Misconceptions and misinterpretations of Sampanthan’s presidential address at ITAK convention – 2

by Dr. Nirmala Chandrahasan

The anguish and opposition of the people to this piece of legislation was given expression by the ITAK (Federal Party of Ceylon) both in parliament and through a peaceful Satyagraha on Galle Face Green opposite the old Parliament.

The Federal Party MPs led by their leader S. J. V Chelvanayakam QC, and the co-founders of the Federal party Dr. E. M. V. Naganathan and C. Vanniasingham while performing satyagraha were set upon by thugs and rowdies and mercilessly beaten, some even had their clothes torn off, others were kicked and stamped upon and many were thrown into the Beira Lake, while the police looked on from the precincts of the old Parliament.

The following year Mr. Bandaranaike and Mr Chelvanayakam entered into a pact under which the northern and eastern region was to have a measure of autonomy. However, the chauvinist forces forced the Prime Minister to tear up the pact. Thereafter in 1961 when the Government started to administratively enforce the Sinhala Only Act in the northern and eastern provinces, the Federal party started a Civil Disobedience campaign in the North and East.

It was a non violent protest. People from all walks of life, Muslims and Tamils, men, women and even schoolchildren in large numbers performed satyagraha in front of the Kachcheris (Government Agents’ Offices). Once again they were met with violence, beaten and forced to move, in some instances, even trampled upon by government officials trying to get into the Kachcheris, but throughout they never retaliated and bore the blows in silence but without giving way.

Subsequently, a state of emergency was declared and the Federal Party Members of Parliament and other supporters were arrested and kept under detention at the Panagoda Army Camp. In the 1972 Constitution even the protection afforded the minorities in Article 29(2) of the Soulbury Constitution, (albeit it had not proved very effective) was removed, and the leader of the ITAK, Mr. S. J. V Chelvanayakam, resigned his Parliamentary seat in protest and re- contested to show the peoples’ opposition.

However, what has to be remembered is that the ITAK never diverted from the principle of non violence which is the Gandhian way and in keeping with the teachings of the Buddha. Furthermore the Federal Party members, whom I have known personally, never bore any rancour or ill feeling towards the Sinhalese leaders or the Sinhalese people for the treatment which had been meted out to them, but instead always had good feelings towards their fellow countrymen. The spirit of self sacrifice and high principles that guided the party in those days must surely leave its imprint on the ITAK as it reconstitutes itself today.

My reading of Mr Sampanthan’s speech is that it has to be viewed against the backdrop of the long years since 1956, the non violent and parliamentary agitation conducted by the ITAK, the communal riots of 1983, the subsequent insurgency by militant groups, and the end of the armed conflict in 2009. So many years have passed since 1956 and still no political settlement has been reached to enable the Tamil speaking people to exercise their sovereignty within the constitutional framework. There is a feeling of frustration and mounting impatience and that is why throughout the speech the speaker is cautioning ‘Patience’. It will be noticed that word is frequently used.

With regard to the ‘other strategies’, referred to in the speech, the speaker is telling the people even if an intransigent government is not willing to negotiate a political settlement, be patient because there is still a way out of this situation and other strategies that can be followed. He is referring to the present International law and world order, under which human rights, self determination, the rights of minorities and even indigenous people are matters of international concern as evidenced in the various international conventions and treaties.

The principle of self determination, along with core principles of international Humanitarian law, come within the classification of jus cogens i. e. principles of international law which are so fundamental to the international community that states cannot deviate from them. In respect of these matters the obligations of the state are erga omnes owed to the international community. The International Court of Justice has in recent cases affirmed these doctrines and the United Nations through its various bodies and agencies is actively supportive of the burgeoning International law.

The speaker also addresses the Sinhalese people and asks for their support, because he feels that they would be better able to recognize what is fair and just, than the politicians and the political pundits. The speech contains an implicit appeal to the Sinhalese leadership which is ‘do not push us to take this road but come forward yourselves to negotiate a settlement in the interests of the whole country.’(ENDS)

(Nirmala Chandrahasan is a lawyer and former acting dean of the Law faculty at Colombo Uiversity. She is also the daughter of Dr. EMV Naganathan and daughter in law of SJV Chelvanayagam both of whom were co-founders of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) known as Federal party in 1949)