The Machinations of Vellala Lawyer Leaders that Deepened Tamil-Sinhala Divisions from the 1920s-to-the-1960s

Sebastian Rasalingam, reproducing an article presented in 2008 in The Sri Lanka Guardian in October 2008 with this title “An Excellent and Timely Feature on the Tamils” **

 Please permit me to make some comments on the recent article on the “Sri Lankan Identity” by R. M. B. Senanayake, continuing a discussion in a previous article by Anne Abeysekera. Both these articles, written by authors who are familiar with the English-educated Sinhalese point of view, deal very inadequately with the issues of Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka and in erstwhile Ceylon. In fact, the modern generation, even the Tamils, are on the whole unaware of the true nature of the present conflict and the role of Tamil nationalism. They are misled and mesmerized by simplistic histories concocted by the great political agenda set in motion by the Tamil leaders of the pre-1956 era. In fact, I will outline below how the battlelines were drawn in the Donoughmore days, by G. G. Ponnambalam (GGP) and others who followed.

When GGP and his followers moderated their stand after the Soulbury Commission, it was S. J. V. Chelvanayagam (SJV) who took up an even more virulent ultra-nationalist position, in 1948. By then the polarization of politics into a racist mindset had already proceeded extensively and become respectable among educated Tamils, although this had NOT happened to the same extend among the Sinhalese. They, and many Tamils rejected SJV as a “communalist”. The Sinhalese had more faith in the Senanayake dream of a “Ceylonese” nation. So let me, an aging Tamil who grew up in the Donoughmore era and saw at first hand the political souring of Sri Lanka in the hands of GGP, SWRD, SJV and others, explain how things happened and brought us to the present predicament. Many historians (e.g., Jane Russell, K. M. de Silva, R. Kearney, Michael Roberts) and writers can be quoted to support my picture, but I will do so sparingly since the facts speak for themselves. That there has been significant change of “facts” to accommodate and sanitize the politics of the SJV-led platform is seen in the difference between what Prof. A. J. Wilson, the son-in-law of SJV, wrote in the 1960s, and [thereafter] in the 1980s.

Many of the Tamil leaders, educated in Colombo schools or Mission schools, were Christians in faith, but yet proud Vellalar who upheld the caste traditions and all the other oppressive trappings of old Hindu society. Jaffna schools as well as even some of the church schools upheld the caste distinctions. When we were young low-caste children had to sit on low-built stools (“pengci”) and we would carry them from class to class. Our elders were expected to garland and glorify the Tamil leaders visiting from Colombo, supplicate in front of them, and accept (“astu”) whatever they said. Although the Jaffna Youth League of the 1930s got its inspiration from Indian “Swaraj” politics, and from Christian socialism, it fell apart due to its attempt to boycott the Donoughmore Commission.

The Donoughmore Commission, proposing in 1930 a single vote for each adult person irrespective of caste, sex or wealth, was too much for the Tamil leadership centered in Colombo, not only because of its arch-conservatism, but also because it realized that it would be ousted from its dominant absentee landlord-like position if universal franchise came into being. Their strong position in the legislature would be compromised by the Sinhalese who would now gain a majoritarian position by the strength of sheer numbers.

Thus began the new politics of the Tamils, led by G.G.Ponnambalam, a newly minted Colombo lawyer. It was based directly on a sense of “Dravidianism” designed to copy and yet counter the “Aryan” nationalist politics that was raging the European continent in the 1930s.

Thus GGP, and following him Natesan, declared in the State Council that they were “proud Dravidian”(Hansard 1934, Column 3045). GGP carried this “Tamil-superiority” politics to the public platform, beginning to attack the Sinhala-Buddhist chronicle known as the “Mahavamsa”, as well as the Sinhalese people as a “mongrel-race”, descendent from the Tamils.

This was heady stuff to the Tamils, and GGP’s popularity in the Jaffna peninsula rose to dizzy heights. Several books re-writing the history of Jaffna, and Sri Lanka, claiming a long historical domination of the land by Tamils had already come into print. Many of the classic “Sinhalese” kings had been now claimed to be “Tamils”. Vijaya was in fact said to be “Vijayan”, and “Kashyapa” became “Kasi-Appan”. GGP’s “Mahavamsa bashing” was the public face of what was brewing among Tamil intellectuals who sought to nullify the Sinhala-majoritarian reality of Ceylonese politics. In effect, these proud intellectuals were indignant, suddenly felt insecure and inferior.

GG Ponnambalam provided a mesmerizing Tamil nationalism against the hard fact of the Sinhala majority.  He came up with the now famous 50-50 representation in the legislature, viz., 50 seats for the Sinhalese, and 50 for the others. Using racist politics as part of constitutional reforms seemed perfectly respectable at that time, in the backdrop of the political madness occurring in Europe in the 1930s. It should be noted that Mr. Thambimuttu, the Eastern Province Tamil representative, as well as the Muslim leaders rejected the leadership of the GGP-Colombo-Jaffna axis, as well as the 50-50 formula.

GGP’s exercise in racist politics was, of course, strongly countered by the
Sinhalese Buddhists. In this the Sinhalese came up with an immensely talented leader who was in every way a match with G G Ponnambalam. S.W.R.D Bandaranaike, like GGP, came from a wealthy Christian family, and with an even higher aristocratic pedigree. But SWRD became a Buddhist nationalist, donned the “Aryan”-national dress, wrote and spoke eloquent Sinhalese.

GGP, however, never became a Hindu and his Tamil was quite secondary to his command of English and French). Unlikely the tightly controlled, moderate-voiced Buddhist-Sinhala organizations of D.S. Senanayake and D.B. Jayatilleke, the “Sinhala Maha Sabha (SMS)” organizations of SWRD were set up in tandem with GGP’s political attacks. Thus, in 1939, when Sinhala-Tamil race riots broke up (after an inflammatory speech by GGP, see Hindu Organ, June 12, 1939 and other reports), in Navalapitiya, Maskeliya, Passara and other places,

SWRD hastened to those very villages and set up new branches of the SMS. At one of the inaugural meetings SWRD is supposed to have said (Hindu Organ, June 19, 1939) “The Navalapitiya Sinhala Maha Sabha should erect a statue of Mr. Ponnambalam as we should be grateful to him for provoking the formation of the Sinhala Maha Sabha, … Ponnambalam’s speech was more than a thoughtless insult; it was an attempt to prove that the Tamils had the chief claim to Ceylon”.

So, you see, both Madam Anne Abeysekera, and R. M. B. Senanayake Esquire should note that the die had been cast for racial conflict, already in the 1930s. As a Tamil, I leave the criticism of the Sinhala leaders to the Sinhalese. I prefer to argue that it is the arrogant, proud Tamil Vellalar lawyers, looking for Tamil hegemony in a Sinhala-majority situation which created the conditions that destroyed any possibility of trust between the two ethnic groups. D.S. Senanayake (DSS) A. Mahadeva, Nadesan, Oliver Goonatilleke and others were working very hard to build up such a trust. Thus, DSS sent off Baron Jayatilleke to India and brought in Arunachalam Mahadeva into his fold. By ensuring that the Sinhala nationalists did not engage in acrimonious debate with GGP in front of the Soulbury Commission, DSS ensured that GGP had his say and his day. The Soulbury Commission rejected the GGP claims that the Tamils had been discriminated in Colonization, education, jobs in the public service etc., and also rejected the 50-50 formula enshrining two controlling races.

In the end GGP moderated his position and called for “responsible cooperation” with the Sinhalese. DSS even managed to get GGP and SWRD into his cabinet. Thus, the balancing act had been done, and the “Ceylonese concept” began to have a good chance of taking root. The new cabinet had more Tamils than required by the demographic proportions. The Tamils had a strong position in banking and Finance, Public service, Legal sector, Mercantile sector, Export and Import.

Things seemed good. Even the lower classes (castes) in Jaffna and elsewhere sensed upward mobility. Anyone who made it good and acquired some wealth or education “immigrated” to the south. In fact, Colombo was a different world where social strictures were totally less oppressive. Such “colonization of Colombo” had occurred continuously,
since the opening of the Jaffna-Colombo railway in 1905.

So why would the Tamils rock the boat?

The spoiler of the show in 1948 was the young SJV and his team of lawyers living in Colombo. SJV was a supporter of the extreme nationalist “league of Tamil Federations” which had published a history book claiming that the Tamils had ruled Sri Lanka from time immemorial, that the hydrological civilization of Anuradhapura was the work of Tamils, and that the Mahavamsa was a total fabrication of the Monks. That there was (sic) Tamil inputs to Sri Lanka from ancient times cannot be denied by anybody. But this type of history was strongly nationalist-chauvinist history.

SJV and his supporters launched the “Ilankai Thamil Arasu Kadchchi (ITAK)” in 1948, clearly declaring the “Traditional Tamil Homeland concept”. I remember listening to speeches in the 1952 elections, at meetings in Jaffna, where it was explained that the “Tamils should be rulers of their own land”, and all this “50-50 representation nonsense should stop”. One of the main themes of the 1952 election was an attack on GGP claiming that GGP was a traitor to the Tamils, because he supported the Indian Citizenship Act of 1984 (sic). This act asserted that an Indian Tamil who could show seven years residence in Sri Lanka was entitled to citizenship, and regularized the situation that had existed since the mid-1930s, when an Order-in-Council Act by Governor Stanley
had suspended the citizenship to Indian Estate workers, as stipulated by the Donoughmore Commission. The citizenship act was largely crafted by K. Vyithiyanathan and the D. S. Senanayake Board of Ministers. Thondaman (Senior) and seven others who had got elected on a strong unregulated Indian-Tamil vote, wanted all Indian workers to be automatically made citizens, and opposed the Senanayake Citizenship Act (SCA).The Up-country Sinhalese as well as the caste-conscious Tamil leaders opposed the granting of the franchise to the Indian Tamils, and supported the SCA. Chelvanayagam,
who had excluded the Indian Tamils from his “Traditional Homeland” formulation of Tamil rights, suddenly realized that the SCA can be a useful attack weapon to hurl at GGP who was the top dog of Tamil politics at that time. Thus the 1952 elections in Tamil areas was a battle between SJV’s ITAK and Ponnambalam’s Tamil congress (TC), with the Indian citizenship act as a main issue. SJV was roundly defeated in 1952, as the Jaffna Tamils saw the SJV-espousal of the Indian Tamils as a largely artificial political act.

Meanwhile, SJV had challenged the citizenship act in the Supreme court, and then at the Privy Council in London, claiming that the Indian workers had been discriminated by the Senanayake-Ponnambalam axis. Both the supreme court in Colombo and the Privy Council rejected the case, and the Privy Council went on to declare that “the Indian workers had not suffered any discrimination before the SCA or by the SCA”.

I have gone to great lengths in the above discussion to show you that, long before 1956, the ITAK under the ultra-nationalist politics of SJV had launched Tamil politics in a confrontational direction. As far as SJV et al were concerned, the Sinhalese were invaders in “Tamil Territory”. The Sinhalese should be driven out, at first by copying the Indian Tactics used against the British, and if that failed, other more direct methods may be needed. I know that SJV, while espousing Gandhian methods, also supported militants like Sivakumaran (who committed suicide using cyanide when caught at a bank robbery designed to raise money for the Tamil resistance),  and met with the young militant groups. SJV also met with militant groups in the 1970s in Trincomalee (precursors to “Pulip Padai”). It should be noted that the Tamil Nationalist claims are NOT based on “discrimination”, but on a more fundamental right to “Traditional Homelands”. It is clear that the ITAK leaders knew that their “Gandhian” “Sathyagrahas” would degenerate into violence. They claimed in many meetings that they were “even ready” for “state violence”. The moment the Banda-Chelva agreement was signed in 1957, the ITAK leadership declared that this was just the first step to the creation of a Tamil homeland.

The Federal Party (ITAK) leaders pursuing satyagraha  at Galle Face Green, 5 May 1956


All that, as well as the Tamil postal stamps, the “anti-Sri” program, the tar-brushing of each other’s street names by the Tamils and the Sinhalese, created a situation where no political pact was possible. That is the true reason, and not the pitiable protests by some Buddhist monks, that led to the collapse of the Banda-Chelva pact. You CANNOT have successful BANDA-CHELVA type pacts without a period of inter-ethnic bridge building. I strongly feel that our Tamil leaders (esp. SJV et al), could not possibly reconcile such bridge-building activity with the declared policy of creating autonomous Tamil Homelands. The Vaddukkodei resolution and the LTTE are inexorable results of the 1948 confrontational platform of the “Thamil Arasu Kadchchi”.

It is for the experts to discuss the historical validity of the “Traditional Homelands” concept. I for one know that most low-caste Tamils were, and are, prisoners of the more dominant groups in these so called “Traditional Homelands. I am sure that the Sinhala or Tamil historians can show that these “Traditional Homelands” had, sometime in the past, been under Sinhala or Tamil domination.

As a Tamil who is strongly against the creation of racist ethnic enclaves, I believe that the “Home” of the Sri Lankan Tamil should be ANYWHERE in the island, from Point Pedro to Dondra and Colombo to Batticaloe. We Tamils have lived everywhere. We have migrated to the south whenever the economic opportunity arose. Some of us have been born in the south. My wife was born in the Hill country. Our Vellalar leaders, already living in the south and owning land in the North, ran the show as absentee landlords. Today, their kith and kin, and other prosperous Tamils have migrated further into Canada, Australia and other rich countries. They are yet continuing to play the same role, the role of instigators and financiers of the conflict, that they played in the 1930s and 1950s. Is there no other approach than continued conflict, and endless suffering from the “constitutional reform” malaise of the Colombo-Tamil lawyer?

The Tamil leaders should take a look at the USA. Here is a country where more than 45% of the prison population TODAY are blacks, although the Black population is demographically 13%. The USA is the country with the largest prison population, exceeding 2.5 million.

The demographic figure of 13% is comparable to that of the Tamils in Sri Lanka (if we include the Indian Tamils as well as some who have left the shores). The geographic distribution of Blacks in the USA also has a clear territorial character, being mainly concentrated in the deprived southern states. In the 1950s the Blacks were fighting hard against segregation, the Klu-Klux Clan etc. Today at least the wealthier classes have gained a certain equality in practice as well as in front of the courts. They have now succeeded in penetrating national politics and launched Barak Obama as a presidential candidate. Given the large proportion of Blacks in prison, and given all the other iniquities, the violence and oppression heaped on them, it was not surprising that violent groups like the “Black Panthers” (born at the same time as the “tigers”!) came into
being at one stage. However, the educated Blacks firmly rejected violent politics,
or any type of secessionist-separatist politics. They played main-stream politics. They understood that separatist politics, and politics based on race-based devolution, have no place in the modern world. In Quebec too, the French people firmly rejected the violent politics of the “Front de Liberation Quebec” (born around the time of the TULF, Vaddukkodei etc), and they have also, in repeated referenda, rejected race and language based sessionist politics.

Honorable, capable Tamil leaders of today are limited to a very small number.
They are the ones who have survived successive assassinations by the LTTE. The LTTE is the dialectical consequence of the ITAK-TULF “Traditional Homelands movement“. I strongly welcome the spirit of cooperation shown by the illustrious Mr. Anandasangaree, and the inassasinable Mr. Douglas Devananda. I sincerely hope that Mr. Chandrakanthan (Pilaiyan), the Eastern Tamil leader, can re-establish the cooperative spirit of the Senanayake era when there was a Ceylonese Identity. In spite of the pessimistic pulse of Mr. R.M.B. Senanayake’s writings, I believe that the “Sinhala-Buddhist” sentiment has always been more accommodating than the Tamil-Nationalist sentiment. There have always been large numbers of Tamils living in the south, but Tamils have never welcomed outsiders in our “Tesavalamized” lands, in our caste-segregated Kovils and Villages.

In effect, the Eastern Tamils, the Low-caste Tamils, the Hill-country Tamils, and the Sinhala villagers are the oppressed, exploited groups. When Pilaiyan of the TMVP cooperates with the SLFP, with Thondaman Jr., the Devananda group, and with Ananadasangaree representing the sensibly mellowed remnant of the upper-class Tamils, we may yet have the much sought for “Sri Lankan Identity”. The silver lining is the disappearance of the arrogant, anti-national Karuvakkaadu-Vellar-lawyer dominance of Tamil politics. They — the Ponnamabalams, Chelvanayagams and their progeny–  will play a diminishing role in our affairs.

It took some 3-4 decades to erode of the nascent “Ceylonese” identity. But this Karuvakkaadu class still dominates the diaspora, the media, and the English-speaking, intellectual groups (largely ignorant of the Tamil language). But their diasporic influence is limited to just this generation. A new national identity will take several decades to build up, but it will arise because of sheer economic necessity and the dicta of dire demographics.

– Sri Lanka Guardian


** FROM …. 3 October 2008 …. where the title runs thus: “Excellent and timely feature on Tamils by Sebastian Rasalingam”

 A NOTE from The Editor, Thuppahi, 24 October 2022

I came across this item when searching the web after a chat with Tanky Wickramaratne of Colombo. Tanky is a senior of my generation or so and a well-read professional. However, his comments on the politics of the mid-20th century indicated an overemphasis on the events surrounind 1956 and the Sinhala Only Act ….. or, rather, a failure to weight developments going back to the State Council days and to the strands of rabid Sinhala aand Tamil communalism dating back to the 19th century.

Sebastian Rasalingam’s essay from 2008 fills one of these ‘gaps’ to some extent by delivering an insightful analysis of Tamil politics and exposing its chauvinistic and manipulative character.  As with the Sinhalese extremists, there have been articulate and influential elements among the Tamils of the north (inclusive of their personnel in Colombo) who moulded historical accounts in a-historical manner and in ways that sharpened Tamil-Sinhala hostility.

Sebastian Rasalingam seems to have penned this article from Canada. He has probably passed away by now and I present this item in his honour …. with a saadhu….saadhu in commendation for his ecumenical Sri Lankan stance.

May he lie in peace.

1 Comment

Filed under accountability, anti-racism, caste issues, centre-periphery relations, communal relations, constitutional amendments, cultural transmission, demography, disparagement, economic processes, electoral structures, ethnicity, governance, heritage, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, island economy, language policies, legal issues, life stories, LTTE, political demonstrations, politIcal discourse, power politics, power sharing, self-reflexivity, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, Sri Lankan scoiety, Tamil civilians, Tamil migration, tamil refugees, unusual people, world events & processes

One response to “The Machinations of Vellala Lawyer Leaders that Deepened Tamil-Sinhala Divisions from the 1920s-to-the-1960s

  1. sachisrikantha

    Thanks a lot for posting this riposte on the politics of G.G. Ponnambalam and S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, (from 1930s to early 1980s) by a disgruntled Tamil named Sebastian Rasalingam. The ‘truth’ he had provided is certainly a warped one.

    Here is one, that comes immediately to my mind. Rasalingam’s gripe was on ‘Tamil Vellala Lawyer’ leaders. He had failed to note that since 1983, when V. Prabhakaran gained the upper hand, Tamil leadership had passed into the hands of a Tamil NON-Vellala Non-lawyer.

    Then, Rasalingam props up another Tamil Vellala Lawyer leader – “illustrious Mr. Anandasangaree”. What is “illustrious” about this guy? If I’m not wrong, he was a teacher first, and a crass opportunist. His political affiliations were first in LSSP, then he hopped into G.G. Ponnambalam’s Tamil Congress (TC) party. Finally, after his fortuitous election to the parliament in 1970 in TC ticket, (and after the demise of Ponnambalam in Feb. 1977), he jumped ship, into Amirthalingam-led TULF. He became a lawyer, only after he became an MP – not so illustrious at all. It could be asserted that Anandasangaree’s opposition to Prabhakaran-led LTTE was indeed based on caste factor.

    I stop here, for the simple reason, because as you had indicated in the last para of your note, this Rasalingam is not among the living now.

Leave a Reply