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Promoting the Rights of Tamils without espousing separatism or violence

Feb 13, 2011 4:59:49 PM- transcurrents.com

By Prof.Rajiva Wijesinha

I was delighted when Nirgunan Tiruchelvam, grandson of the Senator and son of Neelan, gave me a copy of ‘Senator Tiruchelvam’s Legacy: Selected Speeches of and Tributes to Senator Murugeysan Tiruchelvam QC’. Having read it, I explored further and found an illuminating article written when the book was published in 2007 by my old schoolfriend D B S Jeyaraj, whom I knew as the slim young Sabapathy way back in the sixties. I was astonished, nearly two decades later, to find that the enormous Mr Jeyaraj, from whose newspaper columns there was so much to learn, was the same person.

Jeyaraj began his article, which celebrated the centenary in 2007 of Tiruchelvam’s birth, with an account of his first sight of the Senator, in 1970, a couple of years after he had resigned from the position of Minister of Local Government in Dudley Senanayake’s Cabinet. Sabapathy had vanished from S Thomas’, his family having relocated, as the article puts it, to Jaffna in that year. The occasion was an invitation to the Senator from V N Navaratnam, former MP for Chavakachcheri, whom coincidentally I wrote about last month on the 20th anniversary of his death in Canada, to be Chief Guest at the opening of the reconstructed Central Bus Stand at Chavakachcheri.

Ironically the paper publishing my article had included by mistake a picture of V Navaratnam, former MP for Kayts, who also died in Canada, much more recently. It was my fault, for I had mentioned only one initial, not realizing how far apart the two men had been. V Navaratnam had left the Federal Party in 1968, had set up his own party to agitate for self-rule, and ‘was viciously critical of M. Tiruchelvam and blamed him for allegedly misleading Chelvanayagam and betraying the Tamils.’

Jeyaraj went on to say that many MPs of the Federal Party, regretting the ill-fated alliance of the party with the Senanayake government, but unwilling to attack the revered Chelvanayakam, took it out on Tiruchelvam. As Jeyaraj puts it, ‘Gratitude has for long been a dwindling virtue in Tamil politics. V N Navaratnam was a rare exception’, which makes me the happier that I wrote about him, sadder that he was confused with the very different Member for Kayts.

Jeyaraj’s article puts succinctly the relentless criticism from which Tiruchelvam suffered, from a reborn FP after the break with the UNP, but more viciously from the SLFP led opposition during the period of alliance, and in particular its leftist components . Reading through the speeches, I was astonished at the crudity with which fellow Senators attacked him.

Senator Reggie Perera for instance, whom I had thought a model of cultural enlightenment, having expressed alarm at the inclusion of the Federal Party in the Government, mocked Senator Tiruchelvam’s pronunciation by suggesting that he had said ‘Hukkaduwa’ instead of ‘Hikkaduwa’. He went on to claim that the selling of the country to the Tamils would not be permitted, in his heckling during Senator Tiruchelvam’s speech on the Tamil Language Special Provisions Bill. Ordered to leave the Chamber for his continuing disturbances, he claimed on leaving (only to come back in shortly afterwards), ‘I will fight on the streets. I fought them once, I will fight again. But I do not blame you.

This is for the Sinhalese language, for the Sinhalese people, for unity among us.’

The university don Doric de Souza was as bad. Given that the LSSP had previously stood for parity for Tamil, he opposed the Bill on the specious grounds that the Federal Party wanted to ensure the primacy of the English Language. Behind this lay a refusal to affirm that the party still stood for parity, a backsliding that contributed to its appalling opposition to the later attempt of the government to establish District Councils.

Underlying the divisive bitterness that both these supposedly enlightened Senators evinced was perhaps disappointment that the Federal Party had thrown in its lot with the UNP rather than the left-wing coalition Mrs Bandaranaike had set up in 1964. Tiruchelvam’s maiden speech, in April 1965, soon after he was appointed to the Senate, suggests this, when he cites N M Perera’s claim that the Federal Party contributed to the defeat of the coalition government in December 1964, just when ‘the Tamils could enjoy the fruits of the talks’ which he had had with Mr Tiruchelvam in November 1964.

In fact, after the election, in March 1965, with no party having a clear majority, the FP had spoken to the coalition as well as to the UNP. Tiruchelvam gave two reasons for the decision to support the UNP – ‘One was…:once bitten, twice shy". Secondly, we thought, rightly or wrongly…we must support a Government that is wedded to the democratic process and democratic way of life’, a reference to the determination of the coalition to take over the Lake House group of newspapers (not, as de Souza pointed out, in correcting Tiruchelvam, the press as a whole’.

Ironically, the Federal Party, and Tiruchelvam in particular, were to be let down by the UNP too. Though the Tamil Special Provisions Bill was passed, the Regulations were not properly implemented. Worse, given opposition from within the UNP as well as from the official Opposition Dudley Senanayake abandoned the District Councils Bill which he had promised the FP he would introduce.

Tiruchelvam was mocked by the UNP after he had left the government, perhaps understandably, because he made clear the principal deficiency of the Prime Minister. Though he was positive about Dudley Senanayake’s moral decency, he was clear about why a government that began ‘with the support of the Sinhalese, with the support of the entire Tamil Members of Parliament, with the support of the Members of Parliament belonging to the Muslim community except one’ found itself by 1969 in a very different position –‘The Muslims are clearly restless and the Catholics are suspicious of the Government; the Buddhist hierarchy is up in arms against one Minister of the Government; the Government is confronted with an economic problem of terrific magnitude’.

He asks why ‘a man who started off under such favourable auspices in 1965, a man of undoubted integrity…a man who has no communal feelings, a man who hates to do what is wrong – come to this unfortunate and sorry pass?’ He answers the question in a way that continues to resonate, as undoubtledly popular governments over the last forty years persistently lose favour with the electorate – ‘I wish to say that the Prime Minister in a parliamentary democracy, vested with all power, can succeed, firstly if he has the necessary moral fibre, the necessary strength, to remove his uncomfortable colleagues; if necessary, to get rid of recalcitrant elements; if necessary, to be ruthless. I say that these are essential qualities of a Prime Minister. Honesty – yes; integrity – yes; political foresight – yes; but, in addition to that, firmness, strength, to get rid of colleagues who are inconvenient or undesirable in other ways.’

He talks then of the fact that Senanayake did not take his colleagues into his confidence regarding his discussions with the FP, ‘with the result that we had a Government which was not aware of its full commitment’. He adds that there were members of the Cabinet who ‘cannot get over their initial prejudices that the Tamils are a race apart’ and also ‘officials who have not accustomed themselves to treating the Tamils as equal fellow citizens’.

Tiruchelvam singles out one particular bugbear, the then Minister of Education and Cultural Affairs(IMRA Iriyagolla), and notes what seemed a deliberate attempt to bring down standards in Jaffna schools. I had not known about this, thinking that measures that restricted opportunities for children in the North began with the United Front government of 1970 (albeit initially for reasons of class rather than race).

But Tiruchelvam’s speech brought home to me how vital it is to prevent unnecessary interference through our centralized system of education in centres of educational excellence, interference aimed at bringing down what is superior, rather than improving what is bad. I was reminded then of a letter from the Government Agent in Vavuniya seeking relief from the dictates of an insensitive bureaucracy, and I can only hope that this administration will ensure that such irritants do not continue.

This government has I believe done much more than others to promote implementation of regulations with regard to language, to promote the bilingualism that was the subject of Tiruchelvam’s maiden speech (and indeed trilingualism, since we are now over the colonial hang-ups that erudite Doric de Souza suffered from). But, as Tiruchelvam noted, that will always be Ministers and Officials who refuse to understand that all citizens of this country are equal and must be treated equally. Dudley Senanayake, who came into office with so much promise, stumbled because of his failure to be firm about implementation of the policies he believed in. More than forty years later, with so much water or rather blood having flowed under so many bridges, we must hope that we do not make similar mistakes.

Senator Tiruchelvam ‘opposed the 1976 Vaddukottai Resolution that demanded a separate State of Thamileelam and advised Mr.Chelvanayagam against it’. His son Neelan became a hate figure to the Tigers, just as his father had been to those in the FP who were against compromise in the 70s, and was murdered in 1999, which led to the domination of the old TULF by the Tigers for the next decade.

Now, finally, the former democratic Tamil politicians have escaped from terrorist domination, and may go back to the principles of the Tiruchelvams, promoting the rights of Tamils but without espousing separatism or violence. We owe it, not just to their memories, but to the memories of all those of all races who suffered from violence, to ensure that a few divisive voices do not revive the resentments that Dudley Senanayake’s weakness of the sixties perpetuated for two generations.