‘Honorable wounds of war’
by K T Rajasingham, ‘Asian Tribune,’ Singapore
“If Sinhalese lips will not speak the Sinhalese language, who else is there to speak? How is a nation to be lifted out of error, reformed and advance into plains of higher knowledge, except by its own language?”
These were the words of Sir Ponnampalam Ramanathan, the great patriot, scholar and respected Ceylonese leader and a veteran statesman. On September 3, 1904, in a speech at Ananda College, he reproached the Sinhalese elite for discarding and ignoring their language. His speech was acclaimed as the landmark in the history of Ceylon nationalism.
Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, an American, arrived in Ceylon in 1880, and founded the Buddhist Theosophist Society. It worked for the revival of Buddhism, Buddhist institutions and for the propagation of Buddhist education. Olcott, along with Sir P. Ramanathan, were the Joint Treasurers of the Society, which raised funds for the furtherance of the Buddhist education in Ceylon.
With funds collected and with the able help of Sir P Ramanathan, Olcott founded the first Buddhist school, Ananda College, on November 1, 1886. The first principal was C W Lead-Beater. In 1887 he founded the Dharmaraja College in Kandy, with Andris de Silva as the first principal.
Olcott invited Sir P. Ramanathan, who was at the time the Solicitor-General of Ceylon, to deliver an address at Ananda College. In introducing his guest, Olcott said, “From the time that the Buddhists of Ceylon began to take into their own hands the education of their youths, we have had a staunch friend and cooperator in the person of my friend Sir Ponnampalam Ramanathan, the Solicitor-General of Ceylon. He is here now and I call him to address the assembly.”
Sir P Ramanathan made a thought-provoking and soul-stirring speech, on the “De-nationalization of the Sinhalese.” He castigated those Sinhalese who were addicted to Western culture, civilization and the English language and for ignoring the Sinhala language. He upbraided them and posed a question to the congregation, “Will you tell me what constitutes a Sinhalese?” Not knowing the answer, those assembled remained silent. He then asked, “Do you take delight in speaking the beautiful Sinhala language, at your homes and among your friends, whom you meet in railway carriages and other places and on public platforms?”
In the course of his speech, he admonished the Sinhalese “for the purposes of practical politics, nationality must be maintained. For the sake of the people, then if not for your own sake, you must take delight in the Sinhalese language.
“I feel that every Sinhalese man, every Tamil man, who knows what he is about, should protest against the de-nationalization that is going on in this country. They should come forward to protect their age-old languages – Sinhala and Tamil. If a Sinhalese man ignores his language and does not come forward to speak in his proud language, then he is not a Sinhalese.”
This is how, Sir P Ramanathan spoke and made the Sinhalese, who were after Western way of life, to think and uphold their language, religion and customs. He brought about a Sinhalese renaissance in their midst, when Sinhalese leaders such as S W R D Bandaranaike, who was in London to continue his higher education, publicly admitted, on his return to the country, in March 1925, “The first thing I must do is to apologize to you for speaking to you in English. I am not fluent in Sinhalese to be able to address you in Sinhalese at length.” – Speeches and writings of S W R D Bandaranaike,pages 82-83.
It was undoubtedly the Tamil leaders who made the Sinhalese understand and uphold the Sinhala language and their religion. The contribution of the Tamils towards this cherished goal was unrewarding. Unfortunately, there was not one Sinhalese leader of distinction who ever came forward to look into the interest of the Tamils. Up to date it is highly impossible to name one Sinhalese leader to be acclaimed as a statesmen of any repute in this country.
The Sinhalese even found it infra dignitatem to claim a Tamil as his brethren. An episode painfully described by V Navaratnam, one of the founder members of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi and a former Member of Parliament, in his The Fall and Rise of Tamil Nationalism – Pages 110-111, is given below to explain the attitude of the Sinhalese towards the Tamils:
“The days when the Singhalese [sic] and the Tamils regarded themselves as brethren of a common motherland were gone. An episode which occurred 10 years later registered itself in my mind as further evidence of the change.
“Soon after Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake formed his government in 1965, with the Federal Party’s [ITAK] help, the Federal Party arranged a reception in Jaffna for minister J R Jayewardene and his Parliamentary Secretary, C A Atapattu. It was followed by a mass meeting at Kankesanthurai, in Chelvanayakam’s constituency, which was addressed by Jayewardene and Atapattu. Jayewardene called on me to interpret his English speech in Tamil, for the benefit of the audience, which was entirely Tamil. I had also to interpret Atapattu, who spoke in Singhala [sic]. He commenced his speech saying in Singhala ‘nonamahathuruni mahathuruni’ [ladies and gentlemen].
“By force of habit, I translated in Tamil sahodarargale, sahodarigale[brothers and sisters], which was certainly not a direct translation, but which are words current in Singhala usage. Atapattu promptly protested ‘No, no,’ and then as realizing the implication, corrected himself immediately and said ‘Let it pass’. It was a very trivial matter, but it showed an attitude of mind that was indicative of the change that was taking place in Singhalese-Tamil relations. His first instinct was not to be inclined to appear addressing Tamils as brothers and sisters.
“It was symptomatic of the change amongst all the Singhalese leaders. No prime minister, from D S Senanayake downwards, has ever used the inclusive ‘we’ while addressing a Tamil audience in the North or the East. It has always been, and still is, the practice of every one of them to use the words ‘you’ and ‘we’ meaning, you the Tamils and we the Singhalese. The audience was always made to feel that, though prime minister of the country as a whole, he or she was standing before them as representative of the Singhalese people only. It is no doubt, an unconscious habit, but it springs from the inherent instinct of the Singhalese leaders.”
After analyzing the attitudes of the Tamils and the Sinhalese with the above two episodes, the issue of the language has to predominate. In earlier chapters it has been pointed out that there has always existed a Tamil kingdom, and at times one Sinhalese kingdom, or more than one. However, Tamil was the official language of the Tamils in the Tamil kingdom, from the very olden days, up to 1621, the year Tamils’ sovereignty ended after the capture of the Tamil kingdom by the Portuguese.
Despite colonial occupation, however, Tamil remained the language that was in force with the colonial administrators of the Tamil kingdom. In the Sinhalese kingdoms, when the Sinhalese language was not fully evolved as a language, several Sinhalese kings adopted Tamil as the official language of the king’s court, and subsequently Sinhalese gradually evolved into the official language, yet the Pali language predominated it.
Even after the capture of the Tamil regions by the British, around 1813, Sir Robert Brownrigg, the governor, recommended to the secretary of state for colonies that the whole area to the North and East, a line drawn from Puttalam to Batticaloa, should be administered in the Tamil language. Brownrigg wanted Tamil to be used in this area, just as Sinhalese was to be used in the southern parts of Ceylon.
Lieutenant-Colonel W M G Colebrooke one of the Royal Commissioners of Inquiry upon the Administration of Ceylon, in his report dated December 24, 1831, addressed to Viscount Goderich, one of the Principal Secretaries of State, wrote, “In the course of my proceedings I have had occasion to recur to the experience I had acquired during my former residence in India. Although administered by the Crown, the island of Ceylon was originally a Hindu province, and from not having been subject to the inroads of the Mahomedans [sic], it offers at this day the most perfect example to be met with of the ancient system of Hindu government.”
After the implementation of the Colebrooke Commission Report, Ceylon was brought under one central administration by the British, for the purpose of administrative convenience. Accordingly, the whole country began to be administered through the medium of English as the only official language.
During the State Council days, councilors showed an interest in the national languages. For the first time, it was moved that the councilors should have the option to speak in the language of their choice. G K W Perera, representing Matara, moved a motion in the State Council on March 9, 1932:
“That Rule 105 of the Standing Orders be amended to read as follows: The business of the council shall be conducted in English, but any member may, during a debate, move for leave of the council, to speak in Sinhalese or Tamil.”
The Committee on the Standing-Orders was directed by the State Council, to report on this Motion. On June 9, 1932, the Committee reported against the adoption of the amendment. When E W Perera, Member for Horana, dissented, the State Council referred the motion back to the Committee for further consideration. On November 22, 1932, the Committee again reported to the State Council, stating that it saw no reason to alter the views expressed previously. After debate, the motion was voted upon and the result was as follows: Ayes, 32; Noes, 12; Declined to vote, 2; Majority 20. A two-thirds majority was required by Article 26 (2) of the Ceylon (State Council) Order in Council-1931, for any amendment to Standing Order 105. As it was not obtained, the motion was not adopted.
The question of the extensive use of the national languages was taken up by G K W Perera, on July 5, 1932. He gave notice that the council resolves:
- That no persons shall in future be appointed into the civil or clerical service who fails to reach a high standard in Sinhalese or Tamil;
- That no officer in the civil or clerical service shall receive promotion until and unless he showed proficiency in Sinhalese or Tamil;
- That no person shall be appointed as police magistrate or to preside in the higher criminal courts unless he proved his ability to conduct and record proceedings in Sinhalese or Tamil;
- The lawyers be permitted to conduct criminal trials in Sinhalese or Tamil.The first three motions were referred to the Chief Secretary and the fourth to the attorney-general. As the attorney-general had not sent in his report when the council was dissolved in 1935, the motion lapsed.The next attempt was to extend the use of the national languages was made by D P R Gunawardana, the member for Avissawala, who moved in the State Council the following motion:”In view of the grave hardships and injustices attending the loss of accuracy in the interpretation and re-interpretation of questions and answers in the court proceedings, this Council is of the opinion that in the municipal and police courts of the island, the proceedings should be conducted in the vernacular.”
This motion was referred to the Legal Secretary and he reported against its acceptance, on January 28, 1937. The council debated this report and on the 29th, and by a majority of 30, votes accepted the motion, subject to the amendment that it be implemented within a period of three years. A few years later, D P R Gunawardana moved another motion, which read:
“In view of the frequent defeat of the ends of justice caused by inaccuracy in recording police station entries in English, by policemen and sergeants, who are proficient neither in the vernacular nor in English, this council is of the opinion that entries made at police stations should be recorded in the language in which they are originally stated.”
The Executive Committee of the Home Affairs reported against the acceptance of the motion, but the State Council after debate, accepted it on February 9, 1939, by a majority of 11 votes.
The next attempt was more fundamental than all the previous attempts by the State Council to make Sinhalese the official language of the country, when on June 22, 1943, J R Jayewardene, the member for Kelaniya, gave notice of the motion: “That with the object of making Sinhalese as the official language of Ceylon, within reasonable number of years, this council is of the opinion:
- That Sinhalese should be made the medium of instruction in all schools;
- That Sinhalese should be made a compulsory subject in all public examinations;
- That legislation should be introduced to permit the business of the State Council to be conducted in Sinhalese also;
- That a commission should be appointed to choose for translation and to translate books of other languages into Sinhalese;
- That a commission should be appointed to report on all steps that need be taken to effect the transition from English to Sinhalese.”H W Amarasuriya, member for Galle, seconded the motion. Amendments moved to the motion were:(1) By C W W Kannangara, member for Matugama and the Minister of Education: “That the medium of instruction in schools should be the mother-tongue, to be substituted for paragraph (a) of the Motion.” This amendment was withdrawn, as the amendment of V Nalliah, member Trincomalee-Batticaloa, was put to the council first. V Nalliah’s motion insisted (2) “that the words ‘and Tamil’ be added after the word ‘Sinhalese’ and wherever the word ‘Sinhalese’ occurs”.Accordingly, the amended motion was taken up for discussion in the State Council: “That with the object of making Sinhalese and Tamil as the official language of Ceylon, within reasonable number of years, this council is of the opinion:
- That Sinhalese and Tamil should be made the medium of instruction in all schools;
- That Sinhalese and Tamil should be made a compulsory subject in all public examinations;
- That legislation should be introduced to permit the business of the State Council to be conducted in Sinhalese and in Tamil also;
- That a commission should be appointed to choose for the translation and to translate books of other languages into Sinhalese and Tamil;
- That a commission should be appointed to report on all steps that need be taken to effect the transition from English to Sinhalese and Tamil.”The motion was taken up for discussion on May 24, 1944. During the debate on the motion, J R Jayewardene said, “I wish to speak a word of explanation with regard to my desire to include ‘Tamil also’. I had always had the intention that Tamil should be spoken in the Tamil-speaking provinces and that Tamil should be the official language in the Tamil-speaking provinces. But, as two-thirds of the people in this country speak Sinhalese, I had the intention of proposing that only Sinhalese should be the official language of the Island, but it seems to me that the Tamil community and also the Muslim community, who speak Tamil, wish that Tamil also should be included in equal terms with Sinhalese.”The great fear I had was that Sinhalese being a language spoken only by 3,000,000 people in the whole world would suffer, or may be entirely lost in time to come, if Tamil is also placed on an equal footing with it in this country. The influence of Tamil literature, a literature used in India by over 40,000,000 and the influence of Tamil films and Tamil culture in this country. I thought it might be detrimental to the future of the Sinhalese language; but if it is the desire of the Tamils that Tamil should be given an equal status with the Sinhalese, I do not think we should bar it from attaining that position.” – State Council Hansard, 1944.S W R D Bandaranaike said, “However, language has that important meaning to a nation. I presume that, to some extent, is what the mover had in mind when he thought that for the preservation of a national culture and national progress, the Sinhalese language was very necessary, and that the language should form the official language. Therefore, on this first point, finally there can be no doubt that a change-over, as an official language, from English language to one or more of our languages is a very desirable step.” – State Council Hansard, 1944.
D S Senanayake declared, “The essential task is to build up a nation , and build up a nation not with one language, but with two.” – State Council Hansard 1944. The amendment was accepted by a majority of 21 (Ayes 29, Noes 8).
Subsequently, T B Jayah, the nominated member of the council, brought in an amendment to the motion “That paragraphs (a), (b), (c) and (d) of the motion be deleted and that the words ‘and Tamil’ be added after the word ‘Sinhalese’ wherever the word ‘Sinhalese’ occurs.” This amendment was defeated by a majority of 13 (Ayes 12, Noes 25; Declined to vote 1).
A select committee was appointed by the State Council on September 20, 1945, “To consider and report on the steps necessary to effect the transition from English to Sinhalese and Tamil, with the object of making Sinhalese and Tamil the official languages of the country.” J R Jayewardene was elected as the chairman of the committee and D C R Gunawardana, the clerk to the State Council was made the secretary.
The committee, through notices in the newspapers, published in Sinhalese, Tamil and English, invited members of the public to send written memoranda containing suggestions to help the committee in arriving at a suitable decision. The committee in all received 381 memoranda, out of which 292 came from the public (198 in Sinhalese, 26 in Tamil and 68 in English) and 89 from heads of government departments. The committee examined the position of states that had national languages in India. The committee also discussed with E W Ariyanayagam and G Ramachandra, working committee members of the All India National Congress, when they were in Ceylon in July 1946.
In conclusion, the select committee of the State Council recommended that Sinhalese and Tamil be the official languages. – vide Sessional paper XXII, 1946.
Furthermore, on June 5 and 6, 1945, the State Council debated the new education proposals and decided as follows with regard to the medium of instruction:
- The medium of instruction in primary school shall be the mother tongue, with English as a compulsory language;
- The medium of instruction in the lower department of the post-primary schools may be English, Sinhalese, Tamil, or bilingual;
- The medium of instruction in the higher department of the post-primary schools may be English, Sinhalese, Tamil, or bilingual.An amendment was moved in the council by J R Jayewardene to delete the above recommendations and insert the following paragraph: “The mother tongue shall be made the medium of instruction in all schools, with English as an optional subject.” The amendment was defeated in the State Council.Up to 1955, S W R D Bandaranaike was in favor of making the two national languages as the official languages of the country. When the Sinhala Only movement began to pick up steam in the midst of the Sinhala Buddhist clergies and masses, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), led by Bandaranaike, resolved at the annual session of the party held in December 1955, to make “Sinhala Only” as the official language, with provision for the recognition of the “reasonable use of Tamil”. After that, Bandaranaike began to exploit the traditional dislike of the Sinhala people against the Tamils, to rope in the support of the Sinhalese.Meanwhile, R G Senanayake and Dudley Senanayke, who were cousins and also cousins of Sir John Kotelawala, the prime minister, were of the view to undermine the premier, so they vehemently opposed the UNP’s and the Government’s position of “Parity of Status” to the Sinhala and Tamil languages. Both said that Sinhala should be the only official language and opposed Tamil being given parity of status. Though, R G Senanayake openly identified his anti-Tamil stand, Dudley Senanayke remained surreptitious and always covered his anti-Tamil traits.
Indigenous Sinhala social elements and Buddhist clergies began to prevail on the SLFP and UNP leaders to abandon their stance on the two languages policy and demanded that Sinhala should be made the only official language. The demand began to grow from strength to strength. The Prime Minister began to be heavily troubled by the growing concern for the one language policy and was embarrassed as he could not proceed with the parity of status idea for the two languages. When the UNP was about to reverse its stand on the language issue, agitated Tamil MPs, who were with UNP, became vociciferous.
V Kumaraswamy, the member for Chavakachcheri and the Parliamentary Secretary, roared that in case the UNP decided on the “Sinhla Only”, he would move that a UN Boundary Commission be appointed, with Lord Soulbury as Chairman, in the interests of peace and goodwill. Other Tamil members suggested in the same lines to move at the proposed UNP session that the constitution be revised to create two separate sovereign states or a federal system, with two autonomous states.
But, as stated in the previous chapter, the UNP session adopted a one-line resolution to make Sinhala the only official language. After the session, the Prime Minister dissolved Parliament and called for fresh elections in April 1956, even though his Government could have continued until May 1957.
It was unfortunate that Sir John Kotelawala misjudged the mood of the ordinary Sinhala voters. He was under the impression that by adopting the Sinhala only resolution he would be able to win the general elections. The Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi, which was gradually emerging as a well organized election organization, pounced on the language issue and organized a hanta in the North and Eastern provinces against the adoption of the Sinhala only policy of the UNP and the SLFP. Newspapers were divided about the success of the hartal staged by Chelvanayakam and his party. Anyway, undoubtedly, it was a defining moment in the Tamils’ political history in Ceylon.
Parliament was dissolved on February 18, 1956, and the last day for filing nominations was March 8, and polling was to take place for three days on April 5, 7 and 10. The election was for 95 seats in 89 constituencies and 3,464,159 eligible voters were to choose their representatives.
S W R D Bandaranaike formed an electoral alliance, called the Mhajana Eksath Perumuna (MEP means – Peoples’ United Front) between the SLFP and Philip Gunawardene’s VLSSP and W Dhanayake’s Sinhala Bhasa Perumuna (Sinhala Language Front). Though the Communist Party and the Lanka Samaja Party continued to support the parity of status to Sinhala and Tamil languages, the two Left parties entered into a no-contest electoral agreement, with the MEP led by Bandaranaike to face the general elections. Bandaranaike had in his fold people such as I M R A Iriyagolle, a reputed Sinhalese writer, and R G Senanayake, who resigned from the UNP.
The Buddhist prelates, called Bhikkus, formed themselves into the Eksath Bhikku Perumuna (EPB means – United Bhikku Front), with Buddharakita Thero, the High Priest of the Raja Maha Vihare, Kelaniya (the greatest of the great Buddhist Temple) as the Secretary. The EPB decided to support Sinhala only, and also came forward to support the MEP led by Bandaranaike. The Bhikkusi front became a mighty political force which went all out to support Bandaranaike. The politically-inclined Buddhist monks went to all villages, made house to house visits and also handed over thousands of copies of the Buddhist commission report.
Unfortunately, by being a late entrant to the scheming Sinhalese-Buddhist political ploy, Sir John Kotelawala and the UNP were unable to generate the support of the Sinhala voters. “The UNP supported Buddhism, but Kotelawala referred to some Buddhist monks as ‘Rouges in Yellow robes’ and said that ‘some should be buried alive’.” – Dudley Senanayake of Sri Lanka by T D S A Dissanayaka, page 41.
In the Tamil arena, attempts were made to create a united Tamil front to prepare the future political agenda of the Tamils, as well as to contest the parliamentary elections. G G Ponnampalam, the leader of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress, along with N R Rajavarothayam of the ITAK and few others, convened meetings.
These were held on January 22 and February 1,4 and 23, 1956, in Colombo. The first meeting was held at the residence of Alfred Thambiaiyah, who was the MP for the Kayts electorate, located at Bagatelle Road, Colombo. Subsequently, meetings were held at the suite rooms of Subbiayah Natesan, at the Galle Face Hotel, and finally at 5th Lane, Colpetty, Colombo, which was the residence of C Nagalingham, the retired chief justice of Ceylon, who was also the brother of C Suntheralingham.
The meetings were a clear demonstrations to show how the Tamil leaders behaved in an endeavor not to forming a common united Tamil front to agitate against the Sinhalese communal forces. There were ego clashes between Ponnampalam and Chelvanayakam, also among other Tamil leaders.
Chelvanayakam and his men began to allege that all the other Tamil leaders who participated in the conference, were discredited elements and were making use of the conference to contest the general elections and enter Parliament in the name of a common Tamil front. The elders, who conducted the conference, found it impossible to control the recalcitrant Tamil leaders and bring them to agree on a common working program. Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi from the beginning sensed that the election was an opportunity for them to have a cake walk to victory. They were adamant not to be a part of the common alliance, and finally they saw that the attempt to unite the Tamils fizzle out.
When one analyzes the 1956 situation against today’s political backdrop, it would be easy to discern that if the Tamil leaders had succeeded in establishing a common Tamil front, the political picture of the Tamils in particular and of the country in general might have been a different one. Unfortunately, Chelvanayakam and the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi failed to deliver anything tangible to the Tamils, instead they led them towards a killing field and ultimately, when the party’s usefulness was spent, they unceremoniously dumped it in the 1970s.
After the last day of filing nominations for the elections, the MEP including the SLFP, the VLSSP and Bhasha Perumuna fielded 60 candidates, while the UNP had 76, the LSSP 21, the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi 14, the Communist Party 9, the Tamil Congress 1 and independents 66, totaling to 249 candidates in the fray.
The official language issue dominated the campaign. Bandaranaike began to declare that once his party formed a government he would make Sinhala the official language, then he began to give timeframes. He first declared that within 24 hours and later within 24 minutes, he would make Sinhla the only official language. Bandaranaike began to down play the Tamil aspect of the resolution during the campaign.
In the North and Eastern provinces, Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi had sensed victory from the day the Parliament was dissolved. There was not even one politically organized party to oppose them, except for the Tamil Congress, which put forward the sole candidature of G. G. Ponnampalam to the Jaffna electorate. In the other Tamil electorates, ITAK faced insignificant candidates from the Left parties and weaker opposition, mostly the ex-UNPers, who turned independent, to contest the elections.
After three days of polling, 2,391,538 votes were cast, 69 percent of the total votes. The MEP won 51 seats, the LSSP 14, the ITAK 10, the Communist Party 3, the Tamil Congress 1 and independents 8. For the first and last time, P Kandiah, who unsuccessfully contested in the 1947 and 1952 elections at Point Pedro on the Communist Party ticket, won a seat on that ticket.
The UNP, which contested under the leadership of Sir John Kotelawala, was trounced. It fielded 76 candidates and managed to win only 8 seats. In 1952, it fielded 81 candidates and won 54 seats and polled 1,026,005 votes, but in 1956, it failed miserably and obtained 738,810 votes or 27.9 percent of the total votes polled. Whereas, the MEP polled 1,046,277 votes, which amounted to 39.5 percent.
J R Jayewardene was squarely defeated by R G Senanayake, who contested in Kelaniya, also in the Dambadeniya constituency, as an independent candidate. He triumphed in both constituencies. By registering victory at Kelaniya, R G Senanayake settled his score with Jayewardene. Along with Sir John Kotelawala, the only other minister to retain his seat was M D Banda, at Maturata. Another notable winner was Sir Rail Farmed, who won on the UNP ticket, as the second member of the three-member Colombo Central electorate.
S W R D Bandaranaike retained his Attanagalla seat. Among other winners of the MEP the country saw for the first time the emergence of C P De Silva, who had earlier been the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands under D S Senanayake’s stewardship of the ministry. C A S Marikar retained Kadugannawa, the double-member seat, with an improved popularity and was elected as the first ember. I M R A Iryagolle won the Dandagamuwa seat as an independent supported by the MEP.
The country also saw the triumph of T B Tenakone, who survived by hawking Kavi-Kola – printed little folk song books, at bus stands, as well as the victory of M S Themis, a postman, as third MP in Colombo Central in the MEP ticket. Also, the MEP supported the independent candidate T B Subasinghe, a former leftist, who won at Bingirya. Maithripala Senanayake, who crossed over to the SLFP protesting against the reduction of the food subsidy in 1952, and T B Ilangaratne, a clerk and a leading member of the General Clerical Service Union, who was interdicted after the hartal of 1952, were elected. E L B Hurulle, P B G Kalugalle, Stanley de Zoysa, the son of Sir Francis de Zoysa, a veteran leader of the Ceylon National Congress in the 1920s, Mrs. Vimala Wijewardene, who was the wife of D C Wijewardene, the author of the book, Revolt in the Temple and also one of the uncles of J R Jayewardene, Lakshman Rajapakse, Mudyanse Tennakoon, K M P Rajaratne and W Dahanayake, were the other notable winners. K M P Rajaratne, a sworn anti-Tamil, resigned when his Welimada seat was declared void on May 20, 1957. His wife, Kusma Rajaratne, won the seat at the by-election held on September 7, 1957.
Out of the five seats captured by the VLSSP, its leader Philip Gunawardene, his wife Kusmasiri Gunawardene and P H William de Silva were the important winners. Dr Colvin R de Silva, one of the LSSP leaders, won back the Wellawatte-Galkissa seat, which he had lost in the 1952. Dr N Perera, the leader of the LSSP, Edmund Samarokody and J C T Kotelawala retained their seats. Other victorious LSSP members were Meryl Fernando, Leslie Gunawardene, his wife Vivienne Gunawardene, Anil Moonesinhe, the grandson of Anakarika Dharmapala, and Bernard Soyis. Dr S Wickremasinghe of the Communist Party retained his seat and for the first time from the North a Tamil candidate, P Kandiah, won on the Communist Party ticket.
C Suntheralingham, who contested in the general elections for the third time as an independent from Vavuniya, retained his seat. Also, Mohamed Ali, another independent Tamil-speaking candidate, retained his seat at Mutur. In the 1952 general elections H S Ismail contested as a UNP candidate at Puttalam, but in 1956 he contested as an independent and retained his seat. Another noteworthy Tamil candidate, S U Edirmannasingham, contested as an independent and won the Paddirupu seat, defeating the sitting member, S A Rasamanickam, who supported the UNP after the elections.
S J V Chelvanayakam, the leader of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi, trounced the sitting member Subiyah Natesan, a former minister, who contested as an independent candidate after resigning from the UNP on the language issue. A Amirthalingham, who turned out to be a leading Tamil leader in the years to come, convincingly registered victory at Vaddukoddai, where he had been defeated in 1952. Another leading personality was the newcomer to politics, C Rajathurai, who convincingly won his Batticaloa seat. N R Rajavarothiam – Trincomalee, and C Vanniasingham – Coplay, the two sitting members of parliament – retained their seats. V A Alegacone – Mannar, V A Kandiah – Kayts, and V N Navaratnam – Chavakachcheri, won on the ITAK ticket. M S Kariapper at Kalmunai and M P M Mustapha at Potterville, who were Muslim members, also they enjoyed an uncle, nephew relationship, registered victory on the ITAK ticket.
G G Ponnampalam, the sole Tamil Congress candidate for Jaffna, defeated Dr E M V Naganathan, the ITAK candidate and retained his seat. This election saw the departure of Subbiyah Natesan, V Cumraswamy, and Alfred Thambiaiyah from the political arena, once and for all.
Dr M P Drahman, R P Gaddum, Rosslyn Koch, J R Murray, R S V Poulier and R Singleton-Salmon were made the appointed MPs.
On April 12, 1956, a 15-member cabinet led by S W R D Bandaranaike was sworn in. Bandaranaike became the Prime Minister, Minister of Defense and External Affairs, thus fulfilling his long-time cherished dream. Other important ministers sworn in were, Stanley de Zoysa – Minister of finance, Maitripala Senanayake – Minister of transport and works, Vimala Wijewardene – Minister of health, R G Senanayake – Minister of trade and Commerce, Philip Gunawardene – Minister of agriculture and food, T B Ilangaratne – Minister of labor, housing and social services, C A S Marikar – Minister of posts, broadcasting and information and Senator A P Jayasuriya – Minister of home affairs. For the first time after independence, Tamils were not represented in the cabinet.
The bill to make Sinhala the official language of the country was tabled for the second reading on June 5, 1956. On the same day, Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi staged a peaceful picket, called satyagraha – a non-violent form of resistance – at the beach called Galle Face Green, opposite to the Parliament.
A crowd of Sinhalese hooligans clashed with the Tamil protesters and demanded that the Tamils give up their demonstration. This was the first incident of its kind. Chelvanayakam, the leader of the ITAK, a frail man who suffered from Parkinson’s disease and used hearing-aids, was dumped into the dirty waters of the Biera Lake.
The ITAK stalwart, Amirthalingham, a first-time MP, sustained severe bruises and head injuries. Suntharalingham took him, oozing blood from his head, into the Parliament chamber. The Premier greeted them with his jocular but ruthless remark, “Honorable wounds of war,” amid jeers and hooting by Sinhalese members of Parliament, a most degrading incident of its kind.
Suntherlingham retorted back scathingly, “Yes, the war began on June 5, 1956.” This exchange reminds one of the words of Horace, “Once sent out, word[s] takes wings irrevocably.”
V N Navaratnam, an MP, received severe injuries in both his legs and was hospitalized for several days. The Sinhalese mob attacked several hundred Tamil volunteers. In other parts of Colombo, Tamil civilians who traveled in the government busses were assaulted.
The Sinhalese-only policy was passed into law in 1956. Accordingly, the Official Language Act No. 33 of 1956, was:
“An Act to prescribe the Sinhala Language as the one official language of Ceylon and to enable certain transitory provisions to be made. [Date of Assent: July 7, 1956]. This act may be cited as the Official Language Act No 33 of 1956. The Sinhala language shall be the one official language of Ceylon. Provided that where the minister considers it impracticable to commence the use of only the Sinhala language, for any official purpose immediately on the coming into force this act, the language or languages hitherto used for the purpose may be continued to be so used until the necessary change is effected as early as possible before the expiry of December 31, 1960 and, if such change cannot be effected by administrative order, regulations may be made under this Act to effect such change.
(I) The minister may make such regulations in respect of all matters for which regulations are authorized by this act to be made and generally for the purpose of giving effect to the principles and provisions of this act.
(II) No regulation made under sub-section (I) shall have effect until it is approved by the Senate and the House of Representatives and notification of such approval is published in the Gazette.”
This law was passed in the teeth of bitter opposition by the Tamils. The one language policy of the Government created a division which, in the end, led to a challenge the Sinhalese chauvinism. The law led to the emergence of defensive nationalism on the part of Tamils.
Two Sinhalese MPs, who were socialists, participated and spoke against the bill and warned of its dire consequences, as follows:
“There is a grave danger, if those people, feel that a grave and irreparable injustice is done to them. There is a possibility of their deciding even to break away from the rest of the country.” – Leslie Gunawardena, Member of Parliament and the Secretary of the LSSP, Hansard – June 8, 1956.
Dr Colvin R De Silva, one of the leaders of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party said, “Two torn little bleeding states may yet arise out of one little state, ready for the imperialists to mop up that, which imperialism has only recently disgorged.” Hansard – June 14, 1956.
S W R D Bandaranaike, replying in winding up the second reading of the debate on June 14, 1956, said in the floor of the House, “The argument for this so-called parity has appeared before us in various forms from various angles of view, varying from the purely sentimental and emotional plane of the hon member for Vavuniya, to higher level of an attempt at argument on the part of the hon member for Jaffna; a different level again from my hon friends, the members of the Federal Party, and finally to the attempt at justification of the idea of parity on the part of my hon friends, the members of the LSSP and CP, as conducive to greater unity of the country than would result from the opposite point of view.
“The hon mmber for Jaffna put forward the case for parity, but with half an eye on perhaps something less than is implied in the word. He is naturally concerned as a member of the Tamil community on one aspect of the question involving – it may be considered to be – the prestige of the Tamil people. He is far more concerned, if I understood him right, in the practical side of this Bill. Naturally that, too, I can understand – the prestige point of view.
“They do not want to feel that their language and, through their language, they themselves are looked down upon as an inferior section of the people of this country. I understand it. But may I say this? I repeat it and, I believe, I have said this on more than one occasion. There is no desire whatsoever, I assure my hon friends with all the strength I posses, of reducing the Tamil people of this country to a position of inferiority, of semi-slavery or a position of helotry.” Hansard, June 14, 1956.
“The passage of the Sinhala only official language bill was a great blow to the Tamil speaking people. If they submitted to the law, it spelt their doom. It was not merely a language switch-over in government offices. It was not even a question only of the Tamil public servants learning the Sinhala language and acquiring proficiency to work in it. It was much more than that, it invaded the life and the social and cultural fabric of the Tamils. The act was pregnant with million problems, both seen and unseen. It paved the way for quick assimilation into the majority Sinhalese mainstream, and threatened the very survival of the Tamils, as an ethnically and culturally distinct people.” The Fall and Rise of the Tamil Nation by V Navaratnam, page 113.
After the passage of the legislation, the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi resolved to hold its annual convention at Trincomalee, the Eastern port city. This convention demonstrated a show of strength by the Tamils. Earlier, thousands of Tamils volunteered and participated in an orderly foot-march or patha yathirai of nearly 150 miles, from Kankesanthurai to Trincomalee.
At the convention, held on August 20, 1956, it was resolved as follows: “Whereas the present unitary system of parliamentary government has been imposed most irrationally and unfairly on the bilingual country like Ceylon.
“And whereas the democratic rights of 2.12 million Tamil-speaking peoples have been gravely undermined by reasons of their helpless dependence on the goodwill of 6 million Sinhalese people who retained a perpetual racial majority into parliament as exemplified by the present MEP government party, which without contesting a single constituency in the Tamil-speaking areas, was yet able to obtain an absolute majority in Parliament by reason, firstly, of a monstrous electoral device which enables the majority Sinhalese people to secure overwhelming weightage in Parliamentary representation and, secondly by means of aggressively racial election cry for the establishment of Sinhalese as the official language over the whole Ceylon.
“And whereas the promulgation of the Sinhalese only Act, in the teeth of the unanimous opposition of all Members of Parliament representing the Tamil-speaking constituencies and its imposition on a totally unwilling people, indicate clearly that the policy of the government is to perpetrate the genocide of the people, whose history in this country is as ancient and a glorious as that of the Sinhalese and whose language having a rich classical heritage and a modern development is one of the most advanced and progressive of Eastern languages.
“And whereas the racial majority in parliament had enacted citizenship and franchise laws which have no parallel in their Machiavellian conception and under which one section of the Tamil-speaking people have been rendered doubtful citizens in their own homelands by reasons of their inability to prove their citizenship if called upon to do so and the other section consisting 800,000 workers permanently settled in the plantation areas and constituting the backbone of the Island’s economy [most of whom have been born in Ceylon, and all of whom have no other home, but Ceylon] has been deprived of civic and franchise rights, which it earlier enjoyed.
“And whereas the colonization policy pursued by successive governments since 1947, of planting Sinhalese population in the traditional homelands of the Tamil speaking peoples is calculated to overwhelm and crush the Tamil-speaking people in their own national areas.
“This annual convention of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi assembled at Trincomalee on the 19th day of August 1956, solemnly declares in the name of the Tamil-speaking people of Ceylon, that the discriminatory legislative and the administrative measures of the successive Governments of Ceylon, which are in direct violation of the basic concepts of freedom and the fundamental principles of civilized governments have proved conclusively that the present unitary system of parliamentary government has failed to ensure the elements of democracy and has become the constitutional instruments for the planned liquidation of all the Tamil-speaking peoples in Ceylon. This conventions therefore demands:
1. The replacement of the present pernicious constitution by a rational and democratic constitution based on the federal principle and the establishment of one or more Tamil linguistic state or states incorporating all geographically contiguous areas in which the Tamil-speaking people are numerically in majority as federating unit or units enjoying the widest autonomous and residuary powers consistent with the unity and external security of Ceylon.
2. The restoration of the Tamil language to its rightful place enjoying absolute parity of status with Sinhalese as an official language of the country.
3. The repeal of the present citizenship laws and enactment on their place of laws recognizing the right to full citizenship on the basis of a simple residential test of all persons who have made this country their home; and
4. The immediate cessation of colonizing the traditionally Tamil-speaking areas with Sinhalese people.
“This convention further declares that, unless the prime minister and the parliament of Ceylon take the necessary steps to constitute of a Federal Union for Ceylon by the 20th day of August 1957, the Kadchi [Party] will launch direct action by non-violent means for the achievement of this objectives.” The Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi Vellhi Vizha Malar (Vellhi Vizha Malar (Silver Jubilee Souvenir), pages 13 to 14.
The delegates demanded that the government take immediate action. Failure on the part of the government to recognize their demands, the party decided, would lead to direct action. The party envisaged a protracted direct action campaign in case the government failed to recognize and resolve their demands peacefully. Detailed steps taken by the party leadership were:
“The Trincomalee convention presented an ultimatum to Bandaranaike: that if the FP’s demands were not met, the Tamil people would launch a direct action campaign of non-violent civil disobedience – in which Chelvanayakam’s charisma was expected to play a great part. His followers would agree to a compromise settlement, and thus they expected the worst. Chelvanayakam’s deputy in the parliament, Vanniasingham, spoke from the public platforms urging the Tamil people to prepare for a prolonged struggle – for example, by storing their grain harvest. The FP decided it needed 25,000 volunteers for its campaign and began recruiting. A section of parliamentarians thought that a longer time was needed to prepare for the campaign if it was to be sustained and disciplined, but Chelvanayakam was not willing to accept any delay, and fixed the deadline for August 20, 1957.” – S J V Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, 1947-1977 by A Jeyaratnam Wilson, pages 84 – 85.
Once the ultimatum was issued, the ITAK went about the villages and towns in the North and Eastern provinces, actively campaigning for their proposed civil disobedience campaign. At the beginning, Bandaranaike showed reticence to the ultimatum of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi. A substantial campaign in the national press kept the ultimatum for a direct action by the party lively. A sustained campaign forced the government to diffuse the ultimatum of the party.
Bandaranaike and Chelvanayakam had been classmates at St Thomas College, Mount Lavania, during their early school days. When Bandaranaike resigned from the United National Party in 1951, Chelvanayakam complimented him by writing a letter for his political decision and congratulated him. Bandaranaike’s decision to cross the floor from the Treasury benches to the opposition, Chelvanayakam wrote, amounted to an alternative political direction to focus political forces in the right direction. A cordial personal relationship remained between the two leaders for ever, but politically they differed.
By April 1957, Bandaranaike sent feelers through Stanley de Zoysa, who was the minister of finance in his government, and P Navaratnarajah, a Tamil, also a leading advocate and a common friend of both Chelvanayakam and Bandaranaike. The ITAK leadership agreed to meet the prime minister for negotiation.
For the first time, the ITAK delegation consisting of Chelvanayakam, V A Kandiah, N R Rajavarothayam, Dr E M V Naganathan, V Navaratnam, met the Prime Minister in his ancestral house at Horagolla, Veyangoda, along with Minister Stanley De Zoysa, Navaratnarajah and several government functionaries. The second meeting was held at the Premier’s Colombo residence, at Rosemead Place. The third and final meeting was held at the Premier’s office at the Senate Building, on July 26, 1957, and it went into the wee hours of the following day, concluding successfully with a negotiated settlement to the political stalemate.
Chelvanayakam, in the end, agreed to finalize the negotiations as an “interim adjustment” to the problems confronting the Tamils by consenting to enter into an agreement, embodying the compromised formula reached with the prime minister. The agreement left out the problem concerning the Tamils of the Indian origin unresolved, except formally emphasizing the urgency of the issue.
The agreement reached between the leaders, described by the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi as an “Interim adjustment” with the government, but otherwise as the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Agreement of 1957. It had important hallmarks, as, for the first time, a political agreement of this nature between the leaders of two ethnic groups in the country was entered into, and a serious attempt made to bridge the emerging ethnic-divide. The agreement, as agreed on July 29, 1957:
“Part A: Representatives of the Federal Party [Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi] have had a series of discussions with the prime minister in an effort to resolve the differences of opinion that had been growing and creating tension. At an early stage of these conversations, it became evident that it was not possible for the prime minister to accede to some of the demands of the Federal Party. The prime minister stated that, from the point of view of the government, he was not in a position to discus the setting up of a Federal constitution, or regional autonomy, or take any step that would abrogate the Official Language Act.
“The question then arose whether it was possible to explore the possibility of an adjustment without the Federal Party abandoning or surrendering any of its fundamental principles or objectives. At this stage, the prime minister suggested an examination of the government’s draft of the Regional Councils Bill, to see whether provision could be made under it to meet, reasonably, some of the matters in this regard which the Federal Party had in view.
“Regarding the language issue, the Federal Party reiterated its stand for parity, but in view of the position of the prime minister in this matter, they came to an agreement by way of adjustment. They pointed out that it was important for them that there should be a recognition of Tamil as a national language, and that the administrative work of the Northern and Eastern Provinces should be done in Tamil. The prime minister stated that as mentioned by him earlier, it was not possible for him to take any steps that would abrogate the Official Language Act.
“After discussions, it was agreed that the proposed legislation should contain recognition of Tamil as the language of a national minority of Ceylon, and that the four points mentioned by the prime minister should include provision that, without infringing on the position of the Official language as such, the language of the administration of the Northern and Eastern provinces be Tamil, and that the necessary provisions be made for the non-Tamil speaking minorities in the Northern and Eastern provinces.
“Regarding the question of Ceylon citizenship for the people of Indian descent and revision of the Citizenship Act, the representative of the Federal Party put forward their views to the prime minister and pressed for an early settlement. The prime minister indicated that the problem would receive early consideration. In view of these conclusions, the Federal Party stated that they were withdrawing their proposed Satyagraha.
“Part B – 1. REGIONAL areas be defined in the Bill itself by embodying them in the schedule thereto.
“2. THAT the Northern Province is to form one regional area, whilst the Eastern Province is to be divided into two or more regional areas.
“3. PROVISIONS is to be made in the Bill to enable two or more regions to amalgamate even beyond provincial limit; and for one region to divide itself subject to ratification by parliament. Further provision is to be made in the Bill for two or more regions to collaborate for specific purposes of common interests.
“4. PROVISION is to be made for direct election of regional councilors. Provision is to be made for a delimitation commission or commissions for carving out electorates. The question of MP representing districts falling within regional areas to be eligible to function as chairmen is to be considered. The question of Government Agents being regional commissioners is to be considered. The question of supervisory functions over larger towns, strategic towns and municipalities is to be looked into.
“5. PARLIAMENT is to delegate powers to specify them in Act. It was agreed that regional councils should have powers over specified subjects, including agriculture, co-operatives, lands and land development, colonization, education, health, industries and fisheries, housing and social services, electricity, water schemes and roads. Requisite definition of powers will be made in the Bill.
“6. IT is agreed that in the matter of colonization schemes, the powers of the regional councils shall include that power to select allottees to whom lands within their area of authority shall be alienated and also power to select personnel to be employed for work on such schemes. The position regarding the area at present administered by the Gal – Oya Board in this matter requires consideration.
“7. THE powers in regard to regional council vested in the Minister of Local Government in the draft bill to be revised with the view to vesting control in Parliament, wherever necessary.
“8. THE Central Government will provide block grants to the regional councils. The principles on which grants will be computed will be gone into. The regional councils shall have powers of taxation and borrowings. “ The Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi Vellhi Vizha Malar pages 52 to 53.
The agreement shows that the ITAK, in the interest of national unity and integration, compromised its position to accommodate the views of the prime minister. Through this agreement, the government managed to avoid the threat of the direct action campaign the party had actively arranged to stage in Tamil areas. However, the agreement infused mixed reception in the country.
“Chelvanayakam was not wholly pleased with the agreement, as was apparent when he returned home from the signing ceremony. He had been worried by the protracted negotiations. The failure to obtain a single merged Tamil-speaking North-East Province left him dismayed; he said that narrow district parochialism could emerge in the absence of all-embracing Tamil region.” S J V Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism1947-1977 – by A Jeyaratnam Wilson, pages 86 – 87.
Chelvanayakam, the leader of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi, was not happy with the agreement. He sacrificed temporarily the party’s demands, the parity of status for the Tamil language, and the Federal demand by agreeing with a lesser autonomous body, the regional council. The compromise formula adopted by Chelvanayakam was followed by further demands for such flexibility by the Sinhalese leaders in the future. An unwanted political exercise that ruined the aggressive political mood of the Tamils forever. Even, V Navaratnam, one of the key political players then and a party leader, and who participated in the negotiations with Bandaranaike, expressed discontent with the outcome. In his book The Fall and Rise of the Tamil Nation he states as follows:
“I went with Chelvanayakam to his residence when the conference was over. He knew that I was not happy. It was obvious that he was not either. He looked very grave, and would not utter a word of comment. I voiced my misgivings, and remarked that whatever the agreement was worth, we did not even have a document to vouch for what either side has agreed to. We shall have to rely solely on newspaper correspondents’ reports. He looked bewildered and stared at me.
“He then recovered his composure and said that he would make an appointment with the Prime Minister that day itself and get a record embodying the terms of the agreement signed by him. He asked me to take little rest and prepare the documents in duplicate. Chelvanayakam took the document to the Prime Minister’s office at noon and got it signed by both parties. He told me on his return that Phillip Gunawardene was with the prime minister when he called, and that the document was read over by Gunawardene before the prime minister and he [Chelvanayakam] signed it. This agreement came to be known as the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayakam Pact.” – Page 131.
C Suntheralingham in an open letter dated July 28, 1957, addressed to S J V Chelvanayakam, wrote, “Into what a sorry pass have you led the Tamils? “I differed from your party in this regard [establishment of one or more linguistic states] to the extent that I wanted an autonomous Tamil state which would constitute a Commonwealth of Dominion of Tamil Ilankai as set out in terms of a motion I moved in Parliament by way of amendment to the Throne speech of 1956. I was all-in-all with your party in regard to the ‘Autonomous Tamil Linguistic State’. I repeat, while your party wanted federation, I wanted separation, because I am convinced since 1955, that no Tamil should trust a Sinhalese politician and certainly not Prime Minister Bandaranaike, to protect Tamil interests.”
The Tamil leaders were unnecessarily magnanimous with their gestures in accepting the compromised arrangements with the Government to protect any spill-over of crisis in the country. They claimed to have the abiding interest of the country in their heart, and settled for the minimum autonomous regional councils. However, the agreement sparked off suspicion and opposition among the Sinhalese racial leaders and the Buddhist clergies.
J R Jayewardene had been squarely defeated and humiliated in the 1956 elections. After his defeat and the stunning defeat of the UNP, Jayewardene emerged as the important leader of the party in the absence of Dudley Senanayake and Sir John Kotelawala, to reorganize the party. Jayewardene invited Dudley Senanayake to re-enter politics. Accordingly, when Dudley accepted, he was appointed the President of the UNP, on February 4, 1957.
Dudley Senanayake, who quit politics in 1956, re-emerged as a dangerous viper and began to nurse hopes of entering politics by making harsh criticism of the Agreement. He said, “I am prepared to sacrifice my life to prevent the implementation of the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayakam Agreement, which would create a racial division of Ceylon under the guise of Regional Council system and it is an act of treachery on the part of the Prime Minister Bandaranaike.”
The UNP duo timed their return to active politics by organizing a campaign against the pact. They seized the opportunity by mobilizing mass support through their campaigns against the agreement. In September 1957, Jayewardene arranged a 72-mile march to Kandy, to invoke the blessings of the gods against the agreement.
The march to Kandy began on October 4, 1957, from Colombo and Dudley Senanayake and Jayewardene led the lengthy procession. The procession received mixed reception en-route. At Grandpass junction, SLFPers threw stones and bricks, which intensified at Kelaniya and forced them to abandon the procession when it reached Imbulgoda, in the Gampaha electorate. S D Bandaranaike, the nephew of Bandaranaike and the MP for Gampaha, with his supporters, squatted in the middle of the road, preventing the procession to pass any further.
Those participated in the UNP procession abandoned the march, and on the following day, leaders proceeded to Kandy by motor car to invoke the blessings of deities. Later, they declared from the precincts of the Dalada Maligawa, the Buddhist Temple devoted the Lord Buddha’s relics, that they would oppose the Regional Council.
Meanwhile, in December 1957, Matripala Senanayake, the Minister for Transport and Works, introduced a Bill in Parliament in the form of an amendment to the Motor Traffic Act, to add the Pali letter SRI as a prefix on motor vehicle number plates, where earlier English letters had been used. This amendment came into effect and in Jaffna, on January 1, 1958. Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi lodged a strong protest.
Subsequently, when the first state-owned bus bearing the SRI number plate pulled into Jaffna bus station, people became agitated as it heralded the arrival of the Sinhalese chauvinism in the crudest form into their very homes.
Amirthalingham, the MP, arrived with a group of volunteers and went to the bus and obliterated the Pali SRI, (an alphabet ignorantly claimed as Sinhala, by the Sinhalese) by applying tar to the number plates. This received a mixed reception in Colombo. The ITAK decided to organize an “anti-SRI Campaign” under the leadership of C Vanniasingham, the MP for Kopay and the President of the party, in which several groups of volunteers participated. The campaign spread to the entire North and Eastern provinces, gathered momentum and reverberated in Colombo.
The Sinhalese and the Buddhist clergies took the campaign as an affront. On April 9, 1958, more than 100-stong contingents of Buddhist priests led by Vimala Wijewardene, the cabinet-ranking only woman Minister in Bandaranaike’s Government, squatted in front of the Rosemead Place, the private residence of Bandaranaike, located at Rosemead Place, Cinnamon’s Gardens, Colombo. They demanded the abrogation of the agreement signed with Chelvanayakam, the leader of Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi.
Bandaranaike, lacking political scruple, and the political will and courage to withstand the pressure from the Buddhist clergies, submitted to the demands of the Buddhist clergies, by publicly tearing into pieces the pact he had entered into with Chelvanayakam. Unilaterally reneging the pact foreboded the future clearly.
“Yesterday, was the saddest day in the history of Ceylon’s racial relations. A solemn pact, worked out between the leadership of the country’s two main communities has been torn up because of the pressure of a group extremists. I am worried whether Tamils in the future will have trust in the Sinhala leadership.” S Thondaman, the leader of Ceylon Workers Congress, in Out of Bondage – The Thondaman Story by T Sabaratnam, page 71.
The reneging of the pact by Bandaranaike was an act of political infidelity and the Tamils became aware of the political opportunism propagated and practiced by the Sinhalese leadership. It became obvious that Sinhalese politicians were not to be trusted either with their words or deeds.
“The drama on the prime minister’s lawn, therefore, marked the victory of Bandaranaike’s enemies. They forced him to treat the B-C Pact like Adolf Hitler treated his solemn undertaking which he gave to Neville Chamberlain at Munich. To them the B-C Pact was as much a piece of paper as was the Munich paper to Hitler.” – V Navaratnam, who was one of the members of the ITAK who participated in the negotiation, writing in his Rise and Fall of the Tamil Nation page 136.
In the meantime, the ITAK continued its anti-SRI campaign and several MPs, including party leader Chelvanayakam, were produced before the courts in the North and Eastern provinces and were sentenced and imprisoned.
Subsequently, an eventful occasion took place when G G Ponnampalam, the MP and the leader of the Tamil Congress, along with his Party members and supporters, joined with the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi, drove in a motorcade with Tamil and Pali “SRI” letters laid on the number plates of their motor-cars. The matter was taken to the courts, but it was held that there had been no violation of any law and the case was dismissed.
Towards the end of May 1958, the Federal party held its annual convention at Vavuniya, the border town of the Northern province, and resolved to launch a direct action campaign in the form of non-violent and peaceful picketing – Satyagraha, as the Government has abrogated the Banda-Chelva pact. Hundreds of delegates and thousands of supporters of the party from all over the country, participated in the convention and in a subsequent public rally held to explain the decisions of the convention.
“After the anti-SRI campaign of March and April 1958, events moved on to the flash point of the rioting and the declaration of a state of emergency in May. The Prime Minister failed to halt the momentum; he seemed to drift while at the same time claiming that he was trying to ‘assuage’ the Tamils. Chelvanayakam for his part reacted to the changing situation, in which the chauvinism of the Buddhist clergy and laity and political racism on the part of the UNP were much in evidence. The UNP journal, the Nation, persistently carried racial incitements against the Tamil people. In addition there were forces within the Government determined to embarrass the Prime Minister.” This clear picture was the de facto situation report of the pre-riot period, as explained by A Jeyaratnam Wilson in his S J V Chelvanayakam and the crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism 1947 – 1977 page 88.
The delegates who participated in the annual convention in Vavuniya returned home by train. On May 25, 1958, the Jaffna-bound Colombo Mail Train was derailed at Polonnaruwa and the Tamil passengers were massacred. Polonnaruwa is the railway junction for passengers en-route to Trincomalee and Batticaloa, in the Eastern province. Sinhalese thugs from Igniyagala and from other parts of Amparai and Polonarruwa, who formed themselves as theSinhala Hamudawa (Sinhalese army) under spurious political and Buddhist patronage, organized the attack.
On the same day, one Senaratne, the ex-mayor of Nuwera-Eliya, was shot dead at Kalawanchikudi – a town in the Eastern Province, where majority of the population are Muslims, as a result of personal and business enmity. The assailants were not known. This incident was broadcast repeatedly on Radio Ceylon – the voice of the Government, which inflamed the Sinhalese mobs.
“On the day following the Vavuniya Convention the goon squads of the Sinhalese hoodlum army took over the task of dealing with the Tamils. The hired hoodlums went on a rampage of senseless destruction and wanton brutality. Starting first with the Pettah in Colombo, where the most of the Tamil business houses and shops were concentrated, they attacked, smashed looted, applied the torch and destroyed shops and houses, buildings and vehicles. They beat up and thrashed every Tamil they could lay their hands on. By nightfall the mob violence spread out to every corner of the City of Colombo and its suburbs.” The Fall and Rise of the Tamil Nation by V Navaratnam, page 144.
The attacks on Tamil civilians spread to Colombo and to other provinces. Shops and buildings belonging to Tamils in the capital and in Sinhalese areas were torched. Tamil civilians were pulled out of trains and government offices and assaulted, thrashed and manhandled. In several instances, Tamils were dragged out if their houses and stabbed to death in the presence of hundreds of Sinhalese. Women and girls were raped. There were reports of Sinhalese thugs stamping the Pali letters SRI on the bare chests of Tamil men and women with red hot rods. It was a free for all and the Tamils were on the receiving end while the government did nothing to control the violence.
At the instigation of the local Buddhist clergy, a group of hard-core Sinhalese hoodlums marched to the Pillaiyar Temple (a temple devoted to Lord Ganesha, a Hindu God) at Panadura, and torched alive its Brahmin high-priest. This was one of the incidents that influenced future generations of Tamil youths to take up to arms and follow the path of militancy against the indiscriminate and wanton destruction and killing instigated and orchestrated by the Buddhist clergy and the Sinhalese political leaders.
In later years, V Prabakaran, the leader of the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Tamil Eelam, in an interview that appeared in an Indian magazine called Sunday in March 1984, stated:
“Question: Could you elaborate on some of your personal experiences that compelled you to believe that an armed struggle was the only solution for the Tamils of Sri Lanka? Were you, your family members and friends, directly victimized by the discriminatory policy of the Sri Lankan government?
“Answer: The shocking events of the 1958 racial riots had a profound impact on me when I was a schoolboy. I heard of horrifying incidents of how our people had been mercilessly and brutally put to death by the Sinhala racists. Once I met a widowed mother, a friend of my family, who related to me her agonizing personal experience of this racial holocaust. During the riots, a Sinhala mob attacked her house in Colombo. The rioters set fire to the house and murdered her husband. She and her children escaped with severe injuries. I was deeply shocked when I saw scars on her body. I also heard stories of how young babies were roasted alive in boiling tar. When I heard such stories of cruelty, I felt deep sense of sympathy and love for my people. A great passion overwhelmed me to redeem my people from this racist system. I strongly felt that armed struggle was the only way to confront a system which employs armed might against unarmed innocent people.”
Recently, in a press interview, Nelson Mandela, who openly expressed that terrorism is a relative term, said, “If the oppressor believes in negotiations, in discussions, then the oppressed people will never take up arms,” he said. “But when the oppressor tightens the screws of oppression and uses force to suppress the legitimate aspirations of the oppressed, the lesson of history, throughout the world, right down through the ages, is that the oppressed will take up arms.” This was stated in Canada after receiving honorary citizenship.
Even after two days of rioting, the government failed to take any measures to put down the violence. On May 27, the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo contacted the prime minister and urged him to declare a state of emergency to put down the violence. Bandaranaike continued to vacillate.
In the meantime, several Tamil leaders contacted and interviewed Sir Oliver Goonetillake, the Governor-General. Sir Oliver Goonetillake promised action and asked the prime minister for his technical advice and recommendations on invoking the Public Security Act. Subsequently, he declared a state of emergency on May 29, which enabled the army and navy to be called out to restore law and order. By that time, several hundreds Tamils had been killed and more than 10,000 displaced in Colombo.
Under the emergency powers, the government proscribed the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi, instead of arresting the radical Buddhist clergies and Sinhala politicians and their armed thugs who were responsible for masterminding the holocaust. The Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi newspaper Suthanthiran (Freedom) was banned, its press and office sealed and its editor, S T Sivanayagam, was arrested. Party leaders were placed under house arrest. Those ITAK leaders, whose houses in Colombo had been wrecked, were held in a special detention camp, under heavy police and military guard. Government bungalows, at Stanmore Crescent, off Bullers Road, in Colombo, usually reserved as residence for supreme court judges, were converted into, as the special detention camp, to detain the ITAK leaders.
For the first time in the history of the island, the Tamils who were displaced were called “refugees”. And this was in Colombo, in the very country they claimed as their motherland. Later, the displaced Tamils were collected at specially organized refugee camps and taken by ship to Point Pedro. From there they were returned to their home towns located throughout in the Northern province. Only then, they felt safe in their traditional homeland.