(This is an Enhanced Version of an Article written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of Feb 13th, 2021.)
The “Pottuvil to Poligandy” (P2P) Protest that ended successfully last week was a watershed moment in the political history of Sri Lankan Tamils. The Five day “P2P” protest march began in the East on Wednesday 3 February concluded in the north on Sunday 7 February. Thousands of Tamils marched on foot and proceeded in vehicles from Pottuvil in the Amparai District to Poligandy in the Jaffna District.The P2P protest trek proceeded along the littoral in the Eastern Province and crisscrossed the hinterland in the Northern Province. The long journey covered over a distance of 700 km across the Districts of Amparai, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Mannar, Kilinochchi and Jaffna. Tens of thousands of Tamils and Tamil speaking Muslims demonstrated their support for the protest along the route in a remarkable show of solidarity and unity.
What the P2P protest did was to provide an opportunity where the long suppressed Sri Lankan Tamil community could engage in an imaginative political campaign of this scale and scope. It displayed to the world at large the creative potential within the community to organize and execute a huge political demonstration of this nature. Above all, it refreshed memories of past non -violent protests by Tamils and indicated that the future course of Tamil politics in this country could, should and would be proactively dynamic in a democratic, non – violent mode.
Years and years of witnessing a brutal armed struggle by Tamil militants has created an impression in the minds of many that the nature of Tamil politics in this country has been intrinsically violent. This violence has even served vested interests to dismiss the justice of the Tamil cause as “terrorism” and portray the “problem” as being an issue concerning law and order only.
Non-Violent Political Struggle
What is forgotten, ignored or conveniently overlooked is the fact that for over three decades in post – Independence Sri Lanka the Tamil political struggle was basically non – violent and adhered to the noble doctrine of “Ahimsa” (avoidance of injury/violence) enunciated by that great apostle of non – violence Mahatma Gandhi.
It has been argued by many that it was the failure of the non –violent Tamil struggle to remedy prevailing political maladies that paved the way for an emerging, frustrated generation of Tamil youth to take to the gun.Whatever the merits or otherwise of this argument there is no denying that the third quarter of the twentieth century is replete with instances of non – violent political dissent and protest conducted by the Sri Lankan Tamils. Hartals, Satyagrahas, black flag demonstrations, marches, processions, mass demonstrations, protest fasts, days of mourning, civil disobedience, civil resistance, boycotts, etc were a regular feature of Tamil politics in those days.
The high watermark of this politics of non – violent protest was the great “Satyagraha” campaign launched on February 20th in 1961. The “P2P” has in a way revived memories of that non – violent protest. Just as the P2P drew wide -spread support from all the Tamil speaking districts of the North and East, the 1961 Satyagraha too had tremendous support of the people in North – Eastern districts then. It is against this backdrop therefore that this column re-visits the 1961 Satyagraha that paralaysed civil administration in the North and East 60 years ago.
The March 1960 Parliamentary elections had resulted in a hung Parliament resulting in very short -lived UNP Govt with Dudley Senanayake as PM. Hence it was expected that the July poll too would result in a hung Parliament. So the SLFP tried to form an understanding or unwritten agreement with the ITAK/FP. This was on the basis that the ITAK would lend support for the SLFP to form a viable Govt with a working majority.
Four ITAK/FP Demands and SLFP Response
Initially talks were held between ITAK Leader SJV Chelvanayakam and the SLFP’s “rising star” Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike. In those discussions Felix seemed amenable to the imlementation of the B-C pact.After the preliminary “talks” between Chelva and Felix an official SLFP delegation comprising CP de Silva, Maithripala Senanayake, AP Jayasuriya and Felix Dias Bandaranaike also met with a FP team led by Chelvanayakam. SJV submitted four demands orally.
One was that Regional Councils as envisaged by the Bandaranaike- Chelvanayakam pact of 1957 be set up with powers over land alienation and development.The second was parity of status for Tamil as a language of administration and courts.The third was for amendments to the Ceylon citizenship act no 18 of 1948 enabling speedier, enhanced registration of de- citizenised and disenfranchised Up Country Tamils.The fourth demand was that four of the six Appointed MP slots be given to Up Country Tamil representatives.
The SLFP at the outset declared that the party would not enter into a formal agreement with the FP.Given the history of Sinhala opposition to the B-C pact it was not practical to forge another official pact again. But the SLFP proposed to make an explicit policy statement on issues raised by the FP when it presented its own throne speech if and when asked to form a government after the anticipated fall of the UNP govt.
On the four demands raised the SLFP delegation led by CP de Silva deviated slightly from the position articulated by Felix Bandaranaike.The SLFP was transparently frank in saying that it too was opposed to the setting up of regional councils for the North and East. Notwithstanding SWRD’s readiness to set up regional councils, subsequent events had eroded that concept.
The SLFP said it was not possible to make special arrangements for the Tamil majority North and East alone. That would lead to a Sinhala backlash.What the SLFP proposed instead was the setting up of District Councils for each administrative or revenue district. There were 22 then. Each district council would in essence have the powers and functions as envisaged for the Regional council.The Jaffna,Mannar, Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Batticaloa councils would have Tamil dominated administrations. The SLFP re-iterated that the basic powers of the Regional council would be available under the District council also.
On the question of Language the SLFP was not prepared for parity of status. It was however ready to introduce and implement measures enabling Tamil to be used for administrative purposes and in courts in the North and East. Provision for reasonable use of Tamil outside the north and east would also be made.The Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act presented by SWRD Bandaranaike and approved by Parliament in August 1958 would set out the guidelines in this.
The SLFP however rejected any amendment to the citizenship act. It was inflexible on that count but agreed to recognize as the Plantation Tamil people’s representative the Ceylon Workers Congress(CWC) Leader Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman. S. Thondaman would be made an appointed MP and that issues concerning Up Country Tamils would be ironed out with him
The SLFP stated that all assurances and pledges on these issues would be given concrete form as a statement of policy in the throne speech. There would however be no pact or agreement in written form.
Chelvanayakam Meets Sirimavo, Felix
Chelvanayakam met Mrs. SirimavoBandaranaike in a brief, unpublicised meeting along with Felix Bandaranaike where she assured the ITAK leader that she would abide by the assurances given to the ITAK by the delegation led by CP de Silva.Strengthened by that assurance the FP hitched its wagon to the SLFP star.
The unwritten understanding with the ITAK created a situation where the leading Tamil party was an “indirect” electoral ally of the SLFP.Given the fractured verdict of March 1960 it was assumed that July 1960 too would result in a hung Parliament with the SLFP having the most amount of seats. The support of the ITAK was seen as crucial for govt formation.The ITAK/FP expected the SLFP to implement the promises made earlier after victory at the July elections.
While Chelvanayakam elicited an assurance from the SLFP over implementation the party failed to obtain guarantees in a vital respect.Professor Alfred Jeyaratnam Wilson the son -in -law and biographer of Chelvanayakam points out that the FP did not obtain assurances from the SLFP as to whether the pledges would be binding on the party even if it won the polls with a comfortable majority and did not have to depend on FP support.
Apparently Chelvanayakam interpreted the assurances as being of a binding nature on the SLFP even if it had an absolute majority and did not need ITAK support. But this was only Chelvanayakam’s interpretation says his son in law.No explicit guarantee on this had been sought or obtained. This lapse by the ITAK/FP indicated that the party was politically naive to say the least.
Despite the absence of such a concrete guarantee the ITAK/FP took a leap of faith and backed the SLFP. It appealed to Tamil voters in electorates not contested by the party to vote for the SLFP.The ITAK also told crowds at political meetings that the party had arrived at an understanding with the SLFP and that the BC pact would be implemented.
UNP Launches Vicious Campaign
This in turn resulted in the UNP launching a vicious campaign against the SLFP – FP alignment. The UNP accused the SLFP of conspiring with the FP to divide the country.A highlight of this campaign was the widespread display of a colourful poster portraying the Island of Ceylon as a gigantic cake.The poster showed Mrs. Bandaranaike slicing up the North and east of the cake with CP de Silva looking on.Chelvanayakam waits with an outstretched tray for his slice with his deputy EMV Naganathan standing behind.
The UNP allegation that a secret deal had been worked out between the SLFP and ITAK/FP put the former on the defensive. Felix Dias Bandaranaike urged the FP to deny publicly that there was a SLFP- FP agreement.Chelvanayakam obliged reluctantly by issuing a statement where he said the ITAK/FP had supported the SLFP without obtaining any agreement. He re-iterated this position in media interviews.
This in turn had the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi’s ’s chief rival the All Ceylon Tamil Congress led(ACTC) by GG Ponnambalam snr criticising the party for missing a golden opportunity in not supporting the UNP and instead supporting the SLFP without any guarantees.It was in this atmosphere that the SLFP and ITAK/FP faced the hustings in July 1960.
July 1960 Parliamentary Elections
The July 1960 Parliament elections resulted in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) winning 75 seats. Its chief rival the United National Party(UNP) came next with 30 seats. The Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi(ITAK) known as Federal Party(FP) in English came third with 16 MP’s. The fourth place went to Lanka Sama Samaja Party(LSSP) with 12 seats. Other Parties which won seats were the Communist Party (CP) -4, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna(MEP)-3, Lanka Prajathanthravadhi Pakshaya(LPP)-2, Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna(JVP) -2, and the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC)-1 . 6 Independent Candidates were also elected as MP’s.In addition there were six Appointed MP’s who would be nominated by the Prime Minister.
The SLFP with 75 seats with the support of 4 Independent MP’s formed the Government with a slender majority. However with the six appointed MP’s the SLFP Govt had the support of 85 MP’s in a Parliament of 157 comprising 151 elected and 6 nominated MP’s. Sirimavo Bandaranaike created history as the world’s first woman Prime Minister.Once elections were over and the party was able to form a Govt without relying on the ITAK/FP , the SLFP honoured the Gentleman’s agreement in the breach.
The ITAK/FP was in for a shock. Its naive expectation that the unwritten understanding with the SLFP was binding even in a situation where the government did not require ITAK support was rudely shattered.The SLFP went ahead with government formation without resorting to any dialogue with the FP. The party did not regard the arrangements made before elections as binding on it. Efforts made by ITAK leaders to communicate with SLFP leaders failed.
The August 12th 1960 Throne speech was a disappointment to the ITAK 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 as agreed upon before elections.Apparently the SLFP treated the pre-polls understanding arrived at with the ITAK/FP as non – binding in a situation where the Govt had a majority in Parliament and not dependent on the Tamil party to rule. A thoroughly disillusioned FP was now the laughing stock among its Tamil detractors.
“Sinhalaisation” of Administrative and Judicial Spheres
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 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 ITAK/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 Govt agreed to discuss the issue and a meeting between the Prime Minister and am ITAK 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 ITAK 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 also held November 23rd 1960 to follow up on matters.
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 ITA/FP
Language of Courts Bill
Even as these brief signs of SLFP-ITAK rapprochement began to fade away, fresh clouds gathered on the political horizon. In a sudden move that took the FP by surprise the then 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 ITAK 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.
The ITAK’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.
Jan 2nd 1061 Hartal in North and East
With the Govt flinging down the gauntlet the ITAK 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 ITAK/FP asked all Tamil speaking people regardless of party affiliation to observe the hartal.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 ITAK/FP revived its dormant action committee. The ITAK had formed an action committee comprising selected leaders to plan, coordinate and implement non – violent protests on a mass scale. 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 ITAK/FP in Jaffna on January 21st 1961 and ratify the decision to stage a massive Satyagraha campaign.
The stage was now being set for the launching of the Satyagraha campaign. The ITAK/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.
“Thanga Moolai”(Golden Brain)V. Navaratnam
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 ex-MP for Chavakachcheri, 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 ITAK 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.
Paralyse District Administration
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. At that time the Amparai,Mullaitheevu and Kilinochchi districts hd not been demarcated. 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 ITAK 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 ITAK convention took place on January 21st the ITAK youth front also had its own session.The ITAK 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.Vaddukkoddai MP Appapillai Amirthalingam in his capacity as youth front leader also submitted an appeal to the Party national convention calling upon the party to launch a civil disobedience campaign without delay.
ITAK/FP National Party Convention
Paddiruppu MP SM Rasamanickam was elected ITAK/FP president at the party 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 party 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 ITAK/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”.
Enforce “Sinhala Only” Policy
While this was going on 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 ITAK/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.Tamil political 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. It was in this emotionally charged atmosphere that the ITAK/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.
Direct Action Campaign
The ITAK action committee met on January 29th 1961 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 the ITAK plans to paralyse civil administration through a Satyagraha campaign.
Accordingly on January 30th the party 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 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 ITAK 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”.
Three -Pronged Appeal
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
This preparatory activity relating to 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 ITAK 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 ITAK 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 ITAK 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.
Chelvanayakam Issues Lengthy Statement
The ITAK’s action committee went ahead with its plans for commencing the satyagraha on February 20th 1961. 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 party office at No 25 , 2nd cross street,Jaffna.The non – violent contingent numbering over a thousand 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.
The Satyagrahi’s reached the Kachcheri premises and took up positions in front of the entrances to the Kachcheri. The time was 7.30 am. The Satyagraha Campaign was officially launched in Jaffna (which included the present Kilinochchi) administrative district on February 20, 1961 with Chelvanayakam and other Jaffna district MP’s. The other Northern and Eastern districts followed suit in the days that followed. It had been decided to wait until the Satyagraha began in Jaffna before commencing the protest in the other districts.
In Batticaloa (which included the present Ampara) administrative district Paddiruppu MP S. M. Rasamanickam, Batticaloa 1st MP, C. Rajaduria,Kalkudah MP P. Manickavasagar. Kalmunai MP M.C. Ahamed, “Thirukkovil” Ariyanayagam and S. M. Mashoor Moulana met with party stalwarts on February 21 and decided to stage a district-wise “Hartal” on February 27. This was a huge success. Thereafter the “Satyagraha” commenced on February 28 opposite the Batticaloa Fort within which the Kachcheri or administrative secretariat was located. Over 600 Satyagrahi’s marched from the ITAK office on Main Street towards the Fort and sat at both the front and rear entrances in two groups. The MP’s took turns sitting with both groups alternately.
In the Trincomalee administrative district, Trinco MP N. R. Rajavarothayam and 1st MP for Mutur T. Ahambaram along with former Mutur MP M. E.H. Mohammed Ali held a conclave and decided to commence the “Satyagraha” on February 27 after a Hartal. This was done as planned. The Hartal was a roaring success. The Satyagraha campaign which followed soon electrified the town.
In the Mannar administrative district the Mannar ITAK Parliamentarian V. A. Alegacone led a group of Tamil and Muslim volunteers on February 24 to all Government departments in the town and issued leaflets. Thereafter the “Satyagrahi’s” led by Alegacone carrying placards launched the Satyagraha opposite the Kachcheri.
In Vavuniya (inclusive of present Mullaitivu) administrative district, the ITAK candidate G. B. Vincent had lost to an Independent candidate T. Sivasithamparam in the July 1960 Poll. Vincent “Master” and Vavuniya Town Council Chairman Subramaniam started preparing for a Satyagraha launch without the involvement of Sivasithamparam. However On February 24 the Independent Vavuniya MP organised a public meeting in support of the Satyagraha in Mullaitivu town.
The Police in a high-handed action seized the microphone and took it away. T. Sivasithamparam then led 500 volunteers and squatted outside the Police station demanding the return of the confiscated microphone. After several hours it was returned. Sivasithamparam then vowed to join forces with the ITAK and commence a Satyagraha. Thereafter Sivasithamparam, Vincent Master, Subramaniam .and former State Councillor T. M. Sabaratnam together formed a committee and began the Satyagraha in Vavuniya on February 28.
This then was how and why the “Satyagraha” was launched and conducted 60 years ago. It is an event that the Tamils of Sri Lanka can be proud of as an achievement where a small, unarmed, defenceless people through united effort and dedication paralysed the administrative machinery of the Colombo government for nearly two months in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka until military repression was unleashed. Brute force was displayed. Peaceful protesters including elected representatives of the people were placed under house arrest at the Panagoda Army cantonment. A democratic protest campaign was cruelly crushed.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an Enhanced Version of an Article written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of Feb 13th, 2021. It can be accessed here: