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“Federalism bad for Ceylon, worse for the Tamils”: G.G. Ponnambalam

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Saturday, 21 October 2017 00:00

By H. L. D. Mahindapala

One of the main reasons that exacerbated the north-south relations in the post-independent era has been the total distortion of historical realities by a sizeable segment of our intellectuals who believed that history was a train of events, somewhat like the Yal Devi, that ran up ONLY (emphasis mine) to the north from the south and stopped there without coming down. That is to say, it is the south that sent all the troubles to the north. 

The fact that Yal Devi also came down and interacted with the south has been ignored or denied. Had these intellectuals been more realistic and objective, recognising the north-south dialectics and emphasising the interplay of north-south forces in escalating the rising tensions, it would have been possible to avoid the longest war in Asia which ran for 33 years – from the declaration of war in the Vadukoddai Resolution (14 May 1976) to its disastrous end in Nandikadal (18 May 2009). 


Hired intellectuals hawking a mono-causal theory

Our intellectuals had a moral duty to be more responsible and truthful in informing the political class and the public at large. Unfortunately, the discourse was dominated by hired intellectuals hawking a mono-causal theory to blame only one side of a multi-layered narrative in which the two main actors – the north and the south – were inextricably intermeshed. 

The nation had to pay dearly for the hypocritical and the mercenary tendencies of our intellectuals who were bought and sold in the NGO market for a fistful of dollars. Hired intellectuals, lodged mainly in foreign-funded NGOs, led a partisan campaign of denying, twisting or hiding the basic facts. By and large, the arguments were tailored to put the blame on the south with the sole objective of extracting the maximum power for devolution as a first step towards separatism. 

For instance, the English-educated, Vellalar Jaffna Tamils of the north have been the most privileged community in Sri Lanka. But they managed to persuade the world that they were denied their dignity and basic rights by the Sinhala majority. They also promoted successfully the notion they were the most oppressed victims of the Sinhala majority.

Steering a crafty campaign to demonise the south they hid the fact that they have been the worst oppressors and killers of the Tamils. S.C. Chandrahasan, son of Chelvanayakam, the father of separatism, and V. Ananadasangaree, Leader of the TULF, have both condemned Velupillai Prabhakaran as the villain who had killed more Tamils than the others put together. The hidden story of the Tamil Veil alar elite brutalising the hapless low-caste is the darkest chapter in Sri Lankan history.

Apart from hiding the hideous history of the north the intellectuals engaged in either distorting the realities and the perspectives, or in redirecting the basic facts away from the truth to glorify the partisan agenda. 

Take the case of Dr. Jehan Perera, the Head of the National Peace Council, who bestowed a doctorate on Anton Balasingham, the L TTE ideologue, knowing very well that he had not earned one from any known university. I met him in a bus in Geneva and when I asked him why he resorted to such deceitful practices, he replied that he was merely following the others. When I asked him whether he would jump into a well if others jumped, he grinned sheepishly. But he promised to drop the fictitious post-graduate doctorate. One expects a moral high priest like him to honour his own words. But he didn’t. He repeated the lie unashamedly. He continued to write articles referring to him as “Dr.” Balasingham. That’s why I called him “Pacha” Perera.

Though this may sound like a miniscule incident but it cannot be dismissed lightly because it is symptomatic of the larger pattern of our so-called intellectuals distorting realities to elevate and sanctify Tamil heroes in their version of Sri Lankan history.

It is mainly this technique of repeating, ad nauseam, the lies of the north that gave them the upper hand in manufacturing a mono-causal theory to paint the south as a hell filled with demons who had victimised the sweet angels of the north.

Victimology has been moulded into a sophisticated pill, wrapped in Western theories to make it easy for the naive and the gullible to swallow.


Imported theories and distorted facts 

Consider also how they manipulated their arguments with imported theories and distorted facts to justify the northern agenda. Whenever they were pushed into a tight corner in the debate for devolution they raked-up the pro-federalist statement made by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in his salad days in the 1920s. In it he suggested federalism as a means of satisfying aggressive communalistic demands. 

Taking cover behind this Bandaranaike’s statement has been the common ploy of the federalists/separatists. Practically every partisan activist and theorist campaigning for the north has repeated it. But for obvious reasons they never quoted (he diametrically opposite point of view expressed by G.G. Ponnambalam, the acknowledged leader of the Tamils, until his junior, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, displaced him.

Here is the direct quote from the pen of Prof. A. J. Wilson, the leading Tamil political scientist, and son-in-law of the father of Tamil separatism, Chelvanayakam, who, with his intimate knowledge of his father-in-law’s mind, knew the intricate and the inner workings of northern politics like the back of his hand. 

He wrote: “Ponnambalam and his ACTC denounced federalism as ‘bad for Ceylon and worse for the Tamils’, and at the general election of 1952 some of his ACTC followers warned that under federalism no trains would run beyond Elephant Pass (the isthmus connecting the Jaffna peninsula to the rest of the island).” (p.63, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lanka Tamil Nationalism, 1947-1977, A Political Biography, A. Jeyaratnam Wilson, Lake House Bookshop, 1993).

This categorical rejection of federalism by Ponnambalam throws all the arguments for constitutional changes leading to devolution of power into the dustbin. He was, after all, the founder of the demand for a greater share of power to the Tamils. He outlined a disproportionate mathematical formula of claiming 50% share of power for 11% Tamils of the north without carving out ethnic enclaves on the ground which came later with Chelvanayakam’s federalism/separatism.

Ponnambalam rejected this formula of Chelvanayakam and went as far as to say that it was “‘midsummer madness’ for the Tamils to ask for partition of the country and segregation of different communities…” (Ibid – pJO). His declared policy was to demand 50% of the seats for the 11% Tamils, disguising it as claim for 25% of the minorities. This too was a fake claim because the Muslims and the Indian Tamil minorities refused to join Ponnambalam’s “50-50” claim. He made it unmistakably clear that his demands were within the unitary state, without ethnic segregation. 

Though he laid the foundations for mono-ethnic extremism – he created the first communal riots in Navalapitiya in 1939 with his racist attacks on Sinhala history and the people – he was not for division of the country on ethnic lines. As he said, ethnic segregation would be “worse for the Tamils”.

There is a critical difference in Bandaranaike merely suggesting federalism in the ’20s and Ponnambalam categorically rejecting federalism in the ’50s. Bandaranaike put forward federalism as a possible formula for appeasing what he called “the outrageous” demands of the Tamil communalists of the day. Nor was he speaking as the acknowledged leader of the Sinhalese with substantial authority for federalism to be accepted as the expressed wish of the Sinhalese. He was in the formative stage playing with ideas. And federalism, in his context, was merely a fanciful spark that flew out of the mind of a young returnee from Oxford who had not yet found his feet in Sri Lankan politics.


Ponnambalam’s rejection of federalism 

Ponnambalam’s rejection of federalism for the Tamils comes from a totally different context. His rejection should be taken seriously because, unlike Bandaranaike, he was the acknowledged and established Tamil leader of the time. Besides, he was making a strong political statement in the interests of the Tamil people. It was meant to be a total rejection of Chelvanayakam’s politics of federalism/separatism. And it did have an impact because Chelvanayakam could not sell his idea to the Jaffna people at the time. Ponnambalam was also playing an anti-Chelvanayakam role. To be or not to be for federalism was a key issue in Tamil politics and Ponnambalam coming out against it should be considered as a serious statement of intent. In other words, Ponnambalam was giving political directions to the Tamil community saying that the way forward is neither federalism nor separatism.

Ponnambalam’s rejection of federalism was not a brash statement of an excited political neophyte like Bandaranaike in the ’20s. When he rejected federalism in the ’50s he was a mature Tamil leader at the peak of his political power. He was also at the peak of his popularity. It was time when Chelvanayakam was still hovering in the shadow of the towering personality of Ponnambalam. His rejection of federalism carries a far greater political weight than Bandaranaike’s fanciful flirtation with federalism. 

This rejection of federalism by Ponnambalam has been kept out of the debate on devolution of power. The political pundits craftily avoid factoring in Ponnambalam’s rejection of federalism because that would knock the bottom out of their case for federalism/separatism. Ponnambalam’s statement stands out as the voice of the Tamils looking for an alternative way out. He doesn’t fit into the political agenda of the federalists/separatists. He doesn’t help them to doctor the texts to advance the Northern political agenda.

So they resort to the flimsy, flighty statement of Bandaranaike to grab territory, history, supremacy, moral purity, impunity from their crimes against their own people, etc. But, of course, Ponnambalam’s weighty statement overrides that of Bandaranaike.

This leads to the final question, which needs a decisive answer: If Ponnambalam, a pioneering leader of the Tamils, rejected federalism as “the worse” solution for the Tamils, why should the Sinhala leadership rewrite constitutions to grant federalism?

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