Friday, February 3, 2017

From inclusive Ceylon to excluding Sri Lanka: Grandfather’s Letters. Letters by C. Suntharalingam (1895-1985), edited by C. Anjalendran, Sailfish

From inclusive Ceylon to excluding Sri Lanka: Grandfather’s Letters. Letters by C. Suntharalingam (1895-1985), edited by C. Anjalendran, Sailfish Publishers, Colombo, 2016. Time is unredeemable; what might have been is an abstraction (Adapted from T S Eliot’s poem, ‘Burnt Norton’) Chellappah Suntharalingam (1895-1985; known variously as “Sun”, “Sunth” and “Sunthar”) passed with distinction in Mathematics at Oxford University. He joined the Ceylon Civil Service but, energetic and restless; bored with signing gun licenses, he resigned. For a while, he was vice-principal of Ananda College (unthinkable for a Tamil in Sri Lanka today); later the first Professor of Mathematics, Ceylon University College. Entering politics and winning the Vavuniya seat, he was a proverbial “stormy petrel”; individualistic; fearlessly frank and outspoken. D S Senanayake, before he became independent Ceylon’s first Prime Minister, frequently visited Suntharalingam, and “Sunthar” personally knew many of Ceylon’s political leaders, both Sinhalese and Tamil: “I met Arunachalam in London in 1920 when he came as Leader of the Ceylon Reform” deputation.” I met Ramanathan in 1915 in London when he came to save the Sinhala people from the atrocities of British imperialism (p. 61). The book is not without humour: “educated and recruited in England”, young Suntharalingam on his return received proposals of marriage from some of the richest “Thamil” (see below) families of the day, but the prospective brides were fatter than their fat dowries (p. 19). The cart-drawn journey from Jaffna to Colombo took five to six days. Suntheralingam was about fourteen when he travelled from Chunnakam to Urumpirai by train for the first time (p. 33). Though his mother was illiterate, “Sunthar” says she highly educated. A wise and strong widow, through careful planning and frugality, she educated five sons in then-faraway Colombo. As a child in Jaffna, “Sunthar” walked to school, sat on a floor smeared with mud and cow-dung, and wrote out the Thamil alphabet on sand. (He uses the phonetically more accurate “Thamil” rather than the anglicised “Tamil”.) Even as a Professor of Mathematics, he would mentally calculate in Thamil while lecturing in English (p. 30). He recalls that some children brought nothing to eat at school, and physical hunger affected their mental performance (pp. 46-7). He quotes with approval the Latin saying, ”Mens sana in corpore sano”. Before beginning homework by lamplight, he would wash, say his prayers and wear holy ash: the attitude to studies was almost reverential. Supper was served only after homework was completed. (No doubt, their cooking was done over a wood fire. I remember the short hollow tube, black with use and soot, through which my mother blew to encourage the fire, the flames casting a red glow on her.) As a child in Jaffna in the 1940s, I recall that if a pupil accidentally dropped a book, any book, she or he would pick it up and touch the forehead with it as a sign of contrition. If they were caned in school, children usually didn’t tell their parents for the reaction most likely would have been: “What! You gave the teacher cause to beat you?” The way of life of a people, their values and attitudes (all summed up in the word ‘culture’) cannot be separated from the physical environment. The high value placed on education is not surprising. Jaffna didn’t have lush plantations nor industry and factories; the soil was arid, demanding much patient labour. It’s therefore not surprising that many “Thamils” moved out in search of employment (some beyond the shores to Malaya). Their self-discipline and industry led to a success that was felt to be disproportionate to their number, in turn exciting deep resentment and anger. (To blame British favouritism for alleged disproportionate Tamil success took away credit from one side and self-reproach from the other.) Comparisons have been made with attitudes to the Jews in the various countries in which they existed prior to the establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948. The emphasis on studies did not exempt “Sunthar” from physical work. In many a Jaffna well, a man or boy would walk the beam (the “thula”) from which the bucket was suspended. As he walked forward, the bucket dipped into the water. When the man (woman, child) at the well began to haul up the bucket, the man or boy walked back, thus helping to bring up the now full and heavy bucket. This process was repeated until the garden or field had been watered. Whether the practice still exists, I don’t know but “Sunthar” writes: “I was trained to tread the well-sweep, to water the vegetable beds, to look after cattle and to drive a bullock-cart. On some days I had to tread the well-sweep between four and six in the morning”, have my morning meal, and run over three miles to school, “lest I be summarily caned for being late” (p. 45). A staunch Hindu but with an inquiring, wide-ranging, mind the first of many school-prizes he won was for his knowledge of Christian scripture (p. 199). Under British imperial rule, there was “impartial recognition of Ceylonese merit” (p. 74), and students “were judged solely on our individual performances”. University scholarships were won, among others by, L. M. D. de Silva, P. de S. Kularatne, Gregory Weeramantry, D. J. Telesphor (later, Liyanage), and T. D. Perera, borther of H. V. Perea, QC, and Walter Samarawickrema (p. 73). So too, in politics: the only seat available at the 1911 Ceylon Legislative Council election was contested by (Tamil) Ponnambalam Ramanathan and (Sinhalese) Marcus Fernando. Ramanathan won. Students sometimes didn’t know to which community a particular fellow-schoolboy belonged (p. 38). I quote Professor Suntharalingam: “It is not realised by many people in Ceylon that the Soulbury Constitution did not grant full Dominion Status to Ceylon. It was therefore necessary that in constituting the first Cabinet every step had to be taken to make it inevitable to have the Soulbury Constitution converted to a full-fledged Dominion Constitution at the earlies possible opportunity. The National Unit comprising Sinhalese, Thamils, Muslims, Burghers and others had to be a matter of show if not of substance: it had to be displayed to make the British Government believe that the demand for responsible government knew no communal difference. Oliver Goonetilleke and Lionel Kotelawala were D. S. Senanayake’s emissaries to persuade me to join the Cabinet” (p. 87, italics added). Inclusive Ceylon soon metamorphosed into excluding Sri Lanka, and by the time Professor Suntharalingam realized his mistake and presented an appeal to the Governor-General (24 June 1950) it was woefully too late: see p. 163. His brother Nagalinam was acting Chief Justice and acting Governor General but could never be made permanent: “Yes, unfortunate days have fallen on the Thamils of Eelam” (p. 17). “In our day we could work hard and depend entirely on our merit to progress in life. But in your day, you may be thwarted for no other reason than that you are born an Eelam Thamil boy” (p. 60). Another brother, Amirthalingam, retired as Director of Fisheries and went on to become a professor of Zoology abroad. Seen only as a Thamil, he was not allowed to “give of his best to the land of his birth” (18): a feeling of deep regret shared by several others. Unlike in former Ceylon, what counts most in Sri Lanka is ‘race’ and, secondly, subscription to religion, specifically, Buddhism. One “cannot deny any more that there is no impartial recognition of merit, not only towards the Eelam Thamil boy, but towards the Sinhala boys who are not Buddhist” (p. 74). Erich Fromm in his Escape From Freedom distinguishes between 'freedom from' and ‘freedom to’. The former can be seen as emancipatory while the second, building on this foundational freedom, gives scope to the individual, among other things, to develop and express her or his talents to their full potential. “Sunthar” would probably have said that though ‘freedom from’ still exists, there’s little of the ‘freedom to’ for Thamils in Sri Lanka. Volatile, credulous and easily excited, the people were ever ready to take rumour for fact, and to disseminate it. The Governor-General phoned and asked “Sunthar” about poor Sinhalese fishermen being murdered in Mullaitivu. On investigation, it turned out that “not a single fisherman or any other had been harmed” (p. 147). During the 1958 riots, I was one of those who found refuge at Gampaha police station. From the window I could see a mob gathering, with Buddhist monks at the forefront behaving in a most un-Buddhist manner. As perhaps the only one of the refugees with whom he could talk, the officer once told me that a train was coming from Jaffna, each compartment packed like sardines with the bodies of murdered Sinhalese. “Why did your people do this?” Marooned, disorientated, I had no answer but of one thing I was certain: if there was indeed such a train, then when it steamed into Maradana station, I would be killed in Gampaha. Of course, the grisly, ghastly, train never existed. Looking back, what remains in my mind is the total conviction of that officer. Taking rumour for fact, his question was not whether but why. He believed the story because he wanted it to be true. In turn, it would confirm and justify his prejudice and hatred. There are points in the letters at which one pauses: I mention just three. First, to engage in the “Ifs and buts” of History as Professor Suntharalingam does is futile because there are so many unknowns and variables. He reports what Bandaranaike told him in conversation, and what was generally believed in and expected: “Monck-Mason Moore will be Governor-General for a year, D. S. will succeed him and I will succeed D. S. as Prime Minister” (p. 91). If Bandaranaike had not been “ousted” he would not have resorted to the “Sinhala-Only” slogan, “a slogan especially invented by him to rise to power” (p. 92). But one wonders: Do politicians create venomous, divisive, group-emotions or do they cater to, incite and excite already-existing feelings in the populace? Isn’t it too easy to lay all the blame on politicians, and so exculpate ourselves? Then again Professor Suntharalingam urges his grandchild to remain true to traditional Thamil values and patterns of conduct (p. 20) but isn’t culture dependent on political, economic and social realities? Thirdly, following the Bhagavath Gita, he believes that when Dharma decays and Adharma prospers, there will be Providential intervention to right wrongs. Though such miraculous and dramatic incidents are related in all religions, they hark back to distant time. To my knowledge, there is no modern example of divine intervention in public-life and History. Again, it’s too easy to leave it all to god or the gods. Prayer must be prelude and preparation, and not a substitute for human endeavour. The Editor, in a ‘Last of the Mohicans’ fashion, says in his Introduction that he is now the only one left in Sri Lanka of what was once a large and closely-knit family. (Etymologically, “diaspora” is derived from to “scatter”. You will be scattered in all parts of the earth: Deuteronomy 28:25). The title, Grandfather’s Letters, may lead readers to think this is a substantial, if not a comprehensive, collection of letters but they amount to only twenty in number. The letters are not dated and the reader must try to work out historical context by internal reference, for example, the assassination of Prime Minister S W R D Bandaranaike. Readers would also have been greatly helped by editorial exegesis relating to certain details and now-forgotten individuals mentioned by Professor Suntharalingam. However, these letters form a valuable document – interesting, informative and ultimately tragic. The Editor is to be thanked for attempting to preserve them for posterity. Finally, I thank Mahesan Selvaratnam (retired Deputy Inspector General of Police) for kindly sending me a copy. We have been friends since Gurutalawa days in the early 1950s. Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan (Berlin)

Sunday, December 11, 2016

“the Paradise Isle” turned into hell.......PROF. Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan (Berlin)

Tamils: a fatal historical unawareness Eelam Tamils of the present, and even more, those of future generations interested in history will reflect with a view to understanding how and why we came to be in such a sorry plight. It is a complex subject; besides, behind every beginning, there are other beginnings, so where should one start? Something of the historical background is sketched in the essay ‘Reign of Anomy’, included in my Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2. (The word “essay” is intended in its earlier meaning of “attempt”.) The reader will, I hope, understand and excuse that I use the document as I return to this inquiry, having been recently sent a booklet, about eighty-five pages, titled Eylom: Beginnings of Freedom Struggle. Sub-title: ‘Dozen documents by C. Suntharalingam with candid comments and criticisms by Lord Soulbury’. It’s a 2007 reprint of documents that had their origin in the 1950s. “The die is cast" is a Latin phrase attributed to Julius Caesar as he led his army across the Rubicon river. There was no longer the option of going back: the die had been cast. Or, to alter lines from Fitzgerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the moving finger writes and, having written, moves on. Nor can all your tears wipe out a single word. It seems to me that for Tamils the die was cast, the writing done, shortly before Independence in 1948: I’ll be glad to receive any correction of this ‘reading’. Young readers whom I mainly have in mind might wonder who this C. Suntharalingam was. Chellappah Suntharalingam (1895-1985) was awarded a ‘double first’ in mathematics by Balliol College, Oxford. Selected by the prestigious Indian Civil Service, he preferred to join the Ceylon Civil Service but, energetic and restless; bored with bureaucracy, he resigned. For a while, he was vice-principal of Ananda College (unthinkable for a Tamil today); later, the first Professor of Mathematics of ‘Ceylon University College’. Entering politics and winning the Vavuniya seat, he was a proverbial “stormy petrel”; independent, fearlessly frank and outspoken. D S Senanayake, before he became independent Ceylon’s first Prime Minister, frequently visited Suntharalingam, and “Sun” personally knew many of Ceylon’s political leaders, both Sinhalese and Tamil. “I met Arunachalam in London in 1920 when he came as Leader of the Ceylon Reform” deputation… I had met Ramanathan as early as 1915 in London when he was entertained by the Ceylon students: he had come to save the Sinhala people from the atrocities” (page 61) of British imperialism. Of course, there are other aspects to the man but they lie outside the present concern. Suntharalingam, feeling deeply betrayed by the Sinhalese, was perhaps the earliest of Tamil leaders to advocate a separate state, rejecting federalism. Federalism, he argued (Eylom, page 51), means union; and union means consent but there is no consent from the Sinhalese, not even to discuss it. (Compare: “Even as late as the beginning of the 20th Century when talks were in progress to grant Ceylon independence, Kandyan leaders asked for a federal system, with a degree of autonomy for what had once been the Kandyan kingdom, referring to themselves as the Kandyan nation”. Sarvan, Vol 2, page 23.) Suntharalingam reposed hope neither in federalism nor in peaceful protests: the latter has brought only greater insult, humiliation and danger (Eylom, page 76). I quote from my Public Writings: “The person most identified with this peaceful phase of the Tamil struggle is S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, a soft-spoken man; like Mahatma Gandhi, frail in figure but strong of soul. “SJV” based his struggle on satyagraha (the force, or strength, of truth) drawing inspiration from Gandhi’s non-violent campaign against the British. But in India, the weapon of Satyagraha had been deployed by a majority against a very small (occupying) minority. The parallel did not apply to Sri Lanka because, Island-wide, the Tamils are a small minority, and because of the ready willingness of the Sinhalese government and a section of the Sinhalese people to meet peaceful protest with brutal violence. In this respect, the genius of Gandhi (as I see it) is that he chose the right weapon for the specific conditions obtaining in India – spiritually elevated, ethically sound and politically effective” (pages 55-56). “No proud, cultured people ever obtained freedom or retained their self-respect except through suffering and sacrifice, and the Tamils have before them and their progeny for the immediate future, only toil and tears” (“Sun”, page 20). He could not have known the nature and the degree of suffering that lay ahead! I see this booklet as a bitter lament, the lament of a man who realizes too late the existential peril confronting his people. What’s more, a danger into which he and other Tamil leaders had led them. Truly, unawareness (ignorance, innocence) can exact a heavy toll. I quote from my ‘Reign of Anomy’ (page 58): When in 1915, D. S. Senanayake (later the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon) and his brother, F. R. Senanayake were jailed by the British authorities, Tamil Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan went to England to plead their case. On his successful return, jubilant crowds placed him in a carriage, detached the horses, and dragged the carriage themselves. He was not seen as a Tamil who had helped free a Sinhalese, but as a Ceylonese helping a fellow Ceylonese. Perhaps then there was not that phrase which unconsciously betrays group assumption and prejudice in various parts of the world and situations: “even though he is…“ In 1925-6, when Bandaranayake, as leader of the Progressive National Party, set out the case for a federal political structure for Sri Lanka and made this the main plank of the political platform of his party, he received no support for it from the Tamils: K M De Silva, p. 513. In the 1930s, the Jaffna Youth Congress rejected federalism. (They looked not to Tamil Nadu, but to Gandhi and Nehru.) They persuaded almost all the leading schools in Jaffna to teach Sinhala as a compulsory subject. As A E Jayasuriya observed, “At a time when the Sinhalese were prepared to do without Sinhala, the battle for Sinhala and Tamil was fought by Tamil leaders”: see, D Nesiah, Tamil Nationalism, p. 12. H. A. J. Hulugalle (1899-1981) noted that in 1911 (Tamil) Ponnambalam Ramanathan was elected to the Legislative Council, defeating (Sinhalese) Marcus Fernando, largely on the votes of the Sinhalese. Hulugalle comments that when he became a journalist in 1918, Ramanathan was “the leading politician in the Island”. Elsewhere Hulugalle, a Sinhalese, describes Ponnambalam Arunachalam as the father of Ceylon’s “nationalist movement”: see, Sarvan, op. cit., 110. The following is taken from Suntharalingam’s Eylom. If “equality of treatment had not been conceded in 1944 by the very large majority of the State Council, there would have been no appointment of the Soulbury Commission. No Reform of the Constitution, no Dominion Status for Ceylon and no Independence for Lanka! The Tamils to a man would have opposed, tooth and nail, even any talk of reform” (page 17). Had the Tamils known what they now know, “not a single Tamil leader would have joined in the struggle for Ceylon’s independence from British imperialism” (page 22) “Without the consent, concurrence and co-operation of the Tamil leaders of 1947 and before, no Independence was possible or could have been achieved for Ceylon” (page 43). If the “Tamil leaders had any reason to suspect that the Sinhalese leaders would go behind their undertakings and promises, or to doubt their bona fides, they would have acted differently during the whole course of the country’s struggle for emancipation. Indeed when the Independence resolution was introduced in the first Parliament of Ceylon not a single Tamil member, including plantation Tamil members, cast their votes against the resolution” (page 56). Then comes what must be a self-lacerating sentence: “If I had not joined the Cabinet, there would not have been that unity between the two major communities of Ceylon without which the British would never have granted independence” (pages 62-3). Suntharalingam unwittingly helped to create structures that made possible “the treacherous process of liquidating the Tamils of Ceylon” (“Sun”, page 13). Advised by Sir Oliver Goonetilleke (described as one of the most astute and wily of men), D S Senanayake, when he set about forming his cabinet, made sure that there were also Tamil (Suntharalingam), Muslim, Malay, European and Burgher ministers. Impressed and reassured, the British Parliament in December 1947 passed the Ceylon Independence Act, renouncing forever its right to legislate for Ceylon. Tamil leaders thought they were laying the foundation for a beautiful (harmonious, inclusive and prosperous) island, unaware that it was their own grave they were digging. “Tamils of Ceylon have been tricked and betrayed” (Suntharalingam, page 25). They had helped to replace British imperialism with Sinhalese imperialism and colonialism. (I recall my mother, Mrs V. J. Ponnuthurai, nee Asirwatham, 1908-1988) asking me after ‘Black July’ 1983, whether life hadn’t been, after all, better for the Tamils under British imperialism.) Lord Soulbury, in his Foreword to Bertram Hughes Farmer’s Ceylon: A Divided Nation (Institute of Race Relations, London, 1963) confesses that his Commission would have been less hopeful of a solution to the ethnic problem if it had had “more than a cursory knowledge of the age-long antagonism between these two communities.” It is scandalous that Soulbury made recommendations affecting an entire country on the basis of “cursory” knowledge. After all, the Commission was appointed in 1944. Indirectly he admits that democracy can degenerate to the tyranny of the majority, and no constitutional safeguard would have been in the long run of much avail. In his words, justice and reconciliation will “depend not on constitutional guarantees but on the goodwill, common sense and humanity of the Government in power and the [Sinhalese] people who elect it.” I am reminded of what Rousseau writes in his The Social Contract: an architect before erecting a structure, examines and tests the soil in order to see whether it can support the proposed weight. Similarly, one must first consider whether the people are able to sustain the political and administrative changes proposed, in this case, true democracy with its concomitants such as justice and equality. I think Soulbury is being disingenuous when he claims innocence (ignorance); I suspect he knew full well what the consequences would be but pretended not to, and played the game along with D S Senanayake, aided by Tamil leaders, “innocent” or not. Tamil leaders were from the elite who knew and interacted with the Sinhalese elite. They had no inkling of how deep and widespread was the animosity harboured by the Sinhalese folk, fostered by the Mahavamsa and Buddhist monks; their ‘racist’ feeling, and Sinhala-Buddhist hegemonic determination. I quote from Public Writings, page 40: Imperialism, particularly British imperialism, was based on, and expressed, utter contempt: contempt for the natives, their colour and person; history and all aspects of their culture, including religion and language. The Buddhist monks who had enjoyed patronage and prestige at the royal court were marginalised. All public business - government, administration and commerce - was conducted in English, and those not proficient in English (the vast majority) were disadvantaged and made to feel inferior. These are some of the factors that created a reservoir of resentment, seething, potentially virulent but inarticulate because of imperial control. Nehru in the speech made at India’s independence said that “the soul of a nation, long suppressed, [now] finds utterance”: in Sri Lanka, it seems the Sinhalese soul at independence was sorely bruised, angry and bitter, confused and impatient. Reaction found vent not on the British – distant, powerful, grudgingly admired – but on the Tamil. Professor Suntharalingam, quoting (page 47) an anonymous poem, addresses his “Fellow Tamils” and asks, “What of the night?” Again, unaware of what was to yet to come, he wrote: “Never in the history of Ilankai has the Ceylon Tamil been in a worse plight”. The stanza from which he took that line reads: But, watchman, what of the night, When sorrow and pain are mine, And the pleasures of life, so sweet and bright, No longer around me shine? The Ceylon Independence Act of 1947 delivered Tamils and other minorities into the hands of the majority – that is, those members of the minority who did not flee “the Paradise Isle” turned into hell. Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan (Berlin)