2.1 The Youth Congress
The first great political movement that took root in Jaffna was the Ceylon Youth Congress. This movement came into being around 1926 and had its base amongst the educated middle-class youth, especially young graduates of Jaffna from Indian Universities and the newly founded Ceylon University College, and high school students. It was greatly inspired by the Indian independence movement and looked up to its leading figures such as Mahathma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Like the Congress in India, the causes it advocated were secularism, a non-sectarian Ceylonese nationalism and independence from Britain. For this reason it enjoyed much respect from Sinhalese intellectuals in the South. It drew enthusiasm and morale boosts from visits of leading Indian personalities. Gandhi visited Jaffna in 1927 and Nehru in 1932. Kamaladevi Chattopadyaya who addressed the opening session of the Ceylon Youth Congress in 1931, is said to have taken Jaffna by storm. Not only leading personalities from India, but also eminent Sinhalese from the South, like S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike addressed Youth Congress sessions. It was at the Youth Congress sessions that S.W.R.D. advocated for the first time a federal constitution for Ceylon. Some of the leading personalities of the Youth Congress were Handy Perinpanayagam, J.V. Chelliah, S. Kulendran (who, later, was enthroned as the Bishop of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India), Orator Subramaniam, K. Nesiah, N. Sabaratnam, and A. E. Tamber.
The Youth Congress reached its high point when it organised in the Tamil areas a boycott of elections under the Donoughmore Constitution of 1931, for the reason that the constitution did not offer Poorna Swaraj (complete independence). In the succeeding years the Youth Congress fell into decline, unable to resist the pressure of communal politics. Perhaps they were unable to come out with a leadership that could combine idealism with charisma, essential for mass based politics under universal suffrage. Nevertheless many of the Youth Congress figures were great men who left their mark. Consciences had been awakened on the caste issue and the ideals of cosmopolitan, secular democracy had been instilled in many young minds. Several of their leaders such as Handy Perinpanayagam, Orator Subramaniam, N. Sabaratnam and K. Nesiah went on to make a distinct contribution, and, as educationists, remained loyal exponents of their youthful ideals. They also maintained their ties with the leading contemporaries of Mahathma Gandhi into the 1970’s. The most important legacy of the Youth Congress from the point of the present, is the position enjoyed by India in the minds of the Tamil People. India for the Tamils, came to represent high standards - virtue, moral edification and ideals of non-violence. Pictures of Mahathma Gandhi and other Indian leaders came to adorn many Tamil homes. This affection was enhanced by already existing ties of religion, education and language.
2.2 The F.P. and the T.U.L.F.
As a result of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s Sinhalese only bill of 1956, the Federal Party (F.P.) under S.J.V. Chelvanayakam became the chief repository of Tamil hopes and interests. Significantly, the Satyagraha campaign launched by the F.P. in 1961 was modelled on Mahathma Gandhi’s example. From 1956 to 1983 Tamil political thinking developed under the impact of the anti-Tamil riots of 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981, and 1983 together with mounting discrimination and a series of broken promises by successive governments which promised to settle Tamil grievances. The uprising by the Sinhalese youth of the J.V.P. in 1971 had its impact on Tamil youth. By the early 1970’s a section of Tamil youth in the universities and high schools had begun to think in terms of violence. But the F.P. continued to espouse non-violence. The official ideology of its successor, the T.U.L.F., remains non-violence to this day. The other events which had an impact on the Tamil Youth were, a system of standardisation introduced by Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government in 1970 which made it more difficult for Tamil students to enter the University, and the birth of Bangladesh. These latter events made a strong impression on their minds. At this point lessons in karate and judo began to be organised in Jaffna. A group of Tamil undergraduates at Peradeniya were in the ideological forefront of this new tendency. They began to think of economic self-sufficiency for the Tamil areas. But a fully fledged rebel movement like the P.L.O .was still only a distant possibility. Many of them thought of a simple plan inspired by Bangladesh. Their plan was to have a limited militant movement, plan for economic self-sufficiency and once U.D.I .was declared India was to come in and finish the job quickly. It may be noted that almost all of these pioneering youths have now left the country, for good.
The effect of all this was to weaken democratic ideals amongst Tamils. A new romanticism developed where political activists thought in terms of military structures, secret societies and undercover work. To have different opinions amounted to treachery. Tolerance and open discussion were no longer welcomed.
The Federal Party was quick to cash in on the new mood of totalitarianism. A senior journalist and a long time observer of Jaffna has this to say:
“In 1972 I was at a meeting where S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, the leader of the F.P. was present on the platform. Mr. Kasi Ananthan, a popular platform speaker, who is now a member of the L.T.T.E., told the audience:
Mr. Duraiappa, Mr. Subramaniam, Mr. Arulampalam and Mr. Anandasangeri are enemies of the Tamil nation. They do not deserve a natural death. Nor do they deserve to die in an accident. The Tamil people, especially the youth, must decide how they should die….
“I knew that this was going to lead to anarchy. I was angry and said so to my colleagues. The only thing my colleagues could say in mitigation was that Mr. Chelvanayakam’s hearing was bad and consequently he would not have known what was said. This was no satisfactory excuse for a party leader. This speech was editorially quoted in the Suthanthiran, a paper owned by Mr. Chelvanayakam. Such a speech which apparently had the blessings of the Tamil leadership was a foretaste of things to come. In the succeeding years we were taught unquestioning compliance with political authority. If the F.P. or its successor, the T.U.L.F., announced a three day hartal, we had to comply and stay at home; there was no question of discussion. Anyone who did not comply could have expected some young men to come and beat him up. The seeds were sown for the growth of totalitarian militant groups and for the methods of violence they employed.”
It must also be mentioned that Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government contributed to these developments by the methods it adopted. It arrested 42 Tamil youths in 1972 and detained them without charges for two years. These youths were mainly involved in protesting against standardisation which restricted the entrance of Tamils to the University. The actual offences were often nothing more than putting up posters. The Federal Party’s mild demands for Tamil rights in parliament were treated with contempt. Dr. Colvin R. de Silva’s constitution of 1972 had the ring of a deliberate slap on the face. Discrimination against Tamils and corruption became much more open. The one mitigating factor was that the import restriction policies of the government provided opportunities and prosperity for the enterprising Jaffna farmer. An event which had considerable impact on Tamil political thought was the police attack on the International Tamil Research Conference hosted in Jaffna in January 1974. Nine persons died by accidental electrocution during this unprovoked attack, which took place in the presence of international scholars. It was a measure of Mrs. Bandaranaike’s arrogance that she refused to order an inquiry. The first shot in the Tamil insurgency was fired when Mr. Alfred Duraiyappa, the Mayor of Jaffna who was close to Mrs. Bandaranaike, was assassinated in 1975. Mr. Duraiyappa was a popular man whose funeral was well attended.
By 1976, the leading Tamil parties including the F.P., the Tamil Congress of Mr. G.G. Ponnampalam and Mr. Thondaman’s Ceylon Workers Congress representing plantation Tamils and Prof. C. Suntheralingam, a prominent Tamil nationalist, had combined to form the Tamil United Liberation Front (T.U.L.F.). In this year (1976) was adopted the Vaddukoddai resolution which put forward an independent state of Tamil Eelam as being the solution to the problems of the Tamils. This state was to be won by non-violent means.
It can be safely assumed that there was no viable plan to fight for such a state. In a public debate conducted in Chunnakam in 1975, presided over by Mr. Orator Subramaniam, two of Mr. Subramaniam’s eminent students, Mr. N. Shanmugathasan, Communist Party (Peking Wing) and Mr. V. Dharmalingam, M.P. (T.U.L.F.) debated the pros and cons of the separate state. Mr. Shanmugathasan challenged Mr. Dharmalingam to state his plan of action. Mr. Dharmalingam replied that it was a party secret. Several in the audience clamoured for a more definite answer. Orator said later: “I had ties of friendship and respect to both my students and I knew that I was chosen as Chairman because in Chunnakam I was perhaps well qualified to control the crowd. Seeing that things were going too far, I intervened as Chairman and decreed that it was Mr. Dharmalingam’s right to keep a party secret. But the simple truth was that there was no such plan.” By now Mr. Chelvanayakam was in a state of poor health and Mr. A. Amirthalingam, the T.U.L.F. Secretary, had begun to play a leading role in the party. According to one report, Mr. M. Thiruchelvam, a senior member of the T.U.L.F. and ex-minister who was in Colombo at the time the resolution for a separate state was adopted, sensing danger, asked Mr. Amirthalingam, “What is the meaning of this?” Mr. Amirthalingam replied that this resolution was adopted under pressure from the youth and that when the time comes to negotiate with the government, a compromise can be reached. This, as future events showed, was the true position of the T.U.L.F..
2.3 The Years 1977-81
The new U.N.P. government which came to power in July 1977 raised hopes that it would solve the problems of the Tamils. It did away with standardisation for a time. Time showed that the government was only toying with the problem. The 1977 race riots made the average Tamil feel that the Tamils needed much firmer guarantees concerning their place in the country and an autonomous status for their homelands which would include control over colonisation. The government was in no way prepared to meet these reasonable claims. Instead ministers such as Cyril Mathew and Gamini Dissanaike used the resources of their ministries to further Sinhalese colonisation especially in the Eastern province. Cyril Mathew kept on discovering ancient Buddhist shrines in the Trincomalee area. The anger and helplessness of the Tamils provided a natural boost for militant groups.
One cannot deal with the question without looking into the manner in which Sinhalese fears were awakened. Having promised Tamil Eelam, the T.U.L.F. under Mr. Amirthalingam kept on saying that they had a secret plan to bring about this event. Having directly or indirectly aided the growth of the militant movement, the T.U.L.F. had to ride it. The secret plan story with elaborations drew applause from audiences. Rumours abounded to the effect that some foreign powers, overseas Tamils, or both, were to provide military succour for the birth of Tamil Eelam. Even by the end of 1977 many believed that fighter planes had been purchased for that task. The average person listening to speeches given by the T.U.L.F. took them to mean that non-violence was just a facade and that the real thrust was being planned by enhancing the militants’ capability. But when pressed for comment by audiences of a different kind, the T.U.L.F. would become a group of urbane Western-educated gentlemen committed to non-violence. All this was not lost on the Sinhalese. When challenged by Sinhalese to condemn the militants’ violence, the T.U.L.F. would hedge. There was no doubt, for instance, that the functioning of the banks was essential for the Jaffna economy and that the prosperity of the Jaffna farmer depended crucially on the banks. The police force was in many ways racist and flawed. Yet, it was also performing necessary functions towards the maintenance of order. Subsequently police were deployed to protect banks and vehicles transporting cash. Several of these policemen were killed on duty. Yet the Tamil public treated it as a sad, but necessary part of the Eelam game. The T.U.L.F. was silent.
As a result, a racist picture of the average Tamil as a scheming opportunist came to have a ring of credibility in the eyes of the average Sinhalese man. It then made it easier to arouse Sinhalese fears of being overwhelmed by Tamils and create the kind of feeling: “The Tamils should be taught a lesson”. Provoking such distrust made the anti-Tamil riots of 1981 and 1983 more probable. At the same time the T.U.L.F. had no tangible means in its possession to safe-guard the Tamils from such an outcome. Meanwhile the T.U.L.F. neglected party democracy and its grass-roots organisation and had adopted secret negotiations with the government. This resulted in increasing dissatisfaction amongst its supporters.
The T.U.L.F.’s Vaddukottai resolution calling for a separate state of Tamil Eelam made a deep emotional impact on Tamils, both locally and abroad. But it took the 1977 anti-Tamil violence to give it life. Many middle class Tamils who had regarded Colombo as their home had agreed on principle that the Tamils must move back to their traditional homelands for their safety and economic prosperity and the preservation of their national identity and make them economically viable. Even before the 1977 riots, the Tamils had been becoming increasingly anxious because of discrimination in employment and in education. Several Hill Tamils had been displaced during the 1977 violence. A key problem as seen by the Tamils was the protection of border areas such as Trincomalee, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya, where the resources of the state had been used in settling Sinhalese. The 1958 and 1977 violence had shown that it was in these areas that Tamils were the most vulnerable. Although the school leaving Jaffna Tamil was very conscious that these areas were part of his homeland, experience had shown that it was not easy to motivate him to settle and make a living off the land - the earnings from which could be well above white collar government service salaries. Tamil refugees of Indian origin were readily accepted to fill this void. Many of the Tamil elite advocated this migration because they were cheap labour and would serve as a convenient buffer between the Sinhalese and the Jaffna Tamil. C. Chandrahasan, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam’s son, once made a remark of such import to a foreign journalist. The leadership in settling these areas came from some highly motivated Tamils. Several of them later acquired links with the incipient militant movement. Three leading names amongst these pioneers were Mr. A. David, a senior Architect and the late Dr. Rajasundaram and his wife Shantini (nee Karalasingam) also a doctor. The husband and wife were in Britain when the 1977 riots broke out. They decided to return without delay to take up this pioneering work. While Shantini ran the Vavuniya clinic on a social service basis, Rajasundaram became the moving force behind the movement Gandhiyam. Gandhiyam was a charitable organisation through which agricultural advice, facilities and materials were provided for refugee families wanting to settle in project areas around Vavuniya. Volunteer workers ran schools and day care centres for children while providing advice and assistance to the elders. The U.S. agency C.A.R.E. supplied packets of Triposha – balanced cereal food for children. N.O.V.I.B. and O.X.F.A.M. were amongst the charities that helped Gandhiyam. Within two years these former refugees were producing plentiful quantities of nutritious cereals such as Ulunthu, the prices of which reached a record low as a result.
Another organisation which became famous at this time was the Tamil Refugees Rehabilitation Organisation (T.R.R.O.). Amongst the committed officials of the T.R.R.O. were its founder President Nithyanantha and its founder Secretary K. Kanthasamy. Kanthasamy had been a very successful corporate lawyer and his life was to become one of selfless devotion to the cause of Tamil freedom, and the wider cause of human rights at an international level. His disappearance in mid-1988 was a result of the insidious growth of terror within the Tamil body-politic that was to destroy some of its finest sons.
The T.R.R.O. designed projects for the settlement of displaced persons, canvassed funds and implemented the projects either directly or through organisations such as Ghandiyam. The Kent and Dollar farms owed their origin to the pioneering spirit of some of the youth and elders of this time. Both were integrated agricultural settlements. Several Tamils living overseas became infected with this pioneering spirit when letters of appeal reached them. Groups of people sprang up in places like London, Singapore, and Ibadan (Nigeria), who held discussions on projects that could economically stabilise the Tamil homeland and collected money to send towards existing projects. The Standing Committee of Tamil Speaking Peoples (S.C.O.T.) is an organisation of Tamil professional people that came into being in London during this period. In the Tamil homeland itself there was a sense of buoyancy as several professionals took up residence there and gave their time to designing and implementing economic projects. During these early stages, the militants were known to be present around the settlements, but few from the settlements had any links with them. The thrust was on economic development and rehabilitation. The leadership of the T.U.L.F. was unquestioned. Yet for all the enthusiasm overseas, the actual participation of overseas Tamils in terms of their numbers and resources was small. In Britain where the Ceylon Tamil settlers numbered tens of thousands, the annual income of the S.C.O.T. was only in the region of ,6,000. Those who started rehabilitation work in the field, had hoped for massive support from Tamils living abroad. They got their money. But nearly all of it from Christian charities in the West. Nevertheless Tamils living overseas maintained a keen interest in what was going on at home and the actions of the militants became the subject of much drawing room talk.
During the year 1978 the militant group, the Tamil Tigers, carried out a spate of bank robberies and killings of police officers. The most sensational of these was the killing of Inspector Bastianpillai and some other police officers who were with him, after the police had successfully apprehended some militants. Other sensational events were the robbing of the banks at Thirunelvely, Neervely and Kilinochchi (by the group P.L.O.T.E.) and the bomb blast which destroyed the Avro passenger aircraft plying between Jaffna and Colombo shortly after it had landed on the tarmac at Ratmalana and everyone had disembarked.
As a purely security problem, the Tamil militancy had gone beyond routine policing. But as a political problem, it was well within control. The T.U.L.F. was willing to settle for a fairly modest grant of autonomy for the Tamil areas that included some compromise on land settlement. The militants at this point of time respected the T.U.L.F. and were not challenging it. But the government decided to play tough, and given the racist attitudes of some of its leading members, every action of the government’s began to be seen as punitive. An Act of Parliament in 1978 proscribed the Tamil Tigers.
Two events towards the end of 1978 alienated the Tamils further. Mr. Cyril Mathew, Minister for Industries in the U.N.P. government and a regular Tamil basher, had a press conference with P.P.G.L. Siriwardene, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Colombo. It was announced at this conference that evidence had been found to prove that Tamil examiners had cheated by awarding excessively high marks to Tamil candidates. The matter was debated in parliament . But no inquiry was ordered. The allegation sounded convincing to many Sinhalese. With the Tamils it left a bad taste. Many responsible Tamils who studied the matter were convinced that the allegations would not have stood up to an impartial inquiry. By allowing one of its ministers freely to make irresponsible allegations, the government had increased racial feeling against Tamils. The allegations also served as a smoke screen for the reintroduction of an indirect system of racial quotas for University admissions. It was the new U.N.P. government that had scrapped, as a gesture towards Tamils, the system of standardisation introduced by the previous government to restrict Tamil university admissions. Many Tamils would have agreed to the modification of the principle of pure merit by means of non-racial criteria to help the underprivileged. That would not have needed a drama which subjected Tamils to hurtful public vilification. This represented the same irresponsible streak in the Jayewardene government which made Jayewardene tell the Tamils who were victimised by the 1977 racial violence that they will have war if they want war. Discrimination against Tamils in government jobs continued as repeatedly pointed out in letters to the President by the T.U.L.F. leader, Mr. Amirthalingam
The other event was the cyclone that devastated the Eastern Province in December 1978. Tamil leaders and Members of Parliament complained bitterly about blatant discrimination against Tamil victims in the provision of relief. There were several instances where material assistance provided by foreign governments did not reach the victims. In one instance, it was revealed in parliament that a large quantity of good quality sarees donated for the victims by India had been disposed of through a state trading agency. It was claimed belatedly in reply to a query in parliament that the proceeds from the sale went into the distress fund.
However, government indifference provided an opportunity for strengthening Tamil solidarity which was not missed. Again students from the University of Jaffna played a leading role joined in by social service and religious organisations. Students went from house to house collecting money for relief. A large number of lorries left for the East carrying cadjan, food and clothing. It was indeed an exciting period where Tamil national consciousness was riding high. Everyone wanted to be part of it, even the passive U.N.P.-voting Colombo Tamils who had habitually cold shouldered the enthusiasm of their provincial brethren. These middle class Colombo Tamils had preferred to be known as urbane, cosmopolitan and English speaking and were usually not given to nationalist notions.
An important step in the government’s effort at finding a military solution to the Tamil problem was the passing of the P.T.A .(Prevention of Terrorism Act) by parliament in July 1979. All the while the majority of Tamils were hoping that some compromise would be reached between the T.U.L.F. and the government that would settle the problem. But what happened after the passage of the P.T.A., though on a minor scale by today’s standards, was to increase Tamil anger against the government and, consequently, support for the militants’ cause.
Excerpted from The Broken Palmyra, Rajan Hoole.