Delays About Dealing With Tamil Grievances

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Apr 6 2021
Columns Delays About Dealing With Tamil Grievances

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

It was then from a position of presumed strength that Jayewardene decided, after the business of the By-elections was over, to summon at last the all-party conference on the Tamil issue that had been pledged in 1977.  The reason he gave for his refusal to hold it then still obtained, namely that a number of parties had failed to win representation in Parliament. But doubtless by now he was openly prepared to acknowledge that Parliament was neither relevant to the issue nor representative of the population at large. Correspondingly the executive was so powerful now that it may have seemed that all parties would have no option but to respond positively to his call if they were to hope to have any further impact on the situation.

But before I go on to consider the manner in which JR now dealt with the ethnic question, I should go back and look at what he had done previously. For whereas Tamils all over the country had welcomed the results of the 1977 Election, within a few years JR was seen as an inveterate enemy of Tamil aspirations, just as he had seemed at the beginning of his career, and indeed right through until the Bandaranaike Government of the seventies had driven Tamils back to the UNP even though the man who had stood against their aspirations in the fifties and the sixties was now its leader.

Getting the Tamil vote

JR in 1977 worked hard at getting the Tamil vote by registering their grievances and promising to address them. But after he won the Election so conclusively, he seems to have felt that it was not necessary to consult the Tamils systematically about what needed to be done and that he could deal with their problems himself. And in some areas he certainly did much to alleviate grievances. But it was through a paternalistic approach, and this did nothing to satisfy the feeling that Tamils should not be subject to the whims of successive Sinhala Governments. 

Having won over to his Government the representative of the Tamils of the hill country, the descendants of Indian labour brought over by the British, JR moved towards giving them citizenship which had been denied to great numbers earlier. And in effect he put a stop to the ongoing programme, under the Sirima Shastri Pact signed when Sirima Bandaranaike had been Prime Minister in the sixties, to repatriate to India, even though they had been born in Ceylon, those who had not obtained citizenship. Secondly, JR extended the right to communicate in their own language with Government to Tamils in the whole country, not just those in the North and East.

Such measures were not enough however, to satisfy the Tamils of the North. And in the area in which JR had addressed a particular concern of the North, he soon reversed direction. 

This was with regard to what the UNP in its manifesto had registered as one of the main causes for Tamil anger. The previous Government had introduced a policy of standardisation with regard to admissions to university which had hit the Tamils of Jaffna very hard. The policy had not been intended as racist, but rather to provide more opportunities to the under privileged, and indeed Tamil politicians from the East and the minor districts of the North felt their constituents had benefited. And the hardest hit by this policy were the youngsters of Colombo.

But those in the capital had other opportunities, whereas in Jaffna education had been a cherished goal and the limitation of possibilities to obtain professional qualifications hit hard. So JR won much favour when he abolished standardisation. But after a couple of years of conducting university admissions on merit alone, that is on comparison of marks obtained at the final school public examination, Government again changed tack.

For it had been observed that the number of Tamils admitted to university had shot up, in the case of the most sought after subjects to even more disproportionate levels than before standardisation. Complaints from the Sinhalese in rural areas that had benefited from that practice became intense and Parliamentarians from such areas who agitated were championed by Cyril Mathew. He declared in Parliament that Tamil examiners inflated the marks of students they assessed, but instead of looking into Mathew’s allegations it changed the system again, to a system of district quotas which in effect amounted to the acceptance of Mathew’s charges.

Sense of betrayal

Of course some poorer Tamil district benefited, but Jaffna was again hit hard. And whereas the introduction of standardisation had been on egalitarian principles, this change was in response to an allegation of cheating that was deeply resented by the vast majority of Tamils. The resultant sense of betrayal had a lot to do with the increase in militancy that ensued amongst the younger generation in the North.

So though Jayewardene had won over not only Thondaman, who represented the Tamils of the hill country, but also a couple of Eastern Tamil politicians, in the North he made no headway. Elsewhere politicians could claim to be more concerned about general social deprivation, but in Jaffna the specific Tamil cause and its crusade for more abstract rights was what counted. In addition, any attempt to break ranks in the North would have led far more definitely than in other parts of the country to brutal punishment by the more militant adherents of the cause who already had greater influence there. 

JR realised then that he was not likely to find support amongst Members of Parliament from the Northern Province. His solution was typical, for what he did was deal rather with Tamils from Colombo who, detached from Jaffna and more cosmopolitan in their outlook, would he thought subscribe to his own outlook. 

Amirthalingam, who was now the leader of the TULF, and indeed of the opposition in Parliament, had his roots in Jaffna and brought his family up there, in contrast to his predecessor Chelvanayakam who was a lawyer from Colombo. But Chelvanayakam’s commitment to the cause had never been doubted, and his son who was actively interested in politics, S. Chandrahasan, though educated in Colombo, was considered as belonging to the more radical wing of the party. 

More to Jayewardene’s taste was Chelvanayakam’s son-in-law, A.J. Wilson, a political scientist who had emigrated to Canada during the previous regime. He therefore, became Jayewardene’s link to the Tamils, and the chief negotiator on their behalf, though this was in the course of visits back to Sri Lanka since he did not give up his position at the University of New Brunswick. And in those days he was a fervent admirer, producing a very superficial book about the new Constitution termed The Gaullist System in Asia, which sedulously avoided examining inconsistencies which JR had perpetrated in his executive presidential system, which was very different from de Gaulle’s.

Wilson’s principal associate in the discussions with JR was Neelan Tiruchelvam, son of the Federal Party Senator who had been in Dudley Senanayake’s last Cabinet. The younger Tiruchelvam had received much of his education abroad and was married to a Muslim, and had few connections with Jaffna. Officially both he and Wilson were attached to the TULF but it was typical of Jayewardene’s style that they should have represented the Tamils in dialogue with him, while those elected to Parliament from the North were ignored.

The situation there had got much more serious in the very first years of his tenure. Firstly, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, there was an orgy of post-Election violence in 1977, much of which was directed against Tamils, and in particular those on the estates. Though some held adherents of the new Government responsible, others pointed their fingers at the defeated Government, so one cannot with any certainty to attribute responsibility to any particular force. But even though Colombo itself had been relatively unscathed and the makers of opinion there continued to be optimistic about the new Government, the feeling arose amongst Tamils in areas where the damage had been severe that there was no security for them except amongst their own.

Perhaps because of suspicions roused by these incidents, perhaps because of the failure to summon the promised conference, perhaps because of the repressive and provocative actions of some branches of the Government while Jayewardene was spinning out his discussions with Wilson and Tiruchelvam, younger Tamils in the North who had supported the TULF at the Election began to turn more forcefully to militant action. At first it was primarily a question of dealing with traitors, as the member of Parliament from the East who defected was termed. As time passed however, confrontation with the armed forces began to escalate.

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Apr 6 2021

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