Casteism in the north

by Kirthie Abeyesekera
C. Suntheralingam came from the elite ruling class of Tamils in colonial Ceylon. He was one of four distinguished siblings made up of Justice C. Nagalingam, lawyer C. Thiagalingam and C. Amirthalingam, a Director of Fisheries.

Justice Nagalingam was once the presiding judge at a Supreme Court trial where his two brothers, Thiagalingam appeared for the prosecution and Suntheralingam, for the defence.

A jack-of-all trades, it is debatable however, if Suntheralingam was master of any of the many roles he played in public life as professor, mathematician, civil servant, lawyer, parliamentarian and cabinet minister. A rolling stone that really gathered no moss, the enigmatic Suntheralingam, renowned for his sarcastic wit and biting tongue, was a colourful, yet controversial Northern politician much in the mould of his Southern counterpart, the equally redoubtable W. Dahanayake.

It was therefore, with great expectations that I undertook ‘Observer’ editor Denzil Peiris' assignment, in the late ‘sixties, to cover the Maviddipuram temple dispute where Suntheralingam, in the role of a defiant warrior, was fighting a fierce battle to keep ‘Harijans’ out of Hindu temples.

I had first seen Suntheralingam in the early ‘forties during my school days at Badulla where he and his daughter, Linga, a vivacious young university undergraduate spent holidays with his brother-in-law, C. Coomaraswamy who was Government Agent, Uva.

‘Sun’ as his peers called him was then, a daunting presence in the prestigious Ceylon Civil Service. Known for his "resigning nature,’ he was soon to quit the CCS with the famous quip, "I did not burn the midnight oil! to sit (at a kachcheri), signing gun licences."

Suntheralingam turned politician, and won the Vavuniya seat in Independent Ceylon’s first parliamentary election in 1947, as an Independent candidate. He was Independent Ceylon’s first Minister of Trade and Commerce in the D. S. Senanayake government, 1947-52. In 1948, when the Indian Residents Citizenship Bill was being debated, Suntheralingam, a lifelong friend of and adviser to Senanayake, walked out of the chamber at division time. When the prime minister asked for his explanation, he resigned.

He was too self-willed to hold allegiance to any political party or ideology, and remained ‘independent’ throughout his political and personal life. He retained the Vavuniya seat in 1952. Two years later, the Kotelawela government passed a Bill ‘providing a separate island-wide Indian and Pakistani electorate of registered citizens.’ Suntheralingam called the Bill ‘inhuman, uncharitable and a disgrace,’ adding that "if the Buddha was to come to this country today, he himself would be deported."

He repeated his Vavuniya victory in 1956. When the Bandaranaike government tabled some census statistics in the House, Suntheralingam, a maths wizard quoting a former British prime minister, called the figures, ‘lies, damned lies and statistics.’ In 1960, he was defeated by T. Sivasithamparam of the Tamil Congress.

With that exotic and erratic Suntheralingam-background in mind, Maviddipuram was going to be a challenge to me. My customary cameraman, Chandra Weerawardena was unable to make it. So, Raja Perera filled in for him. Though his playful tendencies sometimes got the better of him, Raja was as good a photographer as any in his field, and much fun to be with. Once on a boat trip with me to Katchativu, the little island in ‘No-Man’s land, he took his top off and jumped into the sea, but quickly regained his sobriety, clinging for dear life to the rope flung to rescue him.

On the Maviddipuram assignment, Raja and I set up base at the Kankesanturai Rest House reputed for its succulent prawns. For an entire week, between hectic working hours, we enjoyed the peace and solitude of the Keeramalai tank at dawn and downed arrack at dusk.

Mr. Suntheralingam, with his omnipresent walking stick in hand, led the ‘no-entry’ forces that kept day and night vigil at the Maviddipuram temple, keeping the equally vigilant depressed classes at bay. Both sides were armed, not with guns as they are today, but with sticks and stones.

Standing by in readiness for a breach of the peace was a strong, armed police posse under the personal direction of Aelian Fernando, Deputy Inspector-General of Police, assisted by the Jaffna Superintendent of Police, R. Sundaralingam, my good friend. In the meantime, a negotiating team, led by Vernon Abeysekera, Government Agent, Jaffna, was holding ongoing talks with the contending parties. In attendance was Stanley Senanayake, soon to be the Inspector-General, then, Supdt of Police, TAAFI — a Task Force preventing ‘kallathonis’ from sneaking in from South India.

Because of my close contact with the GA and the police officers, I was privy to the talks. Vernon and Stanley had both been pupils of Suntheralingam during his days as Professor of Mathematics at the Ceylon University, and treated him with much deference. They addressed him as ‘Sir,’ while gently, yet firmly, asserting their official authority.

The negotiating team heard harrowing tales of woe from the socially disabled sectors of society of how they were even denied water from ‘Vellala’ wells. Suntheralingam was an undisputed academician. One could understand him joining the ranks of those fighting for the rights of all the Tamil-speaking people. Yet, here he was, in a passionate bid to maintain the status-quo of the privileged class.

I recall the patience of the government negotiators, particularly, Government Agent, Abeysekera and the police officers, Sundaralingam and Senanayake in dealing with the obstinate, and often unreasonable and aggressive Suntheralingam, a man reputed for having his way - come what may.

For two or three days, there was a stalemate while Raja and I were kicking our heels for something that would give us headlines. In the meantime, I was phoning in my daily progress reports to the ‘Observer’ news desk in Colombo. Then one day, Supdt. Sundaralingam alerted me that things were reaching boiling point and could explode any moment.

At the crack of dawn the following day, Raja and I were on the scene. Suddenly, all hell broke loose. The temple doors were locked by the police. A huge crowd of people surged forward, enmasse, to storm the ‘Bastille’ Suntheralingam, backed by his followers, was wielding his walking stick at random, striking at anyone within reach. Stones were flying all round. One hit the head of Aelian Fernando.

I rushed to his aid, in a change of scenario - a civilian trying to help a high-ranking police officer in distress. He was bleeding, but said, "I’m all right," and continued to hold the fort. Raja, fearlessly stepped into the fray, clicking his camera, capturing some prize-winning shots of the raging battle. I asked him to rush to Colombo with his precious pictures of a story that I’d need a thousand words to tell - as the cliche goes. Later that morning, I filed my report. Raja had risen to the occasion and was back, hopefully to record more of the action. By that time, police had restored a semblance of calm.

R. Sundaralingam, in a telephone conversation with me from France where he now is Interpol’s Chief Drug Expert, refreshes my memory of Maviddipuram. C. Suntheralingam, he tells me, was charged under the Social Disabilities Act and fined Rs. 50. His appeals to the Supreme Court and the Privy Council, were both dismissed. He, in turn, filed a private plaint against Sundaralingam and 16 other police officers, for obstruction and intimidation. Attorney-General Tennakoon stepped in, and the case was thrown out.

A temporary truce prevailed. But the burning question of entry, ‘de-facto’ by anyone to a place of religious worship, hung in the air, although the right to do so, ‘de-jure’ remained.

Today, thirty-three years later, Tamil youth have rejected caste-distinctions and have revolted against their own hierarchy. Armed with weapons far deadlier than the sticks and stones of yore, they have taken the fight far beyond temple territory.

In hindsight, one must wonder whether the seeds of discontent that have grown into a cancer, were partly sown in Maviddipuram in that distant decade gone by.