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Sunday, 19 September 2004    
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Remembering Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam

by Sam Wijesinha, Retired Secretary-General of Parliament

Ponnambalam Arunachalam, on whom I am privileged to collate a life sketch, was born on September 14, 1853 - the youngest of three brothers - sons of Gate Mudaliyar Ponnambalam.

Arunachalam showed an interest in politics from his Cambridge days. In his self-effacing manner, he continued to forge ahead in agitating for reform. In response to growing demands, constitutional reforms were granted in 1912 during the governorship of Sir Henry MacCallum.

The right to elect representatives was given, but the elections were to be conducted on a communal and not on a territorial basis as demanded. The membership of the Council was increased to 21, of which eleven were to be officials and the others were to be two Low country Sinhales, two Tamils, one Kandyan and One Muslim who were to be Nominated and two Europeans, one Burgher and one Educated Ceylonese who were to be Communally elected. The Educated Ceylonese seat was won by P. Ramanathan in 1912.

Meanwhile, Arunachalam on his retirement from the Civil Service in 1913, was conferred a Knighthood.

It was around this time that D. R. Wijewardene, who had recently returned from Cambridge with a Degree in Law and as a Barrister, persuaded Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam to resume his political activities.

As a result, he delivered a memorable address on April 2, 1917 at the Masonic Hall in Colombo, presided over by E. J. Samerawickrema, President of the Ceylon Reform League, on "Our political needs". It was a historic occasion at which, with remarkable lucidity and precision and in an orderly and methodical manner, he crystallized the arguments for self-government.

The address bore the hallmarks of mathematical precision and of classical education. Sir James Pieris, President of the Ceylon National Association said: "Although there were several advocates for political reform in Ceylon, people awoke to the necessity of persistent and organized agitation only after Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam delivered his address."

Sir James asked young men who were studying politics to read this lecture and other cognate publications by Arunachalam and see for themselves his deep and sincere convictions. Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam's words of exhortation on that occasion were coupled with words of caution. To a generation which was repudiating all spiritual values and sinking deeper in the mire of materialism, he proclaimed the contrary gospel that life finds fulfilment in service and that governmence is essentially a spiritual and moral activity. Transgressing that creed brings grief.

In his "Message to the Country" published by his friend D. R. Wijewardene in the very first issue of the Ceylon Daily News of January 3, 1918, he declared:

In our zeal for political reform, we must be on our guard against making it an end. We seek it not to win rights but to fulfil duties to ourselves and our country. People have a distinct task to perform. Our youth will seek their own well-being. They will work in unity so that all the intellectual forces diffused among men may obtain the highest development in thought and action. With our youth inspired by such ideals, I look to see our country rise with renewed splendour to be a beacon light to all lands."

Political organisations

It was Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam who advised various political organisations like the Ceylon National Association, the Ceylon Reform League, the Chilaw Association, the Jaffna Youth Association to unite into one body and make a joint appeal for political reform. The Jaffna League alone joined the resultant Ceylon National Congress on a condition, namely, that in a reformed Legislative Council there should be a special seat for the Tamils in the Western Province.

However, the reformed Legislative Council of 1921 did not have a seat for a Tamil. The Legislative Council was to consist of 37 members of whom 14 were officials and 23 non-officials. Thus for the first time the officials were, in theory at least, a minority while representatives of various interests constituted a majority.

The bureaucratic form of government which had been in force from 1832 gave way in 1921 to representative government. The officials, however, still controlled the Executive although three non-officials were given places in it. Of the 23 non-official seats, 11 were elected on a territorial basis. The Western Province was given three seats, (Western Province Division A, Western Province Division B and the Town of Colombo) and each of the other provinces one.

Communal election was retained and Europeans were allowed to elect two representatives and Burghers one. To vote at these elections, as well as at the territorial elections, two qualifications were necessary - viz. literacy in English, Sinhalese or Tamil and an income of at least Rs. 50 per month. The Low Country Products Association (largely a Ceylonese body) and the Chamber of Commerce (a European organisation) were to have one elected representative each. Four members were nominated to represent communities that could not elect their representatives, and the Governor was to nominate three members to represent special interests.

At first sight these reforms will reveal that the non-official majority was more apparent than real. In an emergency, the Governor could count on the votes of the Burghers, Europeans and nominated non-officials. In addition to the 14 officials, the Government could depend on the support of the two European representatives, the Burgher members, the representative of the Chamber of Commerce and the seven nominated members.

Thus the Government could muster 25 votes in the Council, leaving the Ceylonese a small minority of 12. The officials still dominated the Council and representative government was more apparent than real.

The Low Country Products Association, with 11 voters, elected Sir Henry de Mel in 1921 while the Town of Colombo with an electorate of 4,325 elected Sir Henry de Mel's brother-in-law Sir James Pieris, unopposed. A vast number of people felt this to be the cause of Sir Ponnambalam's untimely resignation from being the first President of the newly formed Ceylon National Congress, to form which he had exerted so much effort, persuasion and energy for quite some time.

They all expected Sir Ponnambalam to be elected the Member for Colombo Town and Sir James Pieris, who was a prominent member of the Low Country Products Association, to be elected by that body. After he resigned from the Presidency of the Ceylon National Congress, he formed the Ceylon Tamil League mainly as a cultural organization for Tamil speaking people. By then he was an exhausted and tired genius, perhaps very disillusioned, yet one who understood human nature and became more forgiving and gracious.

Towards the end of 1923, he undertook a pilgrimage to visit the sacred shrines in India. In the midst of his devotions at Madurai in South India, he passed away on January 9, 1924, leaving behind him memories of a noble life well spent in the service of his country and its people.

It was an irony of fate that on February 16, 1924, Governor Manning, by a Proclamation announced that there shall be constituted a Constitutional Council of 12 Official members and 37 Unofficial members, of whom 29 shall be elected". Of the 29 Western Province got six (viz. the Colombo, Negombo and Kalutara Districts one each), Ceylon Tamils one and two for Colombo Town. The seats given to the Low Country Products Association and the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce in 1921 were abolished.

If this change of 16 elected in 1921 to 29 elected in 1923 was made known, Sir Ponnambalam may not have had an untimely death. that decision taken on December 19, 1923, when he was alive, was not dispatched and duly proclaimed by the Governor till February 16 1924.

A decision taken by the King with the advice of the Privy Council in London 20 days before Sir Ponnambalam's death was proclaimed in Ceylon at Nuwara Eliya 48 days after his death. It is tragic that his expectation of realizing his ideal was shattered. The disappointment may have been averted if not for this undue delay.

The day after his death, the Ceylon Daily News described him in an Editorial as "the most powerful personality in Ceylon" and the Times of London described him as a "founder of modern Ceylon".

Great admirer

The late D. R. Wijewardene from his student days, was a friend and great admirer of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam. On the occasion of Ceylon's Independence, he rose from his sick bed whilst in retirement in 1948 and in his Ceylon Daily News, reflecting on events over 32 years earlier. he wrote: "In those days, the national consciousness was dormant and there was nothing in the spirit of the times to stir it to life and activity.

Later, largely as a result of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam's work, the fire of the national soul was quickened. When he delivered his epoch making address on April 2, 1917 on "Our Political Needs" at the Masonic Hall, that leader of imperishable memory set in motion influences that were to change the history of this beloved country. It was both a starting point and a blueprint for the important constitutional changes that followed.

"The immediate outcome of that meeting was the formation of the Ceylon National Congress. It was then that the national movement which has brought Ceylon to the threshold of Independence received its stimulus. Public opinion began to speak for the first time with a firm tone."

This is an edited version written for the 151st birth anniversary of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam.


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