jaffna at Veerasingham Hall: the first C.W. Thamotharampillai Memorial Lecture. CWT was a legendary Tamil literatist of the nineteenth century credited with discovering some of the oldest extant Tamil literature like the Tolkapiyam and other lost Tamil Sangam works. The hall was packed to capacity.
A product of Jaffna’s Batticotta Seminary, CWT was ranked first between the first two graduates of Madras University. He was a judge and Regent of the Kingdom of Puthukkottai, and guardian to Ponnambalam and Coomaraswamy Ramanathan when they studied at Presidency College. Indeed, CWT was one of Jaffna’s finest products in the intellectual sphere.
After Jaffna University History Professor Paramu Pushparatnam’s introduction to who Thamotharampillai was, there was a sort of mock interview of M.A. Sumanthiran, MP, by Provincial Councilor Kesavan Sayanthan. Sayanthan, an upcoming lawyer, asked questions based on common criticism of Sumanthiran and it seemed a healthy way of addressing such criticism.
For example, a question was “Is it true that you will leave the ITAK and join the UNP for the next elections as a nominated member?” Answer: No. Question, “How come you have not even rented a house in Jaffna and are so Colombo Centered?” Answer: “Why would I rent a house in Jaffna when I own one here.” Question: “Why do you say that federalism is not required? Why are you taking the party against what the people wanted and voted for?” Denying this was the cue for Sumanthiran’s lecture on “The Extent of Federalism Today.”
It was an exciting lecture that showed Sumanthiran’s involvement in supreme court cases and their subtleties. He went into the case against the Thirteenth Amendment heard by a full bench of 9, saying 4 judges said it needs to be passed by a referendum and four disagreed. One judge said it needed no referendum provided 2 key aspects were removed and they were removed to enable enactment without a referendum. He argued that the removal of those clauses ensured that what we have is not federal.
Sumanthiran went on to argue that even the best federal structures in two different countries are never alike and that every country has both, aspects of a federal state and aspects of a unitary state.
He implied that being stuck with words like federal and unitary is counter productive, and we should look at the substance of devolution rather than nomenclature.
Privately, Sumanthiran once told me that these problems of negotiation should be approached judiciously without being hung up on words that can be inflammatory. He gave the example of the brilliance in Article 18 of the Constitution. While 18(1) says Sinhalese shall be the official language of Sri Lanka, Article 18(2) brilliantly goes on to subvert it saying that Tamil shall also be an official language.
If we had been stuck on objecting to 18(1), Tamils could never have been liberated through 18(2). It is an oxymoron like 18(2) that can make Tamils get powers to take decision on those matters that concern our well-being through participatory governance.
Time to Take Root
Sumanthiran is hoping for an oxymoron like 18(2) that, while accepting Sinhalese as THE official language gave us Tamils the freedom to correspond with government in a language we understand. While the police do not respect our constitution and behave like bullies in the North and East shouting at us in Sinhalese and expecting us to understand them, the good effects of a seemingly contradictory law are increasingly coming to be – 30 years after 1987.
Thirty years after the Thirteenth Amendment and the laws that followed as a consequence, at many official fora today there is translation into Tamil and vice versa. It is expensive but money well spent in making the Tamil-speaking people of Sri Lanka feel they are Sri Lankans.
At the Election Commission, I am able to function because every document is translated into Tamil and placed before me. If not for that, I will not be able to function on the Commission. I feel fully a Sri Lankan and not an illiterate in my own country. The commitment at the Election Commission is so deep that once when to save time I offered to work with a document in English. I was curtly told, “It is against the policy of our Commission not to provide a translation.” It has taken 30 years for the Commission to come to its present position as a trail blazer in language-law implementation.
So it will be with other concessions, even if reluctantly ceded today
MP Sumanthiran’s Risk-Taking
Sumanthiran is gambling on further oxymorons on federalism and the foremost status for Buddhism to make minorities fell less oppressed and this country more democratic – two key elements to make Tamils and Muslims feel really Sri Lankan, and for all Sri Lankans to feel equal and be equal. Words do not matter so long as we get what we need.
That attitude to not be stuck on words and to be focused on substance is causing Sumanthiran and like-minded Tamil leaders face electoral risks and the charge that they are promising people one thing and working for the opposite. What Sumanthiran and Elder Statesman R. Sampanthan are doing is bold and being politically honest and straight forward, which we want a lot more of in this country. Immediately after the lecture itself, I heard one person comment that if we compromise, the Sinhalese will take even greater advantage of us. Perhaps so, but I believe that Sumanthiran and his like-minded leader will continue taking the risk and educate the public as he did today. I am sure the public is a lot more intelligent and discerning than we give them credit for.
There will always be critics among us and we should not bother so long as they are a minority among us. Today at the meeting a man seated just behind my family got badly worked up when he saw STF men with machine guns in the hall. I am sure many others also felt bad on seeing the STF with its malevolent reputation for viciousness against Tamils during the war. That man got up and started shouting: “We do not need guns here.” We all agreed I think but got nervous when the STF men took a special interest in our area of the hall. The man got up and told Sumanthiran not to talk nonsense. When Sumanthiran who spoke in Tamil cited some authorities on federalism in English, and repeated in English some knotty concepts he had first explained in Tamil, the man got even more agitated and said in Tamil, “I do not understand him. He is talking nonsense. Stop him. What is this English in Jaffna!”
We who were around him missed some key parts of the speech, to my regret, on account of the commotion and feeling threatened upon seeing the STF scrutinizing us and other people in our area.
The heckler was ignored and to his credit Sumanthiran kept going. That is a good way to handle criticism – ignoring those critics who are hysterical and virulent, including the press that highlights any attempt at peacemaking by those seeking common ground. Good ideas will prevail despite any initial hostility.
So press on Mr. Sumanthiran. Your road is the road to peace and justice.