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Sri Lankan Tamil Struggle

Chapter 21: Tamils Took the Wrong Road

by T. Sabaratnam, January 29, 2011
A journalist who reported the Sri Lankan ethnic crisis for over 50 years

Ramanathan realized the danger the Donoughmore Constitution posed for the minority communities, especially for the Tamils. He realized that universal suffrage and territorial representative system would result in the concentration of state power in the hands of the Sinhalese and unleashed his onslaught against the adoption of those two recommendations. But his attack was stronger against adult suffrage as he felt it went against the caste system prevalent in Jaffna...

All minority groups opposed the Donoughmore Constitution. The All-Ceylon Tamil League which opposed it at the start saying that the abolition of the communal principle coupled with the universal franchise proposal would mean "death to the minorities", as the Sinhalese would receive over 50% of the seats changed its stand in 1929. It said it welcomed universal suffrage, which was progressive and demanded that the Tamils should be given additional seats by the Delimitation Commission...

While [Ramanathan] was serving as the nominated member of the Legislative Council the change in the ratio of representation of the Sinhalese and the Tamils began to surface. The ratio which was one Sinhalese to one Tamil from 1833-1888 began to alter to two Sinhalese to one Tamil.  When that occurred in 1888 Ramanathan failed to realize that the Tamils who were numerically smaller should  prepare themselves to accept their minority status and work out their safeguards.

Tamils back Sri Lankan Nationalism

The Donoughmore Commission report was published in June 1928. It recommended a semi-responsible government. The central features of the recommendation were the territorially elected State Council with seven executive committees and universal suffrage.

At the commencement of its first sessions the State Council would divide itself into seven committees; each of which would be responsible for a public department. Each committee would elect its own Chairman who would be called a Minister. The seven ministers so elected with the three British officials formed the Board of Ministers. The Board of Ministers elected its leader who was called the Leader of the State Council.

City of Colombo in 1910

Sinhalese and Tamils reacted in to the recommendations in different ways. The Sinhalese opinion was divided. Some of the leaders of the Ceylon National Congress were unhappy with the committee system, the appointment of three British officials to the Board of Ministers, the handing of the important departments of Defence, Finance and Justice to them and the retention and strengthening of the Governor’s reserve powers. They were also opposed to granting of franchise to the Indians.

The majority of the members of the Ceylon National Congress led by D.B. Jayatilleke and D.S. Senanayake were supportive of the Donoughmore Constitution. They saw in it an advantage for the Sinhalese

Goonasinha’s Labour Union and Marcus Fernando’s Unionist Association supported the Donoughmore Constitution. They accepted the position that the grant of universal suffrage and territorial representation benefitted the Sinhalese. They were prepared to work under the reformed constitution and consolidate the gains Sinhalese derived from it.

The general position the Sinhalese took was to accept the Donoughmore Commission constitution and to bargain with the British administration to improve it. The two areas on which they concentrated their attention were: to demand a cabinet model of government in place of the committee system and to introduce more restrictions on the granting of voting rights for the Indians.

Tamil opinion was united in that they rejected the report outright but for different reasons. The political leadership rejected adult suffrage and territorial representation because they, taken together, helped passage of state power into the hands of the Sinhalese. Radical Tamil youths headed by the Jaffna Youth Congress rejected it for its failure to grant Poorna Swaraj (full freedom) to the country.  

Ramanathan who headed the traditional leadership took a stern stand against the Donoughmore report. He denounced it as ‘utter stupidity.” He took the commission’s decision to grant universal suffrage and to abolish the communal representation as a personal challenge.

Ramanathan realized the danger the Donoughmore Constitution posed for the minority communities, especially for the Tamils. He realized that universal suffrage and territorial representative system would result in the concentration of state power in the hands of the Sinhalese and unleashed his onslaught against the adoption of those two recommendations. But his attack was stronger against adult suffrage as he felt it went against the caste system prevalent in Jaffna. He said repeatedly that giving voting rights to non-vellalas breached Hindu doctrines.

When the report was presented to the British parliament in July 1928 a storm broke out. Winston Churchill, Lloyd George and Page-Croft launched a campaign against it. Lord Rothemere, the owner of the newspaper group Associated Newspapers made use of his tabloid paper Daily Mail to attack the Donoughmore Constitution. Rothemere also published two pamphlets on the Donoughmore Constitution. They were 'Britain’s Folly' written by J.G. Wall and 'Ceylon - A Mistake' written by B. Muirhead.

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike wrote a long critique of the two books and ridiculed the authors saying, “If Donoughmore Constitution had done nothing else, it has at least succeeded in helping a few unknown British scribblers to emerge painfully and laboriously into the limelight.”

The focus of the attack on the Donoughmore Constitution in Britain was the granting of adult suffrage. At that time Britain had introduced adult suffrage for men but for women the voting rights were limited to those of over 35 years with a small property qualification. In India adult suffrage was not even thought of. The Government of India Act of 1935 which granted considerable reforms too failed to give adult suffrage. Indians got adult suffrage only in 1950, two years after Indian independence. Churchill campaigned against the granting of adult suffrage to Sri Lankans because it would provoke the Indians and other colonies to demand it.

Ramanathan was encouraged by the intense opposition in Britain against the Donoughmore Constitution, especially against adult suffrage. He travelled to London by ship to present his opposition to the Donoughmore Constitution. He presented his arguments against the granting of universal rights to W.R. Malcolm of the Colonial Office. Malcolm was not impressed by Ramanathan’s submissions. He told the aging Sri Lankan Tamil leader that the global trend was to empower the people by granting voting rights. He assured Ramanathan that the fears of the minority communities had been taken care of through the introduction of the committee system and by the retention of the powers of the Governor which included the power to veto legislation discriminatory to the minorities.

Ramanathan returned crestfallen. He never recovered from that defeat. But he did not give up his battle against the Donoughmore Constitution. He issued a strong statement castigating the Donoughmore report as “a dangerous exercise that would plunge the country into bloodshed”.

The report led to a series of debates in the Legislative Council and outside. On September 27, 1928, E W Perera moved in the Council the following motion: "That this Council is of the opinion that government by committee is not suited to the local conditions and unacceptable to the people, and recommends that all the duties and responsibilities proposed to be assigned to each committee should be assigned to a minister elected by the Council." The Council adopted the motion with an overwhelming majority.

Ramanathan also moved a motion condemning the Donoughmore Constitution for abolishing communal representation. It called for the racial- based representation.  H M Macan Markar seconded it. A Canagaratnam moved an amendment to Ramanathan’s motion which called for the preservation of the existing proportion of representation between the Sinhalese and the minorities. All but one Sinhalese member voted against the motion.

Ramanathan opened the debate with a long speech. He opposed territorial representation, as well universal suffrage. He said, "For the simple reason that ignorance must not be put on the same level with knowledge and that the ignorant, excitable man is an awful danger to the country, but a man with knowledge is a good asset to it."

All minority groups opposed the Donoughmore Constitution. The All-Ceylon Tamil League which opposed it at the start saying that the abolition of the communal principle coupled with the universal franchise proposal would mean "death to the minorities", as the Sinhalese would receive over 50% of the seats changed its stand in 1929. It said it welcomed universal suffrage, which was progressive and demanded that the Tamils should be given additional seats by the Delimitation Commission.

Voting rights of Indian Tamils

While this process was on Sinhalese leaders concentrated their attack on the voting rights of the Indian Tamils. As I have already pointed out in the last chapter the Donoughmore Commission recommended that all British subjects who had lived in Sri Lanka continuously for five years were entitled to register themselves as voters. It placed the restriction that they should not have been absent from the country for a total period of more than eight months. They justified this restriction saying that voting rights should only be granted to those who had the intention of settling permanently in Sri Lanka and had an abiding interest in the country. Thus the Donoughmore Commissioners made “permanent settlement”’ and “abiding interest” the tests for obtaining voting rights. By these requirements alone the section of the Indian migrants who lived temporarily in Sri Lanka lost their voting rights. Most important among them were the merchants and the floating and seasonal labourers.

The Sinhalese leaders, especially those of the Ceylon National Congress, were unhappy even with these restrictions. D.S. Senanayake who had risen to the leadership in the Ceylon National Congress argued that  Indian Tamils enjoyed the protection of the Indian government and thus were not entitled to Sri Lankan citizenship and voting rights.

By this argument they referred to the Indian legislation Indian Immigrants Labour Ordinance No. 1 of 1923 which required all countries that employed Indian labour improve their living conditions. This legislation was enacted by the Indian government due to the pressure exerted by the Indian National Congress which wanted India to intervene on behalf of the Indian immigrant labour. Sri Lanka enacted legislation in 1926 directing the plantation managements to improve the living conditions of the Indian workers.

D.S. Senanayake and D.B. Jayatilleke argued that since India looked after their welfare Indian labourers were the concern of India and citizenship and voting rights should not be conferred on any of them. India vehemently rejected that position and argued that all those who were permanently settled in Sri Lanka were entitled  to Sri Lankan citizenship and voting rights.

Mudaliyar Don Spater Senanayake and family
Mudaliyar Don Spater Senanayake with son-in-law F.H. Dias-Bandaranaike, sons Don Stephen Senanayake, Don Charles Senanayake and F.R. Senanayake, daughter Maria Frances and wife Dona Catherina Elizabeth Perera

D.S. Senanayake and his group also argued that if the Indian Tamils were granted voting rights they would win most of the Kandyan electorates and the Kandyan people would lose representation in the State Council. In 1924, the total number of Indian immigrants in Sri Lanka was 786,000 of which 630,000 were in the estates.

Leaders of the minority communities spoke in the Legislative Council in support of granting voting rights to the Indian Tamils. The Ceylon Indian representative Natesa Iyer led the campaign. He was supported by A Mahadeva  and T.B. Jayah.

Sir Hebert Stanley (1927-1931), the Governor, realizing that the support of the Sinhala members of the Legislative Council could not be obtained to implement the Donoughmore Constitution without modifying its recommendation about voting rights for Indian Tamils suggested to Sidney Webb, Secretary of State for Colonies, that domicile should be adopted as the standard test for inclusion of one’s name in the electoral register.

Governor Stanley adopted the recommendation of Sydney Webb and issued guidelines that Indians who were domiciled in Sri Lanka be registered as voters. Domicile is a stricter test than permanent residence because it involves the notion of permanent, legal residence. Many Indians found it difficult to satisfy the domicile requirement.

According to the guidelines laid down by Governor Stanley those who failed to satisfy the domicile requirement could apply for a certificate of permanent settlement that would entitle them to vote. But they should also satisfy educational and property qualifications. These requirements helped the wealthy Indians to obtain the right to vote but poor plantation workers found it difficult to satisfy them.

While obtaining the certificate of permanent settlement the applicants were required to renounce any claim to special protection by the Government of India. This dissuaded most of the Indian labourers from applying for the certificate of permanent settlement. D.S. Senanayake and his group had thus made it difficult for the majority of the Indian labourers to obtain voting rights and waited till the introduction of the Soulbury Constitution to deprive the Indian Tamils of their voting rights entirely.

The modified formula for voting rights of the Indian Tamils was included in the draft Donoughmore Constitution and was placed before the Legislative Council on December 5, 1929 for approval. Sir Bernard Bourdillon, the Chief Secretary, moved, "That in the opinion of the Council, it is desirable in the interest of Ceylon that the constitutional changes recommended by the special commissioners on the constitution, with modifications indicated by the Secretary of State's dispatch of October 10, 1929 should be brought into operation."

Ramanathan opened the debate. As he did in the earlier debate he opposed territorial representation and adult suffrage. He argued that the Donoughmore Constitution would deprive the Tamil people of their basic rights. “Under the Donoughmore Tamils no more,” he sloganized. 

The Donoughmore Report was adopted in December 1929 by a narrow margin of two votes; 19 unofficial members voting for and 17  unofficial members voting against. The Sinhalese members E W Perera and C W W Kannangara voted against and E R Tambimutu, member for Batticaloa voted for the adoption of the Donoughmore Constitution.

In early 1930, a weak and frail Ramanathan summoned a meeting of Tamil leaders and intellectuals at Ramanathan College Hall. In a voice choked with emotion he told them, "Gentlemen, dangerous times are ahead of us. The Donoughmore commissioners have framed a constitution which will be the ruin of the country. The uninstructed masses will henceforth choose your rulers ... I see before my eyes a surging mob. Before ... the future of our Tamils is in peril."

Ramanathan died on November 26, 1930 but Tamils did not abandon the wrong track of Sri Lankan nationalism along which he took them. Jaffna Youth Congress led them along it for the next four years and G.G. Ponnambalam for the next 15 years before Tamils realized that they were being 'led along the garden path.'

Evaluation of Ramanathan’s Life

Ramanathan served Sri Lanka and the Tamil people for 42 years. He was nominated to the Legislative Council in 1888 and served in it with distinction for ten years. Then he returned to it as the elected Ceylonese member in 1912 and served till 1921 when he became a nominated member. In 1924  he contested and won the Northern Province Northern Division seat which he represented till his death.

During Ramanathan’s long career as a legislator the Sri Lankan political scene underwent tremendous change. While he was serving as the nominated member of the Legislative Council the change in the ratio of representation of the Sinhalese and the Tamils began to surface. The ratio which was one Sinhalese to one Tamil from 1833-1888 began to alter to two Sinhalese to one Tamil.  When that occurred in 1888 Ramanathan failed to realize that the Tamils who were numerically smaller should  prepare themselves to accept their minority status and work out their safeguards.

Instead of accepting the fact that Tamils were a minority community Ramanathan promoted the concept of “founding races” of Sri Lankan society and  tried to gain for the Tamil people the majority states. Thus, from 1888 when the representation of the Tamils was reduced to two Sinhalese to one Tamil Ramanathan led the campaign for equality of representation. When in 1912 with his election to the educated Ceylonese east the when the ratio of representation became equal he was satisfied.

Apart from leading the Tamils to the belief that they are entitled to equal representation in the legislature Ramanathan and his brother Arunachalam inculcated in the minds of the Tamils the sense of Sri Lankan nationalism. Influenced by the Indian freedom struggle they thought in terms of the freedom of Sri Lanka. Though thinking in terms of Sri Lankan nationalism might be understandable during the last quarter of the 19th Century it denotes Ramanathan’s failure to comprehend the developments among the Sinhalese since the beginning of the 20th Century.

Emergence of Anagarika Dharmapala and F.R. Senanayake in the first decade of the 20th Century and the message of Sinhala Buddhism they preached and the emergence of D.S. Senanayake and A.E. Goonesinghe and the consolidation of the state power in the hands of the Sinhala for which they strived made Ramanathan’s thinking of Sri Lankan nationalism irrelevant.

Ramanathan’s fault was that he thought himself as the leader of the country. He never thought that the Sinhalese would assert their right to leadership. Arunachalam realized that in 1921 and moved on to Jaffna to form the Tamil Mahajana Sabhai.  Though Ramanathan moved to the Jaffna peninsula in 1924 to win a seat in the Legislative Council he failed to realize the new trend even then. It took him nine more years. It was only in 1930 he told a meeting he convened at Ramanathan College, “... the future of our Tamils is in peril."

Even then  he was not in a position to suggest a way out. Ramanathan was the only Tamil leader who wielded sufficient influence among the Tamil people to have suggested an alternative to safeguard the Tamil people. He refused to think about federalism even when Bandaranaike and the Kandyan chiefs proposed it. He was so much Colombo centred.

When Ramanathan opposed universal suffrage he went against the global trend. Beginning from 1889 when France adopted it the movement towards universal franchise gathered momentum. In late 19th Century equal and common suffrage became the slogan in Europe. New Zealand (1893), Finland (1906), Norway (1913), Denmark (1915), Canada (1918), Soviet Union (1918) and Germany 1918 provided the impetus for the adoption of universal suffrage. Ramanathan decided to go against the trend as the Donoughmore Commissioners remarked that he was out of tune.

Communal Stirrings

The Sinhala- Buddhist majoritarian trend that began with the emergence of the Anagarika Dharmapala- F.R. Senanayake combination strengthened itself following the publication of the Donoughmore report. D.S. Senanayake who had gained prominence started the constitutional process of consolidating state power in the hands of the Sinhalese. The first step he adopted was to numerically weaken the Tamils.  As noted above his first attack was on the Indian Tamils by denying them citizenship and voting rights.

Goonesinghe opened the second front. He who started as a trade unionist in the early 1920s by embracing the working class without showing racial difference soon became a rabid communalist. In February 1923 he led the strike of Government Railway workers involving about 25,000 workers. It won for the strikers a 20 percent salary rise and other benefits. The strike that went on for five weeks earned the support of the workers of all communities including Tamils and Malayalis who were employed in the port in large numbers.

The central figure in that strike was Natesa Iyer, a Brahmin from Kumbakonam, who migrated to Colombo to work in Arunachalem’s Tamil daily Thesanesan. Being a powerful orator he won the support of the Tamil and Malayalee workers for the strike. He joined Goonesinghe’s Labour Union and rose to the position of vice president.

To his dismay and disappointment Natesa Iyer realized that Goonesighe slid swiftly into the Sinhala extremist group of the Ceylon National Congress in 1928 which was emerging as an alternative to the traditional leadership. Goonesinghe soon launched a campaign against the Indians employed in the harbor and other public institutions in Colombo. He charged that they were the cause for the unemployment of the Sinhalese people. He launched a campaign, “Deport the Indians”. Natesa Iyer resigned from the Ceylon Labour Union and devoted his attention to the plight of the plantation labour. In 1931 Natesa Iyer formed the All Ceylon Estate Labour Federation with headquarters in Hatton.

Social Reform

Like Ramanathan the radical Jaffna Youth Congress too took the Tamil people along the wrong road. Influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian independence movement it led the Tamils into the wilderness from 1931-1934. I will relate that story in the next chapter.

The Jaffna Youth Congress should be given credit for initiating the social reform that lifted the Tamil society from the depths of backwardness into which it had sunk during the early years of the 20th Century. Since its formation in 1924 the Jaffna Students Congress had social reform and economic development as its additional objectives. Of social reform it decided to remove some of the hurdles placed by caste on the people of low caste.  Among those were: promoting of educational opportunities, equal treatment in schools for all students and temple entry.

Spurred by the visits of Gandhi and Periyar which drew large crowds and generated a favourable environment Jaffna Youth Congress activists launched the education promotion movement.  Educationally bent youths like Nesiah, Thurairatnam, J.V. Chelliah, Subramaniam and some others headed by Handy Perinbanayagam concentrated their effort on that field.

The opportunity to launch the education promotion movement arose due to the government’s policy of encouraging universal education and the opposition shown to it by the vellala caste and the conservative Tamil leadership headed by Ramanathan. The Jaffna Youth Congress launched a campaign on three fronts: to make school admission available for all, to allow equal seating for all students and to encourage inter-dining among students.

In 1929, according to a schools report quoted by Morning Star, there existed in the Jaffna peninsula 503 schools. Of them ten were first-class colleges, 55 English schools, 12 Anglo-vernacular schools which were referred as bilingual schools because they had English and Tamil languages as the medium of instruction, and 426 vernacular (Tamil) schools. There was one teacher training college at Kopay.

The campaign for equality in school admission was the result of the denial of admission for children of the paraiah caste, the lowest in the caste ladder of the conservative Jaffna society. The campaign for equal seating was the result of the practice of making the children of low castes to either sit on the ground or to sit separately on chairs a few inches lower than the normal chairs provided for the high caste children. The inter-dining campaign was the result of the practice followed at the Kopay Training College where the trainees of low castes were required to sit at a different table during meals.

Handy Perinbanayagam Perinpanayagam
Handy Perinbanayagam

The Education Department issued a directive in mid-1929 to all schools receiving government grants to allow all students to sit in benches irrespective of their castes. The Vellala caste opposed that move first by keeping their children away from school and then by intimidating, assaulting and burning the houses of the low caste persons who sent their children to school.  In June 1930 vellalars from Urelu, Vasavilan and Punnalaikadduwan sent a petition to the Education Department demanding it rescind the equal-seating directive. Most of the rural schools were closed down because vellala children kept away.

In December 1929 the Kopay Training College stopped providing separate tables for low caste trainees during meals and asked them to sit with the high caste trainees. This created a stir in the Jaffna peninsula and some high caste trainees kept away from lectures. Ramanathan leading a delegation of three people called on the Governor in the first week of January 1930 and urged him to order Kopay Training College to discontinue inter-dining.

The virulent campaign conducted by the Jaffna Youth Congress took away the steam from vellala hostility and encouraged the managements of the Christian schools to continue the implementation of the equal seating order. The chairman of the Hindu Board of Education, S. Rajaratnam and the editor of the Hindu Organ stood by the government decision and refused to yield to the vellala threat.

Youth leaders like Nevins. Selvadurai, Dr. Paul Hensman and J. Hensman commenced organizing the low caste people with the help of the Jaffna Youth Congress and the first such organization was the Depressed Tamils Service League which held its inaugural meeting on the Thai Pongal Day, January 14, 1930. It demanded special representation in the State Council for the depressed classes in the Jaffna.

The intensity of the conflict can be gauged from two documents preserved in the National Archives, London. The first was the memorandum sent by the Leaders of the Villages in Jaffna, Ceylon to the Secretary of State for Colonies, London on June 20, 1930. It was signed by S. Sethupathy of Puttur as president of the Association and by four others.

Their memorandum said,

The change had not been asked by any community or school, though advocated by individuals of rationalistic and communistic tendencies. The change has been considered cyclonic and communistic one intended to disturb the equilibrium of our customs of the country and the caste system, which survived for several ages in spite of the political vicissitudes of the country at frequent intervals. The people of Jaffna are enraged by the action of the government.

The other document was the memorandum sent by N. Selladurai and other members of the Jaffna Depressed Tamils Service League sent to the Secretary of State for Colonies on August 20, 1930.  It also refers to the memorial presented to the Donoughmore Commission in 1928.

In the memorial, representatives of the depressed people stated in detail the hardships they suffered because of the treatment they received under the Hindu Social System. The memorial specifically pointed out “the differential treatment meted out to the children of the depressed classes in government and assisted schools.”

It said,

Owing to the strong caste feeling, children of the depressed classes have now to suffer untold hardships. Some schools have refused to give equal seating on the ground that such a thing is opposed to the immoral customs of the Tamils. In other schools where equal seating is enforced, the high class children have been withdrawn; and in others low caste children have been compelled to leave school by the pressure brought to bear upon their parents who are, in all things but the name, slaves of the high caste people.The Donoughmore Commission which went into this matter recommended, that “equal and adequate facilities should be afforded in schools to the children attending them without distinction of caste, creed or race.

”The Ceylon Government appointed a commission to go into that matter and that ruled that “there should be equal seating in government and assisted schools.” It ordered that children of depressed classes, instead of being made to sit on the floor, should be given equal seats with other pupils.

The government ignored the opposition from the vellalas and the equal seating order was   implemented. The government relied on the campaign launched by the Jaffna Youth Congress to bring about the necessary change in the Jaffna society. The persistent campaign by the Jaffna Youth Congress blunted the opposition and in the course of the next two decades Jaffna society did change to the extent of opening the temples to the depressed classes.

Though the Jaffna Youth Congress succeeded in removing some of the evils from the Jaffna society it led the Tamils along the wrong road, the road which Mahatma Gandhi and the band of young rebels took. The youths of Jaffna failed to realize that they belonged to the minority community and that the majority community, the Sinhalese, had decided to take a DIFFERENT ROAD.

Next: The Dance of the Turkey Cock




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)

Chapter 21: Tamils Take the Wrong Road

Chapter 22: The Dance of the Turkey Cock


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