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Sri Lankan Tamil Struggle

Chapter 19: The Birth and Death of the Jaffna Youth Congress

by T. Sabaratnam, December 23, 2010
A journalist who reported Sri Lankan ethnic crisis for over 50 years

Gandhi’s visit and his speeches invigorated the Jaffna peninsula, especially the Jaffna Youth Congress whose members he addressed on November 27, the first day of the visit. He spoke on the main objective of the Congress, the revival of ancient culture. He gave two main messages – they should go for the revival of the ancient values that are common to all religions and those that are not inconsistent with modern life as it should be lived. He told them that the revival of ancient values should not in any way cause religious rivalries and conflicts.

As Thurairatnam records in his memoirs, Jaffna Youth Congress activists ‘sat at the feet of Mahatma’ in the evenings and discussed their future activities and possible organizational reforms. Gandhi suggested that they broad-base their organization to embrace all youths and to launch social reforms as a measure of drawing the people into their fold.

Indian Influence

The Jaffna Youth Congress originated as a student movement. Its founding and growth were interlinked with Jaffna College and Handy Perinbanayagam.  Jaffna College, founded in 1872 as a successor to the Batticota Seminary established in 1823 by the American Missionaries and functioned till 1854, cultivated among the students freedom of thought, speech and action.

Handy Perinbanayagam (1999- 1977) recounted for me in an interview in December 1974, the 50th anniversary of the Jaffna Students Congress, the circumstances that led to the founding of the students movement.  Most of the details I give below are based on the information he gave for my article in Thinakaran Varamanjari.

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_pCG_c3Rq788/S6PQx3NOIiI/AAAAAAAAG9w/laLFpEYUg8k/s400/Gandhi_and_Tagore_1920.jpg

The photograph of the meeting between Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore which took place on April 2, 1920

The principal of Jaffna College during the 1920s was American missionary Rev. John Bicknell. He was known for his liberal views. Handy Perinbanayagam who was a student at Jaffna College during 1918-1919 was one of those who benefited from the liberal environment that prevailed in Jaffna College. Bicknell who was the president of the senior literary association, ‘Brotherhood’ encouraged the students to debate the current problems. One of the topics debated during Handy Perinbanayagam’s time  was, “Territorial representation is better than racial representation”.

Gandhi’s return to India in 1919 created a new environment in India and in Jaffna. Gandhi's name was popular among the Jaffna students who followed his non-violent agitations in South Africa. By the time Gandhi returned students in Calcutta and Madras had started anti- British agitations. Literature on bomb making had been smuggled into India and incidents of bomb explosions had begun to rock the country. The colonial administration that panicked had announced plans to enact legislation to arrest people suspected of sedition.

Handy Perinbanayagam entered the University College and passed the B.A. examination in June 1924 and returned to teach at Jaffna College. During his undergraduate days he was boarded at College House and came under the influence of the warden, Prof. C. Suntharalingam, who encouraged liberal thinking among the students.

During Perinbanayagam’s undergraduate days Gandhi emerged as the most dominant figure in Indian politics. His introduction of satyagraha as the tool to oppose the British rule soon after his return attracted the attention of millions of Indian people. His meeting with Rabindranath Tagore on April 2, 1920 and his three-week stay in Madras during May 1920 and his reform of the Indian Congress Party in the same year made him a hero among the Indians and the Sri Lankan Tamils, especially youths. In 1921 Gandhi advocated the boycott of foreign goods and British institutions. In 1922 he was arrested and sentenced to six years imprisonment. In 1924 when Handy Perinbanayagam returned to Jaffna College to teach Gandhi was in prison. The emotional wave his imprisonment released engulfed Jaffna too. Its impact was a topic of debate in Jaffna College’s ‘Brotherhood’:  "Mahatma Gandhi in prison is more dangerous than Mahatma Gandhi out of prison."  

That was also the time of national awakening in Madras Presidency which started in the later half of the 19th century. Madras Presidency comprised the present Tamil Nadu and parts of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. Of the 72 delegates who participated in the first session of the Indian National Congress at Bombay in December 1885, 22 were from Madras Presidency. The third session of the Indian National Congress was held in Madras in December 1887 and was a huge success attended by 362 delegates from the Province. Subsequent sessions of the Indian National Congress were held in Madras in 1894, 1898, 1903, 1908, 1914 and 1927.

The Theosophical Society founded in 1882 by Olcott and Madam Blavatsky had its headquarters in Adayar, Madras. Annie Besant who joined it founded the Home Rule League in 1916. It enjoyed extensive support in the Madras Presidency especially among the Brahmins. The Home Rule Movement  was actively endorsed by nationalistic newspapers such as The Hindu and Swadeshamitran. Subramaniya Bharathiyar’s poems had become popular and the heroic deeds of freedom fighters like Thirupur Kumaran, V.V.S. Aiyar, Subramaniya Siva, V.O. Chidamparam Pillai, Vanchinathan had electrified the atmosphere in the Madras Presidency. It infected the youths of Jaffna.

The popularity of the Home Rule League and the possibility of limited transfer of power by the British to the Indian people created the fear among the non-Brahmins that that would entrench the Bramins in the administration of the Madras Presidency. The non-Brahmin leaders realized the need to organize themselves if they who were the majority were toprotect their rights.

Thirty of them met in Madras in November 1916 and resolved to start a company to publish newspapers to advocate the cause of the non-Brahmin community. The two dailies then in existence, the Hindu (started in 1878) and Swadesamitran (started in 1882) were under Brahmin control and presented that community’s views. The non-Brahmin leaders founded the South Indian People's Association which published the English daily Justice that hit the stands on February 26, 1917 and the Tamil daily Tiravitan which appeared in June 1917. It also bought the well established Telugu weekly Andhraprakasika (founded in 1885) and turned it into a daily.

The South Indian People’s Association also formed a political party in October 1917 and named it the South Indian Liberal Federation, under the leadership of T.N. Nair and Theagaroya Chetty, which came to be known as the Justice Party after the English daily Justice.  Its main objectives were the promotion of education and to work for the social, economic, political, material and moral progress of non-Brahmins.

These events led to the surfacing of the latent Dravidian consciousness among the non-Brahmins and to the emergence of Dravidian nationalism. It infected even the non-Brahmin members of the Congress Party in the Madras Presidency. They founded the Madras Presidency Association in September 1917. It published Patriot in English and Thesapakthan in Tamil. Thesapakthan which was edited by Thiru Vi, Ka, whose powerful writings roused the Tamil youths of India also had profound impact on the educated Tamil youths of Sri Lanka.

That was also the time student movements wre formed in India to strengthen the freedom movement. Bengal took the lead with Aurobindo Gosh at the fore.One of the popular student leader of Bengal B.C. Pal toured the Madras Presidency in 1907. Several student movements were founded  and they began to play an important part in the freedom struggle.

During its early years, the Justice Party was involved in petitioning the imperial administrative bodies and British politicians demanding more representation for non-Brahmins in administration and in the government. After the implementation of the Montague Reforms the Justice party took part in the governance of the presidency. In 1920, it won the election and formed the government. A. Subbarayalu Reddiyar became the first Chief Minister. He resigned after a short period due to declining health and was replaced with Sir P. Ramarayaningar, popularly known as Raja of Panagal. During his period of office which lasted till November 1926 the law reserving a percentage of government jobs non- Brahmins was enacted.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/6e/Justice_Party_1920s.jpg/300px-Justice_Party_1920s.jpg

Image taken in 1920s: Theagaroya Chetty is seated at the centre (to the immediate right of the girl). To his right is Arcot Ramaswamy Mudaliar. Also present are Raja of Panagal and Raja of Venkatagiri

Founders of Students Congress

Soon after he returned to teach at Jaffna College Handy Perinbanayagam started work on the formation of an organization to endeavor for the independence of Sri Lanka. He met like-minded friends during holidays and weekends. They included S. Kulandran, C. Subramaniam, S. Nadesan, S. U. Somasegaram, Swami Vipulananda, M. Balasundram, S. Durairajasingam, P. Nagalingam, A. E. Tamber, S. Subramaniam, V. Thillainathan, S. Rajanayagam, K Navaratnam, V. Muthucumaru, J. C. Amerasingham, S. S. Sivapragasam, J. W. A. Kadirgamar, A. M. K. Cumaraswamy, V. K. Nathan, S. J. Gunasagaram, K. Nesiah, Sam Sabapathy, S. C. Chithamparanathan and several others.

Some of them were senior students in the colleges in Jaffna. An exploratory meeting was held at the then Y. M. C. A. Jaffna on first November 1924. From its very beginnings the Students’ Congress had an all-island perspective and was committed to national unity and independence for Sri Lanka.

Handy Perinbanayagam, in a letter to the Editor of Ceylon Daily News, set out the aims  and objectives of the Jaffna Students Congress. Said the Jaffna Students Congress would mobilize the students of the country for solving the social, political, cultural, economic and political problems they faced and for the betterment of this land. He said that the vision of the Jaffna Students Congress was to form an all island youth organization.

He concluded the letter calling upon the students of the country, particularly those in the Jaffna peninsula, to rise up and support the new venture. He made it known that young people of all races, creeds and castes could join.

National Unity the aim

The inaugural  sessions of the Students Congress was held at the Ridgeway Hall, Jaffna in December 1924. About three hundred students together with recent graduates and undergraduates attended the inaugural sessions. The Morning Star reported that seating was in ‘national’ style on carpets and all present were in ‘national costume’.

Mr. J. V. Chelliah of Jaffna College was elected President of the Congress. In his presidential address he said that "all the greatest reforms effected in society were the work of young men. Jesus Christ when he started his mission had only just completed his twenties. Buddha’s renunciation took place when he was a very young man." He deplored the existence of communal jealousy between different communities in the island and appealed to them to make national unity one of their main planks of activity. He referred to the curse of untouchability and the evil effects of the dowry system and called on the youth to translate ideals into practical action. He emphasized the role of the youth in eradicating the social evils prevalent in the country."

The Jaffna Students Congress mobilized the teachers and students by holding seminars at schools and by the time it held its first annual sessions in April 1925 at Keerimalai it had gained strength and maturity to adopt a radical program of work. It had during its first year concentrated its attention on four sets of issues: forging national unity as the basis of building Sri Lankan nationalism; the removal of the social disabilities that shackled Jaffna society, especially the caste and dowry systems; revival of the national culture and the building of Jaffna’s economic base.

The action taken to forge national unity was to elect unanimously P. de S. Kularatne, a Sinhalese youth leader, later principal of Ananda College, Colombo, as the president of the sessions. The resolution passed in this regard called for action taken to make “the study of Sinhala in the case of Tamil students and of Tamil in the case of Sinhala students … at least to the Cambridge Senior standard in every school receiving grant-in-aid” compulsory. A resolution was also moved condemning the communal approach to politics and urging cooperation with the Sinhalese to win the demand for self government.

Resolutions were also passed concerning the removal of social disabilities: the abolition of the dowry system, temple entry, caste issue, dealing with the creeping western influence and selfishness of the Jaffna man.

The resolution calling upon the people get back to the traditional cultural norms and practices of the Tamils stressed the importance of wearing the national dress, called upon Jaffna’s elites to speak at home and public places in Tamil and to get away from Western influence.

A set of resolutions stressed the need for economic development. It called upon the people to concentrate on economic development and appealed to the youths to do social service.

Those resolutions and the formation of village level Social Service Leagues and the campaigns conducted through them urging the people to adopt ‘modern thinking’ made the Jaffna Students’ Congress extremely popular. Jaffna’s rural population saw for the first time educated young men dressed in verti and national speak to them in Tamil and explaining to them that man was born equal and should enjoy equal rights

Young Lanka League

Nine years before the Jaffna Students Congress was formed  a radical Sinhala youth A.E. Goonesingha (1891-1967) who was also influenced by the Indian freedom struggle started the Young Lanka League on March 2, 1915 along with Victor Corea, a lawyer from Chilaw to fight against colonialism.

He also formed the Gandhi Association and the ’Lanka Workers' Association', the forerunner to the formation of trade unions. Goonesingha was imprisoned following May 1915 riots and after release he published the journal "The Nation", to support the national cause. He was also in the Temperance Movement. In 1920 Goonesingha campaigned against the poll tax, a levy of Rs. 2.00 per year from the people. Those who failed to pay the tax were sentenced to work on road building for a day. Members of the Young Lanka League refused to pay the tax and worked on road construction. The tax was withdrawn in 1923.

He formed the Ceylon Labour Union in 1922 with a membership around 25.The trade union he started is today the CMU (Ceylon Mercantile Industrial and General Workers' Union) led by Bala Tampoe. His union staged the railway strike in 1923 which was called off due o financial difficulties. The next strike he led fizzled out after five weeks. It involved nearly 25,000 workers employed in the Harbour, Colombo Municipality, Wellawatte Weaving Mills, the Government Factory and several government departments.

In 1922 he joined the Ceylon National Congress and appealed to its leaders to take to agitation techniques of the Indian National Congress instead of passing resolutions calling upon the British rulers to effect constitutional reforms. The leaders did not support him.  They treated him as a trouble maker.

Balanced Representation

The Legislative Council of 1921 was reconstituted by an Order in Council of December 19, 1923. It vested on the new council the financial control but retained administrative responsibility with the governor.

The new council consisted of 12 official members and 37 unofficial members. With the Governor who functioned as the president the Legislative Council consisted of 50 members.  The 37 unofficial members consisted of three officials nominated by the governor, 11 members elected to represent communal electorates and 23 members elected on territorial basis. The 11 members elected by communal electorates were: European electorate (Urban)- one member, European Electorate (Rural) – one member, Commercial Electorate- one member,  Western Province (Ceylon Tamil)- one member, Burgher Electorate-two members, Indian Electorate- two members and Muslim Electorate- three members. Of the 23 territorial electorates Northern Province was allocated five seats (North, East, South, West and Central), Eastern Province two ( Batticaloa and Trincomalee) and the balance 16 seats went to the Sinhala .areas.
Voting right was still restricted. To be eligible to be registered as a voter one must be a male of 21 years of age or over; a British subject;  be able to read and write  English, Sinhalese or Tamil; must have resided in the electorate in which his name is to be registered for six months prior to the preparation of the electoral register and must posses property or annual income of Rs. 600, or own immovable property in his or his wife’s name to the value of Rs. 1500 or occupy as owner or tenant a house, warehouse, shop etc six months prior to the date of registration of annual value of Rs. 400 if situated in an urban area or Rs. 200 if situated elsewhere.

The total number of registered voters in the various electorates in the country was:

Territorial electorates              172,583

Communal electorates             32,498

Total                                          205,081

The number of voters amounted to only 4 percent of the population.  For example, Kalutara district had the highest 16,000 voters while Trincomalee district had the lowest 399 voters, Batticaloa had 2350 voters and Northern Province Southern Division 5,980 voters.         

The Legislative Council of 1921 was dissolved in August 1924 and election for a new reformed council was held in September.

From the 23 territorial electorates seven Tamils were returned: five from the Northern Province, two from the Eastern Province. Of the others the North Central Province returned a European H.R. Freeman who was elected uncontested. The balance 15 were Sinhalese which included James Peiris, D.B. Jayathilaka and D.S. Senanayake.   Of the eleven communal electorates Arunachalam Mahdeva was a Sri Lankan Tamil,  I.X.Pereira and K. Natesa Iyer were Indian Tamils and H.M. Maccan Markar, N.H.M. Abdul Cader and T.B. Jayah. And two Burghers and three Europeans were elected by the communal electorates.

Names of the Tamil members who were elected to represent the Northern and Eastern Provinces were: Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan (Northern province North Uncontested),  Waithilingham  Duraiswamy (Northern province West uncontested), T M Sabaratnam  (Northern province East  uncontested; S Rajaratnam ( Northern province Central), A Kanagaratnam ( Northern province South), E R Thambimuthu (Batticaloa) and M M Subramaniam (Trincomalee)

Of the 34 elected members 19 were from the minority communities while 16 from the majority community.  Then through the manipulation of the nominations Manning saw that the Sinhalese and the minority communities put together had equal number of representatives in the Legislative council. Tamil leaders were satisfied with this balanced mechanism of representation and altered their demand from communal representation to balanced representation. Tamil leaders  wasted the next 25 years- 1924- 1949) in the futile exercise of fighting for which came to be called ‘Fifty-fifty’.

Reaction of Tamil Youths

The reforms and the election generated a different kind of reaction among the middle class Tamil youths. They were not satisfied with the reforms which they thought were not sufficient. They also detested the manner in which Sinhalese and Tamil leaders were quarrelling to enjoy the benefits of the reforms rather than starting a movement for the total independence, Purna Swraj, for their motherland.

They also saw in the 1924 reforms a British strategy to hold the actual power with the Governor. They saw in the two measures intended to safeguard the interests of the Tamils – the creation of the Western Province Tamil seat and the balancing of the numbers of the representatives of the Sinhalese and the minority communities – a clever strategy to drive a permanent wedge between the Sinhalese and the Tamils to protect the British rule through the divide and rule policy.

The Jaffna Students’ Congress  took upon itself the task of initiating steps to build national unity. Its first effort was to build links with the Progressive Nationalist Party S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike founded in late 1925 and with Goonasinha’s Young Lanka League.

Bandaranaike who returned in 1925 after completing his studies at Oxford formed the Progressive Nationalist Party with the objective of organizing the youths to work for the emancipation of Ceylon. C. Ponnambalam was its secretary. The organization though short-lived attracted the attention of the educated younger generation.

Bandaranaike commenced a campaign to educate the public on the need for political reform and placed before the country the federal form of government as a possible solution to the racial problem of the country. He even suggested that the legislature of independent Ceylon should have two Houses – the Upper and Lower House – and the Upper House should have equal representation of all races.

In 1926, the Jaffna Students Congress, in its second annual sessions held in Jaffna, upgraded itself into Jaffna Youth Congress, and decided to step up its mobilization work. Its action to mobilize the people included the holding of roadside and market place meetings and to invite Indian leaders to tour the Jaffna peninsula and to speak to the people. The roadside and market place meetings were not new to the Jaffna public for they had seen Catholic and Protestant preachers practicing that art to popularize their religion.

But they heard for the first time young men explaining in fluent Tamil political subjects: constitutional reforms, nationalism, patriotism, social justice and swaraj. Most of them were new concepts and subjects to them and they were attracted by them. Till that time they were used to processions and public meetings addressed by trousered or turbaned nobility who concentrated on the educated and propertied class that enjoyed voting rights. Now they saw young men and women, most of them from rural backgrounds, talking to them and telling them of their rights and duties.

The youths, elated by the success of their campaigns decided in late 1926 to invite popular Indian and Sinhala leaders to address the people of Jaffna. Their first choice was naturally Mahatma Gandhi whose name had become household word among the people of Jaffna. He had become a semi-god whose picture was hung in almost all houses in Jaffna.

But they invited Bandaranaike before inviting Mahatma Gandhi because the Jaffna Youth Congress had established links with his Progressive Nationalist Party and his campaign for a federal form of government had also generated interest in him among the educated section of the youths.

Bandaranaike addressed a special meeting of the Jaffna Youth Congress in late 1926 on the federal form of government. He said,

If one considers past history, one would see that the three communities, the Tamils, Low country Sinhalese and the Kandyan Sinhalese, have lived for over a thousand years in Ceylon and had not shown any tendency to merge. They preserved their custom, language and religion. He would be a very rash man who would pin his faith on the gradual disappearance of the differences. The moment they began to speak of taking the government into their own hands then the differences that are lying dormant smoldered forth. A centralized form of government assumed a homogenous whole. I know no part of the world where a government was carried on under such conflicting circumstances as would be experienced in Ceylon.

Kandyans grasp federal idea.

Bandaranaike abandoned the federal idea in 1928 and started fostering Sinhala nationalism but Kandyans grasped it. The Kandyan chiefs who were in the Ceylon National Congress accepted  the 1924 reforms on an undertaking given by the Congress leaders that  no Low Country Sinhalese would contest  the constituencies in the Kandyan province. The Congress leaders did not keep their promise. Kandyans won the election only in three electorates and the rest went to the Low Country Sinhalese.

Disillusioned the Kandyan leaders broke away from the Ceylon National Congress soon after the election and formed the Kandyan National Assembly and started a campaign for autonomy for th Kandyan district. Kandyan fear of Low Country domination surfaced during mid-19th Century when industrious Low Country trading community penetrated into the Kandyan areas and established their trading establishments.

Trade rivalry between the Kandyan and Low Country Sinhalese peaked during the last quarter of the 19th Century and in 1898 Kandyan chief T.B. Panabokke claimed that Ksndyn  Govigamas were the highest Sinhala caste. In 1910 Kandyan chiefs started talking about a separate Kandyan state. John Halangoda claimed that the Kandyans were a different race, and that they needed a separate state. In 1920 Kandyans expressed their fear of being dominated by the Low Country Sinhalese and their leaders  acted as a separate group within the Ceylon National Congress. By 1923 their campaign for separate identity gained strength. Kandyan chiefs said they were the last race in Sri Lanka to fight the British and thus their gallantry and pride should be recognized. They demanded that they should have the right to represent their people in the Legislative Council. They made their acceptance of the 1924 reforms conditional on the acceptance of their right to represent their people.

The Low Country leadership of the Ceylon National Congress pledged to concede their demand by not nominating Low Country candidate for the Kandyan electorates but did not honour it.

The Kandyan National Assembly in its submissions made in November 1927 to the Donoughmore Commission called for a federal state in Ceylon, with autonomy for the Kandyan provinces.

In support of their claim for autonomy the Kandyans submitted that,

  • They were overrun politically, socially and economically by other groups,
  • Non-Kandyans exploited  the unsophisticated Kandyan peasantry, and
  • Representation in governance was being increasingly appropriated by the Low Country Sinhalese.

The Kandyan National Assembly built its case around the Kandyan Convention of 1815, and they refused to accept that the Proclamation of 1818, which followed the Kandyan Rebellion of 1817-1818 against the British presence on their soil, which had made the convention invalid.

P B Nugawela, the president of the Kandyan National Assembly presented before the Donoughmore Commissioners a scheme for a distinct Kandyan nation under a federal scheme for the country. "Ours is not a communal claim or a claim for the aggrandizement of a few; it is a claim of a nation to have the right to live its own life and realize its own destiny," he pleaded.

The Kandyan scheme involved the creation of three states: Kandyan State, Low Country State and Tamil State. They also gave the details of the territories that should constitute those states. Kandyan state would comprise: Central Province, North Central Province, North Western Province, Uva Province and Sabragamuva Province. Low Country state should comprise: Western Province and the Southern Province. Tamil state should comprise: Northern Province and the astern Province.

These three states should have Executive and Legislative Councils, the Kandyan proposal said. The powers to be devolved to the three states were: Legislative power, financial power, regional and local administration, Land, Education, Health and Agriculture. Residual powers should vest with the central government.

While the Kandyans demanded an autonomous state within a federal country Tamil leaders demanded safeguards within the unitary state. Tamil youths who were under the Ramanathan- Arunachalam influence and the magic spell of Indian nationalism wanted full independence for th country. They took up the task of leading the country in which Ramanathan and Arunachalam failed.

Gandhi in Jaffna

 Gandhi’s popularity surged after his release in 1926. Jaffna Youth Congress decided to invite him to tour Jaffna. I.P. Thurairatnam, the secretary of the Youth Congress, a young teacher at the Jaffna College, who later became the founder principal of Tellipalai Union College, wrote to Gandhi inviting him to visit Jaffna. Gandhi replied promptly. His reply:

As at the Ashram, Sabarmati.

3-2-’27.

Dear Friend,

I have your letter. During my visit to the South, I should love to respond to your invitation. But there are many difficulties in the way. If I go to Jaffna, I must go to other places in Ceylon which means quite a few days there. This year I want to devote purely to Khadi work and Khadi collection. If therefore I went to Ceylon I would want to make Khadi collections. The best thing I can therefore do is to forward your letter to Sjt. C. Rajagopalachariar who is organising the tour in the South and let him decide. Please correspond with him. His address is Gandhi Ashram, Tiruchengodu (South India).

Yours sincerely,

M. K. Gandhi

Encouraged, Thurairatnam wrote to Rajagopalachariar and the visit materialized. The program was drawn up allowing Gandhi to spend his first week in Colombo, the second in the hill country and the final four days in Jaffna. The Jaffna Youth Congress undertook the responsibility of organizing the Jaffna stay.

http://www.hindu.com/mag/2003/09/28/images/2003092800160301.jpg

Gandhi addressing the public meeting in Jaffna on November 27, 1927

A reception committee headed by Waithilingam Duraiswamy was appointed and his large house at Clock Tower Road was allocated to accommodate Gandhi and his party which comprised, among others, Rajagopalachari, his daughter and H. M. Desai.

Gandhi traveled to Jaffna from Colombo by the night mail train on November 26, 1927. He was given a tumultuous welcome when the train steamed into the Jaffna station at 7:00 a.m. on November 27. The Ceylon Independent in the report published the next day said, “From six in the morning, crowds began to stream in and by 6.30 the avenues to the station were impassable.”  The report added that a narrow path had to be made to lead Gandhi to the car decorated with flags bearing the spinning wheel.    

On that day and the next three, Gandhi visited over a dozen schools and a similar number of villages. In the mornings Gandhi was taken to the schools and in the afternoon to the villages. In the evenings he addressed groups of the public. At street junctions crowds stopped his car and worshiped him. Women pulled out their bangles and necklaces and offered them as gifts.

Jaffna welcomed Gandhi with enthusiasm and affection. The Jaffna Youth Congress had prepared the people for the grand welcome by whipping up popular enthusiasm. Handy Perimpanayagam, Nesiah, and their group had gone from village to village and collected money for the Khadi Fund. Presenting the purse of Rs. 600 at the meeting at Jaffna College on November 30, Perinbanayagam said, “I went from village to village and collected small cents from hundreds of those villagers who know Gandhiji and his work.”

Gandhi delivered his major address on the evening of November 27 at the Jaffna esplanade. He told the massive crowd that he was delighted to learn about Jaffna’s march towards total prohibition. “It has given me the greatest joy,” he declared,

to discover that you are very nearly on the point of becoming dry. Your closing of the pestilential taverns and liquor dens is a right step in the right direction… It gives me additional joy to have your promise that you are determined to see that in the near future you have attained total prohibition.

Jaffna district went dry in 1922 when Waithilingam Duraiswamy who was an elected member of the Legislative Council moved a resolution seeking approval to close down all liquor taverns and foreign liquor shops. Since then prohibitionists led by the Jaffna Youth Congress intensified their campaign for total prohibition. Anti-prohibitionists too stepped up propaganda. They issued a leaflet during Gandhi’s visit questioning and ridiculing prohibition. They saw to it that a copy of the leaflet reached Gandhi.

The leaflet said prohibition was a failure in America and in other countries that attempted to introduce it. It said prohibition only promoted illicit liquor trade and sneered at Jaffna’s effort, alleging that some of the patrons of prohibition drank on the sly.

Gandhi replied those points in detail.  He said he disagreed with the author of the pamphlet that prohibition had failed in America. He said that that was gradually succeeding. He added that the “brave reformers” who had succeeded in getting the legislation enacted were engaged in consolidating the gains they achieved.

He warned that if the allegation that prohibition campaigners drink on the sly was true the campaign was doomed to fail. “In a cause so eminently just, noble and humane, I hope you will take special precautions to rid yourself of hypocrites,” he said.

Gandhi cautioned the prohibition campaigners about the difficulties that lay ahead of them. The power and money behind the breweries would place numerous obstacles. They should surmount them non-violently, he advised. They should win over the people by persuasion and avoid the use of slightest compulsion. They should codify public opinion through legislation, he said, and added. “… it is the sacred duty of the people to declare that total prohibition by legislation and take all effective steps to enforce that legislation.”

Having attained prohibition, he told its advocates not to sit still. He warned them that anti-prohibitionists were not going to idle. They would keep pressing. Illicit liquor venders would proliferate and destroy the benefits of prohibition. He cautioned again the prohibitionists against impatience and anger.

Gandhi also highlighted two other disturbing features that he had noticed in Jaffna. In his address to the Hindus he spoke of the baneful effects of untouchability, the refusal to admit untouchables into temples, animal sacrifice and dancing in temples.

Gandhi called untouchability “wholly wrong”. He told the Hindus to throw open the temple doors to the untouchables. He said, “If you want to be good Hindus, if you want to worship God, and if you are wise, you will fling the doors of all your temples open to the so-called untouchables.”

He condemned animal sacrifice as inhuman. He declared emphatically, “… it is wrong, sinful, and criminal to sacrifice a single animal for the purpose of gaining any end whatsoever, or for the purpose of propitiating God.” He also condemned temple dancing.

Gandhi stressed in his speeches the virtue of religious tolerance. He said all religions had enriched mankind. “Personally, I do not regard any of the great religions of the world as false,” he said.

Gandhi told the Hindus that they had the right to control the education of their children and welcomed the formation of the Hindu Board. He told them not to quarrel with the missionary schools or conduct a campaign of hatred against them. He disapproved the campaign which called the Hindus not to send their children to Christian schools. He told the Hindus to adopt the better approach of improving their schools and attracting the students. “I can see no reason whatsoever for the mutual jealousies in matters of education,” he said.

Gandhi’s visit and his speeches invigorated the Jaffna peninsula, especially the Jaffna Youth Congress whose members he addressed on November 27, the first day of the visit. He spoke on the main objective of the Congress, the revival of ancient culture. He gave two main messages – they should go for the revival of the ancient values that are common to all religions and those that are not inconsistent with modern life as it should be lived. He told them that the revival of ancient values should not in any way cause religious rivalries and conflicts.

As Thurairatnam records in his memoirs, Jaffna Youth Congress activists ‘sat at the feet of Mahatma’ in the evenings and discussed their future activities and possible organizational reforms. Gandhi suggested that they broad-base their organization to embrace all youths and to launch social reforms as a measure of drawing the people into their fold. They acted on his advice and adopted a wider program of work and held the 1928 annual sessions at Ananda College, Colombo.

The Jaffna Youth Congress set up a group that drew up the work program which focused on social reforms and economic development. The social reform activity centered around the problems of equal seating of students in schools and economic development activity. It gave priority the improvement of the lot of the workers and peasants of the Jaffna district.

Next: This chapter will be continued.

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Index

Introduction

Chapter 1: The Context

Chapter 2: Origins of Racial Conflict

Chapter 3: Emergence of Racial Consciousness

Chapter 4: Birth of the Tamil State

Chapter 5: Tamils Lose Sovereignty

Chapter 6: Birth of a Unitary State

Chapter 7: Emergence of Nationalisms

Chapter 8: Growth of Nationalisms

Chapter 9: Religious Revival

Chapter 10: Parallel Growth of Nationalisms

Chapter 11: Consolidation of Nationalisms

Chapter 12: Consolidation of Nationalisms (Part 2)

Chapter 13: Clash of Nationalisms

Chapter 14: Clash between Nationalism Intensifies

Chapter 15: Tamils Demand Communal Representation

Chapter 16: The Arunachalam Factor 

Chapter 17: The Arunachalam Factor (Part 2)

Chapter 18: The First Sinhala - Tamil Rift

Chapter 19: The Birth and Death of the Jaffna Youth Congress

Chapter 20: The Birth and Death of the Jaffna Youth Congress (Part 2)