How Tamil Leadership Failed Sri Lanka

How Tamil Leadership Failed Sri Lanka

By Vishwamithra

“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible.” ~ Maya Angelou, poet, civil rights activist.

Our first Prime Minister DS Senanayake described Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan as “the greatest Ceylonese of all times”. When Ceylon was under the British Raj, trying to break away from the shackles that bound them to everything British, from language, religion, race to Victorian decorum, in order to gain independence from such intended serfdom, the upper classes of Ceylon, educated abroad and based mainly in Colombo and its outskirts, formed themselves into an exclusive club and established what came to be known as Ceylon National Congress. The Ceylon National Congress (CNC) was a Nationalist, as against racist or ethnic, political organization, which was formed in Ceylon on 11 December 1919. It was founded after nationalism grew quite passionately in the early 20th century during the British Colonial rule in Ceylon. It was formed by members of the Ceylon National Association (founded in 1888) and the Ceylon Reform League (founded in 1917). The Ceylon National Congress played a crucially influential role, they say, in the attainment of Sri Lanka’s independence later in 1948. Nevertheless, in the writer’s view, Ceylon’s independence was chiefly due to India’s ‘Swaraj’ movement spearheaded by the Gandhis, Nehrus and Patels and their timeless efforts for a free India; the British had no option but to agree to ‘free Ceylon’. 

Coming back to the Ponnambalams, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan contested the 1911 legislative council election as a candidate for the Educated Ceylonese seat and was elected to the Legislative Council, defeating eminent physician Marcus Fernando of the so-called Kaurawa caste (fisherman’s caste); both DS Senanayake and Justice Eugene Wilfred Jayewardene (JR’s father), invited Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, (hailing from Vellalar caste, which is equivalent to Govigama caste amongst Sinhalese) to contest. Caste, this obscene social classification, is now, more or less, an anachronism, I believe. 

Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam (Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan’s younger brother and the first Civil Servant of Ceylon, a way before C.Sundaralingam), was the founding President of the CNC. Amongst prominent Sinhalese leaders of the Congress were Sir James Peiris, FR Senanayake, DS Senanayake, Sir DB Jayatilaka, EW Perera and CWW Kannangara. Sir Arunachalam was one of the founders of the Ceylon National Congress (CNC) in 1919 and in fact, served as its first President from 1919 to 1920. Arunachalam left the CNC in 1921 following disputes about communal representation in the Legislative Council, which Arunachalam opposed, and the connivance of Sinhalese politicians which resulted in no Tamils being elected from Western Province at the 1921 legislative council election. He founded the Ceylon Tamil League in 1923. Though the Senanayakes and Ponnambalams were close social acquaintances, their political fissures began their gradual widening after the departure of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam from the CNC.

The Ponnambalam brothers, however, notwithstanding their total commitment to the Tamil cause, both in public and in private conduct, had very little to do with the average Tamil who lived in the Northern and Eastern parts of the country (Ramanathan founded two schools in Jaffna). They were elitists, both in thought as well as in action, akin to our Sinhalese pukka sahibs. As much as the Sinhalese leaders who started pontificating from the public platforms about patriotism and cultural awareness, the Ponnambalam brothers too confined themselves to elitist political discourses and as a result hardly made any effort to identify themselves with the uneducated and poor majority of their respective ethnic segments. Their class and caste-superiority was well portrayed in the aforementioned contest for a seat in the legislative Council in 1911. Caste identity mattered even more than ethnic denominations at the time. 

Yet, Ramanathan was responsible for the release of the Sinhalese leaders who had been arrested following the 1915 Ceylonese riots, travelling to the UK to make their case. He was re-elected at the 1916 legislative council election, defeating Justice Sextus Wijesinghe Jayewardene, this time JR’s uncle. But one singular quality of the then Tamil leadership was their ability and willingness to identify broadly with the Ceylonese nation as a whole instead of thinking narrowly about their own community preferences. This broad identity they so created helped them being recognized by average Sinhalese Buddhists as a national group not setting them apart from the ‘Ceylonese’ national agenda and the ‘Ceylonese’ national dialogue. Nonetheless, the Ponnambalam brothers, more than once, together and sometimes separately, transcended not only partisan party politics but also partisan communal/ethnic divisions. They broadly represented the Ceylonese ‘nation’ as against their ethnic community.

Limiting cooperation only to the elitist leaders of the two communities is hardly a way for the majorities of respective groups to come and make lasting acquaintances among each other. All you need, in order to create an explosive breakaway, is a demagogue to appear on the horizon and drive a devastating fissure between the two peoples. That one man, spearheaded by Buddhist Monks was Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike. Bandaranaike, instead of uniting the country as one single nation, drew a sharp line between two major ethnic groups. The ill-effects of that effort by SWRD to polarize a unified ‘Ceylonese’ nation are still being felt, even after the cessation of a thirty-year-old ethnic war.      

Upon entry into Ceylon after successfully completing his education in England, SWRD Bandaranaike was one time a Joint Secretary of the Congress. In order to promote Sinhalese culture and community interests, Bandaranaike founded the Sinhala Maha Sabha in 1936. Yet it was the Senanayakes who provided leadership to the Sinhalese segment of the Congress and after the untimely demise of FR Senanayake, DS became the supreme leader of national politics in Ceylon. While FR was a Cambridge-educated savant, DS was a one hundred percent (100%) local product, having passed just the 8th Standard in St. Thomas’ College, Mutwal. However, in 1918, the school moved away from the “dusty environs” of Mutwal, which was near the Colombo harbor, to a more scenic location near the sea in Mount Lavinia.

While Sinhalese leaders (SWRD included), began resorting to ethnic politics, Tamil leadership, having endured the futile demagoguery of GG Ponnambalam (no relation of the Ponnambalam brothers), followed suit. They graduated from the Ponnambalam brothers to SJV Chelvanayakam Q. C. and Naganathan to Amirthalingam and Velupillai Prabhakaran to Sampanthan and Sumanthiran. From twentieth century, in a short span of one hundred years, Tamil leadership, which was a hallmark of intellectualism and political tolerance, grew into one that was viewed by Sinhalese Buddhists (writer not included) as a collection of minds rendering unto modern day terrorism and extreme racism. A political prism that was created by Buddhist Monks, some extreme-minded Sinhalese academics and politicians willingly led by SWRD Bandaranaike, became the sole barometer by which way the political winds were blowing.

Apart from ethnic tensions that dominated the political landscape at the time, there were many other crucial issues, especially economic hardships endured by the whole population in the early seventies under SWRD’s widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike and the current crisis, both economic and political, that should have received equal attention by our Tamil leadership. Yet that Tamil leadership is still playing into the ethnic tensions and trying to ask for their pound of flesh.

In a time when the country needs to be united as one single nation of Sri Lankans, if any party, whether it was Tamil-led or Sinhalese-led, makes it their priority to reap an unholy harvest that comes after inflaming communal division and violence, such entities deserve the unequivocal condemnation of all.

It is not too late for Sampanthan and Sumanthiran, leaders of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to stretch their closed arms and embrace the modern need for inclusion instead of exclusion. But that must come from Sinhalese leadership too, especially Buddhist Monks who are supposed to follow the eternal message of tolerance and compassion of the Greatest of all teachers, Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. 

There is no doubt that our Tamil brethren have been wronged in the past. It is true that, especially during the last seventy five years of our history, Tamils have been discriminated against as much as Sinhalese, in their own closed mindsets, ponder about reverse discrimination. Fractures can be mended; disagreements can exist while a compromise also could be reached in order to unify divided segments of our population, nation of Sri Lankans. What is necessary, in fact, essential, is to forge a new approach. Headlines have not changed; scarcities are everywhere; soaring prices and lengthening lines are continuing and power-cuts are defining our day’s work. If our Tamil and Sinhalese leaders can agree upon a new vision for the country, political, economic and cultural, such sublime visions may mean something beyond the suffering for the masses of all communities, Tamil, Sinhalese, Muslim and Burgher alike. It is not a futile effort to dream such sublime dreams. One may not know what comes after, until one wakes up from a disturbed sleep.

*The writer can be contacted at      

  • Kanapathy Varunan / September 9, 2022 5 0“If our Tamil and Sinhalese leaders can agree upon a new vision for the country…………” yes-‘IF’. Mr. Vishwamithra, you are chasing behind a mirage sir? What has not happened since 1920, not 1948 (Ramanathan/Arunachalam) days, can it happen now?
  • srikrish / September 10, 2022 1 2viswamithra,Did it not clear that Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam erred in leaving Ceylon National Congress and forming the Ceylon Tamil League in 1923?In hindsight, it could have been argued that Sir Arunachalam could well have continued to be in the Ceylon National Congress in spite of slight indignities suffered by a handful of racist elements among the Sinhalese community. It is a personnel affront to him alone, why should he communalize the issue?
    It may be due to grab personnel power by some rival power hungry element. On the other hand he could have formed a rival Ceylon National Congress along with likeminded Sinhala Buddhists nationalists and guided the entire nation on a nationalistic path. Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, by reacting to one single unfortunate incident to take action that had become a precedent to every Tamil leader subsequently to outbid the racist Sinhala leaders on every occasion and bring the Tamil Community to the present plight. Tamil leadership has failed Sri Lankan Tamils!
About editor 3043 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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