SJV Chelvanayakam: Christian who Led the Predominantly Hindu  Tamils for Over 20 Years


The first three  decades of  post-independence Sri Lanka known then  as Ceylon  witnessed a prolonged   struggle by the  Tamils to  have their lost rights restored and to  achieve political  equality through acceptable power sharing arrangements.

This struggle was   conducted  within the ambit of democratic dissent.It’s singular hallmark was the adoption of non -violence as the mode of protest. In this, the Sri Lankan Tamils were greatly influenced by the “Ahimsa” methods practised by “Mahatma”Gandhi in the Indian freedom struggle against the UK.

The man who spearheaded this Gandhian, non -violent struggle was  an eminent Tamil lawyer who was  described by his followers as the Gandhi of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.This was none other than Samuel James Veluppillai Chelvanayakam , the co-founder and leader of the Ilankai  Thamil Arasuk Katchi”(ITAK) and the Tamil United Liberation Front(TULF). SJV Chelvanayakam whose 125th birth anniversary was on 31 March 2023 was a venerated leader  of the Sri Lankan Tamils for over  two decades. He was regarded as a father figure of Sri Lankan Tamils and  referred to by many  as “Thanthai Chelva”(Father Chelva).
Chelvanayakam defined and personified the Tamil political struggle in the years before it turned violent. The prominence and popularity of SJV  Chelvanayakam is best denoted by a compliment paid by former Ceylon Workers Congress president and ex-cabinet minister Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman on 11 October 1972.. Thondaman the acknowledged leader of the “Malaiyahath Thamizhar”(Hill Country Tamils) stated then   “ Chelvanayakam endraal Thamizh Makkal, Thamizh Makkal Endraal Chelvanayakam”(Chelvanayakam is the Tamil people,the Tamil people are Chelvanayakam).
SJV Chelvanayakam known as SJV and/or Chelva  represented the constituency of Kankesanthurai(KKS) in the Northern province  as a member of Parliament (MP) for more than 23 years. He entered Parliament  as  for the first time in 1947. SJV lost KKS  in the 1952 poll.  In 1956 he won KKS again.Thereafter he was successful in the March 1960, July 1960, 1965 and 1970 elections.
 In  October 1972, Chelvanayakam resigned as MP  in protest against the Republican Constitution of Sri Lanka. The By-election was held after a long delay in February 1975. Chelva  polling 25,927 votes ,won with a record majority  of 16, 470and re-entered the National State Assembly as Kankesanthurai MP. He passed away in 1977.
“Illankai Thamil Arasu Katchi
 Chelvanayakam co-founded the  ITAK on 18 December  1949. The ITAK was the first party in Sri Lanka known earlier as Ceylon to seriously advocate a federal form of Government in the post-independence period. The main demand of the ITAK was  the creation of an autonomous Tamil state comprising the  Tamil dominated Northern province  and  Tamil majority Eastern province within a United Sri Lanka.
The new party was named in Tamil as “Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi” meaning Ceylon  Tamil State or Tamil Government Party. However, the party’s founders described it as Federal Party in English. According to  SJV’s son in law and renowned political scientist Prof. A.J. Wilson, the new party’s name was not Federal Party but merely an explanation of what the party stood for. “Its leaders insisted that the word ‘State’ denoted a unit within a federal set-up and not a sovereign State as some of its detractors alleged,” wrote Wilson in his book titled ‘Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism.’

Officially, the new party was named in English as “Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi” and became known by the acronym ITAK. In popular parlance, it was called the Federal Party or FP. S.J.V. Chelvanayagam was elected as the first president of the fledgling party while Dr. E.M.V. Naganathan and V. Navaratnam were the joint general secretaries.
The birth and growth of ITAK and its espousal of power-sharing through a federal arrangement introduced a vibrant and colourful phase into the island nation’s politics. Although 73 years has passed since the party was born, the ITAK continues to remain wedded to the federal idea. 
1961 Satyagraha
The ITAK  adopted the strategy of agitation cum negotiation to win its political demands. It engaged in many non -violent protests like Satyagrahas, protest fasts, protest marches, mass meetings, black flag demonstrations, boucotts, “hartals and  strikes as part of its agitation strategy.
When Sinhala was made the sole official language in June 1956, the ITAK conducted a Satyagraha opposite the “old” Parliament on Galle face Green. Leading Govt ministers and MPs  transported thugs to saault the unarmed Satyagrahis. The Police had been instructed to refrain from taking action. Several Ahimsa following volunteers including MPs were attacked. Chelvanayakam’s son too was assaukted mercilessly.
 When the  Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP) Govt of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike commenced the implementation of Sinhala only in 1961, the ITAK launched a Satyagraha to protest the rapid Sinhalaization of Govt administration. The  1961 Satyagraha campaign saw  large numbers of Satyagrahis led by Chelva engaging in protest outside  the Jaffna Kacheris Similar Satyagrahas were conducted outside other Kacheris in the North and East like Mannar, Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Batticaloa. The administrative districts of Kilinochchi,Mullaitheevu and Amparai had not come into existence then. The prolonged Satyagraha resulted in paralysing civil administration in the North and East for two and a half months.. The non – violent Satyagraha was ruthlessly suppressed by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike led Sri Lanka Freddom Party (SLFP) Govt which unleashed the military on the unarmed Satyagrahis. The ITAK leaders including SJV were detained for many months at the Panagoda Army cantonment.
Making and unmaking Govts
The ITAK under the leadership of SJV Chelvanayakam also played a political role in making and unmaking Governments.The March 1960  elections resulted in a hung Parliament. The United National Party(UNP) came first  with 50 seats and formed a Govt  with Dudley Senanayake as Prime Minister. The SLFP came second with 46 seats. The ITAK came third with 15 seats. Had the ITAK/FP supported Dudley, the UNP may have been able to cobble together a slender majority. Despite many overtures, the ITAK refused to extend support. The party voted along with other opposition parties voted against the Govt  and brought it down.  Consequently fresh polls were held in July.The SLFP won. In December 1964 the ITAK along with other parties in the UNP led opposition and SLFP dissidents voted against the Govt and brought it down.
 When  elections were held in March 1965, it was once again a hung Parliament with the UNP under Senanayake winng the most number of seats. The SLFP and its leftist allies were next. The ITAK.FP was third with 14 seats. The party once again held the balance of power in the House. This time however Chelvanayakam opted to support  the UNP. Furthermore it joined the  seven party  Govt under Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake. Chelva’s disciple M. Tiruchelvam was apponted Local Govt minister. Thus the ITAK/FP which  helped unmake  the UNP govt of march 1960 reversed its role and helped make the UNP Govt in March 1965.
Though Chelvanaykam espoused federalism and wanted a federal system of govt to be set up in the Island, he was always ready for political  compromises  that were far short of his  federal ideal. In 1957, Chelvanayakam  entered into a political agreement with the then Prime Minister S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike. It was called  in short as the  Banda-Chelva or B-C  pact. The B-C pact envisaged the creation of Regional Councils  in the North-East providing limited autonomy or devolution of powers.
In 1965 Chelvanayagam had an agreement with the newly elected UNP Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake. It was called in short as the Dudley – Chelva or D-C pact. This envisaged the creation of district councils as power sharing units. The District councils were to be set up in each administrative district in Ceylon as Lanka was known then.
It could be seen therefore that neither the envisaged regional councils nor district councils had powers that could be termed as federal. Yet Chelvanayakam was prepared to compromise He was  to be rudely rudely disappointed. Both the B-C pact and D-C pact were honoured in the breach by the respective premiers who signed them..
Bandaranaike literally tore up the pact due to opposition within his Govt, the chief opposition UNP and powerful sections of the Buddhist clergy. Senanayake stated he could not go ahead with DCs as promised due to opposition within and outside his party.
The failure of Prime ministers Bandaranaike and Senanayake to implement the agreements entered into with Chelvanayakam was strongly resented by the Tamil people. They were seen as great betrayals of the trust Chelvanayakam had resposed in Bandaranaike and Senanayake. Incidentally Chelvanayakam,  Bandaranaike and Senanayake shared the common bond of being old Thomians
United Front Govt
 In 1970 the United Front comprising the SLFP, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party(LSSP) and the Communist Party( CP ) swept the polls and obtained 116 of 157 seats in Parliament. The ITAK had 13 seats  but it had no bargaining power or leverage in view of the super majority of the new Govt. This made the dejected Chelvanayakam cry out in anguish ”Only God can save the Tamil people now”.
 Chelvanayakam’s fears became true. The new Govt ushered in a new Constitution that changed the  Country’s name to Sri Lanka from Ceylon and made it a republic. Sinhala was entrenched as the sole official language. Buddhist was given foremost status. The new constitution also had a clause  entrenching it as unitary. During Constituent assembly  sessions to formulate the new Constitution, the ITAK had submitted proposals for  five federal units to be set up. This was dismissed outright and the ITAK walked out of the Constituent assembly.
The SLFP -LSSP-CP government also introduced  a  media -wise standardisation scheme for university admissions. This grossly discriminated against Tamil students who had to get more marks to enter university as opposed to Sinhala students. Furthermore 42  Tamil youths  who protested democratically against the new Constitution were incarcerated without trial under emergency regulations. 
The hill country Tamils known as “Malaiyahath Thamizhar” were also affected. Thousands of  plantation workers were thrown out of employment after estates were nationalised.. Many were forcibly repatriated to India in terms of the  Sirimavo-Shastry agreement of 1964. There was seething discontent within  all sections of the Tamil people. There were increasing calls for Tamil political unity.
Tamil Congress
The oldest Sri Lankan Tamil political party was the All Ceylon Tamik Congress formed in 1944 under the leadership of G.G.Ponnambalam known as GG. Chelvanayakam himself  was a founder member and served as a deputy to GG.  Chelva had broken off from the Tamil Congress with people like fellow Kopay MP, C. Vanniyasingham and Senator EMV Naganathan and formed the ITAK in 1949. The ACTC and ITAK became bitter rivals over the years, The Tamil Congress was firmly against federalism.
With the passage of time, the ITAK had overtaken the ACTC as the premier political party of the Sri Lankan Tamils. The first oast the post winner system of electins was in force then. Under this system,   the ITAK returned MPs to Parliament in double digits while  the ACTC was able to muster MPs in single digits  only.
Both the ACTC and ITAK were the major political parties among Sri  Lankan Tamils. The  largest and most powerful trade union representing the Hill Country Tamils was the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) led by Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman. The CWC had no MPs then.
Tamil United Front
 In a historic move the ITAK, ACTC and CWC came together and formed the Tamil United Front (TUF) in 1972.Initially the Eelath Thamizhar Ottumai Munnani(ETOM) led by  the highly educated maverick politico C. Suntharalingam was also in the TUF but it was slowly eased out on account of its casteist politics.
In   May 1976 the TUF  re-configured itself as the Tamil United Liberation Front(TULF) under a leadership triumvirate comprising Chelvanayakam(ITAK), Ponnambalam (ACTC)and Thondaman(CWC).
Tamil United Liberation Front
The TULF at its inaugural convention in Vaddukkoddai  on 14 May 1976  passed a historic  resolution demanding a socialist sovereign state of Tamil Eelam consisting of the Northern and Eastern provinces. This  naturally  was disfavoured by the CWC representing Tamils of the hill country. So Thondaman declined the co-leadership position. The CWC dropped out of the TULF formally but  continued to work with the front informally.
This shift to separatism from federalism  marked a new phase in Tamil politics. Chelvanayakam who first demanded federalism in 1949 had now adopted secessionism in 1976. He blamed constant Sinhala intransigience  and continuous  anti-Tamil discrimination amounting  to oppression for this hardened Tamil stance. The TULF argued that the Tamils were exercising their inalienable right of self -determination. Chelva was mindful of the difficulties in forming a separate state.He   said “ Ithu Villangamaana Kariyam. Aanaal ithai thavira Thamilinam Thappipizhaikka Vearu  Vazhiyillai” ( This is a difficult task but there is no other way for the Tamil race to survive).
Subsequently the TULF contested the July 1977 elections on a  secessionist platform saying the poll was to  secure a mandate  for Tamil Eelam. The TULF won 18 out of 19 Tamil majority seats in the North and East. But Chelvanayakam was not there to see this  electoral triumph. He had passed away  in April 1977 at the age of 79.
Christian Faith
A remarkable attribute of Chelvanayakam was his firm adherence to the Christian faith.  He was a protestant Christian member of  the South Indian United Church(SIUC) now known as the Church of South India(CSI). When in Colombo Chelva worshipped at Anglican churches  until the CSI had a church of its own in Wellawatte.
As  is well known the Sri Lankan Tamils are preponderantly Hindus. Chelvanayakam was a protestant Christian. Yet he was the acknowledged political leader of Hindu majority Tamils for over twenty years. The Kankesanthurai electorate  too is predominantly Hindu. Many of his opponents raised the religious cry  in a bid to defeat him. But  he never lost except in 1952 when the ITAK was a fledgling party.
Many of his  critics and political adversaries have frequently  questioned the Christian Chelvanayakam’s credentials to lead the Hindu Tamils. A notable incident in this regard was the public letter written by a Buddhist dignitary and Chelva’s response. The “Daily News” of 3 October 1970 published a letter written by Ven. Hewanpola Ratnasara Thero then attached to the Vidyalankara Pirivena. The  denigrative missive pointed out that Chelvanayakam the Christian had little in common with Hindu Tamils.
Chelvanayakam replied to the Bhikku. In that he said  “You referred to my religion as Christian and therefore, I had little in common with Tamils who were mainly Hindus by religion. It stands to the credit of the Hindu people that they have not forced me or other Christians to change our faith before we lead them”. This of course was a reference to several  Sinhala Christians who became Buddhists  to win elections after universal franchise was introduced  in 1931 under the Donoughmore Constitution. They were then ridiculed as “Donoughmore  Buddhists”.  It may be recalled that both SWRD Bandaranaike and JR Jayewardene were  born as Christians and were baptized in the Anglican All Saints Church at Hulftsdorp .
Anti-Christian Campaign
The first election faced by the newly formed ITAK/FP was in 1952. Chelva had earlier  contested  the  1947 elections as a candidate from the Tamil Congress and won the  Kankesanthurai  seat. In 1952 as an ITAK candidate his  rival was a  UNP    candidate backed by the Tamil Congress. This  was Suppiahpillai Natesan the principal of Parameshwara College and son in law of Sir Ponnambalam  Ramanathan. A covert campaign  was unleashed against “Samuel James” Chelvanayakam on the grounds that he was a Christian.
The ITAK general secretary at that time was former Kayts MP V. Navaratnam described as the golden brains of the party. He wanted to counter this anti-christian propaganda against Chelva.  After filing their nominations all the ITAK candidates in Jaffna were to go to the Nallur temple for a special pooja. Navaratnam wanted  Chelvanayakam to participate in the Pooja and be photographed accepting “Kaalaanchi” (flowers,coconut,betel and arecanut chips offered in a funnel shaped goblet) in a bid to undermine the anti-christian propaganda against SJV.
 Chelvanayakam refused to  participate in the pooja and be photographed. He said it was below his dignity and integrity to indulge in such deception for the sake of votes. He preferred to lose rather than pose.  On nomination day   Chelva  joined fellow ITAK candidates and  went in to the  Nallur temple  bare bodied as was customary. He  waited respectfully  aside with folded hands as the Pooja was on. But he neither participated in the pooja  nor allowed himself to be photographed accepting Kaalanchi.
The KKS poll was a straight fight between Chelvanayakam  and Natesan. The anti-christian campaign against “Samuel James” succeeded. Natesan who went on to become a cabinet minister  polled  15,337 votes . He recorded a majority of  3,766. Chelva polling 11,576 lost  that election mainly due his principles. 1952 was the only KKS poll he lost. Thereafter Chelvanayakam won every poll in KKS. He remained until the end of his days, the MP for Predominantly Hindu KKS and the Christian leader of the preponderantly Hindu Tamils.
Another important facet of Chelva’s Christian faith was the strength and courage he derived from  regular  bible reading and prayer. Chelvanayakam’s youngest  son SC Chandrahasan  once told  me in a conversation that whenever a major political issue arose, his father would  weigh the pros and cons together with his party associates and advisers. Thereafter he would retire to pray privately for God’s guidance.. After praying, Chelva would arrive at a firm unshakeable  decision and stick to it steadfastly.
Tamil Culture
Chelvanayakam was not a westernized Christian. He was  proud of his Tamil heritage and retained his Tamilness  in everyday life ,long before he entered politics. He frequently wore the  vaerti.  When he married  in 1927, Chelva was clad in “vaerti” and “Saalvai”, a rare practice among Christian grooms in those days. Chelva was also very knowledgeable about Carnatic music and Bharatha Natyam. He could identify Ragas and appreciated the nuances of Bharata  Natyam. He seldom missed a performance by the artiste Vel Anandan. He also read classical Tamil literature and relished the power of Tamil expounded in Saivaite “Thevarams” and Vaishnavaite “Pirabanthams”. He was also well versed in Saiva Siddhantha and Vedantha philosophy. SJV’s long time  secretary for 16 years  Arul. M.Rajendram has written that Chelvanayakam was a Christian by religion and a Hindu by culture.
Trusted Leader
Chelvanayagam earned and retained the trust of not only the Northern Tamils but also the Eastern province Tamils, the Muslims and the “Malaiahath Thamizhar”, It was he who first coined the phrase “Thamizh Paesum Makkal(Tamil speaking people) to encompass the Ceylon  North Eastern Tamils, Up Country Tamils and the Muslims. Concepts such as “Colonisation and traditional homeland were also introduced by Chelva and the ITAK into political discourse.
In the early days Chelva was not greatly enamoured of politics. His ambition was to establish himself as a leading lawyer and then mount the Supreme Court bench. He was drawn into politics when the Soulbury Commission. He was invited by lawyer Sivasubramaniam the father of former Kopay MP Kathiravetpillai to attend the inaugural meeting of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress in 1944. He did so and became the deputy of ACTC leader GG Ponnambalam.
Yet he  crossed swords  with Ponnambalam when the Tamil Congress leader joined the DS Senanayake Govt and became a cabinet minister. In the process GG let down the Up Country Tamils of recent Indian origin.  The Malaiahath Thamizhar were cruelly de – citizenized and disenfranchised by the DS Senanayake led UNP Govt. Earlier during the 1947 elections, GG had assured the then Ceylon Indian Congress as the CWC was known that the ACTC would stand by the CIC.
 Chelvanayakam regadeed Ponnambalam’s volte face as a betrayal of the Indian Tamils. This was the main reason for him to split from the Tamil Congress and form the ITAK. The ITAK always had the  restoration of Citizenship and franchise for Up Country Tamils as one of its key demands. This was highly appreciated by the beleaguered community. In conversations with  Malaiyahath Thamizh leaders like S. Thondaman, A. Aziz, CV Veluppillai and MS Sellasamy, I have heard them refer to Chelvanayagam with praise and gratitude.
Eastern Tamils
In the early years after independence, there was a political divide between Northern and Eastern province Tamils. The Tamil Congress in 1947 won only Trincomalee in the East. There were strong Eastern Tamil leaders like Nalliah and Ethirmanasingham who  were personally and politically anti- Jaffna.  They ruled the Eastern roost.
 This changed after the advent of ITAK and Chelva. The ITAK Leader  travelled widely throughout the East and built bridges. When the anti_sri campaign was launched in 1958, Chelvanayakam went to Batticaloa to engage in protest and was imprisoned for two weeks in the Batticaloa jail.  The ITAK  established itself in the East with Tamil stalwarts like Rajavarothayam Aehamparam, Rasamanickam, Rajadurai, Manickavasagar, Manickarajah, Neminathan and Thangathurai being elected from the party during Chelva’s lifetime.
As Kala Tambimuttu the wife of former MP Sam Tambimuttu and daughter of ex-senator M. Manickam would often emphasie to me –“ The North had two  Tamil leaders Ponnambalam and Chelvanayakam. But the East always had one  Tamil leader only. That was Chelvanayakam”.
Muslim People
As in the case of “Hindu” Tamils, the Eastern Tamils and the Hill Country Tamils, Chelvanayakam was trusted and respected by the Muslims of the East too. Chelvanayakam and the ITAk reached out to the Muslims  as Tamil speaking people. Even though the Tamil speaking Muslims in Sri Lanka – unlike the Muslims in Tamil Nadu-  have an ethno-religious identity and not an ethno-linguistic identity, Chelvanayakam was able to forge a special relationship with Muslims in the 50s and 60s on this basis.  
Large numbers of Muslims participated in the Galle Face protest as well as in the Satyagraha campaign of 1961. Several Muslims like Kariapper, Mustapha, Ahamed and Mohammed Ali were elected on the ITAK symbol of house   at different times from the Kalmunai, Pottuvil and Mutur electorates. Other Muslim MPs like the three Abdul Majeeds of Pottuvil, Ninthavur and Mutur maintained amicable relations at a personal level with Chelvanayakam for years.
Special mention must be made of former Senator M.Z.M Mashoor Moulana in this regard. The affable Mashoor hailing from Maruthamunai who contested Kalmunai unsuccessfully as an ITAK candidate on more than one occasion was very popular among Tamils in those days. He was  greatly in demand as a speaker on ITAK platforms. Mashoor Moulana was especially close bonds with Chelvanayakam. Thiugh he joined the UNP later, Mashoor would always acknowledge that Thanthai Chelva was his Thalaiver (Leader)
Born in Ipoh
 Chelvanayakam hailed from Thellippalai in Jaffna but was born in Ipoh in Malaya (now Malaysia). He had two brothers and a sister. Chelva’sfather Visvanathar Velupillai was a contractor cum businessman in Malaya. His mother  Harriet Annamma Kanapathipillai returned to Thellippalai with the children to educate them. Chelva was four at that time. He studied at Union College ,Thellippalai, St.Johns College,Jaffna and St. Thomas’ College then located in  Mutwal, Colombo.
After obtaining an external degree in science from the London university, Chelva enrolled at the Law College and passed out as an advocate. He soon established a successful lucrative practice excelling in civil law. Chelva took silk as a Kings counsel on 31 May 1947, the same year he became an MP.
Chelvanayakam  married Emily Grace Barr-Kumarakulasinghe in 1927. She was the daughter of  R. R. Barr-Kumarakulasinghe, the then ,”Maniagar”(administrative chief) for the Valigaamam region in Jaffna peninsula. The Chelvanayakams  had four sons Manoharan, Va seeharan, Raveendran and Chandrahasan and a daughter Suseela. The Chelvanayakam family resided at Alfred Hiuse Gardens in Colpetty for many many years.
Chelva suffered from Parkinsons disease for a long time. As a result he could not stand erect for a long time and shivered frequently..He was also feeble and walked slowly.Yet he remained strong in his political convictions and was unshakeable in his quest to liberate the Tamil people from majoritarian hegemony.
 Chelva was hospitalised in 1977 after an accidental fall in the bathroom. He died at the Jaffna hospital after being in a coma for many days on 26 April 1977. Massive crowds attended the funeral in Jaffna. A memorial has been constructed in his honour in the heart of Jaffna city.
Samuel  James Veluppillai Chelvanayakam’s life and work was a fight for the rights of a people oppressed by majoritarian might. It  is summed up best by a quote from the Bible. The apostle Paul in his  second epistle to Timothy  wrote 7 I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith”. “Thanthai” Chelva fought the good fight and finished the course retaining his faith”.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at

This article appears in the “Political Pulse”Column of the “Daily FT’ dated 5 April 2023.It can be accessed here –