Political polarization on communal lines
by K.T.Rajasingham, ‘Asian Times,’ Singapore
The Legislative Council was dissolved in August 1924 and elections for a new reformed council were held. According to the Order-in-Council, a candidate had to be over 25 years of age, be a British subject, able to read and write English and possess a property qualification. Furthermore, the voters had to be male, British subjects, not younger than 21 years of age, able to read and write English, Sinhalese or Tamil and possess a small property or income qualification.
Though women were still excluded from voting, the total number of those qualified to vote rose to 204,997, or 4 percent of the total population. After the elections, the new council was constituted on October 15, 1924.
The council’s membership was expanded to 49, of whom only 12 were officials. Out of the 37 unofficials, the governor nominated three and 34 were elected members. Eleven of those elected entered the council from the communal constituencies. The other 23 were from the territorial constituencies – 16 from the Sinhalese and seven from the Tamil electorates.
Sir Ponnampalam Ramanathan was elected from the Northern province (North) constituency. Other elected Tamil members were, Duraiswamy Waithilingham – Northern province (West); T M Sabaratnam – Northern province (East); S Rajaratnam – Northern province (Central); A Kanagaratnam – Northern province (South); E R Thambimuthu – Batticaloa; M M Subramaniam – Trincomalee; A Mahadeva – Western Province (Ceylon Tamil); I X Pereira – 1st Indian member; S K Natesa Iyer – 2nd Indian member; K Balasingham – nominated (Tamil); and three Muslim members – H M Macan Markar (1st Muslim member), N H M Abdul Cader (2nd Muslim member) and T B Jayah (3rd Muslim member).
S K Natesa Iyer was a gifted orator and his chequered political career is worth examination. The following quotes are from Out of Bondage “S K Natesa Iyer had been in the Legislative Council earlier, too. He succeeded S R Mohamed Sultan, the fresh Indian [sic] nominated to the Legislature Council of 1920. Sultan died a year later.”
“Natesa Iyer, a Tanjore Brahmin who worked as a government clerk in Madras (Chennai, South India) and was brought to Ceylon in 1920, to edit a Tamil newspaper, Thesa Nesan, published by Arunachalam and Dr E V Ratnam, both executive committee members of the Ceylon National Congress, created a stir. Natesa Iyer joined A E Goonesinghe’s Ceylon Labor Union and quickly came to be its vice-president.”
“From 1925, he took an interest in Indian plantation labor and wanted to organize them under the Ceylon Labor Union. Natesa Iyer quit the Ceylon Labor Union in 1928, disgusted by Goonesinghe’s anti-Indian campaign . From then on, he devoted himself to the cause of estate labor. He formed the All Ceylon Estate Labor Federation with headquarters in Hatton. He launched a short-lived English Language journal The Indian Estate Labor, and published many pamphlets espousing this cause.”
Normally, Natesa Iyer use to go with his wife to estates to attend meetings and to deliver rousing speeches to make plantation workers aware of their plight. His wife, a minstrel, use to sing the poems of India’s poet laureate, Subramaniya Bharathy. She also sang her own compositions in a melodious, sweet but stirring voice. All her poems were of a revolutionary nature. They were printed in small booklets and distributed to the workers. One of her poem is as follows:
“Clearing of the jungles is by the Indians – you
Study and speak because of the Indians – you
Developed the country with the help of the Indians – you
Now speak ungratefully of the Indians.”
The 1924-30, the Legislative Council witnessed the political entry of Don Stephen Senanayake, who was to take up the first prime ministerial position in the independent Ceylon. He entered the council as an uncontested member from Negambo. Also, the people in the North Central province (Anuradapura) elected Herbert Reiner Freeman, a former British civil servant.
The Executive Council constituted three “ex-officio” members – the colonial secretary, the attorney-general and the government agent of the Western province – and such others as the governor might appoint under instructions from the secretary of state.
The governor was to consult the Executive Council on all important matters, such as granting land, the appointment of judges and other officials, granting pardons or reprieves to criminals, fines and the dismissal or punishment of public officers.
This new Legislative Council, for the first time, elected a vice president to take the chair at ordinary meetings, while the governor continued to retain the position of president of the council. James Peiris was elected by a unanimous vote. While accepting the office, he said, “I beg, in the first place, to thank my old friend Sir Ponnampalam Ramanathan, whose name has been mentioned in this connection, for intimating to you that his duties will not permit him to accept the office, and I also thank the whole council for accepting my name.”
James Peiris was knighted in 1925. He held the position of vice president of the Legislative Council until his death in 1930. This in effect meant that Sir James Peiris occupied the highest position available to a Ceylonese – and it was the highest position which any Ceylonese had ascended to up to that time.
When the governor was abroad on leave, he acted as governor, the first Ceylonese to do so. He was, therefore, the first Ceylonese occupant of Queens House – an achievement which is often overlooked by those who regard Sir Oliver Goonetilleke as the first incumbent.
The change in the composition of the Legislative Council led to a change in the style of government. Due to the unofficial majority, the government often found it difficult to get its measures through. Firmness combined with diplomacy was needed to carry out the administration. Often the government was compelled to devise compromise formulas acceptable to the majority to have measures passed.
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is a common adage, but it is an appropriate one to describe the political situation of the Legislative Council. It was unfortunate that the British government, in reforming the constitution, failed to look into the disadvantages that might arise by granting an unofficial majority in the council without making it accountable.
Sir Hugh Clifford, the governor, soon realized that the new Legislative Council was unworkable and he urged the secretary of state to introduce reforms to rectify the position, by a secret dispatch, in November 1926. He stated that the 1923-1924 constitution ought to be considered a transitional one and that a greater measure of responsible government for the Colony of Ceylon was the logical and almost the inevitable step.
The reasons given by Sir Clifford in justification of his desire for the appointment of a royal or parliamentary commission to review the constitution of the colony were the following:
1. The revival of Buddhism in the past 20 years for political rather than religious purposes.
2. The substitution of the vulgar abuse of the tenets of other creeds for the toleration of ancient Buddhism.
3. The acquisition of wealth by the Karava caste (fishing community) and their endeavor to break the monopoly that the highest caste or the Goigama (cultivators) aristocracy had until then enjoyed of representing the Sinhalese interests in the Legislative Council.
4. The ill feelings and racial animosity generated by caste prejudices.
5. The first scheme of reform worked out in 1909 by Colonel Seely, then the parliamentary under-secretary of state for the colonies, and its acceptance by Governor Sir Henry MacClum (1907-1913) despite the protests of his executive councilors and the obvious inapplicability of it to local circumstances. This involved elections for the Educated Ceylonese Seat in 1910.
6. The first election of the representative of the Educated Ceylonese, which was fought purely on caste lines, when a high caste Tamil was chosen, with the aid of high caste Sinhalese votes, and from which time caste prejudices proved to be a stronger passion than racial bias.
7. The growth of unrest thus created and maintained with vigor during World War I.
8. The outbreak of riots in all the districts occupied by the Sinhalese in 1915, owing to a religious fracas between Buddhists and Mohammedans (Muslims) at Gampola.
9. The misapprehension of the situation by Governor Sir Robert Chalmers and the Colonial Secretary, who through want of colonial experience failed to deal promptly and firmly with the disturbances by using their trained civilian officers and the police, but allowed martial law to be proclaimed, surrendering their responsibility to the general officer commanding the troops and who had been in the Island for only one month. They allowed him to adopt measures for the suppression of the riots that left behind them a legacy of grievance and hatred.
10. The strengthening of the hands of the local politicians, by the mismanagement of the riots and by granting a series of legislative reforms during the governorship of Sir William Manning, the final installment of which in 1924 vested all financial control in the hands of the 36 unofficial members and the administrative responsibility in the hands of the governor only. But he could not discharge this save for the goodwill of the unofficial majority in the Legislative Council.
William Ormsby-Gore, the under-secretary of state for the colonies adopted a favorable approach to Governor Clifford’s views. He saw the governor’s memorandum as a “skilful diagnosis of the diseases” and as a “masterly document”. He was in favor of the appointment of a royal or parliamentary commission to review the constitution of the colony. Thus, in April 1927, Sir Clifford announced the impending appointment of a commission to look into constitutional reforms in Ceylon.
When the news of the appointment of a royal commission was made public, a resolution was passed in the Legislative Council calling for the publication of Governor Clifford’s dispatch. Though the colonial office refused, the colonial secretary published, brief extracts of it in an official communication to the Ceylon National Congress, which had adamantly pressed for it. By this time the congress had been weakened by the departure and subsequent death of Sir Ponnampalam Arunachalam, on January 9, 1924.
In the 1924 elections to the Legislative Council only three Kandyans were elected. They had accepted the 1924 reform package, but only on an undertaking by the Ceylon National Congress that no Low Country Sinhalese would contest the territorial constituencies of the Kandyan provinces. As the Kandyan leaders were disillusioned, they left the Ceylon National Congress and formed their own Kandyan National Assembly and campaigned for separate representation for Kandyans. And by November 1927 they had called for a federal state in Ceylon, with autonomy for the Kandyan provinces.
Ceylon was not a nation then, and it is not now. It is a union of multi-ethnic groups. The English-educated middle-class tried its best to instill a semblance of national feeling of being “Ceylonese”, but it did not work. From the very beginning, the Sinhalese were not prepared to make any compromises with the Tamils.
Unfortunately, Tamil leaders insisted on their importance as a race and opposed the territorial representative system, fearing that it might force them to be a minority group and they failed to adopt any uniformed structured proposals for the betterment of the Tamils.
During this period, the country witnessed the formation of two distinct political grouping – a majority and a minority. The main minority group was the Tamils, which by then had lost everything, including its distinct identity. The majority Sinhalese were able to re-establish their political superiority through territorial representation, a cunning design aided and abetted by the British colonial masters.