When Sinhalese supported and Tamils opposed federalism
By C. V. Vivekananthan
‘Federal government is the only solution’ – S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike
The federal cry is not a new phenomenon to Sri Lanka. It was originated by the Sinhalese in 1925. At that crucial time, the Tamils preferred a unitary system of government to that of a federal form. The Sinhala leaders vigorously propagated the concept of federal formula but the Tamils vehemently despised it. The Tamils wanted representation on the basis of communal interests within a unitary state. Today, the irony is that the Tamils want federalism while the Sinhalese look at it with suspicion that federation may be a ploy to separation. The attendant circumstances of this problem mandate that the country should be poised to find a suitable adaptation of a federal system to satisfy the two warring disputants.
S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was the only son of Maha Mudaliyar Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike. The young Bandaranaike was a brilliant student of Christ Church College, Oxford. He returned to the island in 1925 with a firm resolution to serve his motherland and to work for the upliftment of the common man. In the same year he founded a political party known as ‘Progressive National Party’ to achieve national emancipation. He was the leader of that Party while the Secretary was C. Ponnambalam.
The politicians at that time looked upon the British Constitution as the ideal model. Despite the political trend of that time, Bandaranaike introduced the federal concept for the first time into the mainstream of political life of Ceylon. He stated emphatically in the Constitution of the Progressive National Party that ‘in view of the existing differences among the people of our country, the only solution to the problem will be the adoption of a federal system of government’.
Bandaranaike advocated a federal state in preference to unitary one for he described the federal state as one in which several co-ordinate states could get together to achieve certain common purposes. He stated that there were three main divisions in Ceylon. They were Kandyan Sinhalese, the Low Country Sinhalese and the Tamils. He opined that according to his type of federation, each government, to a greater or lesser extent, must be limited to its own sphere of action and each must within that sphere, be independent of others. Certain matters, for instance, foreign affairs, defence and tariffs, could be within the exclusive sphere of the central government. In respect of the other matters each regional government had to manage its own affairs.
Bandaranaike declared that ‘the majority of us feel that in view of the local conditions, particularly racial differences, the most satisfactory method to minimize and gradually remove such differences is a federal system of Government. Such a system of Government has in other countries particularly in Switzerland, tended national unity. We feel that the present arrangements of nine provinces should remain and be the basis of the Federal System’. He said he opposed a unitary Constitution for Ceylon and put forward the Federal Constitution, as it was more suitable for conditions prevailing in Ceylon.
He described the difficulties that could project under a centralized system of government. He said that he knew no part of the world where a Government was carried on under such conflicting circumstances as would be experienced in Ceylon. Those would be the troubles if a centralized form of Government were introduced into countries with large communal differences.
He said that in a Federal Government, each unit had complete power over itself; yet, they could stand united and had one or two assemblies to discuss matters affecting the whole country. That was the form of Government in the United States. All the self-governing dominions, Australia, South Africa, Canada had the same system. Switzerland afforded a better example for Ceylon. It was a small country, but three races lived there – French, Germans and Italians, yet, Switzerland was a country where the federal form of Government was very successful. Each canton managed its own affairs. But questions of foreign affairs, commerce defence etc., matter about which differences and controversies would be at a minimum were dealt with by the Federal Assembly.
He observed it was easy at the federal centre to declare what languages should be the official languages. It was really in keeping with the federal form of government where each unit could use one language for its work but at the federal centre could use more than one language.
The Progressive National Party had in its Constitution set out in detail the scope and nature of the federal system. It stated among other things that the federal system to be based on the nine Provinces, each Province having complete autonomy and the Federal Government should be controlled by two Houses. The two Houses were to be called “House of Senators’ and ‘House of Commons’ respectively.
Bandaranike received necessary inspiration and strength for his federal scheme from the Kandyan National Assembly led by A. Godamune and from C.E. Corea, a doughty Ceylonese patriot of that time.
Bandaranaike formed the Progressive National Party to secure national emancipation for Sri Lanka through a federal system of government in preference to a unitary character of a constitution. When he was going around the island and propagating the lofty principles of federalism and publishing articles in the national newspapers promoting the federal concept and the Kandyan National Assembly were demanding for a federal form of government the Tamils were opposing the idea of federalism. The Tamils preferred some kind of arrangement on the ground of representation within the frame of a unitary character.
The non-violent agitation by Mahatma Ghandhi to make free India from the British was inflaming the political inclination of the Jaffna youth to the independence movement of India. Their enthusiasm was prominently felt due to Indian Tamil newspapers commonly circulated in the Jaffna peninsula. The freedom struggles were avidly read by a group of politically conscious young teachers and students. Under the leadership of S.H. Perinpanayagam, later, Principal of Hindu College, Kokkuvil, they formed the Jaffna Students’ Congress with a view to ‘organize a movement embracing young people and all races creeds and castes, so that, they may all come to know one another and join in an earnest endeavour to do the little they can for their country’. The Jaffna Students’ Congress was later re-named as the Jaffna Youth Congress.
They preferred a unitary system of government. The Jaffna Youth Congress was only interested to organize meetings to boycott the elections of 1931 as a protest against the Donoughmore Constitution.
G.G. Ponnambalam, who possessed a unique forensic skill and a mesmeric style in the art of cross-examination of witnesses and was a silver tongue orator mooted out the fifty-fifty demand – a balanced representation within the unitary character of the Constitution. In 1937 when the Reform for the Constitution was considered G.G. Ponnambalam advanced this formula before the Governor, Sir Andrew Caldecott. However, the Governor rejected his formula. Though he receded to the background for some time, he founded the Tamil Congress in 1944 just before the arrival of the Soulbury Commission to make his fifty-fifty demand before the Commission. S.J.V.Chelvanayakam was the Deputy Leader of the Tamil Congress. Ponnambalam never supported a federal system of government. He adopted a policy of ‘responsive co-operation’ within a framework of a unitary system.
The first call
Tamil Congress founded a weekly political paper known as Suthanthiran’. An advertisement was published in the paper calling for a clerk with an attractive monthly salary of rupees sixty. The work of the clerk was to assist the Leader G.G.Ponnambalam and the Deputy Leader S.J.V.Chelvanayakam of the Tamil Congress in the preparation of the memorandum for fifty fifty demand to be submitted to the Commission. A young Law College Student, Mylvaganam Nagarathinam was selected for this post.
The young Nagarathinam felt that fifty fifty demand within a unitary system would not help the minorities and he thought of a federal system that was in Switzerland. Without the knowledge of the leaders of the Tamil Congress, he forwarded a memorandum on the basis of federal system for Ceylon. His memorandum received great publicity in the newspapers and the Leader of the Tamil Congress G.G.Ponnambalam sent word to Nagarathinam to appear before him immediately. Nagarathinam appeared before the Congress Supremo G.G.Ponnambalam, Deputy S.J.V.Chelvanayakam and the Secretary S. Sivasubramaniam. G.G. deprecated the federal system as a eunuch formula. Ponnambalam gave him a dressing down and terminated his services summarily.
Mylvaganam Nagarathinam went before the Commission on January 30, 1945 and presented his federal formula.
James T. Rutnam
Bandaranaike’s erstwhile friend James T. Rutnam, a scholar and prolific writer, vehemently opposed the reforms for a Federal Constitution propagated by Bandaranaike. He was a member of the Progressive National Party of which Bandaranaike was the Leader. Of all the members of the party, James T. Rutnam stood for a unitary Constitution.
James T. Rutnam opposed federation stating that ‘it would bring disunion among the people. Tamils and Sinhalese would be segregated. The Burghers, Muslims and the Europeans would be overwhelmed, for they were distributed throughout the country and in no single state do they command the necessary importance or influence to justify special representation in the local body. In the Federal Parliament in Colombo there would be eternal wrangling and complaining over the voting of supplies. Race individualism would be intensified, which would ultimately tend to internecine troubles and racial secession’. James T. Rutnam supported the federal formula after 1956.
The formation of F.P.
S.J.V. Chelvanayakam has been described by Jane Russel as a person whose ‘attachment to the Ceylon Tamil culture came much closer to a true Tamil nationalism and his gloomy views and oracular attitude proclaimed him the heir to the aged Ponnambalam Arunachalam who had turned in his bitterness from the ideal of United Lanka to the concept of a Tamil Nadu or Pan-Tamilian state in his solstitial years’.
Chelvanayakam broke away from the Tamil Congress and inaugurated the Federal Party on December 18, 1949 to ‘attain freedom of the Tamil speaking people of Ceylon by the establishment of an autonomous Tamil unit on a linguistic basis within a framework of a federal union of Ceylon’. Though he formed the Federal Party to advocate a federal form of government, the Tamil-speaking people did not support the federal cry of Chelvanayakam.
The General Elections to the House of Representatives came in 1952, about three years after the Federal Party was formed. Chelvanayakam was defeated at Kankesanthurai, not by a Tamil Congress candidate but by a United National Party candidate, S. Natesan, the son-in-law of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan.
The Federal Party fielded seven candidates and had only managed to win two seats, Kopay and Trincomalee. C. Vanniyasingham won the Kopay seat while S. Sivapalan was elected from the Trincomalee seat.
The language problem was gathering momentum in 1956. Bandaranaike wanted Sinhala only within twenty-four hours. The UNP too adopted Sinhala Only at its party conference held at the Kelaniya Convention.
Bandaranaike declared that Sinhala Only would help the people of Sri Lanka to finally emerge as a stronger, more united and truly progressive people than ever before without realizing fully the true ramifications of the prophetic statement of Dr. Colvin R.de Silva that ‘one language two nations and two languages one nation’.
The Sinhala Only Act projected the Federal Party in the eyes of the Tamils as the only party that was safeguarding the interests of the Tamils. It was the Sinhala Only Act and not the federal concept that made the Tamil people to feel the political importance of the Federal Party.
Thanks to Sinhala Only Act, the Federal Party won ten seats at the General Elections of 1956.
The Sinhala Only Act did not make Sri Lanka to ’emerge as a stronger, more united’ nation. It made it a weaker nation devastated by animosity and frustration. It did not create a homogenous nation.
The policy of ‘one country, one nation’ will be a futile exercise if one fails to develop a solution to satisfy the multi-ethnic groups of Sri Lanka as there are three main groups, Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims who are distinct, separate, unassimilable and communally very conscious people.
The aspirations of any one community cannot be suppressed whether by way of force, democratic manipulations or parliamentary mechanisms.
The aspiration of the Sinhalese to re-build their rich language, glorious ancient culture and religion is quite understandable, appreciable and commendable.
It is equally true that their national tradition is a precious one. It should be preserved and developed but it should not be done on the liquidation of the aspirations of the other communities.
For a nation-state we must create a healthy political atmosphere to promote a satisfactory Sinhalese-Tamil-Muslim partnership in the field of political power sharing.
We have past historic evidence of son cementing his father alive for the seat of power: we have record of history of inviting foreign powers to defeat one’s brother or another foreign power to get rid of the foreign power so installed.
Let us not continue this disastrous game: we may make the pearl of the Indian Ocean an island of blood by our internecine quarrels and dissensions and petty minded actions.
Power sharing is the only solution for all the ills of Sri Lanka. It could only be done effectively and safely through federalism.
The atavistic nightmare of Sri Lanka being divided by federalism was well answered by Bandaranaike himself at a mass rally held at Jaffna on 17th day of July 1926 and presided by Dr. Issac Thambyah. Many Tamils gathered at that meeting fired at Bandaranaike several questions challenging the validity of federalism as a solution to Ceylon.
Bandaranaike cleared all doubts and professed thereat that “A thousand and one objections could be raised against the system, but when the objections are dissipated, I am convinced that some form of Federal Government will be the only solution’.
His prophetic words will remain valid forever. Let us translate his solution into action.
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