The glorious years of Jaffna were hijacked by Ponnambalam | Sunday Observer

The glorious years of Jaffna were hijacked by Ponnambalam

11 April, 2021

Between the mid-twenties and mid-thirties, Jaffna stood as a shining beacon, showing the path to a future filled with humane and liberal values aimed at bonding a divided nation into one united brotherhood, rising above castes and divisive creeds.

Jaffna held the future of the nation in the palm of its hands. Influenced, on the one hand by liberal-democratic values imparted in the schools run by American missionaries and, on the other, by the Gandhian ideals, the English-speaking Tamil youth took to non-violent radical politics with a passionate mission to give new directions to the nation struggling to be born.

This radical movement was led by the Youth Congress of Jaffna, known originally as the Students’ Congress, Jaffna. It was launched in the mid-twenties and wielded a powerful political clout in the peninsular during this decade. That decade proved to be the most glorious period for ethnic harmony not only in Jaffna but the whole of Sri Lanka.

Jaffna – not Colombo -- was the epicentre of dynamic radical politics in the mid-twenties and early thirties. Long before the Left took up the cry of independence, the English-speaking Tamil youth, influenced by the Gandhi-Nehruvian ideals, were the most powerful and energetic radicals who went all out for swaraj (full independence) without compromising one whit for piecemeal constitutional concessions.

The Youth Congress of Jaffna was the first to daringly reject the two evils that warped the peninsular politics of the North: communalism and casteism. It was the only time Jaffna had the courage to resist and run against the ingrained casteist forces that ruled Jaffna during feudal and colonial times. In fact, under the overwhelming influence of the Jaffna Youth Congress – the leading nationalistic and iconoclastic political force in Sri Lanka in the twenties and thirties – neither Vellalaism nor communalism had a place in Jaffna. G. G. Ponnambalam, the father of Tamil communalism, had to contest the first elections under the Donoughmore constitution in 1931 in Mannar and not in Jaffna – and he lost there too.

Radical politics

Jaffna was the magnetic centre that attracted all progressive forces. Colombo became the political capital of radical politics with the coming of the Left in the late thirties. Jaffna was the cosmopolitan centre that attracted iconic international figures like Gandhi (in 1927) Nehru (in 1931), Sarojini Naidu etc.

Jaffna was leading the nation with visionary and radical values, eschewing narrow communalism and casteism, in the mid-twenties and early thirties. Political discourses on critical national issues were stirring the Jaffna intellectuals and leading the nation into a new political consciousness.

It was time when the conservative elders of Jaffna in the Legislative Council were demanding communal representation as against territorial representation. Territorial representation was democratic but narrow communal representation would preserve the privileged position of the Tamils in the Legislative Council where they were virtually on par with the Sinhalese. Rising above communalism, the radical Jaffna youth rejected racial representation and demanded territorial representation.

In another bold move, the Jaffna Youth Congress rejected in 1931 the reformed Constitution recommended by the Donoughmore Commission, which devolved more powers to the elected representatives in the new State Council. They called for a boycott of the first elections under universal franchise recommended by the Donoughmore Commission.

The Sri Lankan reformists (a.k.a. as “memorialists” / paper tigers) were content to work within the framework of the new State Council which gave greater powers to the elected representatives, though the overriding powers controlling the state were still in the hands of the Governor. The radical Tamil youth were not content with a hemin – hemin (Governor Andrew Caldecott) path to independence. Inspired by Indian ideals they wanted independence without any further postponement, They demanded instant swaraj and the movement to the boycott the first elections were successful.

It was the first biggest blow to British imperialism.

Young and restless Philip Gunawardena, the Father of Sri Lankan Marxism, writing from London to the Searchlight (June 20-27, 1931) wrote: “During the last few years the Jaffna Students’ Congress was the only organisation in Ceylon that has been displaying political intelligence….. Jaffna has given the lead. They have forced their leaders to sound the bugle call for the great struggle for freedom – for immediate and complete independence from Imperialist Britain. Will the Sinhalese who always display supreme courage understand and fall in line? A tremendous struggle faces us. Boycott of the election was only a signal: It is the duty of every Sinhalese now to prepare the masses for the great struggle ahead.”

“Jaffna is the centre of the Tamil and the aggressive youth leagues,” wrote Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in a letter to his sister, Krishna Nehru Hutheesingh, in 1931. “We had a heavy program, motored all over the neighbourhood, and had a dip in the sea and swam towards India – she was only 16 miles across” (p. 94 – The Jaffna Youth Congress, Santasilan Kadirgamar.)

The leading light of the Jaffna Youth Congress was S. Handy Perinbanayagam (1899 – 1977), educationist, reformists, radical activist, pioneer of the independence movement and one of the most respected national figures. His national stature was summed up in the following paragraph: “When he retired as Principal of Kokuvil Hindu College his total years of contributory service was short by a year to entitle him to a pension. The Parliament of the day resolved by a Special Bill to set aside the pension regulations that prevented him receiving a pension. This was the tribute an overwhelmingly Sinhalese Parliament paid to him for his services to education. Such acompliment has been rarely paid to any other public man either before or since” (p. xvii – Ibid).

Jaffna Youth Congress

If the liberal and humanistic values of Perinbanayagam and the overarching spirit of nationalism of the Jaffna Youth Congress triumphed, instead of communalism and casteism of Jaffna, the history of post-independent Sri Lanka would not have been written in blood. But evolving history, which never moves in a straight line, deemed it otherwise.

Whether the Jaffna Youth Congress was an aberration that went against the grain of the Jaffna political culture and, therefore, had no chance of survival is another question that needs examining. The reality, however, is that the Youth Congress faded away in the late thirties and Jaffna was swamped by the rise and rise of Ponnambalamism – the force that turned the North away from the liberal mainstream politics into the narrow peninsular politics of mono-ethnic extremism.

Ponnambalamism, as it manifested in its diverse forms in the post-independent period, became the over-determining force that shattered centuries of communal harmony and peaceful co-existence. In his marathon speech to the State Council in 1939 Ponnambalam was the first to define the Tamil ideology that would guide the Jaffna Tamils into mono-ethnic extremism. He was also the first to provoke the first Sinhala-Tamil riots with his incendiary attacks on the Mahavamsa and Sinhala-Buddhist history and culture. His insensitive and provocative attacks demonising the Sinhalese and their history in Navalapitiya in June 1939 set the entire neighbourhood – Matale, Passara and Nuwara Eliya – on fire.

The overarching impact of G. G. Ponnambalam in laying the foundations and moulding the mono-ethnic ideology of the peninsular that rules North-South politics to this day has been totally under-reported and under-analysed.

In fact, hardly any attention is paid to this factor of Ponnambalamism because the main focus has shifted to blame the Sinhala-Buddhist for the worsening of the North-South inter-ethnic relations. Besides, those who tend to blame Northern politics focus more on S. J. V. Chelvanayakam because he broke away from his senior partner and established the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (toned down as Federal Party in English) which had as its hidden agenda the establishment of a separate state.. It is true that Tamil politics took a sharp turn when it took to separatism and violence under Chelvanayakam and his Vadukoddai Resolution which declared war on the nation. But what is overlooked is that the foundations for the incremental swing to Tamil extremism began with Ponnambalam.

In short, Ponnamabalam combined the three most critical factors that went to construct an anti-Sinhala-Buddhist ideology which exacerbated inter-ethnic relations in the post-independent era: 1. Demand for a disproportionate share of power. 2. The accusation of discrimination against the minority (in government jobs particularly) which exploited the basic fears of a minority in a majority community. 3 The provocative denigration and demonisation of Sinhala-Buddhist history and culture which created the Sinhala-Buddhist bogey-man.

This triad collectively served as the primary tools for Ponnambalam to mould and sustain an anti-Sinhala-Buddhist ideology and, through that, consolidate his leadership as “the sole representative of the Tamils” in Jaffna. Denigrating and downgrading the Sinhala-Buddhist culture of the majority was necessary to create the Sinhala-Buddhist bogeyman and hate politics - a political manoeuvre he gathered from his visits to Hitler’s Germany.

The Sinhala intellectuals returning home from Western universities brought in their baggage Marxism and liberalism. Ponnambalam brought racism. Downgrading the Sinhala-Buddhists was his way of proving the superiority of the Tamil race which, in turn, justified his claim to an equal share of power. To further boost his extremist demand he threw in the cry of discrimination – an accusation rejected by the British Soulbury Commission which heard his complaints for nine hours.

British period

Combined together these three incendiary factors were explosive enough to justify anti-Sinhala-Buddhist hatred among any minority group obsessed with the bogey of majoritarianism. As highlighted by The Hindu Organ, the leading publication in English of the Tamils of Jaffna in the British period, there were Tamils “who in season and out of season trot out the bogey of Sinhala domination”. (ibid- p. 56). Even a cursory glance will reveal that the overarching ideological offensive against Sri Lanka has been driven by the bogey of Sinhala-domination.

In the main, what developed as “Tamil nationalism”, “self-determination”, “and grievances”, “aspirations” “Eelamism” were various shades of anti-Sinhala-Buddhist Ponnambalamism which became the catalysing force that sustained and steered peninsular politics in the post-independent period.

Ponnambalam’s triad became the template for all anti-Sinhala-Buddhist politics. Even the intellectual and academic exercises operated within this framework. No one from the higher end of S. J. Tambiah’s Buddhism Betrayed? to the lower end of Dayan Jayatilleka’s diatribes against “armed Dharmapala”, deviated from the triad laid down for mono-ethnic extremism by Ponnambalam.

Their theories, models and formulas are all derived from the roots of the triad sown by Ponnambalam. It can be asserted without fear of contradiction that the entire anti-Sinhala-Buddhist intellectual mob consists of ditto-heads of Ponnambalam, regurgitating one or the other part of the triad raised by Ponnambalam against the Sinhala-Buddhists. They had nothing original in them.

All their intellectual exercises boil down to either justifying or expatiating on anyone of the three factors marketed by Ponnambalam, or a combination of all three. All Tamil politics developed and went wild based on this three-pronged attack. There is nothing in Tamil politics outside these three-pronged anti-Sinhala-Buddhist attacks.

Later the intellectuals embellished Ponnambalamism by adding Anagarika Dharmapala, S.W. R. D. Bandaranaike and “1956”, the Sangha, and everything associated with Sinhala-Buddhist culture for the violence generated by militant minorities that had destabilised the nation and retarded its progress.

So when Dayan Jayatilleka belittles Dharmapala he is doing exactly what Ponnambalam did in Navalapitiya – attacking the Sinhala-Buddhist base to reinforce Tamil extremism. He becomes a ditto-head of Ponnambalam. He fancies himself as a cultivated Gramscian when he is nothing but a servile ditto-head of Ponnambalam, serving even as a minister of a pro-Indian outfit.

The battle lines of coming events in the North and the South were drawn clearly in the thirties. The Navalapitiya riots provoked by Ponnambalam’s attack on Sinhala-Buddhist culture and history in June 1939 was the breaking point.

This event and his marathon speech in the State Council, defending “50-50”, made him the new icon of the Vellala middle-class in professions and the public service. By mid-thirties Ponnambalam had emerged as the leading champion of Tamil communalism in the north. It was Bandaranaike who led the counter-movement against Ponnambalam in the south in the latter half of the thirties.

These two key actors in the political arena crossed swords publicly over the provocative hate speech of Ponnambalam targeting the Sinhalese at Nawalapitiya. The Hindu Organ (p. 4 — June 22, 1939), the leading voice of Jaffna Hindus in the first decades of the 20th century, headlined this politically significant story featuring the two key protagonists of the Nawalapitiya incident. The headline said: “Mr. Ponnambalam’s N’pitiya speech” followed by the strapline beneath it: “Mr. Bandaranaike’s challenge.”

Ponnambalam’s confrontational, derisive, divisive, communal politics came under heavy fire not only from the Sinhalese but also from Jaffna which, in the twenties and thirties, was constructively promoting national unity by decrying communal politics. In its prophetic editorial titled, THE WRITING ON THE WALL, The Hindu Organ, (Ibid) said: “….A verbal bombshell dropped unwittingly by a Tamil politician at Nawalapitiya appears to have set the South on fire……..A slander against a community by an individual, though unintended, is inexcusable…. “

In a preceding paragraph it said: “Communal differences, though there existed hardly any during the time of the last generation of leaders, have now been multiplied and intensified, thanks to the hot-heads and irresponsible talkers in the country who care more for the plaudits of the mob than for the welfare of the people.

Ceylon today is seething with petty problems which have been created by thoughtless gas-bags, and which threaten to poison the peaceful conditions in the country….” It concluded by saying: “Let us hope that wise statesmanship will prevail among leaders who should realise the imperative need for the welding of the communities into a Ceylonese Community for the political and economic salvation of the country. The writing on the wall is too clear to be ignored.”

This editorial predicted the future accurately. After Ponnambalam launched his hate speeches and anti-Sinhala campaigns, loaded with the “insane fury” (Yalpana Vaipa Malai) of communalism, in the thirties, Jaffna politics never regained its balance. Instead it proceeded relentlessly rejecting multi-ethnic co-existence that was the only means for building lasting peace. The responsibility of steering Jaffna into irreversible and intransigent communalism that led to confrontations with the Sinhalese from time to time and finally to the Vadukoddai War should be placed squarely on the communal politics fathered by Ponnambalam.

The rise of Ponnambalam on the wave of communalism he whipped up marks the beginning of the end of communal harmony that prevailed in Sri Lanka throughout the preceding centuries.

Bandaranaike who grasped the hidden realities of Ponnambalam’s racist political agenda said, in inaugurating the branch of the Sinhala Maha Sabaha in Nawalapitiya shortly afterwards, that a statute of Ponnambalam should be erected in Nawalapitiya for helping him to open the branch of the Sinhala Maha Sabha.(ibid). In other words, he was saying that it was the provocative extremism of Ponnambalam that prompted the Sinhala people of Nawalapitiya to rally behind him. Clearly, one communalism was promoting the other. The Sinhala Maha Sabha which was established by Bandaranaike in 1936 did gather momentum in the thirties as a reaction to Ponnambalam’s virulent anti-Sinhala hate speeches.

Apart from recognising the legitimacy of the suppressed grassroot forces to regain their lost heritage the politics of Bandaranaike was shaped by what he called “the more and more rapacious demands of the Tamils” (p.240 — Jane Russell.) Here it should be noted that though the Tamil Mahajana Sabhai was established in 1921 the Sinhala Maha Jana Sabaha was not formed until 1936.

This again contradicts the popular notion that it was Bandaranaike who was exploiting Sinhala communalism. On the contrary, his movement was a logical response to the rising waves of anti-Sinhala communalism from the north that was exacerbating the North-South relations. The offensive launched by Ponnambalam was aggressive and virulent. Bandaranaike was the most prominent leader of the southern elite to pick up the challenge of Ponnambalam with a counter Sinhala movement.

Bandaranaike’s response, however, was measured and targeted the historical inaccuracies. He said: “It is not my intention to speak against the Tamils. I am only replying to Mr. Ponnamabalam.” Unlike Ponnambalam he was careful not to offend the Tamil community. And proceeded to analyse the hidden agenda of Ponnambalam. He said: “There is more in Ponnampalam’s (sic) speech than an ill-considered and thoughtless insult.

It was an attempt to prove that the Tamils had the chief claim to Ceylon, by saying that they (the Tamils) were the original settlers, that there was no pure race, such as the Sinhalese, and the Tamils were responsible for this culture, literature, etc.” Here Bandaranaike had identified, quite succinctly, the tactic of Ponnambalam to denigrate and demonise Sinhala-Buddhist history and culture for him to make disproportionate claims.

Sinhala Buddhist

He added: “Mr. Ponnambalam had said that the Sinhalese could not be trusted and they were unfair. He had forgotten that with the help of the Sinhalese he had obtained a scholarship and gone to England; that the Sinhalese majority had voted him to be an acting Minister and the pan-Sinhalese Board of Ministers had elected him to represent Ceylon at Singapore. Was this gross injustice the Sinhalese had done him?” Bandaranaike’s riposte has exposed the typical tactic of Tamils to exploit all the advantages available in the Sinhala-Buddhist state and accuse them of discrimination.

Ponnambalam’s communalism distorted historical perspectives and dragged peninsula to the extreme point of no return. Ponnambalam’s interpretation of history made them believe that the Jaffna Tamils were the founders, the makers and the breakers of Sri Lankan history. This was leading them into an unwarranted sense of superiority over the other communities. The distorted and arrogant version of history was partly the reason that boosted their mono-ethnic politics demanding “50-50” and finally to a separate state.

This also explains why the other two Tamil-speaking communities did not go down this hubristic path of Tamilian history which claimed that Sri Lanka came out of the womb of the pre-historic Tamils settlers. The Muslims and the Indian Tamils did not concoct history to glorify their past with myths.

Challenging Ponnambalam “to point out the nation that was free from mixture (“hybrids”) Bandaranaike said: “A large part of Sinhalese history had been created in their fight against Tamils.” Bandaranaike was focusing on accuracy compared to the farrago of historical inexactitudes uttered by Ponnambalam’s desperate bid to project himself as the new messiah of the Tamils. In most Western democracies hate speech is banned, particularly if it leads to violence. Ponnambalam got away with his hate speech that led to violence.

Ponnambalam was bent on pursuing rabid racism and ruthless casteism. He would not hesitate to exploit any issue to further his career with racist politics. For instance, when the thirties and the forties were still under the British colonial regime he never failed to blame everything that happened on “the Sinhala Government” and not the British masters who were in overall command.

Monkey Mason

Example 1: The Marxists who led the General Strike of 1947 — the biggest in colonial times — started marching from Kolonnawa to Colombo on June 5, 1947. Gov. Henry Monck-Mason Moore (Colvin R. de Silva called him” Monkey ” Mason Moore at a Galle Face meeting) rushed down from Kandy to deal with the emergency situation.

Admiral Sir. Geoffrey Layton, Commander-in-Chief of the island, too was in Colombo. The State Council passed the controversial Public Security Act hurriedly to meet the challenge of the biggest ever strike. The march ended with Police opening fire and killing V. Kandasamy, a clerical servant in the public service.

Kandasamy’s body was sent by the night mail to his relatives in Jaffna. When the body arrived at the Jaffna station next morning Ponnambalam was there to denounce it as an act of the Sinhala government killing a Tamil. The Marxists organisers of the strike were blaming the British and their “comprador bourgeoisie agents” for the death of Kandasamy. Predictably, Ponnambalam was demonising the Sinhala bogey-man at the Jaffna station.

Example 2: During the World War II the British introduced the cooperative system to control the distribution of food and essentials in the market place. Every suburb in the cities and villages had these cooperatives. The main objective of the cooperative movement was to prevent the black marketeers from cornering the scarce food stocks and exploiting the consumers. People were issued with coupons to collect their rations weekly and it worked effectively in delivering the essentials to the people. Ponnambalam, however, went before the Soulbury Commissioners and complained that it was a plot by the Sinhala government to undercut the Tamil traders.

Ponnambalam was unrelenting and implacable. Besides, anti-Sinhala politics was a tool he devised and honed to advance his career. With the decline of the Jaffna Tamil Youth leading anti-communal campaigns he had a field day with no opposition in the north.

In the South, Bandaranaike was reacting to Ponnambalam’s new wave of communal politics. Bandaranaike’s role was to unite the Sinhalese and champion the rights of the oppressed masses who were denied their political and cultural right under centuries of colonialism. He was not going to stop at the transfer of power from the foreign colonial elite to the local elite. The White Sahibs were leaving and the Brown Sahibs were taking over with no meaningful empowerment of the grassroots.

There was an urgent need for correcting the historical imbalances left behind by centuries of colonialism. It was for opposing the mono-ethnic extremism of the North and also for empowering the grassroot forces that he was labelled as an “opportunistic chauvinist.” Besides, in opposing Ponnambalam he had foreseen the threats of the rabid communal forces that were rising in the peninsular political culture — a violent force that would undermine the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation.

Ponnambalamism had been the main force that initially paved the path to end up in the current impasse. There is nothing in Tamil politics that is outside Ponnambalamism.

After Ponnambalam came the deluge. S. J. Tambiah, Neelan Tiruchelvam, Jehan Perera, Jayadeva Uyangoda, Dayan Jayatilleka et all are all ditto—heads of Ponnambalam.

In their ignorance, they all fancy themselves to be original theorists, analysts and political scientists, refusing to acknowledge that they are merely regurgitating Ponnambalamism – the original source of Tamil extremism that has misled them into a political dead-end. It is not too late even now to recognise the reality that all anti-Sinhala-Buddhist intellectuals are, in one form or another, nothing but plain “Ponnambalayas”.