It Happened 65 Years Ago

When two independent Tamils pawned Eelam rights

So, what’s the price for a Ceylon Tamil politician? If you are a keen student of politics in independent Sri Lanka, the answer is a Cabinet portfolio. For the sake of Cabinet positions, two independent Tamils namely Chellapah Suntharalingam (1895-1985) and Cathiravelu Sittampalam (1898-1964) pawned Eelam rights.

by Sachi Sri Kantha, October 12, 2012

History writing is no mean task these days. Tamils have been so lackadaisical in their history writing in the past and have permitted other ‘tribes’ (adversaries, colonialists and freelancers) to write their version of Tamil history.  Because of this lazy trend, Tamils have suffered.  I try my best to rectify this lapse. I present ‘my interpretation’ to an event which happened 65 years ago.  My views may ruffle the feathers of the progeny of the two independent Tamil politicians.  But, I care the less, as history has to be recorded.

C. Suntharalingam

A long standing universal dictum in politics and business is that ‘Everyone has a price’.  The ‘price’ could be money, a prize award, fellowship, position and even one’s weaknesses (like that of addiction to sex or liquor).  The best practitioner of this dictum in the past was Joe Stalin (1879-1953).    He had admonished his subordinates, ‘If you fail miserably, it’s because you failed in plumbing the mind of your adversary. Even Uncle Sam, in his dealings with foreign diplomats, academics, journalists, businessmen and spies do adhere to this universal dictum.  So, what’s the price for a Ceylon Tamil politician?  If you are a keen student of politics in independent Sri Lanka, the answer is a Cabinet portfolio.  For the sake of Cabinet positions, two independent Tamils namely Chellapah Suntharalingam (1895-1985) and Cathiravelu Sittampalam (1898-1964) pawned Eelam rights.

What I mean by the word ‘independent’ was that, they did not belong to any political party when they contested the 1947 general election, 65 years ago. They represented the peripheral Tamil electorates (Vavuniya and Mannar) of the Northern province. They were groped into the Cabinet by the wily Don Stephen Senanayake (1884-1952). In the photo of the first Cabinet, we see Suntharalingam (in white national costume) at left extreme (front row). On to his left was S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike (in white national costume). Sittampalam is seen at the right side(in white national costume) of the front row. To his right, in the second row was J.R.Jayewardene (in white national costume).

V. Navaratnam’s 1991 version

V. Navaratnam (1910-2006), one of the Federal Party leaders, who was also an MP from 1963 to 1970, published his memoir The Fall and Rise of the Tamil Nation in 1991. In it, he had written as follows:

“D.S.Senanayake had a faithful adviser in the person of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, one of the astutest and wiliest diplomats of the time. Possibly on Goonetilleke’s advice he set about the business of Cabinet-making keeping in mind Britain’s conditions for the grant of independence. He constituted his Cabinet to include Singhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Malay, European and Burgher ministers as representatives of all the communities. C.Sundaralingam, MP for Vavuniya, was the Tamil minister who was supposed to represent the Tamils.

C. Sittampalam

There was considerable opposition in the country against Sundaralingam joining the government. He convened a meeting at the New Town Hall in Colombo to explain to the people why he had accepted D.S.Senanayake’s offer of a Ministry. It turned out to be a particularly boisterous meeting at which the opposition forces led by G.G.Ponnambalam (Jaffna), S.J.V.Chelvanayakam (Kankesanthurai), C.Vanniasingham (Kopay), Dr.E.M.V.Naganathan (Senator) and V.Kumaraswamy (Chavakachcheri), who were the new members of parliament all elected on the newly formed Tamil Congress party ticket, clashed with the supporters of Sundaralingam. The oppositionists demanded that Sundaralingam quit the Cabinet. Sundaralingamstubborned refused, and the meeting broke up in a pandemonium.

One of the first acts of Prime Minister D.S.Senanayake was to introduce a resolution in the Cabinet requesting Britain to grant complete independence. The Cabinet approved it unanimously,C. Sundaralingam gave his consent to signify that the Tamils joined in the request. In December 1947 the United Kingdom parliament enacted the Ceylon Independence Act renouncing forever its right to legislate for Ceylon, and making the legislature in Ceylon the sovereign parliament of an independent nation. On February 4, 1948, in a glittering ceremony at Torrington Square (now renamed Independence Square) in Colombo, the Duke of Gloucester hauled down the Union Jack and hoisted the lion flag of the Singhalese signifying the transfer of power.

That last act Sundaralingam giving his consent constituted the final seal placed on the fate of his people, the Tamil race in Ceylon.  The last remaining shred of a trump card which the Tamils might have used to their advantage at an opportune moment was bartered away by a Tamil minister. By that single act the Tamils changed their rulers, from the British to the Singhalese.” (pp. 41-42)

Chronology between August 1947 and February 1948

Navaratnam’s above version is incomplete. Probably due to memory lapse, and distance of time in recording the events 40 years later, some errors had crept in his account. About this demerit, Navaratnam had acknowledged in his preface, “the writing has had to be done entirely from memory. It is possible that some mistakes in dates or in the sequences of events might have crept in. If there are any I would like to assure that they are quite unintentional and hope that readers will bear with me and be forgiving.”

First Cabinet of Ceylon

Here is the proper chronology.

August 23 to September 20, 1947: The first general elections were held in a staggered sequence to the Ceylon parliament. This was the first time, the elections were fought under a party system.

Sept.8, 1947: Vavuniya constituency polled. C.Suntharalingam (Independent), polling 4,026 votes was the victor by a majority of 2,008 votes. Percentage polled was 55.6%.

Sept.13, 1947: Mannar constituency polled. C.Sittampalam (Independent), polling 5,877 votes was the victor by a majority of 2,496 votes. Percentage polled was 67.7%.

Sept.24, 1947: D.S.Senanayake accepted the prime minister rank from the governor.

Sept.26, 1947: A Cabinet of 14, led by D.S.Senanayake was sworn in at the Queen’s House. Among the 14, Suntharalingam and Sittampalam were the two Tamils. Suntharalingam was assigned the ministry of commerce and trade. Sittampalam was assigned the ministry of posts and telecommunications.

Oct.14, 1947: the first meeting of the House of Representatives held.

Dec.10, 1947: The Ceylon Independence Act 1947 was placed in the roster for debate.

Feb.4, 1948: Ceylon received independence from Britain.

The Lion Flag

According to Professor Kingsley M. de Silva, the hagiographer of J.R. Jayewardene (popularly known as JR, later to be the first executive President of Sri Lanka), JR took the initiative to drift the newly independent Ceylon towards the Sinhalese state, by choosing the lion flag. I quote from his hagiography:

“As late as December 22, 1947, the government had no clear policy on this as evident in the prime minister’s response to a question regarding this raised in the House of Representatives.

A few days later, the MP for Batticaloa, A. Sinnalebbe, gave notice of the following motion – it came up for discussion on 16 January 1948: ‘That this House is of opinion that the Royal Standard of King Sri Wickreme Raja Sinha depicting a yellow lion passant holding a sword in its right paw on a red background, which was removed to England after the Convention of 1815, should once again be adopted as the official flag of free Lanka.’

Few knew at that time, that it was JR who had drafted the resolution and persuaded Sinnalebbe to move it…

The choice of Sinnalebbe as mover of JR’s motion was an astute one. As a Muslim he would have caused some confusion among the Tamils for whom the strongest opposition to the idea of the lion flag as the national flag was anticipated. Secondly, as a notoriously inarticulate MP there was no danger of some unguarded statement of his causing embarrassment if not positive harm to the cause he was chosen to espouse by proxy…” (J.R.Jayewardene of Sri Lanka: a political biography 1906-1956, vol.1, 1988, p. 196)

Cabinet tenures of Suntharalingam and Chittampalam

The irony is that Suntharalingam and Chittampalam did not last long as Cabinet ministers. As both did not belong to any party, Senanayake senior groped them into his cabinet, by showing the carrot of a minister portfolio! Suntharalingam resigned his position on December 13, 1948, after 14 months. Later, to atone for his sin, he promoted himself as a ‘pioneering figure’ of Eylom nation! That’s how he spelled Eelam.  In the past, Dr. Gnanalingam, one of the sons of Suntharalingam, was an acquaintance of mine. This was 27 years ago, when he was a visiting scholar at the University of Illinois. Suntharalingam died in 1985, and I did hear from his son about his journey to Vavuniya to participate at his father’s funeral. Sadly, I have not kept in touch with him since 1986.

Sittampalam held on to his cabinet portfolio until the death of D.S.Senanayake on March 22, 1952.  He retained his portfolio when Senanayake’s son Dudley formed his new Cabinet on March 26, 1952.  But he was dropped, when a new Cabinet was announced on June 2, 1952 by Dudley.  Sittampalam’s tenure as a Cabinet minister lasted little less than 5 years.  As he barely scraped through to a win at the 1952 general election, without the prestige of a ‘minister’, he was defeated at the next general election by his rival Federal Party candidate V.Alegacone.

After 65 years, the roster of names (G.G. Ponnambalam, KanthiahVaithianathan, M. Tiruchelvam, S. Thondaman, V. Nalliah, K.W. Devanayagam, C. Rajadurai, Lakshman Kadirgamar, Douglas Devananda– just a select list) do indicate that the price of a Tamil politician’s head equals a Cabinet position.

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  1. roy

    More Please – I wish more contributors come forward – this is the need of the hour

  2. Vibhushana

    Well, the British took away Sinhale (Ceylon) with the treaty of Kandy. Handed it back to the Sinhale in 1948. The standard reflects this fact. Tamil or Malabar nation is in South India. Malabars or Tamils have been naturalised in Ceylon. Although the Malabar culture will remain foreign. I am not sure why this needs to be so controversial.

    • Angela

      I think you should read some of the other articles on the site about the history of Sri Lanka, before you state that Tamils are foreigners to the country. As far as most historians are concerned, Sri lanka “history” is purely dependent on legends created with mythological elements. Unfortunately not much or any research has been formally conducted on the actual origin of the Sinhalese and the presence of Tamils on the island. I’m not sure if it’s purposely avoided within Sri Lanka due to ethnocentric and chauvinist views of the majority population and their disbelief at ever finding anything as equally credible as their overly venerated myths, but some more rational types from other countries have taken interest in discovering the lost and hidden truth of the country. There are some credible and rational articles here and I’m sure if you take the time to look yourself, that argue that the sinhalese are in fact a Dravidian derived people and they never came from north india to establish anything but were in fact separated from the indigenous Tamil population by religion. Their language is considered indo European due to the emergence of the Tamil dialects of the island with Pali, the liturgical language of Buddhism, which is related to Sanskrit. That being said the Sinhalese were borne from the Tamils, who had long established kingdoms within the islands and who were not limited to Hinduism as their central religion but embraced Buddhism as it spread, thus creating a separate group based solely on religion who spread outward into the south and west of the island. This group was Tamil yet only differed overtime with language and religion. There are many scholars out there that support and argue it, with much historical and archaeological evidence to back up this growing theory, if you just look. Thank you that is all.

      • Vibhushana

        Dear Angela,

        Please allow me to re-iterate. Malabar culture is an import to Celyon. The origins of Tamil cutlure is elsewhere.

  3. ttpian

    Dear Sachi!
    u have gone so deep into the sea:
    I feel,due to negligence,these “DOUBLES” could have done the blunder:
    Now the “PAWN” shop extented upto Delhi by our Tamilnadu Politicians!
    Pity,no one to redeem our Rights?

  4. Batticaloa Tamil

    I would respectfully submit that this article is not constructive. The Tamil people are facing possible annihilation and we ought not to be attacking past Tamil cabinet members. Its time to strategize about the future, forge international alliances and ensure the security of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. I am personally not a fan of Sundaralingam but he was an accomplished person. And no one had let down our people as G.G. Ponnambalam did as he supported D.S. Senanayake’s disenfranchisement of the Indian Tamils in 1948.

    • Dr Arun Vincent

      Dear Batti Tamil,
      Take it from me. GG NEVER voted in favor of Citizenship Act. I hear this from many people who learnt history from Virakesari and Suthanthiran. That was not the reason either for SJV to defect from Tamil Congress. This was the false campaign of Federal Party and so sadly, SJV kept his bloody mouth shut when this false campaign was unleashed against his former leader.

      If you all are really interested to know the truth, read SJV’s son in law’s book on the biography of SJV. As a learned man, Prof. Wilson had given credit to GG and had acknowledged that GG was a great leader of Tamils. But like SJV, GG was not an extremist. In Sangam website you can find the speech GG made to state council in 1947, asking for balanced representation. It was not 50:50. Balanced representation was much different from 50:50.

      In the state council when the independence bill was argued in 1947, GG was in Whitehall, UK fighting with the Lords to delay the grant of independence to Ceylon. He knew then that if independence is granted without adequate protection to Tamils, Sinhalese would over power due to their numbers. Knowing GG’s political sagacity [something SJV totally lacked] DS Senanayke rushed the bill and the TAMIL members voted in favor. On return GG was shocked to learn that his Tamil counterparts had let him down. He went into seclusion out of frustration.

      When he came out, he proposed and eloquently argued for balanced representation which is sarcastically known as 50:50. That also failed. SJV was with GG even at this stage. When everything failed, GG said the only hope is to work with the majority and get the maximum out it. SJV said no. SJV wanted to continue the collision course with the majority. Then came the defection.

      By accepting the ministerial post of Minister of industry, GG developed the north and east which no other person had done as of this day. Had he continued or had he been allowed to continue, north and east would be flourishing today.

      What SJV had done to the Tamils and to the Tamil land? Nothing other than emotionally charging them. The only difference between SJV and VP is that the former advocated only non violence and VP advocated violence. Finally both ended in destruction. At least in death bed, SJV should have acknowledged the wisdom of his leader, GG.

      Again never say that GG voted depriving the citizenship of Tamils of upcountry. Careful when you write something wrong more seriously like this. First learn the history from original sources instead from Tamil tabloids.

      • Nakushta

        Arun, Thank you for putting this important point across. I’m no fan of GG clan. But hi, give the man his due!

  5. Devendra

    It’s equally important to indicate that G G Ponnampalam asked for 50:50 but surrendered his policy when offered a cabinet post and supported the Citizenship Act that deprived upcountry Tamils their representation in parliament. Douglas Devananda fought for Eelam and still call his party Eelam People Democratic Party but support the government in their drive to militarise and Sinhalamise the Tamil speaking province, North-East.

    Tamil leaders fight among themselves to form political parties and lead them but auction themselves for ministerial posts. Mahakavi Barathiyar would have sung,’ when will Tamils’ thirst for party leadership be quenched, when will they stop surrendering their principles for ministerial portfolios’?

  6. It Happened 65 Years Ago- When two independentTamils pawned Eelam rights « Sri Lanka

    […] It Happened 65 Years Ago- When two independentTamils pawned Eelam rights So, what’s the price for a Ceylon Tamil politician? If you are a keen student of politics in independent Sri Lanka, the answer is a Cabinet portfolio. For the sake of Cabinet positions, two independent Tamils namely Chellapah Suntharalingam (1895-1985) and Cathiravelu Sittampalam (1898-1964) pawned Eelam rights. by Sachi Sri Kantha, October 12, 2012 History writing is no mean task these days. Tamils have been so lackadaisical in their history writing in the past and have permitted other ‘tribes’ (adversaries, colonialists and freelancers) to write their version of Tamil history.  Because of this lazy trend, Tamils have suffered.  I try my best to rectify this lapse. I present ‘my interpretation’ to an event which happened 65 years ago.  My views may ruffle the feathers of the progeny of the two independent Tamil politicians.  But, I care the less, as history has to be recorded. […]

  7. Sachi Sri Kantha

    May I comment on the thoughts of Batticaloa Tamil (Oct.23)? I have answered your doubts in the very first paragraph. Whether my commentary is constructive or destructive, it is for each reader to decide. History needs to be written by the Tamils and I cannot please each Tamil.

    Critic Vibushana (Oct.20), I guess is a non-Tamil. For the benefit of this correspondent, I cite the following lines from Silva’s ‘A History of Sri Lanka (1981). “The British did not set up a unified administrative system for the whole island till 1832…The Colebrooke-Cameron reforms of 1832 provided the legislative and administrative (including judicial) framework for Sri Lanka’s unification” (p.235). The Sinhala lion flag never reached Jaffna and Batticaloa until 1832. I also want to make a comment on the chosen pen-name Vibushana. Vibishana (a sibling of King Ravana), from which I guess you have adopted your name, is considered as a traitor in epic Ramanayana, who switched sides. As such, his name has suffered historically and no child is given this traitor’s name among the Hindus.

    • Vibhushana

      You are correct. It was the Union Jack that reached these parts in 1832.

  8. Chula Rajapakse

    Tamil people have little to complain about regards their treatment by the British
    They were the favoured minority of the “Devide & Rule” , British colonial policy while the Sinhales were the victimised majority.
    Any attempt to rectify this victimisations have been resisted by Tamil leaders with two Velupullais, first V Chelvanayakam & then V Prabakaran , offering the greatest resistance the former with the pen and the latter with the sword.

    Now, time has come to bury the hatchet and move together as one Sri Lanka nation led by the first leader of post independent sri Lanka who is articulate in all three languages , English, Tamil and Sinhalese and committed to the cause of developing all of Sri Lanka as a happy home land for all of it’s peole as Sri Lankans , irrespective of ethnicity .

    Let us all join him and support him in this effort, as this would be what is best for all .