Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home  Tamils - a Trans State Nation > The Tamil Heritage > Culture of the Tamils >  International Tamil Conferences on Tamil Studies> First International Tamil Conference Seminar > Tamils' Contribution to Political Development of Ceylon

First International Tamil Conference - Seminar
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
18 - 23 April 1966

The Contribution of some leading Ceylon Tamils
to the Constitutional and Political Development of Ceylon
during the 19th and 20th centuries

A. Jeyaratnam Wilson

[Note: The writer of this paper owes a debt to Mr. B. E. St. J. Bastiampillai of the Department of History University of Ceylon for placing at his disposal the notes that he had made from the documents al the Public Record Office on Sir Muthu Coomaraswamy and to Mr. James T. Rutnam for supplying him with a number of important unpublished documents relating to Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam The writer is also greatly indebted to Mr. Rutnam for the generosity with which he placed both his time and library at his disposal to enable him to collect information on Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam The conversations he had with Mr. Rutnam were particularly illuminating and were specially helpful in his attempts to find the answer to the question as to why Arunachalam chose to leave the Ceylon National Congress in 1921]

bullet Introduction - the period from the second half of the nineteenth century to a little beyond the first quarter of the twentieth, was in a sense dominated by three members of a distinguished family...
bullet Muthu Coomaraswamy - a man of some inexplicable ambivalence...
bullet Ponnambalam Ramanathan - role as a nationalist was more positive than that of his uncle...
bullet Ceylon National Congress and the Donoughmore Reforms...
bullet Ponnambalam Arunachalam - had a wider awareness of the problems of the underprivileged.....
bullet G.G.Ponnambalam and 'balanced representation',,,
bullet S.J.V. Chelvanayagam , the Tamil 'homeland' and Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi...
bullet Footnotes



Introduction - the period from the second half of the nineteenth century to a little beyond the first quarter of the twentieth, was in a sense dominated by three members of a distinguished family..

The period from the second half of the nineteenth century to a little beyond the first quarter of the twentieth was in a sense dominated by three members of a distinguished Ceylon Tamil family, in so far as the nationalist movement of this country was concerned.

Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy the uncle was a leading member of the Unofficial Group while he served as a member of the legislative Council and displayed fearlessness and qualities of leadership in the demands that he put forward to the Colonial Office for the improvement of the position and the increase of the powers of the Unofficial Members of the Legislative Council.

His two nephews, Ponnambalam Ramanathan and Ponnambalam Arunachalam after distinguishing themselves in their respective careers in the Island's public services became respected leaders of the nationalist movement in the Island. All three thought of themselves as Ceylonese than as members of their own community and they were in their turn accepted as national leaders by all members of the majority community in the Island, the Sinhalese. It was rare for a single family during living memory to have contributed so unsparingly and courageously to the national life of the country especially in times when it was the Vogue to imitate the ruler and panegyrise the virtues of their supposedly benign rule.



Muthu Coomaraswamy - a man of some inexplicable ambivalence...

Muthu Coomaraswamy having qualified as a barrister from Lincoln's Inn served for a short period as an officer of the Crown and was then nominated as an Unofficial Member of the Legislative Council in succession to his kinsman, Edirimanasinghe Mudaliyar. Of his period as member of the Council, Weinman remarks: "He devoted practically  his whole life to the service of his country, and was unsparing in his labours. There were few men who took such a keen and active interest in public affairs."(1)

As an Unofficial Member, Muttu Coomaraswamy studied assiduously all matters that came up for consideration before the Legislative Council especially from the Government sector. In representations he personally made in London to W. R. Malcolm of the Colonial Office, he made a number of interesting demands which he felt would help Unofficial Members considerably in the execution of their duties. (2)

It was his view that Unofficial Members of the Legislative Council should be given the right to inspect all public works for which they were called upon to vote large sums of money annually instead of having to rely solely on official reports and the recommendations of civil servants, mostly Englishmen. Unofficial Members should he paid travelling allowances on the same basis as members of the Executive Council (all of whom were English officials) so that they could go on tours of inspection during the legislative recess and make their own decisions on the utility of the works contemplated and the progress that was being made on those public works that had already been sanctioned by the Legislative Council.

Besides, Unofficial Members should be allowed a clerk each so that this might enable them to obtain information relating to their duties as well as on matters connected with the expenditure of public money. The Secretary of State should not give his approval for expenditure on any public scheme before the views of the Unofficial Members had been obtained. There would be no purpose, Coomaraswamy argued, in the Governor seeking the views of the Legislative Council once he had obtained sanction from the Secretary of State, for he could then carry through his proposals with the aid of the Official majority regard less of the views that might be expressed by the Unofficial Members.

Coomaraswamy's arguments for putting forward these claims were in the main due to the fact that the officers who made the requests for funds sometimes left the Colony before the works were completed and before their worth could be established. In fact in some instances these works had been found to be defective hut at that stage responsibility could not be fixed as the officers concerned were no longer available to answer for their conduct.

Coomaraswamy further opposed the system of members of the Legislative Council being reappointed on the assumption of office of a new Governor. He wished that the old system of the Secretary of State for the Colonies making the appointment be re-introduced, This would then not make it obvious that the Members of the Legislative Council were wholly dependent on the Governor for their continuance in office.

Coomaraswamy had definite views on what he regarded should be the proper functions of the Legislature. The only useful work that Unofficial Members at that state could undertake in the Council, he protested, was to discuss subjects or to raise questions and obtain replies from the Official Members. Attempts he said were now being made to prevent discussions of certain subjects on an interpretation of one of the Rules (No. XVI) contained in the Royal Instructions on the ground that such discussion could lead to the disbursement of public money which right was not, the colonial authorities held, within the province of Unofficial Members. This had resulted in Unofficial Members being stripped of all real power. The Colonial Office, Coomaraswamy protested, should give a more liberal interpretation to this rule so that Unofficial Members could perform their duties more satisfactorily.

The sessions of the Legislative Council, Coomaraswamy suggested should be of a longer duration than at present. for a period of six months and not three months. At the time, legislation tended to be "hurried and confused" and it was impossible for Unofficial Members to exercise proper supervision over the administration. Hence he requested that the sessions of the Council should commence in July and not in October. It was also desirable, he said that if a matter of urgent importance had to be discussed at any time, meeting of the Legislative Council should he convened on a requisition signed by 3 or 4 members.

What was more significant was Coomaraswamy's demand that an Unofficial Member should from time to time be appointed to any vacancy that might occur in the centre of government and policy-framing, the Executive Council. Such a practice he felt would enable the Unofficial side to obtain some training in the methods of government. Coomaraswamy at this time had no conception of a demand for responsible government that might be made in the future. But he was laying the basis for the demand that was to make itself felt in the early twentieth century, namely that the Ceylonese members of the Legislative Council should be afforded the opportunity of acquainting themselves with the machinery of administration so that in due course they might be equipped to administer their own affairs.

It was Coomaraswamy's view that the practice whereby framework legislation was passed by the Legislative Council and the detailed rules enacted by the Executive Council should be dropped. This, he said, had been carried to excess resulting in the Executive Council usurping the function of the legislature. All legislation should therefore, he insisted, be enacted by Legislative Council except in routine matters and exceptional cases.

Coomaraswamy's proposals were not viewed with any degree of sympathy by the Colonial Office in London or the Colonial authorities in Ceylon. Cox, the Chief Clerk in the Colonial Office in London. minuted on 7th March 1875 rather cynically that Coomaraswamy's s suggestions were "all with a view to make his position as an Unofficial Member of Council more important'. (3).

Elsewhere Cox remarked that Coomaraswamy was anxious for an appointment but that he would not "favour him in any official position in Ceylon and especially on the Bench". (4) W. R. Malcolm, the Assistant Secretary at the Colonial Office to whom Coomaraswamy had made his representation went so far as to hint that Coomaraswamy might abandon hits demands if he was appointed either to the Supreme Court or the Executive Council. (5)

All that was achieved was a willingness on the part of the colonial authorities to extend the title "Honourable" to members of the Legislative Council. This had been one of Coomaraswamy's minor demands. On 6th June 1875, the Secretary of State in a confidential communication to the Governor remarked that he could not see anything that required special notice in the proposals that Coomaraswamy had put forward. (6) The fact of the matter was that these demands had not been presented through any organised group or representative association. As such they could he regarded only as the views of an individual, not even as those of the Unofficial Group in the Legislative Council.

In the Legislative Council, Coomaraswamy displayed a great deal of interest in matters connected with local questions. In 1868-1869, he protested against the attempts of the Governor to disallow an amendment he had moved to the Customs Ordinance (7) The Governor had interpreted this as an attempt on the part of the Member to interfere with revenue matters which the Governor held was outside the province of an Unofficial Member.

In the eighteen-seventies Coomaraswamy opposed the system of ministers of the Church of England and the Dutch Presbyterian Church being paid by grants from the revenue of the Colony. There was feeling against the practice. Coomaraswamy in a resolution moved the discontinuance of tile ecclesiastical vote. He argued from a nationalist standpoint that it was "impolitic, unjust and, I must even say, unchristian. to spend any portion of the taxes obtained from Buddhists, Mohammedans and Hindus for the maintenance of the churches and ministers of one section of Christians.' (8)

Though the resolution did not succeed, the authorities were mindful of the public dissatisfaction and in a few years these grants to religious bodies were withdrawn. (9) In regard to judicial matters too which at that time had caused some controversy, Coomaraswamy made his stand on principle. He took up the broad position that the Queen's Advocate (the chief law officer of the Crown) should not be allowed the right of private practice.

When a vote for the salaries to be given to two additional clerks for the Queen's Advocate came up, he objected to the vote on various grounds, in particular that it was wrong for the Queen's Advocate to supervise the work of judges before whom he also appeared as a "private practitioner . (10) The amendment, however, failed but in later years, the principle was accepted of the law officer of the Crown not appearing in the courts in a non-official capacity.

Coomaraswamy might be described all in all as a man of some inexplicable ambivalence. He was a friend of Lord Houghton, Palmerston and Disraeli. When he was in London, Monkton Milnes took him under his wing and introduced him to the best of English society. Jowett of Balliol and Whewell of Trinity (Cambridge) took an interest in him. He was a guest at Clivedon and was duly pictured in the "Illustrated London News". He translated a Tamil play and dedicated it to Earl Carnarvon and in turn was reputed to have been the character named Kusinara in Disraeli's unfinished novel which was published after Disraeli's death in the Times. He was the first Ceylon Tamil to be knighted. (11)

Yet, despite his close association with the imperial centres of British high society, he proved to be also a man of distinct eastern patriotism. He was the first non-Christian Asiatic to be called to the English Bar. He was instrumental in getting the Inns of Court in England opened to all the Asian subjects of the British Empire. In the Legislative Council' as his efforts indicate he was not content to remain either a passive spectator or a supporter of the colonial administration. He was a stern critic of the Governor and the European Officials who were members of the Legislative Council. His reputation as a nationalist received due recognition when in 1875 the Commander of a Japanese warship which entered Colombo harbour while on a world cruise visited him on the orders of the Japanese Emperor so that he might pay his respects to one who was regarded as one of the leading nationalists in the country.' (12)

When Coomaraswamy died in 1879, Ferguson of the Ceylon server wrote that he was 'the foremost man of the twenty millions or more of the Dravidian race". (13)



Ponnambalam Ramanathan - role as a nationalist was more positive than that of his uncle...

Coomaraswamy was succeeded by his nephew Ramanathan who continued in Council as an Unofficial Member till he was appointed to the post of Solicitor-General by the Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1892. Ramanathan's role as a nationalist was more positive than that of his uncle. He was described as a "keen and merciless critic" of the Government.

Despite the fact that he was only twenty-eight when he entered the Legislative Council, Ramanathan interested himself in the political and constitutional problems of his day. During this first phase. he claimed that he had made his acquaintance with all the Governors and their Colonial Secretaries and that both he and his colleagues were given every opportunity by these people to study the documents relating to the subjects that came up for discussion before the Legislative Council. (14)

Ramanathan was one of those instrumental in helping in the formation of the Ceylon National Association during the years 1885 - 1890 (15) This Association was the first of its kind to show an interest in the constitutional problem as well as in matters that came up for discussion in the Legislative Council. It was one of two influential organisations, the other being the Ceylon Reform League, which helped to bring into existence the Ceylon National Congress 1919. (16)

From 1892 to 1894 and then from 1896 to 1907, Ramanathan having accepted the post of Solicitor-General under the colonial administration ceased to be a member of the legislature. For a brief period from 1894 to 1896 he functioned as acting Attorney-General and by virtue of his office functioned as an Official Member of the Legislative Council. In 1907, he retired from the service of the Crown at the age of fifty-six.

In 1911 Ramanathan successfully contested an eminent Sinhalese man of affairs, Dr. (later Sir) Marcus Fernando for the newly created seat for the "Educated Ceylonese". His victory was evidence of the confidence that the majority community, which formed the majority in this special electorate, had in his qualities and capabilities as a national leader. He held this seat till 1920 when it was abolished as a result of the introduction of a new Constitution. This period was the most eventful in Ramanathan's career as a Ceylonese statesman and a legislator. He was now the elected representative of the Ceylonese intelligentsia.

The years 1915-16 were critical for the Sinhalese people because of communal disturbances that broke out between them and the Muslims. These disturbances had nationalistic undertones as some of the leading Sinhalese nationalists of the day became suspect in the eyes of the colonial authorities. It fell to Ramanathan to espouse their cause in the legislature and to expose the excesses of the military authorities. He did this with such intrepidity and thoroughness that it won for him the lasting gratitude of every Sinhalese nationalist. He was not content to defend their cause in the Legislative Council.

He sailed to England, a perilous undertaking at that time owing to the submarine infested seas, to present the Ceylonese case to the colonial authorities in Whitehall. His mission achieved some measure of success. for a new Governor, Sir John Anderson arrived in the role of mediator and conciliator. Ramanathan also published a book in English entitled Riots arid Martial Law in Ceylon with a view to bringing to the notice of the English public the extremes to which the local administration had gone to put down the disturbances. (17) He carried out all these responsibilities without fear of the consequences and never calculating the cost that his criticisms and independence might have on his career vis-a-vis the colonial government.

It was during this period that Ramanathan showed keenest interest in furthering the agitation for a great measure of internal self-government. His brother Arunachalam had been accepted without question as the leader of the Reform Movement. Ramanathan as the experienced legislator readily lent a helping hand. Just prior to the second Conference on Constitutional Reform which met at the Public Hall in Colombo on 13th December 1918 under the chairmanship of Arunachalam, Ramanathan moved on 11th December 1918 his resolution in the Legislative Council calling for a reform of the Constitution. (18)

The resolution requested the Government to report without further delay to the Right Honourable the Secretary of State for the Colonies the result of its consideration of (1) the reform of the Executive and Legislative Councils, (2) the more effective popular control of Municipal and other local councils with elective chairmen and majorities of elected members, and (3) the filling of the higher offices in the Ceylon Civil Service and other branches of the Public Service with a larger proportion of competent Ceylonese. The motion was not pressed to a division but the Governor at the time, Sir William Manning did not in his reply commit himself, much to the dismay of the leaders of the Reform Movement. Manning pleaded that he was new to the Island having been here only for three months and that he had not had the time to study the situation in all its detail.



Ceylon National Congress and the Donoughmore Reforms...

Again a year later at the first sessions of the Ceylon National Congress held on the 11th December 1919 with Arunachalam as the first President, Ramanathan moved the resolutions calling the reform of the Legislative and Executive Councils and the Ceylonisation of the public services. (19) These resolutions were more specific and they indicated more carefully the exact areas in which change should be effected. Briefly the reforms asked were:

(1) The Legislative Council should consist of about 50 members of whom at least four-fifths should consist of territorially elected members on a wide male franchise and a restricted female franchise. The remaining one fifth should consist of Official Members and Unofficial Members to represent important minorities. The Council should elect its own speaker as President.

(2) The Legislative Council should continue to have control over the Budget and there should be no division of reserved and transferred subjects.

(3) The Executive Council should consist of the Governor as President and not less than half its members should consist of Unofficials selected from among the elected members of the Legislative Council. These members should be entrusted with the responsibility of administering Government departments so that they might gain administrative experience.

(4) The Governor should he a parliamentarian with experience of public life so that he might function effectively as a constitutional ruler.

(5) There should be greater local self-government.

(6) A proportion of not less than fifty per cent, rising up to seventy five per cent. of the higher appointments in the Ceylon Civil Service and the other branches of the public service should be reserved for the Ceylonese.

The result of this agitation was the inauguration of a reformed Legislative Council in which there was a majority of Unofficial Members, where the principle of territorial election as opposed to wholesale communal representation was accepted, and in which a greater measure of power was vested in the hands of the Unofficial majority. In a sense it could be said that the constitutional reforms of 1920 were in the main due to the efforts of the brothers Ramanathan and Arunachalam.

The reformed Legislative Council met in 1921 and Ramanathan once more sat in it, this time as a member nominated by the Governor. During this period serious difference had arisen between Arunachalam and the Ceylon National Congress over the question of a seat being reserved in the Legislative Council for the Tamils in the Western Province. The had taken up the position that it did not wish any more to give encouragement to any extension of the communal principle in regard to representation in the legislature.

Arunachalam argued that in this particular instance, two of the most prominent leaders of the Ceylon National Congress in a letter to him dated 7th December 1918 had promised among other things to support actively the provision for the reservation of a seat for the Tamils in the Western Province, (20) The controversy ultimately resulted in Arunachalam leaving the National Congress along with the majority of its Tamil supporters.

In the Legislative Council, however, despite the differences that had arisen between the two major communities within the premier political organisation in the Island, a measure of unity was nevertheless maintained between the Sinhalese and Tamil Unofficial Members. These Unofficial Members continued to press for further reform of the Constitution. It had been made clear to them by the Governor, Sir William Manning that the reforms of 1920 were only of a temporary nature and that the necessary amendments would be effected as soon as defects in the Constitution were brought to his notice. (21)

In the forefront of the agitation was Ramanathan once more. Being at this time the most senior and experienced legislator in the country, the Unofficial Members accepted him as their leader in the Legislative Council and relied on him to give them guidance and leadership in their agitation for the reform of the Constitution. Ramanathan despite the disappointments that his brother had suffered acted his part well and did not hesitate in the Legislative Council to criticise the colonial administration for its lapses. There was no question of his joining hands with the colonial authorities though the fact that he had been nominated to the Legislative Council by the Governor had led some to expect that this would make him more amenable to the administration.

The agitation of the Unofficial Members in the Legislative Council led by Ramanathan resulted in a reformed Legislative Council being inaugurated in 1924. This Council lasted till 1930 when the Donoughmore Constitution replaced it. The Unofficial Members were in a convincing majority in the new Council and as was aptly remarked they now enjoyed "power without responsibility". The new reforms established for the first time the principle of representative government. Ramanathan was returned to the new Council, this time as the elected representative of the Northern Division of the Tamil majority Northern Province. This was, however for Ramanathan the last phase in his long public career and indeed unfortunately for him not the period of satisfaction but of rapid disillusionment.

He was now growing on in years and no longer possessed of the physical strength or intellectual vigour necessary to provide leadership to the younger generation of politicians that had found their way into the legislature. They now looked on him as a venerable senior whose advice could be sought on important issues but who could not any longer give them the leadership necessary for them to forge ahead in their battle for the reform of the Constitution.

Further, Arunachalam had died a disappointed man in 1924. Attempts were made a little more than a year later after Arunachalam's death to heal the rift between the Sinhalese and the Tamils through an agreement on the question of representation signed between the representatives of the Ceylon National Congress and the Ceylon Tamil Maha Jana Sabha. (22) But this agreement too could not be ratified by the National Congress due to the sharp opposition that was voiced against its communal aspects. (23) These developments resulted in further division and suspicion between the Sinhalese and Tamil Unofficial Members in the Legislative Council. Ramanathan's position as the undisputed leader of the Unofficial Members became therefore increasingly difficult to maintain and he had to be contented to recede to the background and function as an elder statesman.

When the Donoughmore Reforms were published in 1928, Ramanathan had strong words to express his disapproval of what should normally have been considered its most liberal and generous aspects. The abolition of the communal principle in representation he viewed with misgiving. This would, he realised, undermine the position of the minority communities especially the Tamils. They could, he knew, no longer be regarded as equal partners in a common endeavour. The principle of representation based on numerical strength he thought could afford to wait a little longer till the mutual suspicions of the two communities had been erased altogether. But whether this could have happened in the context of a colonial administration is a doubtful question. Ramanathan expressed stronger opposition however to the introduction of universal suffrage. This, he envisaged, would end in a kind of mob rule. His opposition here indicated more his innate conservatism than his fear of the Sinhalese majority.

Ramanathan died in 1930 just at the time that the new reforms were beginning to he inaugurated. The tears he had expressed about the new reforms especially in relation to the problems of the Tamil minority were more then confirmed in the years that followed.

But it could also be argued that these were necessary incidents in the evolution towards a democratic system. It is true there was discrimination and hardship caused to the Tamil community but these were inevitable in the context of universal suffrage and territorial representation. The representatives of the majority community in the Legislature were now for the first time subjected to pressure from their constituents so that they had to take steps to see that the economic and social conditions of the people living in the Sinhalese areas were improved. This had at times to be done at the expense of neglecting the Tamil areas or even positively discriminating against them.


Ponnambalam Arunachalam had a wider awareness of the problems of the underprivileged...

Arunachalam, the younger brother of Ramanathan began his career in the Ceylon Civil Service where he distinguished himself both in the judicial and administrative spheres. As Registrar-General he was responsible for instituting a number of far reaching changes in a department which was ridden with inefficiency and corruption. His Census Report of 1901 was widely commended and was described by the Times as "the most comprehensive authority on the ethnology of Ceylon and of its varied people, their history, their religions, languages and literature''.(24)

Unlike his brother Ramanathan, Arunachalam had a wider awareness of, and a sensitiveness to, the problems of the underprivileged. He displayed a genuine interest in their conditions of existence. In a letter to Lord Chalmers, the Governor-designate of Ceylon, in July 1913, he drew attention to the burdens that the poll-tax imposed on the poor. (25)

"The rich are fortunate in Ceylon" he wrote, "for they pay nothing else except on luxuries.'' He went on to express concern for the poor because of the difficulties caused to them by the duty on salt which was a Government monopoly. He complained about the leisured ease of the wealthy classes. "The rich, who as tea and rubber planters and in the professions" he wrote, ``make large incomes and the Companies which make and send out of the Colony huge profits. remain untouched. There is no income tax or land tax" "I cannot help thinking", he concluded "the abortive result of the Commission on Taxation was largely due to the influence of the Capitalist classes and to inadequate realisation by the Commissioners of the miserable conditions of the poor."

In January 1915, along with his collaboration in public life, with Sir James Peiris, Arunachalam gave tangible expression to his care for the under-privileged when he helped found the Ceylon Social Service League. At an exploratory meeting which preceded the inauguration of this League he emphasised the need for steps to be taken to educate the masses, provide them with medical relief and better housing and establish a system of compulsory insurance and minimum wages. (26)

In June 1919 Arunachalam the scion that he was of an aristocratic family reared in the sequestered comfort of a life of ease and effortlessness broke the barriers of the privileged class that hemmed him in when he founded the first working men's union in Ceylon. He was elected its first President and its aim as stated in its constitution was among other things '`to protect the interests of the working classes in Ceylon and promote their welfare; to improve their social and industrial conditions and help their material and moral development." (27) It was this Ceylon Workers' Welfare League that was engaged in the attempt to bring about a settlement between management and labour during the Railway and Harbour strikes of 1921. (28) In February 1920, the labour organisations that Arunachalam headed were federated in the Ceylon Workers' Federation mainly through his own personal efforts. (29)

Arunachalam interested himself in the political problems of the country almost as he entered the Civil Service in 1875. In this he was greatly influenced by an Englishman, William Digby, who functioned for a short time as a journalist in the Ceylon Observer which at this time was in the control of another Englishman, A. M. Ferguson who did not seem convinced about the need for hurrying through at this juncture with any programme of constitutional reform. Digby left Ceylon shortly afterwards and worked with the Madras Times but he kept in close touch with Arunachalam urging him al] the while to maintain his interest in the problems of his countrymen despite his being tied down as a servant of the Crown. (30)

In November l 875, Arunachalam wrote a letter to the Editor of the Ceylon Observer under a pseudonym in which he expressed his own undisguised patriotic feelings of what he thought genuinely national-minded Ceylonese felt about their British rulers. (31) He deplored the exploitation practised by the latter. It was their duty he argued to train communities to rule themselves. "I hope'', he added "that our race and religious differences here and in India will he at no far off time crushed into a national unity by the pressure of the stronger." The letter was too radical for the Ceylon Observer to publish. Eleven months later, Arunachalam sent the rough draft of this rejected letter to his friend Digby for his information. (32)

In 1893 Arunachalam wrote to Digby urging on him to impress upon the Secretary of State for the Colonies (a friend of Digby) the need to extend the principle of local self-government in Ceylon.(33)

In June 1902 in another letter to the Ceylon Observer under a pseudonym again' Arunachalam suggested to the Editor that he should use his influence to secure for Ceylon a further measure of constitutional reform as a gift for Ceylon on the occasion of the Coronation of Edward VII. (34) This letter was published along with a further communication which contained more detailed arguments.

In 1906, Arunachalam was nominated to the Legislative Council as an Official Member but even here he displayed his independence and nationalism when it came to making any decisions concerning the problems of the Ceylonese. In 1912, he was appointed to the Executive Council by Governor Sir McCallum. It was said that the appointment was a personal one and not by virtue of the fact that he held a senior post in the local civil service. (35)

All these activities, as James T. Rutnam has emphatically suggested in a most informative document he produced on the occasion of the centenary of the birth of Arunachalam in 1953 (already referred to) provided evidence of Arunachalam's genuine and lasting concern for the problems of his countrymen. "It is wrong to suppose." wrote Rutnam, that Arunachalam's "political activity began (only) when he left the gilded cage of the Ceylon Civil Service in 1913.(36)

After his retirement, Arunachalam threw himself with increasing zest and renewed vigour into the political life of the country. He had been knighted in 1913 for his long years of distinguished service to the crown, but where another may have been contented to spend the rest of his days in demonstrating his loyalty to the colonial administration, Arunachalam decided to be the rebel and agitator.

In 1915, he was indignant in regard to the ruthless manner in which the colonial and military authorities had handled the Sinhalese-Muslim disturbances. In a letter to the Governor dated 6th July 1915, he requested the appointment of an impartial Commission of Inquiry.(37) At the same time he kept in close touch with his friends at the Colonial Office in London acquainting them at every stage with what he regarded as being the true facts.(38) But it was in the area of political agitation that Arunachalam made his most enduring contribution. He organised the movement for constitutional reform in this country and was more or less one of the three of four single-minded patriotic individuals responsible for setting it on its feet. His speeches to the various Conferences on Constitutional Reform as well as to Ceylon Reform League and the Ceylon National Congress in a sense become the manifesto of the politically conscious English-educated intelligentsia in this country.

Arunachalam was one of the founding fathers of the Ceylon National Congress and was the man responsible for providing it with a philosophy and a programme of action. The initiative for the organisation of the National Congress in fact came from the Ceylon National Association' the organisation which Ramanathan had helped to organise in the eighteen-eighties. The Association invited Arunachalam to deliver an address at its annual general meeting on 2 April 1917.

This address which was later published as a document entitled '`Our Political Needs" had a profound influence on the national conscious sections of the Ceylonese middle class.(39) Arunachalam. in this address, stressed the fact that the island had made great advances in the field of education. commerce and population since 1833. At the same time he drew attention to the many things left undone. This he attributed to the inherent defects of crown colony government. It was his view that in the future, reform should not be confined merely to agitation at the level of the Legislative Council, but that the people of the country should also he associated with the movement.

To achieve this. he declared that the Government should be persuaded to spread the benefits of education to all sections of the population. He was in fact the first to advocate free education. "Education", he said, '"should be free, both elementary and secondary vernacular and English, industrial and scientific." In addition, he stated that the people must be weaned from their dependence on a system of paternalistic and authoritarian government. There should be a greater extension of the principles of local self-government. Only then could the people be made aware of their rights and could be educated to follow the path of constitutional agitation.

In the sector of central government, Arunachalam requested that the Legislative Council should be reformed so as to contain a majority of elected members while at the same time due safeguards should be provided for the minority communities. At the Executive Council level, he wanted Ceylonese to he associated with the Governor in the task of formulating policy. In the administration of the country' he wanted a greater measure of Ceylonisation. He deplored the fact that despite so many years of British rule, the major posts in the administration were still manned by British civil servants.

Arunachalam's address created widespread interest throughout the island. There was a ready response to his appeal for a properly organised movement. It was mainly because of the enthusiasm that his address created that the Ceylon Reform League was inaugurated on 17 May 1917. The League set itself the task of studying the political, economic and social problems of the country. Its main objective was. however. to agitate for further constitutional reform. Arunachalam was elected its first president. This was a tribute to his patriotic zeal and an acknowledgment] of his organising ability.

The Ceylon Reform League under the presidentship of Arunachalam and the Ceylon National Association which Ramanathan had helped to found then began a joint agitation for constitutional reform. A number of reforms associations were organised by the Reform League in different parts of the island. On 18th December, 1917, a Public Conference on Constitutional Reform was convened by the League and the Ceylon National Association. This conference was a very representative one and was attended by a large number of delegates from all parts of the island. It was unique in that it was the first of its kind that had met in Ceylon for at least a hundred years. Once again Arunachalam as the acknowledged leader of the nationalist movement was called upon to deliver the presidential address.(40)

In the course of his address  Arunachalam repeated the demands that the Ceylonese Nationalists had been making. As there was no immediate response to these demands from the imperial authorities, the Ceylon Reform League and the Ceylon National Association began to think in terms of a more united agitation. It was decided to organise a second Conference on Constitutional Reform with a view to re-affirming the demand for further constitutional reform.

This second Conference met at the Public Hall on 13 December, 1918 and Arunachalam was again invited to deliver the presidential address. (41) It was at this Conference that Arunachalam mooted for the first time the idea of convoking a National Congress representative of all sections of the Ceylonese community for the purpose of campaigning for further reform. This suggestion was welcomed and passed in the form of a resolution by the Conference.

On 11th December 1919, the Ceylon National Congress held its first sessions. Arunachalam was elected the first President. For the next few years' the Congress played an important role in the political life of the country. The Governor at this time, Sir William Manning had at various stages to negotiate with it in order to secure its co-operation to work the reforms of 1920 and 1923. This was an index to the strength and representative character of the Congress.

Shortly after the constitutional reforms of 1920 were announced, there developed differences of opinion between the Sinhalese and Tamil members of the Congress in the question of representation in the Legislative and this led to Arunachalam withdrawing from the National Congress along with the majority of the Tamil members of that organisation.

The Congress in a memorial to the Secretary of State for the Colonies alleged that Arunachalam had left the Congress because of "disappointed ambition`', because he had been frustrated in his plan to represent the Colombo constituency in the Legislative Council as a result of Mr. (later Sir) James Peiris offering himself for election.(42)

In a letter to the Governor, Arunachalam denied these averments.(43) He said, that having sat both in the Legislative and Executive Councils, a seat in the legislature had no attraction for him and far from this being the case, he was "anxious that younger man like Mr. James Peiris should have the opportunity of serving and gaining experience in the Legislative Council". "The sole reason for my withdrawing from the Congress" he added "was the subsequent breaking of the pledge" given by two leaders of this Congress (Mr James Peiris and Mr. E. J. Samarawickrema) on the basis of which the Tamils as a community had joined the National Congress. This pledge related to the question of adequate representation for the minority communities in the legislature.

It is said that Arunachalam never intended his rupture with the National Congress to be a permanent one but he did not live long enough thereafter to see this healed. In 1923 he founded the Ceylon Tamil League with a view to making it a centre of Tamil cultural activity. He hoped that this organisation might also help to direct Tamil public opinion on the correct path.(44) But there was not much time deft for Arunachalam to complete his work. Towards the end of 1923, Arunachalam went on a pilgrimage to India. He fell ill there and on 9th January 1924 passed away leaving behind him. as James Rutnam has so poignantly remarked, "the richest of legacies´┐Żthe memory of a life nobly spent in the services of his country and its people".(45)



G.G.Ponnambalam and 'balanced representation'...

The period of the Donoughmore Constitution was one of considerable hardship for the Tamil community. As a result of the introduction of universal suffrage and a territorial system of representation under the Donoughmore Reforms, some of the difficult aspects of democracy when applied in an unqualified way in a politically backward multiracial community began to show themselves. The elected representatives of the Sinhalese majority had to satisfy the latter if they wanted to retain their seats. This had to be done at times at the expense of the minority communities and as a result there was considerable ill-will between the different communities.

The Tamil areas and the members of the Tamil minority felt a grievance. They alleged that there was discrimination in regard to the distribution of public expenditure, in the manner of dealing with public appointments and in regard to legislative measures. The majority of the Tamil representatives in the second State Council therefore decided that they should work together to combat Sinhalese communalism and from about 1938 they functioned as a group under the leadership of Mr. G. G. Ponnambalam.

Mr. Ponnambalam in a few years become the acknowledged leader of the Ceylon Tamil community. He endeavoured to rally the representatives of the other minority communities in the State Council too behind him, but in this he was not as successful as was expected. Mr. Ponnambalam during this period put forward his claim for "balanced representation", which he held would be the most adequate safeguard against the communalism practised by the majority community. Balanced representation meant that in any scheme of constitutional reform fifty per cent of the seats in the legislative body should be reserved for the minority communities.

Mr. Ponnambalam received the almost unanimous support of  the Ceylon Tamils for this constitutional formula and a degree of limited support from the other minority communities. There was unanimous opposition to this scheme from the Sinhalese majority but this did not deter Mr. Ponnambalam or his other colleagues presumably because they hoped that the imperial authorities would concede their claim. But this proved a miscalculation. For the Governor at the time, Sir Andrew Caldecott in his Reforms Despatch of 1938 cautioned against a re-introduction of the communal principle in representation. Despite this warning the possible failure of their demand for balanced representation the Tamil representatives led by Mr. Ponnambalam pressed for this principle.

During 1944-45 when it was announced that a Constitutional Commission of Inquiry would be appointed by the British Government to investigate the political situation in the country and make recommendations on constitutional reform, Mr. G. G. Ponnambalam and his Ceylon Tamil supporters in the State Council as well as those outside decided to form an organisation to put forward the Tamil. This was the All Ceylon Tamil Congress. It was the most influential Ceylon Tamil organisation which made representations to the Royal Commission headed by Lord Soulbury which visited the Island.

The Tamil Congress alleged before the Soulbury Commission that where distribution of public funds was concerned, between the years 1931 and 1943, out of a total expenditure of about eleven and a half million rupees on major irrigation works, the Northern and Eastern Provinces (where the Tamils are most numerous) received a little more than two million rupees or about nineteen per cent. of the total.

Of a total expenditure of three-and-a-quarter million rupees on minor irrigation works, the Northern and Eastern Provinces received only about four hundred-thousand rupees or twelve-and-a-half per cent of the total. Large sums of money, the Congress alleged, were also spent on opening up forest land and setting up major irrigation works and repairing others in the Sinhalese dry zone districts while the Northern and Eastern Provinces received very little attention or were altogether neglected.

Further the Congress representatives said that considerable sums were spent on improving medical and educational facilities in the Sinhalese districts while on a comparative basis. it could be said that the Northern and Eastern Provinces had been grossly neglected Between the years 1931 and 1945. they alleged that of some twelve million rupees voted for the construction of hospitals and dispensaries, only a little more than a million rupees was allocated to the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Out of four thousand schools established or assisted by the Government during the period 1933 to 1942 over three thousand, they said' were Sinhalese and only nine hundred were Tamil.

There was also allegation of discrimination where appointments to the public services were concerned. Changes it was said were made in examination syllabi and conditions of entry into the public services so as to confer advantages on the majority community. There were also attempts made, it was alleged, by Sinhalese Ministers and the Sinhalese dominated Executive Committees to influence the decisions of selection boards. The Tamil community had as a result begun to get alarmed about their prospects and future in the public services.

The Soulbury Commissioners recognised the general state of apprehension and suspicion that prevailed in the minds of the minority communities at a time when power was to be transferred from `'neutral British hands to the people of this country'. But they also added that they were satisfied with the assurances given them by the Government of Ceylon that the latter was "fully aware that the contentment of the minorities is essential. not only to their own well-being but the well-being of the Island as a whole".

To the credit of the Soulbury Commission it must be said that even with such an assurance, it decided that provision should be made for the protection of minority interests in the country lithe safeguards that the Commission proposed were in the main due to the agitation conducted by the Tamil Congress and its leaders. Almost all the provisions inserted in the Ceylon Constitution subsequently for the protection of the minority communities were the result of the fears expressed by two minority groups,the Ceylon Tamils and the Roman Catholics.

Protection was provided in the sphere of representation, in the provision for a second chamber, in the constitution of an independent Public Services Commission and an independent Judicial Services Commission and by the insertion of a section in the Constitution [29(2)2)] prohibiting any kind of legislative discrimination against minority communities. (Comment by tamilnation: please see however, Lord Soulbury's later views on the 1946 Constitution)

None of these safeguards however has stood the test of time except for Section 29(2) of the Constitution. Even Section 29(2) does not provide against administrative discrimination. Nevertheless it remains a useful safeguard especially in the light of a recent Privy Council decision (Ranasinghe versus the Bribery Tribunal) where it was held that this provision was permanently entrenched in our Constitution and cannot therefore be amended or removed by any Ceylon legislature.(Comment by tamilnation: please see however, the later repeal of this section by the Sri Lanka Constituent Assembly in 1972)



Chelvanayagam, the Tamil homeland  and Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi...

With independence, the majority of the Ceylon Tamil representatives in Parliament (the members of the dominant All Ceylon Tamil Congress led by G. G. Ponnambalam) after a brief period of sitting in opposition decided to throw in their lot  in 1949, with the United National Party government.

A section of these representatives led by Mr. S. J. V. Chelvanayagam however continued in opposition. They wanted satisfactory solution to the problem of a national flag, to the question of the indeterminate future of  the large Tamil population of recent Indian origin in the plantation districts and they asked for the cessation of what they termed "the system of state-aided colonisation by Sinhalese people of the traditional homelands" of the Tamil speaking people.

These demands were a significant shift from what the Ceylon Tamils had been asking for in the previous three decades.

For the first time there had emerged a group which had begun to think in terms of an economic future for the Ceylon Tamils not in the public services or in the common exploitation by Sinhalese as well as Tamils of the economic resources of the entire country but in the preservation and development in isolation of a 'Tamil homeland''. Their fears were reinforced with the enactment by the D. S. Senanayake administration of citizenship legislation in 1948 and 1949 which resulted in the disfranchisement of a large section of the Indian Tamil population, and the continued inauguration of new colonisation projects in the Tamil majority northern and eastern parts of the Island.

As a protest against these measures, three members of the Tamil Congress, S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, C. Vanniasingham and E. M. V. Naganathan, resigned from that body in 1948 and formed a new organisation, the Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi. The English designation of the Party 'the Federal Freedom Party of the Tamil speaking people of Ceylon', was only a paraphrase of the Tamil version. The latter had definite emotional undertones since it referred to a Ceylon Tamil State. It was therefore an obvious attempt to appeal to the nationalism of the Tamil people and to hark back to the days before the advent of the Portuguese when there was a separate Tamil kingdom in the northern sector of Ceylon.

The apprehensive among the Sinhalese politicians however were of the view that concessions on federalism could also lead to a demand for separate statehood. At the national level therefore the problem especially since 1956 has been a question of the extent to which concessions could be made on the federal demand without seriously damaging the unitary principle or providing undue encouragement to Tamil separatism.

All the major Sinhalese parties however are now agreed that Tamil regionalism must be given a measure of recognition but the differences among them range on the question of whether such recognition could lead to separatism. There is no doubt that the problem is also being exploited on the communal level by these parties for narrow political gain.

The emergence of the Federal Party as a considerable force in Ceylon politics since 1956 has further aggravated the situation as far as the Sinhalese parties are concerned. The Party has employed two techniques to press home its demands. It has threatened and launched campaigns of non-co-operation and civil disobedience to embarrass governments in office. With the support it has received from the Tamil masses as well as from the large majority of Tamil public servants' the Party has been able at various times to make effective use of this weapon to wrest vital concessions from the constituted government of the day.

The distasteful alternative for the latter would otherwise be serious deterioration of Sinhalese-Tamil relations, retardation of economic and national development and the use of the armed forces to maintain order under a national emergency. The other techniques which the Party has by fortuitous circumstances been able to utilise has been its advantageous situation vis a vis a Government's parliamentary majority. On at least four occasions since 1956 the support of the Federal Party has been solicited by Sinhalese political parties which had been otherwise hostile to its objectives. And on each of these occasions the Party has exploited its bargaining position to negotiate for what it has termed its "minimum demands''.

The result of the Federal Party's agitation for Tamil rights has been

(a) the willingness of the major Sinhalese political parties to recognise the demand for some kind of regional autonomy;

(b) the granting of a measure of recognition for the Tamil language in its relation to the official language of the country which is Sinhalese. Tamil today is a parallel language of administration with Sinhalese in the Tamil majority Northern and Eastern Provinces and the Tamil language is recognised for a number of administrative purposes in the work of the central government, and

{c) the virtual cessation of state-sponsored colonisation schemes in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

These principles were originally conceded when the Prime Minister of the time Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike entered into an agreement in July 1957 with the leader of the Federal Party, Mr S. J. V. Chelvanayagam. The agreement could not be implemented either by Mr. Bandaranaike or his widow Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike due to the operation of various hostile communal and political forces in the country. The present government under the leadership of Mr. Dudley Senanayake has accepted the basis of Mr. Bandaranaike's settlement with Mr. Chelvanayagam to come to terms with the Federal Party. There are some modifications but these do not materially affect the essential features of what has come to be called the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact.

Thus mainly through the efforts of the Federal Party and its leader Mr. Chelvanayagam, the principle which had been accepted in 1956 that Sinhalese should be the official language throughout the Island to the exclusion of Tamil has been modified and more important the unitary principle is to be re-adjusted to the extent that many of the powers and functions which are now in the control of the central administration are to be devolved to a new type of local body called district councils. (Comment by tamilnation: later events were to belie this promise: please see,  'Broken Pacts and Evasive Proposals')



  • 1. Our Legislature, the Ceylon Daily News, Colombo, 1918(?), p. 17.
  • 2. C.O. 54: 499-Papers Ceylon: see "Notes on matters in Ceylon" (Private) made by W. R. Malcolm on 1.3.1875 after his interview with Muttu Coomaraswamy. And also minutes on them by Colonial Office Staff. NOTE: This information was made available by Mr. Bastiampillai.
  • 3. Op. cit.
  • 4. Op. cit.
  • 5. Op. cit.
  • 6. Op cit.
  • 7. Op. cit.
  • 8. J. R. Veinman, Our Legislature, the Ceylon Daily News, Colombo, 1819 (?),p. 57.
  • 9. Op. cit. p. 59.
  • 10. Op. cit. pp. 68-69.
  • 11. For further details vice op. cit. pp. 16-17 and J. T. Rutnam, Ponnambalam Arunachalam 1853-1924. Ceylon Printers Ltd., Colombo 1953, pp. 1-2.
  • 12 As stated by Sir P. Ramanathan vice Hansard 1918, p. 363.
  • 13. J T. Rutnam, op. cit. p. 2.
  • 14. Vide Hansard 1918, p. 374.
  • 15. Vide op. cit. p. 376.
  • 16. Vide S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike (ed.), The Hand-Book of the Ceylon National Congress 19/9-1928, H. W. Cave & Co., Colombo, 1928, pp. 162-193.
  • 17. St. Martins Press, London, 1916.
  • 18. Vide Hansard 1918, p. 282 and pp. 357-377.
  • 19. Vide S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike (ed.), op. cit. pp. 207-213.
  • 20. The letter was made available to the writer by Mr J. T. Rutnam.
  • 21. Vide "Government Pledges" as signed by the Attorney-General on behalf of the Government of Ceylon on 6th December 1920 in S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike (ed.), op. cit. pp. 245-246.
  • 22. S. W. R . D. Bandaranaike (ed.), op. cit. pp. 662-663.
  • 23. Op. cit. p. 664 and pp. 772-774.
  • 24. As quoted by J. T. Rutnam, op. cit. p. 6.
  • 25. The letter is quoted in extension in J. T. Rutnam, op. cit. pp. 12-13.
  • 26. Op. cit. p. 16.
  • 27. Op. Cit. p, 17
  • 28 Op. cit.
  • 29. Op. cit.
  • 30. Op. cit. pp. 8 and 10.
  • 31. The text of this letter was made available to the writer by Mr. J. T.Rutnam.
  • 32. Made available by Mr. J. T. Rutnam.
  • 33.  J T. Rutnam, op. cit. p. 9.
  • 34. Op. cit. p.10
  • 35. Op. cit. p. 11.
  • 36 Op. cit. p.13
  • 37. Op. cit. p. 13.
  • 38. Op. cit.
  • 39. Vide for full text S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike (ad.), op. cit. pp. 70-97.
  • 40. For full text. vice op cit. pp 101-111.
  • 41. For full text. vice op. cit. pp 118-129
  • 42. Vide op. cit. pp. 522-530 for full text of memorandum dated 23rd May 1923 to the Secretary of State for the Colonies
  • 43. The text of this letter was given to the writer by Mr. J. T. Putnam.
  • 44. J. T. Rutnam. op. cit. p. 24.
  • 45. Op cit. p. 25.


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