Pathways of Dissent: Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka


Edited by: R. Cherana

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    List of Abbreviations

    AEVSArasaunga Eluthu Vinaignan Sangum
    ANCAfrican National Congress
    CERISCentre of Excellence for Research in Immigration and Settlement
    CFTUCeylon Federation of Trade Unions
    CPCommunist Party (pro-Moscow)
    CWCCeylon Workers' Congress
    DKDravida Kazhagam [Dravidian Front]
    DMKDravida Munnetra Kazhagam [Dravidian Progressive Front]
    EMLFEelam Muslim Liberation Front
    ENLFEelam National Liberation Front
    EPRLFEelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front
    EPZExport Promotion Zones
    EROSEelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students
    EWLFEelam Women's Liberation Front
    FP(Tamil) Federal Party
    GCSUGovernment Clerical Services Union
    GUESGeneral Union of Eelam Students
    JSSJathika Sevaya Sangamayat
    JVPJanatha Vimukthi Peramuna [(Sinhalese) People's Liberation Front]
    LSSPLanka Sama Samaja Party [Trotskyist]
    LTTELiberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
    MDNMovement for the Defence of the Nation
    NLFTNational Liberation Front of Tamileelam
    NMATNational Movement Against Terrorism
    NSSPNava Sama Samaja Party
    PAPeople's Alliance
    PCTEPenal Code of Tamil Eelam
    PFLTPeople's Front of Liberation Tigers
    PLOTEPeople's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam
    SAARCSouth Asian Association of Regional Co-operation
    SBMSinhala Bala Mandalaya [Circle of Sinhalese Force/Authority]
    SLFPSri Lanka Freedom Party
    SSMSarvodaya Shramadana Movement
    TELOTamil Eelam Liberation Organization
    TESOTamil Eelam Supporters' Organization [in Tamil Nadu]
    TMPPThamil Makkal Pathukaapu Peravai
    TRCTamil Resource Center
    TUFTamil United Front
    TULFTamil United Liberation Front
    UNPUnited National Party
    USTAUnited Sinhala Traders Association
    UTHR-JUniversity Teachers for Human Rights-Jaffna
    WTMWorld Tamil Movement


    While sociological and political studies dealing with Sinhalese nationalism are remarkable in quality and quantity, Tamil nationalism remained an under-researched area for some time. Important studies on Tamil nationalism were available only in the Tamil language. There was a critical need to address the complexities and contours of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka. This volume is an important attempt in that direction.

    Prominent Sinhala nationalist ideologue and popular writer Gunadasa Amerasekera often used the phrase ‘the post-1956 generation’ to describe the generation of Tamils and Sinhalese who were born and grew up after the introduction of the Official Languages Act, commonly known as the Sinhala Only Act. The segregation of that generation and the generations that followed along linguistic and ethnic lines was perhaps the most important factor in accelerating the nascent Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms. The history of Sri Lankan ethnic conflict tells a painful story.

    The essays assembled in this volume address diverse issues pertaining to Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka. This is the first time Tamil nationalism has been studied and documented from various disciplinary perspectives such as Anthropology, Sociology, History, Historiography, Political Science, Economics, Literature and Cultural Studies.

    My introductory chapter traces and conceptualizes the significant political and sociological co-ordinates of Tamil nationalism from its early phase to the rise of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The introductory chapter also functions as a backdrop to the overall organization of the essays in this volume.

    Vaitheespara and Kadirgamar provide a historical account of the emergence of Tamil nationalism and its complex and sometimes contradictory relationship with the Left movement in Sri Lanka while Sitrampalam meticulously details the Tamil claims from archaeological evidence and perspective. Nithiyanandam analyzes the economic factors that contributed to the consolidation of Tamil nationalism. The essay by Venugopal is somewhat complementary to Nithiyanandam's work—raising important questions related to sovereignty and autonomy in the era of globalization.

    Coomaraswamy and Rajasingham critically explore the gendered nature of Tamil nationalism and provide a concise account of the contested nature of women's agency in the Tamil nationalist struggle. Kanaganayakam and Shanaathanan record and chronicle, for the first time, the literary and artistic expressions of Tamil nationalism over the past two decades. Bass offers a critical perspective of an important but uneasy component of Tamil nationalism: the Up-country Tamils (malaiyaka thamilar) of Sri Lanka. Sidharthan's essay is a welcome addition dealing with the diasporic face of the Tamils.

    The gestation period of this volume has been rather long. Several major events have occurred in Sri Lanka between the time this volume was conceived and the publication of it. The single most important event was the military defeat of the LTTE by the Government of Sri Lanka in May 2009 and the rise of global Tamil diaspora as a major transnational political force. While the military project of Tamil nationalism has come to a ‘bitter end’, political and transnational projects within the Tamil diaspora will undoubtedly serve as significant motors in shaping the future course of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka as well as in Tamil Nadu, Malaysia, Mauritius and South Africa. Various Tamil diaspora groups have held or are preparing for referenda seeking a mandate for Tamil Eelam, a significant development in this regard.

    In sum, the essays contained in this volume offer a detailed and nuanced analysis of contemporary Tamil nationalism.

    This volume is the result of a conference organized by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES), Colombo, titled ‘Trans/formations: A Conference on Sri Lankan Nationalism’, with financial aid from Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD). This conference was a component of a project titled ‘Sri Lanka Studies Program’ initiated by the former Director of ICES, Radhika Coomaraswamy. At ICES, I would like to acknowledge the contribution and support of the past and present management, Radhika Coomaraswamy for her intellectual contribution and moral support, and P. Thambirajah, S. Varatharajan and Tharanga de Silva and the rest of the staff of ICES for their cooperation in the project.

    I am also grateful to the staff at SAGE Publications for their valuable assistance in the publication of this book. I would like to acknowledge, in particular, the support and encouragement of late Tejeshwar Singh at SAGE in the early phase of this book project.

    R.CheranToronto, June 2009

    Pathways of Dissent: An Introduction to Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka


    Naam Eelavar;

    Nam naadu Eelam;

    Namathu mozhi Thamil

    Eelam Revolutionary Organizations (EROS), 19751

    I am a Tamil and I can speak Tamil!

    A Tamil rap song2

    The conventional view of the emergence of Tamil nationalism places it against the background of burgeoning Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism. Tamil nationalism in this sense is a form of ‘defensive nationalism’ as Nithiyanandam correctly suggests: it was nothing more than a reaction to rising Sinhalese nationalism as well as a cry against impending economic annihilation by the majority community (Nithiyanandam 1987: 116). A deeper and more complete understanding of Tamil nationalism has to go beyond this defensive stance. This chapter attempts to provide a nuanced understanding of Tamil nationalism up to the 1990s.

    The emergence of Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism must be linked to colonialism and the cultural, literary and religious competition between Jaffna and Tamil Nadu. The Saiva revivalist movement among the Sri Lankan Tamils reached its peak earlier than that of the Sinhalese. Arumuga Navalar (1822–1879), the champion of this revival, was a generation senior to Anagarika Dharmapala, the Sinhala Buddhist revivalist. Navalar began working as an English teacher to the lower grades and as a Tamil teacher for the upper grades of a Wesleyan Methodist School where he had earlier completed his studies. He became an active anti-Christian and committed Saiva revivalist after he left the mission school. As a distinguished scholar and educator from Nallur, Jaffna, he spent 30 years attempting to recover and disseminate the teachings of Saiva Siddhantam (Saivite philosophy) in Jaffna and Tamil Nadu. In a typical presentation, he would explain to his audience that those who follow the Vedas, the sacred texts of Sanskritic Brahmanism, will attain merit, but those who follow the Saiva path will attain salvation (Kailasapillai 1985). He would inveigh against Brahmanic rituals and urge the people not to allow Brahmans to perform ceremonies unless they brought the rituals more into line with Saiva teachings.

    Saiva Siddhantam is the Tamil school of Saivism, and Saivism in turn is a form of Hinduism distinct from Brahmanic/Sanskritic Hinduism. Brahmanism draws on the Vedas, an ancient collection of hymns, prayers and ritual descriptions, whereas Saivism draws on a different body of ancient literature, the Agamams. Saiva Siddhantam in particular is traceable to the teachings of Meikanda Thevar, a 13th century Saivist.

    In 1888, N.S. Ponnampalapillai, one of Navalar's close associates, founded the Saiva Paripalana Sabai (assembly for the management of Saivism). In the same year, the Hindu Organ/Inthu Sathanam—a bilingual Saiva weekly—was also founded in Jaffna. For Navalar, Saivism was a better form of Hinduism. However, he was not against the ‘Aryans’ or Sanskrit. According to him, Tamil and Sanskrit were two eyes of the Saiva tradition. His project was to carve out a niche for Jaffna Vellalas in the high pantheons of Hinduism. Vellalas, according to orthodox Brahmanical Hinduism, are Sudras, the lowest in the caste hierarchy. In the Jaffna social formation, the Vellalas are the dominant force and class and the Brahmins did not enjoy any power. They were mainly the employees of Vellalas and miniscule in their numbers.

    After 14 years of living and working in the Methodist Christian environment, Navalar understood the missionary strategy and tactics for propagating their religion, mainly by using education as a tool. Navalar began to use the same strategy to propagate Saivism—a form of Hinduism practised by the Tamils of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. Navalar effectively took the preaching methods of the Christians into the Hindu temples of Jaffna. His lectures on Hinduism, called prasangam, and the need to challenge Christianity took place every Friday in the evening at Vannai Vaitheeswaran temple. His sermon topics were mostly ethical, liturgical and theological. While challenging Christianity in his sermons he also critiqued some of the Hindu practices such as animal sacrifice and the practice of temple dancing. These were some of the issues that the Christian missionaries were targeting in their attacks against Hinduism. Navalar's other major activity was the establishment of Hindu-Tamil schools in Jaffna. In September 1848, he founded a Veda Agama school and a Saiva Prakasa Vidyasaali (the school of Saiva splendour). He also established a printing press and began publishing pamphlets and tracts against the Christian faith and its missionaries. Navalar's lecture series and public campaign continued on a regular basis for several years and he created a Hindu revival. After Navalar, his followers Kopay Sapapathy Navalar (1833–1903), Sankara Pandithar, Senthinatha Iyar (1848–1924) and Ponnambalapillai (1830–1902) continued the activities and consolidated the revival.

    Navalar was not a social reformer but someone who wanted to preserve the dominance of the upper-caste and upper-class Vellalas. Navalar was the pioneer of the problematic coupling Saivamum Thamilum (Saivaism and Tamil as an indivisible category that formed the basis of a centain kind of Tamil identity). The revival was infused with caste bigotry and never reached the oppressed-caste people. The oppressed-caste Tamil people were outside the revival and they were not permitted the practising of the Hindu religious and social customs, rituals and practices in any way. Navalar, and the Hindu revival he pioneered, challenged the hegemonic claims of the Christians from a position of a Hindu Vellala. The school textbooks Navalar published have no references to Tamil or Jaffna history. For him, being a Tamil meant being a Saivaite Vellala and speaking Tamil (Hellmann-Rajanayagam 1989; Sivathamby 1990: 178–79).3

    Navalar's campaign had little or no trace of hostility to the Sinhalese, or to Buddhism or Islam, perhaps because there was neither scriptural foundation nor political cause for such sentiments at that time. In contrast, the movement led by Dharmapala was blatantly hostile to the Tamils, and to Hinduism and Islam. This is not to suggest that Sri Lankan Tamils society was more liberal; on the contrary, it was in many respects even narrower, but its prejudices in that period were focused inward and based largely on caste and region. Another difference is that whereas the Hindu revival has largely given way to a linguistic nationalism in the 1950s, the movement initiated by Dharmapala has continued in many forms and remains potent.

    It is difficult to assert that the Hindu revival was a form of Tamil nationalism. Nationalism involves and evolves from a fusion of several elements: language, territory and distinctions from contiguous neighbours in ways which sustain a group's sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Nationalism as a collective identity is both intersubjective and relational. The concept of a nation, together with the idea of self-determination and popular sovereignty, argue that this collectivity must receive one's undivided loyalty. Understood thus, it can be said that there was no Tamil nationalism to speak of. However, there was a well-developed sense of Tamil ethnic consciousness sustained by a range of everyday practices as well as by caste-based practices that maintained boundaries of exclusion and inclusion.

    Caste and other internal fragmentation, such as regional loyalties of the Sri Lankan Tamil population, hindered the development of Tamil nationalism. Until the mid-1930s, the influence of the Youth Congress, Jaffna (JYC) served to delay the emergence of Tamil nationalism as a political force in the Jaffna peninsula.

    The Youth Congress, Jaffna

    Jaffna, widely identified as a centre of Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism all through the 20th century, also produced the earliest and most militant all-island-oriented, inclusive and trans-ethnic ‘Ceylonese’ nationalist movement. The JYC, which peaked in the early 1930s, opposed federalism and demanded quick independence for a united Sri Lanka, and rejected the Donoughmore Reforms as being too little too late (Kadirgamar 1985). Their allies across the Palk Strait were the Indian National Congress led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and not the Dravidian movement of Tamil Nadu. Their closest partners within Sri Lanka were the radical nationalist leaders of the south, including Kannangara, Kularatne and Mettananda and the Marxist leaders, rather than the anglicized ‘moderate’ leaders of the Ceylon National Congress and the United National Party (UNP). The JYC was totally alienated both from Dravidian sectarianism in India and from local Tamil sectarianism sponsored by those, who in the mid-1930s, formed the Tamil Congress. But whereas the JYC was dominant in Jaffna in the environment of the late 1920s and early 1930s, none of its leaders could avoid being marginalized by the Tamil Congress, which dominated the north from the mid-1930s to the late 1940s. The Tamil Congress was formed in 1944 and came up with the proposition of balanced representation in the legislature.

    The JYC was an extraordinary phenomenon without precedent or parallel. It moved into the space vacated by the elite old guard Tamil leadership with a non-violent, secular, nationalist and anti-imperialist ideology inspired by the Gandhian movement, which was transforming the political scene in the subcontinent. The membership comprised mostly of young men who were mainly schoolteachers in their early twenties and students in their late teens. It was ‘the first attempt made [in Sri Lanka] to co-ordinate the efforts of young people of all religions’.4 The JYC was led by Handy Perinbanayagam, a newly graduated schoolteacher, who was only 25 at the time of the First Annual Sessions (29–31 December 1924).

    The JYC sought to overcome the limitations of its peninsular base by incorporating or establishing links with those outside that base. National leaders associated with the JYC included D.B. Dhanapala (involved in the founding), P. de S. Kularatne (elected President at the 1925 Annual Session), Swamy Vipulananda (elected President at the 1928 Annual Session), G.K.W. Perera, A.E. Goonasinghe, George E. de Silva, E.W. Perera (elected President at the 1929 Annual Session), Peri Sundaram (leader of the Up-country Tamils and a trade unionist), D.B. Jayatilleke, T.B. Jayah, C.E. Corea, Francis de Zoysa, S.W. Dassanaike, S.W.R.D. Bandaranayake, the leftists N.M. Perera, Philip Gunawardena, Colvin R. de Silva, Leslie Gunawardena, S.A. Wickremasinghe, W. Dahanayake, J.R. Jayawardena, D.S. Senanayake and Selina Perera (who was charged for sedition on account of a speech that she delivered at the 1941 Annual Sessions) (Kadirgamar 1980).

    The JYC also sustained its Gandhian inspiration by reinforcing its network of linkages with Mahatma Gandhi and several of his close associates. Among those who accepted its invitation, visited Jaffna and participated in its activities were Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, C. Rajagopalachari, Sathyamurthy, Kamaladevi Chattopadyaya and Kalyanasundara Mudaliyar. It is indicative of the ideology of the JYC that the invitees did not include any of the leaders of the then-burgeoning Dravidian/separatist movement (led by the Justice Party and the Self-Respect Movement of Periyar E.V. Ramaswami Naicker) of Tamil Nadu.

    Long before independence, the JYC led the campaign for the use of national languages in education and in governance. The JYC succeeded in getting virtually all the leading schools in Jaffna to teach Tamil and Sinhala as compulsory subjects at the secondary level. As J.E. Jayasuriya has noted, ‘At a time when the Sinhalese were prepared to do without Sinhala, the battle for Sinhala and Tamil was fought by Tamil leaders’ (Nesiah 1981: 152).

    The Tamil Congress, which displaced and took over the political leadership of the Sri Lankan Tamils from the JYC, did not pick up and carry forward the national language policy of the latter. Like the leadership of the Ceylon National Congress/United National Party, the Tamil Congress was comfortable with the continuation of English as the medium of instruction in major schools and as the language of governance. When radical Sinhala leadership emerged to challenge the UNP, it was on a Sinhala Only platform. Perhaps if the Tamil leadership had retained its former national languages orientation, the challenge could have been overthrown by a radical multi-ethnic coalition on a Sinhala–Tamil bilingual platform. The social, cultural and political transformation that began in the mid-1950s might then have been unifying and not divisive and could have benefited both language groups and not just the Sinhalese speakers at the cost of marginalizing and alienating the Tamil speakers.

    The idealism of the JYC was not matched by political skills, as evident from the ‘boycott resolution’. The decision to boycott the first national elections based on universal suffrage (which the JYC was wholeheartedly in favour of) on the grounds that the Donoughmore Reforms fell short of ‘Poorana Swaraj [full national independence] for Sri Lanka’ underlines both the lofty idealism and the lack of political pragmatism of the JYC. The leadership was divided on this issue since several key personnel were wary of such unilateral action. Their reservations were shared by Nehru (Nesiah 1981: xxii). The national leadership in Colombo was also divided. Several key members (including Francis de Zoysa, E.W. Perera, T.B. Jayah, Philip Gunawardena and C.E. Corea at that time and, much later, Pieter Keuneman) expressed their unqualified appreciation of the boycott, but they could not muster a southern consensus on this issue.

    In the event, the boycott was confined to Jaffna, and the opportunity for the JYC to secure its political base in Jaffna was lost. While the boycott was effective in the peninsula, those from Jaffna opposed to the JYC (notably G.G. Ponnambalam) moved to Vanni and secured election to the national legislative, thereby gaining a head start in national politics over the JYC. Although the latter survived for another decade, the boycott was a watershed and marked the beginning of the end of this unique youth organization. In due course, other youth organizations (notably the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and the LTTE) would make greater impact on national politics, but those would be largely outside the democratic framework.

    Up to the time of Independence, the Tamil leadership was virtually unanimously and uncompromisingly in favour of a unitary Sri Lankan state. Even the Tamil Congress, which effectively marginalized the JYC and was promoting Tamil nationalism, did not favour federalism. Perhaps they were not far-sighted and only feared that federalism would limit their professional opportunities. The concept of federalism was introduced to the community only after independence and was resoundingly rejected, even in Jaffna, in the 1952 general elections. It was only with the Sinhala Only movement of 1956 that the Sri Lankan Tamil population opted for federalism. In due course, the political factors that united the Sri Lankan Tamil population gradually gained ascendancy (in the political field) over caste and other prejudices that had kept the population divided. Eventually, this nationalism acquired a separatist component, but this component remained peripheral up to the mid-1970s. Every candidate advocating secession was defeated at every election to every parliamentary seat prior to the 1977 parliamentary elections.

    The changes in ethnic and political composition of members of parliament elected from the northern and eastern provinces from the 1940s to the 1980s are revealing of underlying political developments. A continuing trend is the gradual increase in the number of Sinhalese members of parliament representing the east. One phase of the political changes was evidenced by defections of elected Members of Parliament (both Tamil and Muslim) from the Federal Party (FP) to the UNP or Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The current phase is marked by the emergence of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress with a strong base in the east, and the decline of both Tamil and Muslim backing for the UNP and SLFP in the north and east.

    In an early phase (1950s and 1960s), there was an attempt to develop an overarching Tamil-speaking people's nationalism incorporating all sections of Sri Lankan Tamils, Up-country Tamils and Muslims. This reflected, in part, the vision of S.J.V. Chelvanayakam and some other leaders, especially within the FP, and, in part, an attempt to gain electoral advantages within the north-east. In keeping with this ideology, Trincomalee was conceived as the capital of the north-east region, and a few Eastern Provincial Tamil and Muslim leaders were included to join the Colombo/Jaffna Tamils already entrenched in the FP leadership. Further, the policies were broadened with a view to include the concerns of all sections of the Tamil-speaking people, including the hill-country Tamils.

    While the FP (later Tamil United Liberation Front or TULF) made some progress towards gradually drawing together different sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil community, it was less successful in erasing the ethnic and/or cultural boundaries that divided the Tamil speaking people into the Sri Lankan Tamils, hill-country Tamils and Muslims. At the electoral level, whereas the candidates put forward by the FP won some of the seats in the eastern province with backing from both Tamil and Muslim voters, the Muslims so elected found themselves doubly disadvantaged in a Jaffna Tamil-dominated opposition party that was itself marginalized at the centre. This situation brought them benefits neither of any access to central patronage (that cooperation with the ruling party would have given) nor of any effective political leadership at the regional level. In fact, this thinking was shared to some extent by the local political leadership of the Tamils of the eastern and Vanni districts, some of whom, together with the Muslim MPs of the east, found it prudent to cross over, soon after securing election on a FP ticket, into the ruling party.

    While the political initiative based on forging a Tamil-speaking people's nationalism did not succeed, it may have helped to heighten political consciousness throughout the north-east by highlighting the political concerns of the Tamil and Muslim populations of the region. A logical development was the emergence of a Muslim political party (the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress) with a strong base in the eastern province. Perhaps a strategy based on forging a coalition of one or two of the existing Tamil parties and a Muslim party with a strong base in the east would have been more effective in serving both Tamil and Muslim interests than the failed TSP initiative then attempted.

    K.M. de Silva's definition of separatism ‘as a concerted attempt at the creation of a new sovereign political entity out of a larger one’ (1994: 149) is clearly incompatible with his position that Tamil separatism rose in the period 1948–1955. The Sri Lankan Tamil sectarianism/communalism that surfaced with the Tamil Congress in the late 1930s was stridently narrow and ideologically primitive—vide agendas such as the 50–50 proposal—but not separatist. The FP too was Tamil nationalist but not separatist. Despite the progressive defection of the non-Marxist parties, followed by the Marxist parties into Sinhala Only, Tamil separatism received no electoral backing until 1977. As late as 1970, when an ex-FP MP, Navaratnam, voiced his advocacy of separatism (that is, secession), the FP challenged him by nominating K.P. Ratnam to contest him. Navaratnam campaigned vigorously on a secessionist platform, and Ratnam on a federalist platform; Ratnam won handsomely. The earliest advocacy of separatism by any Tamil group of any significance was around the mid-1970s.

    The Vaddukoddai Resolution of 1976, in favour of separation was passed after many painful and humiliating reversals. Even at that stage it appeared that many who voted for that resolution or refrained from publicly opposing it saw it as a token protest against oppression or a strategic bargaining position rather than an expression of their aspiration. However, they miscalculated the impact of that resolution. On the one hand, the youth at that assembly took it seriously and embarked on a separatist struggle that has now developed into a civil war. On the other, it provided valuable ammunition to those of the Sinhalese leaders who organized the anti-Tamil violence of 1977, 1979 and 1981, and the island-wide pogrom of 1983.

    The effective disenfranchisement of the Tamil people, with the expulsion of their leaders from parliament for failing to make a humiliating declaration renouncing secession in the immediate wake of the 1983 pogrom, led to the end of the democratic process among the Sri Lankan Tamils and the inevitable rise of militant groups that filled the vacuum created by the absence of Tamil MPs. This situation remains unchanged in that the Sri Lankan Tamils of the north-east continue to be effectively disenfranchised, that is, most of them have had no say in electing any sitting MP. Moreover, virtually all Tamils, whether displaced or not, are living under oppression that effectively curtails their political and other rights.

    Parting of Ways

    The important signals of ‘rupture’ between the Sinhalese and Tamil elite, who had been articulating the interests of their communities, came to a head between 1920 and 1930. Both elites could not agree on the communal distribution of seats in the State Council. While the minorities opted for communal ratios, the Sinhalese demanded a territorial representation, which naturally would give them a clear superiority. The result of this dispute was the break up of the Ceylon National Congress, which up to that time was committed to a secular Ceylonese nationalism and consisted of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims and operated on a ‘consociational’ basis. The prominent Tamil leaders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were in the forefront of the movement to create ‘Ceylonese nationalism’. In that sense, they were not different from their counterparts in the Indian National Congress.

    Arasaratnam suggests that the Tamil elite who had been pulled between inclusive and all-island ‘Ceylonese’ nationalism and the necessity of safeguarding Tamil interests were ‘[s]elf conscious of their ability to bury linguistic and ethnic loyalties into a secular nationalism of the Indian model’ (Arasaratnam 1998: 502). He also points to the fact that partly because of this initial weakness of the Tamil identity, colonial officials were able to ignore the demand for communal weightiness in the proposed state councils (Arasaratnam 1998: 502). The result was in favour of the Sinhalese and the British gradually yielded power to the Sinhalese. A.J. Wilson holds the view that ‘a studied effort of consociationalism between the elite of the two ethnic groups could have prevented the frictions and bitterness that lay ahead’ (Wilson 1988: 16).

    Although, Arasaratnam is correct in highlighting the ‘initial weakness of the Tamil elite’ (the Sinhalese elite were not ready for consociationalism, in any way), even a successful consociationalism would not have kept both communities together for long, primarily because the central element of this strategy, as Bipan Chandra illustrates in the context of Hindu and Muslim nationalisms in India, was to bring about unity from the top (Chandra 1979: 252–73). The main thrust was to win over middle and upper class leaders. Once these leaders agreed on compromises and power-sharing, they were to bring the masses with them into a secular national stream. The basic weakness here was the failure of organizing a consistent fight and constant vigil against communalism, which was ever present. In addition, the whole strategy would have hardly had any nexus with Tamil or Sinhalese masses that had been kept unaware of the whole process.

    It was actually the state and its relationship to the elite that determined the trajectory of such politics. The nation was represented and symbolized by the upper class, high caste landowners. For a more meaningful understanding of nationalism, one should not overemphasize the relationship, complicity and contradictions between the state and the elite. The shift in focus from elite politics to mass politics is necessary. The kind of nationalism produced by elite politics is different from the nationalism that emerges out of subaltern politics.

    Unlike their Indian counterparts, the Sri Lankan elite disagreed and the rift occurred while the nominal unity of the Indian elite had to wait for some time to witness the emergence of nationalist politics from below.

    This was the phase of communal ratios as far as the evolution of Tamil national consciousness is concerned. According to my schema in Chapter 2, it could be said that the Sri Lankan Tamils had already passed the ethnic category phase.

    The next couple of decades in the history of Sri Lanka witnessed the demand for balanced representation for the minorities in the assembly. When the reform of the constitution and progress to full independence were being considered (1943–1946), the Tamils formed a political party, the Tamil Congress in 1944 and came up with the proposition of balanced representation in the legislature. Under this scheme, engineered by G.G. Ponnampalam, the leader of the Tamil Congress, the Sinhalese would not hold more than 50 per cent of the seats and the other communities would share the balance 50 per cent.

    Despite long and arduous sessions of presentation to the Soulbury Commission on constitutional reforms, ‘G.G. Ponnampalam,’ says Arasaratnam, ‘was unable to present a convincing case, on the basis of existing governmental and administrative actions or on the basis of the genuine desire and fear on the part of all minority groups that drastic checks were necessary against Sinhala dominance’ (Arasaratnam 1998: 505). The failure of the demand for a balanced representation can be attributed to the following factors:

    • There had been no serious ethnic riots or violence since the 1915 anti-Muslim riots, and Sinhalese at the mass level had not yet been misused to rouse fears among minorities.
    • Regional and caste divisions were deep in Sinhalese society, with Kandyan Sinhalese and the low-country Sinhalese having diverse and to a certain extent hostile interests. (The homogenization of Kandyan and low-country Sinhalese had yet to take place.)
    • Hence, it was not conceivable for the colonial authorities that there was an ‘ethnic unity’ of the Sinhalese, which could be mobilized against the minorities.

    Unfortunately, wisdom was not with them. What happened afterwards is a sorry tale. Within a few months after independence in 1948, the new Sinhala-dominated government enacted the Citizenship Act of 1948 and the Indian and Pakistani Residents (Citizenship) Act of 1949. The results of the legislation were the disenfranchisement of Up-country Tamils. This gave 73 per cent of the seats for the Sinhalese in the legislative council in 1952, and later 80 per cent of the seats. The disenfranchisement of the plantation Tamils created a ‘captive stateless labor force’ (Kurian 1988: 84). Another factor is that the Marxist parties had made spectacular gains in the 1947 general elections and appeared to have become well-entrenched among the plantation Tamils. This must have given an additional reason for the new government to strip the plantation workers from their voting rights.

    It was an irony that the Tamil Congress, which joined the government in 1949, had supported the blatantly racist act of disenfranchisement. That was the result of responsive co-operation and certain members of the Tamil Congress split up and formed a new political party called Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (Ceylon Tamil State Party), popularly known as the Federal Party, led by S.J.V. Chelvanayakam. This was the beginning of the demand for federalism. Since then, no party of the Sinhalese has been able to gain any significant representation in the Tamil strongholds.

    Another major step taken by the new government was the dry zone colonization schemes. The policy of dry zone colonization is the opening up of jungle lands for resettlement and irrigable paddy farming. It was intended to ease the land hunger and population pressure in the wet zone. The transfer of the Sinhalese population, often recruited on the basis of political patronage, from the south to the predominantly Tamil dry zones under this scheme increased Tamil fears. Over the past 25 years, overwhelmingly Tamil majority districts such as Trincomalee, Vavuniya and Batticaloa have recorded a drastic increase in the Sinhalese population, enabling the government to create new electorates with Sinhalese representation. There is no doubt that the ulterior motive behind colonizing Tamil areas with Sinhalese peasants was to eventually transform a Tamil majority province into a Sinhala one.5 That this was the aim of D.S. Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, was revealed by one of his colleagues, D. Ratnayake (Shanmugathasan n.d.).

    The emphasis on the peasant colonization scheme was partly due to government unwillingness to interfere with the existing land ownership patterns. If the intention of the government was to achieve self-sufficiency in rice production, it could have been achieved by increasing yields to 50 bushels per acre on the 90,000 acres then under cultivation, instead of draining away a huge volume of resources to the dry zone colonization schemes immediately (Ponnampalam 1980). But, there were much more pressing political needs. It is also important to note that industrialization received low priority. In fact, the budget allocation declined from 6 per cent in 1948 to 4.7 per cent in 1953 (Abeysekera and Dunham 1987). The main opposition came from the Marxist parties who pressed for industrialization, and these Marxist parties, as already noted, entrenched themselves well in the plantations as well as among the urban workers of Colombo.

    The formation of The Federal Party in 1948, indicated a significant change in Tamil politics. At the first national convention of the party in 1951, it declared that the ‘Tamil speaking people in Ceylon constitute a nation distinct from that of the Sinhalese by every fundamental test of nationhood’. With the further upsurge of the Sinhala Buddhist Movement in the 1950s, and particularly after the Official Language Act of 1956, which made the Sinhalese language the only official language of Sri Lanka. It was a paradox that in the same year, Murray B. Emineau, an eminent linguist, first postulated the existence of a South Asian linguistic area and showed that Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages of South Asia seemed in many respects more akin to one another than Indo-Aryan does to the Indo-European languages.

    The year 1956 marked not only the Official Language Act, but also the rise of Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, whose victory as Prime Minister was in many ways more than significant. The newly elected government led by Bandaranaike initiated two major processes: the desecularization of the state and the statization of the economy. These were the major instruments of a larger project of restructuring an integral system of governance to consolidate an exclusive Sinhala Buddhist national identity as co-terminus with a Sri Lankan identity. In effect, this meant the making of a Sinhala Buddhist state and meeting the social and political needs and aspirations of the Sinhala petty bourgeois. The Sinhala petty bourgeois—an alliance of middle-class officers, small landowners and Sinhala intelligentsia—was the key factor in the success of Bandaranaike. Bandaranaike summed up this cross-class, cross-caste block in his famous slogan of the ‘Five Great Forces’: peasants, workers, Buddhist monks, teachers and indigenous physicians. With the support of rural Buddhist monks, Sinhala schoolteachers and Ayurvedic physicians, the traditional opinion makers and leaders in the countryside, and stirring ethnopopulism, Bandaranaike was able to reach the Sinhala rural masses who had largely remained outside the previous constitutional and elitist politics for a long time. The combination of the Buddhist monk and the schoolteacher was a unique and powerful form of opinion making and influence in Sinhala rural areas. Bandaranaike's timely and efficient co-optation of them boosted the consolidation of the Sinhala Buddhist nationhood as the only nation-building project. Moreover, the presence of the Viplavakari Lanka Sama Samaja Party (VLSSP), a breakaway faction from the LSSP, led by Philip Gunawardena, regarded as the founding father of the socialist movement of Sri Lanka, in the Bandaranaike-led coalition added a radical image. The failure of the Sri Lankan left to politicize and organize the peasantry turned out to be favourable to Bandaranaike's populism, which promised to uplift the Sinhalese to the exclusion of other minorities.

    The power of the Sinhala Only Act lay in the fact that it combined one of the central elements of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalism—the vitality of Sinhalese language and its role in maintaining and defending Buddhism—with an economic appeal that put the blame of the ‘backwardness’ of the Sinhalese on the second-rate status of Sinhala language. Further, the victory of Bandaranaike and his party had cultural and ideological elements as well. The ethnic conflict generated by Bandaranaike's grand project contributed to the authoritarianism, state terrorism and the consequent civil war in the post-1977 period.

    Trajectories of Tamil Nationalism

    It is crucial to examine how Tamil nationalism is fashioned and articulated in the post-separatist (1977) period to show the continuities, discontinuities and contradictions in contemporary Tamil nationalist discourse. The post-1977 period is the most important period in the history of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka since it is the period of Tamil militant separatism and the subsequent escalation of the ethnic conflict into a full-scale civil war.

    Tamil Eelam: A Separate State for Tamils

    Talk of a separate state for Tamils, before its appearance in the 1970s, was not altogether absent from the political arena of Sri Lanka. It had already been suggested in some quarters as an ultimate solution for the problems facing the Tamils. For example, as early as 1958, C. Suntharalingam, a conservative Tamil member of parliament rejected the idea of federal state and advocated a ‘new dominion of Eylom’ (Suntharalingam 1967). In 1958, another Tamil leader, G.G. Ponnampalam, argued that the imposition of the Sinhalese language would drive the Tamils to seek separation (cited in Kearney 1967: 113). Despite these early warnings, it was the promulgation of the 1972 Republican Constitution relegating Tamils to second-class citizenship which served as an immediate spur towards the call for a separate state called Tamil Eelam. The constitution made the Sinhalese language the only official language of Sri Lanka and Buddhism was given the ‘foremost’ status. It was the duty of the state to protect and support the Buddhist faith.6 The Sinhalese Buddhists became the preferred people of the country and citizenship was ethnicized.

    The earlier demands for a separate state were not articulated in terms of self-determination for the ‘minority nationality’. The first association to conceptualize the Tamils as a nationality was the Ceylon Communist Party (CCP). This took place in October 1944, when the CCP presented a ‘Memorandum on a Federal Constitution’ to the working committee of the Ceylon National Congress. The CCP maintained that both Sinhalese and Tamils were ‘distinct historically evolved nationalities’ (Roberts 1977: 2504–604). The birth of the Tamil United Front (TUF) in May 1972, which later transformed itself into the Tamils United Liberation Front (TULF) articulated the idea of nationality and self-determination. Hence, the change of name from Tamil State Party to Liberation Front is significant. These attempts on the part of the Tamils, while symbolizing the unity forged among them as a minority nationality, also emphasized the serious proportions into which Tamil nationalism has gradually grown over the years. What was originally conceived as political opposition to certain government policies had now blossomed into a demand for a ‘sovereign, separate, socialist state of Tamil Eelam’.

    In 1972, in the aftermath of the new Sri Lankan Republican Constitution, Tamil political parties came together to form the TUF, consisting of the Federal Party, Tamil Congress and the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC). The TUF issued a six-point plan on 24 May 1972. The plan emphasized the following political demands of the minorities:

    • Parity of status for both Sinhala and Tamil languages
    • Citizenship rights for the Up-country Tamil plantation workers
    • Making Sri Lanka a secular state
    • Fundamental rights and freedom of expression
    • Abolition of untouchability
    • Participatory democracy

    The government did not agree to the plan. The TUF moved two important amendments before the final passing of the constitution: first, that the new republic be a federal union of linguistic states and second, that Sinhala and Tamil be recognized as official languages having parity of status throughout the island. Both amendments were defeated and Sri Lanka, as I have noted in the introductory chapter, became an ‘illiberal’ non-democratic state.

    The six-point plan was the precursor to later demands of a separate, sovereign nation-state for Tamils. Thirty years of Tamil political moderation and accommodation were supplanted in 1976. The Vaddukoddai Resolution on Tamil self-determination issued on 14 May 1976, most fully expressed the radical trajectory that the Tamil politics was to take after 1977, with its central commitment to the attainment of Tamil political autonomy in a socialist context. In 1976, TUF changed its name into TULF. The political and economic programme of TULF paid lip service to socialism. The TULF manifesto asked the Tamil and Muslim electorates for a ‘mandate to establish an independent, sovereign, socialist state of Tamil Eelam’ (TULF 1977: 1). Furthermore, TULF declared that all members elected would constitute a Tamil Eelam National Assembly while also serving in the Sri Lankan national state assembly. The Tamil Eelam National Assembly was expected to draft a constitution for Tamil Eelam and strive ‘either by direct action or struggle’ to achieve Tamil Eelam.

    Between 1977 and 1983, the demand for a separate state manifested itself in two ways. One was extra-parliamentary, with an emphasis on militancy and armed struggle; the other was within the existing parliamentary process where the TULF emerged as its principal organ of representation. It became the main opposition party in 1977. The parliamentary process ended in 1983 when the government proscribed the advocacy of separation. From then onwards, Tamil militancy in the form of several militant nationalistic groups became ascendant.

    The impact of economic factors on these developments can be seen from two mutually contradictory developments. The first one is the further deterioration of economic conditions faced by the Tamils as a community. The second one was the enhancement of the economic environment in certain Tamil areas between 1970 and 1977. The economic plight of the Tamils had been deteriorating since the late 1950s. During the decade 1963–1973, the per capita income of Sri Lankan Tamils as a community decreased by 28 per cent while that of the low-country Sinhalese and Kandyan Sinhalese increased by 18 per cent and 24 per cent respectively (Phadnis 1990: 336). But more than this, it was the curtailment of opportunities for education, especially higher education, and the consequent reduction of employment prospects in professional sectors which aroused the resentment of Tamils. They were ‘being systematically squeezed out of higher education’ (Schwarz 175: 12).

    The process of ‘standardization’ implemented by the government in 1972 was directed specifically against Tamil students. As K.M. de Silva explains:

    The qualifying mark for admissions to the medical faculty was 250 out of 400 for Tamil students, whereas it was only 229 for the Sinhalese. Worse still, this same pattern of a lower qualifying mark applied even when Sinhalese and Tamil students sat for the examination in English medium. (de Silva 1984: 107)

    The restriction on university admissions in the case of Tamils was indeed very drastic. The number of Tamils admitted to university shrank between 1970 and 1975 from 39.8 per cent to 19.0 per cent.7 While total university admissions increased every year and the number of Sinhalese students entering had kept pace, admissions of Tamil students were lagging behind. Such an alarming drop in university admissions wiped out professional employment, the important and last resort of the Tamils. Writing on the ethnic representation in the central government employment and Sinhala–Tamil relations, S.W.R. de Samarasinghe emphasized, ‘if the present recruitment patterns which often offer less than ten percent of the places to the Tamils, is continued, it will almost certainly aggravate inter-ethnic tensions’ (Samarasinghe 1984: 182). This was the peak of a rapidly growing unemployment among Tamils. The feeling was already rife that the government was discriminating against the Tamil youth in providing employment. The discontent manifested itself in the formation of the Tamil Students Assembly and other radical youth and students' movements. These developments had many implications for the Tamil political scene. Important among them was the emergence and later domination of middle-class youth. The Sinhalese majority government implemented the standardization as a form of affirmative action to redress the imbalance in specific professional fields which were once dominated by minority Tamils. The result of the standardization severely effected the middle-class Jaffna Tamil youth. This partly explains the origins and class character of the early Tamil militancy. Further, this trend could be understood as part of a continuing process which had been already evident at an all-island level in the post-1970 period. The emergence of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in southern Sri Lanka clearly expressed the discontent arising from unemployment among educated Sinhalese youth. The direct result of the foregoing developments was the birth of Tamil rebel organizations.

    Tamil Militancy: From Nationalism to National Liberation

    The genesis of the Tamil militant groups was primarily the inability of the Sri Lankan state to address the political demands of the minority Tamils. The initial moderation of the Tamil leadership had to give way to a much stronger and more organized and increasingly effective Tamil youth militancy in the mid-1970s. The growth of Tamil militancy also helped to extend the Tamil struggle from an upper class to a middle-class level. The backbone of the middle class was the educated youth that had no confidence in non-violence and ‘peaceful’ parliamentary process. It was under the United Front government (1970–1977) that Tamil youths began to form various armed groups. These militant groups differed in their programme, class analysis and the intensity of violence they advocated. However, the common thread that connected them together, at least initially, was the idea of a separate, sovereign nation-state for Tamils. The UF was a coalition of left parties, led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). There are several factors that influenced and facilitated Tamil militancy. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) uprising in 1971, which was an unsuccessful attempt, made mainly by dissatisfied Sinhala rural youth and unemployed educated urban youth, was one of the key moments of inspiration for Tamil youths and students.

    The creation of Bangladesh in the same year was another event that captured the imagination of the Tamil youth that had already initiated an armed struggle against the Sri Lankan state. The early leaders of the Tamil militant movement came mainly from the Jaffna middle class. All of them were one way or the other affected by the discriminatory state policies. They had been radicalized while in jail on minor charges that arose from organizing hartals, hoisting black flags and burning copies of the new constitution of 1972. They had been tortured and spent more than two years in prisons without being charged. While imprisoned, the early militants came into contact with JVP militants who also had been incarcerated following the failed uprising. The contact inspired the Tamil militants but did not mature into a joint Sinhala–Tamil youth agitation against the state. The Sinhala and Tamil youths were agitating against the same state for different reasons. The JVP uprising did not involve Tamils from the north and east. There were a few Up-country Tamils within the JVP, but the JVP's ideological position that Tamils are ‘agents of Indian imperialism’ and therefore not to be trusted, and their lack of organizational network in the Tamil areas, prevented Tamils from actively participating in JVP's political and military programme.8 This is yet another indication as to how, by the 1970s, ethnic segregation became a major feature in Sri Lankan politics and society.

    It should, however, be emphasized that the spurt enjoyed by Tamil nationalism which manifested in secessionist demands and youth militancy had essentially been middle class in character. It was not until the full-scale civil war in 1984 that these class lines were crossed. From the beginning, Tamil nationalistic feeling had mainly been motivated by problems confronting the upper and middle classes and rarely considered issues confronting the common people. For example, the issue of standardization and district quotas in university admissions, described as ‘an issue which has more than any other factor led to the rise of a militant youth movement in Jaffna’ (Sivathamby 1984: 121–45), generated very little interest in other Tamil areas. It failed to embrace the Tamil masses, especially the peasant class. In the Jaffna district alone, according to the census of 1981, peasants comprised more than half the population.

    Although in Jaffna, the Vellala caste occupies a dominant position, in terms of intra-political divisions the caste system has played an important role in shaping the nature and development of Tamil nationalism. It has not only blurred class lines but, at various times, has also dampened the enthusiasm of certain sections of Tamil society, especially those belonging to the depressed caste groups. The caste system has always made it difficult to identify the peasantry as a class who, as already pointed out, form the bulk of the Tamil community. The primary occupation of the dominant Vellala caste by definition is farming and members of this caste should, therefore, be considered a part of the peasantry. In practice, however, this is far from the truth. A majority of those belonging to the Vellala caste, by virtue of their superiority, have taken to other professions and cannot in any way be termed peasants; rather, they fall into the category of either bourgeoisie or petty bourgeoisie. The Tamil peasantry, then, belong to the depressed caste groups. These groups have remained an oppressed class for a long time. Consequently, their participation in mainstream political matters had always been marginal. Part of the onus for the inability of the Tamil nationalist movement to cut across class lines in the 1970s should also lie with the Tamil leadership. The conventional leadership of the Tamils had never been able to play a dynamic role in organizing the oppressed castes. In the first instance, the leadership itself had either been bourgeoisie or middle class and had not been able to generate sufficient incentive to organize the oppressed castes. Even when it did in the name of Tamil solidarity, cultural and linguistic factors were overplayed and economic and social factors were not given any importance.

    From the aforementioned, it is clear that Tamil nationalism, in its far-reaching development during the 1970s, had not articulated the notion of a single, uniform community. The project of nationalist hegemony was not completely successful. The plurality of opinions and intracommunity cleavages were still powerful enough for pluralist politics. However, events unfolding in the post-1980 era resulted in dramatic changes in this regard.

    Tamil National Liberation Struggle

    The transformation of Tamil nationalism to a full-scale liberation struggle in the late 1970s is an important turning point. The militants were gradually gaining in popularity among the Tamil population and, very soon, were viewed not as ‘terrorists’ as branded by the government, but as ‘liberation fighters’ and ‘our boys’. The early phase of the militants did not include any women rebels and the nickname ‘our boys’ amply fitted the militants. The multiplication of the militants into several groups is a clear indication of their growing reputation. In 1985, there were 42 groups that were active. Between 1976 and 1987 five major groups dominated the militant politics of Sri Lanka: the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), the Eelam Revolutionary Organizations (EROS), Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) and the People's Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). While all these groups spoke of national liberation in their formative period, the LTTE and TELO have totally abandoned their liberation project and became nationalist very quickly. By 1986, the LTTE became hegemonic in becoming the one and only militant group by systematically eliminating all the other groups.

    Before discussing the internecine warfare of the militant groups, a brief examination at their ideology and political orientation is necessary to identify them as liberationists or nationalists. The following quote is taken from one of the earlier publications of the LTTE:

    We are neither murderers nor criminals or violent fanatics…. On the contrary, we are revolutionaries committed to revolutionary political practice. We represent the most powerful extra parliamentary liberation movement…. (LTTE 1979a)

    The theoretician and spokesperson of the LTTE, Anton Balasingam, who was involved with the left parties in Sri Lanka until the early 1970s, was instrumental in publishing several theoretical and propaganda articles and books for the LTTE. His effective use of Marxist jargon created an impression that the LTTE was one of the serious liberationist militant groups. For him, Tamil nationalism arose as a historical consequence of Sinhala chauvinistic oppression. As the collective sentiment of the oppressed people, Tamil nationalism constituted progressive and revolutionary elements (Balasingam 1983: 16).

    Balasingam added that the traditional Tamil parliamentary political parties were dominated by ‘bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie’ and the parties were founded on a conservative ideology (Balasingam 1979). The LTTE proclaimed that it was ‘the armed vanguard of the struggling masses, the freedom fighters of the oppressed’ (ibid.). One of their early manifestos, Towards a Socialist Tamil Eelam, articulated an ideology of national liberation and socialist liberation (LTTE 1979b). However, a political programme did not follow these proclamations. There were two reasons for the use of Marxist and liberationist rhetoric in the earlier LTTE propaganda material. First, the dissatisfied leftist youths who had earlier been supporting the left parties were in a state of limbo and the LTTE wanted to attract them. Second, there was a large group of leftist university students and intellectuals that joined the LTTE in the earlier phase, thinking that a socialist revolution in Sri Lanka was possible only through a national liberation struggle. They argued that the LTTE was in a better position to advance the armed struggle against the state. The assault and weakening of the Sri Lankan state, according to them, was thought to be an essential step and the LTTE was the only organization that was militarily capable of doing that.9 The attempts by this small group of leftists to steer the LTTE towards a programme of national liberation and socialist liberation were very costly. By 1984, most of the leftists were killed. Those who managed to escape had to leave Sri Lanka.10

    Although arousing nationalist feelings had been the base for popular support for Tamil militancy, another ideology was gradually becoming prominent among some of the other groups. The EPRLF, EROS, PLOTE and smaller groups like the National Liberation Front of Tamil Eelam (NLFT) and Thamil Makkal Pathukappu Peravai (TMPP) adopted socialist principles and began speaking in terms of the Marxist concepts of political and economic liberation. For these groups, the justification for a separate state came not so much from the ancient greatness of Tamil kings but from Lenin's thesis on the self-determination of nations. The twin terms of national oppression and national liberation came to characterize the political discourse of these militant groups. National oppression was defined as being ‘when a nationality does not have control over its destiny, does not have the possibility to fulfil its potential then it is oppressed; when a nationality is dominated by another, then it is oppressed’ (EROS 1985, p. 3). National liberation was defined as ‘total liberation’ from all kinds of oppression such as ethnic, caste, class and gender varieties. The motto of the PLOTE was ‘Liberation from all forms of Oppression’. The official publications of these militant groups articulated the same definition with slight variation and emphasis on the order of oppressions. For example, the EPRLF and the EROS prioritized class while the PLOTE prioritized the national oppression. Gender oppression was the major theme for all these groups. Journals dedicated specifically to gender issues were published and widely circulated. Works by Amilcar Cabraal (National Liberation and Culture, The Weapon of Theory), Che Guevara (On Guerilla Warfare), Guiap (Military Writings), Mao (On New Democratic Revolution, Guerilla Warfare), Lenin (On Revolutionary Terrorism, Rights of Nations to Self-Determination) and Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth) were translated, printed and circulated widely among members of the militant groups and the public. In the case of the LTTE, Che and Mao were read primarily as military strategists rather than as revolutionaries. The traditional discourse of Tamil nation and separation based on the historical claims of Tamil nationhood gave way to the discourse of theciya viduthalaip poraattam (National Liberation Struggle). The whole strategy could be summed up as socialist revolution subsisting on nationalist liberation or the struggle for socialism with the energy of nationalism.

    The General Union of Eelam Students (GUES) was a breakaway group of EROS. One of the reasons for the split was the rift between the leadership that was based in London and the active members who were based in Sri Lanka. GUES transformed itself into EPRLF as a broad-based liberation organization. The first congress of the EPRLF took place in 1983. After the first congress, 15 members were sent to Lebanon for training with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). There was a strong Maoist tendency and links were established with Marxist–Leninist groups in India too. Through them the EPRLF was informed about the official Chinese government's position vis-à-vis the Tamil struggle: ‘These groups are petty bourgeois groups and their politics are petty bourgeoisie too. We can only support peasants.’11

    EPRLF's political position defined the national question as acute. For EPRLF, a new democratic revolution in Eelam is necessary as a first step towards a socialist revolution in the whole of Sri Lanka. In a new democratic revolution, small traders, small holders and other petty bourgeois elements should play a big role. On this basis, it was argued that they must be encouraged to work with EPRLF.

    This position was broadly the position of other major militant groups except the LTTE and TELO.12 However, not everyone in the groups agreed to follow this position. Intense debates and discussions followed until a major congress in 1985. They also stressed the importance of working with Sinhalese progressives and Muslim people. Only a few Muslims joined. As for the Sinhalese, Dayan Jayatilleke, Joe Seneviratne (former ministers in the EPRLF-led North-East Provincial Council), Purnaka de Silva and several others became active members of the movement. The EPRLF was successful in winning the support of a section of the Sinhalese intelligentsia. The radical left Sinhalese intelligentsia that supported the Tamil liberation struggle in the 1980s articulated a position that was totally different from the position of the parliamentary or traditional left. They asserted that both Sinhalese and Tamil people suffer the burden of economic underdevelopment generated by imperialism and accentuated by the global economic crisis. The ruling bourgeoisie of the dominant Sinhalese nation, while transferring the burden of the crisis onto the masses due to the imperatives of electoral politics, had transferred a disproportionate share to the oppressed Tamils. It was argued that ‘the essence of the national movement in the north lies in the struggle waged by all the oppressed classes, with the educated middle-class youth as the main force, against the bourgeoisie of the dominant Sinhala nation’ (Chintaka 1979, p. 17). It was also suggested that the armed actions of the Tamil militants were not ‘terroristic and alien to Marxism-Leninism but were very much in the authentic tradition of Bolsheviks under Lenin … [and] typical of an early stage of protracted people's war of national liberation’ (ibid.).

    Eelam Muslim Liberation Front (EMLF) was organized by the EPRLF with the help of a group of Muslims in Chavakacheri area. The idea was to expand the base of the national liberation movement to include Muslims. The EMLF failed to take off. However, the formation of Eelam Women's Liberation Front (EWLF) signalled the realization of the importance of gender in the liberation project. The EPRLF, together with EROS, was one of the first groups to establish working relationships with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the African National Congress (ANC) and the Sandinistas of Nicaragua in the late 1970s. The EPRLF maintained that they did not fight for a ‘race’, or a language, but for oppressed people. ‘In the case of Tamils, the fight is only incidental because they are the suppressed people in Sri Lanka. A victory for Tamils will eventually kindle the revolutionary fires in the Sinhalese areas of Sri Lanka too’ (EPRLF 1984, p. 5). The EPRLF advocated a programme of revolution by the workers and peasants in the Tamil areas. Significantly, the EPRLF included the government servants, teachers and clerks in its revolutionary agenda. The inclusion of Tamil petty bourgeoisie in this programme is a shrewd move since a large number of Tamils are employed in these sectors. However, they did not develop a specific political programme to form a coalition of various forces.

    Both EPRLF and EROS spoke about Eelam as an inclusive concept. They were against the use of the term Tamil Eelam because it excludes Muslims. For these groups, Eelam was more than the Tamils in Jaffna or even the Tamils in the east. EROS further argued that the concept of Tamil Eelam was not acceptable to the Muslim and depressed caste populations because the name connotes Saivaite Hinduism and upper-caste dominance. For them Eelam was a preferred name because of its secular nature. EROS also advocated a concept called eelavar—people irrespective of their caste, religion and region of origin as members of the collectivity called Eelam. This collectivity included the Up-country Tamils and the map of Eelam incorporated certain areas of the up-country as traditional homelands of the Up-country Tamils.

    The Marxist bent of the Tamil militancy and the backing it received from a section of the Sinhalese left leadership, more than anything, helped Tamil nationalism to become more broad-based. The ideals of rights and liberties, which had long been the voice of the Tamil bourgeoisie and middle class, now tended to penetrate to the lower strata of society.

    There had always been a tug of war between two tendencies—the liberationist and the nationalist—within the militant groups. The liberationists or the Eelam-left steadfastly relied and prioritized the liberationist aspects while the Eelam-right relied on and prioritized the ethnic/nationalist platform. There were other divisive tendencies too.

    Internecine conflicts, chauvinism, sectarianism and militarism have plagued the Tamil liberation movement. Tamil chauvinism and divisive tactics of the Sri Lankan state have created a serious Tamil–Muslim rift. In the mid-1980s, the Tamil liberation movement underwent significant modifications in response to the state terror unleashed on the Tamil population. The militant groups began to target Sinhalese and Muslim civilians in revenge attacks and their earlier policy of attacking only military targets was conveniently shelved. From the mid-1980s, the main militant groups had failed to articulate the political discourse of national liberation in non-communalist terms to win the Muslim population. Their alliance with progressive Sinhalese parties and Sinhala left movements suffered heavily because of their massacres of innocent Sinhalese civilians in large numbers in retaliatory attacks. The militant groups were content with calling the Muslims ‘Islamic Tamils’, insisting, against the will of Muslims, that the Muslims were Tamils without breaking away from the narrow Tamil ethnocentrism of the pre-national liberation period.

    They were not able to do without the traditional Jaffna-centric practice of Tamil nationalist politics either. On the contrary, it became even stronger with the growth and dominance of the LTTE. With time and with the rise of the LTTE as the de facto state in the areas under its control, the national liberation project has turned into an exclusivist, chauvinist and militarist ideology with growing intolerance towards Muslims and Sinhalese. The chronicle of ethnic pogroms committed by the LTTE, from the Anuradhapura massacre in 1985 to the expulsion of northern Muslims in 1991, bear witness to this intolerance. The expulsion of the entire Muslim population from the northern province in 1991 in an ‘ethnic-cleansing’ pogrom is among the serious manifestations of militarist Tamil nationalism. The LTTE came to power by eliminating most of the other militant groups ruthlessly. Some of the militant groups decided to collaborate with the Sri Lankan state in 1990. A decade of Tamil liberation struggle shows that the idea of a united front against the common enemy, in this case, the Sri Lankan state, is totally alien to the LTTE. It has consistently worked against a broader unity of the liberation forces and used all the force it could muster to thwart any move towards unity. The Eelam left or the leftist militant groups that constantly and consistently advocated a united front, internal democracy and collective decision-making were small and physically constrained by the militarism of the LTTE. This is the major reason for the success of the nationalist group LTTE over the liberationists.

    Gendering Tamil Militancy

    The Tamil militancy and its avowed ideals of national liberation had a major mobilizing impact on women, and they in turn played a significant part in it both as active fighters in the front and as political officers in strengthening the militant groups.13 However, a closer look at the question of women's identity and autonomy in the Tamil struggle is necessary to evaluate the claims of the militant groups that they had fundamentally transformed the gender relations in Tamil society. It is also important to look at how gender and gender relations were constructed and articulated in the process of mobilizing women for projects of nationalism and national liberation.

    All the militant groups had women's wings. The LTTE's women's group was called Suthanthirap Paravaigal (Birds of Freedom), the EPRLF had the Eelam Women's Liberation Front (EWLF), the PLOTE named its women's group Thamil Eela Mahalir Peravai (Women's Organization of Tamil Eelam) and Eela Mahalir Munnani (Eelam Women's Front) was the women's wing of EROS. Not having a women's wing was considered a drawback in the organization and mobilization of Tamil people for the liberation struggle. In 1985, the EPRLF sent five of their women to Lebanon for training with the PFLP.14 The exact number of women involved in these organizations is difficult to establish. However, the numbers swelled after the 1983 pogrom against the Tamils. Significantly, however, there were no women amongst the central committee members of the LTTE, EPRLF, EROS and PLOTE.

    The LTTE had a different organizational structure than the other organization as it was preoccupied with developing itself as a powerful and dominant military organization. One of its earlier and preferred quotes was derived from Che Guevara's foco theory: A successful military attack equals a hundred mass meetings (quoted in the magazine Thalir in 1985). It never encouraged a democratic inner structure and it never had one. The entire organizational structure was very secretive and women were not allowed to participate in the early phases of its formation. While leftist militant groups were trying to balance their mass politics with guerilla warfare, the LTTE simply concentrated on building its armoury and training its cadres. This gave them a head start in military superiority. They were also the latecomers in recruiting women. However, when they did, they immediately began training them militarily. Women form a significant portion of the LTTE's Sea Tiger squads, Black Tiger squads (suicide warriors) and regular combat forces. The Tiger Women were also part of technical teams that were responsible for the repair and maintenance of ordinances (LTTE 1996). However, there were no women in the decision-making bodies of these militant groups.15 The list of central committee members of the EPRLF, EROS and PLOTE did not include any women. The LTTE had a different organizational structure. Right from the beginning, the LTTE was preoccupied with developing itself as a powerful military organization.

    There is a significant body of work on Tamil women fighters and feminism (Coomaraswamy and Rajasingam-Perera [this volume]; De Mel 2001; Maunaguru 1995; Sivamohan 2001). While Women Fighters of Liberation Tigers, a book by Adele Ann (1993), one of LTTE's leaders and an Australian married to the LTTE's long-time political spokesperson and ideologue, is an often quoted book in the discourse of militancy, feminism and nationalism, a host of other important materials in Tamil language have not been studied adequately. A review of existing materials on the complex relationship between nationalism and feminism in the Tamil context reveals the following strands.

    • Writing on the early phase of Tamil militancy and the role of women, Maunaguru (1995) maintains that whether there was a feminist programme and strong ideological commitment or not, inclusion of women's question on the agenda opened up new spaces for women within the Tamil militant movements.
    • Women's liberation cannot be achieved through a nationalist project. Even if there are changes or transformations, they are not sustainable since nationalism over-determines everything (Coomaraswamy and Perera, this volume; Panchali 1996).
    • The emergence of Tamil women as warriors has drastically changed the Tamil society and women's liberation is attainable through their militancy (Balasingam 1993).
    • De Mel (2001) and Rajasingam-Senanayake argue that women's agency in the nationalist movement is ambivalent.
    • In her introduction to an anthology of Tamil women's poetry from Sri Lanka, V. Geetha characterizes the involvement of women in militant movements as ‘contextually necessary but contradictory’ (2007: 198).

    From the ideal of a conservative, protected and docile ‘femininity’, promoted by Tamil nationalists and colonial missionaries, the Tamil woman is now transformed into a public figure, engaged in warfare. This transformation has attracted not only social and political scientists but numerous poets, film-makers and writers. While the sight of a women LTTE cadre, gun slinging from her shoulders, casually riding her bicycle is not unusual, the literary imagination is in the forefront of depicting this transformation. A collection of poems titled Vaanathiyin Kavithaikal (1991) by one of the LTTE's fallen fighters, Vanathy (alias Pathmasothy Shanmuganathan). In She is a Tamil Eelam Woman, Vanathy writes:

    Her forehead shall be adorned not

    Kunkumam but with red blood.

    All that is seen in her eyes is not the sweetness

    Of youth but firm declarations of those

    Who have fallen down….

    On her neck will lay no thaali, but a

    Cyanide capsule….16

    In another poem in the same collection, Vanathy invites other Tamil women that are ‘confined in the kitchen by patriarchy and waging a silent war with fire’ to join the struggle for national liberation which she maintains would liberate all women from the clutches of patriarchy. The emphasis in these poems and several others by Kasthuri,17 Ampuli, Malaimakal, Thamilaval and Suthamathy18 is the selective rejection of conventional womanhood. A new group of LTTE women writers such as Thamilkavi emerged in the late 1990s and articulated a complex vision of being a women and a nationalist fighter.

    On an ideological level, the interviews given by one of the LTTE's senior women leaders, Thamilini, to newspapers and women's magazines in Tamil also clearly testify to a new Tamil womanhood that is highly critical of patriarchy and demand equality for women in all spheres while, ironically, hails the leader of the LTTE for founding and encouraging women's wing and its fighters. The goal of women's liberation is firmly located in the context of the ‘national’ reality nationalist ideals and within the broader Tiger strategy of armed struggle to achieve Tamil Eelam.

    In 1985, posters were put up against birth control in Jaffna. The LTTE newspapers and magazines invoked the symbol of the great mother who would rise up to the occasion by giving birth to more sons and daughters (Panchali 1996). In this discourse, thamilthay (Tamil mother), with all her constructed and attributed ‘Tamilian’ qualities sits uncomfortably with the Tiger woman warrior. Yet, the woman warrior is also projected as a ‘virgin’ warrior, reinforcing a patriarchal value of women in traditional Tamil cultural discourse. The campaign to promote Tamil motherhood and encourage Tamil mothers to bear more children is currently underway in the Canadian Tamil diaspora. The editor of Thamilar Thakaval (Thamils' Information) a monthly journal is offering 5,000 Canadian Dollars to any Tamil family in Canada that will bear three and more children (Twins and triplets are excepted!).19

    On the question of women's rights, the leader of the LTTE, Prabhakaran, made the following statement: ‘[m]y wish is that women have to be able to liberate themselves from all forms of oppression and live with dignity and equality in revolutionary Tamil Eelam, which will emerge soon’ (Nattru 1995: 2). However, the leader's point of view is directly contradicted in the Tamil Eelam Penal Code (TEPC) (LTTE 1994), implemented in 1994, to regulate LTTE-controlled areas. The TEPC provides a strong example of the gendered nature of the LTTE's social and political project. The TEPC identifies 439 offences. In addition to legalizing the death penalty (Section 3, Article 45) and restricting freedom of assembly (Section 7, Article 95 deems any assembly illegal where, inter alia, the purpose of the assembly is to ‘prevent’ any legislation from passing), the TEPC includes a series of provisions that reflect a strongly masculinist agenda aimed at the cultural and moral regulation of women.

    If a pregnant woman is found guilty of a serious crime, the sentence can include ‘rigorous imprisonment’ which is a form of hard labour in slave-like conditions. Abortion is illegal according to the Penal Code and subject only to narrow exceptions: where the procedure is necessary to save the mother's life or in cases of rape, but only when permission of a male family member is provided. Even in these cases, no abortion is permitted 90 days after conception. Women who are convicted on illegal abortion charges face the prospect of three years imprisonment—either ‘rigorous’ or ordinary, at the discretion of the judge. If the foetus ‘bounces with life’, the punishment rises to seven years (Article 215).

    The Penal Code conceptually distinguishes between rape and sexual assault, a distinction that has been eliminated in the criminal codes of many countries, including Canada, in recognition that all crimes involving sexual violence share a commonality of purpose and effect. According to the Penal Code of Tamil Eelam (PCTE), a crime of rape only occurs when the penis has been ‘inserted into vagina’, although rape occurs where insertion is ‘even slightly’. Sexual violence occurs ‘when a man deliberately touches a woman's sex organs with a view to insult her’. There is no crime of sexual harassment. Complaints of rape have to be made within three months from the day the crime was committed (Article 283–84). The only progressive aspect of the Penal Code's treatment of rape is the absence of explicit linguistic sexism. The TEPC uses a newly-coined Tamil term paaliyal valluravu (forced intercourse), which is significant. The traditional term katpalippu (meaning the destruction of chastity or sacred value) has been discarded. It deserves mention as well that rape is treated as a serious offence, punishable by the death penalty (Article 279 [a]) or 14 years rigorous imprisonment and fines. If the offender is younger than 24 years, lesser punishment is permitted. Attempted rape carries seven years rigorous or ordinary imprisonment and fines.

    Sexual intercourse with women between the ages of 15–18 is punishable by two years of rigorous or ordinary imprisonment and fines. If it is between husband and wife or the intercourse is sanctioned by the parents/guardians, it is permitted (Article 283, Act 3). While the code does not appear to exempt spouses from being charged with rape or sexual violence, given the cultural context, the Code's silence in this regard is not likely to result in criminalizing sexual violence committed by one spouse against another.

    Homosexuality is punishable for men only (Article 287). There is no explicit reference to women. The silence on women's homosexuality reinforces the notion that women do not exist as social subjects. ‘Anti-natural’ sexual acts are punishable, but there is no clear definition of ‘anti-natural’. Specifically proscribed, however, is sex with animals and homosexuality. A conviction for these offences carries a sentence of 10 years rigorous imprisonment and/or a fine (Article 286) and two years rigorous or ordinary imprisonment and fines (Article 287) respectively. Prostitution (parathaimai) is a crime for women only. The punishment is four years rigorous or ordinary imprisonment with fines (Articles 481, 420). The foregoing review of the Penal Code's treatment of women as both perpetrators and victims of crime highlights the male-centric values and weltanschauung that permeates the TEPC itself and serves to mirror the wider LTTE nationalist project.

    The LTTE is a highly centralized organization. The LTTE leader Prabhakaran has consistently maintained that one party rule is his ideal (Prabhakaran 1994). Secondly, in an interview with Eelanatham newspaper in Vanni, Thamilini was asked how the situation for women fighters would be in the future. In her response she said, ‘There will be a continuous struggle for women's liberation. As long as annai-our leader Prabhakaran lives, it would not be a problem’ (Eelanatham 2002).

    The LTTE's use of family as political institution in the service of its organizational benefits is another site where gender hierarchies are clearly enshrined. The LTTE's use of the family card (1990–1995) as a tool for enumeration and surveillance in the areas controlled by them was remarkable, in the sense that with all the difficulties in conducting a war they were able to maintain and manage a de facto state system. The names of all members of the family were inscribed on the card beginning with the male head of the household.

    It is clear that the project of national liberation that began in the early 1980s could not sustain its liberationist ideals. The logical consequence of that was the strengthening of nationalist ideals and the consolidation of the Tiger version of Tamil nationalism that is not only hegemonic in the Tamil national discourses in Sri Lanka but also increasingly influential in the Tamil national discourses in Tamil Nadu, Malaysia and in the Tamil diaspora.


    1. This is the motto or rallying cry of EROS, and it first appeared in their pamphlets in 1975: ‘We are Eelavar; our land is Eelam; our language is Tamil.’

    2. From the album Jaffna Boyz (musical recording, Toronto, 1995).

    3. See also the next chapter.

    4. Ceylon Daily News, 2 December 1924.

    5. For a discussion of dry zone colonization, see Manogaran (1994).

    6. For a detailed analysis, see Wilson (1979).

    7. For a detailed analysis, see de Silva (1978: 105–51).

    8. The JVP, led by educated youth, staged armed insurrections in 1971 and 1987. Until the 1980s, the JVP political ideology was based on ideas derived from Lenin, Mao, Trotsky and Che Guevara. After 1983, it adopted a strong Sinhala nationalist position and decided to take up arms against the government and left parties, which supported the Tamil struggle. The JVP was ruthlessly crushed and its entire leadership was eliminated in a government terror campaign in the early 1990s. For an informed discussion of JVP politics, see Chandraprema (1991) and Serasundara (1998).

    9. Interview with N. Nithyanandan and A. Ragavan, former LTTE commanders, September 1995.

    10. Hellmann-Rajanayagam says: ‘[The] tigers base their claims for an independent Eelam not only on racial and national ancient glory but also on Lenin's justification of the national struggle and separation in compelling circumstances. However, in a revealing interview in The Hindu in September 1986, the names of the prominent


    Marxists were conspicuously absent from the list of men Prabhakaran [Supreme Leader of the LTTE] considers his national heroes.’

    11. Interview with Cheliyan, central committee member of the EPRLF (1981–1986), on 23 November 1999.

    12. See generally, the official positions of PLOTE and TELO in The Saturday Review, November 1985.

    13. There are several magazines, books and journals published in Tamil by women fighters of various groups. For example, Senthanal (EPRLF), Suthanthirap Paravaigal (LTTE), Thozhi (PLOTE) and Sakthi (NLFT). One important addition is a hefty volume titled Vizhuthaaki Verumaaki (2003) edited by two LTTE women A. Kantha and Se. Puratchika. This volume chronicles and narrates in detail the battles led by LTTE women from 1987 to 2001.

    14. Interview with the former European Coordinator for EPRLF, Toronto, 23 September 2006.

    15. In recent times several LTTE women emerged as leaders and spokespersons. It is not clear where they are located in the LTTE hierarchy.

    16. Quoted in Neloufer de Mel (2001: 208). For an informed critique of Tamil women and militant nationalism, see her chapter, ‘Agent or Victim? Sri Lankan Women Militant in the Interregnum’ in her book Women and the Nation's Narrative: Gender and Nationalism in the Twentieth Century Sri Lanka.

    17. Kaathodu Sollividu, poems. LTTE Publication, 2001.

    18. See Anaiiravu (Elephant Pass), LTTE Velicham Publishers, 2000 for their poems.

    19. See issues of Tamils' Information, January, February 2007. The one page announcement of reward for Tamil families continues to appear.

  • Appendix: Jaffna Youth Radicalism: The 1920s and 1930s


    The first stirrings of youth radicalism in Jaffna occurred in the 1920s and 1930s. The youth were responding to the Indian struggle for independence, which under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi had a profound impact on several Asian countries. The Students' Congress, Jaffna, later renamed the Jaffna Youth Congress came into existence in this period. This was to have a lasting impact on Jaffna society for decades. This movement led to a tradition in Tamil politics which I consider the other vital dimension in Tamil politics.

    In 1922, some young men, teachers and students in the matriculation classes at Jaffna College formed themselves into the Servants of Lanka Society. Among the members were Handy Perinbanayagam, Sabapathy Kulandran, S.R. Kanaganayagam, C. Subramaniam, A.M. Brodie, K.E. Mathiaparanam, S. Durai Raja Singam and Bonney Kanagathungam. It was more of a study group in which papers were read and discussions followed, on the country's problems and the remedies for its ills. It was an attempt to give thought to the problems and aspirations that were becoming articulate amongst the youth in Ceylon.

    From Jaffna College and its debating societies and the Servants of Lanka Society, Handy went to the University College in Colombo and took up residence in the Union Hostel. ‘While we were at the Union Hostel,’ he later reminisced, ‘our Warden Mr. C. Suntheralingam's dictum was that within the four walls of the hostel we could talk the most rabid treason with impunity. But outside we shall be called upon to pay the penalty of the law. Something similar was the atmosphere at Jaffna College also in the Bicknell days’ (Kadirgamar, 1980).C. Suntheralingam was later to become guide, friend and philosopher to the Congress, behind the scenes.

    During holidays and weekends, Handy would meet like-minded friends. These included in addition to the names noted earlier, S. Nadesan, S.U. Somasegaram, Swami Vipulananda, M. Balasundaram, P. Nagalingam, A.E. Tamber, S. Subramaniam, V. Thillainathan, S. Rajanayagam, K. Navaratnam, V. Muthucumaru, J.C. Amerasingham, S.S. Sivapragasam, J.W.A. Kadirgamar, A.M.K. Cumaraswamy, V.K. Nathan, S.J. Gunasegaram, K. Nesiah, Sam Sabapathy, S.C. Chithamparanathan and several others. Some of them were senior students in the colleges in Jaffna.

    The climate seemed to be conducive for the inauguration of a movement primarily of young people. An exploratory meeting was held at the then Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) Jaffna on 1 November 1924. About 30 young people were present. Among them were teachers, lawyers and students in the upper levels of colleges in Jaffna. These included several aforementioned names. Balasundram, university scholar in mathematics, due shortly to leave for Cambridge, and S. Durai Raja Singam were elected joint secretaries. After a preliminary exchange of views it was unanimously resolved to inaugurate an organization to be called Students' Congress, Jaffna. Handy later emphasized that they decided to call it Students' Congress, Jaffna rather than Jaffna Students' Congress, because they did not wish to give the new organization a parochial flavour. In 1931, though the name was changed to the Youth Congress, Jaffna, it was better known as the Jaffna Youth Congress. Both names, Students' Congress and Jaffna Youth Congress are used in the following.

    The Impact of Gandhian Nationalism

    Nationalism in Asia in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century was primarily anti-imperialist. In fact this phase stretched into the second half of the 20th century, as seen in the Vietnamese struggle for independence and unification. Even the Peoples’ Republic of China had to wait until the early 1970s to gain international legitimacy and take its rightful place in the UN. In Africa, it was only in 1990 with the release of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid, that the anti-imperial phase came to an end. In the Middle-East the struggle continues.

    The word militant is often associated with armed struggles. The key word is struggle and militancy need not necessarily be associated with the use of arms. There is a certain spirituality associated with struggle. Gandhi demonstrated that militancy could be non-violent. The Maoist dictum that ‘power grows out of the barrel of a gun’ without doubt has influenced several militant struggles in the second half of the 20th century. With all its mighty arsenals of nuclear weapons and high-tech air and sea-borne weapons the United States of America is finding it extremely difficult to impose its will on the rest of the world. Much of the opposition to attempts at world hegemony by the USA is expressed in worldwide non-violent demonstrations and the growing anti-war movement in the USA and UK itself. The Jaffna Youth Congress was committed to non-violent militancy. This was aptly demonstrated in the successful boycott of the 1931 election in Jaffna. This was due to the tremendous impact the Gandhian movement had on these youth.

    Gandhi had arrived in India from South Africa where he had evolved the concept of Satyagraha and non-violence in 1915. The Montague–Chelmsford reforms (1918) had held forth the prospects of a gradual progress towards self-government. But in reality, imperialism revealed its iron hand in promulgating the Rowlatt Acts, followed by the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre, in Amritsar—which in turn strengthened the forces of Indian nationalism. The masses were drawn into politics and the Indian struggle for freedom entered its militant phase. Students in India began to play an important role in the struggle.

    In considering Tamil or Sinhalese nationalism (both fed the chauvinism/extremism among their antagonists) we must not forget the global dimensions of nationalism and the struggle for self-determination vis-à-vis the one time colonizing powers. The primary contradiction continues. It is between the countries of the third world and the G8 countries, the USA, the UK, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, Canada and Russia—all, with the exception of Canada and Russia, were colonizing powers. Russia through the Communist Party had exercised control over its neighbours. The other colonial powers were Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Belgium. The UK, the classic imperial power of the 19th century, has not yet fully resolved its relations with a segment of the Irish people that it dominated for centuries in Northern Island.

    The Indian nationalist movement itself had been influenced by other events in Asia and Europe. In the Russo-Japanese War of 1903–1904, for the first time after 400 years of European aggression and expansion an Asian power defeated a European power. Other noteworthy events that had a global and regional impact were the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and self-determination that came to the forefront with the end of the First World War, which the distinguished Indian historian K.M. Panikkar labelled the European Civil War. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire opened the doors for a wave of nationalist aspirations in the Balkans. All these had a great impact on the Indian nationalist movement. Parallel to the stirrings in India and also influenced by the rapid growth of nationalism in India was the rise of the Kuo Min Tang founded by Sun Yat Sen in China, carried forward and further radicalized by Marxism-Leninism and the rise of the Communist Party under the leadership of Mao Tse Tung and Chou En Lai. The leaders that emerged in Asia in the second quarter of the 20th century included Aung San in Burma, Sukarno in Indonesia and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam.

    The nationalism of the Jaffna Youth of the 1920s to the 1930s has to be seen in this global context. The men of that generation in the evening of their lives took pride in the stand that they had taken. To them in the words of the poet ‘bliss it was in that dawn to be alive’. The turbulent happenings in India filtered into Jaffna through the leading English language newspapers from India. The educated Jaffna youth of that day read, discussed and were deeply influenced by what was happening in India. The very proximity to India and ties of language, religion and culture between the people of Jaffna and India, especially South India, make the bonds between the two peoples strong, and travel across the Palk Strait for variety of reasons—pilgrimage, education, employment and conferences (such as that of the Student Christian Movement and Young Mens’ Christian Association)—exposed Jaffna youth to the rapidly growing Indian nationalist movement and the freedom struggle.

    The members of the Jaffna Youth Congress were not elitist, certainly not in economic and class terms. There were no large landholdings worthy of mention in Jaffna. The peninsula's economy has been referred to as a postal or money order economy depending on remittances from Colombo, Malaya (Malaysia) and Singapore. Education in Jaffna was not confined to the economically advantaged. Those who went up the educational ladder came from families that thrived on these remittances, or the fruits of their vegetable gardens and or small plots of paddy fields often leading a hand-to-mouth existence. In the first two decades of the 20th century boys went to school in verti, without a shirt and barefoot. They walked all the way from Chavakachcheri, Manipay or Karainagar to Jaffna town or Vaddukoddai. They wore a coat without a shirt when they reached the higher forms. As late as the 1940s and 1950s, several students were attending school barefooted in verti and shirt—some of them later in life becoming top professionals in medicine, engineering and education and reaching the position of high dignitaries in the church. The bullock cart was a popular means of transportation for the girls while the boys walked or cycled to school. Some, who later became wealthy professionals, had to get up at 4.30 in the morning, irrigate their vegetable gardens drawing water from the wells using the time-honoured ‘thula’ (thula mithithal) that dotted the familiar landscape of Jaffna in the pre-kerosene and electric pump age.

    Education was the very ethos of life in Jaffna. Some have referred to it as Jaffna's main industry. The school on par with temple and church was the centre and heart of the social life of the community. Therefore, it was not surprising that the origins of the Students' Congress took place in the leading colleges of Jaffna, especially at Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai.

    The content of the education received in the 1920s especially in the humanities was far superior to what we have had in the last four decades. The quality and breadth of education together with the liberal tradition that prevailed at Jaffna College under Principal John Bicknell (1910–1935) was significant. The products of Jaffna schools, even those who had come under strong missionary influence and converted to Christianity, were not culturally divorced from the people of the peninsula, in contrast to the English-educated elite that emerged in the western province, and in Colombo in particular. The very ‘Indianness’ of the Gandhian movement struck responsive chords amongst the English educated in Jaffna both young and old and made it possible for the youth of Jaffna to respond to the Gandhian movement in the way that they did.

    Programme and Participants

    The JYC from its inception was motivated by the desire of youth to make an impact on society. Politics, social life, education and cultural activities had been dominated by the older generation. Well read in English and Tamil, these youth were convinced that they had a contribution to make. Jaffna had had a long history in education. The developments in India over a century had an impact on Jaffna. Raja Ram Mohan Roy, subsequent movements, and in particular the Ramakrishna Mission and its eloquent representative Swami Vivekananda had established a revivalist tradition. Politically Tilak and Gokhale paved the way for the freedom movement. By the 1920s, the leadership had passed on to Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose to name just three of the most prominent among a galaxy of leaders both men and women that the Indian national movement threw to the forefront. In fact the Indian National Congress itself, when it was founded in 1885, was perceived primarily as a cultural and social reform movement. But the objective conditions that were developing in relation to British imperialism and the slow pace at which political reforms were being introduced expedited the growth of a nationalist movement that became radical.

    In Ceylon a microscopic minority consisting of the English-educated class dominated politics in the whole country. When Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan was elected the first Ceylonese member of the Legislative Council in 1910, the electorate consisted of just about 4,000 voters island-wide. They had to be English educated. This class resisted the widening of the franchise as demonstrated by the evidence led before the Donoughmore Commission. The youth of Jaffna, though not in a state of rebellion or confrontation against these elders, were projecting a position in which they were to identify the more progressive members of this class. The youth were not trying to lead. But they were trying to work together with those who struck a responsive chord among them in the task of bringing about social and cultural reforms. It was a matter of time when the ensuing situation pushed them to adopt a radical position in politics.

    The first session of the Students' Congress was held at the Ridgeway Hall, Jaffna (situated where the later Town Hall stood) on 29–31 December 1924. Several well-known educationists participated. Handy Perinbanayagam was the chief organizer. Several young men among who were M. Balasundram and S. Durai Raja Singam assisted him. A large number of students estimated at about 300 together with recent graduates and undergraduates attended the inaugural sessions. Seating was in ‘national’ style, on carpets, and all present were in ‘national costume’.

    The Students' Congress from its very inception broke new ground in the political and public life of Jaffna and for that matter in the whole of Ceylon by giving the national language a place of honour. It became the first organization in Jaffna and perhaps the whole of Ceylon where the English-educated classes used one of the national languages together with the English language to conduct the proceedings of the organization. The resolution forming the Students' Congress was moved by M. Balasundram and was seconded by S. Nadesan of the University College and was passed unanimously. It read as follows: ‘The students assembled in this hall do hereby resolve that a Congress be formed for the purpose of quickening national impulse and for directing the energy of the youth of this country in the path of sincere, selfless national service and that it shall be named the “Students' Congress”.’ One of the young men present made a stirring speech in which he referred to the great national awakening that was taking place. He called upon those present to alleviate the sufferings of the starving people, the unemployed and oppressed women. The remedy for their present deplorable state, he stressed, lay not in their sending of deputations to England to plead for reforms or fighting for reserved seats in the Legislative Council but that it depended upon their sincere desire to serve their motherland.

    J.V. Chelliah deplored the existence of communal jealousy between different communities in the island and appealed to them to make national unity one of their main planks of activity. He referred to the curse of untouchability and the evil effects of the dowry system and called on the youth to translate these ideals into practical action. He emphasized the role of the youth in eradicating the social evils prevalent in the country.

    On the third day, V. Muthucumaru and S.J. Gunasegaram led a discussion on ‘Mass Education’. V. Muthucumaru in his address emphasized personal contact with the people and called on the youth to ‘go among the people and converse with them freely on subjects of social and national interest. Go in the dress of the people lest they fail to recognize you as one of their own. Speak with them in their own language, otherwise they will not listen to you’. The primary task he set before the youth was to teach the people to rise above their feeling of inferiority and helplessness. ‘Why is Mahatma Gandhi so successful in his work? It is mainly because he lives like them, and talks to them in their own speech’ and he added that ‘if the educated have any influence at all on the people it is the baneful one of making them admire foreign dress, customs and manners’. He drew attention to how the newspapers had an undesirable effect in the manner in which they advertised foreign goods and medicines. ‘So long as you use foreign articles, we can neither become self-reliant, nor make the people forget that brooding sense of inferiority with which they are obsessed.’ In espousing Gandhian values of self-reliance and rejection of foreign goods he had sensed the mood of the youth responsible for the inauguration of the Students' Congress. Many of them had already donned the national dress. Some of them had discarded the trousers for good and never again went back to the use of Western attire in their lifetime.

    Muthucumaru's speech therefore struck a responsive chord among the youth present. In his address he did make references without elaborating on them, to the forces of capitalism and the enslavement and exploitation of the working classes, the barriers of social conventions and the oppressive nature of political power. He underlined the need to educate the masses on questions concerning the welfare of the people such as old-age pensions, the housing problem, national insurance and unemployment. He stressed the need to destroy caste prejudices against particular industries and forms of manual work. He appealed to the youth in these words, ‘It rests with you young men, to take up the great work of educating the people. Carry the light of knowledge to every door. Let the difference between you and the masses be one of character and culture rather than that of dress or speech or habit.’ Other speakers included T.N. Subbiah and Navaneetha Krishna Bharathi.

    In the final session of the congress, a series of resolutions moved by Handy Perinbanayagam were passed:

    • That this Congress recognizing that it is possible for people of all religions to work for the welfare of the motherland and promote its interests with equal sincerity and earnestness resolves that as far as the Congress is concerned that no distinction be made between or preference shown to anyone of the various religious bodies in the country and that no sectarian issue be ever raised in any general or committee meetings held by the Congress or any propaganda carried by it, and that a clause to this effect be invested in the Constitution
    • That a committee be appointed to organize sub-organisations affiliated to the Congress, wherever a number of students can be made to form themselves into such sub-organisations.
    • That this Congress is of opinion that the caste differences existing at present in the country are an obstacle to the progress of the nation and resolves that the members of the Congress strive as far as possible to remove the curse of untouchability from our midst.
    • That the members of the Congress bind themselves by a pledge to devote at least three hours in the week to the study of and cultivation of the national literature.
    • That a prize, medal or some other form of inducement be offered by the Congress to anyone who does some original work for the revival of national literature, art or music.
    • That a committee of five members be appointed by the executive committee to devise ways and means to develop the national literature in the following branches: (a) Science (b) Fiction (c) Social history and biography.
    • That the Congress take early steps to see that the teaching of Tamil in schools in South Ceylon and Sinhala in schools in North Ceylon be introduced.
    • That the executive committee of this Congress be asked to take such steps as to make the sessions of the Congress to be held in April 1925 representative of all races (principally Sinhalese and Tamils) creeds and interests.
    • That a publication committee of three be formed to print and publish leaflets in order to explain to the masses the objects of the Congress movement and to educate them in habits of temperance and cooperation.
    • That the Congress resolves that the members as far as possible patronize local trade and industries, and in particular that they should eschew foreign soap, scents, toilet powder, liquor and cigarettes.

    It is evident from the foregoing resolution that the Students' Congress from its very inception adopted a radical line on social reforms and set before its members a programme for national resurgence. It is worthy of note that nowhere in these resolutions is there any indication that they were concerned with a purely Tamil revival. One the contrary, the word ‘national’ is repeatedly used keeping in mind an all-island perspective. The hope was that the Students' Congress would grow into an All-Ceylon Students Congress. It happened that the Students' Congress being active in Jaffna among the Tamil people, the resolutions translated into practice amounted to a revival of the Tamil language and literature.

    The resolution that Sinhala be taught to Tamil students and that Tamil be taught to Sinhalese students indicates again their commitment to national unity. In the context of the communalism, mutual suspicion and animosity that was creating a widening gulf and gradually tearing apart the Sinhalese and Tamil political leaders of the time, the Students' Congress set before itself the ideal of unity of all races and creeds.

    The first resolution excludes religious sectarianism. The 1920s marked the emergence of a period of Hindu–Christian rivalry in Jaffna that lasted for nearly nearly two decades. The columns of the Hindu Organ and the Morning Star testify to a growing spirit of animosity and rivalry especially over the opening of new schools and the patronage exercised over existing schools. The young men of Jaffna were determined not to succumb to the sectarianism of either the Hindus or the Christians. The Students' Congress was acutely conscious of the divisive forces at work, and gave high priority to this problem. The Students' Congress originated and derived its inspiration from the environs of Jaffna College, a leading Christian institution. Hence the Congress was at times labelled as under Christian influence. J.V. Chelliah, Vice-Principal of Jaffna College and a leading layman of the Jaffna Council of the South India United Church, had been elected president of the Congress. The leaders of the Congress were therefore anxious to dispel any doubts about the secular nature of the organization. Several well-known Hindu leaders did participate in the programme of the Congress.

    The resolutions at the first congress tend to give the impression that politics had been relegated to the background. There was indeed no resolution on self-government. This was to be expected. In India, the struggle for full self-government was beginning to take shape only in the 1920s. In Ceylon there was hardly any demand or voices raised in favour of self-government. At this time political thinking did not go beyond patchwork changes in the prevailing political structure like throwing open the upper echelons of the public service to Ceylonese, setting up of a university and increased representation in the Legislative Council. Even the suffrage was limited to the English-educated middle class. The aspirations and aims of these young men were profoundly influenced by the situation in India. But in India itself the Indian National Congress resolved in favour of full independence only in 1930.

    While there was a vague aspiration for self-government not clearly articulated at this time but which was to mature into the demand for full self-government at the 1931 sessions of the Students' Congress, the inaugural sessions concerned itself with the immediately realizable practical tasks of social reform and revival of the national languages. The radicalism of the Students' Congress at this time lay in its attitude to caste. The very fact that students and youth of Jaffna had organized themselves into a Congress was itself a radical venture in those times. In conservative Jaffna, obedience and respect for elders was one of those unwritten laws that were strictly adhered to. In this rigid caste-oriented feudalistic society, the Students' Congress was able to commit its members to the removal of ‘the curse of untouchability’. This indicated the radical course that the Congress had set before itself. It also bore evidence to the extent to which Gandhism had captivated the minds of the youth of Jaffna.

    The second annual sessions were held at the Vaithilingam Madam at Keerimalai from 27 April to 29 April 1925. P. de S. Kularatne delivered the presidential address. Other participants included T.P. Masilamany, A.M.K. Cumaraswamy and Swami Vipulananda who led the discussion in Tamil. It was reported that Kularatne kept the youth spellbound with his speech for more than an hour. He underlined the three aims of the Congress: (i) to revive national art, literature and music; (ii) to make Ceylon economically independent; and (iii) to train the young for national service in particular and to work for the realization of the ideal of a United Ceylonese Nation. These three aims had virtually become the creed of the Congress and the participants at these sessions had to subscribe to these aims. Kularatne was at this time held in high regard by the people of Jaffna because of his commitment to all-island nationalism. As the Hindu Organ puts it, he was welcome as the first England-returned Ceylonese to defy public opinion and prove in the teeth of opposition that it is not clothes that make the man but man that makes the clothes. In retrospect, the participation of Kularatne appears significant. In the post-independence period he became an ardent advocate of Sinhala Only. This was by no means a phenomenon confined to the Sinhalese. The same happened to some notable Tamils. It is worth remembering how one-time idealists succumbed to the forces of Sinhalese and Tamil nationalism/communalism/chauvinism.

    The third annual sessions were held in Keerimalai at the Vaithilingam Madam, under the presidentship of Dr Isaac Thambiah in December 1926. S. Kulandran, later Bishop delivered the welcome address. Other participants included M.S. Eliathamby who spoke on ‘Ceylon a United Nation’. At the Tamil sessions on the second day Pundit K.C. Nathan presided. S. Natesapillai spoke on ‘New ways to Literature’.

    The fourth sessions of the Students' Congress was held at the Vaithilingam Madam, Keerimalai in April 1928. Swami Vipulananda known for his religious zeal, scholarship and commitment to the cause of nationalism and educational development presided. He was a pioneer in the teaching and writing about the sciences in Tamil. Speakers included Sri S. Satyamurthy, Deputy Leader of the Swarajist Party in Madras, and noted Sinhalese personalities such as G.K.W. Perera who had been principal of the Nalanda Vidyalaya, and A.E. Goonesinha the labour leader. In additon, lectures were delivered by R. Sri Pathmanathan and A. Canagaratnam. As Chairman of the Reception Committee, S. Nadesan then a law student set the tone for the radical stance adopted at this congress session. George E. de Silva M.M.C. Kandy who had been invited to address the congress on ‘Ceylon's Political Future’ was not able to be present but had sent a message, which was read out in which he had urged the creation of facilities for free and compulsory education all over the country and the elimination of religious and caste prejudices.

    The fifth annual sessions of the Students' Congress assembled at Kankesanturai with a special pandal erected for the purpose in April 1929. The sessions were presided over by V. Kalyanasundara Mudaliyar, a pioneer of Tamil journalism in South India. In the early decades of the century E.V. Ramasamy Naikkar (Periyar), Dr Varadarajulu and Kalyanasundara Mudaliyar had made a major contribution towards the evolution of the language as an effective vehicle of modern political and social ideas. Among them Kalyanasundara Mudaliyar was known as ‘Tamil Thenral’ the gentle breeze that brought vigour to Tamil prose and influenced generations of Tamil writers. His two newspapers the Desapakthan (Patriot) and Nava Sakthi (New Strength) had a profound influence on the political education of the average citizen and made the Tamil language a powerful instrument for the dissemination of the Gandhian concept of Satyagraha and Ahimsa. Other participants included Revd Francis (Alagasunderam) Kingsbury, Tamil scholar and first lecturer in Tamil at the Ceylon University College. He addressed the gathering on ‘Some Social Problems in Jaffna’. T.B. Jayah had been invited to speak at the sessions but was not able to attend the congress. Peri Sundaram who spoke on ‘Youth and Politics’ took his place. E.W. Perera presided at this session.

    The sixth annual sessions of the Students' Congress met at the Thirunelvely Hindu Training Institute in April 1930. The president-elect for the year was Mr S. Shivapathasundaram, Principal, Victoria College, the highly respected orthodox Hindu savant later known as Saiva Periyar. Among some influential but conservative Hindus there was a growing feeling that the Students' Congress was primarily under Christian influence. Shivapathasundaram's acceptance of the invitation and the support he gave to the JYC, had a great impact in strengthening the integrity of the JYC as a movement that rose above religious or linguistic sectarianism.

    Gandhi's Visit

    The initial invitation to Gandhi to visit the country went from the Jaffna Youth Congress. When he finally arrived in November 1927, the functions in Colombo and the rest of the country, with the exception of Jaffna, were in the hands of several prominent persons in the public life of the country including members of the Legislative Council. Gandhi reserved Jaffna for his final days in Ceylon and arrived on the 26 November. ‘The Jaffna Station’, reported the Ceylon Independent ‘was the scene of a seething mass of humanity’. In his farewell speech in Colombo Gandhi had said, ‘Somehow or other I feel that I am going to a different place in going to Jaffna.’ And at his very first meeting in Jaffna he again said, ‘Having come to Jaffna I do not feel that I am in Ceylon, but I feel that I am in a bit of India. Neither your faces nor your language is foreign to me.’

    In the peninsula, the Jaffna Youth Congress took charge of his programme, which in Desai's words were ‘mercilessly heavy’. The organization that went into making the visit a spectacular success had enhanced the prestige of the JYC among the people. The public meeting on the esplanade was followed by an address to the Youth Congress. He later addressed the Indian community in Jaffna. He had meetings with the Hindus, the missionaries and Christians, and members of the Saiva Mangayar Kalagam. Most significant were his visits to the leading colleges in Jaffna. These included Jaffna Hindu College, Parameswara College, Manipay Hindu College, Victoria College, Ramanathan College, Jaffna Central College, St. John's College, Uduvil Girls’ College, the Tellipallai Weaving School and Jaffna College. In addition to the places where these colleges were situated he made brief stops at Puttur, Atchuvely, Valvettiturai, Point Pedro, Chavakachcheri, Chunnakam, Moolai and Karainagar. The major speeches he made have been published in Gopalkrishna Gandhi's comprehensive and valuable book titled Gandhi and Sri Lanka 1905–1947.

    In these speeches he touched on the issues relevant to the times such as caste, prohibition, revival of ancient culture, Buddhism and Hinduism, Hindu–Christian relations, the place of Jesus among the great teachers of the world, communalism, problems of aping the West and nationalism.

    Two themes received special attention, religious controversies and the starving millions in India. Differences had risen in Jaffna between Hindu and Christian leaders as a result of the ownership and management of schools. The patronage that went with teacher appointments and the influence that schools wielded in society, more than the quality of education or the needs of the poor, were beneath the growing animosities. Gandhi called ‘for the broadest toleration’ and added, ‘I do not expect the India of my dreams to develop one religion, that is, to be wholly Hindu, or wholly Christian or wholly Mussulman, but I want it to be wholly tolerant, with its religions working side by side with one another.’

    A largely attended meeting took place in the Vaideeswara Vidyalayam. Gandhi noted that the meeting had been confined to Hindus, which ‘I take to mean that I should speak to you as a Hindu.’ Claiming to be an orthodox Hindu he defined what it meant to be one and explained: ‘Orthodox Hinduism can mean an unceasing search after what Hinduism can possibly be…an incessant striving to live Hinduism up to the best of one's lights.’ Reminding them of their duty in Jaffna and Ceylon and in particular to the predominant population that was Buddhist he said, ‘they are your co-religionists. They will, if they choose repudiate your claim, for they will say that Buddhism is not Hinduism and they will be partly right. Many Hindus,’ he said, ‘repudiate the claim of Buddhism to be part and parcel of Hinduism. On the contrary they delight in saying that they successfully drove Buddhism out of India. I tell you that they did nothing of the kind. Buddha himself was a Hindu and he endeavoured to reform Hinduism. He succeeded in his attempt to a very large extent. What Hinduism did at that time was to assimilate and absorb all that was good and best in the teaching of the Buddha. On that account I ventured to say that Hinduism became broadened,’ and he called upon them to live this broadened Hinduism.

    At Central College he said, ‘I have regarded Jesus of Nazareth as one amongst the mighty teachers that the world has had, and I say this in all humility,’ and added, ‘I do not regard any of the great religions of the world as false…A liberal education to all should include a reverent study of other faiths…culture of the mind must be subservient to the culture of the heart.’ At Uduvil Girls’ College he said, ‘Your parents do not send you to school to become dolls; on the contrary, you are expected to become Sisters of Mercy.’ He complimented the school saying, ‘that it is such a nice thing that here there is no distinction between high class and low class, touchable and untouchables.’ At Ramanathan College he appealed to the girls, ‘that if you could but establish a living link between those famishing millions and yourselves, there is some hope for you, for them and the world.’ He went on to say that it is good and elevating to begin the day with worship, ‘but it may easily amount to a beautiful ceremony and nothing else if worship is not translated day after day into some practical work.’ At Jaffna College concluding his tour of schools he spoke of khadi, truth and love and said that it had given him great pleasure to visit so many educational institutions in the peninsula and expressing thanks for the purse given to him by the students of Jaffna said, ‘your money comes with the stamp of innocence upon it, and goes to millions or some of the millions of men and women who are innocent, and deliberately perhaps, because they cannot be otherwise.’

    In all his speeches he never failed to remind the youth of Jaffna about the plight of the starving millions in India under British imperial domination and on whose behalf he had called for financial donations, most of which came in small sums from the students and youth of Jaffna. In his farewell message to the Joint Secretaries of the Reception Committee in Jaffna he wrote, ‘The message that I can leave for Jaffna as for the whole of Ceylon is: “let it not be out of sight, ought of mind”. Let the descriptions I have given you of the starving millions haunt you and keep you in touch with them.’


    The impact that Gandhi's visit had was significant. It emboldened the youth to take on some of the controversial issues of the time. One of these was ‘Communalism’. From that time, right into the 1970s, the discourse on Sinhalese–Tamil relations was taken up under the title communalism. It certainly had a negative connotation. Apparently borrowed from the debate in India, to be a communalist was to go against all that nationalism stood for. A communalist was reactionary, creating disunity and was regarded as tacitly assisting the imperialists to prolong their rule in the country. Terms such as the ‘national question’ and subsequently ‘ethnic’ became common usage only in the late 1970s and 1980s.

    Communalism figured prominently in the fourth annual sessions of the Students' Congress held at Keerimalai in April 1928. Over a thousand young people attended this session from both within and outside the peninsula. This was evidence of the popularity of the Congress among the youth. It had now become an organization that had to be taken into account in the public life of Jaffna. The Congress was beginning to play an important part in moulding public opinion and had to be taken seriously by the men of the older generation. An organization that had with such spectacular success brought Gandhi to Ceylon, and whose programme in Jaffna was practically in its hands could not but command respect.

    S. Nadesan, then a law student, set the tone for the radical stance adopted at this Congress session. He delivered the welcome speech. The greater part of his speech dealt with the evidence led before the Donoughmore Commission whose members had arrived in November 1927.

    The report of the Donoughmore Commission for constitutional reform was presented to the British Parliament in July 1928. The Students' Congress later rejected the main recommendations of the commission. At this time, in April 1928, when the fourth annual sessions were being held Nadesan commented on the nature of the evidence that had been led before the commission. He characterized it as a sordid period in the history of this country when the sleeping dogs of reaction were being awakened from their slumber. He referred to how communities, creeds and castes were up in arms against one another and were proclaiming to the world not only their own selfish and parochial aims and desires but also the alleged unfitness of the country for self-government. He said that every patriot must be ashamed of what happened. Respectable public men went before the Special Commission and said that their respective castes, creeds and communities would perish if their rights were not safeguarded by special representation in the Legislative Council. Nadesan ventured to make a scathing criticism of the older men whom he characterized as self-seekers who created a vicious atmosphere with ill-digested and ignorant schemes of reform. Councillors and would-be councillors in Nadesan's view grew frantically religious and proclaimed that a few more seats in the council would help them to strengthen and propagate their respective religions. He asserted that, if age produced such irresponsibility, the sooner such leaders left the stage, the better and if such men of great intellect would not free themselves from the slave mentality brought about by such long subjection, the greater was the need to work for and achieve Home Rule.

    He referred to communal representation as a quack's remedy, an evil that ought not to be recognized. He said that contrary to bringing the various communities any closer communal antipathy was growing and that there were now more divisions than ever before. In this respect the welcome address appeared to have anticipated the now well-known comments that the Donoughmore Report made in rejecting communal representation in this country:

    In surveying the situation in Ceylon we have come unhesitatingly to the conclusion that communal representation is, as it were, a canker on the body politic, eating deeper and deeper into the vital energies of the people, breeding self-interest, suspicion and animosity, poisoning the new growth of political consciousness and effectively preventing the development of a national or corporate spirit… There can be no hope of binding together the diverse elements of the population in a realization of their common kinship and an acknowledgement of common obligations to the country of which they are all citizens so long as the system of communal representation with all its disintegrating influences, remains a distinctive feature of the constitution.

    In the context of what he had said, Nadesan recalled the tour of Gandhiji and referred to it as having given a tremendous impetus to the aims and ideals for which the Congress stood and stressed that if there was any time when the country needed to hear such a man it was the present time. At such a time, said the speaker, the catholic message of Mahatma Gandhi was most opportune. Gandhiji's words, full of authority and power, went far towards preventing a more shameful exhibition of narrow mindedness and lack of political insight.

    In attempting to meet the argument that the Sinhalese majority is likely to dominate and further their own position at the expense of the other races under conditions of self-government, Nadesan said that after long years of subjugation to foreign rule, the chances were that the majority community at the beginning of self-government would use power for narrow and selfish ends; but some years of experience in self-government would teach them that the strength of the nation requires that every community in the country needed to be developed to maximum efficiency for the state as a whole to have maximum power. He ventured to express the hope that then parochialism would cease and that people would think of the nation first. Self-government he said was the only remedy for their ills.

    The welcome address was followed by the presidential address by Swami Vipulananda. In a comprehensive speech, he stressed the all-important role of the Students' Congress in moulding intelligent public opinion. He referred to the significance of Mahatma Gandhi's visit and said that the saintly Indian leader had by his life shown the way of translating right thought into right action. He stressed Gandhiji's message calling on all communities, Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists who though professing different religions could join hands and work for a common cause. Swami Vipulananda gave first and foremost importance to education. Welcoming the plans for the setting up of a University of Ceylon, he said that the establishment of such a university would quicken national life. He expressed the hope that the oriental section of the future University of Ceylon should recognize the importance of Tamil studies. He advocated the inclusion of Indian history in the school curriculum. He looked forward to the university performing a vital role in training the future citizens of Ceylon in civic and political responsibility.

    The radicalism of the Swami found expression in his call for economic independence. Responsible government without economic progress, he said, would only be the shadow without the substance. The banking and commerce of the country was completely in the hands of outsiders. A large part of the country's wealth was in the hands of outsiders, who had no permanent interest in the welfare of the country. The European exploiter, he described, was more often than not a bird of passage. He deplored the widely prevalent habit of waiting for the government to do ‘nation-building’ work and attributed this to the slave mentality resulting from age-long subjection to foreign rule. He called upon the youth to work for a change in outlook and said that the people should work out their own salvation.

    He drew attention to the appalling poverty and shocking illiteracy prevailing in the country. He indicated that 50 per cent of the school-going population was not attending school and that the facilities required were inadequate. Most of the taxes in the country were indirect taxes. Swami Vipulananda made pointed reference to the fact that food stuffs most of which had to be imported were taxed and the super rich and the abjectly poor were all compelled to pay the same tax.

    Both Nadesan and Swami Vipulananda had occasion to comment on the prevailing bitterness between Hindus and Christians over the management of schools. Nadesan said that the Hindus by virtue of their greater needs should get more grant-in-aid from the government than the Christians. He said it was the duty of the Christians to assist the Hindus to realize their legitimate aspirations and that the Hindu leaders should avoid scrupulously all suspicion of religious animosity. He had also deplored the manner in which the children of minority Tamils were discriminated against especially in Hindu schools. Swami Vipulananda questioned why there should be a duplication of schools in certain areas while there were immense areas in the country without any educational facilities and where Hindu or Christian enterprise could and should give its attention. He pointed out that in Colombo alone 10,000 students did not have educational facilities. He said that the Ceylon Tamil could do a large amount of useful educational work in the districts where the children of Tamil labourers were growing up in ignorance and were being trained to a life of serfdom and slave labour of their fathers. He stressed the role of the American and European missionaries in the sphere of positive knowledge. The wealthy nations of the West he said could send to the East missionaries who would devote their lives to the advancement of science. Their motto should be, ‘Education for education's sake’ and they should forswear all endeavour at proselytizing. Their self-sacrificing labours would then find a readier appreciation and the present bitterness would cease. Swami Vipulananda appealed to the Hindus to be tolerant and said that even if the Christians persisted in propagating their religion by their stereotyped methods it was still open to the Hindus to be tolerant and patient and do what work they needed to do with less noise and greater friendliness to all.

    The Daily News in an editorial comment underlined this message of youth. It said, ‘any body who has followed the evidence given before the Special Commission will at once admit that if the future of the country is left at the mercy of its old men then Ceylon may as well sink into the ocean. Ceylonese of sixty years or so enter on their second childhood and commit acts of reckless irresponsibility.’ The attitude of the older men was characterized as ‘pitch-dark pessimism’ infused with an inability to trust themselves or their fellows and a reluctance to surrender positions they were unfit to hold. In such a situation the Daily News said the youth might look upon it as a challenge to fight for its proper place. Commending the Students' Congress for attempting to do this it said that no place was better fitted for this grand demonstration of the spirit of youth than the north which has been particularly afflicted by the incubus of old age, where two or three superannuated ‘leaders’ issue their fiat and the rest bow in mute obedience to it. The Daily News pointed out that in the north there is a stronger tendency than in the rest of the island to look to India. Their study of the Indian problem shows the youth of Jaffna the deplorable consequences of distrust and jealousy between one community and another. And the young men of Jaffna have sufficient imagination to apply the moral to this country.’ Expressing total agreement with the stand taken by the Students' Congress on self-government, the Daily News said, ‘it was a Tamil organization which put forward one of the most consistent cases for self-government before the Special Commission.’

    Sri Satyamurthy who was the guest speaker from India spoke on ‘Communalism our great danger’. He was well known for his eloquence and his political acumen. Addressing the sessions on the second day, he dealt at length on nationalism, internationalism and communalism. He accused the Englishmen of growing frantically philosophic when other peoples’ affairs were concerned, pointing to the narrowness of nationalism and holding aloft internationalism to the Indians and Ceylonese. In the speaker's view, internationalism was no doubt ideal. But one needed to be strong oneself in order to more effectively help others. Nationalism and the will to be masters in their own country, he said was an essential first step to internationalism. The danger of communalism, he said, was like poison to an individual. Communalism is narrow and utterly selfish and circumscribed and in its very nature was the contradiction of nationalism. The speaker categorized those who advocated the path of communalism both in India and Ceylon as people who were either the shameless tools of the people in power or belonged to the species who always looked eagerly for the approving nod from high places whence sprang honours and decorations.

    Speaking with deep conviction from his Indian experience, Sri Satyamurthy called on the youth of Jaffna to reject the path of communalism with its poisoning effect on politics and to learn from the experience of India. He traced in detail the slow introduction of communal representation into the Legislative Council of India by the British masters and remarked that they had succeeded in great measure in their game of dividing the people of India. In making a spirited plea for unity, he said with reference to Ceylon that whatever fear existed among the minority communities in Ceylon regarding domination by the majority, was misplaced. There was nothing in the history of this ancient land, said the speaker, to justify such fears. He posed the question quite relevant at that time as to why people should be ready to be ruled by an alien race and be afraid of rule by their brothers who were children of the same country.

    Satyamurthy emphasized in his address the long and intimate connection between India and Ceylon. He touched on the conditions of Indian labourers in Ceylon and said that the much despised Indian labourers had done one great thing and that was to remind Ceylonese, who were almost forgetful, of their age-long connection with Bharatha Matha the land of their origin where was their treasured religious heritage.

    Basking in this glory and success of Mahatma Gandhi's visit and imbued with a spirit of self-confidence the fourth annual sessions of the Students' Congress had ventured into the hitherto forbidden territory of attack on the existing political leadership without mentioning them by name, yet making the objects of their criticism quite clear. The Congress, was in effect, formulating a programme for self-government, patterned on that of the Indian national movement. The Congress was not yet action oriented. The emphasis was still on lectures, discussions and moulding of public opinion. The Ceylon Patriot and the Hindu Organ commended the youth. The latter commenting on the Congress sessions said, ‘Unity is the first condition of success in any movement. Sinhalese-Tamil unity which has been emphasised by more than one speaker in the Students' Congress is the basic foundation of self-government in Ceylon.’ The paper chose to comment on an editorial in the London Times dated 22 March 1927 which characterized the Ceylon National Congress as an organization of extremists whose demand for full responsible government was opposed by all the minorities including the Tamils. The Hindu Organ affirmed that the London Times’ statement had no foundation whatsoever and that the Tamil community never lagged behind the Sinhalese in pressing for the grant of responsible government. It said that the All-Ceylon Tamil Conference, the Jaffna Association and the Jaffna Saiva Paripalana Sabai had unitedly put forward this demand.

    The Hindu Organ conceded that there were a few Tamils ‘who in season and out of season trot out the bogey of Sinhalese domination’. The Hindu Organ backed the Students' Congress fully and expressed the hope that destined to live together in this common homeland in peace, goodwill and harmony the coming constitutional struggle afforded the Sinhalese and Tamils an excellent occasion to gather their forces together and put forward their demand for responsible government from a common platform.

    When the report of the Donoughmore Commission was published later in the year the Executive Committee met and passed the following resolutions:

    The Report of the Donoughmore Commission is not acceptable to the Congress as it (the Congress) has always held Ceylon fit for responsible government.

    The Congress welcomes the abolition of communal representation and the extension of franchise but disapproves. (a) The retention of communalism in the shape of nominated members and (b) the non-extension of the franchise to women between the ages of twenty-one and thirty.

    The Congress views with alarm the extension of the Governor's reserve powers and the limitation of the control so far exercised by the legislature over the public service.


    The sixth annual sessions of the Students' Congress met at the Thirunelvely Hindu Training Institute in April 1930. Gandhi in practically all his speeches in Jaffna had given importance to the inequalities, the shameful and cruel oppression associated with the caste system. At this time in Jaffna, equal seating in schools had become a major issue. Eminent Hindus like Mr S. Shivapathasundram, the president-elect for the year, and others were deeply worried about the unrest and arson that was taking place because of attempts to introduce equal seating in schools. The lead that the Students' Congress gave appealed to the more liberal minded of the Hindu leaders. On the other hand, the more conservative and reactionary elements seized the opportunity presented by the Thirunelvely sessions to show open hostility to the Students' Congress. The adherents of the Veda Agama Sangam organized opposition to the Congress. They objected to the holding of the congress in the premises of the Saiva Training Institute, managed by the Hindu Board of Education. The opponents of equal seating had conducted a campaign in the village of Thirunelvely that if the Students' Congress were allowed to continue the practice of admitting the minority Tamils to equal treatment as regards seating and dining, this would gradually affect the whole social order in Jaffna. Passions were roused and all roads leading to the venue of the congress sessions were picketed and blocked, all means of drawing water from the neighbouring wells was removed and the well belonging to the Training Institute was polluted. The president's car itself was obstructed and stoned.

    The sessions however began after some delay with the singing of Gandhian songs. The chairman of the Reception Committee C. Subramaniam then delivered his welcome address. At this stage the crowd that had been organized to disrupt the sessions became restive. Hooting and howling gave way to incidents of stone throwing and acts of rowdyism. The members of the Congress kept cool and did not retaliate, but moved out of the hall. When some semblance of order had been restored the welcome address and the President's address were gone through. It was then decided to conduct the rest of the proceedings at the Ridgeway Hall, Jaffna. This decision was taken to avoid any further damage to the buildings, which were the property of the Hindu Board. But in spite of the sessions being held elsewhere, attempts were made to set the school hall on fire on the night of April 23. The President Mr Shivapathasundram was unperturbed by these incidents. He reminded the members of the Students' Congress of the baptismal fire they had gone through at an earlier session and said it was no wonder brimstone had followed.

    C. Subramaniam in his welcome address dealt with three major issues. They were cultural renaissance, untouchability and its related problem of equal seating in schools, and youth and politics. He called on the Congress to make every effort to give the mother tongue a prominent place in the school curriculum and for the use of the mother tongue as the medium of instruction. ‘Speaking as a teacher to fellow teachers’, the chairman of the reception committee said, ‘I would say that we are guilty of a heinous crime in willingly assisting a system that is day by day sapping the lifeblood of our students and stunting their intellectual growth and rendering them more and more effeminate by putting a severe strain on their nervous energy. If there is a tendency in our students to look down upon everything Eastern, the fault lies not in them but in the education we are giving them.’ A practical suggestion he made was that the mother tongue be made compulsory for all public examinations, and that the standard of question papers set for these examinations be raised appreciably high.

    The speaker dwelt at length on the issue of caste and Varnashrama Dharma and rejected the efforts made by some of the conservative Hindus to give a religious sanction to the caste system. As far as the Congress was concerned, the speaker claimed that the question was first and foremost one of social justice. He stressed that the removal of the disabilities suffered by the oppressed classes was an essential condition for political unity. The existing state of affairs made it necessary for one part of the nation to seek the protection of an alien bureaucracy against the oppressor while the alien bureaucracy kept the whole nation in bondage. Unless efforts were made to eradicate caste oppression, all talk about renaissance, freedom, spiritual rebirth and national heritage were futile. On behalf of the Students' Congress, C. Subramaniam welcomed the steps taken by the government to enforce in public institutions equality of treatment irrespective of caste, creed or race.

    He added:

    If by politics is meant the game of adjustments and compromises, the play upon passions and prejudices, the art of having one eye upon the next elections and the other on the good graces of the government, then the Students' Congress disdains to have anything to do with it. We are not at all interested in the number of seats the North gets in the New State Council; for in an assembly of over sixty members, it does not matter whether the North gets three seats or six seats. Mutual trust and goodwill alone will lead to national unity and this cannot be realised while we are scrambling for seats. The fight is a common fight against the bureaucracy that holds us in economic, cultural and political bondage and this fight cannot be sustained as long as one section of the country is coquetting with the government for its own ends.

    The caste issue occupied the central place in the 1930 sessions. The Students' Congress had at its sessions held in April supported fully the measures taken to ensure equal seating and had rejected the view disseminated by older men that the forming of public opinion and creation of a suitable climate for the implementation of such social reforms must precede their legal enforcement.

    The Hindu Board yielded to pressure from conservative quarters and adopted a resolution similar to that adopted by managers of schools at a meeting held at Ramanathan College and presided over by Sir P. Ramanathan. The Hindu Board resolution was as follows: ‘…that the managers’ liability under the code regulations that no differentiated treatment was received by any pupil in aided schools ceased on accommodation being found in the shape of seats for children of the depressed classes and that no manger should be penalised by loss of grant or otherwise should children of the depressed classes decline to occupy the seats provided for them.’ Together with an amendment this resolution was unanimously passed. The amendment read: ‘Unless the government guaranteed to make good the damage that may be caused to school property by incendiarism or by other means the Hindu Board should not enforce equal seating.’

    It is clear from these resolutions that those responsible for education among whom were some of the leading citizens of Jaffna were hesitant if not reluctant to commit themselves fully to equal seating in schools. Sir P. Ramanathan had led a deputation to the Governor on the problem that had cropped up regarding inter-dining at the Kopay Training Institute, where again there was considerable opposition to teacher trainees from the minority Tamil communities sitting together with persons of other castes. At this meeting, the question of equal seating in schools was taken up for discussion. The Colonial Secretary finally ruled that equal seating had always been interpreted by the Director of Education to mean that seats of the same kind and height should be provided for all children but that it does not require that children of ‘depressed classes’ and other children should sit on the same bench. In the light of the above-mentioned facts regarding the situation existing in Jaffna in 1930 on the caste problem the stand taken by the Students' Congress was very progressive.

    In spite of the opposition and attempts made to disrupt the annual sessions in 1930 the Congress passed among others the following resolutions:

    • This Congress re-affirms its emphatic protest against the social disabilities based on birth, occupation or wealth, existing in our country, and resolves to secure equal opportunities to all and to co-operate with other agencies engaged in the same work.
    • Further, this Congress appreciated the equitable rule introduced by the Department of Education requiring equal seating in all schools and makes an appeal to all our countrymen to do away with all such iniquitous distinctions obtaining in our schools.
    • This Congress holds that no nation can rise to the fullest measure of its destiny as long as women do not take an active part in the civic life of the country and appeals to the women of our land to come forward and share with men the responsibilities in the building up of the nation.
    • This Congress is of the opinion that the system of education obtaining in our schools is unsuited to the genius of our race and hold that the imparting of instruction through a foreign medium kills all originality in the pupil and imposes the double burden of mastering an alien tongue and the subject matter of study at one and the same time and resolves to work towards the introduction of the mother-tongue as the medium of instruction.

    Developments in India continued to have their impact on the students in Jaffna. It was the practice every year to celebrate the king's birthday. In Jaffna the main event was an inter-school sports meet. The students of Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai, made a sudden decision not to participate in the sports meet and celebrations in June 1930.

    There must have been some official arm-twisting behind the scenes and Mr Bicknell, who, left to himself would not have punished those responsible for such an escapade, serious though it was, was finally compelled to take action. A.S. Kanagaratnam was transferred to a school at Atchuvelly and Bonney Kanagathungam when he went on study leave was not taken back. Both were livewires of the Students' Congress and continued to be so.

    The Ceylon Patriot for all practical purposes became the organ of the Students' Congress and continued to be so until it ceased publication in 1933. Many of the stalwarts of the Congress helped in editing the paper and contributed to the columns of this weekly. The year 1930 also saw the publication of the influential Tamil weekly the Eelakersari, which from its inception was a staunch supporter of the Students' Congress. Eelakesaari Ponniah as the proprietor of this newspaper and the Thirumakal Press was popularly known in Jaffna, and was a close friend of Handy Perinbanayagam and other active members of the Students' Congress. A staunch nationalist and patriot he chose as his model V. Kalyanasundara Mudaliyar's ‘Nava Sakthi’. The Eelakesari gave wide publicity to the proceedings and policies of the Congress in the 1930s, and contributed towards the national awakening. The printing of Congress pamphlets, presidential addresses and later the publication entitled ‘Communalism or Nationalism’ were all undertaken by the Thirumakal Press. The Eelakesari gave wide publicity to the developments in India and became the primary medium through which the Tamil-reading public were able to follow the events in India. The Thirumakal Press publications became popular in the country. At a time when the poems and songs of freedom by the nationalist poet Subramania Bharathi were little known in India itself and less known in Ceylon ‘Eelakesari’ Ponniah in 1930, made available the entire works of Bharathi to the Tamil-reading public in Ceylon. In the 1940s, when the English weekly the ‘Kesari’ came into existence it was once again Mr Ponniah who undertook to publish the paper for Handy Perinbanayagam and others associated with its publications.

    The Boycott

    1931 was the year of the boycott. The Youth Congress has been best remembered and most misrepresented for its role in the boycott of elections to the First State Council. At the annual sessions in 1931, the name of the movement was changed from Students' Congress, Jaffna, to Youth Congress, Jaffna. While drawing its support largely from students its leaders had long since ceased to be students at school or university.

    In September 1930, the executive committee of the Congress had adopted a resolution calling upon its members not to participate in the elections to the State Council. To the Youth Congress, 1931 provided an opportunity for action that was feasible. Several members of the Congress were of opinion that Jaffna should give the lead in rejecting the reforms. They counted on support from radical and progressive elements in the south.

    The Legislative Council that came into existence in 1924 was dissolved on 17 April 1931. Nominations for the general elections to the new State Council were fixed for May 4th. The seventh annual sessions of the Youth Congress were held on the 23rd, 24th and 25th April which fell right between the date of dissolution and nomination day. Universal adult franchise was being introduced for the first time, which meant potential candidates had to take into account their standing with the masses. The youth of Jaffna were an important factor to be reckoned with, the Youth Congress having become the one single organization that had any degree of mass appeal.

    The seventh annual sessions were held on the Jaffna esplanade. Srimathi Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya was the president-elect for the 1931 sessions. The JYC had broken new ground in inviting a woman to preside. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya was the sister-in-law of Sarojini Naidu and was in her own right prominent in the freedom struggle in India.

    K. Nesiah delivering the welcome address said that Srimathi Kamaladevi was welcome as one who had earned for Indian women a name for patriotism and courage as a social reformer and an authority on women's education and follower of Mahatma Gandhi. Nesiah claimed that this was the first time a woman had been called upon to preside at a gathering of that nature in Ceylon. He said that her presence there was a challenge to the women of Ceylon to serve their country in the manner in which their Indian sisters were doing. He recalled the glory that was Lanka, how many races and religions found a common home in the Island. He traced the substantial achievements of the kings, monks and people both in moulding religious ideals and contributing towards economic prosperity. Parakramabahu the Great, he said, was a symbol of Sinhalese–Tamil unity. The speaker referred at length to the economic situation in the country and the nature of exploitation that British rule had led to. There had been some compensating advantages in some aspects of British rule. But there had been none in the economic domination. He noted that two-thirds of our national income went to the credit of persons from abroad and only one-third was earned by Ceylonese—while the non-Ceylonese contributed about two-sevenths of the tax revenue and the Ceylonese the other five-sevenths. Nesiah's welcome address was an exposure of the nature of British imperialist exploitation without precisely using these words, which were to become common usage and part of the political vocabulary in this country in subsequent decades with the emergence of the left movement. ‘We have no national policy,’ said he, ‘of fostering home industries, no fiscal policy of protective tariffs. We have yet to set up manufactures aided by Ceylonese capital, directed by Ceylonese management and employing Ceylonese labour.’ In words that have equal relevance today as decades ago he said, ‘Those who are making money out of the present system are blind to the fact that their prosperity is being built up on the growing poverty of the people.’ He continued, ‘Economic slavery pinches our stomachs, political slavery wounds our self-respect but the slavery of the mind kills the soul of the race. And to this last result our system of education has contributed in no small measure.’ He expressed the need for a national system of education and concluded his speech by stressing the aims and objectives of the Youth Congress.

    Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, in a radical but instructive lecture filled with facts, figures and information gathered from the study of the annual general reports, explained the nature of imperialist exploitation that was taking place in Ceylon. Commenting on the paucity of research on matters pertaining to the economy of the country she stressed the need to publish articles, pamphlets and books. ‘To fight a scientific opponent you need a scientific weapon and an economic grievance is unassailable and unchallengeable.’ Kamaladevi indicated the two-fold character of the struggle for freedom. In the political arena, we have the colonies fighting the Imperial rulers, the smaller nations asserting their rights to their own rule, and minorities proclaiming their protest against the tyranny of the majority. In the economic field, the fight is mainly between capital and labour. The two forces, political and economic, said the speaker, were in practice closely interlocked. The Youth Congress in its seven years of existence had not been exposed to this kind of analysis that stressed the economic factor in imperialist exploitation. The Congress was preoccupied with cultural, social and political issues. A socialist movement with an anti-imperialist orientation had yet to emerge in the rest of Ceylon. The 1931 sessions marked a turning point among the radicals in Jaffna who in course of time adopted a socialist anti-imperialist approach to politics.

    Kamaladevi rejected the old theory that students should not get mixed up with politics. Politics, she said, was a matter of life and death and it was not a matter on which we could preach caution or moderation, faced with British imperialist domination. She said:

    Under the guise of a beneficial rule the imperial lords loot rich lands for the benefit of their own kinsmen. Many a country is thus being bled to the sweet tune of ‘God Save the King’. The glorious flag of the British Empire is dyed in the scarlet blood of millions… The British nation so highly developed commercially, must find fresh fields for investing its capital and once again our lands come to their help. Thus in the shape of missionaries of modern civilization and the priests of modern culture they step on to our shores and begin their exploits… In the process of the establishment of this imperialistic rule by ‘Law and Order’ and with the consent of the people, these imperial agents ruthlessly destroy all indigenous industries, commerce and institutions, and by setting up their own powerfully organized ones shut out possibilities for starting any national enterprises. This unequal competition, pronouncedly decided in favour of the rulers, leaves the country and its people helpless and impoverished. This economic enslavement is systematic and crushing… In order to discover the remedy it is necessary to have a clear diagnosis of the disease.

    In calling upon the youth virtually to revolt against the British she said:

    [N]o radical or appreciable achievement is possible as long as the Britisher waves his flag over this country. Every one of the ‘benefits’ he confers on you is one more cord by which he binds and enslaves you. His factories and railways and irrigation schemes are so many outlets for his manufactures and so many fabulously paid posts for his kinsmen. And the grant of each new set of reforms with their elaborate machinery and expensive tools is one more gag on your rising spirit. Each with its brilliantly painted exterior is nothing but a hollow toy with which your clever masters charm you into a hypnotic spell. If you will but tear down the coloured garb you will find a soulless image within.

    The speaker was careful to point out that freedom did not mean the mere hounding out of the white man and a transference of power from one powerful minority to another equally tyrannical. In the just society that was looked forward to, every man will have a fair chance to reach the highest point to which his capacities can carry him and to get for himself and his family what he is actually entitled to by the value of his labour. At the same time, the state will get the highest service from each man. In the pursuance of these aims she stressed the need to organize labour in Ceylon. Labour legislation in Ceylon was far behind times. The grant of adult suffrage, she said, although a great advance on the old system will not be of much practical value until the general economic condition of labour improved. The Presidential Address thus struck a new note in calling for a struggle on behalf of the oppressed and the disinherited and the Youth Congress was challenged to struggle for true freedom for the downtrodden people. The speaker concluded with an appeal for cultural freedom:

    It is only when you meet the West as an equal and as a partner in the search and appreciation of beauty that the two cultures will blend into each other. But, you have lost your bearings today. The children of the people that created the wonderful works of art at Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura are today feeding their hungry souls on Dunlop tyre advertisements and match labels that adorn the walls of the huts in the villages. The colossal tragedy of this is but little realised… Art is not a luxury or the privilege of the rich few. It is the life-giving force that touches all ordinary things of everyday common use with its vitality transforming them into sublime things of joy.

    The boycott resolution became the central issue at the 1931 sessions. It had now become customary for the Congress to pass a resolution on Swaraj (independence) every time the annual sessions took place. It was once again moved, ‘This Congress holds Swaraj to be the inalienable birthright of every people and calls upon the youth of the land to consecrate their lives to the achievements of their country's freedom.’ An amendment moved gave teeth to the resolution: ‘And whereas the Donoughmore Scheme as embodied in the recent Order-in-Council militates against the attainment of Swaraj this Congress further pledges itself to boycott the scheme and authorizes the executive committee to devise ways and means for enforcing the boycott.’

    The resolution as amended was carried unanimously by the youth present, which according to one estimate was close to 2,000 persons.

    There was little discussion or serious thought given at this time to whether it was the correct strategy to adopt. ‘Purna Swaraj’ (full or total independence) became the rallying cry. Public opinion in Jaffna during the years of the ascendancy of the Youth Congress had been moulded to respond to the struggles that were taking place in India. In the rest of Ceylon some individuals might have been profoundly influenced by the Indian struggle. It was in Jaffna more than anywhere else that a movement had grown totally committed to the programme and policies of the Indian National Congress.

    Under the Donoughmore Constitution, with the grant of universal adult franchise the electors had increased to about 30,000 for each electorate compared to about 5,000 voters per seat under the previous constitution. Teachers, students and young people were expected to play a decisive role in the 1931 elections. The candidates and the public were aware of the important role they had played in the two bye-elections held in 1929 and 1930. Therefore all the sitting members of the defunct Legislative Council wished to curry favour with the youth. Though they had reservations about the desirability of a boycott they simply fell in line. At no stage, either at this meeting or at preceding meetings, had the abolition of communal representation been mentioned or any claims made for special representation for the Tamils.

    The Daily News, all long a supporter of the Youth Congress and a strong critic of the Donoughmore Reforms, welcomed the boycott in Jaffna and commented that the ‘one relieving feature in this soporific performance is contained in the news from Jaffna… Public opinion in Jaffna,’ said the editor, ‘is a potent thing. Those who defy it do so at their peril. Ever the home of virile politics, Jaffna is determined to see that the public spirit of her citizens is equal to any crisis.’

    Of particular interest in the light of later events is the letter to the press written by Philip Gunawardene from London. He wrote:

    I longed for the day when the youth of Ceylon would take their place by the side of the young men and women of China, of India, of Indonesia, of Indo-China, of Korea and even of the Philippine Islands in the great struggles of a creative revolution against all the mighty forces of old-age, social reaction and imperialist oppression. During the last few years the Jaffna Students' Congress was the only organization 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 elections was only a signal. It is the duty of every Sinhalese now to prepare the masses for the great struggle ahead.


    In historical perspective we see the JYC as belonging to a radical fringe in a basically conservative and caste-bound feudalistic society. It did have an impact on the political and intellectual life of Jaffna in the 1920s and 1930s. The idealistic and radical impulses generated gave rise to a movement that was nationalist, democratic, anti-imperialist and anti-feudal. The Youth Congress was a movement of liberal radicals. When viewed in the context of the then existing attitudes to politics, caste, education, the national languages and culture, the Youth Congress is seen to be a movement that was radical and in advance of its times.

    Nationalism in Asia in the first half of the 20th century was primarily a revolt against Western imperialism. In the absence of any movement in Ceylon that was clearly anti-imperialist, the Youth Congress took upon itself the task of bringing an anti-imperialist consciousness to the people of this country. When finally the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (socialist party founded in 1935) emerged as the leading anti-imperialist movement in the country, it drew support from the Youth Congress elements in the north. The roots of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party were as much in the Youth Congress in the north as in the Suriya Mal movement in the south. In the late 1920s and the early 1930s, it was the Youth Congress in Jaffna that was in the forefront of the struggle for national independence.

    The Congress was committed to an all-island nationalism or ‘Ceylonese Nationalism’. It was unfortunate that this was defeated by the emergence of Sinhalese and Tamil communalism. Communalism was a derogatory word in Ceylon's political vocabulary. By communalism is meant here those forces that exclude the interests of one community from or places its interests over and above, the larger interests of the peoples of the entire region at a time when the struggle was primarily against Western imperialism. Communalism thereby became a divisive force that helped to strengthen and perpetuate imperialist domination. The communalism that emerged in Ceylon in the 1930s was in addition opportunist, in that the communalists sacrificed principles and long-term gains for sectional, personal and short-term advantages. It is necessary to distinguish between the communalism of the 1930s and 1940s with the Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms that emerged in and around 1956. The 1956 upsurge had elements of progressive Sinhala nationalism mixed with strong elements of Sinhala communalism and chauvinism, which was frankly opportunist. Tamil communalism that had seen its opportunist period in the 1930s and 1940s was to give way to the emergence of Tamil nationalism after the Sinhala Only Act in 1956, the anti-Tamil riots of 1958 and the Tamil resistance movements climaxing in the Satyagraha of 1961. The violence against the Tamils taking on the character of calculated ‘pogroms’ like the ones in 1977 and 1983 further expedited the growth of Tamil nationalism. These are issues of deep contemporary concern.

    In the 1930s, the ideal set before the country by the Youth Congress and nationalists in the south was a free and united Lanka. At this time even after the emergence of the left movement in 1935, inadequate attention was paid to the problem of nationalities. The Youth Congress was fully committed to a Ceylonese nationalism. When 1956 came with its arrogant, uncompromising and strident call for ‘Sinhala Only’ it brought to the men who once belonged to the Youth Congress, more than to anyone else in the country, a sense of defeat and disillusionment. In the early 1970s, Handy Perinbanayagam looking back to the 1920s and the origins of the Youth Congress noted with regret that they had looked forward to ‘a land teeming with goodwill and blessedness’. He added:

    Language which is the bone of contention today was peacefully settled by both Sinhalese and Tamils. Before long however bloodshed, premeditated murder and migration were the order of the day. People like Suntharalingam who stood for racial unity are today champions of a separate Tamil Nadu. At the inaugural sessions of the All Ceylon Youth Congress in the Plaza, the late M.S. Eliathamby proclaimed that he for one would prefer Sinhalese rule to British rule. All this was the vision of an idealist yesterday. What of tomorrow? A peaceful Sri Lanka no longer dreaming of fantasies but wanting its present travail to end is the urgent need.

    At the height of the language debate in 1956, when it was becoming fashionable for Sinhalese spokesmen to attack the Tamils as reactionary and as opposed to the national struggle for independence it was Pieter Keuneman who on behalf of the Communist Party of Ceylon put the record straight in parliament. He said that it was not fair to blame the sins of capitalist and communal leaders on the entire community. He recalled the role that the Jaffna Youth Congress played at the time of the introduction of the Donoughmore Constitution and denied the allegation that was made that the boycott took place because the new constitution granted political power to the Sinhalese. ‘On the contrary,’ he said, ‘they took up the position that this constitution should be opposed and the elections should be boycotted because the constitution did not go far enough, because it did not grant freedom to the whole of Ceylon… This position taken up by the Jaffna Youth Congress was completely endorsed by progressive Sinhalese opinion in the South. That was before the left parties were started and the All-Ceylon Youth Congress was the representatives body of radical and progressive opinion at that time.’ Mr Keuneman went on to say ‘that it was the weakness of the movement in the South, its inability to influence the South, and to respond to the boycott of the elections to the first State Council carried out in the North that was responsible to a very great extent for the breakdown of the developing national movement in the North and the sorry period in which communal leaders of the North were able to emerge to prominence.’

    Delivering the welcome address at the reception to Jayaprakash Narayan as late as 1969, Handy having apologized for the ‘impertinence’ of linking his name with that of the distinguished visitor said, ‘We dreamt dreams and saw visions. Our dreams and our visions were focused on the freedom of our countries and the rich blessings that it would bring to their peoples.’ On one occasion Handy referred to the ‘utopian phase’ of the Congress. In a sense the men of the Youth Congress were utopians. They were conscious of the unsatisfactory state of affairs, and were deeply concerned with setting matters right. But they did not have a programme of action or the capacity to realize their aims and objectives. But then there is a strong element of utopianism in Gandhian thought. ‘The Swaraj of my dreams is the poor man's Swaraj…. I shall work for an India, in which the poorest shall feel that it is their country in whose making they have an effective voice; an India in which there shall be no high class and low class of people; an India in which all communities shall live in perfect harmony.’ The India of Gandhi's dreams has not been realized after more than 80 years of the Gandhian movement. Influenced by Gandhian ideals and approach to politics the Youth Congress had its limitations. Handy Perinbanayagam speaking at the Gandhiji's 25th Death Anniversary Remembrance meeting said, ‘Gandhiji was in politics then; so were we in Ceylon. Today India and Ceylon are steeped in politics. But there is a difference between the politics of those times and of today. The politics of those days were aspirational. Visions and dreams loomed large then. Today's politics are factional and pragmatic. They are also grosser and grimmer. The post-independence history of the two countries bears witness to this truth.’ Three decades after he made this comment politics in this country far from being aspirational or pragmatic has become chaotic as normal civilized norms of political behaviour have been discarded and bribery, corruption, intimidation, thuggery and uninhibited violence hold sway. Handy Perinbanayagam and many of his colleagues did not live to see their people in Jaffna and elsewhere reduced to a state where life had become ‘nasty, poor, brutish and short’.

    The Youth Congress idealists had contempt for the politics of seeking elections to the legislative assembly and state council. In its choice of presidents the Congress took infinite care to exclude the mere politician. The persons invited to deliver the presidential address were persons rich in intellectual achievements and deeply concerned about cultural values. In Jaffna itself they never thought of organizing themselves into a political party.

    Having accepted the Gandhian message, the Youth Congress had failed to evolve a Gandhian mass movement. In fact the men in the Youth Congress were not cut out for politics in this sense. They were good at holding meetings, engaging in intellectual discussions, holding annual sessions and thereby influencing public opinion. They made a remarkable contribution to Jaffna's intelligentsia and shaped the thinking of a whole generation of men. The indelible stamp of the Youth Congress was evident in the men of this generation who had come under its influence.

    The social base on which the Youth Congress was founded and from which it drew its support could go no further than the ‘aspirational politics’ of the time. It drew its support from English-educated youth whose mental horizons were limited by their socio-economic objectives. These were young men who for their survival had to look forward to middle-class white-collar jobs in government service and the professions like law, medicine and teaching. The Youth Congress did not have the capacity to transform itself into a mass movement.

    Meanwhile, the Youth Congress was being pushed out of the limelight by the demagogic communalism that had emerged under a leadership that was ready to use all the gimmicks and electioneering tactics that success in politics under the Donoughmore Reforms called for.

    Having failed to enter the political arena in the conventional way and thereby shape the destinies of the country, the Youth Congress was however not without its successes. Its achievements lay in the cultural and educational fields and in the eradication of social disabilities. The elevation of the Tamil language to a place of honour happened in Jaffna as early as in the 1920s. The practice of having lectures and meetings in Tamil, on not merely subjects of literary interest but on secular and political matters as well, began with the Youth Congress. The young men of Jaffna though English educated restored national customs, festivals and dress to a place of honour in the social life of the community. The uncompromising stand taken on removing the humiliations imposed by caste was one of its major achievements.

    Above all, out the Youth Congress came a whole generation of eminent teachers, principals, administrators and builders of schools. Their efforts in the mid-decades of this century made it possible for Jaffna to enjoy the preeminent position that it occupied in the sphere of education with schools that could be the pride of any nation. These men steered through the smooth transition from English to Tamil as the medium of instruction in the 1940s and 1950s with minimum damage to standards, this having been one of the major reforms that the Youth Congress had advocated all along. In fact, in these years Sinhalese was taught in Jaffna schools in the hope that it would help national integration. This was brought to an abrupt end in 1956 by the very same educationists who had introduced it, as part of the resistance to the imposition of Sinhala as the only official language of the country.

    The influence of the Youth Congress persisted most through the Northern Province Teachers Association and the All-Ceylon Union of Teachers. Here the one-time members of the Youth Congress championed the campaign for Free Education, for a National System of Schools and for Swabasha. Formidable opponents of government's control of teachers, these men did assert that education was the responsibility of the state, though not necessarily a monopoly of the state. They remained committed to the role that education could play in the social advance of the country. They remained a dedicated band of teachers, nationalist to the core.

    The tradition of dissent and commitment to democratic rights and the values that go with an open society was their lasting gift to Jaffna society.

    But in the political life of the country they were very much like generals without an army. Men like Handy Perinbanayagam, C. (Orator) Subramaniam, K. Nesiah and S. Nadesan were consulted; their advice sought and listened to with patience and respect on several national issues that cropped up in the decades after independence. They gave a distinct flavour to public life in Jaffna and brought qualities of integrity and sincerity to several public causes to which they gave of their time and talents.


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