The voice of  conscience– III

by S. Thavarajah,

Former MP, Spokesperson EPDP and Member of APRC representing EPDP

Continued from yesterday

Consequences of the

‘Sihala Only’ Act

The events that followed the April 1956 General Elections widened the ethnic divide to the point of no return; they made deep wounds in the hearts and minds of the Tamils. They are:

1. Legislating Sinhala as the official language in the House of Representatives on June 5th 1956 while all Tamil members, the LSSP and Communist party members opposed it.

2. About 200 Tamil volunteers led by 12 Members of Parliament who were staging a silent protest outside the Parliament building at Galle Face Green on the same day were manhandled by a mob, while the police looked on.

3. This was followed by rioting in the city with Tamils getting manhandled in buses, trains and on the streets.

4. In 10 days of sporadic rioting, an estimated 150 persons were killed, with the majority of the victims, Tamils.

Consequent to these events, the ITAK reiterated their policy objective of, "Autonomous Tamil linguistic state within a Federal Union of Ceylon" as the only way of protecting the "Cultural freedom and identity of Tamil speaking people."

Year long political dilly-dallying came to an end with a compromise settlement referred to as the Banda-Chelva pact on July 25, 1957. The concept of devolution of power as a means to ensure the political rights of the Tamil speaking people got its acceptance from the Sinhalese polity for the first time through this accord. Further, the pact implied the need to maintain the demography of the districts in land settlements. On the question of language, it got the ‘parity of status’ as a parallel language of administration in the Northern and Eastern provinces and for ‘reasonable use’ in the rest of the country.

The delay in introducing the necessary legislative enactments to give effect to the agreement was causing concern amongst the Tamils. This vacuum gave impetus to various disobedience campaigns in the North and East.

The intolerance of the Tamil polity for the delay in implementing the pact could be seen from the following expression by Dr. E. M. V. Naganathan on August 13th 1957:

"The policy of political agreement by negotiations appears to be futile, because the government cannot be depended upon; the possibility of carrying on our freedom struggle through civil disobedience may be deemed necessary again."

Within nine months of signing, on April 9th 1958, Mr. Bandaranayke announced abrogation of the pact unilaterally. The pact finally found its resting place in the archives.

Since then the phrase "betrayal of assurances" became the widely used axiom in the Tamil polity. It is worth recalling what Mr. Bandaranayke is said to have told the Buddhist monks, when he was under pressure to abort the pact.

"If you are against this pact, I would certainly tear it up but it will endanger the future of the country. You have to think about it."

Provoked by this course of action, the ITAK leadership called upon the Tamil speaking people on April 10th, "to embark on a non-violent civil disobedience movement," and declared that the only alternative before the Tamils were to, "fight back for sheer survival or to be forever content to remain a subject race." As announced, the ITAK leadership continued with various forms of disobedience campaigns.

The brewing up of tension as a result of all these developments led to the anti-Tamil riots of 1958. It began with the attack on May 22 on the ITAK delegates by stopping the train in which they were traveling to attend a party convention at Vavuniya. Four of the delegates were killed in the attack. Another train carrying the delegates was derailed the following day. Within a week, the riots spread to all parts of island.

The worst that reverberates in the minds of the Tamils, was the burning of a Brahmin priest alive by pouring petrol on him in Panadura. The other excesses occurred in Polonaruwa and Hinguragoda, where Tamils were chopped with swords and grass cutting knives or burnt alive.

In spite of all these, there was not even an attempt to harm a single Sinhalese out of a total number of about 2,100 who lived in Jaffna at that time.

Instead of arresting the perpetrators of the riots, the Government detained the Tamil leadership. Several Tamil MPs including ITAK leader S. J. V. Chelvanayagam and about 150 of its district leaders were placed under house arrest. The detainees included Muslims as well.

On January 1st 1961, Sinhala became the official and administrative language of the country in terms of the act. The implementation of the Official Languages Act, without any conciliation for the Tamils, had spurred the emotions of the Tamils. A large number of public servants opted to retire.

The resolution passed at the 1961 ITAK convention called on the Tamils of the Northern and Eastern provinces;

"to launch a direct action campaign by picketing Government offices and to refuse to co-operate with officials conducting business in Sinhala and to resist the teaching of Sinhala in schools in Tamil areas,"

is testimony to the emotional upsurge in the Tamil polity as a result of implementation of this act.

As the Tamil polity had failed in its entire endeavour to regain its status quo, the call by the ITAK for a "satyagraha campaign" was met with grate success. It generated tremendous enthusiasm among all sections of Tamil people and it brought together the diverse polity of the Tamils with one motivation.

The participants at the "satyagraha campaign" were strictly forbidden from resorting to violence either by deed or word, even under grave provocation.

The campaign, which started with about 200 volunteers of the ITAK in front of the Jaffna Kachcheri on February 20th 1961 drew a large crowd from various cross sections of people, including elderly. Tamil congress members, LSSP activists, Mayor of Jaffna T. S. Durairajah, professionals and businessmen; all threw their weight behind the campaign by direct participation with their supporters, in spite of severe harassment by police.

This is what Mr. Chelvanayagam said during the height of the Satyagraha Campaign;

"As the political parties in south Ceylon treat the Tamil question as a suitable issue to play upon the emotions of the Sinhalese voters and enthrone themselves on the seats of power, these parties or their politicians refuse, or are unable, to see the justice of our demands."

"The Tamil Arasu Kadchi, which admittedly represents the Northern and Eastern Provinces and which claims that it is not merely a political party, but is a liberation movement, has one of three courses open to it. The first is to surrender, the second is to rise in armed revolt and the third is to adopt the Gandhian technique of Satyagraha and civil disobedience."

"The first one of abject surrender will be a disgrace to our people and will be aiding and abetting the political crime of genocide. The second one of rising in revolt is both impracticable and immoral. We are thus left with the third, namely the Gandhian technique. What do our critics want us to do? Do they want us to give up the struggle for the vindication of our unalienable rights?"

"The Parliamentary means of objection have failed merely because the party was outnumbered by a communal majority. Therefore, the party wants to resort to extra-Parliamentary measures which are not normal. By adopting this method, the party subjects itself and its supporters to undergo suffering without hurting its opponents. The party members and its supporters know very well that they would be subjected to arrest, detention."

The two months of "Satyagraha Campaign" was brought to a halt by police using force against Satyagrahis. They were trampled with boots, attacked with batons, kicked and dragged away. A strictly non-violent campaign to regain their lost rights was brought to an end by the use of violence; followed by declaration of curfew and the arrest of Tamil leaders.

The Times of Ceylon, the evening daily, in its editorial on 22nd February, 1961 about the police brutality reported as follows;

"It is noteworthy that Earl Russel’s and Federal Party’s were both non-violent demonstrators, but the significant difference was that while Russel and his followers had to deal with the disciplined London police, the Federal party had to reckon with Ceylon Police."

S. D. Bandaranayake, a government MP at that time, who had been critical of the Tamil claims, after visiting Jaffna to assess the situation stated;

"It is the duty of patriotic Sinhalese people to grant the Tamils in the Northern and Eastern areas their rightful place in the use of the Tamil language; the only alternative to a settlement is division of the country like what has happened in Korea, Vietnam and the Congo."

Acting GA, Nissanka Wijeyeratne, a Sinhalese, was quoted in the newspapers as saying; "The Satyagrahis are very well behaved gentlemen."

The way the state handled the passive resistance of the Tamils to win over their rightful place had left behind un-healable deep wounds in the mindset of the Tamil community. It had left behind a deep scar amongst the teenagers of that time, who were onlookers of the treatment meted out to the elder generation of their community. These teenagers became militants in the next decade.

With all the violence unleashed against the Tamils, in 1956 and in 1958 by mobs and in 1961 by the forces in crushing a non-violent uprising, the Tamils by and large had not resorted to any form of violence. But they started to realize that the state cannot be depended upon to provide them with adequate protection against lawlessness.

In spite of all these bitter experiences, the March 1965 general election turned out to give a glimpse of hope to Tamils. The election was followed by an agreement between Dudley Senanayake and Chelvanayagam; an agreement, coupled with assurance from the ITAK to support to form the Government. It was a political marriage between the UNP and the ITAK, but the honeymoon did not withstand time.

This agreement conceptually embodied the underlying principles of the B-C pact, thus reiterated the acceptance by the Sinhala polity that, (1) devolution of power is the only means to ensure the political rights of the Tamils (2) there is a need to maintain the demography of the districts and provinces in land settlements (3) Tamils should be given ‘parity of status’ in the administration of executive and judiciary in the North and East.

As compared to the B-C pact, the D-C pact had acknowledged one more conception; that the Northern and Eastern provinces were the traditional habitat of the Tamils. It is evident in the pact by acceding to (a) land in the Northern and Eastern Provinces should in the first instant be granted to landless persons in the District; (b) secondly to Tamil speaking persons resident in the Northern and Eastern provinces; (c) thirdly to other citizens in Ceylon, preference being given to Tamil citizens in the rest of the Island.

Critics on the Tamils side expressed concern that the pact, if implemented, would result in glorified Municipalities. In spite of this criticism, the Tamil polity by and large was prepared to accept the pact as a compromise.

The first phase of the agreement was honoured by passing the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Regulations in January, 1966.

Part IV Continued on  tomorrow


Chelvanayakam, Amirthalingam & Mangayarkarasi



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