Sri Lanka: The Untold Story, Chapter 6

Donoughmore – Tamils no moreĀ 

By K T Rajasingham, ‘Asian Times,’ Singapore

Chapter 1

Chapter 5

In 1927, the British government sent a Special Commission to Ceylon, consisting of the Earl of Donoughmore, Sir Mathew Nathan, Sir Geoffrey Butler and Sir Drummond Shiels, with the following terms of reference:
“To visit Ceylon and report on the working of the existing constitution and on any difficulties of administration which may have arisen in connection with it; to consider proposals for the revision of the constitution that may be put forward, and to report what, if any, amendments of the Order-in-Council now in force should be made.”

Lord Donoughmore, who was chairman of the Royal Commission, had earlier been Under-Secretary of State for War and Chairman of the committees of the House of Lords. Sir Geoffrey Butler was a Cambridge Don, a Member of Parliament and an expert on the procedures of the League of Nations. Sir Mathew Nathan had served as Governor in Hong Kong, while Sir Drummond Shiels was a Labor Party member and a Scottish Fabian.

The Commission left England on October 27 and arrived in Ceylon on November 13, where it remained until January 18, 1928. It held 34 sittings and interviewed 140 witnesses and delegations.

The three main Tamil associations that appeared before the Donoughmore Commission were the Ceylon Tamil League, the Tamil Mahajana Sabah and the All Ceylon Tamil Conference. Tamils emphasized their desire to maintain the proportion of seats they held in relation to the Singhalese, as set out in the 1924 constitution – 2:1.

W Duraisawamy, representing the Jaffna Association, and M Sri Pathmanathan, representing the Tamil Conference, also insisted on the 2:1 ratio, while many other Tamil associations, which believed that self-government would be a passport to Sinhalese rule and therefore they opposed any concessions sought by the Sinhalese leadership.

A E Goonesinha, the Sinhalese communal leader and also a trade unionist, advocated universal suffrage without discrimination of gender, religion, caste or race. E W Perera, who led a deputation of the Ceylon National Congress, said that the franchise should be restricted to those earning at least 50 rupees per month. Women would have to be over 25 years of age and would have to qualify by a rigid literacy test or property qualifications. The issue of suffrage became a divisive factor among various Sinhalese interest groups.

Meanwhile, Sir Ponnampalam Ramanathan foresaw the dangers that would befall the Tamils and other minority groups, by the granting of franchise. He perceived that universal franchise would bring about the rule of the majority, which might over time come to suppress even the most basic rights of the Tamils. He asked, “Is there anything sacrosanct about adult suffrage? Did the leaders of the people ask for it? Did the Commissioners feel in their heart of hearts that the country was ripe for it?

“They count people by their heads like cattle, 50 men on this side and 40 men on that side, or 60 men on one side and 40 on the other side.” He pleaded with the Commissioners that the constitution they proposed was extremely ill suited to the needs of the country, and when they replied that, he was the one who was out of tune with times. Ramanathan, in sheer exasperation, cried out, “It is meaningless casting pearls before swine.”

He asked in desperation, “Who are they, the Commissioners, to adjudicate upon what is good and what is bad for the country? What are their credentials for the very weighty and arduous task they had taken on themselves to perform? Were they equipped with a sound knowledge of the peculiar political, social and economic conditions prevailing in the country? Did they apprehend the gravity and sanctity of the task they set out to perform? Was it their motive to foist on the country a constitution that was beyond human ingenuity to work successfully and then proclaim to the wide world outside the inherent incapacity of the subject people to rule themselves?”

It became clear that the British, as with other imperial powers, when they realized that they could not hold oppressive sway over their subject people, when the forces of nationalism and self-determination became irresistible, they devised a machinery for the transference of power to the people as to render strong, healthy, peaceful and progressive government all but impossible.

The seeds of discord were sown and the subsequent history of the country becomes one long tale of racial hostility, internecine strife and ultimate national decadence.

Ceylonese leaders were bitterly divided over the nature and the extent of the constitutional reforms. The Ceylon National Congress was for a parliamentary form of government, with a prime minister and a Cabinet of ministers. They advocated a scheme with literacy and property qualifications, as the basis for the granting of suffrage. The Tamils and the other minorities showed extreme caution and demanded safeguards for minorities. The Kandyan Sinhalese demanded autonomy.

P B Nugawela, the president of the Kandyan National Association, appeared before the Donoughmore Commissioners and demanded a distinct nation under a federal scheme for the country. “Ours is not a communal claim or a claim for the aggrandizement of a few; it is a claim of a nation to have the right to live its own life and realize its own destiny.” The Kandyan National Association build it case around the Kandyan Convention of 1815, and they refused to accept that the Proclamation of 1818, which followed the Kandyan Rebellion of 1817-1818 against the British presence on their soil, which had made the convention invalid.

The Commissioners signed their report on June 26, 1928. They concluded that the unofficial members of the Legislative Council had reduced the existing constitution to an unqualified failure. The Commissioners issued the following indictment of them:
1. They were making continual attacks on government officials.
2.They became a permanent opposition, because they were not given executive responsibility.
3. They made use of every opportunity to embarrass the government.
4. They failed to appreciate the value of the services rendered to the country by public servants, because they thought that it would weaken their claim for self-government.
5. The abuse of government officials thus became a familiar phenomenon. In the council, in sessions of the finance committee, on the public platform and in the press, attack followed attack and criticism was heaped on criticism.
6. Policy was too frequently discussed in terms of personalities and the discussion carried at times beyond the bounds of what was courteous or decent.
7. Doubtful motives were imputed to and allegations of all sorts were made against those who had little opportunity for reply. Though the heads of departments were naturally the worst sufferers, no class or grade of public officer was exempt from these painful experiences.

The Donoughmore Commissioners came to the conclusion that, any further constitutional development of Ceylon had to be something that would create a sense of responsibility towards government. Therefore, they recommended a reform package that provided responsibilities for Ceylonese politicians.

The commissioners also recommended to the Secretary of State, as a remedy for all these ills, the granting, among other things, of adult suffrage to the people of Ceylon. Accordingly, all men above 21 years of age and all women above 30 were recommended for adult suffrage. The Commissioners believed that this was the only way in which the government could be made to represent the entire country.

“We have decided to recommend the adoption of manhood suffrage. On this basis according to the figures supplied to us, the possible voting strength of the electorate will be increased to 1,200,000. We desire, however, to make two reservations. In the first place we consider it very desirable that a qualification of five years residence on the island (allowing a temporary absence not exceeding eight months in all during the five year period) should be introduced in order that the privilege of voting should be confined to those who have an abiding interest in the country or who may be regarded as permanently settled in the Island … this condition will be of particular importance in its application to the Indian immigrant population. Secondly, we consider that the registration of voters should not be compulsory or automatic, but should be restricted to those who apply for it …”

The Commissioners failed to pay heed to the representations made by the Tamil delegations regarding distinct electorates for the minority communities on the Island.

The Commission felt that the provision of communal or race-based electorates had led to no unity or to a better state feeling among the various ethnic groups or to diminution of the demand for such electorates. Instead of finding ways to solve the growing ethnic divide, the Commissioners came up with the declaration, “We have unhesitatingly come to the conclusion that communal representation is, as it were, a canker of the body politic, eating deeper and deeper into the vital energies of the people, breeding self-interest, suspicion and animosity, poisoning the new growth of the political consciousness and effectively preventing the development of the national or corporate sprit.

“There can be no hope of binding together the diverse elements of the population, in a realization of the common kinship and an acknowledgement of common obligation to the country of which they are all citizens, as long as the system of communal representation, with all its disintegrating influences, remains a distinctive feature of the constitution.”

Unfortunately, it was not to be so. Territorial representation was foisted on the Tamils, which became the real flash point for racial disharmony where language and religion were considered the basic criteria to distinguish ethnic identity.

The Commissioners rightly identified that there existed no racial unity, and that the issue of communal disharmony had to be tackled and proper medication prescribed. But they failed to go deeper into the root causes for the communal divide. Instead of prescribing medication, they made the malady worse. They could have at least recommended a federal form of government, with a decentralized administration, instead of a unitary government with a centralized administrative structure.

The Commission took the minority fears into consideration only to reject their demands, as well as their demand for self-government. On Page 31 of their report they said, “Not only is the population not homogenous, but the divergent elements of which it is composed distrust and suspect of each other. It is almost time to say that the conception of patriotism in Ceylon is as much racial as national and the best interests of the country are synonymous with the welfare of a particular section of the people. If the claims for full responsible government be subjected to examination from this standpoint, it will be found that its advocates are always to be numbered among those from the larger communities and who, if freed from external control, would be able to impose their will on all who dissented from them. Those on the other hand, who from the minority communities, though united in no other respect, are solid in their opposition to the proposal .”

The Commissioners managed to identify the problems that the minorities faced in the country, but ignored the problems and left the ethnic groups to adjust their problems in the best way possible by being at the mercy of the majority community.

As a solution to the minorities issues they made recommendations as follows, unfortunately, not all of them were incorporated in the subsequent Orders-in-Council.

1. To take the responsibility from politicians of the affairs of public servants, over which there was much heartache among the different communities and castes, especially among the Tamils, they proposed that all matters affecting the salaries and emoluments, pensions and gratuities of all government services should be left to the decision of the Secretary of State, and appointments to the Governor. They further recommended the appointment of a Public Service Commission to advise the Governor regarding appointment, promotions and other matters connected with the services.

2. They assured minority representatives that through the executive committee system in the State Council they would be informed of matters that came up for discussion and be given an opportunity to object.

3. They recommended that the Governor be given the power to reject bills, “where persons of any particular community or religion are made liable to any disabilities or restrictions to which the persons of other communities or religions are not also subject to or made liable or are granted advantages not extended to persons of other communities or religions”.

4. They recommended the establishment of Regional Councils, one of the arguments in favor of which was that the special views of the different communities predominant in different parts of the island would have an influence on the administration of those parts.

5. Further, they reserved 12 seats for nominated members, so that unrepresentative minorities could be represented in the State Council.

These recommendations clearly showed that the British were no longer concerned about the welfare of the Tamils and other minorities in the country. They considered Ceylon to become a homogenous unit through their ill-conceived recommendations, and it became important for them to appease the majority Sinhalese community for the retention of British rule.

The Commission recommended a semi-responsible government and conceded a substantial measure of responsibility to the colonial political leaders. The central feature of the constitutional structure recommended was the unicameral legislature – the State Council – with seven executive committees. The Council would divide itself into seven committees; each of which would be responsible for a public department. Each committee would elect its own Chairman. The Executive Committee’s Chairmen to be designated as Ministers. Meanwhile, three of the most important executive departments were to be assigned to officers of the state. Seven ministers with these three officers of the state – the Chief Secretary, the Finance Secretary and the Attorney-General, constituted the Board of Ministers.

The Donoughmore Commission’s Report was presented to parliament in London, in July 1928. A commission report was subsequently drawn up and published on July 18, 1928. It has been described as the most memorable state paper on colonial affairs of the 20th Century.

As soon as it had been received in Ceylon and studied, a series of debates was initiated in the Legislative Council. On September 27, 1928, E W Perera introduced a motion in the Council in the following terms, “That this Council is of the opinion that government by committee is not suited to the local conditions and unacceptable to the people, and recommends that all the duties and responsibilities proposed to be assigned each committee should be assigned to minister elected by the Council.” An overwhelming majority in the Council adopted the motion.

Most representatives of the minority communities were hostile to the Donoughmore Report due to its forthright condemnation of representations based on race and the adoption of territorial representation. Sir Ponnampalam Ramanathan put forward a motion, seconded by H M Macan Markar, for the retention of racially-based representations. A Canagaratnam came up with an amendment to the motion for the preservation of the existing proportion of representation between the Sinhalese and the minorities. All but one Sinhalese member voted against the motion and saw it firmly defeated.

Meanwhile, the Ceylon National Congress, which represented the interests of the Sinhalese majority, resisted the granting of the vote to the Indian Tamils, who are employed as laborers in the plantation sector. D S Senanayake said that the very Indian Tamil laborers who were about to be enfranchised in Ceylon did not even have the vote in their own country.

D S Senanayake said that, there were about 700,000 Indian immigrant laborers on the tea and rubber plantations of Ceylon and if all the adults among them were given the right to vote, a large number of rural seats in the council would go to them, leaving the Ceylonese indigenous population without representation.

Leaders of the minority communities, including T B Jayah, spoke in support of the Indian franchise in the Legislative Council. He was supported by the Ceylon Indian representative member Natesa Iyer and by A Mahadeva (later knighted and the son Sir Ponnampalam Arunachalam).

Sir Hebert Stanley (1927-1931), the Governor, suggested to Sidney Webb, (Lord Passfield), the Secretary of State for Colonies, a formula for resolving the deadlock over the franchise. In reply, Webb wrote, “The question of franchise has involved more controversy than any other of the proposals of the Special Commission. I cannot fail to recognize that unless some material modifications of the proposals relating to franchise can be announced, the prospect of a general acceptance of the scheme and of active cooperation for its working, if it is to be put into force would be remote. I propose to adopt your suggestions, under which, subject to special provisions made for British subjects not domiciled in Ceylon being allowed to qualify for the franchise in accordance with the conditions of the present constitution, domicile should be the standard test for inclusion in the register.”

To pacify the Sinhalese, Governor Stanley suggested that the Indians plantation workers, apart from a certificate of permanent settlement granted on evidence of five years’ residence, voters should also sign a declaration of their intention to settle permanently in the country. Governor Stanley’s guidelines unnecessarily imposed restrictions on the grant of franchise to the Indian Tamils.

Also, both the Governor and the Secretary of State believed that the proposal to set up Regional Councils should be deferred. This rejection had far-reaching consequences, as it formed the cornerstone of the rejection of alternative proposals to the existing unitary form of government. Something that is, to this date, “the Mother of all the Conflicts,” in the country.

On November 14, 1928 a critical point was reached when Governor Stanley intervened, on the instruction of the Secretary of State for Colonies. He informed the council that “the recommendation of the commission must be regarded as a whole and that amendments which touched on matters of principle would therefore not be accepted”.

Subsequently, the Legislative Council began the debate afresh, on December 5, on a motion presented by Sir Bernard Bourdillon, the Chief Secretary, in the following terms. “That in the opinion of the Council, it is desirable in the interest of Ceylon that the constitutional changes recommended by the special commissioners on the constitution, with modifications indicated by the Secretary of State’s dispatch of October 10, 1929 should be brought into operation.”

The official members, it was announced, would take no part in the debate except so far as it might be necessary to remove any misapprehension on points of fact. After amendment the Council accepted the recommendations of the Donoughmore Report, resolving that in the case of females the age qualifications as a voter should be 21 and not 30 years. Also, every voter had to be able to read and write one of three languages – English, Singhalese or Tamil.

Sir Ponnampam Ramanathan opened the debate with a long speech. He opposed territorial representation, as well the suffrage. He said, “for the simple reason that ignorance must not be put on the same level with knowledge and that the ignorant, excitable man is an awful danger to the country, but a man with knowledge is a good asset to it.”

The Legislative Council resolved to have 50 territorially-elected representatives and eight nominated members, instead of 65 as suggested by the report. The governor supported this amendment. This changed the ratio of the Sinhalese/Tamil representation from 2:1 to 5:1.

The Donoughmore Report in its new form was adopted in December 1929 by a narrow margin of vote. Governor Stanley restricted the voting to the unofficial members, whereby 19 members voted in favor of the adoption, while 17 voted against it.

E W Perera and C W W Kannangara were the two Sinhalese leaders who voted against the adoption, while E R Tambimutu, representing the Batticaloa constituency, was the only Tamil voted in favor of the adoption of the motion.

T B Jayah, the Muslim representative in the Legislative Council, on behalf of the Muslims, sent a memorandum, “Muslims and the Proposed Constitutional Changes in Ceylon,” to the Colonial Office in London, pointing out that the Muslims remained a minority ethnic group in the country and the new scheme was unacceptable to them.

Shortly before his death in 1930, the Grand Old Man of Ceylon, Sir Ponnampalam Ramanathan, who was in the twilight of his life, went to England to meet officials in Whitehall to unsuccessfully point out to them what he believed to be the harm that the Donoughmore Report might bring to the country, if it was implemented.

A short time before, Sir Ponnampalam Ramanathan took his final leave, he addressed a meeting of Tamil leaders at Ramanathan College, built by him, located on the Jaffna-Kankesanthurai Road, at Chunnakam. He spoke with a voice charged with emotion, “Gentlemen, dangerous times are ahead of us. The Donougmore commissioners have framed a constitution which will be the ruin of the country. The uninstructed masses will henceforth choose your rulers … I see before my eyes a surging mob. Before … the future of our Tamils is in peril.”

According to Ramanathan, Donoughmore meant “No more Tamils”. He contended that any form of government that foreigners formulated should guarantee the Tamils the absolute freedom to work out their destiny, as the Sinhalese could work out theirs. Ramanathan ultimately passed away on 30 November 1930. His death marked the end of a great era.

Earlier, British troops in 1796 captured the former Tamil kingdom from the Dutch. Instead of making the captured kingdom a free sovereign state, they acquired it as a possession. In 1802, they made it a part of the Crown Colony. In 1815, the British colonial masters denied the Tamils entry into the Kandyan kingdom after its capture through the Kandyan Convention, which they entered into with the Sinhalese Chiefs. In 1833, without listening to the views of the Tamils, Colebrooke commissioners recommended the unification of the areas that belonged to the Tamil kingdom with the rest of the country.

It was the grave mistake on the part of the British to bind together in a common polity the two ethnic groups with no common links, and to bind them together by the whip they wielded. It was a death knell for the Tamils’ distinctiveness, freedom, independence and their centuries-old sovereignty. In 1930, by the Donoughmore Commission, the British foisted Sinhalese ethnocentricity over the Tamils, something for which they can be blamed for the troubles of today.

Chapter 7: State Councils – elections and boycotts

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