by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
50th Anniversary of 1961 Tamil Satyagraha-2
The Throne Speech outlining the policies and plans of the new Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Government of Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike was delivered on August 12th 1960.
Chelvanayakam known as “Thanthai Chelva” (father) at Satyagraha
In a move that pleased the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) known in English as the Federal Party (FP) a Tamil translation was read out simultaneously . The tone and content of the Throne speech was a disappointment to the party as it did not make any reference to matters pertaining to the setting up of district councils and implementation of Tamil language in the administrative and judicial spheres.
Apparently the SLFP treated the pre-polls understanding arrived at with the FP as non – binding in a situation where the Govt had a majority in Parliament and not dependent on the FP to rule.
Nevertheless the FP remained patient and refrained from rocking the boat. The party adopted a low profile during the debate and abstained from voting. This was to prevent an open rupture with the SLFP and keep the doors open for further discussions.
The FP however found its efforts to open lines of communication with the govt being spurned. The SLFP was in no mood for any further meeting with the FP. Letters sent to the PM and senior ministers were not answered. Even telephone calls were rebuffed.
On the other hand public statements made by members of the govt as well as media reports indicated that the new govt intended to implement the Bandaranaike (SWRD) policies in full. A key element in this was the total “Sinhalaisation” of the Administrative and Judicial spheres. The Tamil factor seemed to be of no consequence.
The SLFP that had been playing political footsy with the FP in a pre-election scenario seemed to be regretting that in a post –election scenario. The virulent campaign conducted by the UNP on communal lines against the perceived SLFP-FP alignment had affected grass roots supporters of the party. Many suspected the charges to be true despite loyalty to the party.
Thus the SLFP leadership had to now prove to the rank and file that there was no “deal” with the FP and that no concession would be granted to demands articulated by the party. It also had to demonstrate that the party had not lost its pro-Sinhala moorings.
Reinforcing this pro-Sinhala hard line thought was the return of many prodigals to the mother party. A large number of these were avowed Sinhala hawks. Their return added strength to the proponents of total Sinhalaisation in the party. Under these circumstances the SLFP now seemed “ashamed” of its pre-poll tie up with the FP and seemed keen on distancing itself from the Tamil party.
The corollary of this state of affairs was increasing insecurity among the Tamil people about their political future. There was much apprehension and fear that the Govt was going to implement “Sinhala Only” in a big way throughout the Country.
Tamil trepidation in this respect was enhanced by two announcements by the Govt. One was that Sinhala would be implemented as the sole official language in all areas of administration with effect from January 1st 1961.
The second was the announcement that the Govt intended passing legislation making Sinhala as the Language of courts in all parts of the Island. Legislation to this effect had been introduced in 1959 but had lapsed after the proroguing of Parliament. Now the Govt wanted to resurrect it.
The FP was now under tremendous pressure from its Tamil constituency to do something in this regard. The FP had contested 21 seats in the July 1960 polled 218, 653 votes and obtained 16 seats. The party regarded itself as the legitimate representatives of the Tamil speaking people. The party therefore prepared a comprehensive memorandum incorporating the concerns of the Tamil people.
The memorandum called for the full implementation of the Banda-Chelva pact and the provisions on Tamil language implementation agreed to by SWRD Bandaranaike. The FP wanted the Regional Councils to be set up and Tamil Language Special provisions act to be implemented.
The memorandum also requested the Govt to recognize the Tamil language as a national language spoken by the Tamil and Muslim people. Tamil was to be an administrative and courts language in the North and East. The FP also wanted arrangements for Tamils and Muslims in the seven Sinhala majority provinces enabling them to transact official business in Tamil.
The memorandum also pointed out that making Sinhala the sole official language had created two categories among Tamil public servants. One was those who had been recruited before the Sinhala only bill and the other those being recruited after it.
The first category called “old entrants” should be allowed to work in English or be allowed to retire with full benefits if they so desired. They should not be compulsorily retired or deprived of increments or promotions.
As for the second or “new entrants” category the FP did not object to the requirement of Sinhala proficiency. The party however did not want the Sinhala proficiency requirement to be used to deny or restrict employment opportunities for Tamils in Govt service.
A lengthy period of time should be given for Tamils to qualify in Sinhala. At the same time certain types of employees required to serve in Tamil speaking regions should be exempted from having to acquire Sinhala proficiency.
The Memorandum signed by all 16 FP Parliamentarians was addressed to the PM Mrs. Bandaranaike and requested a meeting with her. The party received a terse note acknowledging receipt. Instead of waiting passively the FP now engaged in intensive lobbying for further action.
July 1960 – Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike with cabinet ministers
Party leaders used their personal relationship with SLFP stalwarts to canvass for a meeting with the premier. Chelvanayakam dropped in at Felix Dias Bandaranaike’s residence. Other leaders met with ministers like CP de Silva, Maithripala Senanayake, TB Illangaratne, PBG Kalugalle , Sam PC Fernando and Badi-ud–din Mahmood at their offices .
As a result of this collective effort the Govt relented and a meeting between the Prime Minister and a FP delegation was set up at Temple Trees on November 8th 1960. The Govt team led by Mrs.Bandaranaike comprised ministers CP de Silva,Felix Dias Bandaranaike,TB Illangaratne,Sam PC Fernando,PBG Kalugalle and Dr.Badi-ud – din Mahmood.
The FP delegation led by its leader and Kankesanthurai MP SJV Chelvanayakam included Parliamentarians NR Rajavarothayam (Trincomalee)EMV Naganathan(Nallur), VA Kandiah(Kayts), SM Rasamanickam (Paddirupu), A. Amirthalingam (Vaddukkoddai) and non –Parliamentarians V.Navaratnam and SMM Mashoor Moulana.
The two hour long discussion was conducted cordially. Issues were discussed in detail.A second meeting was scheduled for November 23rd 1960 to follow up on matters.
The Nov 23rd meeting with the PM was also at Temple Trees. While the FP delegation consisted of the same people as before there was a change in the Govt team.CP de Silva,Mahmood and Kalugalle were absent. Instead two junior ministers were present.They were TB Tennekoon (Dambulla) and Mahanama Samaraweera (Matara).
The discussions went on for two hours like the previous occasion. At the end of it the FP was asked to prepare two documents for further discussion. One was a set of draft regulations regarding the Tamil Language (special Provisions) Act No 28 of 1958. The other was a draft bill to establish regional councils.No date was set for a third round of talks.
Whatever the optimism generated at these two rounds of talks it soon began evaporating as other events began overtaking. Media reports about the Govt-FP talks caused a backlash among hawkish Sinhala elements within the SLFP. The Govt went on the defensive and “apologized” to the Sinhala people for talking to the FP.
Felix Dias Bandaranaike underplayed the meetings with the FP and told newspapers that the govt only listened to representations made by the FP and did not discuss anything specifically. Mrs. Bandaranaike in another statement said she met the FP because that party had sent her a memorandum requesting a meeting to discuss matters relating to the implementation of Sinhala as an official language.
Even as these brief signs of SLFP-FP rapprochement began to fade away, fresh clouds gathered on the political horizon. In a sudden move that took the FP by surprise the Justice Minister Sam PC Fernando introduced parliamentary legislation relating to the language of courts. The draft Languages of the courts bill empowered the Justice minister to direct that Sinhala language alone be used for pleadings, recording of proceedings and maintenance of records in any court in the Island.
This drastic move by the govt made the FP feel betrayed. Tamils were upset and worried. Chelvanayakam pointed out that there was no provision in the bill for even courts in 100% Tamil areas to conduct affairs in Tamil. Lawyers in the North and East registered their protest by token boycotts of courts.
Despite Tamil opposition the Govt announced that it intended going ahead as planned. Felix Dias Bandaranaike rationalised the Govt stance by stating that the mandate upon which the SLFP was elected to office was that of total implementation of the Sinhala only policy of SWRD Bandaranaike.
The Federal Party’s working committee met in Batticaloa on December 4th 1960 and resolved to discontinue the on going dialogue with the Govt until the draft Language of the courts bill was altered to incorporate provisions for Tamil language also. The FP felt no useful purpose would be served by further discussion until this was done.
The Govt reacted harshly. It reiterated that it would go ahead as planned on the language of courts issue. Furthermore the Govt emphasised that it would implement the Sinhala only act in full and stated that the administration of the entire country would only be in Sinhala with effect from January 1st 1961.
With the Govt flinging down the gauntlet the FP held an emergency meeting of its Parliamentary group on December 18th. The party decided unanimously to observe a hartal or stoppage of work in the Northern and Eastern provinces on January 2nd 1961. This was the first working day after the proposed switching to Sinhala.The FP asked all Tamil speaking people regardless of party affiliation to observe the hartal.
On December 26th the working committee of the FP met and endorsed the decision to stage a hartal on Jan 2nd. A significant event occurred at that meeting when a stalwart from Vavuniya by the name of Sittampalam proposed that the FP abandon the demand for federalism and instead begin a campaign for a separate state. After hectic discussion this extremist proposal was rejected.
The aborted move was an indicator of the hardening of opinion among sections of the FP. In Sittampalam’s case he was influenced greatly by Prof. C. Sundaralingam who had represented Vavuniya in Parliament from 1947 – 1960. Sundaralingam had formed the “Adanga Thamilar Otrumai Munnani” (Defiant Tamil united Front) and demanded a separate state which he spelled as “Eylom”. Sundaralingam was defeated in both March and July 1960 elections.
The Govt went ahead with the Language of the courts bill despite Tamil protests. It was taken up for debate on December 30th 1960.Standing orders were suspended to enable Parliament to conclude the debate and vote on the same day.
The FP participated in the debate and moved amendments to the bill seeking to make Tamil the courts language in the North and East. These were rejected and defeated by voting. The courts language bill was debated throughout the night of Dec 30th and finally passed at 8 am on December 31st.
Chelvanayakam issued a statement calling upon the Tamil speaking people to observe the January 2nd hartal in a non – violent manner. He further said that the Tamil speaking people were left with no alternative other than to offer non – violent resistance. Saying there was immense suffering in store for the Tamil speaking people, Chelvanayakam observed ‘Whatever the sacrifices may be the way is clear for us which is to resist whole-heartedly and engage with full force in a one hundred percent non – violent struggle”.
Notwithstanding Chelvanayakam’s appeal for non – violence the Govt was not taking any chances. Armed force contingents were sent to the North and East to beef up the security presence in those regions. Chelvanayakam lamented this and said “It is regretted that the govt has sent armed forces to the north and east.We can only hope that those forces will not run riot”
The fears of the Govt about possible violence proved liars. The hartal was observed in all parts of the North and east without any mishap or violent incident. The security forces and Police simply remained alert without having to resort to action anywhere. The hartal was a big success and paralysed normal life for a day.
Elated by the hartal’s success, the FP revived its dormant action committee. The FP had formed an action committee comprising selected leaders to plan, coordinate and implement non – violent protests on a mass scale. The action committee had earlier given notice of two “Direct action” campaigns in 1957 and 1958.
Apr 1958 – Anti Tamil Riots – pic: PACT.lk
The campaigns did not take place. In 1957 it was abandoned because of the signing of the B-C pact. In 1958 it was not implemented because leaders of the FP were placed under house arrest after the 1958 anti-Tamil riots. The action committee had thereafter become inactive.
Revoking B-C pact – Apr 1958 – pics: pact.lk
Now the party revived and reconstituted the action committee which met on January 8th 1961 . The action committee decided on two courses of action. The first was to conduct a widespread “satyagraha” campaign in the north and east before February 20th 1961. The second was to stage the seventh national party convention of the FP in Jaffna on January 21st 1961 and ratify the decision to stage a massive Satyagraha campaign.
Vaddukkoddai MP A. Amirthalingam a firebrand in his younger days was then the president of the FP youth Front. He requested and obtained approval to stage the youth convention along with the national convention.
The stage was now being set for the launching of the Satyagraha campaign. The FP leader SJV Chelvanayakam was not convinced about the feasibility of a Satyagraha campaign. He was doubtful whether there would be public support for such a move because of the threat of repressive action by the govt. He was also worried about the outbreak of violence and the potential harm to civilian participants.
V. Navaratnam (October 18, 1909 – December 22, 2006)
Without Chelvanayakam’s support there was little chance of the party endorsing a Satyagraha at the convention. The formidable task of persuading Chelvanayakam fell on the shoulders of former Kayts MP V. Navaratnam. Described as the “Thanga moolai (Golden brain) of the FP , Navaratnam was a shrewd planner with the reputation of getting things done. In 1957 the action committee had entrusted him with the responsibility of planning and executing the famous FP march to Trincomalee.
Now the action committee had delegated the responsibility of conducting the Satyagraha to V Navaratnam (different to Chavakachcheri’s V.N. Navaratnam). Navaratnam met Chelvanayakam and outlined his proposed modus operandi for the Satyagraha. Chelvanayakam was half – convinced.
Chelvanayakam was finally converted to the cause of Satyagraha after an unofficial meeting of party members held at the FP headquarters ( No 25, second cross street, Jaffna). There Chelvanayakam invited V.Navaratnam to address the gathering and explain his blueprint for a Satyagraha.
Navaratnam then spoke . He said that batches of dedicated volunteers steeped in the tradition of non – violent protest would sit in front of the entrances to the Kachcheris or administrative secretariats of districts. They would prevent govt employees from working by blocking them. If one batch was arrested another batch would replace it. The Satyagraha would continue on an on going basis.
Since the Kachcheris were the nerve centers of district administration day to day governance would be paralysed. Once that happened the Satyagraha could be expanded to other Govt departments also. The campaign would commence in Jaffna. Thereafter it would be conducted in Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Mannar and Vavuniya. The ultimate objective was to paralyse civil administration in the North and East through non – violent action.
After Navaratnam’s incisive explanation the audience was firmly convinced. Chelvanayakam a devout Christian then retired to a private room for prayer. After praying the FP leader decided to go ahead with the Satyagraha campaign. Thereafter Chelvanayakam was resolute in conducting the Satyagraha campaign
Once Chelvanayakam threw in his lot with the Satyagraha project party endorsement for the campaign was assured. When the FP convention took place on January 21st the FP youth front also had its own session.
The FP youth front passed a resolution calling for the picketing of Govt offices in the north and east,conducting a non – cooperation campaign against officials involved in implementing Sinhala as the official language and adopting measures to prevent the teaching of Sinhala in Tamil schools.
Amirthalingam in his capacity as youth front leader also submitted an appeal to the FP national convention calling upon the party to launch a civil disobedience campaign without delay.
Paddiruppu MP SM Rasamanickam was elected FP president at the convention. In his presidential address Rasamanickam revealed details of the efforts made by the party to reach an understanding with the SLFP govt and why they failed. He said the party had no choice other than to oppose the imposition of Sinhala by the Govt.
Taking note of sentiments expressed by younger members of resorting to a violent struggle Rasamanickam vehemently condemned such thoughts. He said the FP was moulded by principles of Mahatma Gandhi. “Our leader Chelvanayakam’s path is the Gandhian path. Ours is the Chelvanayakam path”, he proclaimed.
Four resolutions were passed at the FP convention.They were on caste discrimination, economic development, citizenship and the prevailing political situation. The political resolution was proposed by Chelvanayakam and seconded by Dr. Naganathan.It was carried unanimously amidst thunderous cheers and applause.
The concluding part of the resolution stated – “This convention taking into consideration the history of repeated betrayals and the utter futility of the method of negotiation and parliamentary action in the present governmental set-up, resolves that the only course open to the Tamil speaking people to protect their national honour and win back their freedom is to resort to non – violent direct action and ratifies the course of action set out in the directive of the party’s action committee”.
The mood at the FP convention was volatile and aggressive. Passions were running high against the actions of the SLFP government on the question of language. The ruling regime was determined to go ahead with the “Sinhalaisation” agenda and was engaged in a number of measures adding insult to injury as far as Tamils were concerned.
Parliament itself had passed a motion making Sinhala the language of the House of Representatives.Interpretation arrangements would be made for MP’s who could not understand or speak Sinhala. Tamil speaking MP’s felt deeply humiliated by this action.
Unlike the government of her enlightened husband, the government of Sirima Bandaranaike attempted to enforce the “Sinhala only” policy vigorously from January 1961 onwards without any compassion for the predicament of the Tamil speaking people.
All government departments and semi-govt boards and corporations were required to conduct official business in Sinhala only. All records and files were to be maintained in Sinhala alone. Communication with the public was also to be in the sole official language only.
Highly educated Tamils in respectable positions were rendered officially illiterate by govt fiat. Letters,notices and circulars were in the Sinhala language only. Tamil officers had to undergo the humiliating experience of relying on their Sinhala colleagues and subordinates to make sense of these.
Tamil professionals and businessmen receiving official letters in Sinhala had to procure the help of their Sinhala neighbours and minor employees like drivers and peons to understand them. In the predominantly Tamil areas of the North and east the situation was even more problematic. Sinhala bakery owners and boutique keepers were very much in demand there for translating.
Gazette notifications and newspaper notices advertising vacancies or employment opportunities in the public sector stipulated a working knowledge of Sinhala as an essential requirement or pre-condition. Those not proficient in Sinhala were automatically disqualified. Thus in practice public sector employment was being restricted to Tamils ,Muslims and even Burghers.
Those already in government service were also affected by the rapid Sinhalaisation process of the Sirima Bandaranaike regime. All govt employees were required to acquire a stipulated degree of proficiency within a prescribed time frame. Until then all promotions, salary emoluments and pay increments would be withheld. Sinhala classes were started at govt departments . Attendance was mandatory.
In a counter move the FP had asked all Tamil govt employees to refrain from working in Sinhala. They were asked not to study Sinhala and to boycott Sinhala classes. Members of the Tamil public were asked not to transact official business in Sinhala.They were asked to refuse official correspondence in Sinhala and to write official letters in Tamil to govt offices.
While the FP appeal met with an overall affirmative response there were many Tamil govt servants who did not oblige. For one thing they were of the old school type and believed in adhering obediently to govt directives. Also many had put in years of service and did not want to risk losing employment suddenly.
There were however many young Tamil employees who defied the imposition of Sinhala as sole official language. Many refused to work in Sinhala and lost their jobs.Others worked without acquiring Sinhala proficiency thereby losing promotions and salary increases. Some Tamil employees challenged the govt diktat in courts and met with resounding success at the Privy council (Kodeeswaran case).
FP leaders sent numerous letters to ministers of the govt and the Premier about this disturbing state of affairs. Sadly most letters went unanswered. In a few instances routine notes of receipt were sent without any follow up action.
It could be seen therefore that the Tamil socio-political environment was rippling with tension. Even if unable to articulate their views publicly in a forthright manner almost every politically conscious Tamil was seething with hostility at government action.There were however differences of opinion about dealing with the situation.
In an emotion charged atmosphere the FP national convention ratified the decision to launch a Satyagraha campaign in a phased out manner. The action committee was empowered to take necessary measures.
The FP action committee met on January 29th and decided to implement the preliminary phase of the direct action campaign. This was to issue a direct appeal to all govt employees in the north and east to refrain from working in Sinhala after informing them of FP plans to paralyse civil administration through a Satyagraha campaign.
Accordingly on January 30th the FP leader Chelvanayakam led a group of volunteers to the Jaffna kachcheri and issued leaflets. He also spoke with many govt servants and solicited their cooperation. Likewise Amirthalingam led a group to the Jaffna courts and issued leaflets with an appeal.He also addressed an impromptu gathering.
Other Federal party MP’s and senior leaders followed suit in the days that followed. They visited government offices in all parts of the Jaffna peninsula on a staggered basis. This action was replicated by FP activists in other districts of the North and East also.
The leaflet noted in its appeal that Tamil should be to the Tamil speaking people what Sinhala is to the Sinhala speaking people. It stated that the govt had rejected a unanimous request by the Tamil speaking people for Tamil to be the administrative language in the north and east and was now trying to “force Sinhala down our throats”.
It further noted that the “Tamil speaking people have no alternative but to resist this wicked policy of the govt” and that “we are engaged in a life and death struggle for our birthright”.
The leaflet ended with a three –pronged appeal. The three requests were –
1.please do not do any work in your office in Sinhala.
2.Please do not attend to any official communication in Sinhala.
3.Please do not sign or use an official frank in Sinhala.
In the aftermath of the leaflet campaign, Justice minister Sam PC Fernando addressed the nation on Jan 29th over radio. He appealed to the Tamil speaking people not to be deceived and misled by Federal party mischief makers.
Fernando said he was prepared to discuss difficulties faced by the Tamil people on the language front and make adjustments to remove inconveniences and irritants. He would also instruct govt departments to send Tamil translations with letters in Sinhala. He further said that the govt was ready to make adjustments without prejudice to the official languages act in instances where hardship was caused.
Chelvanayakam responded to the Justice minister through the newspapers in the following manner. “Our party has arrived at this decision after giving a full trial to methods of negotiation.It produced no results from the government side.Even our letters were not acknowledged.The minister’s statement comes nowhere near the mark.He does not understand our position or is underestimating our intelligence.We will as true Satyagrahis, always keep the door of negotiations open. But we cannot abandon the fundamental rights of our people”.
The preliminary phase of the Satyagraha campaign conducted throughout the north and east in stages concluded without any hitch. There was no violence anywhere. A certain amount of awareness had been created in the minds of govt employees about the forthcoming direct action campaign.
The FP followed through by holding meetings and rallies in various parts of the north and east. The public at large was informed of the Satyagraha and asked to be ready. The FP also began registering volunteers for the Satyagraha and conducting classes on the basic tenets of non – violent agitation.
When Freedom day dawned on February 4th the FP declared it a day of mourning for Tamils. Black flags were hoisted throughout the North – east. The highlight of the day of mourning was a procession staged by Tamil youths from Urumpirai to Jaffna.
A coffin with copies of the Sinhala only act and Language of the courts act was carried and set on fire after mock funeral rites were done by Kayts MP VA Kandiah. Amirthalingam stood on a parapet wall and addressed the crowd.
The FP’s action committee went ahead with its plans for commencing the satyagraha on February 20th. On February 19th the action committee formally approved the phased out plan for the campaign. Chelvanayakam issued a lengthy statement informing the public of the direct action campaign.
After explaining the background and specifying the reasons necessitating such a protest the statement concluded thus –
“The whole of the Tamil speaking nation revolts against these measures;then the question is what must we do now? Should we stand by and witness the destruction of our race?Or should we act? In similar circumstances Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian national Congress resorted to action which was against the laws of the country but was characterised as moral and patriotic conduct.
Our party has decided likewise. We are prepared to face the consequences of our action which may be very serious. We have no misgiving about the strength and capacity of the government to resort to oppressive measures and oppress our people. One thing is certain. Our campaign cannot result in failure unless we or our actions are disowned by our people.
The measure of success depends on the extent to which our people get trained to resist the unjust measures of a government that rules them without their consent”.
The lengthy statement issued by Chelvanayakam set out the parameters of the direct action campaign. D-day dawned on February 20th 1961.
The first batch of Satyagraha volunteers all from the Kankesanthurai electorate represented by SJV Chelvanayakam converged at the FP office at No 25 , 2nd cross street,Jaffna.
The non – violent contingent then started out in a procession towards the Jaffna Kachcheri situated along the Jaffna – Kandy A-9 highway. The feeble and sickly Chelvanayagam dressed in “Verti and Salvai” was at the head of the group
Since Chelvanayakam known as “Thanthai Chelva” (father) walked very slowly the volunteers also proceeded at a very slow pace. Two poetic slogans were frequently chanted.
One was “Thamilar Selvathu Enthap Paathai? Thanthai Chelva Kaatum Paathai” (On which path are Tamils going on? The path shown by Father Selva).
The other was “mella,mella nadanthu sellum Methai Chelvanayakam, Sellukindra Vazhiyil sellvom Thamizh Thondarkal Naam” (Genius Chelvanayakam walks slowly, slowly. We Tamil disciples follow in the same path he goes )
Finally the Satyagrahis reached the Kachcheri premises and took up positions in front of the entrances to the Kachcheri. The time was 7.30 am.
NEXT: BRUTALITY, VIOLENCE AND MASS SUPPORT
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org