The baptism of fire and establishm ent of a secular tradition

Revisiting Tamil Self-Determination Part I

by Rajan Hoole

‘The communal solution to the communal problem is a fatal remedy’

– Handy Perinpanayagam, The Kesari, 18th September 1947

I endorse Laksiri Fernando’s contention that ‘in resolving the ethnic conflict, while the recognition of ethnic identities is of paramount importance, all attempts should also be made to transcend them at least gradually by all parties and all communities. Humanity is more important than ethnic identity(The TNA Demand for Federalism - The Island Feb. 01, 2016).One could in this context understand Fernando’s cautionary note that ‘the federal demand should not be put forward within an ideological framework i. e. ‘the right to self-determination’ or ‘homeland’ concept. It should be a pragmatic and a practical demand’. I claim, however, it is only through a conscious act of self-determination that the Tamils could become fully Lankan with dignity – given the systemic oppression they, beginning with the Hill-Country Tamils, have faced since the onset of Independence in 1948.

All of us belong to a multiplicity of identities – ethnic, regional and religious, which make demandson us. The early 20th Century was a time of decision for World Jewry, suffering persecution in Eastern Europe and discrimination elsewhere. Karl Kautsky, a Jew and European socialist leader, wrote in 1914 on the Zionist option:

"But, curiously enough, there had already been a Jewish state in Palestine, founded by Jews in exile, under the protection of a non-Jewish state; and even at that remote period – two thousand years ago – this state had not served as a very powerful attraction for the Jews living in the Diaspora. Most of the Jews chose to remain in Babylon, Damascus, Alexandria, Rome, and in other places of domicile, only a portion of them settling in Jerusalem. Most of them contented themselves with an occasional pilgrimage to the Holy City. They found that they prospered better when living as strangers among strangers than in the national state."

This was an act of self-determination by a significant segment of European Jewry, who committed their future to a democratic struggle for a socialist Europe, rather than to a ghetto state in Palestine. We focus on the Jaffna Youth Congress whose approach is aptly reflected in Harold Laski’s ‘Introduction to Politics’ (1931), cited by K. Nesiah (Community, 1963):

"…any society, at bottom, is essentially federal in nature. The state is – formal law apart – one with other associations, and not over and above them…[The state] should largely seek to register as law…the body of demands it encounters among them …. And it should not attempt the making of law without an effort effectively to consult those who will be affected by the result of its operations.[We have to look for the enrichment of national life in the expansion of society rather than of the state. This would mean that voluntary associations]– "the spontaneous expression of felt needs in the experience of men" – fill an important role and receive the recognition and support of the state."

The Congress and the Cooperatives

Until the late 1920s the Tamils, a caste-ridden feudal entity,did not emerge as a political community. It is colonial policy towards self-rule and universal adult franchise that came with the Donoughmore reforms of 1928 that made the crucial difference.

Instrumental in raising mass public consciousness in Jaffna were the two closely-linked developments: the Cooperative Movement and the (Jaffna Youth) Congress. Both drew strength and inspiration from the ongoing Indian struggle. Government policy aimed at facilitating self-rule and the appointment of W. K.C. Campbell as Registrar of Cooperatives gave the impetus for the first development. Campbell, upon assuming duties, appointed C. Ragunathan as assistant registrar for the Northern and Eastern Provinces. At the same time,the Congress took root in Jaffna College under Rev. John Bicknell andinspired among youth ideals ofsocial justice.

K. Paramathoyan’s doctoral thesis (University College London, 1990) sketches these developments in detail:

"Ragunathan seems to have had a hand too in getting the services of the Rev. A.A. Ward, an American Missionary, to be the first President of the Cooperative Provincial Bank established in Jaffna in 1929. Significant, too, is the fact that the second President of the Jaffna Cooperative Provincial Bank was the Principal of Jaffna College, the Rev. John Bicknell…

…The American Mission with a network of village or native schools had also embarked on a policy of opening ‘the doors of English learning to the intellectually able but economically disadvantaged by the provision of free education in the Central Day Schools, and free board and lodging as well as free education in the Charity Boarding Schools and the Batticota Seminary. The Church Mission, as will be seen later, also followed suit on a small scale, but it was the American Mission that pioneered this kind of egalitarianism’. The American Mission's influence was manifest in the activities of the Students' (later Youth) Congress founded in 1924. Its main aims were to organise the youth, to work for economic and social upliftment, to revive traditional arts and literature and to (advance the call) for political independence. The leadership came chiefly from the teaching community, most of whom were alumni of Jaffna College, influenced by Gandhian ideals…

… Mr. C. (Orator)Subramaniam, retired Principal of Skandavarodaya College, another founder member, describes, ‘When I joined Jaffna College to read for the Inter Arts Examination, Handy (Perinpanayagam) Masterhad already gathered round him a sizable following among student radicals. The hardline traditionalists had branded him a revolutionary ... He had employed an [untouchable] boy as his personal assistant, to [provide] his meals. He, alone of the teachers, had remained in school when all others had boycotted it on Rev. Bicknell admitting [untouchable]pupils to the school. Later, he had insisted on their having their meals at the same table... Handy Master(who championed the fight against injustice) soon became (the) symbol and essence, evocator and voice of the surge of national emotion that swept our land and we were all caught in it. The result was the birth of the Students’ (Youth) Congress."

Self-Determination: a Baptism of Fire

The Youth Congress faced its major challenge in 1930, in the wake of the Donoughmore proposals of 1928 and the colonial government in mid-1929decreeing equal seating for oppressed castes in assisted schools. The Congress had already in its first annual session in 1924resolved to abolish caste discrimination. It pressed the issue again in its sixth annual session on 21stApril 1930. The stagewas set for a confrontation with the traditional elites.

Meanwhile, to counter the attacks on the Congress as a pro-Christian entity, KalaipulavarNavaratnam, A.E. Tamber and Orator [Subramaniam] invited the sympathetic orthodox Hindu (later SaivaPeriyar) Shivapathasundaram, principal of Victoria College, to preside over their sixth annual session.The session went through despite filibuster, violence and arson by its opponents. I quote from SilanKadirgamar’s Handy Perinpanayagam Memorial Volume: Orator, in his Chairman’s address, rejected attempts by conservative Hindus to give religious sanction to the caste system. "As far as the Congress was concerned the question that was first and foremost is that of social justice…the removal of the disabilities suffered by the oppressed classes was an essential condition for political unity. The existingstate of affairs made it necessary for one part of the nation to seek the protection of an alien bureaucracy against the oppressors while an alien bureaucracy kept the whole nation in bondage. Unless efforts were made to eradicate caste oppression, all talk about renaissance, freedom, spiritual rebirth and national heritage were futile." Thus Hindus and Christians working shoulder to shoulder established among Tamils a tradition of secularism that no political party has since challenged openly.

Characteristically, Orator praised the colonial government the Congress opposed politically, welcoming the steps it had taken ‘to enforce in public institutions equality of treatment irrespective of caste creed or race’. Shivapathasundaram who had remained unperturbed by the filibustering and violence, reminded the Congress that they had ‘gone through their baptism of fire at an earlier session and it was no wonder that brimstone followed’.

We have in Orator’s speech the Youth Congress’ mainprescription for the realisation of self-determination, which is internal reform to secure ‘social justice’ without which all else would be ‘futile’. It is on the strength of this that the same1930 sessions of the Youth Congress resolved that ‘swaraj’ (self-rule) is ‘the inalienable birth-right of every people’ and called upon the youth to consecrate their lives to an independent Lanka. Thisshook the rest of Ceylon, where a long period of British rule was taken for granted. Most found it hard to understand that the Youth Congress exemplified, as in the Cooperative Movement in which it part-took, a richer notion of federated governance than is admitted in power politics.

The Cooperative Movement, and the Northern Division Cooperative Federation (NDCF) with which it was closely entwined, continued to advance public spiritedness and a sense of a wider community. A model of achievement was the Moolai Cooperative Hospital initiated by Malayan pensioners including V. Ponnampalam and Ragunathan himself.

Such was its fame that from places as distant as Pt. Pedro mothers went to Moolai for childbirth: "Through a small group of nine active societies, cooperative hospitals provide an extremely useful service. The pioneer among these, the Moolai Cooperative Hospital, was registered in 1936 and has become a unique society in a class by itself...It started as a cooperative dispensary established by pensioners from Moolai and adjoining villages who had returned from Malaya. A doctor and two apothecaries who were pensioners gave their services free of charge." (The Royal Commission on the Cooperative Movement in Ceylon, 1970).

Educational policy, which placed self-determination in its proper practical context, was framed at the first meeting of the Union Delegates in the Northern Cooperative Division held at the Regal Theatre Hall on 3rd July 1937, led by C. Ragunathan, Assistant Registrar, and V. Veerasingam, Head of the Northern Cooperative Movement, an alumnus of Jaffna College (videParamothayan):

"It was envisaged that a secular foundation like the cooperatives would provide an ideal breaking ground for moral values to be learnt in actual day to day situations. In such [a dispensation]…authoritarianism would give way…[and enable] a free exchange of attitudes and values… [and an appreciation of their cultural heritage]...The…approach was aimed at educating people to gradually transfer their allegiance from traditional institutions to modern institutions and teach them how to make use of new institutions to their best advantage."

It accords with Laski’s idea of‘expansion of society rather than of the state’. Even as ethnic polarisation advanced, senior Congressmen stood their ground: ‘The communal solution to the communal problem is a fatal remedy’. They resisted any settlement that situatedthe Tamils and Sinhalese as two distinct nations (and historic enemies).

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...