C. Suntharalingam, Part I: Tamil Story Telling on the Citizenship Bill

C. Suntharalingam, Part I: Tamil Story Telling on the Citizenship Bill

Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

April 17, 2017

Cooked up Commitments to Hill-country Tamils

Ceylon Tamil leaders treated the hill-country Tamils perfidiously during the 1948 Citizenship Bill. Today, having wrapped ourselves up in the nationalist flag and it has become important for us to maintain that we were always with them. I had been asked to review Grandfather’s Letters edited by C. Suntharalingam’s (CS’s) grandson. I found myself quickly immersed in a web of lies on who voted how on the Citizenship Bill, especially CS himself. The review necessitated first a study of voting records of the time.

Let me begin with Prof. Bertram Bastiampillai in the Daily News (20.08.2005):

“Suntharalingam … walked out of the legislature … on the second reading of the Indian Residents Citizenship Bill on 10 December, 1948. Prime Minister wanted Minister Suntharalingam’s explanation. [He] immediately resigned in protest.

“Suntharalingam cleverly saw in the measure a plan to decitizenise and disenfranchise a majority of hill country residents who had made Sri Lanka their home … This was an obvious flagrant injustice. Suntharalingam had the courage of his conviction to forego a ministerial portfolio.”

This is the general, but false, view of CS. The truth is that CS had already voted to decitizenize the hill-country Tamils when he voted Aye for the Citizenship Act on 25.08.1948. The Hansard (25.08.1948, cols 1969-70) gives the division at the second reading. Ayes 58, Nays 35. Of the Ceylon Tamils, Ministers CS, and C. Sittampalam, and Members SU Ethirmannasingham and V. Nalliah voted Aye. Voting Nay were SJV Chelvanyagam, C. Vanniasingam, AL Thambiayah, K. Kanagaratnam, V. Kumarasamy and T. Ramalinkam. The bill was passed on 02.09.1948, (Hansard col. 2003).

The Left opposed it. The Ceylon Tamil Congress (CTC) had promised S. Thondaman of the Indian Tamil Congress (ITC) to support them. So six from CTC voted Nay. CTC leader, GG Ponnambalam was the exception. He was negotiating to become a Minister, so he developed a fit of coughing and left the chamber as the Citizenship Act came up for division.

The Three Bills and Hansard Records

There were really three bills affecting Tamils. The first was the Ceylon Citizenship Act (18/1948). It stipulated that for citizenship one had to prove his father was(orhis paternal grandfather and paternal great grandfather were) born in Ceylon. It was impossible for most hill-country Tamils to prove, thereby rendering them stateless. It was a low point in our race relations – when Pieter Keuneman was speaking against the Bill, SWRD Bandaranaike cast a snide remark on “the brown Hollanders” (Hansard, col. 1707, 19.08.1948).

The Second bill affecting Tamils was the Indian and Pakistani Residents Citizenship Bill (3/1949) which too the ITC wanted opposed. It provided for citizenship by registration by those Indian or Pakistani residents in Ceylon who had an uninterrupted residence in Ceylon, immediately prior to 01.01.1946, for a period not less than ten years for unmarried persons and seven for married persons. The ITC and CTC opposed the Bill. The Ceylon Tamil Ayes were G.G. Ponnamablam, K. Kanagaratnam, V. Nalliah, S.U. Ethirmannasingham, T. Ramalinkam and A.L. Thambiayah. The Nays were S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, S. Sivapalan and C. Vanniasingam. That is, six Ceylon Tamils for and three against.

The Third bill, Ceylon Parliamentary Elections (Amendment)(48/1949) was a sequel to the Citizenship Act and gave the franchise only to citizens and thereby stripped hill-country Tamils of their vote which they had enjoyed till then. CS Voted Nay. Ponnambalam voted Aye with C. Sittampalam,V. Nallaih, A.L. Thambiayah and S.U. Ethirmannasingam. Again the majority of Ceylon Tamils were for depriving hill-country Tamils of the vote. (Hansard, Cols. 551-2, 20.10.1949.).

Tamils Concoct Voting Records

Beginning with the Bastiampillai account, because the bills are a blot on the Ceylon Tamil commitment to hill-country Tamils, the history of that period is clouded in untruthful defences of those who abandoned the hill-country Tamils. ApparthurayVinayagamoorthy,  a Tamil Congress MP untruthfully wrote (Daily News, 08.11.2003)

“[Ponnambalam’s] political opponents carried on a persistent campaign of vilification and character assassination against him stating he was responsible for the disfranchisement of several Indian Tamils in 1948.This is absolutely incorrect. The act which disfranchised the Tamils of Indian origin was the Ceylon Citizenship Act No. 18 of 1948 and the ACTC and its leader G. G. Ponnambalam vehemently opposed this act and voted against it.”

We know this to be untrue from the Hansard insofar as Ponnambalam’s part is concerned.

Bastiampillai says Suntharalingam’s son Gnanalingam, during a SLAAS debate with Kumar Ponnamabalam, referred to GGP’s unjust act regarding the Bill in contrast to another Tamil Minister’s [his father’s] bold response in forfeiting a portfolio than endorse an unjust act like GGP.But CS had voted for the Citizenship Act months earlier on 24.10 1948. Some days later, according to J.L Fernando (Three Prime Ministers of Ceylon, MD Gunasena, 1963, p. 27), GGP “The Damila[Ponnambalam] bowed low before the Sinhala Lion,” DS Senanayke, and was made a Minister, thereby striking one million Central Tamils off the electoral registers”. The correct number was more like 700,000.

CS resigned as Minister much after he voted to deny citizenship to the poorest Tamils. He resigned only during the Indian Residents Citizenship Bill (in December, 1948) after rendering many of us stateless. Bastiampillai’s and Gnanalingam’s sleight is to confuse the Citizenship Bill of August with the latter bill of December. Lankan scholarship makes heroes of those we like regardless of the record.

Suntharalingam: Ceylon for the Ceylonese

Ponnambalam was simply ready to do anything for power. But Suntharalingam? Could it be that CS voted for the Citizenship Bill out of collective cabinet responsibility and then broke off because he saw the iniquity? This view could be sustained except for CS’s explanation in Parliament detailed in the Hansard (14.12.1948, cols. 599 –).

DS Senanayke (DSS) is furious that CS had absented himself from the chamber after a division had been called on the second bill (Indian and Pakistani Residents) on 10.12.1948. DSS says in his letter dated 11.12.1948 to CS,

“As you are undoubtedly aware, the proper procedure for a member of the cabinet as long as he remains in the Cabinet, is to vote with the Government on any Government measure that comes before the House. If any Minister does not wish to associate himself with any particular measure that is brought forward by the Cabinet he must not appear as a member of the Cabinet at the time the measure is taken up, and his clear duty then is to send in his resignation. On the other hand, a Minister who does not resign is required to vote with the government though he may tender his resignation immediately afterward. It is really difficult for me to believe however glaring the circumstances may appear to be, that you would be guilty of improper conduct. I shall therefore be glad if you will let me know as early as possible the reasons that prevented you from discharging your obligations as a Member of the Cabinet.”

CS states he does not agree that he is obliged to vote with the government and that he had been unable to find any such precedent. In explaining his objections to the Bill he has no word for the rights of hill-country Tamils. “Speaking of his dreams of a Free Ceylon,” he adds that the “national economy had been gravely jeopardized by British Capital, British entrepreneur, Ceylon land and Indian labour [sic.]. In this sorry scheme where did the Ceylonese come?, he asks, going on to say,

“Since [25 years ago] I have been closely associated with the Hon. Mr. D.S. Senanayake in most public questions, one of which has come to be known as the Indo-Ceylon problem. If he was in his seat today, he would have admitted that the provisions in the Land Development Ordinance restricting the alienation of Crown land to Ceylonese were introduced at my suggestion – I almost said at my insistence. If I refer to these events, it is because I wish to give this House an insight into what I have always regarded as the fundamental principles on which the national economy of Ceylon should be founded. Indeed, the principles can be summed up in one phrase: Ceylon for the Ceylonese.”

Wounding India’sSelf-respect Affecting their honour

In his mind, Ceylon is not for the estate labour then. What then is his objection to these bills? It is relations with India. He refers to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, coming as an emissary of Mahatma Gandhi, not being happy with features of the Bill, and his [CS’s] playing a “small but significant” role behind the scenes to secure an adjustment with “the concurrence and approval of the Hon. Mr. D.S. Senanayake.” He quotes his letter to Senanayake on 02.12.1948 just before the vote on the second bill where he states,

“I have been unhappy about this question since I know that Jawaharlal Nehru had not agreed to certain features in the Bill. I need hardly state we will be committing a grave wrong if Jawaharlal Nehru felt that our bill wounds the self-respect of India and affects their honour. I have endeavoured to convince my colleagues in the Cabinet that the points of difference that now exist are trivial in their economic consequences but are fundamental in their political repercussions. We cannot, if we can avoid it, have in our Statute Book an Act which will be a source of constant irritation to the people of India. As the friendship between India and Ceylon is an issue, I beg of you to give this matter some favourable consideration and concession. You know my attitude in this matter for the last quarter of a century; and I would submit, in fairness to all concerned, we should have in view the happiness of Ceylon and India and not leave to our successors a legacy of ill-will.”

CS tries to meet DSS who is sick and is unable to. He writes to DSS and gets a “brusque” reply insisting that traditions be kept by his resignation. Contrary to Bastiampillai, he tried to hold on to being Minister and DSS insisted that he go.

Thus most Ceylon Tamils MPs voted against their hill-country brethren. CS felt no sympathy for the plantation labour. Like many upper-class Tamils, he looked only to placating Nehru and India. Only SJV Chelvanayagam and his MPs showed consistency on standing up for hill-country Tamils. G.G. Ponnabalam was ready to do anything for office, even if it meant tricking his Congress MPs into thinking he was against the bills while he negotiated positions for himself.

C. Suntharalingam: Tamil Story Telling On The Citizenship Bill


About editor 3046 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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