Sri Lanka: The Untold Story, Chapter 4

The Ceylon National Congress and its intrigues 

This history series by K T Rajasingham is no longer available on the Asia Times website, so the links provided at are no longer active.  As time permits, we will be re-posting this series, along with that by T. Sabaratnam, which has some chapters missing.  Sachi Sri Kantha’s biographical series is available at — Editor]

by K T Rajasingham, ‘Asia Times, Singapore

Chapter 1

Chapter 3

During the period 1915 to 1928, members of the Ceylon National Congress, in combination with various political groups, devoted their attention to reforming the political administrative structure of the island.

Their principal demands were related to the manner in which the electoral constituencies should take shape, the composition of the Legislative Council and extension of its powers and the composition and the role of the Executive Council and proposals regarding the franchise. Improvements of the local government administration and the “Ceylonization” of the public services were also presented, but received lesser emphasis.

In December 1919 the Ceylon National Congress adopted the following resolutions:
“The congress declares that, for the better government of the island and the happiness and contentment of the people, and as a step towards the realization of responsible government in Ceylon as an integral part of the British Empire, the constitution and administration of Ceylon should be immediately reformed in the following particulars, to wit:
‘That the Legislative Council should consist of about 50 members, of whom at least four-fifths should be elected on the basis of a territorial electorate, upon a wide male franchise and a restricted female franchise, and the remaining one-fifth should consist of official members and of unofficial members to represent important minorities, and the council should elect its own speaker.'”

The congress also demanded an Executive Council, with at least half its members Ceylonese, and that two of them should be elected members of the Legislative Council. They opposed a communal electorate and also asked for the control of the budget. The object of the congress was to have a fully representative government.

The above resolution laid emphasis on territorial representation for membership in the Legislative Council. Sinhalese leaders had made this demand as a grand cure for the country’s political and social maladies. Tamil leaders were opposed to it, as they knew that they would be outnumbered. A deadlock was reached.

A Sabapathy, the second Tamil Unofficial member of the Legislative Council of 1917, urged on behalf of the Jaffna Association, that the words “on the basis of a territorial electorate” be omitted from the resolution.

Consequently, James Peiris, president of the Ceylon National Association and E J Samarawickreme, president of the Ceylon Reform League, wrote to Sir Ponnampalam Arunachalam, the president of the Ceylon National Congress, “With reference to the suggestion of Mr A Sabapathy, that the words ‘on the basis of a territorial electorate’ be omitted from Resolution No 4; we shall be obliged, if you will point out to him that, the omission will seriously affect our case for reform as a whole. We beg to remind him of all that promoters of the reform movement had said of the baneful effect of the present system of racial representation.

“We had made the territorial electorate, a fundamental part of our demand. The omission of the words, especially after the publication of the draft resolution, will be considered a surrender of an important principle. It must be borne in mind that the resolutions contain only the essential principles which we desire to assert. They do not constitute a complete scheme, and while we desire to avoid the introduction of details into the resolution, we are anxious to do all that could be done to secure as large a representation as possible to the Tamils, when exceptional provisions consistent with the principles referred to come to be considered.”

The Sinhalese leadership, thus, managed to obtain Tamils’ approval for the resolution. They argued that Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim nominations to the Legislative Council would be communal and racial. (In fact, the desire of the Tamils was to hold on to their national identity.) Unfortunately, the Tamils, because of their desire for self-rule and the wish to cooperate with the Sinhalese to effect constitutional reform for the whole country, went along with the Sinhalese leadership, up to a point. But the Sinhalese leadership, which was adamant in its desire to abolish special electoral arrangements for the Tamils and Muslims, by branding such arrangements as communal and racial, was able to have their way. The Sinhalese also viewed the Tamils’ desire for cooperation, as a weakness in their leadership. It was an unfortunate presumption.

Sir P Arunachalam, trying to play the role of an honest broker, informed A Sabapthy that the assurances given by James Peiris and Samarawickreme regarding the representation of the Tamils, as envisaged by them in the territorial representation scheme, were as follows:

  • Three seats in the Northern Province
  • Two seats in the Eastern Province
  • One seat in the Western Province
  • In addition, possible seats for Tamils in other provinces and in the Colombo municipality
  • Their willingness to support the Muslim member in the Western Province.In October 1920, James Peiris was elected as the president of the Ceylon National Congress, replacing Sir P Arunachalam.

    The 1920 reforms were advocated and practiced by the Governor Sir William Manning (1918-25). The Duke of Devonshire, the Colonial Secretary, wrote to the governor, “Every community shall be represented and while there is a substantial non-official majority, no single community can impose its will on other communities if the latter are supported by the official members.”

    Accordingly, the Secretary of State for Colonies, after considering the representation of different sections of opinion in Ceylon, procured an Order-in-Council, of August 13, 1920, reconstituting the Legislative Council. There were to be a total of 37 members – 14 officials and 23 unofficials. Eleven of the unofficials were to be elected on a territorial basis and five others to represent the Europeans, two for Burghers, one to represent the Chamber of Commerce, two nominated seats were given to the Kandyans and one each to the Indians and Muslims. For the first time in the history of the Ceylon Colony, there was to be an unofficial majority of nine members.

    When the time for the election for the territorial seats arrived, Sir P Arunachalam was prepared to file his candidacy in Colombo, largely because of the residential qualification stipulated in the constitution.

    Immediately, a Sinhalese militant group, which had gained control of the congress, repudiated the assurances earlier given to the Tamils. F R Senanayake branded Sir P Arunachalam “an egoist who had an exaggerated notion of his importance and an extremist in politics”. They put forward James Peiris, who readily announced his candidature. Sir P Arunachalam gracefully withdrew. By that time, he was nearing his seventies and had already had a strenuous life in the service of the country. He said that he was retiring from politics and had no interest in a seat in the Legislative Council.

    Earlier, Sir P Arunachalam and the Tamils, despite their reservations, had accepted the idea of coexistence and a unified country. Unfortunately, due to the betrayal of the militant group of Sinhalese leaders, Sir P Arunachalam, to his great regret, was forced to leave the Ceylon National Congress, which was his brainchild.

    Territorial representation had come to stay and was accepted by the ruling power as the main principle of parliamentary representation. Racial representation – through which the Tamils had been able to uphold their identity and which from the beginning of foreign rule had been the sole safeguard of the minority rights, was given a severe beating by leaders, such as F R Senanayake, D S Senananyake and James Peiris.

    It dawned on Sir P Arunachalam that the only road to salvation for the Tamils lay in a return to the pre-Western order of things, in which the Tamils had for ages enjoyed separate nationhood and a separate sovereignty. He founded the Ceylon Tamil League and sang a new tune – safeguarding Tamil interests and a distinct nationhood.

    In an address to the league, he said, “The league was brought into existence by a political necessity. But politics is not the raison d’etre of its existence. Its aim is much higher. The committee and those responsible for the league consider that our aims should be to keep alive and propagate the Tamil ideals, which have through ages, and in the past, made the Tamils what they are. We should keep alive and propagate those ideals throughout Ceylon and promote the union and solidarity of what we have been proud to call ‘Tamil Eelam’. We desire to preserve our individuality as a people, to make ourselves worthy of our inheritance. We are not enamored of the cosmopolitanism which would make us ‘neither fish, flesh, fowl nor red-herrings.'”

    After 1920, the politics of Ceylon began to polarize into two feuding groups – the Sinhalese represented by the Ceylon National Congress and the Tamils, spearheaded by Sir P Ramanathan.

    The new Legislative Council met in June 1921. James Peiris moved in the council, as amendments to the Order-in-Council of 1920, resolutions embodying the proposals of the Ceylon National Congress. Accordingly, he urged for a council of 45 members, of whom six were to be officials, 28 territorially elected; communal and minority representations to be retained with slight alterations; an elected Speaker; the Executive Council should have three official members with whom should be associated three ministers with portfolios, chosen from members of the Legislative Council; the repeal of the governor’s powers to stop debates and other changes.

    Meanwhile, Sir P Ramanathan caused a joint-memorandum, drawn up and signed by the minority leaders, which he forwarded to the Secretary of State for Colonies, moving for such modifications in the congress scheme of representation as would enable the voice of the minorities to be heard in the council. It was a document meant to safeguard the interests of the Tamils and other minorities in the country. However, the spokesman of the Ceylon National Congress, E W Perera, branded it “infamous”.

    Sir P Ramanathan elaborated his scheme as follows, “When it came to the working out of this territorial representation in detail, Tamil delegates discovered that their Sinhalese colleagues, with certain exceptions, were striving to create electorates numerous enough in the Sinhalese districts to efface any opposition that may be offered on behalf of the other interests. Consequently, Tamil delegates and all the Tamil associations which had been affiliated to the congress retired from it and refused their cooperation.

    “Thenceforth, the congress ceased to represent the joint views of the Sinhalese and the Tamils and at its last session it represented only the views of the Sinhalese, and even of them, the views of the Sinhalese were represented only by those who had consented to be politically organized. My brother Arunachalam, who was the founder and president of the Ceylon National Congress, from its inception in 1919, until the latter part of 1920, and was a member of the Executive Committee in 1921, has withdrawn from the congress. In an interview granted to the ‘Times of Ceylon,’ on December 14, he said, ‘The National Congress has now been reduced to one representing merely a section of the Sinhalese and the feeling of mutual confidence and cooperation between various communities has been destroyed and the power prestige of the congress wrecked.'”

    Recommendations were considered by the Secretary of State, along with those of the European, Burgher, Tamil, Muslim and Indian members of the council. By the Order-in-Council of December 19, 1923, still further powers were conferred upon the unofficial members of the Legislative Council. The governor continued as president, but the council elected a vice president.

    The existing council was dissolved in August 1924 and the reconstituted one was established on October 15, 1924. It consisted of 12 official members, five ex-officio and seven persons holding public offices and nominated by the governor, and 34 elected members. Out of the elected representatives, 23 represented territorial constituencies, (five in the Western province, five in the Northern province, three in the Southern province, two each in Eastern, Central and Subaragamuwa provinces and one each in the North, Central and Uva provinces. Six were elected communally, three Europeans, two Burghers and one Ceylon Tamil for the Western province and five to be nominated communally, three Muslims and two Indians.

    Governor Sir William Manning, in his farewell address to the council, said, “It is of necessity that I am deeply concerned in everything that appertains to the present council since the constitution has been wrought under my own hands, and I cannot but feel a great responsibility for the future, and though I shall not be here to see its full development, I shall watch its performance with jealous regard and in trustful belief that it will fully achieve the high destiny which I and others desire for it.”

    Sir Hugh Clifford (1925-27), the new governor, soon realized that the Legislative Council with its unofficial majority led to troubles as its power was concentrated with those unofficial members lacking responsibility.

    Chapter 5: Political polarization on communal lines


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