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Banda, Chelva and the Elusive Federal Idea

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By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

The federal idea is not a new concept to Sri Lanka. It is however a controversial theme in the Country and is viewed on both sides of the ethnic divide with great hostility.Sri Lankan “patriots” think the introduction of federalism will ultimately lead to division of the Country.

[S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, G.G. Ponnambalam and S.J.V. Chelvanayagam]

[S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, G.G. Ponnambalam and
S.J.V. Chelvanayagam]

Tamil Eelam “patriots” think federalism is a ruse to weaken nationalist aspirations for a separate state. The Muslims particularly from the North – East are worried about their place in a federal situation. Against this backdrop of contending insecurities, federalism has become the “F- word” in Lankan politics.

It is interesting to note that federalism as a form of governance was proposed in the pre – Independence period by Sinhala leaders. There were no takers for it among Tamils. Later Sinhala leaders began toying with the idea of greater de – centralisation. But post – independence developments saw the demand for federalism gaining support among Tamils. This resulted in Sinhala leaders losing enthusiasm for the F – word. Sunsequent events saw federalism becoming discredited among Tamils too as secessionism and armed struggle gained dominance.

Those desiring a federal solution feel that unity is possible amidst diversity but those opposing it opine that only “unitary” will bring about unity. What the unitarists forget or ignore is that the Island’s current avatar as a single state was made possible only by the British colonialists. It was in 1832 that the British unified the Country into modern ceylon by forging together the Kandyan, low – Country, and maritime regions into one entity.The existing 32 administrative divisions were compressed into five provinces. Some decades later the five became nine provinces.

Even as the “new” nation began progressing towards self – government under British rule the necessity for some form of de- centralisation and/or devolution was felt. Both de – centralisation and devolution were used interchangeably. The first person of eminence to propose federalism for Ceylon was none other than Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike. The Oxford returned SWRD was of the view then that Ceylon should become a federation.

Ironically SWRD first made this proposal in Jaffna in 1926. The Youth Congress invited him for a lecture where young SWRD spoke on the topic “Federation as the only solution to our political problems”.Bandaranaike argued that regional autonomy was the ideal way to manage communal differences.The audience was neither impressed nor enamoured by the federalism pitch. The full lecture was later serialised in “The Morning Leader”. There were few takers for federalism and James. T. Rutnam wrote some articles in the same paper criticising SWRD’s proposal.SWRD however adhered to federalism while heading the progressive nationalist party .

While the Tamils treated federalism as politically untouchable another ethnic sub – group touted the F- word as a manthra in the twenties of the twentieth century. Kandyan Sinhala representives comprising mainly of the Radala elite were suspicious of a system where the numerically larger low – Country Sinhalese could swamp them. So they went before the Donoughmore Commission in 1927 and proposed a federal ceylon comprising three units. One for the Kandyan provinces , one for the Low – country provinces and one for the Tamil provinces of the North and East.

Even at that time the Tamils did not think of a federal north – east but argued for communal representation based on greater weightage for the Tamils. The Donoughmore commission rejected both federalism and communal representation. It was territorial representation and universal franchise.The pan – Sinhala board of ministers set up in 1936 saw Bandaranaike become local government minister.

As local govt minister SWRD moved away from federalism to de – centralisation.It must be noted that there was really no antipathy towards federalism then.It was more apathy and dis- interest. SWRD himself had great political ambition and sought to build up his base through the Sinhala maha sabha and through enhancing the local govt system.So he wanted to re-vamp the local govt system and provide greater autonomy through de- centralisation.

SWRD envisaged the province as the unit of greater local authority. He wanted to set up Provincial councils.The local government ministry’s executive committee released a report advocating more powers to to these proposed councils. In 1940 RSS gunawardena introduced a motion in the state council proposing the setting up of Provincial councils. The state council approved it but for some inexplicable reason SWRD did not proceed further and present a bill in the state council during its tenure.

Bandaranaike was local government minister in Independent Ceylon’s first cabinet under DS Senanayake.It is said that he tried to revive his provincial council formulation again as a means to bring government closer to the people. But his cabinet colleagues enjoying power as full – fledged ministers were reluctant to dilute or reduce their newly gained authority. So SWRD could not go through his plans. This was indeed a great pity because the envisaged provincial councils could have been set up without much problem then as the ethnic dimension was not prevalent then.

In 1951 Bandaranaike crossed over to the opposition and founded the Sri Lanka Freedom Pary (SLFP). Sadly SWRD saw a short – cut to power through pandering to communalism. The Sinhala only wave saw Bandaranaike becoming prime minister in 1956. In fairness to Bandaranaike he did try to incorporate provisions accommodating Tamil grievances in the Official languages bill. But the hardliners who brought him to power did not permit it. Likewise SWRD revived his pet project of regional autonomy by trying to set up up regional councils. Again his moves were aborted through hard- line opposition.

There was now a new political , phenomenon on the political horizon. The main Tamil party the All – Ceylon Tamil Congress had split and the splinter group had formed a new party. Earlier the Tamil Congress fought hard for a scheme of balanced representation popularly called “fifty – fifty”. This was rejected by the Soulbury Commission.

It is indeed noteworthy that the Tamil political leadership of the pre – Independence period had not campaigned for separation or federalism before the Commission. They had wanted a scheme where the minority community representation should be given weightage whereby the non – Sinhala communities together could counter- balance Sinhala domination.

One reason for the Tamil leadership not opting for federalism was due to the fact that it was essntially comprised of the Colombo based elite. With Tamils enjoying a larger proportion of prestigious professions, government jobs and commerce in Sinhala areas the dominant Tamil elite perceived the community as being “all – Island” rather than “regional”. Subsequent events proved how short – sighted this belief was.

GG Ponnambalam was leader of the Tamil Congress then. His deputy was SJV Chelvanayagam. GG as he was generally known was seen as a pragmatic politician by his supporters After full independence dawned Ponnambalam revised his approach. With balanced representation an impossibility GG now articulated the concept of “responsive cooperation”.

Ponnambalam opted to join the DS. Senanayake cabinet. The price he paid for that was the stigma of betraying the Up – Country Tamils who were deprived of citizenship and franchise by the UNP regime.. GGP became Industries and Fisheries minister and established many factories and fisheries harbours in the North – East.

But some of his deputies like Chelvanayagam, C. Vanniyasingham, EMV Naganathan and V. Navaratnam rebelled against Ponnambalam. They broke away and formed a new party. It was called the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) in Tamil. Its English translation should have been Ceylon Tamil State party but instead it was called Federal party (FP). The new party wanted an autonomous Tamil state comprising the Tamil dominated Northern and the Tamil – majority Eastern provinces within a united Ceylon.

The advent of the ITAK was a watershed in Ceylon politics as it was the first party to espouse the Federal idea as its main ideology and goal. Unlike SWRD who emphasised regional autonomy for good governance the FP wanted federalism to protect Tamil interests and achieve ethnic harmony. Unfortunately there was a hiatus between precept and practice. The federal idea as promoted by the ITAK was embroiled in controversy . It was mis – represented, mis – understood and therefore much maligned and much hated.

Initially the opposition to federalism came from the Tamil Congress itself. With the ITAK calling Ponnambalam a traitor for accepting a cabinet portfolio the Congressmen hit back by distorting the federal idea. Even before Sinhala politicians started distorting the meaning of federalism as secessionism the Tamil Congress did so. The Tamil voters were “terrorised” by the propaganda that federalism meant a break with the rest of the Country and that the Tamil businessmen and Govt servants in the South would have to return. “The Yarl Devi wont run that side of Elephant pass ” was ome such threat.

The ITAK wanted a federal union between the Tamil autonomous Tamil state and the residual Sinhala state. This demand too was ridiculed by GG Ponnambalam who pointed out that such union entailed consent by both parties. “Are the Sinhalese prepared for federalism” he queried. Doubts were also raised whether Eastern province Tamils, Muslims and Wanni Tamils were ready for federalism. The plantation Tamils and Tamil leftists too were not receptive. The Communist party later advocated regional autonomy.

The newly formed ITAK won only Trincomalee and Kopay in the 1952 parliamentary elections. Even there the personal popularity of Rajavarothayam and Vanniyasingham had more to do with victory than the federal idea. The Tamil votes had overwhelmingly rejected federalism at the polls. The idea of power sharing at the centre through holding cabinet portfolios seemed more lucrative than sharing power at the periphery through federalism.

The 1952 – 56 years saw a sea change in Sinhala and Tamil politics. The SLFP began raising the communal cry and advocating Sinhala as the sole official language. This in turn created insecurity in Tamil areas. The ITAK vowed to resist Sinhala imposition and began mobilising support. In this raucous atmosphere saner voices calling for parity of status like the LSSP were shouted down.

Interestingly the federal idea was downplayed by the ITAK during these years. It was the language issue that galvanised Tamil voters. The ITAK retained its demand for an autonmous state of both provinces but in practice did not emphasise it too much. Instead the ITAK projected an impression that it would not object to district based autonomus units being set up. In the fifties there were only three districts in the North and two in the East.

The present Jaffna and Kilinochchi districts formed the Jaffna district. Vavuniya and Mullaitheevu districts were one called Vavuniya. Mannar was the third. In the East the present Batticaloa and Amparai districts formed one Batticaloa district. Trincomalee was the other.

Chelvanayagam’s new approach was a recognition of regional and sub – national differences within the North – East. The district based units would lessen fears among non – Jaffna Tamils as well as the Muslims it was felt. The ITAK adopted an inclusive approach towards the Muslims by embracing them under the “Tamil speaking people” concept. The North – East was the traditional homelands of the Tamils and Muslims it was argued. If Sinhala became the sole official language the counterpoint to it would be the setting up of a Tamil “linguistic” region comprising North and East.

The 1956 election results saw an ethnic polarisation with the ITAK winning most seats in the Tamil areas and the MEP – SLFP – Bhasa Peramuna combine sweeping polls in the Sinhala areas. Political violence set in when Govt sponsored mobs assaulted Tamil Satyagrahis protesting the imposition of Sinhala as the only Official language. Violence also spread in the East where Tamil agriculturists were driven away from lands in newly set up irrigation schemes. This led to a situation where the ITAK re- asserted its demand for an autonomous region of both provinces.

Once again , in fairness to Bandaranaike, it must be said that he tried to resolve the political conflict by trying to address Tamil grievances. He promoted dialogue with the ITAK and tried to arrive at an understanding with Chelvanayagam. This included provisions for usage of Tamil language, preferential poilicies in land alienation and above a sceme to establish regional autonomy. For this Bandaranaike signed a pact with Chelvanayagam called the Banda – Chelva pact. Subsequently legislation to set up regional councils was introduced

Despite his good intentions Bandaranaike found it impossible to honour the pact in practice. The genie he had released from the bottle refused to go back in. The communal forces unleashed by SWRD in his bid for power became uncontrollable. Bandaranaike described by Tarzie Vitachi as “weak and vacillating” went back on his word in deference to the forces who installed him in power. Ultimately those forces destroyed him . The federal idea remained elusive and unattainable.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at djeyaraj2005@yahoo.com

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