By Rajan Hoole –
The basic ideological premise sketched, superimposed on global economic factors, local economic failures, corruption, particularly from 1977, and disaffection in the North-East, was largely to determine the country’s destiny.
The authoritarian and undemocratic compulsions of the ruling class can also be discerned in the Citizenship Acts of 1948/49, which rendered the Hill-Country (Plantation) Tamils non-citizens. These Acts had no precedent in any Commonwealth country, and the only other Commonwealth country to move in that direction was Idi Amin’s Uganda which started expelling its residents of Indian origin in the early 70s.
By the 1950s we also discern early cracks in the impartiality of the Law. The Federal Party contested the Acts of Parliament, which deprived the Hill-Country Tamils of citizenship and voting rights. These Acts were held to be contrary to Section 29 of the Constitution, which forbade legislation which discriminated against any community. Judge N. Sivanandasundaram of the Kegalle District Court ruled in favour of the petitioners, that the legislation concerned was invalid. The Supreme Court in 1952 in Mudanayake vs. Sivanandasundaram quashed the decision of the District Court by holding that the legislation was non-discriminatory since it applied equally to all communities.
A pointer to the quality of the Supreme Court judgement is that by the same argument, legislation which denied the vote to those who applied gingelly oil on their head could also be deemed non-discriminatory by its supposedly applying equally to everyone. We see here primarily class, and also ethnic factors, distorting the Law beyond a point of common acceptability, creating a precedent for much that followed. By 1983, as we shall see, more and more unacceptable compromises were being forced on the Judiciary.
The whole process of the Citizenship Acts was blatantly dishonest and a travesty of statesmanship. The Left strongly objected to the Acts and saw in them parallels to the Nazi State. The Tamil leader S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, who was soon to form the Federal Party, foresaw in the legislation dark times ahead for the minorities. He said in Parliament in December 1948, on the eve of the first Act: “But when the language question comes up, which will be the next one to follow in this series of legislation, we will know where we stand. Perhaps, that will not be the end of it. But whatever that may be, this Bill is a piece of legislation which is not based on the highest principles on which the differences and difficulties of inter- communal problems have to be solved…”
Earlier he had pointed out how the Prime Minister and the Minister for Food (A. Ratnayake, a Kandyan) were casting aspersions on the floating Indian population of traders and were cleverly by allusion generalising these to the permanently settled population on the plantations. It was for example stated that when Colombo was bombed during the Second World War, many from the Indian floating population in Colombo went to India – as did many Colombo residents who moved to other parts of Ceylon. It was also argued as though it was the plantation labour, rather than British capital, that took over Kandyan lands. Chelvanayakam said, “Every argument, for example, that can be used against that class of Indians for whom protection is not asked, is directed against the permanently settled Indian labour on the estates. Now take the case of the people who ran away because of the bombing. Did the tea estates stop working? For whose sake is this Bill being brought forward? In order to deprive whom of citizenship is this Bill being brought forward?”
Chelvanayakam also pointed out how the Indian Government had been systematically deceived. Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake had written the following to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India on 22nd June 1948: “The present proposal of the Government of Ceylon extends to Indian residents in the Island full rights and privileges of Ceylon Citizenship.” Chelvanayakam stated that the Government had later substituted a different class of citizenship to that contained in the proposal submitted to the Indian PM. The real catch however came in the manner in which administrators later applied the Act selectively, so as to deprive practically the entire estate population of the vote.
This episode contained a strong hint of the direction in which the country was moving. An indignant Chelvanayakam went on to found a politics of self-imposed isolation of the Tamil- speaking people.
The Sinhala Only Act of 1956 and the Constitutions of 1972 and 1978 were further symptoms of the authoritarianism of the ruling class. They were so intent on their perceived narrow interests that they refused to see that there was a multiplicity of communities, not simply determined by ethnic labels, who wanted to be served differently by the government.
These developments also show the weakness of civil society. It had no corrective impact, in spite of the opposition to both the Citizenship and Sinhala Only legislation by the Left, then the main opposition in the South, and most of the Tamil representatives. The habit of undue deference to the party in power which represented the State, was also a carry-over from the colonial era. This allowed the State to get away with almost anything. By the end of the 80s, following the 1983 violence and the JVP rebellion, almost every section of society in the South was grievously compromised. Whether it was the Press, academia, religious bodies, study and research groups or lobbies for democracy and human rights, there was a crucial core of the Southern experience that they would not touch.
A particular consequence of the inability to bring about a consensus in the approach to problems, was the enhancement of communal politics.
*To be continued..
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here