Missed Opportunities and the Loss of Democracy

Chapter 1

Missed Opportunities and the Loss of Democracy

1.1    The Disfranchisement of Indian Tamils: 1948-49

Those who look at the political history of the Tamils since the 1930’s cannot help marvelling at the missed opportunities. The first of these came and went before independence. The idea of a Ceylon Federation had come as early as 1929 from S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, who later became Prime Minister of Ceylon. By this time portents of future communal problems had already emerged. But no Tamil leader of importance fought for a federal constitution at independence. The Tamil Congress under G. G. Ponnampalam, which represented Tamil communal interests fought instead for 50-50 representation in parliament, that is half the seats for the minorities who then formed a little over 30% of the population, the Tamils being about a quarter of the population. Perhaps, that was the only way a Tamil politician with a communal electorate could hope to become Prime Minister. Whereas a federal demand would have seemed a reasonable guarantee of Tamil security, the 50-50 demand was seen to be unreasonable to the Sinhalese, as it indeed was, and finally, Ceylon received independence on 4 February 1948 without the Tamils having either.

Mr Don Stephen Senanayake who was Prime Minister of the then Dominion of Ceylon under the Soulbury constitution had secured the co-operation of key sections of the Tamil leadership through personal guarantees of good intent and the offer of ministries. The first parliament had over 40% of the seats represented by candidates from the minorities or left inclined candidates influenced by the minorities. (The minorities consist of the Ceylon Tamils, Indian Tamils, Muslims and Burghers.) But the Citizenship Act of December 1948 and the Parliamentary Elections Amendment Act of 1949 put an end to that and paved the way to reducing the representation in parliament of minorities to less than 20%. What these Acts did was to make non-citizens of the Tamil plantation labour who formed about 10% of the national population or about a third of the minority population, and deprive them of their vote. Besides having 7 parliamentary representatives, the Indian Tamil vote influenced the decision in 20 other constituencies, generally to the ruling U.N.P.’s disadvantage.

What was surprising, however, was that almost all of the Tamil elite representing the Ceylon Tamils through both Mr Senanayake’s United National Party and the Tamil Congress, either voted for the bills or were not serious about opposing them. Mr G. G. Ponnampalam, the leader of the Tamil Congress, opposed the first bill and voted for the second, having become a member of the cabinet. This somersault on the unprincipled calculation that, on the goodwill of the U.N.P. depended their personal power and vested interests. The Sinhalese elite discovered very early that they could easily call the bluff of the Tamil elite, especially the Colombo Tamil.

Kumari Jayewardene has pointed out in her writings (see Lanka Guardian June/July 1984) that the vote in a parliament which disenfranchised the Indian Tamils was not simply a communal vote. Strenuous opposition to this bill came from the major left parties – the Trotskyite L.S.S.P. led by Dr. N. M. Perera, the Bolshevik-Leninist party led by Dr. Colvin R. De Silva, and the Communist party led by Mr. Pieter Keuneman. Most M.P.’s from these parties were Sinhalese. A prominent Buddhist and doctor, H. Sri Nissanka opposed this piece of Legislation on the grounds that it ignored the first principle of law. Other prominent Sinhalese Independents who voted against the bills were Wilmot Perera, R. S. Pelpola, I. M. R. A. Iriyagolla and Lakshman Rajapakse.

It would be much nearer the truth to say that the vote was along class lines. Again it is probably wrong to say that Mr D. S. Senanayake was involved in a deep anti-Tamil conspiracy to bring about Sinhalese domination. Nor is it possible to make a case that Mr Senanayake was hatching a diabolical master plan to colonise Tamil areas with Sinhalese. When work for the Gal Oya settlement scheme in the Eastern province had been completed, the first preference was given to people from the province. It was only after about six months, when faced with the paucity of local applicants, that the doors were opened to applicants from other provinces. As regards the Citizenship Act of 1948 and its sequel, what almost certainly motivated D. S. Senanayake was his alarm over the strength in parliament of the working class based parties of the Left, which comprised 20 out of a total of 95 seats in parliament. Against this, the U.N.P. obtained only 41 seats in the 1947 elections, 7 short of a simple majority. There was also a distinct possibility of a coalition government of the Left sometime in the future. It was thus natural for the U.N.P. to think of perpetuating its political and class dominance by knocking out a large section of the working class which was the most easily isolated. Subsequently, in the 1952 elections, the U.N.P. increased its number of seats to 54. (See A. J. Wilson’s “Electoral Politics in an Emergent State“, Cambridge University Press, 1975.)

Thus the first and most grievous blow against democracy was struck by the passage of these bills with Tamil connivance. In poignant words during the course of the parliamentary debates, Dr. N. M. Perera, the leader of the L.S.S.P. said: “I thought racialism of this type died with Houston Chamberlain and Adolph Hitler. I do not believe that anyone claiming to be a Statesman would ask us to accede to a bill of this nature … We cannot proceed as if we were God’s chosen race quite apart from the rest of the world; that we and we alone have the right to be citizens of this country.”

S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, then a member of the Tamil Congress, strongly dissented from these bills and left the T.C. to form a new party, the Federal Party, which was 25 years later to absorb other Tamil parties and become the Tamil United Liberation Front (T.U.L.F.). Dr E. M. V. Naganathan and Mr C. Vanniasingham were two other eminent figures who left the T.C. to form the Federal Party whose Tamil name read: “The Tamil State Party.” The latter was closely associated in the negotiations which led to the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact of 1957, the first attempt to find a political solution to the communal problem. This was not implemented as a result of pressure from extremist Sinhalese and Buddhist opinion. One of the major demonstrations against this pact was the long march from Colombo to Kandy led by J. R. Jayewardene who was trying to use the occasion to revive the fortunes of the U.N.P., which had suffered a debacle in 1956.

While the Left saw in the legislation of 1948/49 a crude expression of class hatred overlaid by a veneer of racialism, Mr Chelvanayakam stressed the communal aspect of it in his contributions to the debates. He pointed out that this set a very disturbing precedent for the government to shut away from the opinion of any section of the population it did not like; that no one could, therefore, live comfortably with this act; and that it may hit almost anyone someday. Mr Chelvanayakam said during the course of a speech: “This bill is a piece of legislation not based on the highest principles on which differences and difficulties of inter-communal problems have to be resolved and I oppose it firstly on that ground.” His fears were well-founded. The sixth amendment to the Republican constitution of 1978 passed in the middle of the July 1983 race riots unseated all the T.U.L.F. M.P.’s in parliament.

One of democracy’s main planks is the impartiality of the law and its agencies for enforcement. When there is a situation in which one can go through the prohibitively expensive process of the law and yet not find justice, it becomes pregnant with violence and anarchy. Soon after the 1952 elections, the Federal Party concentrated its energies on fighting three important and expensive legal battles. Two of these were election petition cases. The most important of these legal battles was the challenging of the Citizenship Act, No. 18 of 1949, and the Parliamentary Elections Amendment act No. 48 of 1949.

Section 29 of the Soulbury Constitution of 1948 provided that Parliament could not enact legislation which 1. prohibits or restricts the free exercise of any religion; 2. makes persons of any community or religion liable to disabilities or restrictions to which persons of other communities or religions are not made liable; 3. gives to persons of any community or religion any privilege or advantage which is not given to persons of other communities or religions; and 4. alters the constitution of any religious body except with the consent of the governing authority of that body. It was also provided that parliament could not vary the provisions of the constitution in a manner which infringed these.

It seemed a clear-cut case that the act in question was against the spirit of the constitution. Apart from all legal niceties, the legislation was immoral and went against the assurances of good intent and good faith given by the Honourable Prime Minister in persuading others to accept the Independence Constitution.

In challenging the legislation it was argued that the acts discriminated against the Indian community in contravention of section 29. The argument went that these acts disenfranchised Indians resident in Ceylon who had earlier enjoyed the vote. Following the passing of the legislation, the vote was to be confined to citizens of Ceylon. The Indian and Pakistani Residents (Citizenship) Act, No. 34, of 1949 permitted only those Indians and Pakistanis resident in Ceylon who satisfied some stringent conditions to obtain Ceylonese Citizenship. It was pointed out then that many prominent Ceylonese of the day, including the Prime Minister, could not have satisfied these conditions — for they were born in times when there was much laxity in registering births, leave alone those of their immediate forebears.

It was true that there was a genuine human problem here. The Indian plantation labour formed a very deprived class without means of social advancement, kept isolated in line rooms, and alienated from the Kandyan peasantry by the European plantation owners. Outsiders had to seek permission to enter the estates. The formation of the estates too had involved the takeover of some lands from the Kandyan peasantry. The extent of this takeover was exaggerated by propagandists. Much of the planting was done on land where thick jungle was cleared by Indian coolie labour working in conditions of poor health and disease. At the same time, the Indian labour had been brought from the middle of the nineteenth century, travelling in conditions resulting in a high death rate in the early days, and many of them now knew of no other country but Ceylon. In the nature of things, Kandyan anger tended to be turned against the Indian labour rather than against the European plantation owners and the low country Sinhalese businessmen who made money in the commerce of the hill-country. It is relevant here that during the debates Mr S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, then Minister of Home Affairs, had distanced himself from the U.N.P.’s position by saying that while he supported the legislation in the interests of statesmanship and wisdom and in the interests of peace, he would have preferred the problem to have been approached from another angle. He said in his speech that Prime Minister Nehru of India had already shown considerable understanding of the problem. Bandaranaike’s approach involved determining in the first instance the number of persons of Indian origin who could be absorbed. Patience, consultation and a commitment to justice could have yielded solutions which would have been acceptable to both the plantation labour and the Kandyans. For instance, the Federal Party later suggested that the plantation labour could be encouraged to resettle in the Tamil speaking Northern and Eastern provinces where settlements were being opened up. It may be noted that during the State Council era of the 1930’s Dr N. M. Perera pointed out the danger arising from an influx of Indian labour. It was none other than D. S. Senanayake who argued that it was very beneficial to the plantation industry.

The litigation first went in favour of the plaintiffs when at the Kegalle District Court, the District Judge N. Sivagnanasundaram held the legislation to be invalid on the grounds that the acts sought to deprive the Indian community of the franchise. The Supreme Court in Mudanayake vs. Sivagnanasundaram (53 N.L.R. 25, 1952) quashed the decision of the District Court on the grounds that the acts were clear and unambiguous; and that the acts in question applied to all communal groups in a like manner and were thus not discriminatory. When appealed to, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council upheld the Supreme Court’s verdict.

Everyone – both sides to the dispute – knew that the series of legislation represented a legal conjuring trick. Everyone knew that the intended victims were the Indians. Racist sentiments expressed during the course of the debate were proof of that. The sting of the legislation was obscured by being distributed in three separate acts. Each act taken by itself may seem fairly respectable. A judge may thus hold them each to be valid without appearing to be too partial. By every accepted universal norm, the legislation was unjust and discriminatory. Many in this country agreed with that. Thus did Great Britain help to strike the first blow against democracy in independent Ceylon. Many felt at that time as later, that the quality of British justice meted out by the Privy Council is not unaffected by Britain’s other interests. The tea plantations were largely British owned and Britain had a naval base at Trincomalee.

At that time opponents of the legislation were free to hold demonstrations, protest rallies and satyagrahas in Colombo, which they did. This freedom too was to be taken away. The process which started in 1948 (Kandasamy killing, 1952 rice hartal) culminated 30 years later when strikers and protesters would be stabbed and attacked with bicycle chains by hooligans in the pay of government ministers, while the police stood by. The 1948/49 legislative enactments had set a precedent for the politics of immoral manipulation rather than consultation. With Jayawardene on top, people would watch incredulously the controversies surrounding the appointments of Chief Justices. One of the judges appointed by President Jayewardene to go into the abuses of power by Mrs Bandaranaike during her period as Prime Minister from 1970 to 1977 and who recommended a deprivation of her civic rights for 7 years, was later found guilty of improper conduct during a previous posting. During the months April/May 1971 and after the passage of emergency regulation 15A in July 1983, every armed uniformed person became a potential Judge Jeffreys in his own right. The law courts became superfluous in a large number of important instances, thus vitiating an important pillar of democracy.

It was then left to Jayawardene, who had in a base manner campaigned against the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayakam pact of 1957, to accept under duress, the political solution along the same lines contained in the Indo-Lanka accord of 1987.

There were other ironies too. During the course of the 1947/48 debates, Mr A. Ratnayake accused Mr S. Thondaman, the leader of the Ceylon Indian Congress, of having a vision of Ceylon federated with India. Mr Thondaman would in time become a close ally of the U.N.P. under Jayewardene, helping the latter to win both the presidential elections and the controversial referendum in 1982. The latter, as will be explained later, deprived the entire country of the right to elect representatives for a crucial period of six years. Thus by slipping a few dubious benefits to the plantation labour, Jayewardene was able to secure peace in the plantations together with his unfettered continuation in power. It was ironical that D. S. Senanayake had himself advocated federation of Ceylon with India, of course protecting Ceylon’s interests.

Some may feel that Mr Ratnayake’s fears of a Ceylon federated with India came close to being realised with the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord of July 1987. But this had much more to do with the manner in which Mr Ratnayake voted on the bills in question than with anything Mr Thondaman did in the intervening years.

1.2. The Left

The performance of the Left in the wake of the General Elections of 1947 had repercussions which strongly influenced the future. With several opportunities before it, the Left was hamstrung by differences which were expressed in hyperbole and by an ambiguous attitude to the institution of parliament. The Left opposition at that time was made up of the L.S.S.P., the B.L.P. (Bolshevik Leninist Party) and the Communist Party. They controlled between themselves 20 seats out of 95 for which elections were held, with the U.N.P. controlling 41 and were thus placed in a minority situation. Feverish attempts were made by independents and groups opposed to the U.N.P. to form a united front and offer itself as an alternative government. The grouping which formed the government would have received a bonus of six parliamentary seats which were to be appointed by the Governor General (the King’s representative) on the Prime Minister’s recommendation. The L.S.S.P. declined to participate in such a government. Its leader Dr N. M. Perera explained that they were a “revolutionary party” and would therefore not serve in a “capitalist government”. They were willing, however, to assist those who may take office in an alternative progressive government. For nearly three years thereafter the Left could not even agree to a Leader of the Opposition. Dr N. M. Perera was elected leader in June 1950. The communist party argued that the idea of “His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition” being part and parcel of the government, implied an acceptance that the present social order must continue.

Having got into parliament, the Left had no clear idea of what it wanted to do with it. In its rhetoric, it did not seem to accept the parliament as the arbiter of the nation’s destinies. A mixture of both fear and opportunism led the U.N.P. government to adopt an uncompromising attitude to the Left. Instead of taking an enlightened view and trying to persuade the Left that parliament was a place for reason and contained the possibility of the realisation of its social goals, it proceeded to disenfranchise a large section of the Left’s support base. Furthermore, there was a reluctance to consult and do business with the Left and the needs of the constituencies represented by the Left were ignored. Describing the U.N.P.’s view of the Opposition, Sir John Kotelewala said on 9 June 1950: “Our Opposition today is an Opposition which does not believe in the democratic system. That is why the government finds its task so difficult. We have to fight the Opposition not as an Opposition but as enemies of the state… once they got in they would not get out. There is no guarantee that you would ever have a chance to go to the ballot again.”

The ambivalence of the Left to the institution of parliament was expressed in a statement issued on the decision to boycott the ceremony of 11 January 1949 in which the speaker’s mace and chair were presented by the British House of Commons to its progeny. Amongst the reasons advanced was “the consistent failure of the government to consult the Opposition on all such matters on which by parliamentary tradition, it is the duty of the Government to consult the Opposition.” This was a complaint that it was not being treated as the King’s loyal Opposition. While the British educated learned men of the Left languished in uncertainty, the business of the day was carried on by squires and ex-military officers adept in the ways of the world.

There were attempts from 1947 onwards to forge unity within the Left and these met with limited success. The B.L.P. merged with the L.S.S.P. on 3 June 1950. In early 1951 the L.S.S.P. affirmed that its ultimate objective lay along that of “a direct mass struggle alone and not through parliamentary devices and manoeuvres.” (See A. J. Wilson, “Oppositional Politics in Ceylon (1947-68),” Government and Opposition, Vol. 4 No. 1 Winter 1969).

The Left had thus adopted a course where its practice was different from its rhetoric. Its ambiguities were fully exploited by its opponents. Although the rhetoric of the Left was innocuous in comparison with the racist rhetoric of the Right, the Right used it to raise the bogey of an atheistic dictatorship. The Left leaders received their education in Britain under men like Harold Laski at the London School of Economics during the impressionable period following the Russian revolution. When they spoke of “direct mass struggle” they adopted the rhetoric and imagery of the Russian revolution to mean something vague and undefined. They were by practice and conviction democrats for the most part and certainly on record more so than the U.N.P.. There is no reason why direct mass struggle cannot be democratic. Thus while the Left talked in the imagery of war, the Right talked peace and practised war – through both legislation and police action. The spectre of a Marxist atheistic dictatorship was raised again, more strongly, in the campaign preceding the 1970 elections. The Left’s ambivalence in those days prevented it from having a workable program to deliver its goods. It had to keep its constituency of workers in the hope that its program would somehow be realised. Its use of the strike weapon through unions allied to the Left in a largely agrarian country tended to serve more the propaganda of the Right.

In many ways, the fate of the parliamentary Left resembled that of the T.U.L.F. in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. The Left had failed to resolve its ambivalence towards parliament as an instrument of government. On the one hand, it had sought representation in parliament and wished to participate fully in its business. Having come this far, it did recognise in parliament a potential source of good. But then from the outset, it should have taken the opportunity to form an alternative coalition government and use all available levers to implement a program of reform. This it had declined to do out of deference to ideology and preferred to hint at revolution from the sidelines. But the electorate wanted reform that would improve its lot in terms of something tangible. Moreover, the Left did not attempt to modify its approach in order to appeal to the “middle level of Ceylonese opinion comprising the national-minded swabasha [2] 1 -educated intelligentsia” who felt left out by the U.N.P. It was left to Mr S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s S.L.F.P. to fill this vacuum.

The increasing disparity between what it promised and what it achieved finally led the Left to despair and made them secure participation in coalition governments in the early sixties and in 1970-75 after making abject compromises on principles. When an actual youth uprising came in 1971, the Left then in power, found itself on the defensive, while an elite-led army and police massacred 10 to 15 thousand Sinhalese youth particularly educated unemployed rural youth. Moreover, Dr Colvin R. de Silva presided over the drawing up of the republican constitution of 1972 which did away with section 29 of the Soulbury constitution which was nominally supposed to safeguard minorities. It also enshrined Buddhism as the state religion and Sinhalese as the sole official language, much against what the Left had upheld quite valiantly in the 1950s. At the time the influence of the Left had been such that during the race riots of 1958, it had been able to mobilise its members in Colombo and protect the Tamils in some areas. But when President Jayewardene extended the life of the parliament in December 1982 by a fraudulent referendum, the Left could not even bring out a demonstration.

Though the Left may not have been very conscious of it, it had largely replayed the tragedies of some of the European social democratic parties in the decades leading up to the First World War (1914-18). The Danish Social Democratic Party started with a trade union base, shunned Marxist doctrines, steadily increased its strength by adapting its programme to the needs of agricultural co-operatives and, in 35 years, attained power in a coalition government by 1913. It thus attained a position where it was able to implement social welfare legislation. Socialist parties followed similar courses in Britain and Scandinavia. The German Social Democratic party founded in 1875 and led by August Bebel adopted the Gotha programme. This was a compromise programme which contained the view of its northern faction led by Lassalle that revolutionary Marxism had been rendered out of date by the existence of universal suffrage; in other words that proletarian interests were compatible with parliamentary democracy. It also accepted Marx’s view of the class struggle and his materialist interpretation of history. It thus combined resolutely revolutionary pronouncements with an equally determined reformist and revisionist policy. Formal unity was thus preserved at the cost of alienating liberal and middle-class opinion and perpetuating an unresolved contradiction between principle and practice. It resulted in an ineffective combination of challenging absolutist pronouncements and feeble action; for the party did not gain sufficient strength. The party even developed a revisionist faction led by Edward Bernstein who argued that Marxist analysis and predictions were not borne out by events. For the workers were not getting remorselessly poorer and more repressed – they were coming to be better off and freer. Some members of this faction went on to drop the idea of the international brotherhood of workers and fell in with the rising tide of militarism and nationalism in Germany which led to the World War of 1914-18.

In Ceylon today a reconstituted Left which will recapture the lost ideals of non-sectarian socialism and will communicate them to the masses in simple terms that they could understand and agree with is still in its birth pangs. The Left recently lost two promising leaders in Sarath Muttetuwegama and Vijaya Kumaranatunge.

1.3 The Tamils

From the 1940’s the Tamil leadership had, as we have seen, largely shown a preference for doing what appears clever in the interests of preserving material gains rather than what is principled. This predominance of manipulation over morality produced gains which were only illusory. If Tamils did not show an interest in federalism before independence, there were sound material reasons for this. Their middle class depended on government jobs outside the Tamil speaking areas. A unitary state is not a moral issue and in Ceylon, such a state could have been workable with adequate devolution such as in Britain. The peoples of Ceylon, after all, have much more in common in terms of origin and culture than do the people of Britain. Conflicts of the past too have been dynastic rather than along lines of language or religion.

Where the Tamil leadership went wrong is that having failed to obtain the unreasonable 50-50 representation, they agreed to independence under a highly centralised constitution (unlike in Britain) with its brand of communal politics. Having made this mistake, no attempt was made to integrate into a national grouping that would articulate Tamil interests. The pursuit of communal politics, the 50-50 demand, followed by the abject capitulation of most of the Ceylon Tamil leadership in selling out the upcountry [3] 1 Tamils in return for ministerial positions and the assurance that Ceylon Tamils will not be touched – all helped to create a stereotype image of the Ceylon Tamil as an unprincipled person who can be bought over by promises of transient material security. The failure of the Tamils to adopt a form of national-level politics enabled Sinhalese racists to build up stereotype images of Tamils and exploit them to foment racial hatred.

On the other side, many Tamils argue that communal politics was forced on them. The F.P.’s attempts at finding legal remedies to the iniquitous citizenship legislation were blocked, indicating that relief through legal and constitutional means was not available to them. After 1960 when the Left adopted a communal line, it became far more difficult for Tamils to enter politics at the national level. It can also be pointed out that it was the Tamil Opposition in parliament that helped to keep democracy alive during some crucial periods.

But even from the position of a regional party, the F.P. and the T.U.L.F. could have actively supported national causes and won Sinhalese confidence. This it was prevented from doing by its ideology that was founded on the assumption of Sinhalese perfidy. The general strike of 1980 and the obnoxious manner in which the government handled it, together with the fraudulent referendum of December 1982 represented burning national issues. But the Tamil leadership under the T.U.L.F., given their narrow nationalist ideology, were able to dismiss these as problems of the South. Here again, there was a preference, as in 1948/49, for what may seem clever and opportune as against what was right and fair by the whole country. The government of J. R. Jayewardene was able to buy the silence of the T.U.L.F. on these important national issues by a mixture of threat, vague promises and a few perks. This again helped to isolate the Tamils and lay them at the mercy of Jayewardene’s government and its cynicism.

The other matter is the T.U.L.F.’s ambivalence towards parliament during the years 1977-83, to which it was led by a nationalist ideology. Rhetorically it regarded the parliamentary vote it secured in the Tamil areas as a mandate to form a separate state of Tamil Eelam and the police and army in Tamil areas were regarded as occupying forces. It further hinted at a secret plan to make the separate state a reality. Thus in the public mind, a certain legitimacy was given to the Tamil youth militancy. But in its actions, the T.U.L.F. behaved like a loyal parliamentary opposition. As it turned out, this unresolved ambivalence was a dangerous mix. While the T.U.L.F. hinted at war and practised peace, it was left to others to practise war.

After the 1977 elections, the T.U.L.F. and those who voted for them did want them to participate in the business of parliament. The priority, as the Tamils saw it in the wake of the 1977 race riots, was the resettlement of refugees and the economic development of the Tamil areas in the North and East. Money was canvassed for this from charitable organisations and from Tamils living abroad. Tamils were encouraged to invest in their areas. These activities were going on and services normally provided by the state, such as banking, transport, communication and even police were utilised. Tamil farmers were benefitting from loan and agricultural services provided for the whole country. Given that the Tamils wanted these, the natural approach should have been to recognise in the parliament a source of potential goodness and press for reform of the existing state machinery so that it would be fairer. Its political activity should have been directed at finding a common cause with a country-wide opposition and to isolate the racist elements. It was not only the Tamils who had problems with the police. There were Sinhalese peasants in Moneragala and elsewhere whose lands were being taken over for the benefit of multi-nationals. There was rampant government corruption. Our forests were being denuded by politicians who wanted a quick buck. But what the T.U.L.F. and the Tamil leadership actually did was to keep silent when police and servicemen carrying out ordinary civil functions were attacked. The moral dilemma was dodged – can we pretend that we had no obligation to those whose services we utilised because our ideology said that they were aliens? As we shall see, the result was to awaken the worst instincts in a government that was already bad enough.

What the Tamil militant groups carried over from the Tamil parliamentary leadership was the worldview based on Sinhalese perfidy. Everyone is conscious of past tactical errors of the Tamil leadership. But we have not learnt from our experience and continue the same blunders in different forms, principally because of a lack of moral conviction. The desire for material security reflects itself today in the form of seminars on development and a rejoicing over the departure from the Eastern province of many terror-stricken Sinhalese, oblivious of the senseless assassinations and misery that have afflicted all communities — Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils. The moral perversity reflects itself in casual talk of horse deals — one day with the government against the IPKF, next with the IPKF against Sinhalese and so on. In a bid to justify terrorist attacks on Sinhalese in the East, some have suggested a parallel with the repatriation of Indian plantation labour to India from the hill country; as if the Kandyan Sinhalese would be justified in the bombing and shooting Indian Tamils. It would be to justify the terrible anti-Tamil violence of 1983 for which the Sinhalese are still paying the price. With many members of the Tamil elite, cleverness without a moral commitment is approaching a fever of insanity. If our past should teach us anything, it should be to regain the moral initiative, mend our relations with the Sinhalese, and pursue our interests in a national context, with malice towards none.

The foregoing has dwelt on missed opportunities in the 1940’s, and how the behaviour of the actors at the time set the pattern for years to come, leading up to India’s direct entry into the affairs of this country. To throw further light on the current crisis the sketch that follows focuses on two other missed opportunities: the referendum of December 1982 and the two months following the July 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord. The events that followed the first led to the July 1983 racial riots. In both instances, the Tamil disease that contributed to the crises was the same, with some shift in the actors.[Top]


2 Mother tongue

Ceylonism for hill-country

1 Roofing material from coconut fronds

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Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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