The search for a united Sri Lanka with equality for all by S. Muthiah
I wonder how many remember Murugeysen Tiruchelvam, Q.C. whose legacy was a dream he had for his country. Over and over in the 1960s and 1970s, he reminded people of the roots of the ethnic fracturing happening in what was then Ceylon and how it could be healed. It is a narration as little remembered by those worldwide free with advice to the political groups in the island nation as by the very political leaders of what has since become Sri Lanka.
Many post-1983 experts on Sri Lanka will remember his son, Neelan Tiruchelvam, who followed in his father’s footsteps but fell tragic victim to the Tigers of Tamil Eelam for advocating negotiations to bridge the ethnic chasm. What Neelan urged he had developed on the foundations laid by his father who had in his youth been mentored by S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, K.C., who was to later lead the Federal Party. Both guru and chela were eminent lawyers, Chelvanayakam guiding his ward through the labyrinths of law that exist in the island. In time, Tiruchelvam became not only a Queen’s Counsel but also Ceylon’s Solicitor-General. When the ethnic issue began to boil post-1956, he who had always stood for a united and plural Ceylon watched with growing dismay till, finally, he felt he had to play a role in resolving it. Resigning from Government Service in 1960, he joined the Federal Party and became Chelvanayakam’s chief adviser.
When the United National Party (UNP) led by Dudley Senanayake came into power and formed a National Government in 1965, Tiruchelvam was appointed to the Senate (the Upper House} and also made Minister of Local Government. When the Federal Party quit the coalition in 1968, Senator Tiruchelvam resigned his ministerial post but continued to support the Government from outside till its term ended in 1970. When the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led United Front Government came into power in July that year, Tiruchelvam sat in the Opposition till the abolition of the Senate in October 1971. During those six years in the Senate, he was the chief spokesman for the Tamils in the House.
A small-made, soft-spoken man, Tiruchelvam was neither a great orator nor a flamboyant lawyer. What he scored with was an incisive mind that helped to make telling arguments with the wealth of facts he specialised in marshalling. His livewire wife Punitham was associated with numerous social causes, teaming with women from all ethnic backgrounds. As a couple they were the typical Colombo Tamils of the era who as bureaucrats, doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants and even as an Army, Navy and Police chiefs played a significant role in Ceylon till the 1960s, though by then the writing had begun to show on the wall.
That writing was what Tiruchelvam desperately tried to erase in all the speeches he made in the Senate between 1965 and 1971, particularly on such issues as devolution and local language rights. Much of what he advocated resulted in the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Regulations of 1966, the establishment of Jaffna University, and his opposing the Federal Party’s 1976 resolution demanding a separate Tamil Eelam, strongly advising against a division of the country.
What his speeches reveal is how little the Federal Party sought in the early years, how the too little always came too late, and how till the end he kept pleading for a united country. Some of what he said – sometimes quoting others – I offer here as a reminder of the solution he saw for what he repeatedly called “our country,” pleading with the Sinhalese not to blame the Tamils for the Chola and Pandya invasions that left him and his fellow Tamils sons of Ceylon soil for 2500 years and having the same love for it as them.
As early as 1944, the State Council debated making Sinhala and Tamil the official languages of the country. During the debate S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, to become Prime Minister in 1956, stated, “I do not see that there would be any harm at all in recognising the Tamil language as an official language.” Sen. Tiruchelvam, recalling this in his maiden speech in the Senate in April 1965, went on to point out that Mr. Bandaranaike, after the Official Language Act (erroneously called the Sinhala Only Act) was passed in 1956, agreed to Tamil being the language of administration in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and to creating regional councils. Tiruchelvam stated that undoing the Official Language Act was not the intention of the Federal Party; it only wished that everyone in the Northern and Eastern Provinces who wanted it should be able to do their administrative work in Tamil. Mrs. Bandaranaike, too, after succeeding her husband in 1959 following his assassination, was prepared to respond favourably to this by enacting the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act. In January 1964, Tiruchelvam reminded the House that all the parties appeared to be favourably disposed to the Act and “the reasonable use of Tamil.” He then stressed “My Party does not want to divide the country. In no part of the world is it accepted that federalism divides a country…We are of this country and we do not have any other country to go to…”
When a National Government succeeded the United Front, the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Bill, considered one of Tiruchelvam’s “seminal achievements,” was passed in January 1966. In the course of piloting the Bill, an outcome of the Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact replacing the abortive Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of a decade earlier, Tiruchelvam described as “a historic occasion” the passing of the Bill that “sought to restore to the Tamil speaking people of this country the right, in some measure, to administer their own affairs in the Tamil language.” He went on to add that it was the wish of the Tamil speaking people of the country “to live in this country on terms of friendship, amity, equality and dignity consistent with their Sinhalese brethren” and the Bill would go a long way towards this.
Six months later Sen. Tiruchelvam, indicating that implementation of the Bill was indifferent, began forcefully stressing that federalism was the key to a multi-ethnic Ceylon. He emphasised, “We consider ourselves citizens of this country and we wish to continue as citizens of this country for all time. Our concept of federalism has not for one minute…embodied the concept of association with any other country or organisation outside Ceylon.” That last allusion was in response to charges that his Party had links with the D.M.K. in Madras Province.
In 1968, the Federal Party withdrew from the National Government that had failed to fully implement the Pact, even though it had gone much further than the two Bandaranaikes. Tiruchelvam resigned from the Senanayake Cabinet. Explaining his Party’s decision, he pointed out in 1969 that though the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Acts of 1958 and 1966 were enacted to permit the use of Tamil “in the Northern and Eastern Provinces for the transaction of all Government and public business and the maintenance of public records, whether such business is conducted in or by a department or institution of the Government, a public corporation or a statutory institution” (the quote is from the Bill.), the Bills were not implemented, education of Tamils was affected, Tamils were ignored for Government appointments, and the import of South Indian films – the main entertainment of the Tamil people – was virtually banned. A parting of the ways was inevitable. He then made a fervent appeal: “We (the Tamils) who live in this Island, whose ancestors have been in this Island for centuries, are only a minority…(and) if there is any discrimination, any injustice, any tribulations, we can only look forward to the courts of this country and to the Government of this country for relief. We have nobody in this world to go to except the Government…On the other hand…some of us do not have a minority complex; we think we belong to the vast Tamil race. (But I wish to remind them) that as far as practical politics are concerned, as far as good relations are concerned, as far as living in this country is concerned, we must have a minority complex; we must get on with our fellow-citizens; we must work together; we must disabuse them of any suspicions they may have against us.” Tiruchelvam was very clear in his thinking. Ceylon was the only home of the Ceylon Tamils and they would have to work out compromises with the majority.
The United Front came into power again in 1970 and the Tamils feared that what little they had received from the UNP would became even less. And a disappointed Tiruchelvam’s speeches in the House became more emotional. He once again pointed out in the House, “We the Tamils of this country have no other place to go to…We are here forever as citizens of this country, as fellow-citizen of the Sinhalese people.” And when one of the first things the new Government did was to draw up plans to amend the Constitution, he categorically said, “The federalism we are asking is a federal form of government within the ambit of the Ceylon Constitution, under the control of the Central Government, with powers vested in the Central Government…” He then tellingly prophesised, “As long as there is one Tamil man in Ceylon, we will not give up the cry of federalism.” Let us, he urged, be a united country but with the rights of the people in the Northern and Eastern Provinces protected for ever.
Among Tiruchelvam’s other noteworthy speeches in the Senate, a significant one was one on the Mahaweli Ganga Project that greened the Eastern Province and created a new granary – welcomed by the Tamils and Muslims of the Province despite involving Sinhala colonisation. There is much in his speeches on these and other subjects that would be of interest to any developing nation or province, including India and its States. A selection from these speeches was compiled for publication by Ram Balasubramanyam, a solicitor who instructed Tiruchelvam in many of his cases and who also was his Private Secretary when he was Minister. It was published in 2007 in Ceylon using verbatim transcriptions from Hansard. Writing on the eve of Sri Lanka’s presidential election, it strikes me that in post-election Sri Lanka, both the Sinhalese and Tamil leaderships would considerably benefit from heeding Tiruchelvam’s heartfelt words, as they point the way to the only solution for a troubled Island.
*This article, based on SENATOR TIRUCHELVAM’S LEGACY: Selected speeches of and tributes to Senator Murugeysen Tiruchelvam, Q.C. edited by Ram Balasubramanyam and published by Vijitha Yapa Publications, Sri Lanka, is by a writer who was a senior journalist with The Times of Ceylon through most of the period Sen. Tiruchelvam was the spokesman of the Tamils in the Ceylon Senate. The writer is now an author, freelance writer and a columnist in Chennai whose work focuses on the historical.