Ramanathan, Arunachalam and the IDP villages

A news item in The Island on the 27th of January 2009 tells us that "three large villages" will be opened up instead of refugee camps, for internally displaced people. Then we are told that these villages would be named "Arunachalam, Kadirgamar and Ramanadan Liberation villages". I personally have no problem with the name "Kadirgamar". But I continue to be astounded by the stupid Poojas that continue to be heaped upon Ramanathan and Arunachalam.

This is partly because of the false history that has been circulated by the upper-class Colombo Tamils, where in an exaggerated role has been attributed to Arunachalam and Ramanathan. It is time that a correct perspective be put in place. Much of the objectively written history can be found in the detailed study by Dr. Jane Russell’s Ph.D thesis. She has also published her work as a popular book  (Communal politics under the Donoughmore Constitution, 1931-1947, Tissara publishers). Jane Rssell’s book as well as the writings of Mr. Vaithiyalingam who wrote a biography of Ramanathan show that Ponnambalam Ramanathan, a member of the turbaned elite Karuvakaadu (Cinnamon gardens) Tamils, was one of the most communal and casteist individuals of all time. Ramanathan held that the caste system was the very "foundation and framework" of Hindu society. The elite-caste individuals were chosen by God to rule, and the lower castes were there to live according to the dicta of Manu. Ramanathan led two delegations during the 1930s demanding the Colonial Office in London that Caste be encoded into the legislative enactments of Ceylon. Almost every one in the Vanni who fall into the category of "Internally displaced persons" would have been legislated into depressed caste status if Ramanathan had his way.

The cry for caste legislation then was similar to the cry for race-based devolution of modern times that the All-party representative committee (ARPC) of Tissa Vithana is grappling with and trying hard to justify! So it is an insult to human dignity when people like Ramanathan are honoured in naming "liberated villages". Ponnambalam Ramanathan’s brother Ponnambalam Arunachalam was a person with a more modern outlook than Ramanathan. He probably did believe in a more "Ceylonese" approach to politics.

But in the early part of the 20th century, politics was dominated by caste and not race. Hence the attempt to represent Arunachalam as a man who was "above race politics" is to misrepresent that era within an inappropriate idiom of more recent times. It is often said that P. Arunachalam represented both the Sinhalese and the Tamils in the legislative assembly of the 1920s. In reality, the Singhalese backed Ponnambalam only because

they deemed that their own ethnic candidate had a lower caste standing than Arunachalam. It is indeed true that Mr Ponnambalam Ramanathan (PR), interceded on behalf of the Sinhala leaders like F. R. Senanayake and Baron Jayatilleke who were senselessly imprisoned after the Sinhala-Muslim riots. In fact, that was how PR affirmed his position as THE Leader of the upper classes of both ethnicities. His victory in the 1911 elections was mainly due to the support of Hector Jaywardana, Francis Soyza and other Singhalese. His opponent Dr. H. M. Fernando was deemed low-caste and did not get the support of the Sinahla leaders. Ramanathan was merely re-paying his debt when he spoke for the imprisoned individuals who were part of his constituency. At that time, in the early part of the 20th century, race mattered little. What mattered was that all these people were upper-caste elite of the two communities. 

The  race rivalry began later, mainly with the machination of Governor Maitland in establishing "communal" representation. Arunachalam Ponnambalam (AP) attempted to use this possibility of "communal representation" to carve out a seat for himself in Colombo, and some writers claim that Sir James Peiris and E. J. Samarawikrama "promised to fix it" for  him with the Sinhalese (The eminent historian K. M. de Silva disputes this claim); and then the duo failed to keep to their word. Even if two people "promised it", what kind of democratic process and what kind of political simplicity is  it to expect that there would be no contest by others who were not party to such deals?. To make matters worse, AP invited Governor Manning to Jaffna, and tried to craft a private deal with the Governor. The newspaper magnate D. R. Wijewardene learnt of this (through one of his reporters ?) and managed to get a copy of the secret submission to the Governor made by AP. He splashed it in his newspapers, to the utter discomfort of AP. People like AP felt that positions in the legislature were theirs almost by divine right. When that did not materialise, his face-saving lament was this claimed "deception" by the Sinhalese. This incident soured AP’s relationship with the Governor, and under such circumstances, the only thing he could do was to bow out of politics, allowing his more narrow-minded brother, Ramanathan to dominate the political stage. So why is the government trying to "honour" Arunachalam and Ramanathan - feudal scions of casteism that we have largely begun to get away from? Today, the children and grand-children of those upper-caste Tamils are the members of the Tamil Diaspora which finance the Tamil racist adventure executed through the brutal machinery of the LTTE. The Caste politics of the 1920s was replaced by the race-based politics of G. G. Ponnambalam and Samuel J. V. Chelvanayagam (SJVC) from 1930s onwards. The D.S. Senanayake Era saw an attempt to formulate a united "Ceylonese" concept of the nation.

But the Tamil Arasu Kadchi launched its "Tamil-homelands" cry in 1949 and whipped up Tamil Nationalism to the no-return point in Vadukkodei. The LTTE, financed by the descendants of the Cinnamon-Gardens Tamils has annihilated, imprisoned or displaced the poor Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese of the North and the East So what folly it is, and what an insult it is, to honour Ramanathan and Arunachalam? Why not the Tamil school masters, Kururals, doctors, and police officers (like Bastiampillai) fallen in the battle against the LTTE? Why not honour the Tamil University academics and journalists driven out of the land by the LTTE, for daring to disagree with them? If we are to have liberation villages, we should name them after true liberators, or leave the old names of these villages as they were.   

by Sebastian Rasalingam,
Toronto, Canada

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