Colombo Telegraph

The Federal Party: Gain & Loss Of The Moral High Ground

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Revisiting Tamil Self Determination – Part IV

The advent of communalism in politics, for which the Tamils’ ill-considered demand for communal representation in the 1930s acted as a catalyst, led to the progressive corruption of our political life. Our politics allowed scant room for persons with integrity. Jane Russell gives the case of Francis de Zoysa, who on a note of resignation rebuked his co-speaker S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike at a Balapitiya meeting in 1939:

“Not only do I deprecate the policy of Ceylon for the Sinhalese, but had I known that this meeting had any connection with the Sinhala Maha Sabha, I would not have been present. If I joined the Sinhala Maha Sabha, and raised the communal cry, I might stand to score at the State Council elections, but one has a greater duty – to work for the welfare of the country.”

The degradation of our political life progressively eroded quality in education and institutions crucial to our well-being. Justice became a costly luxury, ill affordable to most.

The Formation of the Federal Party

The core of the Federal Party (FP) in 1949 comprised MPs S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and C. Vanniasingam, with Senator E.M.V. Naganathan, who parted ways with the Tamil Congress over the latter’s volte-face on the citizenship rights of Indian Tamils. Ponnambalam, in 1948, ditched the Indian Tamils whose impugned citizenship rights his Tamil Congress had pledged to defend and performed obeisance at Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake’s feet for a place in the cabinet (J.L. Fernando, Three Prime Ministers of Ceylon).

Another issue the Federal Party took up early was colonisation. Its use of the terms ‘Tamil speaking people,’ and the ‘Tamil Nation’ after Chelvanayakam’s by-election victory in 1975, would have had no basis but for the Youth Congress’ mobilisation of Tamils as a political entity who could discuss political ideas; and be part of a robust Ceylonese Nation.

The Federal Party leaders’ principal handicap was a political outlook moulded under the shadow of Ponnamalam which portrayed the Sinhalese people negatively. A critical but sympathetic commentary on the Federal Party in 1963 came from the veteran Trotskyite V. Karalasingam in his “The Way Out for the Tamil-speaking People”; which said that in spite of an apparently resolute leadership and the widest support of the people, the Tamil-speaking people have paradoxically faced defeat and humiliation, leading to despair and rage. He identifies the main reason for the failure as the Federal Party’s belief that in the fight for their rights the Tamil-speaking people must go it alone. On how to remedy this, Karalasingam says in a subsequent chapter on ‘The Superiority of Marxist Leadership’:

The close inter-relationship, indeed the organic unity, of the socialist struggle of the working class and the struggle of the Tamil-speaking people for their just rights, must convince all honest elements among the latter of the deep and abiding interest of the Marxist Left in their fight for equality and against discrimination.

The very next year (1964) the Left (with notable exceptions like Edmund Samarakkody and Meryl Fernando) formed an alliance with the SLFP and became complicit in its communal policies. The Left completely ditched the disenfranchised Hill Country Tamils whom it championed in the 1940s. This desertion invited entrenchment of extreme Tamil nationalism.

An Ominous Break in Ceylon’s Parliamentary Consensus

Mrs. Bandaranaike’s left coalition government which swept the polls in 1970 moved for a constituent assembly. While Mrs. Bandaranaike wanted no major departure from the existing Soulbury Constitution, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, the Trotskyite Minister of Constitutional Affairs, took a doctrinaire approach. His constitution, while further centralising power, almost denied independent checks on its exercise except by a parliamentary majority, removed Section 29 which afforded the minorities symbolic protection and impaired secularism by giving Buddhism the foremost place.

Handy Perinpanayagam, who sent a memorandum to the Constituent Assembly in 1972, was in no doubt that the Tamils were still on moral high ground: “When Sinhala Only was made the law of the land, not the slightest effort was made to temper the wind to the shorn Tamil lamb. The self-esteem of the Tamil speaking community was trampled underfoot. The law was stark, blunt and without any recognition of the fact that there was in Ceylon another sizeable linguistic group to whom their language was just as vital and precious as Sinhala to the Sinhalese.”

He explained the enormity of the injustice in the simplest terms: “Any indignity imposed upon the Tamils’ mother tongue is an indignity to his Tamilness… One accepted definition of democracy is ‘Government with the consent of the governed’. Not a single Tamil speaker consented to be governed in Sinhala. This fact makes this vote a mockery of democracy.”

Handy Perinpanayagam still hoped that the Left would revive the aborted Regional Councils Bill of the previous government, which Dr. N.M. Perera said they had opposed because it originated from the UNP: “Now that the Left is in power, why not reconsider it? I am not thinking of Regional Councils only, [but of] a comprehensive scheme of decentralisation [where the citizen] – the proles – will not always and at all levels be at the receiving end, but will be able to speak and be spoken to as a person entitled to speak and to be heard.”

Chelvanayagam: When Anger and Despair Trump Goodwill and Hope

Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne (The 1972 Constitution in Retrospect) is moved by the poignancy in Chelvanayakam’s announcement of the FP’s withdrawal from the Constituent Assembly proceedings on 28th June 1971: “We mean no offence to anybody. We only want to safeguard the dignity of our people.” Wickremaratne points to the tragic irony ‘that Dr. Colvin R. de Silva who prophetically roared in 1955, “one language, two countries; two languages, one country,” should go so far as to upgrade the then existing language provisions to constitutional status.’ Chelvanayakam had till then held the moral high ground.

On 3rd October 1972, Chelvanayakam resigned his parliamentary seat and forced the Government into an electoral contest on its claim that the Tamils accepted the 1972 Constitution. The Government delaying the KKS by-election by 2½ years, an unconscionably long time for a very sickly man, soured the atmosphere further. Chelvanayakam’s statement upon winning handsomely the by-election on 7th February 1975, pushed up the emotional and political stakes to dizzying heights: “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.”

The Federal Party could no longer control events without political help from the Government, which was itself stymied in a heated dispute over extending its term of office for more than the mandatory five years which ended in May 1975. The country was on a roller coaster and the Federal Party’s 1976 Vaddukkottai resolution followed by default from Chelvanayakam’s February 1975 victory address.

The 1970 parliamentary elections had found the Federal Party in deep crisis. Its stalwarts Naganathan and Amirthalingam lost to minor political figures. Although the defeats very likely owed to the stalwarts’ lack of attention to their constituencies, it led to anger against opponents whom they alleged were betraying the Tamils for government favours. May 1972 saw the leaders ‘burning themselves out in impotent rage’ (Karalasingam). Traitors, supposedly worthy of death at the hands of the youth, including Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiappah, were then named from a Federal Party platform. The inflammatory line was supported by Suthanthiran, the paper owned by the Chelvanayakam family.

The Federal Party won the 1977 elections handsomely. But the Tamil cause had fallen precipitously from the moral high ground it once occupied.

The lives of Handy Perinpanayagam and Chelvanayakam spanned almost the same years 1898 – 1977; the difference, one might judge from their positions respectively, as that between moral sensibility guided by an earthy common-sense and one toughened by the skirmishes of legal encounters; one often adduces persuasive reasons why something, say the Citizenship Acts, is morally obnoxious, only to find that experienced lawyers dismiss them as irrelevant, as two courts did. Chelvanayakam’s sincerity and earnestness in opposing the Citizenship Acts in Parliament and the Supreme Court are beyond doubt. But he said little on the subject after the Supreme Court defeat in 1951. He simply lost faith in the polity and institutions under the Sinhalese elite. In the wake of the 1956 Sinhala Only Act, K. Nesiah related a conversation, where Chelvanayakam held that a handful of cow dung thrown on Prime Minister Bandaranaike’s back would do far more good than incisive appeals to reason.

By 1972, Chelvanayakam appears to have become very pessimistic about a settlement with the Sinhalese political class. The Bangladesh precedent had been voiced by the Federal Party, notably at the rousing meeting in Jaffna Town Hall that January. The 1975 by-election victory statement suggests the Federal Party’s populistic probing of the untested waters of international law. Underlying it was the presumption of congenital incompatibility between the Sinhalese and Tamils, which the Youth Congress constantly decried. If one judges by his failure – despite his profession of Gandhian non-violence – to condemn the murder of Alfred Duraiappah and his garlanding of the statue of Sivakumaran who committed suicide when apprehended in an attempt to kill a policeman, Chelvanayakam ended his days a bitter man,

Handy Perinpanayagam, in contrast to the Federal Party, never despaired of appealing to the humanity of the Sinhalese. He wrote in his 1972 Memorandum, “I happen to know the leaders [of the Left] fairly closely. I also know that they too were subject to rough treatment when they supported bilingualism. They have also now adopted the ambiguous formula, ‘Reasonable use of Tamil’.” His repartee couched in humour was as deadly as it was effective: “What puzzles me about this formula is that it presumes there are also unreasonable uses of Tamil which are forbidden.”

Some of the legal arguments the Federal Party was to develop as justification for separation were anticipated by Handy Perinpanayagam. In the Memorandum cited, he pointed out that not one Tamil speaking member voted for Sinhala Only, which raised the issue of admissibility of governance without the consent of the governed. He also wrote, particularly in reference to Sinhala Only that “A law is effective only in so far as those whom it binds accept it or at least acquiesce in it. Mere passing does not make it effective.” He made these observations only to warn and to caution: “Ceylon has become a warning. Under the façade of unity and accommodation there lay hidden hatred and mistrust. Has the blood bath of 1958 been a catharsis? I am inclined to share [Howard] Wriggins’ cautious hope that things will mend…”

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