Historic schism in Tamil politics

Revisiting Tamil Self-determination Part II:

By Rajan Hoole

We have sketched the emergence of the Tamil political community in the 1920s through the activism of the Youth Congress. Their presence on the ground, with the coming of Mahatma Gandhi in 1927, and of Kamaladevi Chattopadyaya, Sarojini Naidu and Jawaharlal Nehru in 1931, gave them immense influence. The traditional leadership of the Tamils was placed on the back foot by the Congress’ challenge over the caste (equal seating) issue in schools. We may trace the origin of the schism in Tamil politics to the Donoughmore report of July 1928. The Donoughmore report lead to the Congress and its offspring emerging as the Left in Tamil politics: the traditionalists and their progeny formed the nationalist camp. The Left, greatly decimated by events which favoured extreme nationalism, now largely survives as a loosely linked fraternity of savants.

Tamil Nationalists and the Donoughmore Report

The Donoughmore Commission appointed by Colonial Secretary Sidney Webb (Fabian Socialist) in 1927 comprised Lord Donoughmore (Liberal), MPs Drummond Shiels (Labour) and Sir Geoffrey Butler (radical Conservative), and Sir Matthew Nathan. The commissioners, observes Jane Russell (Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution), were committed to equality of opportunity, universal adult franchise, and the removal of communal representation which they considered a ‘canker’. Why did their report, both progressive in intent and made in good faith,evoke so much rancour among Tamil nationalists – then and now?

Nearing eighty, Ramanathan’s appearance before the Commission was unpropitious. Holding out for positions the commissioners justifiably found objectionable would have involved much awkwardness. Jane Russell says, "Ramanathan plus most of the ‘conservatives’ (Selvadurai, Sri Pathmanathan, and E.R. Thambimuttu were exceptions) believed and argued that giving the vote to non-vellala castes and to women was not only a mistake leading to ‘mob rule’, but Ramanathan especially suggested that it was an anathema to the Hindu way of life".

The Reform Bill based on the Report was debated in the Legislative Council from 27th September 1928. In June 1929 Governor Herbert Stanley reported to the Secretary of State that universal adult franchise it espoused was the bone of contention. Some legislators feared adoption of socialistic legislation that would strain the finances. Ramanathan stipulated a literary test for the vote, which would (Stanley observed) advantage the better educated Jaffna folk over the backward Kandyans. The Sinhalese, he said, were prepared for universal suffrage, but with much further restrictions on the franchise of Indian labourers than the Commission contemplated (Ceylon Constitution, Cabinet Paper 31-Aug-1945).

A Beacon in the North

To go behind the welter of misrepresentation and be fair to those concerned, we need attempt to understand the mental climate of those times. The task is harder now: over eighty years have flown, and thanks to the ravages of war much printed and written material has been lost and archives in Jaffna are frequently in a dilapidated state. I have had the benefit of the invaluable booklet Communalism or Nationalism(CorN), published by the Youth Congress in 1939.

Youth Congress delegates participated in the All-India Youth Congress and All-India National Congress sessions in Calcutta in 1928. The Indian Congress, which held out for home-rule, decided in December 1927 on a boycott of the Simon Commission whose remit was to advance India towards self-rule (as with the Donoughmore Commission here a few months later). Events moved towards the adoption of ‘swaraj’ (self-rule) on 31st December 1929. Owing to its close physical and emotional proximity to the struggle in India, events in Jaffna during the late 1920s were no less electrifying, and many of the young in the South were eager to follow.

The extensive inter-communal solidarity that prevailed could be seen in the list of speakers at Youth Congress sessions in Jaffna and meetings in Colombo: E.W. Perera, T.B. Jayah, P de S Kularatne, Peri Sundaram, D.B. Jayatileke and A.E. Gunasinghe to name a few. The Youth Congress had no truck with communalism in any form.Thus its first reaction to the Donoughmore Report in July 1928 was cautiously positive while disagreeing on the absence of home-rule: "The Congress welcomes the abolition of communal representation and the extension of franchise…"(Ceylon Patriot 12 Sept.1928). It saw no issue in the sharp reduction in Tamil representation as a result. The Hindu Organ backed the Youth Congress while conceding that there were a few Tamils "who in season and out of season trot out the bogey of Sinhalese domination".

While not influencing the vote on the second reading of the Donoughmore Reform Bill, which passed 19 votes to 17 on 12th December 1929, the Youth Congress did impose a standard of political correctness where it did not make converts. It took away the communal rancour out of the debate. Among statements attributed to Ramanathan by his biographer M. Vythilingam are, ‘Donoughmore means Tamils no more’ and ‘Mathematical democracy would mean purely and simply the total, permanent and absolute subjugation and ultimate extinction of minorities.’ However,at the second reading, no Tamil, not even Ramanathan, objected to universal adult franchise – the main bone of contention – but they, with E.W. Perera, voted against the Bill because it did not grant Home Rule, as Ramanathan personally averred (CorN).

The Boycott and the Rise of G.G. Ponnambalam

Directly under the influence of Kamaladevi’s visit, the Youth Congress boycotted the first elections to the State Council in June 1931 under the Donoughmore reforms – in order to advance the struggle for swaraj. While the South mostly did not join in, the Congress received support from important personages, among whom were Philip Gunawardene, T.B. Jayah, Francis de Zoysa K.C. and E.W. Perera. The Tamil traditionalists had already equated universal suffrage with mob rule and Sinhalese domination. The Sinhalese meanwhile feared that their boycott would reverse their gain of representation in proportion to their numbers. This was a dilemma for the Congress, for they strongly supported universal suffrage and did not want a misunderstanding. I learn that K. Nesiah was against the boycott. When Handy Perinpanayagam informed him of the committee decision to boycott, he left the impression that he opposed it but did not want to divide the Congress. In fact Nehru was in Lanka and had reservations about the boycott. The Youth Congress, in 1939,reflected (CorN), "Mahatma Gandhi himself admits that he has committed ‘himalayan’ blunders in politics. But somehow even these blunders have helped the movement (to freedom)."

The vacancies resulting from the boycott led to by-elections in 1934 where promises to restore communal representation to stop Sinhalese domination became a vote-catching expedient.Handy Perinpanayagam says in his preface to Communalism or Nationalism, "Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan who of necessity and right held a large place in the affections of the Tamil people has been pressed into service by Mr. [G.G.] Ponnambalam [in support of communal representation]. Perinpanayagam pointed out that although Ramanathan made a strong plea for communal representation at the first reading of the Reform Bill in September 1928, at the second reading in December 1929 ‘he stood for ‘Swaraj’ or Home Rule and had given up his plea for communal representation’".

But unlike Ramanathan who was too much a statesman to give offence to the Sinhalese, Ponnambalam showed no reservations on that score. The Youth Congress’Communalism or Nationalism was a response to Ponnambalam’s 197 page 50-50 speech in 1939, demanding 50 percent representation for the minorities. It describes Ponnambalam’s ‘Nazi style’ propaganda, beguilingthe Tamils as anadvanced people tracing their origins to Mohenjadaro in the Sindh, and then using innuendo to demean the Sinhalese. We will say more on this in the next part.

The Youth Congress saw the main hope in building the trust of the Sinhalese. They knew that communalism once kindled would prove an incorrigible monster and the minorities had the most to lose.Communalism or Nationalismconvincinglydemonstrated that 50-50 was a dangerous expedient.

We examine some of Ramanathan’sarguments for communal representation made before the Donoughmore Commission. One was that the US Senate selects two persons from every state, whether the state has 50,000 persons or a million. Another was the case of Ireland, where Britain created in effect two states because the Scottish and English colonists who dominated six counties in the North feared being swamped by the Roman Catholic majority.

The fallacy in Ramanathan’s and Ponnambalam’s reasoning is that they sought communal representation under a unitary system of rule, where it would transgress the founding principle of democracy – the legal equality of citizens independent of race andreligion.

If Ramanathan or Ponnambalam rather saw the unitary state as the problem, they should have made a coherent case for federalism, in a way the Sinhalese could accept (as the Kandyans might have) without causing hurt.

Ramanathan’s having been a child of his time and circumstance does not take away from his greatness as an educationist and statesman. The problem is how he has since been used by attributing to him positions he did not espouse. The one single biography of him from 1977 is vague on dates and important claims are unreferenced. Vythilingam writes (Vol. II) that Ramanathan was in England during 1930 (the final year of his life) to protest against the introduction of the Donoughmore Constitution but gives no further context or reference. This alleged journey to oppose the reform seems rather pointless and undignified as the Reform Bill had passed its second reading on 12th December 1929 and Ramanathan had not objected to universal adult franchise. The biography is also silent on the caste and the equal-seating issue in schools that dominated the last year of Ramanathan’s life.

However, Vythilingam has left behind ammunition that has been used to attack the Tamil Left to this day. He argues that Tamil interests are best protected by a foreign power that would keep Sinhalese in their place. Without mentioning names, he accused the Youth Congress of infecting the Tamils with the ‘Gandhian virus’ and claims that the ‘flagrant’ punishment the British meted out to the Tamils by imposing the Donoughmore Constitution, was the result of their agitation, which cast the Tamils as sworn enemies of the British Empire.He contends that on the other hand, the British rewarded Jinnah for his solicitousness with a separate state.

Thus G.G. Ponnambalam championed British Imperialism and when it failed, he literally fell at D.S. Senanayake’s feet. The LTTE went to India, got into an ugly fracas and courted the West for many years, to be wiped out with its delusions. Meanwhile Sinhalese leaders who tried to solve the problem were belittled and demonised and Tamils who disagreed with the Tamil nationalist camp were excoriated as traitors. And here we are with dung in our mouth, waiting for the next foreign patron.

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