By Rajan Hoole –
“…it is clear that under natural ecological conditions intra-species aggression is seen in defence of territory or as nature’s solution to over-population. However, in the animal world, aggression rarely ends in actual death, there being some inborn inhibition to killing. It is pertinent to ask why such inhibitions do not operate in man, virtually the only ‘unhinged killer’…there were several incidents during racial riots and the war itself, of direct slaughter of civilians. This kind of ‘unhinged killing’appears to take place usually where human warfare occurs as reactive rage.” – Daya Somasundaram, from Scarred Minds
The New Frontiersmen
Elections to the District Development Councils were scheduled for early June 1981. These were being hailed by the Government and its supporters as a means to finding a political solution to the Tamil problem. Despite this, the UNP government of the day chose a strange way to usher in the DDCs. It may be explained, in part, as a perverse reaction to the attack on UNP and non-TULF candidates by Tamil militants, and the TULF’s silence on these. These included the killing of Mr. Thiagarajah, former MP for Vaddukoddai, and some policemen.
A train-load of election staff was sent from the South, many of whom did not have a clue to what election duty meant. The train stopped at Kurunegala. Minister. G.M. Premachandra, and Jayewickrema Perera, both top UNPers, addressed the election staff through loud speakers. They told them, “You are our frontier forces, you must come back with victory.” This trumpet-call was recounted by a man from Galle, who was then on election duty. He was reminded of this while witnessing the violence at the North-Western Provincial Council elections under the PA government in 1999.
In Jaffna there was a high-powered team including Ministers Gamini Dissanayake, Cyril Mathew & Festus Perera, G.P.V. Samarasinghe, secretary to the cabinet, Chandrananda de Silva, later commissioner of elections and subsequently defence secretary, and Colonel Dharmapala, defence secretary. There were also a large number of policemen brought into Jaffna under DIG Edward Gunawardene. The mindset implicit in this exercise also throws some light on the 1983 violence. Gamini Dissanayake addressed the election staff. He told them, according to the man from Galle above, to close the polling booths at 10.00 AM and cast the remaining votes. Some innocent guy asked him, “For whom should we cast them?” The Minister replied, “Why, to the animal (i.e. elephant) of course!”
The operation was so botched up that the UNP got no benefit out of it. A high point of the exercise was the burning of the Jaffna Public Library by Edward Gunawardene’s men. There had of course been militant attacks on policemen. But the considered opinion of some senior police colleagues was that Ponnambalam (Brute) Mahendran, who was DIG, Jaffna, would have handled the situation competently if not for the presence of Gunawardene and his men. The operation did achieve, however, something notable.
Until this time, with all the reservations the Tamils had about the State, there was hope that a political solution would be arrived at through negotiations between the Government and the TULF. The Government’s conduct during the elections to the DDCs – the much awaited political solution – greatly tarnished that hope. Two months later there was anti-Tamil violence in the South where the President himself blamed a section of his own party. The outrage among the Tamils occasioned by the burning of the library and the press of the Eelanadu – the only independent provincial daily in this country – was smothered in the Colombo press. What was left of liberal traditions could not be contained by the developing polarisation in the country. To responsible Tamils, both here and abroad, it seemed clear that the Tamils needed English journals of their own to highlight their concerns.
One group of Tamils in London who were associated with the Standing Committee of Tamils – a charitable group supporting work among Tamil refugees – collected contributions and started the Tamil Times. Despite the misrepresentation in this country, it has been a responsible and moderate monthly, which never supported the separatist cause in its editorial outlook. It is nearing 20 years of publication without missing a month, resisting all attempts by the LTTE to control it. About the same time, another group around the late K. Kanthasamy started the Saturday Review in Jaffna.
We may draw attention here to the political significance of the expression ‘frontier forces’, its operational significance and the reaction to it among the Tamils. There is also an implied injunction that it is the patriotic duty of the Sinhalese to go to the North-East and to win over the land so that it becomes in every sense part of their undivided Sinhalese nation.
This idea of a frontier thrust had been discernible from the 1950s in closed official circles, but in the early 80s, it became part of the conscious and deliberate overtones of the Accelerated Mahaveli Programme. This was the key project of the Jayewardene Government of 1977, and was placed under Gamini Dissanayake. The mixed and confused objectives of the programme can be discerned from the following quotation from Patrick Peebles (Colonization and Ethnic Conflict in the Dry Zone of Sri Lanka, Journal of Asian Studies, February 1990): “As late as May 1982 Mahaweli project officials claimed that Dry Zone settlements would defuse ethnic tension by reducing unemployment. They were unduly optimistic. Earlier colonization schemes had divided the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority long before either Mahaveli River development or ethnic violence accelerated… The UNP consciously evoked the image of an idyllic Buddhist past in which the Dry Zone irrigation provided the resources for a prosperous and cultured civilization. Officials of the Accelerated Mahaveli Programme appealed directly to this mythical past, in which Tamil Hindu invaders were hated enemies, to mobilize Buddhist support”. What was most contentious was land settlement within the largely Tamil speaking North-East.
The atmosphere of that time was full of populist overtones, offering to the Sinhalese poor through land settlement the twin goals of economic prosperity and putting the Tamils in their place. It had something of the idealism and the tragedy of the European crusades of the Middle Ages. To a circle among the Colombo elite within and close to the ruling UNP establishment, generally in their late 30s and 40s, securing strategic land by proxy became a heroic obsession. In particular, after the July 1983 violence, they used their personal influence to divert state resources to this end, giving rise to armed Sinhalese border villages. Violence and massacres by both sides escalated from 1984, and instead of the prosperity promised to them, these Sinhalese villagers became civilian shields and chattels of the armed forces.
Herman Gunaratne, the author of ‘For a Sovereign State’ finds authority for this crusading zeal by quoting what D.S. Senanayake is supposed to have told the Dry Zone settlers at Padaviya about 1950: “Today you have been brought here and are given a plot of land. You have been uprooted from your village. You are like a piece of driftwood in the ocean; but remember that one day this whole country will look up to you. The final battle for the Sinhala people will be fought on the plains of Padaviya… Those who are attempting to divide this country will have to reckon with you… the last bastion of the Sinhala.” (p. 201)
These are words quoted from the memory of a grandson of D.S.S., Ceylon’s first Prime Minister, a member of the author’s circle of activists. The words however reflect the concerns of this circle in the 80s rather than anything easily discernible in the early 50s, although Tamil leaders had already voiced their concerns regarding colonization. Padaviya is located in the north-eastern corner of the Anuradhapura District, close to the narrow border strip separating the majority Tamil speaking former Northern and Eastern provinces. It had featured crucially in communal violence in 1958. (See Chapter 14.)
It must be pointed out here that the atmosphere in the early 50s was far different from what one might imagine now. The following is from an obituary written in 1971 (Sun 10.6.71) by Mervyn St. C. Nicholas, a Tamil, who was elected to the governing body of the All-Ceylon, UNP Youth League founded in 1949: “I was yet a student at St.Joseph’s College, Trincomalee. Subsequently when I organized and founded the UNP Youth League at Trincomalee, he [George Kotelawela] was a tower of strength. He was then in charge of the Essential Services Labour Corps (ESLC) at Trincomalee and Kantalai… A score of years ago Kantalai was thick virgin forest and malaria was rampant in the area. Added to the bargain was the first years after the holocaust of global war II… His was the ‘never say die’ attitude. With the ‘giant’ sons of Aiyampillai – both Kanagasingam and Rajasingam the doughty lieutenants of the then Civil Defence Commissioner – Sir Oliver Goonetileke; our George was able to open new vistas for the present denizens of Kantalai and Trincomalee and its suburbs. His pioneering spirit did not wane and he moved on to Polononnaruwa and other parts of Tamankaduwa to ‘conquer’.”
In the post war years many saw the Essential Services Labour Corps as an appropriate means of utilising surplus labour in clearing jungles and constructing colonisation schemes. Among the office bearers of the Society were a fair mixture of Tamils and Sinhalese. The president was Captain A.C. Kanagasingam and George Kotelawela was the secretary. The Society absorbed workers being disbanded by the British Navy and from other war-related employment, and the Society was paid by measurement of the work done. Its patron was Sir John Kotelawela, an uncle of George. The society opened up new land for schemes in Kantalai and Tamankaduwa (presently Polonnaruwa District). The same scheme of co- operative self-employment was provided for the Malayan Pioneer Corps formed of persons who had returned from Malaya after the war.
The following extract is from the Daily News report of 2.5.1951. Dudley Senanayake, Minister of Agriculture and Lands, met the Society at a dinner in his honour at the Trincomalee Rest House. He said, “It was my father who first visualised the Eastern and North Central Provinces as the granary of the Island, and several years ago, had put schemes into operation in the midst of scorn and opposition from those who felt that money is being wasted in the jungles.”
Captain Kanagasingam welcomed the Minister as one who stood for the ‘best policy of the UNP’. “We members of the UNP here”, he said, “stand not for political advantage, but to see the betterment of conditions in this country….”
Mr. S. Sivapalan, MP for Trincomalee, speaking after dinner said: “I do not at the moment belong to any party, but I will let the old proverb say for me that wherever “Mary went the lamb was sure to go”.”
Mr. A.R.A. Aboobucker, MP for Muttur, declared that “it should not be understood that these areas which are to be developed are for the benefit of the Sinhalese alone but for the benefit of the people of the area”.
That was a time when the UNP had a significant following among the Tamils. What members of the Government such as Dudley Senanayake then told the Tamils and the Muslims of the North-East was that these schemes, mainly in the NCP and EP, were aimed towards realising the ‘granary of the Island’. There was nothing said then about the ‘ancient glory of the Sinhalese’, that is so evident in the Mahaveli Programme rhetoric of the early 80s, and its increasingly visible overtones of putting their ‘traditional enemies’, the Tamils, in their place. If there is substance in the quotation above, from Dudley’s father D.S. Senanayake, the ‘father of the nation’, then the Sinhalese settlers were already being charged with communal rhetoric. D.S. Senanayake had shown his colours by the manipulative manner in which he introduced the Citizenship Act.
As for the two Tamils quoted above, Kanagasingam was the defeated candidate; Sivapalan, the successful independent candidate was evidently fishing for terms to join the ruling UNP. They had no problems about the colonisation schemes. The Muslim MP for Muttur evinced awareness of reservations about these schemes but did not apparently himself share them.
George Kotelawala went on to earn the historic distinction of becoming MP in the Parliament of 1965-70 through the Supreme Court disqualifying the candidate who got the largest number of votes at a bye-election. Following his death in 1971, Dr. N.M. Perera against whom he had stood for election several times paid tribute to him in parliament as ‘a man who had no enemies’. Thus several persons from all communities who worked on these colonisation schemes in the early days harboured no agenda and genuinely believed that they were for the country’s good.
However five years after that convivial meeting in Trincomalee, Gal Oya colony erupted in communal violence, within a short time of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s ‘Sinhala Only’ government being voted into power. In this scheme in the interior of the Eastern Province, Sinhalese elements largely drawn from the workforce attacked the Tamils who were there in significant numbers as settlers, professionals, government servants and traders. Tarzie Vittachi wrote: “Until Deputy Inspector-General of Police Sydney de Zoysa went there and threatened to arrest even Cabinet Ministers if they incited the mob to violence, the politicians made inflammatory speeches against police action.”
Mr. A.B.S.N. Pullenayagam, who was then GA Batticaloa, which also covered the present Amparai District, on hearing about the violence in Gal Oya asked for an army contingent from Colombo. The contingent came promptly, but, owing to a misunderstanding, turned up in Batticaloa. Mr. Pullenayagam quickly redirected them. Upon reaching Amparai, they found the Tamils in the circuit bungalow protected by a police party under ASP Merry, a Burgher. A crowd of Sinhalese had surrounded the bungalow and between them lay the corpse of an attacker killed by the Police. The Army dispersed the crowd. Then the Tamils started leaving Gal Oya. Mr. Kanagasundaram, a Tamil, who was the chairman of the Gal Oya Development Board, also left for Colombo. Next day, the Sinhalese took shelter in the circuit bungalow fearing that the Tamils in turn would attack them. The violence was thus not spontaneous Sinhalese action, but resulted rather from passions being stirred by political agents.
The Sinhalese populace was shamelessly charged with communal passions from 1956 by both the SLFP and the UNP. Dudley Senanayake took an openly communal line against the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact signed in July 1957. With the signing of the Pact, Chelvanayakam called off a satyagraha (a non- violent) campaign he was threatening to wage – the Federal Party then had a mass base. In response to this intended non-violent campaign, government politicians had called upon the settlers in Padaviya to prepare for a Tamil invasion from Trincomalee – in other words to form a strike force. But after the signing of the Pact things calmed down, and the Minister of Lands (C.P. de Silva) ordered 400 downstream allotments in the Trincomalee District to be given to Tamil families who were losing their jobs at the Trincomalee Dockyard owing to the pullout of the British Navy. However, the vigilance committees of these already emotionally charged Padaviya settlers forcibly occupied these allotments. During the 1958 violence, these vigilance committees led by ex- servicemen attempted to attack Tamil refugees in Anuradhapura. They were thwarted by firm Police and Army action in which 11 of them were killed. (See Vittachi.)
The violence in Gal Oya during 1956 claimed the lives of more than 150 Tamils (Vittachi) – a number comparable with the all- island casualties in the 1958 violence and the official casualties in Colombo during the 1983 violence. Its publicity impact was subdued by the isolation of the area. Kantalai erupted during the 1977 violence claiming the lives of 30 Tamils. What was once advanced as the Island’s granary was yielding a bitter harvest of blood and bitterness. It had reduced the Tamils to living under an ever-present threat of violence and in total distrust of the State – even when they sometimes found it useful to vote UNP or SLFP for reasons of survival amidst uncertainty. These perceptions were to some extent shared by the Muslims of the Eastern Province.
From about this time there has been an unwritten state-agenda shared by all governments – to subdue the assertion of a Tamil identity with a regional character by advancing Sinhalese settlement in the North-East. Over the years, it has become part of the instinctive working of the state machinery, from which the Tamils have been progressively excluded from any real influence. One manifestation of the agenda is that in both the Amparai and Trincomalee Districts where the majority of the population have been Tamil speaking (i.e. Tamils or Muslims), the Government Agents have all been Sinhalese from the mid-60s.
To the Tamils, and the Muslims to a significant extent, the idea of home, homeland and borders came to be intertwined with security, identity and antipathy towards the State. These factors contributed towards the rise of the militant movement in which the Muslims of the East too played a significant role. It is one of the greatest and tragic failures of Tamil nationalism that the alienation of Muslims was part of the logical extension of its internal violence and intolerance.
*To be continued..
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder” published in Jan. 2001. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here