J R and the Erosion Of Democracy: Carrying on as Before

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM May 4 2021

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha 

The dance of deliberate violence continued after the storm of 1981 had abated. Though Neville Fernando was sacrificed, doubtless to keep India happy, more senior individuals who were also deemed complicit were not sanctioned. So the Junior Minister for Regional Development G. V. Punchinilame, member for the Ratnapura constituency where the violence had been especially bad and where indeed the Indian had been killed, was removed from his post but was soon accommodated elsewhere. 

No one else was affected, and Mathew himself continued to enjoy as much influence as before and blithely issued more and more pamphlets describing the historical rights of the Sinhalese to the Northern and Eastern Provinces. These were particularly strong on the depredations of the Tamils and the destruction they had wrought on Buddhist shrines in these areas, always an emotive issue. 

And nothing was done with regard to other Tamil grievances. An attempt to provide some relief with regard to entry to university proved abortive. The Chairman of the University Grants Commission Stanley Kalpage announced that he had held lengthy discussions on the subject with the President who had, at the time Ranil Wickremesinghe was made Minister of Education, hived off Higher Education and included it amongst the many ministries he was supposed to handle himself. 

Between them they had reached the momentous decision that from the following year the merit quota for admission would be increased to fifty per cent, and the quota for individual districts reduced and that for underprivileged districts abolished altogether. Immediately however there were heated protests from Government back benchers, and the adjustment was swiftly and silently forgotten and the prevailing system continued. Meanwhile JR made sure that the Jaffna District Council could not function, by the simple expedient of not providing it with funds to do any development work. 

The District Minister he had appointed, an amiable man from the North West Province called U B Wijekoon, was not prepared to take any initiative together with the TULF members who soon felt the whole exercise had been useless. 

Increased terrorist activity 

As a result of the bitterness engendered over the Election, the strength of the younger groups which were now committed to aggressive terrorist activity increased apace. And the TULF had nothing to show for their participation in the Election so that the following year, when the militants ordered them not to participate in the local Government Elections that were conducted, they had no option but to obey. 

They were perhaps hoping to show their strength again in the Parliamentary Election that was due in 1983. The parties opposed to them which still subscribed to the democratic process hoped to make their own mark then. And it is possible some of the militants might have opted to make clear the support they commanded by entering into the fray. But all those plans came to naught with the referendum. And it was only then, after also the selective byeelections to affirm himself in the South, that JR once again turned his mind to the Tamil question, to call the all party-conference I mentioned above. But before looking at what happened when JR summoned an allparty conference on the Tamil question, I need to look first at the position of the TULF at the time. 

For it had found itself in an embarrassing position when the referendum kept the existing Parliament in place for another six years. One of its parliamentarians had died the previous year and, lulled perhaps into security during the Presidential Election by Jayawardene’s hints of an immediate General Election, its leaders had agreed to fill the vacancy by nominating a self-confessed terrorist called Kuttimani who was in jail at the time awaiting trial. 

It was the militant wing of the party, of which Chelvanayakam’s son Chandrahasan was the most prominent exponent at the time, that had pressed for the nomination, perhaps to focus attention on Tamil grievances at a time when there were many other political manoeuvres going on that distracted attention from them, and when indeed the Tamil elite was in general seen to support Jayawardene. Conversely, the leadership of the party did not seem especially upset when the Government refused to let Kuttimani out of jail to take his seat and may have thought that the seat could suitably enough be left vacant for the few months that were left till the next Election was due. 

At this point however the Government sprang the referendum on them. The nomination of Kuttimani certainly provided potent propaganda material for the UNP during the referendum campaign, at any rate in the south where it was used against the rest of the opposition inasmuch as the TULF was associated with it in the campaign. Perhaps because of the embarrassment this caused, after the referendum the TULF swung to the other extreme and, though Chandrahasan now staked his own claims, it instead nominated Neelan Tiruchelvam who was of course seen, and not only by the militants, as associated with Jayawardene to a considerable extent. 

Tiruchelvam himself was in an unfortunate position since he had obviously been critical of the whole system of filling vacancies by nomination. However it was certainly important to him and his view of the cause for which he stood to keep Chandrahasan out of parliament; in any case, as his close associates put it, he had achieved one of his major ambitions and he had too a fallback position in that he could resign when the original term of Parliament expired. 

Foolishly no one in the TULF took advantage of the fifth amendment to the constitution to resign and promote bye-elections in the North at the time the seventeen bye-elections were held in the rest of the country. On the one hand of course this might have presented them with problems, in that the militant youth were now in a much stronger position than before and might well have been able to stop them from standing: in May for instance they were compelled to withdraw their candidates for local Elections under pressure from the militants to boycott these, which in the light of their ability to withstand similar pressures in 1981 with regard to the District Council Elections makes clear the shifting balance of power in the north. 

In addition of course it might well have seemed to them that they had all the time in the world, to resign perhaps all together in July after the term for which they had originally been elected had expired. This they might have thought would be best, so as to focus attention on the situation by a general action and concentrate it on future strategies in the light of the Government’s apparently unshakeable determination to repudiate their requests for meaningful devolution. 

Opposition doesn’t turn up 

The sixth anniversary of the Election of 1977 fell on 22 July. JR summoned his conference for the week previous to that. But not one single opposition party turned up, only his own UNP and Thondaman’s CWC. The absence of the others made it clear that no one was willing to continue playing a game in which the President not only held ail the cards, but felt at liberty to change the rules as and when he required. Jayawardene however had set his heart on the conference now, having forgotten about it for six long years despite his manifesto pledge, and he was not prepared to give in easily.

 He announced the postponement of the conference for a week. In the days that followed he made no mention of the political solution he envisaged or the proposals he would put forward, as had been requested by the other parties. Their position was that, since the problem had been exacerbated by him, he should make suggestions which they were prepared to examine. But his technique throughout had been, having made clear his own continuing absolute power, to encourage them to put forward proposals from their positions of weakness which he could then modify as seemed suitable to him. 

For the moment that technique seemed to have failed; aware of their limited strengths the others were not prepared to participate until he placed an agenda before them for discussion. Jayawardene however saw no reason to alter his approach. It had after all brought him to a position of unparalleled power in what had hitherto seemed a modern democratic state. In the days that followed therefore all that seemed necessary to him no doubt was the mixture as before, but in still stronger measure. For, given his capacity for resentment, it is probable that his irritation at the contempt evinced for his initiative prompted what happened, designed to intimidate as he had so successfully done in the past.

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM May 4 2021

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