Colombo Telegraph

The Origins Of Chelvanayakam’s Separatist Politics

By H. L. D. Mahindapala

H. L. D. Mahindapala

The ideological foundations of the mono-ethnic extremism of the North are based on two primary documents : 1. the very first speech of S. J. V. Chelvanayakam (December 18, 1949) launching his separatist ideology at the Government Clerical Service Union Hall in Maradana – the official birthplace of Tamil separatism; 2. the Vadukoddai Resolution of May 14, 1976, Vadukoddai being the electorate of Chelvanayakam. The Northern Provincial Council Resolution passed on February 10, 2015, which reiterates, with hyperbolical distortions and interpretations, the underlying theme of the first two documents, is the latest addition to reinforce the mono-ethnic extremism needed for the survival of Tamil ruling elite.

All three stand out as milestones and signposts of separatism advancing, inch by inch. All three reveal the fundamentals of the northern political culture that was constructed craftily to gain political mileage by demonizing the Sinhala-Buddhist south. All three documents are wrapped in historical fictions, geographical concoctions, political deceptions and, of course, plain lies. The exaggerations and distortions in each of these documents reveal how the manipulators of Tamil separatism legitimized their mono-ethnic extremism by reinventing a fictitious past that ignited a nation-wide conflagration as devastating as the fire lit by Hanuman’s tail. Acting as the side-kick of Rama, who came to Lanka to rescue his Sita, Hanuman’s burning tail set fire to the whole island.

The contemporary version of Hanuman’s tail is the ideology of Tamil extremism concocted in the first two documents mentioned above. It was meant to destroy the Sinhala-Buddhist but the intensity of the communal fires swept the northern region most of all and it was the Tamil leadership and the Tamil people who became the victims of the Tamil racist holocaust lit by the Tamil leaders. The three documents mentioned above reveal, in essence, the political venom and bankruptcy of the Tamil leaders who relied exclusively on the ideology of mono-ethnic extremism.

The single thread that ran through the separatist ideology in all its stages was the bitter hatred of the “other – the Sinhala-Buddhists, the bête noir of the Jaffna Tamils. The resolution passed by the NPC on February 10, 2015, is a typical example of the hate politics of the Northern leadership. It is the petrol on which they run their politics. Without that they come to a grinding halt.


The peninsular political culture is bereft of any constructive or progressive ideology other than anti-Sinhala-Buddhist racism. The underlying hate politics of the Northern leadership sustains and propels Tamil separatism. This crude, anti-Sinhala-Buddhist hatred was, of course, polished and given a veneer of intellectual respectability by ideologues who rewrote history to buttress the Vadukoddai political agenda of the Tamil separatists.

The mass production of academic theses began in the post-1976 period to justify and legitimize the Vadukoddai political platform. New politicized research centers, outside the objective scholars of the University of Peradeniya, cropped up in a plethora of NGOs. They rewrote history according to the gospel declared in the Vadukoddai Resolution. In the forefront of politicized research was the foreign-funded International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES), headed by Neelan Tiruchelvam and Radhika Coomaraswamy.

The cash rich NGOs had means to recruit intellectuals to write history according the Vadukoddai agenda. Perhaps, the best example is Buddhism Betrayed? by the Harvard don, S. J. Tambiah. It was a propagandistic tract where the cover page alone told the tale of Tamil hatred towards the Sinhala-Buddhists. One selected shot of the face of Ven. Sobitha, addressing a public meeting, was spread across the cover to portray the Buddhist monks as aggressive fanatics going on the rampage against the Tamils. Later Tambiah replaced it with another image. But the damage was done. Prof. Tambiah sowed the seeds of hatred against the Sinhala-Buddhists at the academic level.

It was this anti-Sinhala-Buddhist ideology, fuelled by the hired intellectuals, that gathered momentum and ran all the way from Maradana, via Vadukoddai to Nandikadal. Prof. Tambiah was paid an unspecified amount by World Institute For Development Economics Research of the United Nations University (WIDER), a UN organization, headed at the time by Lal Jayawardena, the husband of the Sinhala-Buddhist hating academic wife, Kumari Jayawardena. Academics flocked to foreign-funded NGOs to sell their so-called “research” manufactured by them to demonize the Sinhala-Buddhists as the prime cause for the break-down of inter-ethnic relations.

This is an additional factor that emboldened the Tamil “moderates” who felt justified in pushing the North to the farthest extremes of mono-ethnic politics. The Tamil “moderates”, exploiting the respectability showered on them by hired “research”, lured the Jaffna Tamils with the music of Tamil superiority and exclusivity, intermingled with victimhood under Sinhala-Buddhist rule, and led the Jaffna Tamils like Pied Piper of Hamelin all the way to Nandikadal.

The foundations to rupture the prevailing inter-ethnic relations in the early years of independence were laid by S. J. V. Chelvanayakam who outlined his separatist ideology first in his speech at Maradana in 1949. There was no looking back after that. It is an ideology that rolled down the decades into the cold waters of Nandikadal and dyed it with Tamil blood. The sins of the Tamil suffering should be on his head and no one else.

The best exposition of Chelvanayakam’s thinking, which is essential to grasp the factors that shaped his ideology, was written by his son-in-law, Prof. A. J. Wilson, a product of the Peradeniya University who went on to occupy the chair of political science, in Canada. In his biography, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, 1947 – 1977, he presents Chelvanayakam almost as the Jinnah of Jaffna – a man obsessed with a passion to divide Sri Lanka into ethnic enclaves. The details of Prof. Wilson’s revelations of his father-in-law’s thinking should be left for another occasion.

But before examining Chelvanayakam’s arguments stated in his very first speech to test the legitimacy of his claim for separatism, a brief survey of the prevailing socio-political conditions in the immediate aftermath of independence, particularly in the year 1949, is necessary to understand the deviant politics of violence initiated by Chelvanayakam – the separatist violence that took the Tamil people down the road to Nandikadal. What were the conditions of the Tamils on December 19, 1949 when Chelvanayakam addressed exclusively the government servants, who held a disproportionate share of jobs in the public service? Did the Tamils face persecution, discrimination and alienation in 1949 to break away from the nation and establish an ethnic enclave?

The unacceptable and glaring incongruity is that Chelvanayakam launched his separatist ideology just one year after independence when harmonious inter-ethnic relations were at its highest peak. D. S. Senanayake, the first Prime Minister, not only laid the unshakeable foundations for democracy which took root in the Sri Lankan soil but also established an all-inclusive state consisting of the major community leaders. Nor was there any tensions between the north and the south. G. G. Ponnambalam who led a virulent anti-Sinhala-Buddhist campaign to grab an undue share of power was, in fact, a Minister in the multi-ethnic Cabinet. Everything was in its proper place with hardly any formidable force/s rising to disturb the peaceful transfer of power in 1948.

Though total power was now in the hands of elected representatives of all the communities the political, administrative, judicial and social institutions established by the British remained intact. Ceylon, as it was known then, carried on as usual with power in the hands of the Brown Sahibs instead of the White Sahibs. The Governor-General, the nominal head of state, was Lord Soulbury. The Commander of the Army was Brigadier Roderick Sinclair, The Earl of Caithness.

It was a semi-colonial, semi-feudal, semi-capitalist economy with an underlying layer of the compradore go-betweens interacting with local and foreign enterprises. Its non-industrial plantation economy was still in the hands of the British companies, linked directly to Mincing Lane and other trading centers in London. Tea, rubber and coconut trades were mainly in the hands of the British and Indians who had the virtual monopoly of the export-import economy. English was still the official language. The judiciary, the executive, and the legislature were in the same mould as left behind by the British. The expertise of the British civil servants was retained to run the public service. The controversial Section 29 guaranteeing protection to the minorities – a provision, valued by the Tamils — was safely ensconced in the Constitution.

Those were the halcyon days when the afterglow of the British rule was still shining in Ceylon. Everything was in the same position as in colonial times with hardly any changes to the legacy left behind by the British. Nor had anything changed to alarm or disturb the political stability inherited from the British rule. The main factor that worried Chelvanayakam was the attempt of D. S. Senanayake to define legally those entitled to citizenship – an act that was undertaken by all post-colonial states as colonialism had imported aliens to do its coolie work. The acknowledged Tamil leader of the day, G. G. Ponnambalam endorsed and voted for the new Citizenship Act which gave citizenship to the second generation of Indians and not to the late-comers. The myth propagated was that all Indian Tamils were deprived of citizenship.

It was also a time when the English-educated Vellahla elite of Jaffna were in a commanding position in the public service. The state bureaucracy established by the Britishwas run by the Tamils holding key positions in strategic departments. For instance, Prime Minister Senanayake’s Permanent Secretary, the highest post in the public service, was held by Sir Kanthiah Vaithianathan. It was a peak point of power, prestige and privileges.

As the permanent secretary to the Prime Minister, Sir Kanthiah, held a commanding position in the public service. Take the example of establishing the Army of independent Ceylon on October 10, 1949 with the Earl of Caithness as its head. It was Prime Minister Senanayake and Sir Kanthiah who held discussion with the UK Government and selected the Earl of Caithness to head the Ceylon Army. A board was appointed with Sir Kanthiah as its head to select the first batch of officers. The officer who topped the batch was Anton Marian Muttukumara. Later he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. After The Earl of Caithness retired Muttukumara was appointed as the first Army Commander of independent Ceylon. It can be argued that it was these two Tamil professionals who first laid the foundations for the Army that eventually grew in strength to defeat the separatist forces unleashed by Chelvanayakam. ( See pp. 24 and 45, Sri Lankan Army, 50 Years on, 1949 – 1999, published by the Sri Lankan Army, October 1999).

The second Navy Commander was Rajan Kadiragamar, the brother of Laxman Kadiragamar, the distinguished and respected Foreign Minister. A sizeable segment of Tamils were also in the Police force, some in commanding ranks. Five of them went on to be IGPs. Clearly, the cry of discrimination raised by the Tamil leadership lacked proof. This complaint was placed in a lengthy address to the Soulbury Commission by a Tamil delegation led by G. G. Ponnambalam. After examining the evidence the Commissioners dismissed the cry of discrimination as stuff and nonsense.

In other words, the Jaffna Tamils, more than any other community, continued to wield power they acquired under British patronage in 1949. Though the Sinhalese were elected as governors it was the Jaffna Tamils who were ruling the state by occupying strategic positions in the bureaucratic hierarchy of the state. It was in this political climate, when all the colonial and post-colonial factors had privileged the Jaffna Vellahla elite, that Chelvanayakam led the Tamil elite, residing in Colombo, to the Headquarters of the Government Clerical Service Union in Maradana and delivered his first separatist speech accusing the Sinhala-Buddhists of discrimination.

Why did he do it? Was separatism inherent in the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (Tamil State Party in Tamil disguised as Federal Party in English) necessary for the survival and the advancement of the Tamils of Jaffna? Did the gathering at the GCSU Hall in Maradana, Colombo, represent the vast masses of the Jaffna or a selected elitist group with their special caste/class interests divorced from the Tamil grassroots? If so whom did Chelvanayakam represent in 1949?

Considering the privileged position held by the Jaffna Tamils in the public service, in the professions, in the legislature and in society as a whole did Chelvanayakam have any substantial grounds to demand a separate state? Did he realize that he was unleashing destructive forces that would eventually bring absolute misery, fascism and humiliation to the Tamils? Above all, why did he eventually decide to leave the non-violent democratic politics of the mainstream and leap from his Maradana speech to the the Vadukoddai Resolution that endorsed violence? Why didn’t he lead the Tamil minority like the other two leaders in the Indian and Muslim communities who resolved their differences non-violently, within the democratic mainstream? His son-in-law, Prof. Wilson described Chelvanayakam as the “Father of the Tamils”. Would a genuine, loving father lead his children to Nandikadal?

These and other questions will be reviewed in the next article

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