Misinterpreted statesman | Daily News

Misinterpreted statesman

S J V Chelvanayakam was born on March 31, 1898, and departed his life on April 26, 1977. Many of us think that Chelvanayakam was the person who raised the federal cry in Sri Lanka.

The truth is that the Sinhala leaders placed the federal issue long before Chelvanayakam did. The South had been incessantly propagating the concept of federalism since 1925 but the North wanted a unitary state. Today, the irony is that the Tamils want federalism while the Sinhalese look at it with suspicion that federation is a ploy to separation.

In 1925, S W R D Bandaranaike founded a political party known as ‘Progressive National Party’. Bandaranaike introduced the federal concept for the first time into the mainstream of political life of Ceylon.

He proclaimed that ‘in view of the existing differences among the people of our country, the only solution of the problem will be the adoption of a federal system of government’. He opined that according to his type of federation, each government, to a greater or lesser extent must be limited to its own sphere of action and each must within that sphere, be independent of others. Certain matters, for instance, foreign affairs, defence and tariffs could be within the exclusive sphere of the central government. In respect of the other matters each regional government had to manage its own affairs.

Racial differences

Bandaranaike declared that ‘the majority of us feel that in view of the local conditions, particularly racial differences, the most satisfactory method to minimize and gradually remove such differences is a federal system of Government. Such a system of Government has in other countries particularly in Switzerland, tended national unity’.

The Kandyan National Assembly led by A Godamune and from C E Corea, Dr. T B Kobbekaduwa, A F Molamure and P B Ratnayake, a doughty Ceylonese patriot of that time, and several others formed the Kandyan National Assembly in 1925. This Assembly demanded that the Kandyans be recognized as a separate distinct community. However, by 1927 the Kandyans burgeoned their demand to a federal form of government.

They put forward a federal system on the basis of three federal units, Kandyan Provinces as one unit for the Kandyan Sinhalese, one unit for the Tamils, comprising Northern and Eastern Provinces and the third one for the Low Country Sinhalese. The faith in the federal form of government as a solution remained the bedrock of their political thinking for more than a decade.

They put forward the federal concept at the Donoughmore Commission. Though the Commission rejected it, they pursued their object upto the Soulbury Commission where they renewed their demand for three self-governing regional councils based on federal concept.

When Bandaranaike was propagating the lofty principles of federalism and the Kandyan National Assembly was demanding for a federal form of government, the Tamils were opposing the idea of federalism. The Tamils preferred some kind of arrangement on the ground of representation within the frame of a unitary character.

Unitary system of government

The prominent members of Jaffna Youth Congress: Sabapathy Kulendran, (Bishop of Jaffna), S R Kanaganayagam (Senator), C Subramaniam (Principal, Skanda Varodaya College) S Nadesan (Senator), P Nagaligam (Senator), A E Tamber (Principal, Central College), Prof. C Suntharalingam and many other distinguished persons, forming a formidable association of the Tamils, preferred a unitary system of government.

Ponnambalam mooted out the fifty-fifty demand - a balanced representation within the unitary character of the Constitution. In 1937, when the Reform for the Constitution was considered, Ponnambalam advanced this formula before the Governor, Sir Andrew Caldecott, and later before Soulbury Commission in 1944. The Tamil Congress was founded in 1944 just before the arrival of the Soulbury Commission to make his fifty-fifty demand before the Commission. Chelvanayakam was the Deputy Leader of the Tamil Congress. Ponnambalam never supported a federal system of government but adopted a policy of ‘responsive co-operation’ within a framework of a unitary system.

A clerk was employed by Tamil Congress to assist Ponnambalam and Chelvanayakam of the Tamil Congress in the preparation of the memorandum for fifty fifty demand to be submitted to the Commission. A young undergraduate from the University College, Peradeniya, Mylvaganam Nagarathinam was selected for this post.

Young Nagarathinam felt that the fifty-fifty demand within a unitary system would not help the minorities. He thought of a federal system that was in Switzerland. Without the knowledge of the leaders of the Tamil Congress, he forwarded a memorandum on the basis of federal system for Ceylon. His memorandum received great publicity in the newspapers and Ponnambalam sent word to Nagarathinam to appear before him immediately. Nagarathinam appeared before the Congress Supremo Ponnambalam, Deputy Chelvanayakam and the Secretary S. Sivsubrmaniam.

They deprecated the federal system as a eunuch formula. Ponnambalam gave him a dressing down and terminated his services summarily.

Mylvaganam Nagarathinam went before the Commission on January 30, 1945, and presented his federal formula. Chelvanayakam broke away from the Tamil Congress and he inaugurated the Federal Party on December 18, 1949, to ‘establish an autonomous Tamil unit on a linguistic basis within a framework of a federal union of Ceylon’. Though, he formed the Federal Party to advocate a federal formula, the Tamil-speaking people did not support the federal formula of Chelvanayakam.

Sinhala Only Act

The General Elections were held in 1952, about three years after the Federal Party was formed. Chelvanayakam was defeated at Kankesanthurai, not by a Tamil Congress Candidate but by a United National Party Candidate, S. Natesan, son-in-law of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan. The Federal Party fielded seven candidates but two only managed to win the seats, namely Kopay by Vanniyasingham and Trincomalee by S. Sivapalan. The Tamils were not swayed away then by federalism.

The language problem was gathering momentum in the year 1956. Bandaranaike wanted Sinhala Only within twenty-four hours. The UNP too adopted Sinhala Only at its Party Conference held at the Kelaniya Convention.

The Sinhala Only Act projected the Federal Party in the eyes of the Tamils as the only party that was safeguarding the interests of the Tamils. It was the Sinhala Only Act and not the federal concept that made the Tamil people feel the political importance of the Federal Party. It gave ten parliamentary seats to the Federal Party at the General Elections of 1956. Their disastrous defeat at the Elections of 1952 turned out to be a glorious political upsurge at the Elections of 1956.

The policy of ‘one country, one nation’ will be a futile exercise if one fails to develop a solution to satisfy the multi-ethnic groups of Sri Lanka as there are three main groups, Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims who are distinct, separate, inassimilable and communally conscious people. The aspirations of any one community cannot be suppressed whether by way of force, democratic manipulations or parliamentary mechanisms.

For a nation state, we must create a healthy political atmosphere to promote a satisfactory Sinhalese-Tamil-Muslim partnership in the field of political power sharing. We have past historic evidence of son cementing his father alive for the seat of power. We have records of inviting foreign powers to defeat one’s brother or another foreign power to get rid of the foreign power so installed. Let us not continue this disastrous game. Power sharing is the only solution for all the ills of Sri Lanka. It could only be done effectively and safely through federalism as advocated by Chelvanayakam.

In the prophetic words of Bandaranaike there can be “a thousand and one objections against the system, but when the objections are dissipated, some form of Federal Government will be the only solution”.

Tamils earnestly hope that the New Constitution would accommodate the prophetic sentiment of SWRD Bandaranaike. 


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