by D.B.S Jeyaraj
50th Anniversary of 1961 Tamil Satyagraha – 3
The batch of volunteers from the Kankesanthurai(KKS) electorate led by Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) leader Samuel James Veluppillai Chelvanayakam commenced their Satyagraha campaign opposite the Jaffna Kachcheri premises at 7. 30 am on February 20th 1961.
It must be noted that the Jaffna Kachcheri was not housed then in the present building where it is situated now along the Jaffna –Kandy road or A-9 highway in the Chundikkuli area of Jaffna city.
The Kachcheri then was right opposite where it is now. The Kachcheri buildings were on the same Jaffna –Kandy highway on the other side of the road. Those premises were later called the Old Kachcheri building after the present two – storey new building was constructed.
When the Satyagraha was launched the place where the present Kachcheri or secretariat is on now was a vacant plot of govt land with a few large shady trees. Many members of the public who came to the Kachcheri to transact official business would be seen loitering or conversing under those trees. Some cycles were also parked unofficially there.
The old Kachcheri was situated in the large grounds known as Old Park. The main entrance to the Kachcheri was on the Jaffna –Kandy road. The official residence of the Jaffna district Government Agent was also within the Old Park.Known as the old park residency it had another separate entrance along the Jaffna – Kandy road. There was a third ,largely unused smaller gate on the other side of Old Park along Old Park road.
The Satyagrahis led by Chelvanayakam sat on the ground opposite both the Kachcheri main entrance and entrance to the residency. About 40 – 50 persons sat with Chelvanayakam in front of the main entrance. Another 15 – 25 persons sat further down opposite the residency entrance.The objective was to block Government servants from entering their office premises and working.
Apart from the volunteers from the KKS constituency , smaller groups of volunteers from other constituencies also assembled with their members of Parliament.
Some of these MP’s like Dr. EMV Naganathan (Nallur)VA Kandiah (Kayts)A. Amirthalingam (Vaddukkoddai)VN Navaratnam (Chavakachcheri)V. Dharmalingam (Uduvil) and K.Thurairatnam (Point Pedro)sat along with Chelvanayakam on the first row of Satyagrahis.
The mastermind behind the Satyagraha campaign V.Navaratnam and his “vice-captain” S.Nadarajah were also at the venue but did not participate in the sit –in. They were inspecting arrangements and coordinating matters. Navaratnam was to later become Kayts MP while Nadarajah later became Senator and Jaffna District Development Council chairman.Both were lawyers.
Periyar Periyar E. V. Ramasamy in conversation with S. J. V. Chelvanayagam and A. Amirthalingam and Mrs. Amirthalingam
Amirthalingam’s wife Mrs.Mangaiyatkarasi Amirthalingam along with some women volunteers sat behind the frontline leaders in the second row. Mangaiatkarasi being a reputed singer conducted “bhajans” where the lead singer chants the lines first and is followed in chorus by the rest. In keeping with the prevailing Gandhian ethos , Mrs. Amirthalingam started off with “Ragupathy Raghava Raja Ram” a favourite of the Mahatma.
Behind the seated Satyagrahis columns of more Satyagrahis stood in readiness. It was expected that the Police would arrest the Satyagrahis and take them away. When that happened the next batch of volunteers standing behind would promptly sit in their places and commence Satyagraha.
If and when that group was arrested and taken away another batch would take their place. There were about 200 accredited Satyagrahi volunteers with official badges at the Kachcheri venue. In addition further contingents waited in anticipation at the house compound of a party supporter in the vicinity of the Kachcheri. Additional volunteers were also waiting at the Federal Party (FP) office premises on 2nd cross street,Jaffna.
The accredited Satyagrahi volunteers wearing badges had all been given classes and lectures about the principle of non – violent political protest with special emphasis on adhering to Gandhian values of non – cooperation. Almost all volunteers were wearing white. Also many of them were fasting on that day.
They had been given clear instructions that their mission was only to prevent through non – violent protests any Govt employee from entering their office. The Police was not to be obstructed in any way. They were also instructed not to retaliate violently whatever the provocation.
Satyagrahi volunteers began peacefully approaching the Kachcheri employees when they arrived for duty. The volunteers told them of their campaign and entreated them as Tamils not to go in and start work. There were more than 250 employees of all grades at the Kachcheri. Most of them adhered to the Satyagrahi request and did not go in.They gathered in a large group and watched proceedings as by –standers.
Some Kachcheri workers had anticipated the Satyagraha demonstration and arrived for work by 6.30 am long before the protesters converged at the premises. Thus a handful of Govt employees were already within Kachcheri premises when the Satyagraha began.
Many members of the public also began arriving to transact official business at their Kachcheri. Again Satyagrahi volunteers accosted them and fervently urged them not to go in . Almost all complied with the plea. They too began waiting and watching to see what was happening.
Meanwhile a large crowd was gathering at the venue. With news of the Satyagraha spreading hundreds of people were now at the venue. Some were curious onlookers but most however were sympathetic spectators. The members of this swelling crowd though supportive of the Satyagraha were not trained Satyagrahis. A large number consisted of youths.
It was at 8.45 am that the Police arrived “officially” at the scene although some cops in civil attire had been quiet observers for quite a while. The Jaffna Superintendent of Police then was Richard Arndt. The Assistant Supdt of Police was Arumugam Mahendran. Both arrived on the spot in separate jeeps.
The senior Police officials were accompanied by a very large party of Policemen who arrived in trucks,vans and jeeps. Many of them wore helmets and carried shields.Jaffna had not witnessed so many Policemen in anti-riot gear before. They also had batons which they “showed off” by brandishing them before the Public and Satyagrahis.
As the Policemen took up positions and awaited orders the supdt of Police Arndt tried to drive in to Kachcheri premises in his jeep. It was about five minutes to nine then. In keeping with the decision not to obstruct the Police in their line of duty the Satyagrahis made way for Arndt’s jeep to enter the Old Park.
Richard Arndt drove around the old park and then got down. He began inspecting the “area” carefully. He was also seen lingering near the unused padlocked side gate along old Park road. When V. Navaratnam was told of this he immediately deployed another group of Satyagrahis to block this side entrance in case any attempt was made to use it.
Richard Arndt then went into the Residency and met with the Government Agent M. SriKantha. He then came out and drove out to the road again. The Jaffna SP then ordered the Police to clear the main entrance to the Kachcheri by removing the Satyagrahis.He did not order them to be arrested as expected.
The Satyagrahis too did not expect this. They were prepared to submit to Police arrest willingly and let another batch replace them. Indeed the entire Satyagraha exercise had been planned in this fashion where wave after wave of volunteers were to court arrest in relay fashion.
It now appeared that the SP Arndt had no intention of arresting anyone. He wanted the Satyagrahis to be dragged out and dumped forcefully. None were to be arrested.
It was only five years ago on June 5th 1956 that the Police had behaved in different fashion at a Satyagraha demonstration organized by the Federal Party in Colombo. It was on June 5th that the bill making Sinhala the sole official language was presented in Parliament.
The FP led by SJV Chelvanayakam observed a day of Satyagraha at the Galle Face Green opposite the old Parliament building. On that day some politicians in the ruling SWRD Bandaranaike Govt let loose mobs of Sinhala speaking thugs and hoodlums to assault and stone the non – violent Satyagrahis.
The Police remained passive spectators as the thugs attacked the peaceful Satygrahis.Many years later ex-DIG CC “Jungle” Dissanayake was to reveal that the hands of the Police had been tied by orders from the Prime Minister himself. Another senior police officer Van Twest also revealed in a subsequent interview that the Police had been ordered to do nothing.
If that had been the role of the Police in the 1956 Satyagraha their role seemed to be different in Jaffna regarded as the cultural capital of Sri Lankan Tamils. They were not going to arrest anyone but exercise “questionable force” in physically removing Satyagrahis from the scene.
Arndt then sent word to the FP leaders through ASP Mahendran that they should stop blocking the main entrance to the Kachcheri so that Govt employees could enter. If they refused the Police would clear the area by force to enable the govt servants to go in to their offices without hindrance.
Dr.Naganathan and Amirthalingam then walked up to the Jaffna Sudpdt’s jeep and informed Arndt that they would not allow Govt employees to enter Kachcheri premises. As such they could not clear the way and instead invited Arndt to arrest the Satyagrahis if he so desired. The SP then said he would give them five minutes to disperse.Otherwise the Police would remove the Satyagrahis through force.
The FP leaders then changed tactics. Ever concerned about the fragile vulnerability of their esteemed and beloved leader they requested Chelvanayakam to move out from the place. When Chelvanayakam refused the women present led by Mrs. Amirthalingam implored him to leave. Chelvanayakam reluctantly left with the women volunteers.
A team of Satyyagrahis led by Kayts MP VA Kandiah a lawyer himself changed positions and sat with their backs to the entrance. The others sat in rows facing the entrance. The Satyagrahis realised that the Police were going to use force and bodily remove them. But they sat there unflinchingly armed only with their love of their mother tongue and belief in the doctrine of non –violence.
When the five minutes “grace” was over Richard Arndt ordered Police action.When the SP ordered that the Satyagrahis be removed bodily instead of being arrested even the Police at the scene appeared bewildered and hesitant.But the highly respected Richard Arndt, an able,upright Police officer was presumably acting on orders from higher up’s.
Losing his cool, Arndt yelled at his chief lieutenant ASP Mahendran to “drag these buggers out by their hands and legs”. Spurred by this outburst by Arndt the Police stirred themselves and moved in.They began lifting the Satyagrahis one by one and carried them to a distance and threw them on the ground.
But even as they were thrown the Satyagrahis led by Kandiah picked themselves up and hurried back to their places and resumed their unarmed struggle. Even as this was going on other Satyagrahis moved in and sat blocking the entrance.
Soon the Police began losing patience and started dragging the Satyagrahis away instead of carrying them. This too did not deter the protestors who kept on blocking the entrance. Some began to lie flat on the ground. Some policemen then began to roll the prostrate Satyagrahis. A few blows and kicks were delivered. But the Satyagrahis did not retaliate.
After about 15 minutes Arndt ordered the Police to stop. He now altered his course of action. The northern Police supdt instructed Policement to form two columns on both sides of the path leading to the main entrance.
Since the Satyagrahis were firmly instructed not to obstruct the Police in carrying out their duties the demonstrators remained passive. They realised that the Police was up to something but did not engage in any pre-emptive action. Soon the Police were standing in two lines towering above the seated Satyagrahis.A narrow path straddled by cops on either side had evolved.
Arndt then went up to the Kachcheri employees huddled in groups and ordered them to walk through the narrow route between Satyagrahis. While most govt servants hesitated a few encouraged by the SP and SP started walking towards the entrance. It appeared that the “cordon” of the Satyagrahis was about to be breached.
But the hour brings forth the man! A comparatively young Bharatha Tamil from Chilaw was also a participant in the Satyagraha. He was none other than Francis Pereira who had contested and lost Chilaw on the FP ticket in the July 1960 elections.
Instead of sitting passively and letting the govt officials pass through,Francis Pereira threw himself on the ground in front of the advancing officials . Inspired by this act of non – violent defiance other volunteers too started prostrating themselves on the ground thus impeding the progress of govt employees. Seeing this spectacle the advancing govt employees stopped in their tracks.
An enraged Arndt then blasted his subordinates and commanded them to break up the Satyagraha and let the govt servants move inside. Now the cops got cracking again –literally and metaphorically. A barrage of baton blows were directed at the Satyagrahis but they remained firmly glued to the ground despite the rain of blows.The Police in a frenzied exhibition of brute force began to kick and stomp on Satyagrahis.
In a desperate effort to clear the way the Police also started to pull,drag and carry away the Satyagrahis. A very high degree of force was employed this time.Some volunteers were lifted up from their positions and thrown down elsewhere like inanimate objects in a rough,haphazard manner.Others were dragged away by their hands and legs over rough terrain. Some others were pulled out and pushed forcibly on the ground.
Despite this display of brute force against unarmed protestors the Satyagrahis were unrelenting. There was a terrific scramble to fall down on the spaces rendered empty by Police action and fill the vacancies created. It was like a gigantic rugby scrum with the pack flinging themselves with gusto into the fray.
The hero of that altercation was Francis Pereira the Cheeta from Chilaw. He would be dragged out by the Police but would immediately return and throw himself down on the ground.He would again be pulled out and hurled down but would return again. According to veteran Satyagrahis, Francis Pereira would have done so at least about fifteen times . His shirt and trousers were torn and in rags but the man remained firm , unbowed and unafraid.
Inspired by Francis Pereira the Satyagrahis continued to block the main entrance in spite of tremendous Police pressure. The situation was tense and emotional. Seeing the pathetic plight of the Satyagrahis, sections of the Tamil spectators and bystanders were moved.
In an unexpected turn of events members of the crowd began to rush in spontaneously and squat opposite the main entrance. A few were hit by the cops but did not run away.It soon became apparent that the Satyagraha of a few was transforming into mass action by many.
After a long tussle the Police called it quits. Arndt ordered the Police to cease action. He then drove into the Old Park again and the Satyagrahis gave him clear passage. The time was around 10.15 am. Arndt then went into the GA’s residence again.
The FP leaders thanked the members of the public for their support and gently persuaded them to retire saying the registered volunteers would continue with the Satyagraha. While injured and hurt satyagrahis went away from the scene for medical treatment others took up positions again. About a 100 volunteers sat in front of the main entrance while around 25 sat in front of the residency entrance.
The drama however was not over. February 20th was the date on which the Assize sessions of the Supreme Court were scheduled to open in Jaffna. The Jaffna GA M.Sri Kantha was required to be present for the Assize session opening as he had to present the mandate in his capacity as fiscal marshal. The opening was to be at 11 am.
Since most FP leaders were legal luminaries they were fully aware that the GA had to be present in courts at the appropriate time. They were also in a quandary because they did not want to disrupt the opening Assize sessions in any way because they too were practising lawyers.
In a bid to wriggle out of this tricky issue some FP leaders had come to a “gentleman’s agreement” with the GA through the good offices of a third party. The FP had been told that the GA Mr. Sri Kantha would not attend the Assize sessions. A senior Govt servant would deputise on his behalf and would leave for courts from his private residence. Thus the FP would not have to block the Jaffna GA’s departure from the residency.
This unofficial arrangement was known only to a few of the FP leaders. The bulk of the membership including Satyagraha volunteers were not aware of this. But what the FP leaders did not realise was that orders from Colombo had stipulated that the GA himself had to attend the Assize session opening and present the mandate as Fiscal marshal.
So the Satyagrahis on their watch were taken by surprise when the GA Mr. Sri Kantha came out of the residency at 10.30 am with the SP Richard Arndt and clambered aboard the Police jeep. The jeep then proceeded to the Old Park residency entrance on the Jaffna –Kandy road instead of the main entrance.
As stated earlier the Old Park entrance had only a small presence of Satyagrahis numbering 25. When they saw the GA trying to exit in the Police jeep they promptly threw themselves down on the ground in front of the entrance. The jeep had to screech to a halt because a youth in his early twenties named Palaniappan threw himself in front of the jeep. The front wheel was only a few feet from him when the vehicle braked suddenly.
Arndt then bellowed to the Police to throw the “buggers” out and clear passage. The Police promptly obeyed his orders. They began to lift up the Satyagrahis bodily and hurl them away. It was only then that the ruse adopted by Arndt came to light.
The Old park entrance precincts were packed with more than 75 policemen. Arndt had cleverly packed the area with cops without the Satyagrahi’s noticing it.With the ratio of Policemen to Satyagrahis being more than three to one the cops found it easy to clear the way unlike at the Kachcheri main entrance.
Palaniyappan the youth who had thrown himself in front of the jeep was pulled out and beaten mercilessly with batons. He received several blows to his head and bled profusely.He was hospitalised for serious injuries. But after recovering he joined the Satyagraha again some weeks later.
Alerted to the fracas at the old park entrance many of the Satyagrahis at the main entrance came rushing. At the forefront were five Tamil MP’s namely Naganathan,Kandiah, Amirthalingam, Dharmalingam and Thurairatnam.
BATTLE OF THE BATON
VA Kandiah went right up to the jeep and sat across with his back to the radiator. Naganathan and Amirthalingam sat in front of the jeep while Dharmalingam and Thurairatnam prostrated themselves on the ground. Despite this high-level attempt to thwart the GA’s departure the numerical strength of the Police contingent made it “mission impossible”.
The Police reacted with brutal ferocity. The Satyagrahis were beaten with batons and pulled out bodily. Kandiah was carried out and dumped on the ground. Thurairatnam and Dharmalingam were dragged out by their hands and legs. Naganathan and Amirthalingam were baton charged.
It was then that an unusual incident occurred. When a policeman rained blows on Dr. Naganathan known for his pugnacious nature and pugilistic skills grasped one end of the baton to prevent being hit. There was a tug of war with both the MP and cop pulling the baton. In the tussle the baton suddenly broke in two with each adversary holding on to one part.Later Naganathan was to take the broken baton piece home as a souvenir.
Although the “battle of the baton” violated the principle of Satyagraha the incident created a popular image for Naganathan among Tamils. He was eulogised as “Irumbu Manithan” or iron man thereafter because the baton broke during the assault. Incidently Sardar Vallabhai Patel of India was known as the “Iron man” during the Freedom struggle against the British.
Despite these efforts by the Satyagrahis the Jeep with the GA and SP managed to drive out through a gap created by the Police. Seeing the jeep drive away a section of the public infuriated by the escape pelted a few stones at the vehicle. The windscreen cracked as a result.
Angered by the stone throwing the Police now turned on the public and began a baton charge. By that a time a crowd of about 5000 had gathered at the spot and in the by-lanes and lanes in the vicinity. These comprised ordinary citizens who had heard about the Police brutality and had converged in solidarity at the scene.
These were not Satyagrahis trained to refrain from violence but ordinary people with highly charged emotion and anger. Some of these members of the public began to throw stones at the Police. The Police retaliated by assaulting them. The Police also surprised the public by producing sacks full of stones and throwing them at the people.
While this violence went on large numbers of people also began to move in and sit opposite the old park entrance. Soon the numbers at that entrance increased from 25 to more than 500. Most of them were ordinary people and not accredited Satyagrahis. Finding the protesters too numerous to dislodge the Police withdrew from the entrance.
The use of force by the Police however continued with people being beaten indiscriminately. In the process the cops also attacked a large number of Govt employees working in the Jaffna kachcheri who were waiting for the Police to establish an avenue for them to commence work.
The situation began to turn ugly and with passions aroused there was the danger of the non – violent Satyagraha turning into a violent skirmish. With the crowds becoming increasingly volatile the Police resorted to firing in the air thrice and firing tear gas canisters once.
The FP leaders appealed to the crowds to disperse peacefully. Mrs. Amirthalingam with a few women went around crying and asked the people to disperse. Slowly the crowds decreased. The tense climate eased. At 1. 30 PM the Satyagraha was called off on the first day.
TALK OF THE TOWN
Chelvanayakam issued a statement in the evening to the press. In that he said “February 20th 1961 is a great day for the Tamil speaking people of Ceylon.This was the day we resorted to direct action to win back our rights.” Chelvanayakam also criticised the Police action without any reference to the stone throwing by members of the public.
53 Satyagrahis and members of the public were hospitalised for injuries. Four Policemen also receivd treatment for injuries caused by stoning. More than three hundred Satyagrahis and members of the public received treatment for minor injuries.
The Police action against Satyagrahis was the talk of the town that day. The tale spread among Tamils in the North,East and other parts of the Island. The Police action came in for sharp criticism.It had served to anger the Tamil public and popularise the Satyagraha among the Tamil people and cause much resentment against the Sirima Bandaranaike govt.
Several members of the opposition criticised the Police action against the Satyagrahis. Some questioned the use of Police action to quell a non – violent protest. Among the Parliamentarians critical of the Police action were the UNP’s JR Jayewardena, the LSSP’s Dr.NM Perera, Bernard Soysa , Edmund Samarakkody, the LPP’s Dr. W.Dahanayake and the CWC’s Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman.
It was only a short period before the Jaffna Satyagraha that Earl Bertrand Russell had conducted a Satyagraha campaign with 6000 volunteers at the entrance to the Defence ministry in London.
Comparing and contrasting the London and Jaffna Satyagrahas the Times of Ceylon in its editorial of 22nd February 1961, observed : “It is noteworthy that Earl Russell’s and Federal Party’s were both nonviolent demonstrators but the significant difference was that while Russell and his followers had to deal with the disciplined London police, the Federal Party had to reckon with the Ceylon police.”
This then was the story of the first day of the 1961 Satyagraha and its baptism of fire.
NEXT: The Satyagraha continues and spreads in the North and East
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org