Dawn of Ceylon Independence and Birth of the Tamil Federal Party

Dawn of Ceylon Independence and Birth of the Tamil Federal Party

By D.B.S.Jeyaraj


G.G. Ponnambalam & S.J.V. Chelvanayagam

December 18th 1949 was a Red-letter day in the political history of Sri Lankan Tamils known as “Ilangaith Thamizhar” in their mother tongue. On that day a group of sixty Tamils including two parliamentarians and two Senators launched a new political party with the avowed goal of establishing an autonomous state for the Tamil speaking people of Ceylon(as Sri Lanka was known then) within a united island. The new party was named in Tamil as the “Ilankaith Thamil Arasuk Katchi” meaning Ceylon Tamil state or Tamil Government party.

However, the party’s founders described it as Federal Party in English. According to the renowned political scientist Prof. A.J. Wilson, the new party’s name was not Federal Party but merely an explanation of what the party stood for. “It’s leaders insisted that the word ‘state’ denoted a unit within a federal set-up and not a sovereign state, as some of its detractors alleged” wrote Wilson in his book “Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism”. Unfortunately, this confusion in nomenclatures only resulted in planting the seeds of suspicion in the minds of many members of the majority community.

Dr EMV Naganathan

Officially the new party was named in English as the “Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi” and became known by the acronym ITAK. In popular parlance, it was called the Federal party or FP. SJV Chelvanatagam was elected as the first president of the fledgeling party while Dr EMV Naganathan and V.Navaratnam were the Joint General secretaries. It was the ITAK which introduced the demand for federalism into Sri Lanka’s post-independence political discourse. The birth and growth of the ITAK and its espousal of power-sharing through a federal arrangement introduced a vibrant and colourful phase into the Island nation’s politics. Though 70 years have passed since the party was born, the ITAK continues to remain wedded to the federal idea still.

Ilankai Thamizh Arasuk Katchi

Currently, the premier political representative of the Sri Lankan Tamil people in the configuration known as the Tamil National Alliance(TNA). The chief constituent of the TNA is the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi(ITAK) or Federal party. Apart from the ITAK the other two constituents of the TNA are the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) and the Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). However, it is under the house symbol of the ITAK that the TNA contests elections. Moreover the majority of TNA parliamentarians, as well as local authority representatives from the North and East, are from the ITAK. Most members of the now-dissolved Northern and Eastern provincial councils were also of the ITAK.


A commemorative event to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the ITAK was held last Wednesday (Dec 18) at the “Ilankalaignar Mandapam” (Young Artistes hall) in Nallur, Jaffna. Jaffna district MP and President of the ITAK Somasundaram Senathirajah known as “Maavai” Senathirajah chaired the meeting. TNA leader and Trincomalee MP Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, Jaffna district MP and TNA spokesperson M.A. Sumanthiran, ITAK General – Secretary and ex-Eastern provincial minister K. Thurairajasingham, TELO leader and Wanni MP Selvam Adaikkalanathan and PLOTE Leader and Jaffna district MP Dharmalingam Siddharthan addressed the meeting. The mood was upbeat and it appears the ITAK along with TNA constituents TELO and PLOTE is gearing up confidently for the forthcoming parliamentary polls.

As stated earlier the advent of the ITAK/FP was a watershed in Ceylon politics as it was the first Tamil political party to incorporate the Federal idea as its main ideology and goal. The new party wanted an autonomous Tamil state comprising the Tamil dominated Northern and the Tamil – majority Eastern Provinces within a united Ceylon. The ITAK wanted a federal union between the autonomous Tamil state and the residual Sinhala state. This column intends to provide some historical background details in this two-part article about how the Ilankai Thamizh Arasuk Katchi was formed and why it raised the federal cry.

Viscount Soulbury

With world war two drawing close to an end the prospects of freedom from British colonial bondage loomed large on the political horizon for the Indian sub-continent and its Island neighbour Sri Lanka known as Ceylon then. A commission of inquiry headed by Viscount Soulbury was sent in 1944 by Whitehall to engage in consultations with all sections of the population and compile constitutional reform proposals. This was known as the Soulbury Commission.

All Ceylon Tamil Congress

The political party system was slowly taking root in the island during the pre-independence years. The advent of the Soulbury commission saw the Sri Lankan Tamils forming the All Ceylon Tamil Congress(ACTC). GG Ponnambalam became the ACTC president while S. Sivasubramaniam was the party General- Secretary. The primary objective of the ACTC at that point of time was to argue the case for its “fifty-fifty” demand before the Soulbury Commission. The Tamil Congress wanted a scheme of balanced representation popularly called “fifty-fifty”. According to this proposal, 50% of seats were to be allocated for the Sinhala majority and 50% for all the other minority ethnicities including Tamils. They wanted a scheme where the minority community representation was to be given weightage so that the non–Sinhala communities together could counter-balance perceived Sinhala domination This was rejected by the Soulbury Commission which refused to create an “artificial majority out of a minority.”

The Soulbury commission report was incorporated as a “White Paper” and made public in October 1945. The Soulbury Commission report formulated a scheme awarding Dominion status for Ceylon and envisaged full independence to follow thereafter. The Ceylonese board of ministers accepted it with reservations. Subsequently, it was submitted in the form of a motion in November 1945 for approval of the legislature known as the State Council. If the motion were defeated then the State council set up under the Donoughmore Constitution would continue and self – government leading to full independence under a Dominion Constitution would be a distant dream.

The All Ceylon Tamil Congress held a special meeting where it was decided to reject the Soulbury report. It also resolved that all minority community members in the State council should vote against the White paper motion. The Tamil Congress leader GG Ponnambalam went to London in a desperate last-minute effort to thwart the “Soulbury Constitution” being adopted.

Senanayake’s Assurance to Minorities

The state council motion was moved by D. S. Senanayake and seconded by SWRD Bandaranaike. Understanding the anxiety, doubts and fears of the minority communities particularly the Sri Lankan Tamils of being dominated and suppressed by the Sinhala majority in an “independent” Ceylon, DS Senanayake who became known later as the “father of the nation” made an eloquent appeal. DS stated thus – “I do not normally speak as a Sinhalese, and I do not think that the leader of the council ought to think of himself as a Sinhalese representative; but for once, I should like to speak as a Sinhalese and to assert with all the force at my command that the interests of one community are the interests of all. We are one of another, whatever our race or creed.” Urging Tamils and other minority communities to accept the Soulbury constitution, DS Senanayake reached out to them in this manner- “Do you want to be governed from London or do you want, as Ceylonese, to help govern Ceylon? On behalf of the Congress and on my own behalf, I give the minority communities the sincere assurance that no harm need you fear at our hands in a free Lanka.”

DS Senanayake

While GG Ponnambalam was in the UK, the State council motion was put to the vote. It was passed by fifty – one vote to three. The trio which voted against the motion comprised one Sinhalese and two Indian Tamils. They were Wijayananda Dahanayake who later became a prime minister and the upcountry Tamil Trade unionists Natesa Iyer and I.X.Pereira. All the Sri Lankan Tamil, Muslim, Malay, Burgher and European State councillors had voted for the Soulbury Commission. The minorities including the Sri Lankan Tamils had trusted the Sinhala leader DS Senanayake and acceded to his appeal. This was a huge blow to the Tamil Congress in general and its leader GG Ponnambalam in particular.

House of Representatives Elections

The State Council was dissolved on June 4, 1947, and the general elections for the envisaged House of Representatives (Parliament) were scheduled for August 23 and continued until September 20, 1947. There were to be ninety – five elected and six appointed MP’s. There would be eighty -nine electorates. Of these electorates, a few like Colombo Central were multi-member constituencies electing more than a single MP. There was also to be an upper house consisting of 30 Senators. Parliamentary elections were duly held and results announced. The newly formed United National Party(UNP) led by DS Senanayake won 42. The Lanka Samasamaja Party(LSSP)led by Dr NM Perera won 10. The Tamil Congress led by GG Ponnambalam won 07. The Ceylon Indian Congress (as the Ceylon Workers Congress was known then) led by Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman got 06. The Bolshevik Leninist Party of Dr Colvin R de Silva got 05. The Communist Party led by Dr. S. A. Wickramasinghe won 03 seats. The Labour party got one with its founder -leader A.E. Goonesinghe being elected from Colombo Central. There were also 21 MP’s who had contested as Independent candidates and won.

The Tamil Congress was jubilant at the results. Prior to the elections, GG Ponnambalam had entered into an agreement with the Indian Tamil leaders and assured them of unconditional support in safeguarding their citizenship rights in independent Ceylon. This was due to a campaign in the Sinhala areas against citizenship and voting rights to the pre-dominantly Tamil speaking Indian immigrant people working in the Tea and rubber plantations.

Tamils Reject Soulbury Constitution

Ponnambalam smarting from the Soulbury Constitution debacle had cleverly utilised the elections to take revenge on the Tamil state councillors who had voted for the Soulbury constitution. Ponnambalam told Tamils that voting for the Tamil Congress would demonstrate to the UK that the Tamils had rejected the Soulbury constitution arrangements and instead required an electoral system based on the balanced representation principle. He called upon the Tamil people to reject those who voted for the Soulbury constitution as Tamil traitors and also all Tamil candidates of the UNP at the polls.

Old Parliament with Secretariat behind, 1930s (Plate & Co.)

The Tamil Congress contested eight of the nine electorates in the Northern province and one out of the seven electorates in the Eastern province. The party also supported some independent candidates in the electorates it did not contest. The following were elected as MP’s from the Tamil Congress. GG Ponnambalam – Jaffna; SJV Chelvanayagam – Kankesanthurai; C. Vanniyasingham – Kopay; V.Kumarasamy – Chavakachcheri; T. Ramalingam -Point Pedro; K. Kanagaratnam – Vaddukkodda1 and S. Sivabalan – Trincomalee.

The prominent three among the former state councillors who voted for the Soulbury constitution and contested parliamentary polls lost. Sir Arunachalam Mahadeva and S. Natesan were defeated by GG Ponnambalam and SJV Chelvanayagam in Jaffna and Kankesanthurai respectively. J. Thiyagarajah lost to a Tamil Congress-backed independent C. Sittampalam in Mannar. An elated Ponnambalam cabled the Colonial Office, in Britain stating that that the election results had vindicated the Tamil Congress stance on balanced representation. The Tamil Congress leader made an unreasonable demand that the Soulbury Constitution should be rejected outright and fresh elections under a different electoral system should be held.

UNP Had Only 42 of 95 Elected MP’s

The prevailing political climate was uncertain as the first Ceylonese Parliamentary election had resulted in a hung parliament. The DS Senanayake led UNP had only obtained 42 of the 95 elected MP seats. Along with six appointed, MP’s DS could only form a minority Govt with 48 out of a 101 member House. Meanwhile, several different moves were afoot to form a non–UNP govt consisting of the left parties, the Tamil parties and the Independents.

It was against the backdrop of such a volatile political situation that DS Senanayake aided by Sir Oliver Goonetilleke engaged in a rare display of political statecraft to form the first Parliamentary Govt of Ceylon/Sri Lanka.

To Be Continued

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

This article was written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of December 21, 2019. It can be accessed here:



About editor 3017 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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