Does (or When is) History Going to Repeat Itself in Sri Lanka?

 by Dr. Victor Rajakulendran, Sydney, Australia

From the time Britain started to negotiate with the Sri Lankan (former Ceylonese) legislators to hand over the governance of the country to them, Tamil legislators have been negotiating first with the British authorities, and later with the Singhalese authorities, to get parity of status for the Tamils with the Singhalese, in governing the country. British authorities, based on the goodwill that prevailed at that time between the Singhalese and Tamil legislators of the then State Council, assumed that the numerically superior Singhalese would not treat the numerically inferior Tamils as second class citizens. British authorities agreed to grant full independence to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) only if Tamil legislators also accepted the new constitution.

At this point in time Tamil nationalism was represented by the Tamil leader G. G. Ponnampalam who had popular support at the grassroots level. He advocated a formula for balanced representation for all the communities in the future legislature. Under his proposal, which later came to be known as G.G. Ponnambalam's Fifty Fifty Demand, 50% of the seats in the new legislature would be allocated to Singhalese and the remaining 50% would be allocated to the rest of the communities, so that no one community would be in a position to dominate such a legislature. Although he did not succeed in convincing the Soulbury commission that was holding hearings on the proposed constitution, history presented the first opportunity for the Tamils after nearly 400 years of foreign occupation and rule to regain their lost freedom.

In neighbouring India a minority (Muslims) under similar circumstances availed itself of a similar opportunity and found protection by establishing a separate state (Pakistan). The Singhalese leaders in the State Council mustered all their powers of persuasion to urge their Tamil counterparts to accept the scheme proposed by the Board of Ministers. Because all the Tamil legislators at that time were drawn almost entirely from Colombo's affluent Tamil society, which was more concerned with preserving the status quo of its interest rather than the interests of the wider Tamil community, they succumbed to this persuasive power of their Singhalese counterparts. As a result, the British authorities installed the Soulbury constitution as the first constitution of the Dominion of Ceylon under the British Crown. This constitution provided for a unitary type of government in Sri Lanka where the legislative power remained with the one-layered government that was in Colombo.

D.S. Senanyake became the first Prime Minister of the first government under this constitution. One of the first acts of PM D.S. Senanayake was to introduce a resolution in the Cabinet requesting Britain to grant complete independence. When D.S. Senanayake was negotiating for a new constitution with the British authorities he was pressing for full independence. At that time he was told by British authorities that after the general elections under the new constitution, if all the important communities jointly make such a request Britain would consider granting full independence. In anticipation of this D.S. Senanayake constituted his first cabinet to include Singhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Malay, European and Burgher Ministers as representatives of all the communities. The cabinet approved the resolution requesting independence, and the Tamil Minister, C. Sundaralingam, gave his consent to signify that the Tamils joined in the request. Later, when the constitution was misused by the Singhalese government, Sundaralingam issued public statements that, if he had not given his consent to the independence request, Britain would never have granted it, and the Tamils would not be in the plight in which they find themselves today. By this single act of this Tamil Minister the rulers of Tamils were changed from the British to Singhalese in 1948.

D.S. Senanayke was quick to resort to measures to consolidate and strengthen the power of his Singhalese people. By passing two pieces of legislation, one after the other, in parliament, first he made the majority of the Tamils who were working in the plantations lose their citizenship and then he disfranchised the same people to reduce the numerical strength of the Tamil legislators in parliament.

Tamil legislators under the leadership of S.J.V. Chelvanayakam of the Federal Party carried out a Ghandian-style political struggle for Tamil rights. In 1955, when General Elections were round the corner and Kotelawala, the then PM, made his pronouncements in Jaffna about the need for parity of status for Singhala and Tamil. S.W.R.D Bandaranaike (SWRD), the assassinated father of the present President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumarathunga, who was in the opposition, seized the opportunity. He announced immediately that, if he were elected PM, he would make Singhala the only official language throughout the whole country within 48 hours. To counteract this Kotelawala


Posted October 1, 2003