The courage and nationalism of the youth of a bygone era 


by Shanie


"I’m a little wounded but I’m not slain;

I will lay me down for to bleed awhile,

then I’ll rise and fight with you again"


– John Dryden (1631-1700)

Last weekend, there was a book launch with a difference at Colombo Hindu College’s Saraswathy Hall in Bambalapitiya. Historian Santasilan Kadirgamar had brought out a book Handy Perinbanayagam – A Memorial Volume. The book was in two parts. The first dealt with the beginnings of the Jaffna Youth Congress in the mid 1920s and the significant contribution these young school masters of Jaffna made to the political scene in the country for nearly a decade. The second part of Kadirgamar’s book is a selection of essays and speeches made by Handy Perinbanayagam, who was perhaps primus inter pares among the leadership of the Jaffna Youth Congress. The book is undoubtedly a welcome addition to the academic literature of Sri Lanka. The contribution made to political, educational and social reform in the country, first by the Jaffna Youth Congress and later by Handy Perinbanayagam, over a fifty year period immediately before and after independence has not been adequately recorded. This book and the article by Devanesan Nesiah serialized by The Island this week at least partly fills that void. But much more needs to be done to document and analyse the idealism and activism of these schoolmasters who were mostly in their late twenties at that time. Their inspiration was undoubtedly India’s Gandhi, who combined the anti-imperialist struggle with social and economic justice for the marginalised groups of India.           

Last Sunday’s book launch included speeches in Sinhala, Tamil and English from diplomats, academics, journalists, and civil society activists. One well-known woman journalist Namini Wijedasa quoting from the book referred to an incident in 1922 at Jaffna College when Handy Perinbanayagam, along with another, had become the first students from that institution to pass the Intermediate in Arts examination of the University of London. It was the pride of every student to be asked to deliver the oration at the College Prize-Giving. That year the honour fell to Handy Perinbanayagam in view of his academic achievement at the London examination. Perinbanayagam wanted to deliver the oration wearing the national dress, but the Rev. John Bicknell, the then Principal of Jaffna College, although known for his liberal views, insisted that Perinbanayagam stick to tradition and wear a suit. Perinbanayagam’s declined to do so saying that to do so would be against his conscience. If he could not wear the national dress on this occasion, he would rather forgo the privilege of delivering the oration. And that is what happened.

Namini Wijedasa pointed out that Perinbanayagam’s principled stand should serve as an example to today’s political leaders. She said that when the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was moved in Parliament, many politicians, particularly from the Left, made public pronouncements about the undemocratic nature of the Amendment and said that they would leave the government if the Bill was not withdrawn. But when division time came, all those Left leaders chickened out and meekly voted in favour. She said that in the course of her journalistic duties, she interviews many political figures. It was not unusual for those people to say that they would express their views frankly on condition of anonymity. They were not to be quoted by name. They just did not have the courage of their convictions, as Perinbanayagam did. Wijedasa’s outspoken comments must have made the cabinet ministers who were in the audience that day squirm in their seats.

Inauguration of the Youth Congress

The Student Congress (later to be re-named as the Youth Congress) held its inaugural sessions in December 1924. The resolution to form the Congress was proposed and seconded by M Balasundaram (later to be a Member of Parliament) and S Nadesan (later to be a Senator) respectively. The resolutions passed at that inaugural session reflected the idealism of these young men (it was an era where young women had yet to take a prominent place in public affairs). Ten resolutions were passed, among which were one calling for religious pluralism (there were been tensions between religious groups in the country at that time), another called for an end to the curse of caste differences, and another for the promotion and support of local trade and industry and yet another called for the teaching of Sinhala in the schools in the North and Tamil in the Southern schools. The second session of the Congress held the following year had P. de S. Kularatne being elected to the Chair. Kularatne (later to be Principal of Ananda College and a parliamentarian) had just returned from studies in England and adopted the national dress. He was to underline the three aims of the Congress a being (1) the revival of national art, literature and music, (2) the goal of economic independence and self reliance, and (3) the training of the young for national service and for a united Ceylonese nation.

The Donoughmore Reforms

In 1927, the Student Congress secured a huge boost when Mahatma Gandhi accepted their invitation and visited Jaffna. His visit had drawn unprecedented crowds. He had a punishing schedule visiting and speaking at various places and schools. Although Gandhithemes at various meetings were mainly the promotion of the hand spun (khaddar) clothing industry and the eradication of caste differences (untouchability), his visit also inspired the Student Congress to adopt a political dimension to their work. A Special Commission under the chairmanship of the Earl of Donoughmore had arrived in Ceylon in 1927 with a mandate to propose political reforms. They released their report the next year proposing far reaching reforms including the introduction of adult suffrage (voting rights to all adults irrespective of gender, property qualifications, etc -  a first for Asia) and the abolition of communal representation (a feature of elections to previous Legislative Councils).                          

Even before the Commission issued its report, S Nadesan in his welcome address to the 1928 session of the Student Congress had referred to communal representation as a quack’s remedy and as an evil that ought not to be recognised. There were some political leaders who had gone before the Commission and had not only asked for a continuation of communal representation but also spoken of the unfitness of the country for self-government. In a scathing attack on such ‘leaders’, Nadesan called them irresponsible self-seekers who were creating a vicious atmosphere with ill-digested and ignorant schemes of reform. However, whilst welcoming the far-reaching reforms like the abolition of communal representation and the extension of adult franchise, the Student Congress held that the Donoughmore Report was not acceptable because it was the view of the Congress that Ceylon was fit for responsible government and viewed with alarm the extension of the Governor’s reserve powers and the limitations on the control over the public service by the proposed State Council. They also disapproved of the retention of communal representation in the form of nominated members and the discrimination in restricting the franchise to women of only thirty-year olds while for men it was twenty-one. (The colonial government rejected this discriminatory recommendation when the Donoughmore Constitution was introduced and there was universal adult suffrage.)

The 1930 Sessions of the Student Congress (the following year it was to transform itself into the Youth Congress) passed some significant resolutions. One affirmed that the political and economic interests of all races in the island were identical and called upon all communities to work harmoniously for the common good. Another stated that no nation could rise to its fullest measure of its destiny unless women took an active part in the civic life of the country. Another called for the introduction of the mother tongue to replace English as the medium of instruction in schools. The final resolution called for Swaraj (Independence) as being the inalienable birthright of every people and pledged to work for the country’s freedom from colonial rule.

The Boycott of the 1931 Election

1931 was the year of the famous boycott of the first State Council election under the Donoughmore Constitution. The sessions that year was presided over by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, an Indian woman leader. The welcome address delivered by K Nesiah (later a University don) referred to her as a one who had earned for Indian women a status as patriots and social reformers. He challenged the women of Ceylon to serve their country in the same manner as their Indian sisters. While acknowledging the advantages from British rule, he went on to deplore the economic exploitation of the country. He called for the setting up of manufacturing industries by Ceylonese capital, directed by Ceylonese management and employing Ceylonese labour. ‘Economic slavery’, he said, ‘pinches our stomachs, political slavery wounds our self-respect but the slavery of the mind kills the soul of the race. And in this last result, our system of education has contributed in no small measure.’

That session of the Youth Congress passed the same resolution as the previous year calling for swaraj or independence but with an important amendment proposed by T N Subbiah and seconded by Handy Perinbanayagam. It stated that the Donoughmore Scheme militates against the attainment of Swaraj and there the Congress ‘pledges itself to boycott the scheme and authorises the Executive Committee to devise ways and means of enforcing the boycott.’ The boycott proved a complete success in the Jaffna Peninsula as no nominations were received in Jaffna on nomination day. But there were anti-boycotters as well and some of them tried their luck in Mannar-Mullaitivu. But obviously, the boycott call by the young idealists of the Youth Congress could not be sustained and the influence of the Youth Congress on the public life in Jaffna began to wane. By the time of the second election in 1936, there was no boycott. In its heyday, the Youth Congress attracted the support of left leaders like Philip Gunawardene and N. M. Perera, the nationalist liberals like S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, Francis de Zoysa, E W Perera and T. B. Jayah, educationists like P. de S. Kularatne and G K W Perera, and even of the Lake House media (which then adopted a nationalist line). Sri Lanka has yet to see another grouping of youths who took the lead in the political and social struggles of our country as the Jaffna Youth Congress.

We owe a deep debt of gratitude to Santasilan Kadirgamar for editing this book and the India-Sri Lanka Foundation for providing a grant to make this publication a reality. Perhaps we can conclude with words of Handy Perinbanayagam: "In spite of the reverses which the ideal of one Free Ceylon has received recently, we hold our faith in it. The concept of a free country where politics is free from the ideas of race and caste calls for courage and imagination and true statesmanship. We shall not subscribe to anything less than that, for nothing else will save Ceylon."  

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