Regarding Kath Nobel's comment on: "Another perfectly reasonable idea"

By Gam Vaesiya writes from Ontario, Canada

(March 25, Ontario, Sri Lnaka Guardian) Kath Noble is one of Sri Lanka's columnists who is always worth reading. She is well informed and writes with good judgment. I read her comment which appeared as feature article in The Island (17-March-2010) as well as in Transcurrents, ( read)on the proposal by SPUR, an Australian expatriate group. The "Transcurrents version" has the benefit of some reader comments as well.

SPUR has proposed that electoral

representation in the North needs to be reviewed. In Kath Noble's words " They want the Government to undertake an immediate census of the North and East, with a view to cutting the number of representatives from those districts in Parliament". Kath Nobel claims that "you'd have thought everybody in Sri Lanka would be extra careful about suggesting policies Tamils might consider discriminatory." KN explains further: "Rushing in to calculate how many people need to be represented and therefore how many seats the North and East are due in Parliament isn't going to be viewed with anything like understanding. It will be seen as taking advantage of a crisis to get one over on Tamils".

Where angles fear to tread?

In fact, Kath Nobel cites the University Admissions issue as an example of what not to do. The University standardization came into effect because the 1970 SLFP government in coalition with the LSSP recognized in-grained inequalities in the existing system which discriminated in favour of Colombo, Kandy and Jaffna, and took steps to correct them. The same government took steps to nationalize the (mainly Christian) private schools, and indeed earned for ever the hostility of the Anglicized products of these schools.
Some of the more enraged even attempted to carry out a coup d'etat.

Should one not put into place democratic processes because it would offend the
sensitivity of some powerful group? Didn't every democratic reform upset the Tamil or Christian or Sinhala-conservative ruling classes? Dare we have Universal Franchise?

Kath Noble should have gone back many years further in history. The first quarter century (1900-1920) was idyllic for the Tamil ruling class as they, in the person of the "pure-laine" Ponnambalam Arunachalam, represented even the Sinhalese in front of the British. Then came, the Donoughmore commission "suggesting policies Tamils might consider discriminatory", if we are to use Kath Nobel's words. The suggestion of SPUR is only a faint echo of Donoughmore, who proposed universal franchise, with one vote for each,, irrespective of wealth, even for women, and even ignoring caste! The whole of the North recoiled from all this and rejected the Donoughmore proposals. Ponnambalam
Ramanathan led two delegations to London hoping to get the caste system included in the constitution. Meanwhile, G. G. Ponnambalam (GGP), realizing that he could usurp the Ramanathans by playing the even more inflammatory race politics, began his campaigns of the 1930s, with attacks on the Mahavamsa, and on the Sinhalese "race" claimed to be a hybrid "off-shoot" of the Tamils. This lead to the 1939 Sinhala-Tamil race riots which were rapidly quelled by the British authorities. This is in strong contrast to the post-1956 riots where law and order always arrived far too late.

Pan-Sinhala Government.

The reaction to the insensitivity of Ponnambalam was the rise of S. W. R. D. Banadarnaike (SWRD) and the Sinhala Maha Saba. Ponnambalam knew very well that universal franchise meant the end of the hegemony of the Tamil ruling class over the Ceylonese people. Meanwhile, D. S. Senanayake (DSS) wanted to prove that a pan-Sinhala government could run fairly and without communalism. By clever manipulation of the committees of the state council, DSS established a pan-Sinhala government in the State council for a few years. Although the Sinhalese had accepted a quarter century of Tamil hegemony during Arunachalam's time, the Tamils strongly resented the few years of the pan-Sinhala state council under Senanayake. But this was enough for Senanayake to prove to the British constitutionalists that a non-discriminatory Sinhala government could
function. The British rejected Ponnambalam's 50-50 proposal, and GGP's claims of discrimination in education, colonization, health, employment etc., and essentially rehashed the constitutional package that Senanayake wanted, in the guise of the Soulbury commission. The first cabinet of Senanayake, with 14 ministers, had excellent representation of Tamils and a Muslim. The foreign ministry, the Galoya board which ran the colonization schemes, the armed forces, the universties, the civil service, the banking sector etc., all had Tamil representation roughly equal to twice or even three times the demographic percentage.

The battles against causeways

Kath Noble should go back to read the Hansard of those times. The Northern Peninsula was a disconnected set of villages amid lowlands, impassable due to lack of causeways and proper roads. And yet, every time the responsible minister proposed building such causeways, there were stout objections. "Sensitivities" of the type mentioned by Kath Noble in her judgment against SPUR were coming into play. However, here it was not ethnicity but caste that was relevant. There were objections to providing causeways to areas with low caste villages. There were even objections to converting Jaffna (a very populous urban council) into the status of a Municipal council. The Colombo Tamils who owned property in Jaffna did not want to pay higher taxes! However, all this was presented as examples of Sinhalese interference in Tamil matters. Dr. Jane Russell, the British Historian writes that Tamil politicians essentially regarded that any legislation touching the North should not concern the Sinhalese legislators.

Exclusive Tamil Homelands

S. J. V. Chelvanayagam did not accept the "Ceylonese" concept that D. S. Senanayake was trying to build up. His associated had published and popularized a vigorous, militant genre of historical writing claiming that the Tamils were the earliest and ever present inhabitants of Sri Lanka. These Tamil-nationalist historians, while condemning the Mahavamsa as false history, would in the same breath reformulate it, with the names of Kings cast in to Tamil form, vith Vijaya becoming Vijayan, and Kashyapa becoming Kasi-Appaan etc. The concept of the exclusive Tamil Homelands already existed in writings that appeared around 1940 onwards. In 1945 E. L. Thambimuttu had written the book "Dravida, a History of the Tamils from Prehistoric times to 1800". The 1949 Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi manifesto of Maradana stated an exclusive land claim, and established the clarion call for a separate state. As found in the Tamil-language election material distributed by the ITAK in 1952 in Jaffna, the objective of the party was to use every means possible to rouse the "uchchaham and Uruppu" of the people to establish a separate Arasu of the Tamils. The talk of Federalism was restricted to Colombo audiences only.

S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was no racist. He was a democrat and an opportunist who did not have the political adroitness or sagacity of D.S. Senanayake. When SWRD formed his government in 1956 with the "Sinhala-only" cry, Muslims and other minorities did join his cabinet. What if the Tamils had also offered to cooperate with him and even join the government? The Colombo Tamils knew Bandaraniake very well as they all belonged to the same social class. They knew that he was not a racist. Some, like the Thiruchelvams, living down the same road may even have helped to bridge such a move. Given such a big move, SWRD would have had to make equally big concessions- and he could have.

And yet, that was far too big a step. The ITAK had already decided in 1949 that the Tamils were economically and organizationally strong enough to take on the Sinhala majority. The idea that the "invaders" must be driven out of the exclusive homelands, just as the British were driven out had been firmly spelt. In this case the invaders were the Sinhalese and the Muslims living in the North and the East. Every political process was to be used as a means of polarizing the two communities. Senanayake, be it Don Stephan or Dudley, or even GGP were to be painted as enemies of the Tamils.

An inevitable state of Affairs?

Kath Noble should now see that there was a determined inevitability that had to play its Aristophanean end inexorably. Of course, this reading of history can be sharply questioned. But then, every reading of history is only a cross-section of a multi-dimensional manifold of facts. Each cross section is different and shows to advantage some facts, while covering others. While I readily grant that a completely different analysis can be presented with equal vigour, I have attempted here to argue that SPUR's demand for electoral reform is just a feeble echo of what started in 1931. proposing one vote per person. They too touched Tamil sensitivities, being prone to the same objections as those of Kath Noble, generating a vehemence and force that are still shaking and stripping this country apart.

Irrespective of Tamil sensitivities, Sri Lanka today, and Ceylon then, have grappled with the refusal of the Tamil leadership to accept the concept of one vote for one man. The 1930s saw the upsetting of Tamil sensitivities with the rejection of Ramanathan's plea for legislatively recognizing caste. The 1940s saw the upsetting of tamil sensitivities with the rejection of the 50-50 formula by the British. The 1980s saw the complete recognition, by J. R. jayawardene, of Tamil as an equal-status official language, and the Indian proposals for provincial councils, mainly under the duress of the sessionist threat of the LTTE. of course, the LTTE took every step to prevent the implementaion of Tamil language, by threatening and forcing out from the government workers competent in Tamil.

Sebastian Rasalingam, an outspoken anti-LTTE Tamil writer, has characterized the "exclusive Tamil-Homelands" concept as being identicle to the Apartheid concept of the white Afrikaaner regimes. Kath Nobles's plea for continued appeasement of sentiments which originate from such macabre roots cannot surely be justified.