Remembering ‘Thanthai’ SJV Chelvanayagam ( Born: March 31, 1898, Ipoh, Malaysia. Died: April 26, 1977, Jaffna, Sri Lanka) on his 123rd birth Anniversary, March 31, 2021:
I. T. A. K. Headquarters,
Speech delivered on December 18, 1949 at the Inaugural business meeting of Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) by S. J. V. Chelvanayakam KC
Chairman of the reception committee and delegates assembled here, I thank you most sincerely for the honour you have done me in electing me your Chairman for today’s proceedings. I am deeply conscious of the grave responsibility you have placed in me and of my personal limitations in discharging them. However it is my humble duty as a servant in the cause to accept whatever task is assigned to me. There is only one justification for your electing me on this occasion and that is that I realise as well as any of you the situation to which the Tamil speaking people of Ceylon have been reduced and the urgency of a movement to redeem them from that situation.
We have met together with the common aim of creating an organisation to work for the attainment of freedom for the Tamil speaking people of Ceylon. It is our conviction that for the attainment of this freedom under existing conÂditions it is essential to form an autonomous Tamil speaking state. An examination of the historical background and an analysis of the existing conditions in which the Tamil speaking people live in this country today ought to be more than suffiÂcient to show that no other solution is possible.
Before the advent of the European nations to Ceylon on the 16th century, the people of this Island had their own governments. But a fact that must give rise to deep thought on our minds is that for a number of centuries preceding the advent of the Portuguese, the people of Ceylon had divided themselves into two nations; the Singhalese speaking nation and the Tamil speaking nation.
Because of geographical and other reasons the popuÂlation inhabiting the northern parts of the Island must for long have been predominantly Tamil and it must have been difficult for the Singhalese kingdoms in the south to hold sway over the northern areas with its preponderance of Tamil population. Ultimately a natural solution was reached and about the 9th or 10th century the Tamil areas of the north divided themselves and became a separate kingdom, whilst the south of Ceylon remained Singhalese though breaking up at times into two or three kingdoms.
Though fortunes changed at times, this division into Tamil and Singhalese nations remained intact for many cenÂturies till the arrival of the Europeans who first of all destroyed the Tamil kingdom and later, in stages, the SinghaÂlese kingdoms. The great lesson to be learnt from this is that language is a great factor in the lives and politics of peoples. During the centuries when Ceylon was divided into Singhalese speaking and Tamil speaking nations, there must have lived amongst the Singhalese nation. Tamil people and vice-versa Singhalese amongst the Tamil nation Though there was in that manner a mixed population living throughout the country, yet it was for political purposes divisible into two; the majority of population in the north being Tamils, whilst in the south the majority was Singhalese. This division into two nations which had existed for many centuries was ultimately done away with by the British who in an unimaginative manner merely considered the convenience of their administration and brought the country under one Colonial Government. There was no natural fusion of the two nations into one. The bulk of the population still spoke two different languages and occupied separate territories.
However in the upper stratum of society there grew a small minority community of English speaking people drawn from the various groups. But this community is small and is bound to disappear with the rise of the national languages to their proper place in the life of the country.
When in course of time the colonial form Government was slowly and steadily giving way to popular Government, the architects of the new Government followed closely on the lines of the British Colonial system and modelled their constitutional drafts on the unitary type. There were many reasons for this. The British Colonial system has apparently reduced Ceylon into one nation and our own reformers had no experience of solving constitutional problems.
Further, everybody was deceived into believing that the union of the English, Scotch and Welsh into one GovernÂment was an ideal model to be followed in Ceylon. Sufficient attention had not been drawn to the fact that in the union in Great Britain, the Scottish and Welsh languages had practically died out and that all the people of Great Britain had become English speaking. On the other hand more than 20 centuries of living together in Ceylon had not destroyed either the Tamil language or the Singhalese language. Each had its own natural forces and tendencies which prevent destruction.
Constitution makers both British and Ceylonese copied the British unitary type and tried to adapt it to local conditions. The history of the reform movement in the past three decades deals with this adaption rather than with the fundamental question of what is the model that should be followed. The British for one could not imagine that anything but their own constitution should be taken as a model for Ceylon. To the Singhalese the British model had a special appeal; they were in a numerically overwhelming majority and the mere counting of heads would give them complete power. Moreover they dreamt of the return of the times when Ceylon contained one Singhalese Kingdom. The changes that had taken place during the past ten centuries they preferred to ignore. The Tamil speaking people however saw clearly and realised the danger of a unitary type of constitution for a heterogeneous population.
It must be said to their credit that these people never lost sense of their danger. Their leaders however merely played with attempts to minimize the danger. They put their whole faith on weightage for the minorities; that was the only solution they thought of. It stands to their discredit that they failed to display sufficient foresight and vision.There were excuses for this failure. The Tamil speaking people were divided into three groups: Muslims, Indian Tamils and Ceylon Tamils. The Muslims and Ceylon Tamils occupy parts of the country which had been least developed during the British period and had actually underÂgone decay. With this decay the economic condition of their territory was in a parlous state. This territory had not produced a leisured class which while remaining attached to those areas could devote itself to political study and work. The Indian Tamil section of this linguistic group was incaÂpable of throwing in its weight in constitution making. They were comparatively recent arrivals in the Island; they had come into Singhalese speaking areas and to territory separated from Tamil speaking areas. Though they were settled down in Ceylon, they were more deeply concerned in the problems affecting them as a working class than with constitutional theory. The result was that everybody worked on the uniÂtary type of the British model.
The Singhalese people opposed weightage as being undemocratic. It did not strike them that they might pay the price of weightage in order to retain a unitary type of government in which power would have been with them. The British masters of whom fair play and justice was expected completely failed in their duty. They found that political power in Ceylon was largely with the Singhalese and that it was more expedient to please them than to be just by the Tamil speaking group. It was not a courageous step but it appealed to them and a unitary type of Government without weightage was foisted on the Tamil speaking people of Ceylon as the Soulbury British solution of the constitutions problem of this Island. The problem became aggravated in that our elected representatives at that time forgot their mission and voted in 1945 for the Soulbury solution. With this the Tamil speaking people might have been considered dead and buried in the political life of Ceylon. But the masses refused to surrender. At the general election that followed in 1947 all but one of the Tamil representatives who vote for the acceptance of the White Paper of 1945 in the legislature were defeated. In the Tamil electorates the elections were fought on the issue as to whether Tamil representatives were to abandon the struggle or continue fight. The results were a clear verdict for a continuation of the fight.
At the general ejections of 1947 the Muslim electorates adopted a different policy to that of the Tamil electorates. Up to 1945 the Muslims and the Tamils worked together in support of weightage for the minorities. When in 1945 the Soulbury constitution was accepted, the Muslims saw no way out of it. No plan like the one we are now advocating was presented for their consideration. Territorially they were placed in such a way that they could not by themselves ask for a separate autonomous state. The Tamils of the north and Trincomalee were better placed territorially and they displayed a spirit of independence.
This spirit of independence was symbolized by the Tamil Congress which swept the polls in the Tamil areas. The result of the elections was a clear indication of the attitude of the Tamil masses as to their political future. The opponents of the Tamil Congress, i.e., the U. N. P. candidates promised material benefits to the Tamil areas in return for co-operation with the Singhalese majority who were expected to be in power. The Tamil Congress candidates on the other hand promised to the voters nothing by way of profits from the Government; they stood for resistance against encroachments on Tamil rights. The voters returned Tamil Congress Candidates by large majorities. But the unexpected happened in the next year 1948. The U. N. P. had in the meantime formed a Government ignoring the Tamil Congress and rejecting the verdict of the Tamil provinces at the polls. Thereafter the Tamil Congress leader weakened and finally succumbed to a policy of collaboration and joined the U. N. P. Government. In this he clearly went against the mandate of the Tamil people. But a large number of people thought that there was resistance yet left in the Tamil Congress leader and that he had retained freedom of action if and when the Government, of which he was a member, brought any legislation which went against the Tamil Congress policy. In December 1948 the GovernÂment introduced into the House of Representatives the Indian Citizenship Bill which was opposed by the Ceylon Indian Congress, the Government at New Delhi and was contrary to the avowed policy of the Tamil Congress as outlined in its constitution and decided upon by repeated resolutions passed at its general sessions.
In addition the Tamil Congress leader had during election time given a signed pledge to the Ceylon Indian Congress to support and work for the rights of the Indians and for their citizenship on a five year residence qualification. The Bill in Parliament failed to grant what the Tamil Congress leader had pledged to work for. He along with some other Tamil Congress members of Parliament voted for this Bill. It then became crystal clear that the Tamil Congress leader and some of the Tamil Congress members of Parliament had completely abandoned the policy of resistance. The Tamil Congress group in Parliament thereupon split into two. One section, as already mentioned, had gone back on their election policy. The other section represented by those on us who are with you now decided to keep true to their election policy and carry on the fight for freedom. Where in 1947 and 1948 it became evident that the Singhalese people could carry on their Government under this constitution completely ignoring all the Tamil representatives put together and could pass legislation after legislation defying the wishes and feelings on the Tamil people, there was open one of two alternatives to the Tamil speaking people. One was abject surrender. The other was a campaign to free the Tamil speaking people from a constitution in which they were utterly powerless. The latter was a difficult path to tread, but it was the one for courageous people to choose. Moreover that was the one indicated by the Tamil people at the elections. The resistance group of the Tamil Congress decided on this path and has since been exhorting Tamil speaking people all over the country to follow the same.
In fact on 20th November 1947 the President of the Tamil Congress sent through the Governor’s Office to the Secretary of State for the Colonies the following telegram:-
“The Tamil people of Ceylon have rejected the Soulbury Constitution in as much as at the general elections not one Tamil candidate of the U. N. P. was elected to Parliament and all but one of the Tamil Representatives who voted for the acceptance of the White Paper of 1945 in the defunct State Council were (sic) defeated. The All Ceylon Tamil Congress demands a free constitution for Ceylon conferring sovereignty on its people with equal freedom for all communities and calls for a constituent assembly to frame a constitution acceptable to all sections of the people. An Unitary Government with present composition of legislature and structure of executive totally unÂacceptable to the Tamils. In the absence of a satisfactory alternative we demand the right of self-determination for the Tamil people.”
When in December 1948 their trusted leader failed them and the Tamil Congress split into two, once more a spirit of despondency overtook the Tamil speaking people to a whole: they thought that there was no way out, although they were not happy in the state in which they found themselves in the body politic. The solution by way of a separate autonomus (sic) state for the Tamil speaking areas was a new idea to which people had not given much thought. They were not certain as to what support it would get in the country. But there were brave men among them and men of vision too who saw and believed in this auction. These men kept on insisting on their message to such an extent that today the ideal of an autonomous state for themselves in Ceylon has appealed to the Tamil speaking people as a whole. Your gathering here today in such numbers is one proof of it.
Sight and vision is not enough, for the vision has to be reduced to reality. The realisation is the next phase of our campaign. Over this many are diffident. Unfortunately our recent political history gives room for that feeling of diffidence. Time after time leaders have failed us. Trusted men who appeared to be courageous stand up and fight one day only to desert the ranks the next Sir Mahadeva was a stalwart in the Tamil ranks from 1934 onwards; later his enthusiasm waned till he ultimately ended up in the opposite camp. Mr S. Nadesan, Mr J. Thiagrajah and others who were likewise champions of the Tamil cause ended up in 1945 by voting for the constitution which denied the Tamil people what they had been fighting for decades. Finally there is the case of Mr G. G Ponnambalam who at one stage was the most uncompromising fighter of all who has now not only given up the fight, but is vociferously uttering that all is well with the Tamil people of Ceylon. These repeated defections have not only cast a slur on Tamil character, but have undermined confidence in Tamil leaders present and future. People rightly ask how they could trust those who stand for and demand this autonoÂmous Tamil State and what guarantee there is that these leaders would not fail them like their predecessors did.
hIn contrast to this gloomy picture of want of steadiness exhibited by Tamil leaders we must look at the bright side represented by the persistent consistency in political attitude of the masses of our people. Let me trace this for you: Of all sections of the Tamil speaking people the one that was most advantageously placed to work for Tamil freedom was the people of the northern province. They were the largest single group living in easily separable territory and with the least admixture of Singhalese people living amongst them. They were also the section that had profited most by English education. Their responsibility therefore for serving the Tamil speaking nation in Ceylon was the greatest. Naturally most political agitation on behalf of the Tamil cause started from the northern province. The advantages they enjoyed cast this duty of them. The instances of political action that I shall now give refer mostly to them. But those instances depict the spirit of the Tamil speaking people as a whole. The Donoughmore award was the first measure of self-government that provided no safe gaurds (sic) for the minorities. At the first general election for the Donoughmore legislature people of Jaffna boycotted the election. For a period of about 4 years Jaffna was unrepresented in the legislature. It was a protest against that constitution. This was an unique event in the political history of this country. At the second general election to that legislature the northern province sent a team of members whose policy was to work for a revision of the constitution providing safeguards for the minorities. The next general election came in 1947 under the present Soulbury constitution and the general impression was that it would not be amended even to afford justice to the minorities. This was an occasion on which the Tamil electorates might have thrown up the sponge. A number of the political observers expected that to happen. As already mentioned by me in the earlier part of my speech the Tamil electorates gave an emphatic decision to the campaign for Tamil freedom. On this occasion Trincomalee joined the northern province. It would thus be seen that whenever the question was referred to them, the Tamil electorates consistently decided for a policy of resistance. The masses therefore have never let us down. We have great faith and confidence in them that they can never let us down in the future. Signs are forthcoming that show that the Tamil-speaking people of the Batticaloa district are of the same mind as their brethren of Trincomalee and the northern province. Thus the Tamil-speaking people of the Ceylon have a definite attitude regarding their present and future. They have a mind of their own. In short, they are politically conscious of being a separate nation. This is an encouraging sign and those who want to work for the good of their people must act.
Now arises the necessity for organised work to release the aspirations of our people. We should therefore get together a body of those who desire to see the Tamil-speaking people free and who have faith in the future of this people.
Let us now see whether the fears of the Tamil-speaking people in the past have been justified. The present constitution, unwanted by the Tamil people, had been working for just over two years. The government is indulging in a series of discriminatory legislative and administrative acts too numerous to recapitulate here. A few outstanding cases are enough for our purpose: the government has passed citizenship laws whose one purpose is to de-citizenize half the Tamil people of Ceylon. The outward plea put forward is that these laws are directed against foreigners. This is specious. The real purpose of this legislation is to deny citizenship to about 7 lakhs of Tamil workers settled in the Central portions of Ceylon. A large majority of these people know of no other home; they are not Indians; they are Ceylonese. Their one fault is that they belong to the Tamil speaking group. Political power rests in numbers. Even counting these upcountry Tamils, the Tamil group has little political power. Deprive the Tamil group of this upcountry section and the rest are small enough to die a natural political death. Further these Tamil workers have now been deprived of the franchise; this is a most cruel blow. All those who have eyes must see that the Government’s plans are either to drive these people out of Ceylon, though they have every right to be here, or to force them to become the chartered slaves of the Singhalese-speaking people.
On the question of the National Flag the attitude of the Party in power is an utter disregard of the feeling and rights of the Tamil speaking people. The lion flag was the flag of the Singhalese Kings; it is today identified with Singhalese sovereignty. The flag is being used administratively as the national flag of Ceylon. I do not know of any other country with a composite population which has adopted as its national flag the flag of only one section of the people. The Government’s policy on the flag issued is symbolic of its attitude towards the Tamil-speaking people. The Government ignores their existence (sic) as a part of the body politics.
Even more dangerous to the Tamil speaking people the Government’s colonisation policy. We have only the beginning of it in Gal-Oya. The land to be irrigated under the Gal-Oya scheme lies in the Eastern Province, a Tamil-speaking area. There is evidence that the Government intends planting Singhalese population in this Tamil-speaking a (sic) purely area. If this be true the Government is seeking to use its powers for the very unjust purpose of reducing the Tamil-speaking areas that now exist. If this policy is allowed to continue unchecked there will be no Tamil majority areas left in the course of a few decades.
At the same time the Government’s language policy openly enunciated by the Minister of Finance is to separate the Tamil-speaking provinces from the point of view of language in administration, while making Singhalese the language of the administration of the other seven provinces. In two at least of these seven provinces there are very large concentrations of Tamil people forming a majority of the population in the districts they occupy. If the government were fatherly towards these people it ought to provide for the use of their language in the administrative machinery of other areas. But this is not to be the case.
By many such acts of the Government it has lost the moral right to rule over the Tamil speaking people of Ceylon. It only does so now by the physical right of power.
Over two years of internal self-government have reduced the Tamil-speaking people to an inferior status in their own country. They do not feel that the Government their own. In these circumstances what are we to do. Are we to bow to the inevitable and let things drift? Such an attitude is neither fair by ourselves nor by the country we are in. The manly thing to do is to face the situation and find a way out. What then is the way? Weightage in representation was sought after and has failed. Some other remedy has to be found. Let us look for guidance to other countries inhabited by more than one linguistic group. In those countries as in Ceylon the different linguistic groups have been jealous of their rights. The smaller linguistic groups have resisted against being absorbed by the larger ones. The conflict between smaller and larger linguistic groups has often resulted in wars which has at times drawn [them] into the vortex of powerful nations.
There are two ways in which this conflict between linguistic groups could be solved. One is the division of linguistic groups into separate sovereign states. The other and the less drastic remedy is the formation of a federal state making each linguistic group an autonomous state and having a central Government. For both these solutions to be feasible the different linguistic groups must be capable of territorial separateness. Experience in other parts of the world has shown the federal solution to have succeeded in many cases. Well known examples are that of Canada which consists of English-speaking and French speaking peoples and Switzerland consisting of a number of German, French and Italian autonomous states. Then there is the classic example of Russia where each linguistic group occupying separate territory is an autonomous state and a distinct nation. We have the new Indian nation which is fast following the example of Russia in this respect and building up linguistic states. The India Congress and the Indian Government have accepted the creation of linguistic states in principle. A separate Telugu state is in the process of being built up. The Canerese have already started an agitation for the building up of a state of their own. All this is the outcome of the natural instinct of self-preservation which applies to a linguist group as much as it does to an individual.
This is then the solution that we ask for: a Federal constitution for Ceylon consisting of an Autonomous Tamil speaking province and an autonomous Singhalese province with a Central Government common to both. This is the minimum provision necessary to prevent the smaller Tamil-speaking nation from extinction, or of being absorbed by the larger nation. In the main the Tamil-speaking areas are separable from the Singhalese-speaking areas. There are no doubt small areas with mixed population; though not to prevent the division of the larger area where there is a concentration of population speaking one language or the other. A federal constitution is an ideal worthy of being achieved and works no injustice to anybody and certainly not to the Sinhalese people. This is unlike weightage where the minorities had to be weighted at the expense of the majority. Division on a federal basis would be based on the strength of each language group of area.
There are great reasons that urge the formation of an autonomous Tamil speaking State. The Tamil speaking people both Muslims and Tamils have already begun to developa feeling of inferiority. For the fullest development of the personality of a man it is necessary for him to feel that the country he lives in his own and that the government of the country is his. This feeling is absent in the Tamil speaking people of Ceylon today. They must be given the right to govern their own territory and then fully realise that that Government (sic) is there (sic) is own. We can notice even now a difference in the spirit of Tamil speaking people inhabiting the Tamil areas and that of the Tamil speaking people living in the Singhalese areas. The latter have lost all hopes of any future. But in the former there is fight left yet. This very movement for an autonomous state draws its inspiration from people living in the Tamil speaking areas and from those who still maintain their contact in such areas. To the Muslims of the Eastern province this plan has as much of an appeal as it has to the Tamils of that Province. They are both Tamil speaking [and] they must both combine if they are to make the whole of the Eastern Province a part of the Tamil State. All our campaign however goes on (sic) the basis that the Muslims should be at complete liberty to decide for themselves whether the areas they occupy should be attached to the Tamil speaking provinces or to the Singhalese speaking provinces. It is for them to decide what they want.
Some of the least developed parts of the Island are so-called Tamil provinces. These form about 30% of the area Ceylon and contain about 10% of the population. These provinces are capable of very high development. They are mostly flat land with sufficient water. Proper and just development of these areas cannot be expected excepting under a Government of the Tamil Speaking people. We must expect any large scale development these areas by the Singhalese Government to be accompanied by the planting of Singhalese colonies there. The people of the Eastern Province have already taken note what is happening in their province under Gal Oya development.
Our one aim is therefore to achieve freedom for the Tamil speaking people by the creation of an autonomous state within the framework of a federal constitution in Ceylon. We have no misgivings about the difficulty of the task ahead of us. The task must be done and can be done. We have some factors against us and others in our favour. The greatest factor in our favour is, as I have already stated earlier in my speech, the consistent political attitude of our people towards their future. Provided we organise properly and get a team of trustworthy workers I feel sure that our people will back us. In the past our weakness lay in [the] want of consistency on the part of our leaders. Unless we remedy this in our organisation, we must expect to fail again. Like the Irish Nationalists we must get together workers who will pledge themselves to eschew office until a free Tamil State is attained. Let us not have one aim on our lips and another in our hearts.
We are a poor people and have no powerful allies or friends. We have to make up for this by the strength of our charactor (sic), the steadfastness of our purpose and the purity of our motives. India’s freedom was won by such moral forces.
Our campaign for freedom lies not only with external forces. If we are to deserve success, we must clean our society of the evil in our midst. Amongst the Tamil people there are under-privileged classes. They feel they are being oppressed by those above them. The normal law of retribution is that if we oppress another would get the same treatment from some other. If the Tamil people have to get political freedom they must grant social freedom to those amongst them who suffer from want of it.
On a par with the above is the condition of the Tamil workers upcountry. They have become political untouchables. They have no full civil status; they are now almost a stateless people. The rest of Tamil speaking people must make these people’s case their own. It is not to India that they must look for help. The help must come from the rest of the people of Ceylon who are freedom loving. Both these are become a part of the policy of the organisation you have come to inaugurate.
I thank you all for patience with which you have listened to me. There are many men amongst you of whose courage I am personally aware. I am inspired by that courage. I pray that you will overlook all my faults and accept my effort as my humble contribution towards our programme of service. I now move the main resolution for the day.
– SJV Chelvanayagm KC