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Out Of Bondage – The Thondaman Story
Savumiamoorthy Thondaman is the name that shaped the post- independent political landscape of Sri Lanka, in a multitude of ways. His story is a very special one. It is the story of a group of people, who were overnight rendered stateless and vote-less by the machination of a few scheming political leaders, just few months after the attainment of independence, from the colonial rule of the British. After a protracted strive and struggle, the indomitable Thondaman managed to acquire for them. their birthrights and freedom from servitude and today, thanks to the great Leader, the Indian Tamils enjoy almost equal rights, with their brethren of other communities, in Sri Lanka. The story of how those rights were wrested back is legendary. It is the very story of Savumiamoorthy Thondaman, a maestro in political diplomacy.
He came to Sri Lanka, from the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, in 1924, as a 11 year old boy, to join his father Karuppaih, who earlier was considered a “ran-away” from the village to Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, with only 8 annas (50 Indian Paise) to earn a living and make his family prosper in the future which was at that particular period of time was in dire straits. In the beginning, Karuppiah served in a shop as a sales boy, worked as a laborer in an estate, rose to be a ‘kankani' - Labour supervisor; subsequently, manage to save money to buy a neglected tea estate and planted it with tea and gradually rose to become one of the rich Indian Tamil migrant in the island.
Karuppiah wished his son to manage his wealth and amass more and to become the most influential Indian Tamil planter. But Thondaman, chose another path and blossomed into the most influential politician in the island nation. By the time of his sudden death in 2000, he had transformed the political landscape of the country into an unprecedented manner, where at times the Indian Tamils determined the future of the country.
The path Thondaman chose was full of thorns, as the people who elected him to serve them, were in bondage in the tea and rubber plantations, where they sweated whole day long, to earn a meager livelihood. They were kept weld to the tea and rubber stumps. They were treated as serfs; traded along with the estates like chattel. They were denied all avenues of advancement and were continuously kept as the most backward section of Sri Lankan society. They were paid the lowest, but were unashamedly exploited most.
Thondaman led them along the path of advancement and gradually won them back their dignity and honor .
His struggle to win for them the political, economic and social emancipation was indeed traumatic but dramatic to the very last minute.
This series is an attempt to relate an unusual story of an impassion human endeavor, by the most senior Sri Lankan Journalist - T.Sabaratnam, who had covered the charismatic leader Thondaman, for the Sri Lankan dailies, "Thinakaran" and "Daily News," since from 1957, till the last days of Thondaman’s sudden demise in 2000. This is the revised version of his earlier accomplishment of the -Out of Bondage - The Thondaman Story, first published in 1990, by the Sri Lankan Indian Community Council.
The author T.Sabaratnam is an undaunting journalist, one of the veteran scribe of Sri Lanka, writes this revised version of the political biography of Thondaman, for the readers of Asian Tribune and we are very pleased to serialize this political biography.
Chapter – 1: Making of a kingmaker - Three Interviews
I begin this narrative with three significant interviews I had with Thondaman. They span two politically active and transforming decades.
My first interview with him was in 1978, when the Ceylon Workers Congress, -or the popularly known, the CWC, his Trade Union- was debating intensely the invitation for Thondaman and the CWC to join his government, extended by J.R.Jayewardene, the former Sri Lanka President of Sri Lanka..
The next one was ten years later, on 19 November 1988; the day Lankan parliament passed the special law to grant citizenship to all stateless persons.
The third was on 25 March 1997, when his opponents were gleefully predicting the collapse of Thondaman and his political empire.
Interview I -"I will never be a Yes Man"
President Jayewardene's invitation to the CWC was made in the third week of August 1978. I met Thondaman on September 4, the day before the CWC Executive Council meeting. By that time, the decision to accept the invitation to join the government had been taken and the resolution to be placed before the Council was being drafted. I asked Thondaman to state the reason for adopting such a decision.
"There are many," he replied, "but the most important is - President Jayewardene."
“President Jayewardene,” he said, "is willing to solve the citizenship problem and he is the only Sinhala leader, who could do so. But, on the other hand, he will never permit Srimavo Bandaranaike, the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP and opposition, to do it."
"If Srimavo were to try it,” Thondaman explained, "Jayewardene would rouse the majority Sinhalese passion and make it impossible for her to hand back the citizenship rights to the stateless Indian Tamils, originally taken away by D.S. Senanayake, the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka."
"The fact that President Jayewardene is the only Sinhala leader with the political shrewdness and acumen who could solve the stateless Indian Tamil's problem. He knows the political importance of the Indian Tamils' vote. He also knows that, the Indian Tamil population can never be driven away. They are going to stay-put in Sri Lanka . Therefore he must have decided, why not win them over by accepting the harsh reality."
Thondaman explained the bi-polar nature of Sri Lankan politics and the relative organizational strengths of the United National Party (UNP) and the SLFP. With better organization at its command the UNP in opposition could thwart any attempt by the SLFP to be reasonable to the upcountry Tamils. The SLFP with its organizational weakness and pro-Sinhala Buddhist tilt, would be hesitant to work a solution to the stateless problem. The SLFP also lacked political will to solve the stateless issue and the capacity to block any legislation, President Jayewardene decides to enact. "The SLFP will shout, issue statements and that's the end of the matter," Thondaman said.
Subsequent events proved Thondaman correct. “The real problem is within the UNP," he said. "It has its quota of extremists who work on President Jayewardene's desire for a place in history, as a great Sinhala ruler. He has also two other strong traits in his character: the desire to be reasonable and defiance in face of opposition. Our joining the government will strengthen his desire to appear reasonable and reinforce the hands of the moderates within the government."
He added with a mischievous smile, "We must never forget that, it was the UNP which deprived us of our citizenship and voting rights. We must make the same UNP to give them back to us."
"The task I had decided to undertake was not that easy," he added.
“The SLFP and Buddhist chauvinists would whip up communal feelings and try to force President Jayewardene to abandon his attempt to restore the rights of the Indian Tamils,” he said and continued, “J.R. was not strong willed as many believed. He was weak, wavering, calculating and selfish. When his interests are threatened, he is defiant.”
"J.R. is not Banda or Dudley," he quipped. "No one can scare him. No one can pressurize him. If anyone tries it on him, his reaction would be one of defiance," thus Thondaman revealed his study of the Sri Lankan President.
He also pointed out the dangers of joining a government. "You tend to lose your base. It happened to the Communist Party and the LSSP (Lanka Sama Samaja Party). Their leaders neglected the trade unions and their true supporters. N.M. (LSSP leader Dr. N.M. Perera) turned out to be a strike-breaker, when he joined the United Front Government of Srimavo Bandaranaike in 1970. He made use of his trade unions to break strikes and ended up in breaking his own trade unions,” he said.
"I would avoid the mistake the leaders of the LSSP and the CP made" he said. He emphasized that, he would maintain constant contact with the CWC and look after the interests of the Indian Tamils. "I am only joining the government to look after their interests," Thondaman added.
"I will never be a 'Yes man' in the cabinet. I have made this abundantly clear to J.R. I will be my people's representative and their voice in the cabinet. Their aspirations and their needs will be my concern and not any other theoretical policy considerations," Thondaman concluded.
Interview II -"I feel very, very, happy..!"
My second interview with Thondaman was on November 19, 1988. He had just returned from Parliament to his tastefully decorated ninth-floor office of the Rural Industrial Development Ministry, at Kollupitiya, located in the very heart of Colombo. On that day the Parliament successfully enacted the Law to end Statelessness and I went to meet him to asses his feelings and emotions.
"I feel very, very, happy," he said and added, "Forty years of suffering of my people has at last ended."
Interview III- "...Our people have voted against us"
The third was on March m25, 1997, soon after the results of the local elections held four days earlier were known. I expected to meet a downhearted, dejected and disappointed Thondaman, but to my surprise I saw him in a defiant mood.
"I accept that my people have not voted for us," he thundered.
A CWC Parliamentarian intervened and said, "They were confused and they were misled." He was referring to a UNP ruse. On the eve of the election, the UNP plastered the walls and boulders with a directive he issued during the August 1994 parliamentary general elections, requesting his followers to vote for UNP.
Thondaman did not accept the explanation given by his colleague and he was very harsh on him. "Learn to accept facts. Do not find excuses. Our people have rejected the stand we took. They have exercised their democratic right to tell us that, we had gone wrong. We must take that into account and correct our mistakes. Don't try to find excuses," he chided
Thondaman said that what he feared in 1978 was happening. He appraised that the leadership, specially the MPs, had failed to attend to the needs of the people. He added, “They had alienated themselves from the people. The CWC had also failed to obtain for the people their expectations.”
He reminded that the people were earlier promised with better housing, ownership of the line rooms they had occupied for generations and plots of lands to do home gardening and many other facilities. Unfortunately, he explained that none of the promises given during elections had been kept.
"The people are fed up with the false promises given by the politicians," Thondaman said and added, "I have now taken powers to my hand. I will tell the government that unless we keep our promises, the people will choose the leaders, who can win them their demands."
He announced that the CWC General Council had resolved to authorize him to take whatever action needed to put things in order. "I am not prepared to sacrifice the 50 years of hard work put by so many people," he said determinedly.
His face betrayed the emotions he was trying to conceal. For him the uplifting his people is his life mission, a life-long goal since his boyhood.
The story of Thondaman
He came to Ceylon as a boy of eleven to join his father, Karuppaiah, the owner of Wavendon Estate, a lush tea estate in the Central hills. He was then known by his first name Savumiamoorthy, the name of the deity Sri Savumia Narayana Perumal, whom his family worshipped in their ancestral village Muna Pudur, a prosperous agricultural village in the Pasumpon district, earlier known as Ramnad. The village, the temple and the reigning deity, still occupy an important place in Thondaman's life and that of his family.
It was at that temple, Thondaman's father prayed on the morning he decided to set out to Ceylon, at the tender age of 13, without the permission and knowledge of his parents. It was in 1873. Crops had failed and the family was in dire straits. The young boy then known as Kumaravel, determined to help his family, sought permission from the deity, he revered, to migrate to Ceylon.
People of the village said that he had run away, but in fact, he went away with a 'Labour gang,' recruited by Maruthappan Kankani, who had returned to his village for a holiday, after a stint at a coffee estate in Gampola, in the Central hills of Sri Lanka. He held a meeting at the temple premises and said that his employer had asked him to recruit laborers -coolies- to work in his estate. “Wages were attractive and accommodation provided,” he announced.
"Look at me," he tempted them, "I went to Ceylon as a pauper and am doing well. You too can prosper, if you come with me."
Maruthappan also told of the retail trader Muthaiah, as another example for success. Muthaiah who was trader at Gampola, had returned to his village, a few months ago and had carried a lot of presents to his relatives. "If you are enterprising, you can be another Muthaiah," Maruthappan said.
Some offered to join. Young Karuppaiah stood up. "Can young boys like me join?" he asked.
"Of course. Young boys like you are welcome," Maruthappan replied. Karuppaiah volunteered.
That was the time a prolonged drought had ruined agriculture in Tamil Nadu, then Madras State. Cultivators were abandoning their parched land and looking for alternate livelihood. That was the time labor contractors were recruiting labor 'gangs' as indentured laborers, and taking them to Burma, Malaysia, Fiji, South Africa, Mauritius and far away West Indies islands, to open up coffee, rubber, tea and sugarcane plantations. Ceylon was the nearest and the most attractive place for new avenues of earning during those time.
Labour recruitment at that time was controlled by the 'indenture system' introduced by the British Indian government , which laid down strict conditions including wages, abode, medical care etc. Recruitment was under a contract of employment, which stipulated that the labourer was bound to the employer during the contracted period. Registered contractors who undertake to conform to the government regulations were permitted to recruit workers.
In Ceylon, the alternate system of recruitment was called the Kankani System and was popular. Kankani was an unofficial labor contractor, who collected 'gangs' of 40 to 60 men and women and provided their services to planters. That system was popular with the planters, as well as with the workers.
Under kankanis, planters were not bound to provide the facilities stipulated under the 'indenture system' and the workers were free to switch employers. Kankani system had another advantage: there was unity and common interest in the 'gang' as most of them were from the same village or locality,
Free supply of labor gangs was made available in Ceylon, because of the proximity of Tamil Nadu, and from where the migration was unrestricted.
Five days after he joined the gang, Karuppaiah went to Thirukoddiur temple. He prayed. He wept. But he was determined. He knew that it was a gamble. He was aware that he may fall by the wayside and be dead or would be killed by wild animals.
He vowed that he would go and sought the blessings of the god. "My god, help me to achieve my ambition," he prayed aloudly.
That evening Muna Pudur village hummed with the news that, Karuppaiah had bolted away.
The gang of forty men, women and children walked to the ancient port of Pundi and took a boat to Pampan. From there, they went to Mandapam to complete quarantine procedures. Then they sailed in a bigger vessel to Pesalai, a fishing village in the Mannar island, paying 25 cents each. Maruthappan paid the fare. This spared Karuppaiah the 8 annas (50 cents) with which he left home.
From Mannar they walked again following the Indian migrant labor route- Murunkan, Mankulam, Madawachiya, Mihintala, Dambulla, Matale and Kandy. They reached Matale on the eighth day and camped at Muthumariamman temple. They walked to Kandy and then to Gampola, where they arrived on the tenth day.
Karuppaiah had enjoyed the trip immensely. Later in life, he related stories of that adventure of how a woman fell ill and was carried over 16 kilometers to an ambalama, where a doctor was found to treat her. How every one fell exhausted except him. How they ran for life on sighting a herd of wild elephants.
At Gampola they went to Muthaiah's shop where Muthaiah, who had traveled by ship to Colombo and then by train to Gampola, the route the affluent took, received them. Muthaiah wanted Karuppaiah to work for him. Others left with Maruthappan to his estate.
Karuppaiah desired to go with the rest, but Muthaiah dissuaded him. "Be with me. I will train you in business," he told Karuppaiah. When Kauppaiah said he wanted to see the estate, Muthaiah promised to send him in his bullock cart, that goes round distributing merchandise to estates.
“You will be going to many estates and not one,” Muthiah told him.
Karuppaiah fell for that bait. Anyhow, he had to obey Muthaiah, who was his distant relative. Muthaiah, however, did not treat him as a relative. He was treated like a servant. He made him work for long hours. He was also harsh on him. He had to look after the house and keep awake till Muthaiah returned from the shop, late in the evening. If he was found sleeping, he was beaten severely. Karuppaiah found a solution to his predicament. He slept by the front door and woke up at the first knock. This earned him Muthaiah's goodwill and the promotion as a sales boy, at his shop.
It was Muthaiah, who gave Karuppaiah his name. His parents had named him Kumaravel. One day, Muthaiah told him: "From today I will call you Karuppan," and he was Karuppan thereafter. It was after he prospered in life, he called himself Karuppaiah Pillai; ‘Aiah’ - to earn respect and Pillai -added for his credit-worthiness.
How long Karuppaiah worked with Muthaiah is not clear. The exact dates and even years of Karuppaiah's life is obscure. The year of his birth and the year of migration to Ceylon, were only determined by the available external evidences. Exact dates and years are not that vital for this story.
The coffee boom
When Karuppaiah left Muthaiah's service, he joined Gordon Estate at Kadugannawa, at a daily wage of 13 cents. This was around the year 1875. That was the time of the historic coffee boom.
Coffee had been planted in Ceylon, since 1830 and a record crop was exported in 1861. Gordon estate was also planted with coffee and was doing fine financially. That provided enterprising Karuppaiah with an opening. He collected a labor gang and promoted himself as a Kankani.
Kankani was something more than an unofficial labour contractor. He was a leader, a father figure, who ensured attendance of his men and women, supervised their work, calculated their wages, supplied their commodities and looked after their interest and welfare. Kankani was the link between the estate superintendent and the labour.
Handsome and pleasant Karuppaiah, was strict but humane. It was said, a woman labourer could not pick the minimum poundage, because she was sick. He persuaded other pluckers, to give her a handful each, to enable her to earn the full wage that day. He was also a 'ladies' man, who was said to have raised a family, when at Gordon Estate.
The deadly coffee leaf blight disease, the leaf fungus called hemileia Vastratrix, that first appeared in 1869, spread to Gordon Estate ten years later and devastated the entire plantation. Karuppaiah lost his job next year and joined Attabage Estate. It was his worst period. He was almost a broken man.
The turnaround came ten years later. He decided to quit the place engulfed with continued misfortune and go elsewhere. He chose Nuwara Eliya and set out on his journey.
A barber, whom people consider a man of ill omen, crossed his path. Observing Karuppaiah's dejected forlorn appearance; he asked him where he was going.
"I' m going to Nuwara Eliya to find a job," Karuppaiah replied.
"Dorai, I heard that they were looking for a good kankani at Wavendon Estate, in Ramboda," the barber told him.
Karuppaiah went there and got the job. For him, the barber had turned out to be man of good omen. That happened in 1890. From then onwards, it was a meteoric rise. He soon became a head kankani in charge of seven estates in the Ramboda range in the Central hills, including Dunnsinane Estate. He got up at 4 a.m. every day, walked all the estates, to check the labour turnout and supervised the work of the sub-kankanis. He used to return to his room at 7 pm, fully exhausted.
His hard work was well rewarded. He collected a big packet of 'pence money ' - four cents per worker every day. That money he invested in various business ventures. He bought bullock carts and organized a retail business of transporting household goods. He started a 'transport agency ' under the name “V.E.K.R,” to carry tea caskets to Colombo and bring back groceries.
While busy making money, he became involved with a woman named Kathirayi. He married her and had children by her; but his people at Muna Pudur declined to recognize the marriage, as she belonged to a different stock. He was ordered to marry from his own Kallar caste. Karuppaiah gave in to family pressure and married Sithammai, Thondaman's mother. That was in 1903.
Karuppaiah's marriage was a big event in the village. Dressed like a prince, the bridegroom rode a white horse, specially hired, to the bride's home. After the gala marriage ceremony, the couple returned to the bridegroom's home, in a decorated horse-drawn cart. It was a glamorous event that the people of the area talked of it, for years.
The eldest child of Karuppaiah was a daughter, Thirumal, born in 1905. She died shortly afterwards. It was after her birth that Karuppaiah bought Wavendon Estate, and became the first native to own an estate in the Nuwara Eliya district. Thirumal, he believed, had brought him the lady of fortune.
Wavendon Estate was the property of an absentee owner, one Miss Owen, who lived in England. Karuppaiah, who by then had amassed considerable wealth, bought it in 1909, for Rs. 75,000. It was a sprawling piece of land reaching the high hilltop, where Protoft and Poojagoda estates are now situated. At that time, only a small extent of land was under cultivation. Coffee was being gradually abandoned in favor of tea.
A year after he bought Wavendon, Karuppaiah returned to Muna Pudur and stayed for four years. He built a palatial house, complete with audience hall. This resulted in the fulfillment of the vow he took, the day he left for Ceylon that, he would restore the 'family glory,' in the years to come.
1913:Thondaman was born
Four children were born in those years, three girls and the youngest a son, born on 30 August 1913. That boy was Savumiamoorthy, whom his mother fondly called Mathavan.
It was only when he travelled to Ceylon his birth name was unearthed and he was known as Savumiamoorthy, during his first eight years in Ceylon. He took the clan name Thondaman - the clan that ruled parts of Ramanad district and had established links with Jaffna.
Karuppaiah returned to Wavendon soon after Thondaman's birth and did not return to his village for the next seven years. He planted tea in the entire estate. He also acquired the Tawalakanda division and planted tea there too. He also concentrated on trade and transport. In those seven years, Karuppaiah built himself and became a rich and influential planter cum trader.
Thondaman was barely seven years old, when his father returned to Muna Pudur in Tamil Nadu. He had grown into sturdy, mischievous boy and was attending a local Tamil school, founded a few years earlier. Father and son developed a strong attachment: When Karuppaiah prepared to return to Wavendon, Thondaman clung on to him.
Karuppaiah wanted to take Thondaman with him to Ceylon, but Seethammai, the mother, would not agree. He is too young, she pleaded. She also had misgivings about Karuppaiah's wife in Ceylon, Kathirayi, and her people. She feared they might harm the boy.
On the day Karuppaiah left for Ceylon, he asked Thondaman what present he wanted.
"I want to study," Thondaman said.
"I'll call you, after I go and will send you to a good school," the father promised.
It took four more years for that call to come.
And that call was the, ‘Call of Destiny,’ of Thondaman-for it resulted in a memorable journey, which changed the course of Thondaman's life, that of his family, the history of the Indian Tamils of Ceylon...and of Ceylon itself!
|Chapter 2 : THE WELCOME SPEECH|
| At Wavendon|
Young Thondaman came to Ceylon, shortly after his eleventh birthday, in 1924. It was an emotional experience for him, as he was parting from his mother who petted him all these years, to join a father, whose affection he had experienced, only briefly. He was leaving to a completely foreign environment, from the somewhat arid, warm, rice – farming tropical surroundings that was his home, for a humid, hilly, tea plantation.
But he was not scared. He was a boy and was delighted. It was an exciting moment when he received the quarantine form from his father. That would enable him to travel without being detained at Mandapam camp. It was the first document that bore the name Savumiamoothy. So was he called until he took his clan name in 1932, after his marriage.
It was after the Dipawali festival, Thondaman left his native village for Ceylon. He travelled by train to Dhanuskodi, accompanied by a relative, and crossed the Gulf of Mannar by a steamer. From Mannar he took train to Polgahawela, from there he traveled again by train- the Badulla train, to Gampola. His father, Karuppaiah, was at the railway-station to receive him.
From Gampola, he was driven by motor-car to Ramboda, and was seated at the rear, with his father. It was his father's car, bought from a British planter. The steep and winding roads made Thondaman giddy and he vomited.
His father was annoyed. He shouted at the driver to stop. He scolded, "You have dirtied my car. I bought it from a white 'dorai'." His admiration and respect for the white man was reflected the way he uttered the word 'dorai.'
Ramboda fascinated Thondaman. He roamed the hills, bathed in the rivers and waterfalls, walked with his father from division to division, admiring the manicured green carpet of tea. It was a new experience and he enjoyed it thoroughly. He got the feel of the place and got to know the basics of his father's work.
A few weeks after acclimatization, Thondaman was admitted to the 'estate school' in Wavendon. It was a room behind the estate office, where the children of the estate staff and kankanis gathered daily. The head clerk was the teacher. In between his normal work he taught them to read, write and add. He was there for three years.
Karuppaiah's influence had, by then, spread far and wide in Nuwara Eliya. He did business with leading Colombo firms and the 'white dorais' on other estates. He realized that his ignorance of the English language was a great handicap. Therefore, he was determined that, his son should not suffer such a difficulty. He decided to admit Thondaman to St. Andrew's College, Gampola.
He encountered two problems. First, Thondaman was overage; by then he was 14 years old. Second, the college insisted on a minimum qualification for admission: a pass in the third standard. An exemption was allowed only if a student brought a certificate of competence from a recognized school- teacher. Accordingly, Thondaman was sent to one such teacher, who coached him in three months to gain admission in the College.
Thondaman was at St. Andrew's for five years, from 1927 to 1932. At the start he travelled daily from Ramboda by car, with his cousin Mathavan. Karuppaiah decided that it would be better, if the two boys resided at Gampola. The time they spent daily on the road could be gainfully used. So he started a business at Gampola, but it failed. He lost a fortune in that venture.
Every Friday Thondaman went to Wavendon and returned to Gampola on Monday. He travelled up and down in the motor-lorries, that plied regularly on the Nuwara Eliya road. During the days he was at Wavendon, he worked with his father and assisted him.
One of his duties was to go through the accounts. The day's account had to be balanced before he was permitted to go to bed. Thondaman learnt his accounting from his father, the hard way. One night, then he was 17 years old, Thondaman went through the day's accounts at Wavendon and found a cash shortage of one cent.
"Go through it again and find out how that happened," his father admonished. He went through it again. The shortfall remained. He had to go through the whole mass of figures for a third time, to discover the source of that shortage.
As boys always do, Thondaman soon mastered the art of managing such situation. He carried a few cents with him and when detected of such shortages, he would simply drop his money into the cash box!
This training ingrained in Thondaman the habit of being careful with money. In 1950, when he was a member of the first parliament, he entered a London hospital for a throat operation. The operation was over and the doctors had warned him not to talk. A nurse announced that there was a telephone call from Colombo. It was from his wife, Kothai. It was difficult to get overseas calls those days. Thondaman decided to answer the call. He told his wife to be brief and asked her to hand over the receiver to others who had gathered around the telephone over there. He talked within those three minutes, to seven people, including the President of the Ceylon Indian Congress, S. Rajalingam!
Thondaman was also trained by his father to be very careful about investments and never to take anything not of his due. In the London hospital, during the time of his throat operation, he also got his eyes examined. The doctor prescribed a pair of spectacles and ordered them under Britain's National Health Scheme. Thondaman declined to accept it and bought outside for 10 sterling pounds.
After his discharge from the hospital, he bought himself three pairs of waterproof shoes. When the British press questioned the purpose behind that purchase, he told them: "These shoes are very costly in my country. I bought them to walk about in my estates."
One day, while he was Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Thondaman told me that, some public corporations and government departments did not maintain proper accounts and millions of rupees went unaccounted. "Every time I noticed such things, I think of the sleepless hours I spent tracing back that one cent," he said.
Drawn to Mahatma Gandhi.
The year Thondaman joined St. Andrew' College in 1927, Mahatma Gandhi visited Ceylon. The Nagarathar Society of Colombo, an organization of the Nattukottai Chettiars, a powerful financial community, organized the visit. Mahatma Gandhi addressed meetings in Colombo, Kandy and Jaffna. Thondaman was at school and did not attend any of them. But, he managed to read all his speeches in the Tamil papers.
Thondaman had been drawn to Mahatma Gandhi, when he was at Muna Pudur. His teacher over there, was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and during those days, Gandhi was the main subject of conversation, at family gatherings. The Tamil papers in Tamil Nadu (Madras Presidency) were full of stories about him and Thondaman devoured them all.
Gandhiji's message of non-violence and his austerity, the simple living experimented by him, impressed the young Thondaman. He was particularly struck by what Gandhiji said on November 13, at the Gintupitiya Hall, in Colombo: "You who are traders in this rich country and are bound to be truthful, straight and friendly with the local people. The people here are going to form their own opinion of the millions of Indians over in the mainland, from the manner you deal with them. So your behaviour should be fair and free of fault."
Thondaman was impressed, also by the Kandy speech, in which Gandhiji had appealed to the 'great planters' to consider themselves the trustees not only of the body but the soul of their labourers, and asked them to take a personal interest in the lives of their workers.
And he was deeply influenced by the ‘Baghvad Geetha,’ its concept of doing one's duty, even if it meant destroying one's own kith and kin, as preached by Lord Krishna to Arjuna. His life, his character and later the struggles he led, were moulded by Gandhiji and Lord Krishna.
The Indian independence movement was gathering momentum at the time he was at St. Andrews and the Indian stalwarts, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajaji (C.Rajagopalachari), Kamaraj Nadar, Moulana Abdul Kalam Azad, Sardar Vallabai Patel, captured his imagination and that of the millions like him. His sister used to mail him Tamil newspapers, available in Karaikudi and many students use to borrow them from him. Discussing Indian politics was not taboo at St. Andrew's, although teachers frowned upon students who talked about local events.
It was at that time, Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar and Rabindranath Tagore visited Ceylon. Thondaman was attracted by their speeches. Karuppaiah never suspected Thondaman's inclinations. He had different ideas for his son. In 1930, he fell sick, often. He could not endure the strenuous daily routine. He decided his son should marry and take over the management of the family estates and business ventures. After all, by then, Karuppaiah, had reached the age of seventy and Thondaman had grown into a sturdy robust youth.
It was an arranged marriage for Thondaman - arranged by his mother Sithammai and his sister Adhilakshmy. They chose Kothai, a fair and dainty damsel, hailing from a respectable family, from the adjoining village, Kandaramanikkam.
In keeping with tradition, Thondaman's sister tied the 'thali' (Mangala sutra) round Kothai's neck; Kothai became the wife of the absentee husband. The marriage took place in 1932. )Subsequently Thondaman visited Muna Pudur and was) Thondaman was with his wife in Muna Pudur for a little over a year. During that time, 1933, his only son, Ramanathan, was born.
Drawn to Politics.
Thondaman returned to Wavendon in 1933, leaving his wife and son behind in Muna Pudur. At Wavendon, a massive task awaited him. His father's health was failing. Thondaman spent most of his time managing the estate and the business. He also travelled twice to Muna Pudur to be with his wife and son. These were also the years when he was steadily drawn into politics.
There was, at that time, an organization named the ‘Gandhi Seva Sangam,’ in Hatton. Youths like Rajalingam and Vellayan were its active members. They requested Thondaman, a rich youth by then with Gandhian leanings, to attend their meetings. Thondaman was reluctant, but persuaded by the Rajalingam, who was warm and friendly, he attended the meeting. He knew he would disappoint his father, if he show interest in politics. Karuppaiah was determined that his son should keep away from politics.
At the very meeting attended by Thondaman, a resolution was adopted calling upon the government to take steps to alleviate the hardships of immigrant labor.
There was yet another organization, called, the Bose Sangam, formed by the supporters of Subas Chandra Bose, the Indian freedom fighter. Thondaman attended some of its meetings too.
Late in 1938, Karuppaiah fell seriously ill. He was confined to his room. Early every morning, an employee read the Tamil papers to him and Thondaman had to ask him not to read out the reports of his speeches. He knew his father would be disturbed, as well as pained, that his only son was being drawn into politics.
By 1939, Karuppaiah's health began to deteriorate. He wished to have his daughter - in - law Kothai and his grandson Ramanathan with him. They were bought to Lanka in early 1939.
Karuppaiah passed away in 1940. In the previous year Thondaman was elected, Chairman of the Gampola branch of the Ceylon Indian Congress. Two friends, D. Ramanujam and K. Subbaiah, one evening, had called at his Wavendon home. They told him that they wanted to form the branch of the Ceylon Indian Congress, at Gampola and invited him to be present at the inaugural meeting. At the meeting, Thondaman’s name was proposed for chairmanship.
The proposal came to him as a shock. He was hesitant and reluctant to accept that position; but Ramanujam pressed him to accept it. Thondaman requested for time to consider. He told them he, that wanted to consult elders. The next morning, he went to Kandy and met P. Rajapriyar, a leading social worker and a family friend.
Rajapriyar told him: "Young man, take it...some of us fight to get such positions...we go after such jobs...you are being offered it on a plate. Take it." Thondaman did so.
"That was one of the most difficult decisions I had to take in my life," Thondaman recalled. "It was difficult because I was being pulled in opposite directions."
At one end, his father who insisted that, politics was a pastime of the ‘Masters,’ the British. On the other end, it was his concern for the welfare of the workers. His interest in the downtrodden came from his mother, who was always kind to the poor and the sick and had got Thondaman to feed them whenever a poor visited their house at Muna Pudur. Interest in politics, he must have inherited from his clan, many of whom joined Mahatma Gandhi's independence struggle.
Thondaman came to be aware of the abject poverty, in which the Indian Tamil labour lived, only after he came to Wavendon. He was not permitted to visit the line-rooms and was strictly forbidden to play with labourers' children. The estate school he studied for the first three years was not open to the laborers’ children.
During the five years he studied at St. Andrew's College, he learnt more about the problems of Indian immigrants in Ceylon and the Indian independence struggle. The boys used to exchange the Tamil newspapers and magazines they got form India and one day, his friend gave him a paper with a poem by Kavignar Subramaniam Bharathi – poet laureate. Thondaman was so moved that he memorized it.
He recited the poem to his friends. Mahatma Gandhi's visit in 1927 and the elections to the State Council in 1931, further fuelled Thondaman's interest in politics.
The 1931 general elections was the first held in Sri Lanka, under adult franchise, introduced under the Donoughmore Constitution. Two Indian Tamils won seats in that election: S. P. Vythilingam (Talawakelle) and Peri Sundaram (Hatton.) On the votes of Tamil plantation workers, a European planter, A. Gorden Fellows, was elected to the Bandarawela seat.
Thondaman did not play any active part in that election, but he followed it with interest. It gave him the opportunity to acquaint himself with the historical development of Indian representation in Ceylon's legislature.
Ceylon became a British Crown colony in 1802 and a legislative council of sixteen members was established in 1833, on the recommendation of the Lieutenant Colonel Colebrooke Commission. Of these members, nine were officials and six non- officials, comprising three Europeans, one Sinhalese, one Tamil and one Burgher.
The Planters' Association. formed in the 1830s and the merchants, wanted a bigger share in the country's administration, so that they could prod the executive to build roads and railways linking the estates to Colombo. It was they who agitated for a un-official majority and for financial power to the legislative council. In 1848 and 1855 they demanded that the number of un-official members be increased, because they were dissatisfied with the appropriation granted for the construction and maintenance of roads.
In 1859, they revived their demand, angered at the collapse of government plans to build the railway from Colombo to Kandy. This led, Governor Sir Arthur Gordon to the inclusion of a Kandyan and a Muslim members, making the unofficial members to a total of eight. The number of official members too was also raised from 9 to 11.
Middle class rises. It was around 1900, the Middle-class, which had emerged in the island in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, began to assert itself. The political awakening that had swept India, was the motive force. The rise of the new Ceylonese nationalism, and the agitation for political reforms, began to be the order of the day. This resulted in the strengthening of un-official members in the Legislative Council and in 1912, the introduction of the elective principle.
It was the legislative council of 1924, that made provision, for the first time, for the Indian Tamil representation. The Council comprised of 12 official and 37 unofficial members and had 23 elected on a territorial basis and eleven on a communal basis. Of the eleven communal representations Europeans had three (urban, rural and commercial), the Western Province - Ceylon Tamils one, Burghers 2, Indians 2 and Muslims 3.
The franchise was confined to the British subjects, aged over 21 years, able to read and write English, Sinhalese or Tamil; who had resided in the electoral district and who enjoyed a clear annual income of not less than Rs. 600 or had other property qualifications.
This restricted the franchise to about 4% of the people in the country. The actual number who were granted voting rights were 205,081, of which only 12,901 were Indian Tamils. Most of them were kankanis and other minor estate staff.
Ignatius Xavier Pereira and S. K. Natesa Iyer were the two Indian representatives. Natesa Iyer had been in the legislature council earlier too. He succeeded S. R. Mohamed Sultan, the first Indian nominated to the legislature council of 1920. Sultan died a year later.
The plight of the Indian Tamil labour was first highlighted in 1913 by Ponnambalam Arunachalam, the younger brother of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan. Though, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, derogated the Indian Tamil immigrants as 'Tamil estate coolies," Arunachalam launched a campaign against the Indian labour ordinances, which he said, were the main cause of the workers' low wages and "tyranny of unscrupulous recruiting men and bad employers."
Earlier, ordinances enacted by the British - Indian government, were intended to facilitate the hire and retention of workers by the planters. Even the ordinance of 1865, a consolidation of a series of ordinances beginning in 1841 and ending in 1863, were intended to keep the laborer tied indebted to the kankani and the estate.
These ordinances failed to stop labourers switching estates or kankanis transferring their gangs. From 1865 a series of ordinances were proclaimed to end this practice. The result was the infamous ‘Tundu System,’ originally known as the ‘Tin Ticket System.’
Under the Tin Ticket System, introduced in 1889, the coolies who were brought from India were first taken to a camp at Ragama and each of them issued a tin ticket, stamped with consecutive individual numbers, the estate number and the district letter. They were then sent by train to the station nearest to the estate and the transport charge was collected from the estate, through the kachcheri (the district secretariat).
To the kankanis who went to Mannar to receive the labourers, tin tickets were issued in bulk. The individual numbers stamped on the tin tickets were entered in the check roll against the name of each worker.
The Tin Ticket System introduced a new type of servitude that, Sir Ponnampalam Arunachalam opposed. The emergence of Indian nationalism at the same time exerted pressure on the British - Indian government, to safeguard the interests of emigrant labour. The result was the enactment of the Indian Immigration Labour Ordinance in 1923, which abolished the Tin Ticket System and the Minimum Wages (Indian) Labour Ordinance, in 1927, which fixed the minimum wage.
K. Natesa Iyer It was at this time, and in this setting that K. Natesa Iyer, a Tanjore Brahmin who worked as a government clerk in Madras, was brought to Ceylon in 1920, to edit a Tamil newspaper, ‘Thesa Nesan,’ published by Arunachalam and Dr. E. V. Rathnam, executive members of the Ceylon National Congress. Natesa Iyer joined A. E. Goonesinhe's Ceylon Labour Union and quickly rose to be the vice-president.
A large number of Malayalis and Indian Tamils were then working in the Colombo harbor and other government and private undertakings. Natesa Iyer, a powerful Tamil orator, brought them under the Ceylon Labour Union. From 1925, he took an interest in Indian plantation labour and wanted to organize them under the Ceylon Labour Union. Being watched by the police who branded him a communist and an agitator, he visited the estates dressed as a cloth merchant.
In the legislative Council, he agitated for better working conditions for harbor, industrial and plantation workers. Outside, he urged plantation workers to join Goonesinhe's union. He played an important role in the 1927 harbor strike, where he led the Indian immigrant labour. When the government bought blacklegs from India, Natesa Iyer persuaded them not to work.
,But Natesa Iyer realized, in dismay and disappointment, that Goonesinhe was swiftly sliding into the Sinhala Maha Sabha founded by S.W.R. D. Bandaranaike, which was emerging as an alternative to the Ceylon National Congress from which platform Arunachalam, the Senanayake brothers (F. R. and D. S.) and Razik Fareed were agitating for political reforms.
Natesa Iyer quit the Ceylon Labour Union in 1928, disgusted by Goonesinhe's anti-Indian campaign. Goonesinhe blamed the Indians for all the country's ills. He blamed them for the growing unemployment among the educated Sinhalese. He overlooked or ignored the actual causes: the global economic recession and the failure of the colonial government to crate new job opportunities. Goonesinhe prescribed a short cut solution to the unemployment problem: "Deport the Indians."
From thence onward, Natesa Iyer devoted himself to cause of the estate labour. He founded the All Ceylon Estate Labour Federation, with the headquarters in Hatton. He launched a short-lived English language journal, "The Indian Estate Laborer" and published many pamphlets espousing this cause.
He failed to make much progress because, he adopted an urban approach to a purely plantation problem. He also failed to identify himself with the life of the estate worker, because his background was completely different. Therefore, he only managed to identify himself with the estate workers, on a higher plane- intellectually.
Besides, the Indian community failed to realize the strength of the emerging Sinhala communalism, till the closing years of the thirties. The introduction of universal franchise in 1931 and the evolution of the system of majority rule had concentrated power in Sinhala leadership.
The First State Council was constituted in 7 July 1931, under the Donoughmore constitution. There were 61 members, of whom 50 were elected on territorial basis, eight nominated by the Governor and three were officials. Peri Sunderam was elected and was uncontested for Hatton. He became the Minister of Labour, Industry and Commerce. He was the first Indian Tamil to be a Minister. Meanwhile, S. P. Vytilingam won the Talawakelle seat and I. X. Pereira was nominated.
The members in the state council were divided amongst the seven executive committees, headed by a member who was designated the minister. The seven ministers formed the Board of Ministers and its head was called the Leader of the State Council.
The first State Council was dissolved on 7 December 1935. The second was inaugurated on 17 March 1935 and continued till 4 June 1947. Natesa Iyer contested Hatton and Peri Sunderam declined to stand for election, calling Natesa Iyer 'an upstart'. Natesa Iyer won easily. While, J. G. Rajakulendran won Bandarawela and Vytilingam Talawakelle. Pereira was nominated again.
Ceylon Indian Congress. That was the political and trade union setting in which, the Ceylon Indian Congress was born. Actually, the two different sets of circumstances led to the CIC's emergence. The first was what has been termed the 'Chetty crisis'. Nattukottai chettiars who had migrated to Ceylon since the 1820s had carried on the business of banking, till the British banks were established in the 1840s.
The Chettiyars then changed their role to that of middlemen. They borrowed from the banks and lent to planters and businessmen, at a slightly higher interest rate. This arrangement went on till 1925, when a Nattikottai chertier firm collapsed. This led to the exposure of malpractice by Nattukottai chertier firms and the banks stopped lending them money.
To get over the sudden scarcity of cash, the chertier firms demanded repayment of their loans from their Ceylonese clients. The Ceylonese borrowers were themselves in financial straits owing to the global economic depression and defaulted payment. The chettiars put the promissory notes in suit and foreclosed their mortgages. The period 1930-36 was full of such cases. This resulted in an intense anti-chettiar campaign that created a sense of uncertainty in that community. The Nattukottai Chettiyar Sangam formed many years ago sat up and took notice.
The anti-Indian sentiments that surfaced at this time, took many forms and directions. There was an outcry against toddy and arrack renters. Thus came about the Baratha Youth Association. Then there was an agitation to send back Malayalee harbour workers, government servants and even sanitary works from India. There was also a campaign to boycott Indian retail shops and Jaffna cigars.
There was a general atmosphere of uncertainty and anxiety among Indian migrants, which led to the proliferation of various associations intended to protect their interests. The most prominent and influential of all the Indian associations was the India Seva Sangam, with the leading businessman Valliappa Chettiar, as president. Abdul Azis, a young graduate from Bombay, who had migrated to Ceylon in the early thirties, was its Secretary. Other leading members were: S. Sangaralingam Pillai, P. T. Thanu Pillai, I. X. Pereira, Peri Sundaram, V. R. M. Subramaniam Chettiar, H. Nelliah Pillai and S. P. Vytilingam.
Since, the anti-Indian campaign of Goonesinhe and the Sinhala Maha Sabha was catching up, an attempt was made to bring all the Indian associations together. A few joint-meetings were held, from time to time, to consider the question of the rights of people of Indian origin.
These meetings produced two divergent views. The older generation wanted to co-operate with the British colonial rulers and obtain safeguards from them. The youth wanted to go along with the emerging Ceylonese nationalistic forces. Both these groups agreed that they must rope in the plantation workers who formed the bulk of the Indian community and constituted the most powerful sector.
Two important events of this period merit mentioning. First, Goonasinhe, who won the 1936 State Council election on a communal platform, persuaded the council to pass a resolution, calling for the deportation of 15,000 Indians workers, despite strong opposition from Tamil members. Second, the decision of the State Council in 1939, to deport all Indians appointed to government service, after 1 April 1934 and to discontinue all Indians with less than ten years' service.
D. S. Senanayake, the Leader of the State Council, moved the resolution. His nephew, John Kotelawela, Minister of Communication and Works, implemented the resolution by dismissing the Indian daily paid workers in his ministry.
Those incidents jolted the Indian community in Ceylon. They realized the danger they faced. A special meeting of all the Indian associations was summoned. It passed two resolutions. The first condemned, the deportation move by the State Council. The second, authorized the working committee to take up the matter with the Indian National Congress and Mahatma Gandhi.
Moving both these resolutions from the chair, Valliappa Chettiar said: "We have ignored the anti-Indian propaganda for long. Now, things have gone too far. We must act now or we will be the losers. We must get the Indian National Congress to intervene on our behalf."
A two - member delegation was sent immediately, to meet Gandhiji. Vytilingam and Pereira were chosen for that purpose. They met Gandhiji in Delhi and briefed him. He sent Jawaharlal Nehru, as his special emissary to talk with the Ceylonese leaders. Nehru arrived in Colombo on 18 July and met the Leader of the State Council, D. S. Senanayake and some Ministers. They took an uncompromising stand. Senanayake told Nehru that many educated Ceylonese were unemployed and they would revolt, if foreigners were allowed to deprive them of their jobs. All efforts at persuasion failed.
Nehru also met all the Indian organizations, separately and jointly. He advised them to unite if they were to preserve their rights and privileges. He reiterated this message at every meeting he addressed.
The Nattukottai Chettiar Sangam, gave Nehru a reception on 22 July. Nehru made an impassioned plea for unity. He said: "I see only one way out of this crisis. That is unity. You must get together under one flag. You must form a single organization, like the Indian National Congress."
He spelled out a four - point program of action. All Indians living in Colombo should unite. The different organizations in Colombo should be welded into a single organization. The plantation workers and others outside Colombo, should also be brought under the single organization. That unified organization should voice the problems of the Indian Tamils.
Nehru found, to his surprise, that it was difficult to bring these organizations together. No one was prepared to sacrifice the position or power, they enjoy. After much persuasion, the organizations agreed to give unity a try. The negotiations started at nine o'clock on 24 July 1939. It was a lengthy meeting. They argued over everything. The elders suggested the united association should be named the Ceylon Indian Central Association. The youth wanted it to be called the Ceylon - Indian National Congress. There were already two organizations so named.
"I am tired," Nehru said.
They also quarreled over the membership in the interim committee. It was around 10 p.m, Nehru was getting sick of the whole thing, he said, "I am tired. I want to go and sleep for some time. Before I go, I wish to place my suggestion for your consideration. Please consider it and if you reach an agreement wake me up."
He gave them a five - point formula. It was that the Ceylon Indian Central Association and the Ceylon Indian National Congress should be dissolved. An interim committee of 18 people should be elected. It should comprise of a chairman, two joint secretaries and a treasurer. The remaining membership of 14 would be divided equally, between the two organizations. This 18-member committee would co-opt seven members from the other associations. This 25-member committee would function as the executive committee of the new organization, to be named the Ceylon Indian Congress.
After a prolonged, three-hour debate, the delegates decided to accept the Nehru formula. They woke him up at 1.20 a.m., on 25 July 1939. All delegates present at that early morning session, signed a declaration setting up the Ceylon Indian Congress. Nehru signed that document as a witness and a guarantor.
The committee met the same day and elected V. R. M. V. A. Lakshmanan Chettiar - a 'neutral' - as the President, and H. M. Desai and A. Aziz, as joint secretaries. The constitution of the organization was drawn up that day, under the guidance of Nehru and it was agreed that, the first session held in September.
Next evening, 26 July, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, then a common organization of all Marxists, arranged a public rally at Galle Face green. Nehru was invited to address that public meeting, on the Indian independence struggle and about the talks he had had with the Ceylon government, on the Indian Tamil problem. Nehru delivered a memorable speech and Dr. Colvin R. De Silva interpreted it to the Sinhala audience.
A. E. Goonesinhe's thugs started hooting and tried to disrupt the meeting. Nehru got annoyed and agitated, and he attempted to jump into the crowd to chase the rabble-rousers. But, Dr.Colvin R.De Silva, dissuaded Nehru, held him tight and prevented him from getting into the crowd.
Meanwhile, Nehru wanted the CIC to form district committees in all the major towns in the plantation areas. He set August as the deadline. The CIC took immediate action to form district committees in Gampola, Badulla, Hatton, Balangoda, Matale and Nuwara Eliya. The district committee at Gampola was formed within a month after the founding of the CIC. Thondaman was elected the head of the Gampola district committee at a meeting held on 13 August 1939. He attended that meeting without the knowledge of his father.
While the Indian leaders were busy organizing the Ceylon Indian Congress (CIC),A.E. Goonesinhe and his supporters were making things worst for the Indian Tamils. Goonesinhe had become the Secretary of the Sinhala Maha Sabha, and his anti-Indian campaign was becoming more vigorous and vindictive.
The government served notice to discontinue the services of 800 Indians workers in Colombo. The government also issued a circular, instructing the heads of government departments, not to recruit Indians. The Galle Urban Council passed a resolution calling on the government not to employ Indians.
"Keep it up young man."
At the insistence of Gandhiji and Nehru, the Indian National Congress passed a resolution criticizing Ceylon's bid to deport the Indians. The Ceylon Indian Congress followed suit.
India retaliated in 1939, by imposing a ban on emigration of unskilled workers to Ceylon. This ban was a ‘watershed’ in the history of Indo - Lanka relations and in the history of the Indian immigrants. People, who had been moving freely between the two countries for over a century, were suddenly told to decide to make either India or Ceylon their home. A vast majority chose Ceylon.
The CIC executive committee was not very active. Lakshmana Chettiar was busy contesting the Puthukottai seat in the Madras Sate assembly election. He had been a member of that electorate earlier too, and had won the 1939 August election with a convincing majority.
Initial enthusiasm in the CIC began to fade a little. There was not enough enthusiasm among the district committees, to host the inaugural convention. No one had the necessary financial backing to undertake that massive task.
The Gampola district officials were worried. K. Rajalingam, a committee member, called on Thondaman, at Wavendon one evening, in July 1940, with D. Ramanujam and Subbaiah. It was Ramanujam who broached the topic apologetically, "One year had elapsed since the founding of the CIC. Nehruji wanted the inaugural sessions to be held not later than September last year. The leadership is anxious to have it in the hill country. But no district committee is willing to host the sessions," he said.
"Why?" Thondaman asked.
"They say that they don't have the money," Subbaiah interjected.
Thondaman thought for a while and asked: "Shall we host it?"
Rajalingam asked: "How are we to find the money?"
"We will try and collect some," Thondaman said.
A week later the Gampola district committee met. Besides the four who met at Wavendon, others present were S. Chokalinam Chettiar, Treasurer, S. Somasundaram, S. G. Samson, V. Slaphappy Chettiyar, J. Samuvel, V. Annamalai, M. Ramasubramaniam, S. K. R. Ramalingam, S. Charles and V. Murugappah.
The committee decided to host the inaugural sessions and resolved to set up a reception committee to make the arrangements. They asked Thondaman to head it.
Thondaman, Rajalingam and Ramanujam, went to Colombo to meet the CIC president, Lakshmanan Chettiar and inform him of their decision to host the inaugural session. Chettiar told them that, there was a move to hold it in Badulla and Aziz was organizing it. Thondaman assured Chettiar that, they would make the inauguration a big show and finally won his consent.
It was, in fact, a big show. It was held on 7 and 8 September 1940 in Gampola town, in a huge enclosure, named 'Nehru Nagar'. They also organized a carnival. Over one and a half lakh of people of the Indian origin attended the proceedings of the Conference. Two guests were invited from Madras. One was V. V. Giri, then a labour leader and later, the President of India, the other one was S. Sathiyamoorthy, the well respected Indian National Congress leader and a masterly orator.
Thondaman delivered the welcome speech. It was his first major speech. He had only addressed small gatherings before. But that day, there were thousands present and Sathiyamoorthy was on stage. Thondaman was nervous, but as he started to speak, some inner force impelled him. He spoke with force and conviction.
First he explained, why the Indian immigrants had failed to organize themselves earlier. "We felt that there was no necessity to have a separate organization because our relationship with the Sinhalese was very good."
Then he said, the emerging political awareness among the Sinhala people had been misdirected into an anti-Indian movement. He also analyzed the different discriminatory laws that had been so far enacted against the plantation workers and the Indian Tamils. Then he dealt with the charge that, Indians always ran to India and to the Indian National Congress for support.
"Can you expect a minority community, that had been subjected to repeated harassment and discrimination, not to get the support of someone sympathetic?" he asked.
He then traced the circumstances in which the CIC was formed and said: "The CIC is a democratic organization. All its members, whether rich or poor, enjoy similar rights. The CIC will not be the puppet of any rich individual or groups of individuals."
After his scintillating speech, Sathiyamoorthy went up to Thondaman and congratulated him "Keep it up young man," he said.
Indeed, Thondaman kept it up and grew into a popular and reputed political leader.
|Chapter 3 : THE SATYAGRAHA|
The Blundering Years
In a recent interview, Thondaman described the two key decades -forties to fifties-as the "years of mistakes."
"When I look back, those twenty years caused all the miseries we suffered and are now trying to correct," he said.
A review of the events of that period seems to prove him correct. The tempo of anti - Indianism accelerated in 1940s. The government realized for the first time that, India's ban on the emigration of labour had left on the Ceylon's lap, over six lakhs of Indians, who opted not to return to their original homes.
This unexpected development upset the local administration. A delegation led by D. S. Senanayake and S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, went to Delhi to take up the matter with the Indian Viceroy. The Ceylon Indian Congress (CIC) decided to present its viewpoint too. A delegation was hurriedly sent with Peri Sundaram, as its leader and Desai, Motha and Abdul Aziz, as members.
At the discussions, Senanayake took up the position that, all Indian Tamils in Ceylon, were Indian nationals and should be taken back by India. The Indian government argued that, most of the Indians had settled down in Ceylon for many years and had acquired the right to continue living there.
Bandaranaike said that Ceylon could ill afford to have more than two lakhs of Indians and the balance should be taken back by India. The Indian officials declined to accept that too. Peri Sundaram submitted that Indians with long residence had qualified to become Ceylon citizens and the choice should be left to the people. That was the first occasion Ceylonese leaders went to Delhi seeking a solution to the Indian problem.
The rising wave of anti-Indianism prompted large numbers of Indians to join the Ceylon Indian Congress (CIC). At the time of the Gampola Sessions, the membership had swelled to over two lakhs and the majority of them were plantation workers, thus compelling the CIC to take interest in the working conditions of estate workers.
Birth of Labour Union
When the CIC leadership took up matters concerning plantation workers, estate managements adopted the position that, they cannot negotiate with political parties. This led to the formation of the trade union wing, called the Ceylon Indian Congress Labour Union (CICLU), in May 1940, four months before the Gampola Sessions. Thondaman was elected its leader and Aziz as secretary.
Thondaman, though a novice, was backed by Peri Sundaram, a veteran in politics. Peri Sundaram argued that, Thondaman was worth his weight in gold and had the time and money to spare for union work. He also said that, Thondaman possessed an inborn quality for leadership. Peri Sundaram's group voted for Thondaman and within years, he blossomed as the leader of Peri Sundarm's group.
Thondaman's first meeting with Peri Sundaram, was soon after he left school. His father took him along, when he called on Peri Sundaram in Colombo, to discuss a business transaction. The meeting that took place in Peri Sundaram's study brought the two close.
Like Thondaman, Aziz was also from India and came to join his father. Thondaman came when young, lived and grew in the estate. He studied in an estate environment and his thinking and views were fashioned by that environment.
Whereas Aziz's upbringing and environment were different. He joined his father in Colombo, after graduating in commerce, at Bombay University. He joined the YMCA forum. He was more intellectually bent, theoretical in approach and had the inclination of the left leaning. His trade unionism was born out of his leftist political thinking. This difference in the makeup of these two men, impacted heavily on the fate and the history of the Indian Tamils.
Tilting to the Left
They clashed for the leadership of the CIC in 1942, at the second sessions held in Kandy. That was also the first session of the CIC Labour Union. Aziz polled 31 votes to Thondaman's 19, at the general council. And Aziz tilted the CIC to the left, in keeping with his ideology, that was the fashion, at that time. That cost the Indian community fatally. That was one of the two errors Thondaman had adverted to in his interview.
The following years were some of the most difficult in the history of the CICLU. With the Second World War at its height, defense regulations were in operation. Planters, naturally, made full use of the situation and victimized the workers who joined the union. Trade union officials were not admitted to the estates. Anyone flouting these orders was arrested and charged under the Criminal Trespass Ordinance. Aziz, Thondaman and other leaders met the workers stealthily, outside at night and enrolled them.
The workers were hurt over this situation. There were strikes all over the plantations. The unrest forced Labour Minister G. C. S. Corea to summon the CICLU and the Employers' Federation for talks. They reached an agreement, called the ‘Seven Point Agreement,’ which was intended to regulate the relationship between unions and employers.
In the second half of 1942, Geoffrey Layton, Commander - in - Chief of the British armed forces, who was in overall control of the island, decided to freeze the dearness allowance paid to plantation workers. The CICLU executive committee met in an emergency session and directed its president, Aziz to take up the matter with Layton.
Layton refused the request. Aziz then wrote to him of the CICLU decision to contest the matter in court. Layton relented and ordered payment of the allowance.
Layton was not prepared to take defeat. He waited his moment to pounce on the CICLU. The opportunity came in March 1943. At the CICLU's second annual sessions at Badulla, Aziz attacked the government for it's anti - Indianism and for neglecting estate labour. He was charged in the district court, of causing disaffection against the government and obstructing the war effort.
The district court committed Aziz for trial to the Supreme Court. Aziz was remanded at Welikada Prison.
S.Nadesan, Aziz's attorney, advised him to ask for a Tamil - speaking jury. Nadesan, who admitted the speech, argued that Aziz was entitled to his freedom of expression and freedom of speech. Aziz was acquitted, six of the seven jurors holding him not guilty.
By this time there was political turmoil in South Asia. The Indian independence movement had gathered momentum. Its impact was also felt in Ceylon. There was a demand for constitutional reform. Britain sent the Soulbury Commission that arrived in Colombo in 1944. Tamil Congress leader, G. G. Ponnambalam, was toying with his famous "50-50" demand - that 50 percent of the parliamentary seats should be reserved for the minorities.
It was at this time that the CIC's third annual session was held in Hatton. Chakaravarthi Rijagopalachchari ("Rajaji") was the chief guest. Ponnanmbalam met Rajaji to canvas the Indian leader's support for the 50-50 formula. Rajaji told Ponnambalam to drop the demand, that it was not practicable. He also warned Ponnambalam that such a solution, even if it were achieved, would be merely temporary.
The CIC delegation, led by president Aziz, general secretary Vaithilingam and Thanu Pillai also had a discussion with Ponnambalam. They could not work out an acceptable formula to share the 50 percent of the seats Ponnambalam was claiming for the minorities.
The CIC general council, then, decided to give evidence before the Soulbury Commission. The CIC delegation, led by A.Aziz, requested constitutional safeguards for the citizenship and voting rights of the people of recent Indian origin. Aziz, when questioned by Lord Soulbury about CIC's stand on the independence demand, he told that, the CIC did not want the British to continue their rule in Ceylon, on the pretext of safeguarding the rights of minorities.
Many Indian Tamil leaders were dissatisfied with Aziz's reply. They feared that once the British left, the Indian Tamils would be at the mercy of the chauvinistic Sinhala leadership, to whom power would be transferred. Their fear was fuelled by the insidious campaign that all Indian Tamils should be either deported or disfranchised.
Aziz argued otherwise. He said it was immoral for a party founded by Jawaharlal Nehru to oppose independence. He argued that, the chauvinistic Sinhala forces were in the minority and that Indian Tamils should align themselves with the progressive forces of the Left and safeguard their rights, by bringing in a Leftist government. He also held that, the Sinhala campaign was actually against the Indian merchant community, not against the plantation workers. He tilted the CIC towards the left.
Aziz failed to get any substantial guarantees from the Soulbury Commission. Ponnambalam's fifty - fifty demand, was totally rejected. The Soulbury Commission in its report said: "We are not inclined to agree that,, the system of representation recommended by the All Ceylon Tamil Congress contains the germs of development and we do not regard it as a natural evolution from the constitution of 1921 and 1924. On the contrary, we would describe a system which purported to re-impose communal representation in the rigid form, contemplated as static rather than dynamic and we should not expect to find in it seeds of a healthy and progressive advance towards parliamentary self-government".
It was in this setting that, Thondaman was emerging as a factor to be reckoned with. He was elected president of the CIC and the CICLU in 1945, at the Nuwara Eliya sessions. Defeating Aziz, he concentrated his energies in building up the party and the trade union. The major test for him came in 1946.
The members of 360 Indian Tamil families employed in Knavesmire Estate in Bulathkohupitiya were asked to quit the estate which was acquired by the government for village expansion. The workers refused to leave and were not given work. They appealed to the CIC, which assisted them. The estate superintendent filed action for criminal trespass. In the first case Kegalle magistrate sentenced Selvanayagam who was born in that estate and lived in it for three and a half decades to two months rigorous imprisonment.
He appealed. Others were sentenced from three months hard labour and a fine of Rs. 100 each to a simple fine of Rs. 10. The trial dragged on for over three years. Selvanayagam's appeal to the Supreme Court was dismissed and he was jailed. He succeeded in his appeal to the Privy Council that held that a worker who had lived in the estate for such a long period could not be considered a trespasser.
The CICLU fed the workers and funded their legal battle. It did not have that money. Thondaman offered to pay it himself. He mortgaged his estate. The case cost Thondaman over Rs. 2 lakhs. Thondaman did not limit himself to the legal battle. He called out the CICLU members in the Hatton, Ratnapura, Yatiyantota and Kegalle districts. The strike lasted 21 days. He also threatened to cripple the entire estate sector if the government failed to respond D. S. Senanayake, who held the Ministry of Agriculture, summoned the Indian Representative in Colombo, Aney, and started negotiations. They both met the Governor, Sir Henry Monck - Moore and urged him to pardon all 360 workers.
While the CICLU was strengthening its political and trade union base, the Soulbury Commission recommended independence for Ceylon.
A general election was held in 1947,to elect 95 members to the first Parliament. The CIC decided to contest eight seats and won seven. Thondaman contested Nuwara Eliya and won it with a 6135 majority. He polled 9386 votes against James Rutnam's 3251 and Lawrence Perera's 1124.
Others elected on the CIC ticket, were George R. Motha (Maskeliya), K. Rajalingam (Nawalapitiya), K. Kumaravel (Kotakella), C. V. Velupillai (Talawakelle), S. M. Subbaiah (Badulla) and D. Ramanujam (Aluthnuwara). The CIC lost the Haputale seat. Motha died two years later and A.Aziz won Maskeliya in the by - election in March 1950.
The United National Party (UNP), founded two years earlier by the amalgamation of the Ceylon National Congress and the Sinhala Maha Sabha and was led by D. S. Senanayake, won 42 seats in the 101 - member Parliament. Senanyake formed the government with the help of independents and the six nominated members.
The CIC parliamentary group elected Thondaman, as its leader and sat in the opposition and worked closely with the 18 - member Left group (LSSP - 10, BLP - 5 and CP - 3), the Tamil Congress (7) and the Labour Party (1). Thondaman was disenchanted with the Leftists, because they missed an opportunity to form the government due to their failure to agree on a common candidate for Prime Ministership. They too could not agree on a common candidate for the Leader of the Opposition. LSSP leader, DR. N. M. Perera functioned unofficially as Opposition Leader until the BLP, led by Dr. Colvin R. de Silva joined the LSSP. Then Dr. Perera officially became Leader of the Opposition.
The bill was presented to Parliament, by the Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake, who said that every country had the right to determine the persons who would be its citizens. He argued that, the Indian immigrants brought by the British colonial rulers, had no abiding interest in the country and they regarded themselves as temporary residents. They had deprived the real sons and daughters of the soil, the Kandyan Sinhalese, of their land and work.
Thondaman, leader of the CIC group, met all those arguments effectively. He said that they might have come as temporary residents, but majority of them had settled there voluntarily. Many of them had been in Lanka for two or three generations and had not gone to India. "They are not temporary but permanent residents. They are more the sons and daughters of the soil, than most of the Sinhalese," he thundered.
On the question of depriving the Kandyan Sinhalese of land and work, he gave a detailed analysis of the true situation. The lands that were cleared for planting coffee and later tea, were forestlands that belonged to the state. "My people toiled and made the waste land productive," he argued.
Thondaman claimed that he and his people were as much Kandyan as anyone else was. "It's my home," he said, "I and my family is more attached to the Kandyan land than many Kandyans."
J.R. Jayewardene who was then Finance Minister quipped: "A Kandyan Tamil."
"Yes", Thondaman said, "I'm a Kandyan Tamil."
He contested the question of loyalty too. He said the CIC had supported the independence demand as much as the UNP.
Weakening the Tamil People
The left parties joined the CIC in opposing the Citizenship Bill. They said that it was a clever attempt by the UNP, to weaken the working class and prevent the Left parties from capturing power through elections.
The Tamil Congress leader, Ponnambalam, said the real purpose of the Bill was to weaken the Tamil people and that it was a “black day” for Ceylon.
Having deprived the Indian Tamils of their citizenship, D.S. Senanayake presented to parliament another bill, The Indian and Pakistani (Residents) Citizenship Bill, in 1949, to enable them to regain citizenship. It laid down stringent qualifications for that purpose.
Married persons were required to prove continued residence of seven years from 1 January 1939. Unmarried persons had to establish ten yeas of continued residence, beginning 1 January 1936. They were also expected to have adequate means of livelihood. Their families normally should have been resident in Lanka and they should be capable of observing the laws of the land.
On the face of it, the law looked reasonable, but the procedural and administrative requirements were so designed, to deny the majority of persons the citizenship. The phrase 'continuous residence,' was given the strictest interpretation, thus preventing even those persons, who traveled to India on a brief holiday, from acquiring citizenship. Insisting on the production of birth certificates and other such documents, made Citizenship an almost impossible goal.
During the debate in Parliament, Thondaman highlighted this difficulty. He challenged Dudley Senanayake to produce his grandfather's birth certificate. He said many people who migrated to Ceylon, did not possess birth certificates.
Soon after the enactment of the Ceylon Citizenship Act, an important development took place in the political scene. The Tamil Congress decided to join the D.S.Senanayake’s Government and that caused a split in the party. Ponnambalam and four others joined the Government. Ponnambalam was rewarded with the Industries and Fisheries ministry. S. J. V. Chelvanayakam and C. Vanniasingham resigned from the Tamil Congress and formed the All Ceylon Federal Party. Thondaman welcomed the new party. He telephoned Chelvanayakam and expressed his pleasure and suggested close collaboration between the CIC and the Federal Party.
Ponnambalam voted with the government for the Indian and Pakistani (Residents) Citizenship Bill, though he had earlier signed an agreement with the CIC to oppose it. C. Suntharalingam who had earlier voted for the disfranchising bill, spoke against the second legislation and resigned his portfolio. The Federal Party opposed the bill and voted against it. Chelvanayakam and Vanniasingham used their legal punditry, to show how unreasonable were the qualifications and conditions set for citizenship. The leftists too, criticized the law as being too harsh.
The law allowed time for people of Indian and Pakistani origin, to apply for citizenship. The CIC working committee met immediately and after intense discussion decided that no one should apply. Over 90 percent of the people of Indian origin abided by the CIC directive. They did not submit their application.
The CIC Executive Committee granted exception to the seven MPs, to enable them to retain their seats in Parliament. When Thondaman staked his claim for citizenship, the Assistant Commissioner who dealt with the application, asked him to disclose all the details, asked for by the special regulation. He declined to do so.
"I've proved my case. Now it is your duty to make a ruling. If it is rejected I will go to courts," Thondaman replied.
Peri Sundaram who was told of this dispute, advised Thondaman to supply the details asked for.
"I will not do that. They are asked for the details, that they want to use against me. I am not prepared to furnish evidence against me," Thondaman protested.
The Commissioner of Immigration to whom the matter was referred decided to grant the citizenship. In his letter the Commissioner told Thondaman:
"Please do not adopt this non-cooperative attitude in the future."
While the CIC was busy with the boycott, a major change occurred in the national political scene. D. S. Senanayake fell from his horse while taking his regular morning ride in the Galle Face Green and died the following day, 22 March 1952.
Dudley Senanayake, his son, was sworn in as the new Prime Minister, confirming the suspicions of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, who left the U.N.P. a few months earlier and formed his own political party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Bandaranaike broke away because, he thought D. S. Senanayake was grooming his nephew, John Kotelawela, or his son as successor. The breaking point came when D. S. Senanayake declined to appoint Bandaranaike as acting prime minister, during his visit to Australia.
To cash in on the tremendous wave of public sympathy on the death of D. S. Senanayake, Dudley called for the elections on 28 April 1952. He conducted a virulent communal campaign to win extremist Sinhala support which, unlike the 1947 election, was being weaned away from the UNP, by the newly formed SLFP. Dudley also faced a formidable challenge from the Sama Samajists and Communists, who had organized the urban working class, into powerful trade unions.
Inaugurating the election campaign at Kelaniya, Dudley thundered: "The Sama Samajists and Communists are embracing the Indians as comrades…I want to remind you that, the Indian government threatened to give no rice supplies to Ceylon, if the land of Knavesmere estate was not allotted to 360 Indian workers."
The Indian High Commission in Colombo, immediately refuted the charge and said that, India at no stage had brought the question of rice supply into those negotiations. The High Commission statement said that, India had only expressed a desire that, the rice should also be distributed to Indian estate labor.
That request stemmed from the government's earlier discriminatory practices of forgetting estate labour in food distribution. It happened again in 1972 and led to prolonged negotiations and strikes.
The election made the Indian Tamil community realize the plight to which it been reduced. The seven parliamentarians, who had registered themselves as Ceylon citizens and continued to be in Parliament even after the citizenship act, now found that they had no chance of re-entering the legislature. The CIC in its statement said, "Only a handful of us are now allowed to exercise citizenship."
Beating the Police
After careful consideration, CIC decided to launch a Satyagraha - a peaceful, non-violent, protest. An action committee headed by Thondaman was set up for that purpose. The Badulla sessions held in the third week of April, decided the campaign should begin on April 28. The CIC issued a statement to that effect, at the conclusion of the sessions. The statement said that, through the Satyagraha the CIC sought to "appeal to the country's conscience". It made it clear that in the Satyagraha: "There is and can be no trace of intimidation or vilification of the government or any section of the people." The statement added that, as recourse to peaceful agitation had failed, a Satyagraha was launched to focus public’s attention on the injustice inflicted on the people, who toil to keep the wheels of the economy moving. Through the Satyagraha they intended to seek the sympathy of the people and the blessing of God.
The law suit filed by the CIC, challenging the validity of the citizenship acts and the amendment to the franchise law, had been rejected by the Supreme Court and the appeal against that decision was at that time went before the Privy Council.
At 11.15 a.m. on Monday, 28 April 1952, a procession of 41 Satyagrahis led by Thondaman and Aziz, marched with placards declaring: "We want citizenship and franchise". Thondaman was dressed in pure kadar verti (waist cloth) and shirt and Aziz in white sharwani. They marched from the CIC head office at No. 213, Main Street, Pettah, in the direction of Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake's office, located in the Senate building, where foreign ministry is now situated. The procession was halted at the junction of York Street by police and ordered to disperse. Thondaman told satyagrahis to stop where they were and he surged forward with Aziz to meet the police inspector. “We are marching peacefully. Why do want us to disperse?" Thondaman asked the police.
"That was our order," the police inspector replied politely.
"We're not going to disperse," Aziz said.
The inspector ordered his men to carry the satyagrahis to the police vans parked nearby.
They were carried in the vans and dropped at various points in the city. Thondaman and Aziz were dropped near Wellawatta. They boarded a bus and returned to Fort. They asked for an interview with Sir Kandiah Vaithianathan, Secretary to the Prime Minister, and sat down on the verandah, outside the Prime Minister's office. Other satyagrahis came back and squatted in Gordon Gardens, then a small public garden in front of the Senate building. They were again loaded into two or three vans and dropped at different places. Thondaman and Aziz were dropped at their respective residences.
On the second day, April 29, police were in for a surprise. Thondaman and Aziz arrived at the Prime Minister's office before dawn and sat outside on the verandah. Many other satyagrahis joined them. At the same time, Rajalingam and 50 satyagrahis gathered outside Parliament building, at Galle Face and occupied the steps. Police arrived a little later and asked Rajalingam and his group to leave. They refused and were transported by vans to Victoria Park. Thondaman and Aziz were taken by van and dropped at Homagama, about 25 kilometers from Colombo.
On the third day, April 30, four groups performed Satyagraha, at four different places. Thondaman and Aziz and a group of fifty others were at the Senate building before dawn. Police removed them as on previous day, and dropped them about 25 kilometers away on the Kandy road. Sinhala peasants offered them water and refreshment, but some car owners refused to give them a lift, when they realized who they were. A Sinhala schoolmaster took them to a bus halt in his car, although he was told their identity. Thondaman and Aziz returned to Colombo by bus and took up their positions again. But they were removed and dropped at Arakamala, on the Ingriya road.
The second batch, led by Rajalingam, sat on the grounds opposite the Ministry of Home Affairs throughout the day. The Inspector General of Police walked up to Rajalingam and told him to desist from such action.
"We are performing this Satyagraha not to hurt anyone. This is not even an anti - government act. We are doing this only to draw the attention of the people and the government to the injustice done to their brothers" Rajalingam replied.
"You are creating a law and order problem and it may lead to breach of the peace," the IGP said.
"No. There's no possibility of that. We've taken a pledge not to indulge in any violence," Rajalingam replied.
"All right. All right," the IGP said and walked away.
Punching the Horse
The third group, 30 satyagrahis led by Kumaravelu, R. M. Selliah and V. R. Sevaga Perumal sat on the verandah of the Ministry of Justice. An inspector and ten police constables surrounded them and assaulted them with batons. They also abused them.
The fourth group, led by S. M. Palanisamy and T. M. Ramasamy, performed Satyagraha on the premises of the Ministry of Food. They refused to disperse and finally, in the evening, were assaulted and dispersed.
Some of the satyagrahis on their way to join Thondaman and Aziz, at the Senate building, were taken and locked up in a tiny room, in the Fort police station. After they had been there for some time, they were herded into a police van and were dropped at different places on the Negombo road.
Colombo grew tense and people began to gather opposite government offices, to watch the satyagraha. The police presence was evident everywhere and public attention was drawn to the citizenship problem. For the first three days, the English language dailies ignored the satyagraha. By Thursday, they could not ignore it no longer. So they started printing protest letters from insignificant Indian Tamil merchant groups. They wrote lengthy editorials about the dangerous situation the satyagraha could create.
In India Satyagraha made big news and the Indian government handed an aide memoir to the Lankan High Commissioner, in New Delhi. The Indian Prime Minister, Jawarharlal Nehru referred to the Satyagraha movement in one of his speeches.
On the fourth day, May 1, the government's attitude changed. Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake came out of his office and asked Thondaman, and Aziz, who were fasting outside, to come in. He had a friendly chat and told them that he had instructed the police not to interfere with the satyagraha or the relay fast in which batches of 50 took turn to fast before prime minister's office and parliament.
Rajalingam and his group were bundled into a van and dropped at Padukka on that day, because instructions had not reached them. They were given tea and short eats by the Sinhala villagers who also put them into a Colombo-bound bus.
For 140 days, satyagraha and relay fast continued but, the general election was held on schedule in May, and Dudley romped home with a comfortable majority. Not a single Indian Tamil won a seat and not even a nominated membership was given to them. The new parliament was ceremonially opened on June 2 under heavy guard. The CIC staged the satyagraha that day too. About 15 volunteers entered the Parliament premises in their cars, pretending to be invitees and climbed up the ceremonial flight of steps. Police surrounded them and asked them to leave.
"We have come as former members of Parliament, to present a petition to the Prime Minister who is inside," Thondaman told the police.
Police contacted Dudley Senanayake, who ordered that, they be thrown out.
Police then seized them physically and threw them out on to the parliament lawn. Aziz walked to the parapet wall along the Galle Road and sat on it. Police went after him and asked him to move. He refused. Police then relented and allowed him to sit there. Within parliament all the new MPs assembled. They were from the UNP, SLFP, Federal Party, LSSP. CP and Tamil Congress. But only W. Dahanayake went out to see them. Dahanayake took with him a jar of water and a few glasses. Thondaman walked up to him and thanked him. He and Aziz drank the water.
They then sat down on the lawn. The enraged police ordered the mounted division to push them back. A mounted policeman rode straight into them, but Thondaman jumped and caught the reins. He gave the horse a strong punch close to the animal's nose. That unsettled the rider and upset the white stallion. Rider and horse then withdrew.
The CIC withdrew the Satyagraha campaign as it found the government relentless. It also withdrew its boycott and advised Indian Tamils to apply for citizenship. About 850,000 of them did so.
|Chapter 4 : THE BEGINNINGS OF THE CRISIS|
|Withdrawing Satyagraha |
The decision to withdraw the satygraha campaign was taken after prolonged consideration. All were growing weary of the dragging agitation. It was telling on the organization, its finances and morale. It had become clear that Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake was getting stubborn. Dudley was encouraged by an upsurge of Sinhala opinion that backed his unyielding stand. Besides, the interest, the local and international media initially showed had already evaporated.
Within the CIC itself, a strong opinion in favour of withdrawing the satyagraha had emerged. Thondaman led that group. He argued: "The purpose for which the campaign was launched had been achieved. We made the world aware of the injustice perpetrated on the Indian Tamils. Now we must vary the strategy."
D. T Chari, appointed to the newly created post of Deputy High Commissioner, also advised to withdraw. Chari, an admirer of Abdul Aziz when he had served earlier in Colombo, as Agent of India. On his arrival he hurriedly arranged a meeting with Aziz and Thondaman. At that meeting he said: "You chaps have been taken for a ride. The High Commission has reported to the foreign office against you."
That was shocking news to the CIC leaders. They had believed that the Indian High Commissioner, Kesava Menon, was encouraging them. They never expected him to be influenced by the Indian trading community in Colombo, the handmaid of the UNP. Menon had reported that, the satyagraha was the result of a design by Aziz, a convinced leftist. Nehru smelled a rat when he read those reports. He sent Chari to Colombo to relay the actual situation. He created the post of Deputy High Commissioner for that purpose.
Chari did two things. He advised Aziz to step down from the leadership and hand it over to Thondaman. He told him that, though he was a long standing admirer of him, but his advice (to Aziz) was to step down in the interests of the Indian community. "New Delhi has been prejudiced against you. By handing over the leadership to Thondaman, an Indian Tamil, New Delhi's interest can be revived." Chari said. Aziz was annoyed, even angry. Anyhow, he understood the reasoning and agreed to accept the advice.
Chari also advised the CIC to reverse its boycott decision and get the Indian Tamils to apply for citizenship. "Be pragmatic," was Chari's advice. Thondaman immediately accepted it. Pragmatism and practicality had by then become ingrained in Thondaman's character. He had learnt that from Mahatma Gandhi.
Trusting Others- His Way of Life
Thondaman last met Gandhiji 30 days before Godse shot him in 1948. He briefed him on the Indian and Pakistani (Residents) Citizenship Act that had just been passed. Thondaman told him of the welter of difficult conditions that had to be satisfied to acquire citizenship.
Mahatma Gandhi's reaction was: "It's not right to expect illiterate people to fill forms. They don't know to write their own names. Will they be able to fill all these forms and produce these documents? We must learn to trust man. First, all Ceylon Indians must be made citizens on a temporary basis. Then, the officials should go into each case and determine whether they are entitled to be citizens or not. That should be the correct approach."
Thondaman was deeply impressed by this statement which made a sense of practicality and trust in others hid way of life. An incident that occurred early in 1979 reveals the extent to which Thondaman applied this lesson in his own life. As minister of Rural Industrial Development, he visited Kurunegala to inspect dairy farms. A Sinhala youth wanted to show the minister some of his beautiful creations from bamboo. Thondaman was so taken up with the boy's high quality craftsmanship, he asked him to start a factory for export.
"I'm unable to sell these, sir," the youth said apologetically.
"Why? You can sell them to Salu Sala."
"I tried, but they refused to buy them."
"They say I must first register with them, then they will send an inspector to see whether the articles conform to standard," the youth said.
"Have you not registered?" the Minister asked.
"I did that a few months ago, but the inspector has not come."
Thondaman asked the youth to meet him at the Ministry at Kollupitiya two days later.
When the boy arrived, the officials were there. Thondaman directed him to display his handicraft and asked the officials, why they had not bought the goods. They explained the procedure, which needed over six months to complete the inspection stage.
Thondaman asked: "Why don't you accept his word as a guarantee for quality. Register him temporarily and then send your official on inspection. If the report is adverse then remove the boy from the register of suppliers."
Salu Sala adopted that directive and is following it still.
Thondaman came under the influence of Gandhiji since his student days. His first meeting with him was in 1940, at Wardha after his welcome speech at the Gampola convention. When Thondaman was ushered in, Gandhi was just setting out for his morning walk with his two grand - daughters. He saw Thondaman and called, "Come in, young man." Thondaman held out his autograph book and asked him to sign it.
Gandhiji looked up and asked: "Where is my fee?"
Thondaman was puzzled. He never expected him to ask money. He was unsure how much he should offer. Noticing his bewilderment, Gandhiji smiled and said: "You should not do anything Scot free. My charge is five rupees."
It was the first time Thondaman heard the phrase 'Scot free' and he still delights in using it himself.
Thondaman wanted the CIC to adopt a practical approach. He reasoned that, there were only three months left to file applications for citizenship. "If we fail to apply within this period, we shall be in a big mess. We may have to beg the government to give us an extension." That settled it.
The Hatton sessions in September 1952, adopted a resolution authorizing the Working Committee to withdraw the Satyagraha campaign. The resolution said its objective had been achieved and with the moral strength they had gathered through the satyagraha, the CIC was ready to enter the next phase of the struggle for citizenship.
The decision to apply for citizenship earned the approval of the four Indian leaders invited to the Hatton conference. Archariya Kripalani, his wife Sujatha both from the Indian National Congress, favored the decision. "You have to apply under the gazetted regulations and continue your struggle to make the qualifications required for citizenship reasonable", Kripalani said.
Ashok Metha, the Indian Socialist leader, also told the sessions that, the better course would be to apply, while continuing the struggle for relaxation of the stringent conditions. M. P. Sivagna Gramani, the fiery orator from Tamil Nadu, said: "Withdrawing to a safe haven before launching a fierce frontal attack is a well known battle strategy. We are just doing that."
The decision to ask the people to apply was difficult, its execution even more so. There were only three months left and eight and a half lakhs of people were involved. Most of them were illiterate and unable to do anything on their own.
The working committee met in emergency session a few days later. Thondaman announced that he would take personal charge of the entire operation and the working committee assigned him the task. Thondaman called Ramanujam to his Wevandon home the very night. "This is a massive task," he told him. "We must succeed. There is no question of failure."
"That's true," Ramanujam agreed. "If we fail, we will be cursed by the future generations."
"You are talking of future generations. If we fail, the present generation will chase us away," Thondaman said and added: "Think that this is a scared duty. It's a duty to our people."
Ramanujam who had already collected a group of young persons to undertake the work said, he should have spoken to them of duty first and money later. Thondaman replied "No; you must look after them first and then tell them what to do."
Thondaman and his band worked very hard the next three months. They printed the application forms and took them to every estate. They went in the evenings and nights to the estate line rooms. They went stealthily, for outsiders were not permitted to visit the line rooms, at nights. Once, when they had slipped into an estate at Maskeliya, it was long past midnight. Most of the estate workers who had waited for them since dusk had retired to bed. When Thondaman and the three CIC workers reached the line rooms the dogs started a howl. The watcher came running. He had to be 'managed' with a ten - rupee note for which he helped Thondaman to wake up the workers. By the time they had filled the forms it was early dawn.
Meeting the Challenge
There were lots of problems in filling the application forms. Some workers had switched estates so often therefore, it was difficult to get accurate details of their residence. Some were not aware of the names of their grandfathers. In one case, a worker said he had run away from his family when he was six or seven years of age and he knew nothing about his family. All he remembered was that they lived on an estate in Avissawella.
The CIC met the challenge. All the eight and a half lakhs of Indian Tamils filed their applications. It gave the CIC and Thondaman valuable organizational experience. It also gave them self-confidence. It won Thondaman respect among the Ceylon Indian population.
That was not the only crisis Thondaman and the CIC had to face during the second Parliament period - 1952 - 56. The country itself was confronted with difficult situations and their fallout affected the Indian Tamil population. The first crisis was the Rice - Rubber Pact with China.
By 1952 the Korean War boom was over and the country's external assets had dwindled drastically. When the situation was bad, Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake directed Trade and Commerce Minister R. G. Senanayake, to explore the possibility of bartering rubber for rice with China. He did so after Sir John Kotelawala had failed to obtain aid from the United States. R. G. Senanayake clinched a rubber - rice deal with China. Ceylon earned the condemnation of the anticommunist world by this pact.
At that time Thondaman was in Malaysia to attend an international trade union conference. A reporter asked him: "What is your opinion of the rubber - rice deal with China?"
Thondaman: I welcome it.
Reporter: Is it not wrong to trade with a Communist country?
Thondaman: What we wanted was rice to feed our people. America refused to help. But China was willing to give us rice. Do you mean to say we must starve our people saying we don't want communist rice?"
The CIC took a public stand in support of the rubber - rice pact and Thondaman sent a congratulatory message to R. G. Senanayake on the success of the Chinese mission.
The foreign exchange position continued to slide. In 1953 Central Bank Governor John Exter reported to the cabinet that immediate action should be taken to arrest the foreign asset decline. He recommended total removal of the subsidy on rice, which was sold at 25 cents a measure, though it cost the government 70 cents. The cabinet plunged into heated debate but Finance Minister J. R. Jayewardene supported Exter's recommendation.
"Let's face this dangerous situation squarely and do what is in the best interest of the country. Let's abolish the subsidy at once," Jayewardene argued.
Finally, the cabinet accepted it by a majority decision. It decided to issue two measures per person, per week, at 70 cents a measure, the actual cost price.
There was uproar in Parliament. The Left political parties decided to call a Hartal (work stoppage). They tried to rope in the CWC. The CWC decided to stay out. During the hartal, workers set up road- blocks and the crowd lit bonfires. Dudley Senanayake proclaimed an emergency and called for an emergency cabinet meeting.
Meanwhile, crowd had collected at Mutwal and police opened fire, injuring few workers. A parliamentary official sent there for survey and report to Dudley Senanayake who was at that time in parliament, was shot by police, who mistook the taxi he traveled in to be the one they had been tipped off as carrying explosives. When this was reported to Dudley, he fainted and had to be carried out of Parliament.
The hartal went on for three days. When the protests subsided, Dudley resigned, taking responsibility for the entire calamity. Sir John Kotelawala, who succeeded Dudley was very hard on the Indian Tamils.
Sir John tightened the screw on Indian Tamils, through a series of regulations. He placed greater restrictions on persons who lived in Ceylon, with residence permits. He also stopped the issue of residence permits. He made it discretionary on the part of the minister in charge of the subject of citizenship, to decide on the granting of citizenship to the spouse of a citizen. He also brought in a provision to cancel the citizenship of anyone, who became involved in a criminal act, political or otherwise.
High Commissioner Desai who enjoyed a personal friendship with Sir John, could not stem this trend. He arranged talks in Delhi, between Nehru and Sir John, in January 1954. The CIC wanted to send a delegation to watch the interests of the Indian Tamils. They wrote to the Indian foreign ministry, but the request was turned down.
The CIC working committee met in emergency session. Thondaman was extremely critical of Indian decision. He told in the meeting: "Desai is responsible for keeping the CIC out of Indo - Ceylon discussions…Ever since he arrived in Ceylon, he has endeavored to take upon himself the task of being the savior of the Ceylon Indian community and it is most unfortunate that, his efforts have had the most disastrous consequences."
Challenging Indian Administrators
The CIC decided to send Aziz to meet Nehru and explain the need for a CIC delegation. Aziz was reluctant. He feared a rebuff. K. G. S. Nair persuaded him to go and present the CIC viewpoint to Nehru. "Think this involves the future of a million people." Nair told Aziz Thondaman too persuaded Aziz to go to Delhi.
Aziz had a cold reception in Delhi. The Indian foreign office considered his visit an embarrassment. He was told that, Nehru was leaving to South India the following day and had no time to see him. He was shown Nehru's diary, which showed that every minute was tied up with some engagement.
After persistent urging Dutt, who headed the Commonwealth desk of the foreign ministry agreed to inform Nehru of Aziz's visit. Nehru wanted to see Aziz that night, at his residence. The meeting lasted 75 minutes and Nehru questioned Aziz very closely about the plight of the Ceylon Indians. Nehru told him that he would like a CIC delegation to be in Delhi to brief him.
Meanwhile, the CIC organized a mass meeting at the Colombo town hall to demand that India should not come to any agreement with the Ceylon government without consulting the CIC. Thondaman, the key speaker, criticized Desai. He said, "Mr. Desai is not the representative of the Ceylon Indians."
Nehru instructed the Indian High Commission in Colombo to ask the CIC to send a delegation to New Delhi. Aziz, Thondaman and Somasundaram made up the delegation. Sir John had S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike who was then in the opposition in his team. The CIC delegation was accommodated in a room next to the conference room. The Indian officials consulted the CIC delegation at every stage.
An agreement was called, Nehru - Kotelawala Agreement and it touched on three main areas of dispute. Sir John undertook to speed up the disposal of citizenship applications, the main grouse of Ceylon Indians. The Immigration Department of Ceylon was very slow in handling applications and its officials were giving the most stringent interpretation to the qualifications needed for citizenship. Sir John undertook to be more liberal.
When the CIC delegation returned to Colombo, the press questioned Thondaman about the Delhi agreement. He replied, "If the agreement is to be a success, the Ceylon government should continue to display the spirit shown at the Delhi conference."
Immigration Department officials however, did not show the same spirit of accommodation and understanding, the political leadership displayed at the Delhi conference. Registration was slow and made further cumbersome. Officials asked for all sorts of documents.
Dismayed, the CIC organized a public meeting at the Kandy Town hall, on 15 March 1954. Thondaman told the meeting: "We thought things would ease after the Delhi meeting, but they have got worse." He related many instances in which officials had discouraged applicants from seeking Ceylon citizenship and advised them to apply for Indian status.
"The officials have no business to tell our people, what to do. It's our right to decide to which country we belong to. We don't need any advice from anyone," he declared.
India was worried too about the slow pace of registration. A meeting of officials was held in Delhi and the CIC sent a delegation under Thondaman. India and Ceylon agreed to implement the January accord, "humanely".
On his return to Colombo, Thondaman told the press. "We are glad that we were able to convince them all that, the administration of the Indian and Pakistani (Resident) Citizenship Act is being done in a very stringent manner and the large number of rejections are due to this fact rather than lack of qualifications of the applicants."
He gave as an example of a dumb man, who had satisfied every qualifications, but whose application was rejected on the ground that he did not take the oath.
The Delhi agreement could not be implemented in full as the political climate soon began to change. Sir John had become popular with the people by reducing the price of rationed rice from 70 cents to 45 cents. The country was also enjoying prosperity, as the prices of tea, rubber and coconut had soared. He had arranged for the visit of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh. The prominent role he played at the Bandung Conference, had made him the Bandung veeraya (hero).
Meanwhile, Bandaranaike was actively forging an anti-UNP front, called the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, into which he brought Philip Gunewardene and his group. He had made 'Sinhala Only' and ‘the rightful place for Buddhism,’ - the slogans of the new grouping. The MEP launched a countrywide campaign that won it the support of the Buddhist clergies, Sinhala teachers, Ayurvedic physicians, peasant and workers.
It was about then that, Sir John visited Jaffna and at a reception at Kokuvil Hindu College, he declared that, “Ceylon belonged to all communities and all should work together for a united nation. Sinhala and Tamil would be declared the national languages,” he said. Later, on pressure from party colleagues, he withdrew from that position.
As the language issue heated up, Sir John went to the other extreme. He caused the Kelaniya session of the UNP to pass a resolution, declaring Sinhala the only official language of Ceylon. Tamils and most of the Muslims opposed it. Sir Kanthiah Vaithianathan and S. Nadesan, the two Tamil Ministers in the Kotelawala government, resigned from the government and the UNP – the ruling Party.
Sir John had planned to celebrate Buddha Jayanthi in 1956, marking the 2500 anniversary of the birth of Buddhism. Opinion within the UNP then was that, the general election should be held after the celebration. Sir John elated by his popularity thought otherwise. "We will come back and celebrate Buddha Jayanthi," he told his critics.
Ceylon Indians lacked strength to field their own candidates in the 1956 election. The CIC and Thondaman felt aggrieved about the growing communalism in the country The CIC supported the Federal Party in the North and East and the Left candidates elsewhere. Addressing a largely attended public meeting at the Jaffna Town hall, on 8 March 1955, Thondaman said for the last fifteen years of its existence the CIC had served the Up-country Tamils, He continued, "Now CIC is entering the next stage - the stage of serving the rest of the Tamil population as well."
He said that the Sinhala leadership had already created two serious grievances to the Tamils - state aided-colonization of the North and East and the denial of citizenship to the Up-country Tamils. "They are adding the third one now, the language issue," he said.
Gradually, he emerged as a leader of all the Tamils in Ceylon. They sought his advice and he involved himself in their problems. He explained his interest and involvement in the Tamil language issue by stating cogently: "Discrimination against the Tamil language is discrimination against us."
Meanwhile, the long-standing clash within the CIC became public. Aziz and Thondaman, two powerful personalities, with different backgrounds and ideologies; Thondaman the son of an estate worker, who later rose to be an estate owner and Aziz the son of a businessman, who took an interest on the welfare of the estate worker. Thondaman spent his youth hood in the estate, in the midst of the plantation workers. Aziz, who migrated to Ceylon, with a Commerce Degree from the Bombay University, was frequenting the elite YMCA Forum, where he rose to be Prime Minister of the Young Men's Parliament. Thondaman managed his father's estate, while Aziz managed his father's business. Thondaman spoke of the language of the estate workers; Aziz spoke to them through an interpreter. Thondaman was a Hindu, like most estate workers, whilst Aziz was a Muslim.
Being strong personalities, each became the centre of two opposing groups. The first direct clash between these two leaders was in 1945 when Thondaman won in the election for the president of the organization against Aziz. This contest continued at the every session. In 1954, it took a serious turn to the worst.
The 1954 annual sessions was held at Hatton and Aziz decided to contest in the president election. Thondaman nominated Somasundaram to contest Aziz. In the election, Aziz won but Thondaman group captured most of the places in the Executive Committee. This intensified the clash between the two factions. Ultimately, on 13 December 1955, Aziz was expelled from the organization. He challenged it in the District Court of Colombo. The Court dismissed his applications on the ground that, Aziz had not exhausted the internal remedies available to him.
The Hatton sessions also decided on the change of the name of the organization. There was a persistent campaign by Sinhala politicians and the press that the CIC was more Indian than Ceylonese. They pointed out to the word of the 'Indian' in the title Ceylon Indian Congress and the Ceylon Indian Congress Labour Union. The sessions decided to change the name of the Ceylon Indian Congress to Ceylon Democratic Congress and the Ceylon Indian Congress Labour Union to Ceylon Workers Congress.
With the expulsion, Aziz launched a new organization, on 1 January 1956 and named it Democratic Workers Congress. Nair and Velupillai went along with him. Aziz captured the Head office at Main Street, Pettah, Colombo and most of the district offices - Badulla, Yattiyantota, Talawakelle, Matugama and Haputale.
The Ceylon Workers Congress was with Thondaman. He rented a separate building for the head office. He opened new files. He launched a massive membership drive. He built up a formidable organization from scratch. That led to clashes.
The day after Tamil New Year day in 1956 (April 15), a group of laborers set upon Thondaman, when he visited an estate in Ohiya. They attacked his jeep with clubs and damaged it. They also injured a police constable traveling in the Thondaman's car. Workers who had gathered to receive Thondaman retaliated and a free for all ensued.
That was not an isolated incident. Such incidents became the order of the day. There were clashes between workers of different estates. There were brawls between different groups in the same estate. There were feuds within families. There was dissension in the entire plantation sector. There was unrest.
Aziz and Thondaman traded charges. Aziz said Thondaman was a capitalist, an estate owner who did not have the interest of the worker at heart. Thondaman cleverly turned that same charge against Aziz.
At a public meeting on 16 March 1956, at the Dunbar grounds in Hatton, Thondaman said: "Mr. Aziz accuses me of being a capitalist and thus he tries to impress upon you that, he is a friend of the workers. I challenge Mr. Aziz to prove it by agreeing to hand over to the congress all the surplus wealth he has accumulated since his association with Congress. If he does, then I will follow suit. That would show who the real capitalist is."
The government and the Employers' Federation continued to recognize the CWC as the only trade union of the plantation workers and continued to negotiate with it. The CWC nominated Thondaman, as worker’s representative, to the Tea Growing and Manufacturing and Rubber Growing and Manufacturing Trade Wages Boards. Aziz had been the worker-member of these Boards from 1943, the year in which those Boards were established.
That year, Thondaman was also selected as the workers' representative on Ceylon's tripartite delegation to the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Conference in Geneva. He was elected to the governing body, which position he held until he became a government Minister in 1978.
The crisis was not only in the CWC. Dark clouds were gathering even on the national scene. There was a difference between the two situations. In the case of the CWC, the crisis helped it to build a strong trade union organization. In the case of the nation, the much-hailed socio-cultural revival spewed the seeds of national disaster.
|Chapter 5 : The Language Landmine|
|"I'll be fair by all."|
Thondaman called on Bandaranaike at his residence at Resumed Place, on the evening of 13 April 1956. Bandaranaike had been sworn in as the new Prime Minister the previous morning. He was pleased to see Thondaman and ushered him into the sitting room.
"Sirima," Bandaranaike shouted inside. "Thonda is here. Bring some tea."
Thondaman told Bandaranaike that he was very glad about his victory.
"Thank you, Thank you." Bandaranaike was profusely appreciative.
They then started to talk about the language issue. "We welcome your giving the Sinhala language its rightful place. Likewise we expect you to give the rightful place to the Tamil language," Thondaman said.
Bandaranaike readily agreed.
Thondaman added: If you deny Tamil its rightful place, there will be problem later.
Bandaranaike was emphatic: "I'll be fair by all."
Bandaranaike could not keep his word. Not because he did not want to be fair. He had become prisoner of the very forces he had unleashed.
He had collected around him a band of extremists. That was partly because of his Sinhala Maha Sabha past and also because of the elements he had welded into the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (Peoples' United Front) Within the SLFP were the Sinhala extremists spreading the gospel of a Sinhala Buddhist nation. When the MEP swept the 1956 polls, winning 51 of the 95 elected seats, the extremist elements surrounded Bandaranaike and virtually throttled him.
A delegation of prominent Tamils and Muslims met Bandaranaike, at Rosmead Place, to discuss the future of the Tamil-speaking people in Ceylon. The delegation included Sir Arunachalam Mahadeva, Sir Kanthiah Vaithianathan, Senator S. Nadesan, Dr. M. C. M. Kaleel, Senator A. M. A. Aziz, S. Thondaman and others.
With Bandaranaike were Ven. Buddharakkitha thera and L. H. Mettananda.
The delegation congratulated Bandaranaike on his victory and went straight to the point of their visit. Nadesan, their spokesman, told the Prime Minister, there should be an immediate settlement of the language problem. The minorities were ready to help, not obstruct him, in his declared policy of making Sinhala the official language.
Mettananda cut in, saying the general election was fought on the language issue and there was no point in raising the question again. He added: "Sinhala has to be the language of the country."
Buddharakkitha said the same thing: "Sinhala will be the only official language."
Dr. Kaleel intervened: "We came here to speak to the Prime Minister, not to you. Allow the Prime Minister to reply."
Bandaranaike: They both belong to my party and have a right to speak.
Ven. Banddharakkitha: Are you trying to tell us what we should do? We have got a mandate from the people and it will not be altered.
The delegation felt that it would serve no purpose to continue the talk and decided to leave. Bandaranaike accompanied them to the garden, offered them fruit drinks, and saw them off.
In the first week of May, Bandaranaike had a meeting with the Attorney General and the Legal Draftsman. They discussed guidelines for the Language Bill.
Bandaranaike told them that, in accordance with the People's mandate, Sinhala should be the only official language. To satisfy the aspirations of the Tamil-speaking people of the North and East, provision should be made for the ‘reasonable use' of Tamil. Then there should be a period of transition, determined by parliament, to shift from English to Sinhala. He wanted the bill to contain a clause that gave every citizen the right to communicate with the government in his mother tongue, in any part of the island.
When this news leaked, Prof. F. R. Jayasuriya commenced a 'fast-unto-death,' at the parliament premises, demanding that, Sinhala should be the only official language and no concession given to any other. Bandaranaike succumbed. He ordered the drafting of a single clause legislation that read: "Sinhala shall be the only official language of Ceylon."
The bill was debated on 5 June 1956. The Federal Party that had swept the North in the 1956 election, winning 10 seats, staged a satyagraha at Galle Face Green, in opposition. An unruly crowd attacked the demonstrators. Chelvanayakam's son was thrown into the dirty waters of the Beira Lake. Amirthalingham was hit on his head by a stone, pelted by the boisterous crowd. He went into the Parliament Chamber, blood streaming from his head, to be greeted by Bandaranaike: "the honored wounds of war!"
Thondaman was in Colombo when this happened. Hearing of the attack, he rushed to Chelvanayakam's home. A big crowd had gathered there. Chelvanayakam came out to greet Thondaman.
"How are you, sir?" Thondaman asked.
"I'm all right," Chelvanayakam smiled.
"Are you hurt?"
"That's a small thing …But this is the beginning," Chelvanayakam replied.
Thondaman was worried. He condemned the attack on the Satyagrahis. When a pressman asked why he was disturbed when the CWC was not involved, Thondaman replied: "Tamil is our mother tongue and we will not take lightly any insult to our language or community."
The enactment of the Sinhala Only legislation and the celebrations connected with Buddha Jayanthi won for Bandaranaike and the SLFP immense popularity. For Buddha Jayanthi, Bandaranaike invited the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi. Thondaman attended the banquet at Temple Trees.
When Nehru spotted him, he went to him. When a photographer tried to take a photograph, Nehru called Indira to pose for the photograph.
When Indira joined them, Nehru said in introduction: "Mr. Thondaman, a great leader of the Ceylon Indian community."
Indira smiled, stretching out her hand. Thondaman held it with both his hands saying: "I have the privilege of leading the very Congress your father helped to found."
With the passing of the Sinhala Only Act, the setting for an enduring ethnic crisis emerged. The Federal Party organized the ‘Trincomalee March,’ in August 1956 and passed the resolution, setting four demands - an end to state aided colonization; granting of citizenship to all Tamils who elect to live in Ceylon; granting of official status to the Tamil language; and proclamation of a federal constitution.
The resolution gave the government one-year, before 20 August 1957, to meet the demands. If the government failed to concede the demands by then it would launch a satyagraha campaign. The SLFP reacted to satyagraha threat with anger. A party spokesman issued a press statement threatening to raise a volunteer corps, one lakh strong, to deal with the satyagraha.
Thondaman replied to the SLFP threat, on 28 May 1957. In a statement he said: "It is unfortunate that the proposal of the SLFP to meet FP's proposed satyagraha campaign in August has apparently been conceived in a spirit of anger and aggression. Assurances on the part of the FP are categorical that their campaign will be strictly according to the principles of satygraha and that the only force they will use is 'soul force.'
"The probabilities are that, they will adhere to the program as enunciated by them. From which source then does the SLFP expect a breach of peace? The answer is clear from happenings during the one - day token satyagraha launched by the FP last year. Hooligans took charge of the city of Colombo and bedlam was let loose. Obviously then, the mischief - makers are not the satyagrahis but the anti - social elements who, in their madness, organized and encouraged such hooligans."
In that statement, Thondaman also administered a strong warning to the SLFP. He said: "Time and time again, history has proved that, such an approach never succeeds in suppressing; it merely aggravates the situation and makes opposition more bitter."
The Bandaranaike government added provocation. Transport Minister Maitripala Senanayake ordered that ‘Sinhala Sri’ number plate be used for motor vehicles, instead of the English letters, which resulted in Federal Party's anti-Sri campaign. Motor vehicles in the North and the East, in protest, started running with Tamil-Shri number plates.
The tar brush campaign followed. Sinhala extremists tarred the Tamil lettering in street name boards. Similarly Tamils in the North and East tarred out the Sinhala names. Schools in the North and East that were teaching Sinhala as an optional subject discontinued it. The Federal Party directed Tamil government servants not to work in Sinhala.
As the anti-Sri campaign gained momentum in the North and East Up-Country Tamils too were drawn into it emotionally. In places like Talawakelle, Ceylon Indian Tamil youth "blacked-out" - Sinhala street names. At Bogawantalawa, a few youths gathered at the entrance of an estate and stopped all passing vehicles with Sinhala Sri number plates and painted tar over the 'Sri' lettering.
Police arrested and locked them up. Estate workers gathered in thousands opposite the Bogawantalawa Police Station demanding their release. Police opened fire killing a worker named Ayyavu Francis. Enraged estate workers attacked Sinhala - owned shops and buildings and even assaulted some Sinhala passers by. Sinhalese retaliated. Tamils then barricaded the roads with huge stones, felled trees and obstructed the police.
Prime Minister Bandaranaike was informed of the developing danger. He telephoned Thondaman. Thondaman replied that he was aware of the happenings.
"Thonda! I want you to go there and calm the people. We must prevent a flare - up."
"I will certainly help," Thondaman replied. By then he was sure of his influence with the plantation Tamils.
He went by car with Sellasamy, but they could not proceed beyond Norwood. Roads were barricaded. He walked the eleven kilometers to Bogawantalawa, meeting and appealing the people to remove the stones and tree trunks. He met the police, the CWC district and estate leaders and the Sinhala leaders of the area. He defused the tension. He arranged for funeral of Ayyavu Francis.
He called Bandaranaike from Nuwara Eliya, to tell him that, the situation had been brought under control. Bandaranaike was profuse in his thanks. He said: "Thonda! I envy you. If I had the same control over the Sinhala people, there would be no trouble in this country."
That incident was significant for many reasons. It revealed the extent the Ceylon Indians were emotionally involved in the happenings in the north and east. It also illustrated the difference in the two situations. It showed for the first time that the estate Tamils were no more meek and were prepared to rise even against the police. It demonstrated the power of Thondaman's hold over the Indian Tamils.
We are also Tamils
After returning to Colombo, Thondaman issued a statement advising Ceylon Indian Tamil youths, not to be rash. In that statement of July 1957, he pointed the difference in the two situations: the Tamils of the North and East were living in areas where they constituted the majority. The Tamils of the hill country were living in the midst of a Sinhala population. Ceylon Indian Tamil youths should realize this significant difference, he said.
"We are also Tamils. Tamil is our mother tongue. Any harm done to the Tamils, or the Tamil language, will naturally disturb us. We are entitled to register our sympathy and support with the Tamils of the North and the East. We must also realize the environment in which we live. While sympathizing with the Tamils of the North and East, we should not create occasion for disturbance," Thondaman said.
Emotionally, he identified himself with the Federal Party demands. On 1 June 1957, he wrote to Bandaranaike, drawing a distinction between extremists and the government. The letter said: "We are conscious that, the government has its difficulties with reactionary elements, attributing the economic ills of the island, to the existence of the Tamils. We are also deeply conscious of the sense of bitterness and frustration that has grown among all Tamils, about the language policy of the government. In this situation, I wonder, whether it would not be possible for some kind of arrangement to be arrived at whereby, the government would stay its program of implementation of the Sinhala Only Act - so far as it adversely affects the Tamils - for a period of a year, in which a solution of a democratic kind may be found. The FP on its part should suspend and postpone its satyagraha campaign for a year."
"I thought out this suggestion of a standstill arrangement for a year in order that the whole problem may be examined more fully by all parties and a democratic solution found. I am convinced that a solution for the preservation of the Tamil Language and culture and the rights of the Tamils as a minority can be found on the basis of a united democratic Ceylon."
Thondaman released the letter to the press, which appeared in all the papers the next day. He got a telephone call that morning from Chelvanayakam. Vanniasingham, who was close to Thondaman, said Chelvanayakam wanted to speak to him. Chelvanayakam asked whether he would be free to came over that afternoon. The meeting took place around 2 p.m. at Chelvanayakam's home, in Alfred Place, and Vanniasingham was also present. Chelvanayakam asked Thondaman what made him to write that letter.
"I have the feeling that there is room yet for a compromise," Thondaman replied.
"What makes you to feel that?" Chelvanayakam probed.
Thondaman replied: "Bandaranaike is essentially democratic and fair. My letter only appealed to his sense of fairness."
Chelvanayakam concurred but, warned that the extremist group around Bandaranaike was very strong and would never permit him to come to any settlement. "Besides, Bandaranaike is vacillating," Chelvanayakam added.
"That's where we must play our card," Thondaman said. "We must isolate the extremist group and strengthen the moderates."
There were many who were willing to act as mediators - P. Navaratnarajah Q.C. and Dr.Badiuddin Mahmud were among them.
B- C Pact
A series of meetings took place between the government and the Federal Party from early July. The final meeting was held on July 19. It started around 7 p.m. and continued till 3 a.m. Bandaranaike and Chelvanayakam emerged smiling from the Prime Minister's office and handed the waiting pressmen, a written document, which came to be known as the, Bandaranaike - Chelvanayakam Pact.
The document, which was in the form of a joint statement between Bandaranaike and Chelvanayakam, said they had reached agreement within the framework of the Official Language Act and without conceding the demand for a federal constitution. The agreement, in brief, was, Tamil to be the language of administration of the northern and eastern provinces, early consideration of the Citizenship Act and introduction of the system of regional councils for the north and east.
The agreement provided for the establishment of a regional council for the Northern province and for two or more regional councils in the Eastern province.
Provision was also to be made for two or three regions to amalgamate or collaborate. Direct election of the regional council, devolution of power to the regional council on the specified subjects that included agriculture, cooperatives, lands and land development, colonization, education, health, industries, fisheries, housing, social services, electricity, water schemes and roads. The regional councils were to be vested with power to select allotees to whom lands within the areas of their authority would be alienated. Regional councils would receive block grants from the centre and have power of taxation and borrowing.
In return the Federal Party agreed to withdraw the satyagraha.
Thondaman was pleased with the agreement. He called on Chelvanayakam in the morning (July 20) to thank him for the Citizenship Act provision. It was a memorable meeting. Thondaman told Chelvanayakam: "I must give you credit for being the first man to make the Sinhala leadership accept the necessity to review the Citizenship Act." Thondaman issued a statement welcoming the B - C pact. He praised Bandaranaike for his statesmanship and said he would earn a place in history as the leader who solved the knotty racial problem. He also hailed Chelvanayakam for his spirit of accommodation.
Things soon took a different turn. J. R. Jayewardene, who by then had emerged the most important leader in the UNP, seized this opportunity. He organized the Kandy March, which he said was a pilgrimage to the Temple of the Tooth, in protest against the selling of the country to the Tamils. He said the setting up of regional councils with power to merge amounted to the creation of a separate state for the Tamils. He whipped up the Sinhala frenzy.
Dudley Senanayake who quit politics after the hartal was by then nursing the hope of re-entering politics. He also took the opportunity to make his reappearance and issued a hard - hitting statement which said: "I am prepared to sacrifice my life to prevent the implementation of the Bandaranaike - Chelvanayakam agreement, which is a racial division of Ceylon under the guise of the regional council system and it is an act of treachery on the part of Prime Minister Bandaranaike." The Kandy March commenced in Colombo with Dudley Senanayake and Jayewardene heading a lengthy procession. SLFP supporters pelted stones, slippers and bricks at the procession as it wended the Grandpass junction. When it reached Kearney Bridge the attacks intensified. The procession retaliated.
When the procession reached Imbulgoda, in the Gampaha electorate, the MP of the area, S. D. Bandaranaike, sat in the middle of the road and refused to permit it to proceed. Jayewardene abandoned the march and retired to the house of a UNP supporter for the night. Stones rained on the house the entire night.
The UNP leaders left for Kandy the next morning in cars and announced from the precincts of the Dalada Maligawa that they would oppose the setting up of regional councils.
A few days later, in April, about a hundred bhikkus performed satyagraha, in front of Bandaranaike's Rosmead Place home. They declared that, they would not leave the place, until Bandaranaike tore the Bandaranaike - Chelvanayakam pact to pieces. Stones were pelted at the bhikkus and the police tried to carry them away. When these efforts failed. Bandaranaike came out of his house with the document, held it up and tore it, throwing the pieces towards the crowd that had collected. The bhikkus got up chanting 'Sadu, Sadu' and the crowd dispersed.
The Tamils were dismayed and disenchanted. Thondaman was disturbed. He issued a statement to the press criticizing the abrogation of the pact. He said:
"Yesterday was the saddest day in the history of Ceylon's racial relations. A solemn pact worked out between the leadership of the country's two main communities has been torn up because of the pressure of a group of extremists … I am worried whether Tamils in the future will have trust in the Sinhala leadership."
Abrogation of the pact generated more tension and mutual suspicion and in May 1958, racial riots erupted. It started in Colombo and spread to the provinces. Tamil government servants were assaulted while in their own offices. Tamil shops were torched. Tamil commuters were pulled out of trains and buses and manhandled. Tamils were made refugees for the first time in their own country.
The burning of the Hindu priest at Panadura wounded Hindu sentiment more than any other act. The priest was pulled out of the Pillayar kovil at Panadura, doused with petrol collected at the nearby shed and torched alive. This was the incident that most influenced the LTTE leader Pirabhakaran, then a young boy.
Thondaman too was deeply hurt by it. He telephoned Bandaranaike the night the disturbances started and told him of the happenings of the day. "Things are getting out of hand," he said and prayed Bandaranaike to declare a state of emergency.
Bandaranaike promised action, but asked whether it was necessary to declare emergency.
Thondaman thought Bandaranaike was vacillating. He called on the Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke and urged him to take quick action. Sir Oliver was co - operative.
"I've already spoken to Banda," Sir Oliver said and added: "Banda is a little worried about handing power to the armed forces."
"Things are getting pretty bad. I hear the mob has started burning shops in Pettah," Thondaman said.
Sir Oliver promised immediate action. He kept his word.
The disturbances spread to the hill country the next day. The government declared an emergency and the situation were brought under control within a few days.
Using the emergency, the government issued house detention orders against the Federal Party leaders, including Chelvanayakam. There were also a few detention orders against Sinhala extremists like K. M. P. Rajaratna and F. R. Jayasuriya, Thondaman was unhappy about the house arrest of the Federal Party leaders.
"The Federal Party leaders did not instigate the riots. They were at receiving end. It is immoral to detain them," he said.
The riots made Bandaranaike feel guilty. He told his close associates that he had erred in tearing up the B - C pact. He wanted to make some amends. He moved the "Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Bill in parliament and offered to have the Federal Party parliamentarians then under detention escorted to parliament to participate in the debate. They declined.
The entire opposition, including the UNP, pleaded with the government to withdraw the detention orders. The CWC, though not in parliament, publicly supported opposition demand. The government refused to yield. The entire opposition boycotted the debate.
In the latter half of 1958, the language issue was sidelined by the left - sponsored strikes and the VSSP - SLFP clashes. The two left parties, LSSP and CP, organized a series of strikes which held the government and the country practically to ransom. The VSSP - SLFP clash was more dramatic. The group led by C. P. de Silva and Wimala Wijewardene kept attacking the VSSP group led by Philip Gunawardene. This ultimately led to the resignation of Philip Gunawardene and William de Silva from the Bandaranaike cabinet.
During this period, Thondaman strengthened his links with the leftists and nurtured his association with the FP. He personally invited Chelvanayakam and Vanniasingham to the Gampola sessions of the CWC held on 25 May 1959.
He also invited some government ministers. The ministers threatened to walk out if the Federal Party leaders addressed the meeting. This provoked Thondaman who made a blistering attack on the rightist - extremist section of the MEP in his presidential address at Peri Sundaram Nagar. He said: "It is known that the undoubtedly chauvinistic policy of the present government in regard to language has arisen through the political blackmail of certain reactionary circles which have now thought fit to align themselves with the Bandaranaike government."
He warned: "Unless the Prime Minister and his party and cabinet colleagues show positive evidence in the immediate future of a desire to fight these reactionary elements who dream of a Sinhalese Ceylon, it is definite that a most unpleasant situation will arise in the country."
He continued: "I am firmly convinced that the difficulties of language can be resolved on the basis of a united democratic Ceylon. There is no need to divide Ceylon to solve the language question with justice and fairness. In fact, I would go further and say that a united Ceylon will be possible only if a democratic way is found for Sinhalese and Tamils to co - exist harmoniously in their country."
Thondaman said Bandaranaike government's language policy called for outright condemnation. Sinhalese and Tamils had lived together for centuries and both languages had been used. The struggle for independence from alien rule was on the basis of the unity of these communities and it was achieved on the understanding that both languages would receive equal treatment in a free Ceylon. He said the Sinhala Only Act had hurt even those who welcomed his progressive foreign and social policies.
By this time the CWC had emerged as a strong plantation trade union and this intensified rivalry with the DWC. This rivalry took a peculiar turn in the last week of May 1959. The ILO had invited a Ceylonese worker - delegate to attend its 40th sessions at Geneva. The Labour ministry invited five trade unions to name a delegate. The CWC named Thondaman. The Democratic Workers' Congress, the Ceylon Trade Union Federation, the Ceylon Labour Union and the Lanka Estate Workers' Union jointly named Aziz. The Labour ministry selected Thondaman. The four unions protested to Labour Minister T. B. Illangaratne saying Thondaman represented only a small section of the Ceylonese workforce and that too, the plantation sector. Illangaratne decided on Thondaman as the delegate and Aziz as the worker - advisor.
The four unions took up the matter with Prime Minister Bandaranaike who invited representatives of the four unions to meet him at Rosmead Place. Dr. Colvin R. de Silva and S. Chelliah represented the Lanka Estate Workers' Union; Pieter Keuneman and M. G. Mendis the Ceylon Trade Union Federation; Aziz and Velupillai the DWC and N. Sanmugathasan and S. Nadesan the Ceylon Labour Union. They argued the CWC was not fully representative of the workers in Ceylon; that a number of items in the ILO agenda deal with the industrial sector." Bandaranaike upheld the decision of minister Illangaratne and said Aziz could go as an advisor. Aziz declined the offer.
Bandaranaike was essentially fair and just. His basic character was drawn out in this worker representative dispute. He had also by then, grown tired of being a captive of the Sinhala extremists. He was trying to extricate himself from their stranglehold when he was assassinated by Somarama thero on 26 September 1959.
For Thondaman, the slaying of Bandaranaike was a personal loss. He had struck up a close friendship with him. Thondaman found in Bandaranaike a liberal mind and reasonable approach that he wanted to cultivate. But Bandaranaike failed to give any concrete shape to his liberal and democratic ideals. Thondaman still speaks of it as the tragedy of Bandaranaike and of the country. He fell captive to the Sinhala extremists and when he trued to get out of it they killed him.
A comic interlude followed the death of Bandaranaike. W.Dahanayake was made the Prime Minister and when other SLFPers tried to oppose him he sacked every one of them. Dahanayake then formed a new party called the LPP and dissolved parliament when he found his parliamentary support had eroded. He fixed the general election for March 1960.
During the period 1956 - 60 two important things took place which affected the CWC and Thondaman. The first was the slow pace of implementation of the Citizenship Act. Thondaman charged in a press statement that the officials were wantonly delaying registration. In support of his charge he cited the decisions in the cases that went up to the Supreme Court and the Privy Council.
In those cases, the two appellate bodies had ruled that, the men who administered the Act had misdirected themselves on questions of fact and law, consciously or unconsciously, in various ways and on various questions. A large number of them had shown bias.
Meanwhile, a statement R. G. Senanayake issued on 26 October 1958 annoyed Thondaman. R. G. Senanayake said the government would absorb only 150, 000 Ceylon Indians and the balance would be sent to India.
Thondaman reacted angrily: "I must warn the MEP that any attempt to solve the problem of the stateless in a harsh, reactionary or inhuman manner will lead to grave consequences that will not be conducive to the progress and development of the country."
Bandaranaike aggravated the situation further with his explanation. He said: "What R. G. Senanyake had actually said was that only 150,000 would be registered under the Indian and Pakistani (Residents) Citizenship Act." His explanation was intended to save the face of DWC leader Aziz, who was supporting the MEP, but it actually put him in a tight spot.
The second development was the merger of the Congress organization. Approaching March 1960 election was the factor that prompted it. The other was the constant campaign by the Tamil papers, especially Thinakaran. Intermediaries approached P. T. Thanu Pillai, a founder -member of the CIC, to initiate talks with the two parties for a settlement. After prolonged discussions a settlement was reached on 23 December 1959.
The merger was announced at a press conference. I attended it and was greeted by Thondaman who said, "Come. Come. You wanted us to unite. We have decided to do it."
"Our members will not fight again," Aziz said. The agreement was simple. The CWC would continue to be the trade union wing. The DWC would be transformed into a political party named the Ceylon Democratic Congress. The CDC would nominate candidates for the 1960 March parliamentary elections. The agreement was signed by Thondaman, Somasundaram, Ramalingam and Ramanujam on behalf of the CWC and by Aziz, Nair and S.V.Naidu on behalf of the DWC.
They issued a press statement that read: "We have been holding talks for the past few weeks to reconcile differences that have kept plantation workers divided. From today, December 23, 1959, the two congresses will merge into one, in order to serve the interests of the plantation community effectively and to take forward the struggle of the plantation worker with more vigor."
That happy marriage did not last long.
|Chapter 6 : Making Governments|
|INTO THE LEFTIST FOLD|
The CWC - DWC unity brought back relative peace among estate workers. It also brought back the left influence that the CWC was trying to shed. Aziz, a committed leftist with links with the Afro-Asian Peoples' Solidarity Movement, had dragged the CWC (the DWC after the split) into the leftist fold. That had denied Aziz's organization room for political maneuver.
At the 19 March 1960 general election, Thondaman managed to convince the CWC that it should contest as an independent entity, while supporting the leftists. He contested the Nuwara Eliya seat and was defeated.
That election produced a very tricky situation. The UNP won only 50 seats in the 151 - member House of Representatives. The SLFP, headed by C. P. de Silva, won 45, the balance seats went to smaller Parties - Federal Party - 15; MEP, led by Philip Gunawardene - 1; LSSP - 10; LPP - 4; CP -3; JVP -2; Tamil Congress - 1; and three small parties and independents - 14.
The Governor - General, Sir Oliver, called on Dudley Senanayake to form the government. SLFP leaders met Sir Oliver and lodged their objection. Sir Oliver told them that, he was constitutionally bound to call the leader of the party that had obtained the highest number of seats to form the government. C. P. de Silva, who headed the SLFP delegation countered this by saying that, the Governor - General was duty bound to appoint one who could command the confidence of the House.
"Dudley says he can get the majority," Sir Oliver said.
De Silva challenged that. "The entire opposition is with us," he said.
"Including the Federal Party?" Sir Oliver asked.
"Including the Federal Party," De Silva replied and undertook to produce a written letter from Chelvanayakam.
The task of getting the Federal Party's support was assigned to Badiuddin Mahmud.
He approached Thondaman who telephoned Chelvanayakam at Alfred Place. Mrs. Chelvanayakam said he was still at Kankesanthurai and would go from the airport to E.G. P. Jayatilleke's home to meet UNP leaders. Thondaman sent Ramanujam to the airport to meet Chelvanayakam.
As Chelvanayakam emerged from the plane Ramanujam garlanded him.
"Sir, I am garlanding you on behalf of the CWC and its leader, Thondaman," Ramanujam announced.
Then he told Chelvanayakam that Thondaman wanted to see him urgently.
"Why does he want to meet me? " Chelvanayakam queried.
"He is waiting for you. He will tell you why," Ramanujam evaded the question.
Chelvanayakam was taken to the CWC office and Thondaman came down to greet him.
As they climbed the creaky wooden steps Chelvanayakam asked: "Why have you brought me here?"
"You have surprise visitors," Thondaman replied.
Chelvanayakam was astounded to see Badiuddin there.
Thondaman explained the purpose of the meeting. Then Badiuddin said: "Sir, we have come to seek your support for the SLFP."
Thondaman said C. P. de Silva was prepared to revive the B-C pact and even to give more power to the regional councils. The UNP could not give more, he urged. Chelvanayakam decided to accept the offer and SLFP won the Federal Party's support.
C. P. de Silva met Sir Oliver but was told that the only course available to the SLFP was to defeat the government at the Throne Speech debate.
The Throne Speech was debated for three days beginning April 20.When Chelvanayakam rose to speak on the final day, the fate of the UNP government was sealed. Chelvanayakam bitterly attacked the UNP and J.R.Jayewardene in particular. He charged that Jayewardene, who led the Kandy march was misleading the Sinhala people by saying federalism would lead to the division of the country.
He concluded: "The real enemy of the Tamil-speaking people is not the SLFP, but the UNP. It was the UNP bhikkus who pressurized Mr. Bandaranaike to tear up the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact."
When the government was defeated on April 22, Dudley Senanayake summoned an emergency cabinet meeting that night. They considered the next step. Dudley wanted to call a general election. He argued that, he would return with a bigger majority. Being the government would give the UNP the advantage of using the state machinery. A section of the cabinet opposed it arguing that, the SLFP should be given an opportunity to rule with the help of the Federal Party. That would provide additional grit to the UNP propaganda mill. Dudley over-ruled that argument and fixed the election for July 1960
. Thondaman did not contest. He went along with Aziz and decided to back the SLFP, which had elected Bandaranaike's widow, Sirima, its leader. Sirima's entry and the SLFP's electoral pact with the LSSP and CP conclusively turned tables on the UNP. Sirima's public appearances and appeals, moved a large section of the voters, especially women. An electoral pact banded together the anti-UNP forces. It was the second time that anti-UNP parties had got together; the first was in 1956.
The SLFP swept the polls, winning 75 seats against UNP's 30. The score of the other parties was FP -16, LSSP - 12, CP - 4, MEP - 3, JVP - 2, LPP -2, TC - 1 and independents - 6.
Mrs. Bandaranaike was sworn in Prime Minister and took her seat in the Senate. She relied heavily on Felix Dias Bandaranaike who dominated the government. Thondaman was appointed to parliament on 4 August 1960 representing Labour interests. S. D. Bandaranaike, the Gampaha MP, sent Mrs. Bandaranaike a telegram urging her not to nominate Thondaman to parliament.
The SLFP leaders began neglecting the Federal Party and Thondaman soon after they climbed to power. They ignored their promises given to the Federal Party in March and commenced the implementation of the Sinhala Only policy with vigor. Badiuddin, who was the Education Minister, took up the matter at a cabinet meeting in February 1961, but Felix (or FDB as he came to we known), who virtually ran the government smiled it away. "That promise was given in a completely different environment. Now we must not give room to the UNP to incite the Sinhala extremists," he said.
When Thondaman was told of this, he was annoyed. He said: "First the husband, then the wife and now the nephew have shown that they worry about the Tamils only during elections. One day the Sinhala race will have to pay for this short sighted policy."
The policy of appeasement the SLFP leadership adopted towards Sinhala extremists estranged the Federal Party and Thondaman. The Federal Party launched a Satyagraha movement in February 1961, in the Northern and Eastern provinces, calling upon the government to keep its promises. Thousands of men, women and children sat opposite the Kachcheries (Government District Secretariat) and other government offices, singing hymns. Leaders fasted in batches and many others joined the fast. At first they did not obstruct the work in government offices, but as the government chose to ignore them, then the Satyagraha was expanded into a civil disobedience campaign.
On March 9 Thondaman and S. D. Bandaranaike, the MP who objected to Thondaman being nominated to parliament, traveled together to Jaffna by plane. Amrithalingham received them at the Palaly airport and took them by car to the Jaffna Kachcheri. The car was flying the Federal Party flag and bore the Tamil 'Shri' number plate, When they neared their destination, they got off and walked along the Kchcheri-Nallur road. Thondaman was struck by the determination of the Styagrahis. He was moved. Addressing them he said: "I came here to see the Satyagraha myself. I am struck by your discipline. as struck by your determination. Discipline and determination are essential for any movement to succeed. I am sure you will succeed in your struggle."
He and S. D. Bandaranaike held talks with FP leaders. When Thondaman returned to Colombo, e had a meeting with Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike. She listened patiently to his account of the Styagraha and directed him to talk to Felix. Felix, however, was unsympathetic. He told Thondaman the government was not in a position to yield.
"Think of the Sinhala reaction if we give in to the Federalists," Felix said.
"But think of the Tamil reaction if you take a hard line," Thondaman countered.
Felix said the government had to worry more about the Sinhala reaction.
Thondaman warned: "You cannot ignore the feelings of a community for long."
The Federal Party launched its own postal service on April 14. The government reacted by imposing a state of emergency and ordered the army to clear the Satyagrahis from the kachcheri. The FP leaders were arrested. A curfew was imposed in the northern and eastern provinces for the first time in their history.
Thondaman protested to the government and told the press the induction of the army in a purely a political conflict was unwise. "Political solutions should be found for political problems. Resorting to armed action bespeaks of political barrenness."
He blamed Felix for what he termed 'military adventure." He described Felix as "immature and power drunk."
FOUR- POINT FORMULA
He summoned the CWC working committee for an emergency session on April 24, which came out with a four-point formula for solution of the language issue:
1. Tamil should be recognized as the language of the national minority and the language of administration of the northern and eastern provinces;
2. The Language of the Courts Law should be amended to permit the use of Tamil for the purpose of record;
3. Regulations tabled under the Tamil Language Special Provisions Act be withdrawn and a fresh set of regulations worked out;
4. Provision for Tamils living outside north and east to transact business with the government in Tamil.
Thondaman met with Mrs. Bandaranaike on May 28 to discuss the Tamil language issue but she was adamant about implementing Sinhala Only.
Thondaman's relations with Mrs. Bandaranaike and the SLFP government soured further, when, on 20 October 1961, he flouted the government whip’s direction and voted against the Immigrants and Emigrants (Amendment) Bill. He also voted with the Federal Party, on an amendment they moved to the Throne Speech.
These two instances created parliamentary history. There had been no instance since independence of a nominated MP voting against the government. E. F. N. Gratien had once abstained during voting and was immediately appointed a judge of the Supreme Court, thus forcing him to resign his parliamentary seat. A convention had been created, that nominated MPs always voted with the government, although they might speak against a particular bill.
While voting with the opposition, Thondaman made two things clear. First, he supported the government in its attempt to curb sly entry; what he opposed was the inhuman manner in which illicit immigrants were treated. Secondly, he made it clear that, his first obligation was to his people, the Ceylon Indians. He had accepted government nomination but, he was not prepared to be a 'yes man' - especially not in matters that affected Ceylon Indians.
While this estrangement with the SLFP was taking place, the Thondaman-Aziz merger was also cracking up. The rift between the two sections came into the open again, during the 1961 presidential election of the CWC. Aziz wanted Thondaman not to contest. Thondaman refused.
Thondaman won that election. That aggravated the crisis and made clear that the two sections could not continue as one organization. The parting of ways came in April 1962. The Ceylon Workers' Congress has been under Thondaman's leadership since then; the Democratic Workers' Congress under Aziz.
This in a way helped the Indian community. The dogmatic socialist group that was instrumental in getting the Indians to support the leftists and the left - leaning SLFP had now got out of the CWC. This gave Thondaman more flexibility to negotiate with the more pliable UNP. From the 1947 election to July 1960 election, the CWC had consistently supported the leftists and the SLFP. In the elections of 1965, 1970, 1977, 1988, 1989, 1990 and August 1994, it supported the UNP. With each election they drew closer and closer to the extent that in 1988 provincial council election CWC contested on the UNP list. But, from November 1994 presidential election CWC switched sides. That was an interesting story that will unfold as the narrative develops.
SUBJECTED TO PINPRICKS
When his relation with the SLFP deteriorated, Thondaman was subjected to a lot of pinpricks from the government. In 1962, the Food Department refused to issue ration books to stateless persons unless they proved continuous residence since 1949.Thondaman took up the matter with Trade, Commerce, Food and Shipping Minister T. B. Illangaratne, who revoked the order. Illangaratne directed that, ration books should be issued to all, who had possessed them earlier.
In 1964, when Food Department officials stopped the issue of Maldives fish to estate workers, Illangaratne refused to help. Thondaman took up the matter with Finance Minister Dr. N. M. Perera. He refused too.
The SLFPers also took to baiting Thondaman. In October 1962, the border clash between Indian and China took place. The Chinese army had occupied large tracts of disputed territory in the Himalayas. R. G. Senanayake made use of that to hit at Thondaman. He proposed that "General Thunder Man" should lead his million strong army, to fight the Chinese in the North-East Frontier of India.
When he read that report in the 'Observer', Thondaman rang the editor and asked for his right of reply. It was granted and he replied:
"Sena-Nayake means, Commander-in-Chief or the army. So my good friend R. G. is better qualified for the post he has offered me. As for going back to the motherland his ancestors came here before mine; so he should be the first to go to the defense of the land of his ancestors."
In another incident the MP for Welimada, K. M. P. Rajarantne, in the House of Representatives on 22 March 1963, charged that, Thondaman had given Mrs. Illangaratne, wife of the Minister, a gold chain worth Rs. 20,000. When he heard of it. Thondaman replied in the House that, the charge was false and demanded an unqualified apology. Illangaratne too denied the allegation and invited Rajaratne to bring the matter to Bribery Commissioner's attention.
Thondaman in his speech said: "Statements of this nature, unworthy of a Member of Parliament, cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. Mr. Rajaratne is quite capable of making irresponsible charges. He has been charging about like the bull in the (Red) China shop. I am now going to take the bull by the horns."
Rajaratne: I made the charge when Mr. Illangaratne was not only in Parliament but actually on his feet. If my allegation was false, surely, it was for Mr. Illangaratne to deny it, not for Mr. Thondaman to take up cudgels with me."
Again, on October 19, Rajaratne raised two questions in parliament. The first was about Thondaman's visit to India earlier that month. Ramaiah, Thondaman's secretary, had told the Exchange Controller, Rasiah, that Thondaman was going to see his relatives on a pre-paid ticket. Thondaman had told the Defence Ministry that, he was attending a trade union conference in India. Minister Illangeratne replied that, he would hold a full inquiry.
The second question was about Ramaiah's temporary residence permit. Rajaratne said the permit had expired and asked why he was not arrested and expatriated. Felix. R. Dias Bandaranaike, acting Minister for Defence, said it was physically impossible to apprehend everyone but, they would make every effort to catch Ramaiah.
Rajaratne's anger was the result of two events that had also annoyed the government. The first was Thondaman's presidential address at the 19th session of the CWC at Rajalingam Nagar in Hatton. The offending section of the speech was, "While we welcome any moral support in our struggle for citizenship rights from whatever quarter it comes, we consider that any negotiation between the Government of India and our government regarding the political and other rights of these workers (plantation workers) is derogatory to their dignity as human beings, particularly when their representatives are not parties to such negotiations."
He went on, "What is even more sinister is that as the years went by in the last decade, technicalities demanded by administrative officials have become more and more unreasonable."
MEETING WITH NEHRU
The second "provocation' was his meeting Nehru. Thondaman had met Nehru on October 4 and discussed with him the question of securing the right to citizenship by Ceylonese of Indian origin who had been classed by Ceylon as stateless person. He told Nehru of the misery and frustration estate Tamils encountered and added, "Those workers were born in Ceylon, will work and die there. That being the case, no wrong can go on for long."
He also informed Nehru of Ceylon government's decision to stop employing stateless persons in government service. Nehru was distressed. He assured Thondaman that he would try to help.
"There was some talk in Colombo of a coming deal with India about sharing the stateless persons," Thondaman told Nehru.
"No such nonsense with me. I won't agree to any horse deal," Nehru promised and told him that, such a suggestion was made by Dudley Senanayake a few years earlier, when he met him in London, during Queen Elizabeth's coronation which he and Dudley attended.
That was in 1953. Dudley had a long meeting with Nehru. During the discussion Dudley asked: "Why do you not agree to the repatriation of some of these people? Why do you not take back some of these people?"
Dudley suggested that India take back 300,000 of the Indian Tamils and offered to grant citizenship to the balance. Nehru declined to consider the offer saying that he was opposed to any compulsory repatriation. "It should be purely voluntary and we are prepared to take back those who are willing to return," Nehru said.
Nehru related that offer to Thondaman and assured him that India was ready to take back some but the return should be voluntary. He promised to consult the CWC in future negotiations.
Gundavia who was present during the meeting took down notes of the conversation and it was that note that made Shastri, agree to a deal with Mrs. Bandaranaike. Sirima-Shastri talks began at New Delhi on 24 October 1964. Mrs. Bandaranaike did not consult the CWC. She also refused to grant permission to Thondaman and other CWC leaders to travel to New Delhi to assist the Indian government. That annoyed Thondaman. Travel curbs were then on force and government's permission was needed to travel abroad.
At the talks Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, who succeeded Nehru, was very accommodative and tried to please Ceylon, which he called "our small neighbor." Mrs. Bandaranaike drove a hard bargain making full use of Shastri's magnificence. She said Ceylon being a small country could only absorb a small number and agreed to keep 300,000 and asked India to take the balance. Shastri agreed to take back 525.000. This left a balance of 150,000, which they agreed to settle later.
The 10-clause agreement said the objective was to end statelessness; Ceylon to grant citizenship to 300,000 of the total 975,000; India to accept 525,000. And the status of the balance 150,000 to be decided later; the repatriation to take place in 15 years; Ceylon to grant citizenship keeping pace with the number repatriated: the assets the repatriates take with them should not be less than Rs. 4,000. The agreement was signed on October 30.
ANGRY ABOUT AGREEMENT
Thondaman was angry about the agreement. He called the pact a 'horse deal' and said India had no right to negotiate the fate of Ceylon Indians without consulting their representatives. He also accused Mrs. Bandaranaike of conducting negotiations behind his back.
Mrs. Bandaranike also reacted with anger. On her triumphant return from Delhi she informed parliament that the registered Ceylon Indians would be placed in a separate electoral register. This was a proposal of Sir John, condemned as retrograde by S. W. R. D. Bandaranike, and dropped.
The travel curb was an issue on which Thondaman had been warring with the government from May that year. The curb was introduced as a foreign exchange saver. But persons with air tickets sent from abroad were permitted to travel. Thondaman had got a ticket from the ILO to attend a meeting of the Asian Advisory Committee at Geneva. He wanted to leave on May 24, for the meeting scheduled for May 29; and he wanted to visit India and other places on the way. He furnished his application to defence secretary N. Q. Dias on May 20. Dias informed him that permission to deviate from his route would not be granted.
"Why?" demanded Thondaman.
Dias replied, "Mr. Thondaman, you might speak against the government when you are abroad."
Thondaman took up that matter in parliament. The travel curb, he said, was an unnecessary interference in the fundamental right of free travel. He also charged that the law was not being implemented uniformly. Dr.. Colvin R. de Silva and Leslie Gunewardene were permitted to travel without any hindrance. He asked whether that was because the LSSP had joined the government.
The LSSP had joined the government on 11 June 1964, and three leaders of that party were appointed ministers, Dr. N. M. Perera became Finance Minister, Cholmondeley Goonewardene, Minister of Public Works and Anil Moonesinghe, Minister of Communications. Mrs. Bandaranaike decided to take them into the government because of the deteriorating political and economic situation. The LSSP leaders said they were joining the coalition "for the progress of socialism."
The coalition again brought into the open the conflicts within the SLFP. The group led by C. P. de Silva was unhappy about the coalition and the opposition was doing its utmost to exploit all possible divisions within government ranks.
One such attempt occurred during the budget debate on 18 August 1964. There were several motions to cut the Prime Minister's vote and one of them was by Dahanayake and Kenueman. They said the travel curb was unjustifiable and unworkable and since the Prime Minister had taken full responsibility for its introduction she had earned the condemnation of the House.
At voting time the House was depleted. Being a Monday, most of the MPs had not returned from their electorates. It seemed the opposition could win the day. Dahanayake rushed in and out of the chamber combing the lobbies in search of opposition MPs, but could find none. His last hope was Thondaman, a victim of the travel curb.
When the Speaker put the motion to vote, Dahanayake called for a division by name. When the Clerk of that House (now Secretary-General) called the names, Thondaman voted with the government. That was the decisive vote in favour of the government. It saved the Prime Minister's vote and the government of discomfort. The motion was defeated 17 - 16.
Disappointed by this defeat, Dahanayake shouted. "The government has won by Thondaman's 'hora' vote. Shame! Shame!"
But on December 3, the same year, Thondaman's vote brought the government down.
It happened over the Press Bill. The press, especially the Lake House group of papers, had mounted an intense campaign against the coalition, especially the LSSP. This annoyed Dr. N. M. Perera. He persuaded Mrs. Bandaranaike to take over the Lake House Group and sell its shares to the public. The first draft was prepared in the last week of August.
Thondaman welcomed the idea of breaking the monopoly and broad basing ownership, but "any legislation in this connection must ensure that free, independent, democratic newspapers are able to flourish and reflect all shades of opinion," he said in a press statement on August 29.
The form the bill took and the government decision to take over Lake House distressed Thondaman. On October 8 he said he had decided to oppose the Press Bill. "It is not the proper remedy for shortcomings of the press," he told a CWC meeting at the Kandy town hall.
He added, "Freedom of expression and constructive criticism are the necessary ingredients of democracy. Marxists would consider press control one of their greatest triumphs but they will be the first to suffer by the take-over."
The government members launched an attack on Thondaman. The Minister of Local Government, A. P. Jayasuriya, said at an SLFP public meeting in Nuwara Eliya, " Mr. Thondaman is only concerned about his own interests. He is a reactionary and an imperialist."
The LSSP, through its Lanka Estate Workers' Union, mounted a campaign to discredit Thondaman by calling him an estate owner. To that Thondaman replied, "Some say I am an estate owner and I am incapable of watching the interests of estate workers. There is no contradiction or conflict of interests in this. My roles of estate owner and trade unionist have nothing to do with each other. I separate my estates from my trade unionism."
The government introduced the Press Bill in parliament on November 26. The owners of Lake House and the UNP organized a mass meeting at the town hall. There was also a procession of bhikkus. The mahanayake theras of the three Buddhist chapters issued statements condemning the take over of Lake House. Tension was building up. The government prorogued parliament and summoned it for December 1 to get over some of the procedural hitches it faced. The opposition moved an amendment to the Throne Speech that was put to the vote on December 3. At voting time 14 members of the SLFP defied the party -whip and voted with the opposition.
The group's leader, C. P. de Silva, made a statement explaining their action.
He said, "It is my painful duty to do so in all responsibility, that from what I have known, what I have heard and what I have seen in the inner councils of the coalition government of Mrs. Bandaranaike, our nation is now being inexorably pushed towards unadulterated totalitarianism."
THONDAMAN DEFEATS GOVERNMENT
Mrs. Bandaranaike who was present in the House called the cross - over "a stab in the back."
Thondaman abstained. It caused the defeat of the government. The government mustered 73 votes as against the opposition's 74. If Thondaman had voted with the government, there would have been a tie and with the Speaker's vote the government would have survived.
Mrs. Bandaranaike clung to power for two days. She was under great pressure not to resign. Among those was Aziz. He told Mrs. Bandaranaike, "Madam! Please look at the arithmetic of the situation. If we can get the Federal Party's support you need not resign."
Mrs. Bandaranaike: Will they support us?
Aziz: We can talk to them and see.
Mrs. Bandaranaike: Who is to talk to them?
Aziz: Surely you have someone who can talk to them?
Mrs. Bandaranaike: We don't have anyone. Can you try?
Aziz approached M. Tiruchelvam. But, Tiruchelvam told him that, they had already committed themselves to support the UNP. Thondaman had worked out that deal. Mrs. Bandaranaike handed over her resignation two days later and called for a general election.
The general election was held on 22 March 1965. Thondaman and the Federal Party supported the UNP. Thondaman had real difficulty in convincing Tamil youth on the plantations to vote for the UNP. The Indian Tamil community had got used to voting anti - UNP ever since elections were held in Ceylon. They had always identified themselves with the left. Thondaman tackled the problem cleverly. He told them to vote as they preferred and then asked whether it was possible for them to vote for the coalition.
At the CWC working committee meeting he said, "I feel a change of government will improve the situation. I also feel we must help to prevent the country from drifting into dictatorship."
Thondaman did not blindly offer his help to the UNP. He told the UNP leadership that, it should quicken the granting of citizenship to the stateless. He said the CWC was opposed to the placing of registered citizens in a separate register. He was associated with the negotiations between the FP and the government.
Dudley Senanayake and Chelvanayakam met on 24 March 1965, at Dr. M. V. P. Peiris's home and discussed matters relating to some problems over which the Tamil - peaking people were concerned, and Dudley agreed to take action on four main areas.
First, action will be taken early under the Tamil Language Special Provisions Act. Dudley also explained that it was the policy of his party that a Tamil speaking person should be entitled to transact business in Tamil throughout the Island.
Second, Dudley stated that it was the policy of his party to amend the Language of the Courts Act to provide for legal proceedings in the Northern and Eastern Provinces to be conducted and recorded in Tamil.
Third, action will be taken to establish District Councils in Ceylon vested with powers over subjects to be mutually agreed upon between the two leaders. It was agreed, however, that the government should have power under the law to give directions to such councils in the national interest.
Fourth, The Land Development Ordinance will be amended to provide that all citizens of Ceylon be entitled to the allotment of land under the Ordinance. Dudley further agreed that in the granting of land under colonization schemes the following priorities be observed in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
(a) Land in the Northern and Eastern Provinces should in the first instance be granted to landless persons in the district;
(b) Secondly to Tamil speaking persons resident in the Northern and Eastern provinces and;
(c) Thirdly to other citizens in Ceylon, preference being given to Tamil citizens in the rest of the island.
The UNP won 66 seats as against the SLFP's 41. The FP won 14, LSSP 10, SLFSP 2, a splinter group of the SLFP 5, CP 3 TC 3 and other small parties 3. Leader Dudley Senanayake formed a National Government with the help of the FP, TC and LPP.
Tiruchelvam was appointed Minister of Local Government and Thondaman and V. Annamalai nominated to the House of Representatives. S. Nadesan QC. and R. Jesuthasan were appointed to the Senate.
Thondaman had moved right to the centre of Ceylon's political stage and was the target of attack of the 1965 May Day procession.
|Chapter 7 : “Howtha Man Thonda Man?”|
|Singled Out For Attack.|
The combined May Day procession of the coalition parties, SLFP, LSSP and CP, wended its way along the dusty Colombo streets in 1965, shouting the slogan 'Howtha Man Thonda Man'. They also shouted that Dudley was taking orders from him. A full-sized cut-out of Thondaman with puny Dudley taking orders from him was paraded aloft an open lorry.
Thondaman had been singled out for attack at the public meeting held at the Galle Face green. Speaker after speaker attacked him, saying that he had been permitted to dictate terms. Dudley had been accused of selling the country to him.
Thondaman was saddened by the slogan, 'Dudleyge bade masala vade' (Masala vade in Dudley's stomach). He told the CWC's 21st annual sessions mid-May, "All these cries are being raised in an endeavor to fan racial flames and communal passions, regardless of the consequences to this sacred land of ours. This country that had been torn by strife since 1956, is now hoping to heal its wounds and begin a new life."
He added, "I am not surprised about these racial and communal cries from the SLFP, because that is their stock in trade. I am pained that leftist parties like the LSSP, which had espoused minority rights in the past, have joined in playing the communal drum."
Thondaman told the press,” The vadai and thosai," slogan of Mrs. Bandaranaike and N. M. Perera, shows their utter folly. They must remember that, the Tamils of Ceylon are not slaves, as Sirimavo says. Even the last King of Kandy was a South Indian and Mrs. Bandaranaike's grandfather, Ratwatta, signed his name in Tamil."
Despite these harsh attacks and retorts, the coalition leaders were in for a surprise on 26 September 1965, when they gathered at Horagolla, to commemorate S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike's death anniversary. Mrs. Bandaranaike was about to perform the religious ceremonies, when Thondaman walked in behind a wreath carried by two of his trade union officials. At the end of the ceremony, Mrs. Bandaranaike thanked Thondaman for coming. He replied,” That’s my duty to a genuine friend and a leader, who tried to be fair to all people."
Yet the opposition kept up its pressure on Thondaman. In January 1966, they floated a rumor that Thondaman was going to quit the government over a dispute about the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Bill. They said he would vote against the motion on January 10, to take over Private Members' Day for government business. When the motion was put to the House, 72 MPs voted for and 40 against. Thondaman voted with the government.
After the count was over Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake asked: Where are your cross-overs?
Opposition leaders smiled back feebly. When the opposition stood up to vote, the Tamil Congress MP, M. Sivasithamparam (then in the government) asked: Where is A. L. A. Majeed? Majeed was an SLFP MP, but had voted with the government.
The House then debated the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Bill, that S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike had been very anxious to enact and which was then opposed by the UNP.
The SLFP together with LSSP, had organized a march to parliament, then situated at Galle Face. Dudley was informed that Buddhist priests were leading it and he began to panic. J. R. Jayewardene, then Minister of State, took a strong stand and said the demonstrators had to be dispersed even if it needed the use of force. The police opened fire at the demonstrators and a Buddhist priest was killed.
Thondaman also persuaded Dudley to pass the Indo-Ceylon (Implementation) Bill. It was passed after a stormy debate. The opposition fought hard to prevent inclusion of the clause that Ceylon citizenship should be granted to stateless persons without waiting for the repatriation of these to whom Indian citizenship had been granted. The earlier arrangement was to grant Ceylon citizenship to four persons after seven to whom Indian citizenship had been granted were repatriated.
After the bill was passed by parliament, Thondaman told the CWC working committee:
"The long fight is over, thanks to the national government, a cherished and inviolable right, embodied in the Charter of Human Rights, to which Ceylon has fully subscribed, has at last been implemented. Soon the stigma of statelessness suffered by the people of Indian origin will be removed for all time."
Thondaman had failed to take into account the slow moving Lankan bureaucracy. Two years later, he told the 23rd session of the CWC held at Ramanujam Nagar in Hatton: "After nearly two years, I am compelled to state categorically that, the provision is not being implemented by the government. Even the legal obligation to maintain the ratio 4:7 is not being discharged. Every kind of obstacle is put in the way of the applicants. The government accepted that, the officials would be sent to the estates, but the officials are asking the applicants to come to Colombo."
While the citizenship, language and colonization issues were dragging on in the political arena, Thondaman won two significant victories in the trade union field, which strengthened the economic power of the Ceylon Indians and widened the trade union base of the CWC.
First was the signing of the Collective Agreement with Ceylon Estate Employers' Federation (CEEF), on 24 April 1967, in the auditorium of the Planters' Association headquarters in Colombo. Thondaman signed on behalf of the CWC and P. R. Walton, Deputy President of the CEEF for the employers. That was the first collective agreement between estate workers and employers, in the 150-year-history of the plantation industry, in Sri Lanka.
The agreement was intended to settle a long simmering wage dispute. Wages had not been raised since 1955. Under this agreement, wages were raised by 10 cents to all categories of workers.
Thondaman also cleverly incorporated a clause permitting the management to deduct trade union fees from the pay roll and remit it to the unions. That was based on the American system of 'check-off'. It was a first in the employer-employee relations in Sri Lanka.
The second victory was the one-week token strike, protesting against the devaluation allowance not being granted to plantation workers. It had been a long-standing practice in Ceylon, to ignore the plantation workers, whenever a wage hike was given to the public service and industrial sector. The Dudley Senanayake government followed that practice. When it devalued the rupee, it granted a special allowance to cushion employees from increased prices. But, the plantation sector was ignored. The CWC wrote to the CEEF urging a similar award. The Federation pleaded inability to pay, saying the plantation industry was facing severe economic difficulties. The CWC executive committee met on 12 December 1967 and decided on a one-week token strike, beginning December 20.
The CEEF reacted angrily. In a letter to Thondaman, it said that the token strike violated clause 8 (b) of the Collective Agreement, signed under the Industrial Disputes Act and was tantamount to a repudiation of that agreement. The CWC in its reply of December 15, denied that the token strike amounted to any such violation. The new pay demand, it said, was the result of the new situation created by the government's financial policy and the strike decision was taken after all avenues of negotiation had been exhausted.
Meanwhile, the LSSP, CP, SLFP and DWC, also decided to call out their members on December 20 demanding a wage increase. This made the strike appear political and Dudley Senanayake reacted sharply. He declared a state of emergency and mobilized the army and volunteer reserves to prevent the breakdown of law and order.
On the evening of December 19, the Prime Minister's Secretary, Bradman Weerakoon, telephoned Thondaman. "The Prime Minister wants to see you at 6.30 p.m. Sir," he said. Thondaman met Dudley at Woodlands, his private residence. Dudley looked somewhat annoyed.
He said: "So, you are launching a token strike tomorrow?"
Thondaman explained the reasons for the strike. Dudley was not in a mood to listen. He was troubled that, Thondaman had created a situation for the opposition to exploit. As the discussions proceeded, Dudley said sternly: "Mr. Thondaman, I am not going to permit this strike. I will not even agree to a wage rise. If I give the estate workers a wage increase, I must be in a position to answer the people."
"I understand," Thondaman replied equally stern. "The strike will take place tomorrow and it will not be withdrawn, until a wage rise is given. If I don't get them a wage increase, I must answer my people."
Dudley was angry. He shouted, "If you don't withdraw the strike, I will have to arrest you using the emergency."
‘You Can Arrest Me”
Thondaman answered back, "You can arrest me. I am not worried about that. I am prepared to be arrested. But you will not be able to control my people after that."
The meeting ended and Thondaman went back to the CWC headquarters, to finalize arrangements for next day's strike.
So, on December 20, the CWC called out its entire work-force of about 600,000. The opposition parties called out their workers too. The entire tea and rubber trade was paralyzed. Two days later, Dudley called Thondaman for negotiations and offered 30-cent increase in the daily wage. Thondaman accepted it. Both came out of the Prime Minister's office, to make this announcement to waiting pressmen.
"We have reached an agreement," Dudley said and added: "Thondaman will announce the agreement."
Thondaman said, "The government has offered a 30-cents increase in the daily wage. This amount is totally inadequate, but the CWC has decided to accept it because, it is satisfied that the government has accepted the principle that what applies to industrial workers, applies to the plantation workers too. The CWC has now decided to call off the strike tomorrow."
That created an interesting situation. Opposition plantation trade unions were left in the lurch. When pressmen informed Dr. N. M. Perera of the new development, he was infuriated. Asked whether he would continue the strike he replied, "Who is concerned with what Thondaman is doing? We will go ahead with the strike."
When pressmen relayed this to Thondaman, he quipped, "If he does not care, what I do, why did he fix their strike to coincide with mine?"
When Thondaman went to Parliament after reaching agreement with Dudley government, members gave him a hero's welcome. They said Thondaman had neatly foxed the opposition. A government member commented, "Poor Aziz. He has now caught the tiger's tail."
The opposition strike crumbled in two days.
Although Thondaman had succeeded in the trade union field, he was becoming disillusioned in the political sphere. Not much progress had been made on the citizenship and with language issues. Dudley was dragging his feet.
Regulation under the Tamil Language (Special Provision)Act had been passed but, was not administered with any vigour. Likewise, the Dudley government enacted the Indo-Ceylon Agreement (Implementation) Act in 1967, but was lukewarm in implementing it.
The FP too was getting tired of Dudley's procrastination. The Thirukoneswaram issue finally forced the FP to break off with Dudley's national government. Tiruchelvam had been pressing the government to declare Trincomalee Fort a sacred city. Dudley was postponing a decision owing to pressure from the Sinhala people.
When the FP pressed Dudley to implement his promises, he wrote to Chelvanayakam, saying that, he was unable to implement them, as there was opposition. He was prepared to resign.
Chelvanayakam told Dudley that, his offer to resign would not help the Tamil people. He said the only way out was for the Tamil people to look after themselves.
In 1968, Tiruchelvam handed over to the temple, a portion of the land within Fort Fredrick. The Sinhalese of Trincomalee, objected to this. Dudley was annoyed and summoned Tiruchelvam and reprimanded him for acting without his permission. Tiruchelvam argued that, as Minister of Local Government, he was the final authority on any decision about handing over the land. This led to a heated argument. Tiruchelvam resigned his portfolio and the Federal Party quit the government.
Dudley governed the full term of five years and held elections on 27 May 1970. The CWC executive committee met on May 11 and decided to support the UNP. The resolution called upon all plantation workers and people who had the interests of plantation workers at heart, to vote for UNP candidates under the leadership of Dudley Senanayake. The resolution added that, meanwhile they pledged to continue the fight for the rights of plantation Tamils.
The resolution stated that, the CWC had found both the UNP and the SLFP wanting in regard to the union's major demands. The UNP had maintained peace and order during its rule and remained firmly committed to the democratic form and practice. It had negotiated with trade union representatives which SLFP had refused to do; so the UNP looked better.
The United Front, comprising the SLFP, LSSP and CP swept the polls, winning unprecedented 116 seats. This kept Thondaman out of parliament for seven years. The CWC acclaimed the SLFP on its victory and Thondaman congratulated LSSP leader Dr.Colvin R. de Silva on his appointment as the Minister of Plantations.
K.vellayan,who was then leading the breakaway National Union of Workers', criticized the CWC's decision to support the UNP in the election. He wrote to Thondaman saying "your misguided and bankrupt leadership has brought the Indian plantation workers to grief." He also described Thondaman's leadership as a "self-glorifying leadership" and said a neutral stand in the 1970 elections would have benefited the plantation Tamils. The period 1970-77 was the most difficult for the CWC and Thondaman personally. It was the period of the Land Reform Law and over a thousand acres of Thondaman's well-managed tea lands were taken over by the state. These included the estates in Nuwara Eliya, Kandy and Meegoda.
Thondaman was not crestfallen, however. He redoubled his activities. In this period was laid the foundation for some of his later achievements. On 5 September 1971, the CWC executive committee decided to present the Ceylon Estate Employers' Federation (CEEF), with three demands: a guaranteed monthly wage of Rs. 90 for 25 days of work, equal wages for females and one month's wage as gratuity for every year of service.
Thondaman wrote to the CEEF requesting that their demand be met before 31 December 1971. He tried to exploit every possible avenue of support for the three demands.
He attended the meeting of 12 estate unions convened by C. v.velupillai, vice - President of the National Union of Workers, held on 25 October 1971, to discuss common problems. The other unions that attended the meeting were the DWC, Lanka Estate Workers' Union, Ceylon United National Workers' Union, Sri Lanka Independent Estate Workers' Union, Hill Country Workers' Union, Ilankai Tholilalar Kalagham, Lanka Jathika Estate Workers' Union, Socialist Workers' Congress and Ceylon Estate Staff Union. Thondaman placed the CWC's three demands before them and persuaded them to adopt the demands in principle.
He also wrote to Finance Minister Dr. N. F. Perera, seeking his support for a collective agreement, incorporating these three demands. He said the three demands were based on the collective agreement of industrial workers. He pointed out that nearly half a million workers backed the CWC demand.
Thondaman instructed the 45 district committees to send telegrams to the CEEF backing the three demands. They did so. The CWC also instructed its membership stay away from work on November 3 to press their claim. That day was declared 'Demand Day'. The entire CWC membership struck work that day.
Labour Minister Michael Siriwardene invited Thondaman for a meeting on 29 November 1971. It was a very frank meeting. Thondaman told the Minister that, the cost of living had escalated but, the government instead of providing relief, was heaping hardship including a 25-cent levy for medical treatment in government hospitals. Siriwardene was very sympathetic. He arranged a meeting with the CEEF where it was decided to examine the monthly wage and other two demands.
While the talks were on the CWC made another demand. The press dubbed it the "clocking time dispute". It started in June 1972, when the CWC informed the CEEF that, it would like working hours on the estates to be revised to allow more time for women workers to attend to their family chores. The CWC asked for a meeting with the CEEF on July 11.
The CWC also issued an ultimatum to the CEEF that, its membership would be instructed to report for work only at 9 a.m. beginning 1 August 1972, unless the federation agreed to this demand. A note from Thondaman that the colonial practice of treating estate workers as slaves should be ended accompanied the ultimatum.
The CWC and the CEEF met on July 11.Their talks lasted two hours. Thondaman, who led the CWC delegation, argued that the custom of working from 6 a.m. - 6 p.m., severely affected the physical and social well being of the workers. He said this was borne out by the high maternal and infant mortality rates on plantations.
He argued that although the law had laid down a working period of nine hours, a system had evolved which allowed the men to knock off once they completed a set task. That practice should be recognized by the employers as an industrial practice and extended to the women, who were required to perform a job, which was both time-and-piece-rated and arbitrarily imposed by employers.
He argued that re-adjustment of working hours for women workers had become urgent. Employers were denying work to pluckers even if they got a few minutes late notwithstanding the distances they had to walk and the absence of minimum facilities in the way of latrines and water service. Taken together, with the cutting down of working days made available to estate workers, the situation could no longer be tolerated, Thondaman said. The CEEF delegation was not agreeable. Any change in clocking time would affect production and render the plantation industry not viable, they said. The talks broke down.
On July 15, Thondaman notified the CEEF that if no agreement were reached the workers would report for work at 9 a.m., beginning 1 August 1972. The CEEF wrote back asking for an extension. Thondaman refused. The government took this as a challenge to its authority and persuaded the pro-government unions to oppose it. Four unions, the DWC, LSSP oriented Lanka Estate Workers' Union, the Communist Party - controlled United Plantation Workers' Union, and the SLFP - led Sri Lanka Estate Workers Union opposed the change in clocking hours.
With the estate unions divided things began to get hot. Tension mounted, especially in the Hatton district. The police were ordered by the government to send a mobile patrol. Labour Minister Siriwardene asked Thondaman to meet him at the ministry on July 26.At that meeting Thondaman told Siriwardene that, he was always willing to compromise but, the CEEF was always difficult or adamant. "You suggest a compromise I will get the CWC to accept it," he said. Siriwardene was pleased. He said, "Thondman, you want your people to report for work at 9 a.m., the current practice is 7 a.m. Why not come to a compromise at 8 a.m." Thondaman grabbed it. " I agree. Will you get the CEEF to agree?" he asked. Siriwardene undertook to do so.
Thondaman seized on that favourable change. "I want your assistance to resolve two other matters," he said. "Tell me. I'll help if I can," the minister replied.
At tea, Thondaman said, "The employers are penalizing workers who report even a few minutes late. The agreement must state that the management should not do this."
"Fair enough," Siriwardene replied.
Thondaman also got Siriwardene to agree to his suggestion that, the CEEF should discuss the monthly wage and other demands with the CWC within three months.
The CEEF was not happy about this 8 O'clock compromise. Its secretary, Roland Wijewickrema, reacted: "The question has to be considered in its entirety taking into consideration the effect the change in clocking time will have on the different plantations." The plantation management lobby and the influential pro-government estate unions got the cabinet to reject the Labour minister's 8 o'clock compromise formula.
Thondaman issued a press statement defending the Minister's formula. He said it was in accordance with the government's policy of advancing the cause of labour. And the CWC ordered its membership to report for work at 8 o'clock.
While this trade union struggle was on an important political exercise was taking place in Colombo, The government was drawing up a new constitution by forming a constitutional assembly comprising members of parliament. Thondaman, though not a member of parliament, tried to influence the constitution - making process through the press. He got the CWC to pass a resolution calling upon the assembly to incorporate a workers' charter and a fundamental rights chapter the constitution.
Thondaman sought to meet Mrs. Bandaranaike to press for inclusion of the language and fundamental rights chapters in the new constitution. But, he was prevented from meeting her. In 1977, after the election, he told the press that he had been able to meet Mrs. Bandaranaike only outside Sri Lanka and she was very good to him.
"I wanted to meet Mrs. Bandaranaike to impress on her the need to embody the rights of stateless persons in the constitution," he told the press.
The 1972 Constitution
The draft constitution made Thondaman very sad. He said, "My friend Colvin has failed to look after the Tamils, both Ceylonese and Indian". The CWC issued a statement condemning the 1972 constitution. It gave three main reasons.
First, it had been enacted without the consent and participation of the Ceylon and Indian Tamils. Indian Tamils were absent from the scene because no representative of theirs' was in parliament. Ceylon Tamils were absent because their representatives had boycotted the constitution - making as their basic demands - federalism, official status for the Tamil Language, an end to state - aided colonization and citizenship for the Indian Tamils - had been rejected by the government.
Secondly, it denied the Indian Tamils their basic human rights and right of citizenship
Thirdly, it discriminated between citizens by descent and citizens by registration.
Thondaman also issued a very critical statement to the press. He said the article which accorded Buddhism a special place, failed to give some sort of recognition to Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, the other three major religions practiced in Sri Lanka.
Without mentioning the other religions by name the constitution merely assured all other religions the rights granted by section 18 (I) (d), the section which guarantees freedom of worship. Thondaman said this type of assurance was not necessary. Those religions could look after themselves without state interference.
He was also highly critical of the official language clause. He said it should have explicitly included the provisions for the use of the Tamil language. Instead it stated, "as provided by the Official Language Act No. 33 of 1956" Thondaman said such small favours were not necessary. He suggested that the provision itself should be deleted.
The 1972 constitution widened the ethnic divide. The Federal Party and Tamil Congress too were disappointed with the new constitution. It had removed section 29 of the Soulbury Constitution the sole safeguard against Sinhala domination. This common sense of helplessness forged a strong bond among the three parties of the Tamil community.
One day, in mid - 1972, during a discussion with Chelvanayakam, at his chambers in Alfred Place, Thondaman told him: "Time has come for the Tamil community to unite." And Chelvanayakam queried, "Can we form a united action group?" Thondaman answered, "We are powerful individually, but we are unable to achieve much. We can be more effective if we unite"
. Thondaman made another suggestion. He told Chelvanayakam that at least two leaders should do full-time party work. "Part time politics will not work. The CWC is effective because its leaders are doing trade union work on a full - time basis. They should be paid for their work."
Chelvanayakam agreed and Thondaman suggested the names of Dr. E. M. v. Naganathan and M. Sivasithamparam. Nothing further happened.
The Tamil United Front formed in 1972 as suggested by Thondaman gave new strength to the Tamils of Sri Lanka. The fact that the leaders of the three Tamil political parties - Chelvanayakam. Ponnambalam and Thondaman - headed the TUF gave the front added lusture and influence.
The three parties worked closely. The three leaders presided at meetings in rotation. They took part in the civil disobedience campaign launched on 2 October 1973. Thondaman and Sellasamy addressed election meetings in support of the common candidate at the Mannar by-election of January 1974.
The 1972 constitution was adopted early in May and Ceylon became a republic on May 22. Under the new constitution Ceylon reverted to her traditional name Sri Lanka. Ceylon was named so by its British rulers. Soon thereafter the TUF submitted a six - point demand to Mrs. Bandaranaike. The demands were:
1. Tamil Language should be given the same status as Sinhala in the constitution
2. There should be constitutional guarantees of full citizenship to all Tamil-speaking people who had made this country their home. There should not be different categories of citizenship or his citizenship. 3. The state should be secular with equal protection accorded to all religions. sure valid fundamental rights guaranteeing equality of persons and ethno - cultural groups.
4. The state should ensure valid fundamental rights, guaranteeing equality of persons and ethno-cultural group.
5. There should be provision in the constitution for the abolition of caste and untouchability.
6. In a democratic and socialist society only a decentralized structure of government would make for a participatory democracy with people's power rather than state power.
The letter embodying the six-point demand said that, if the government failed to take meaningful steps to amend the constitution accordingly within three months ending on 30 September 1972, the TUF would launch a non-violent struggle to win back the freedom and rights of the Tamil people.
The government of Mrs. Bandaranaike failed to respond to the six-point demand and the TUF launched its passive resistance campaign in the Northern and Eastern provinces, on October 2, Gandhi Jayanthi day. The campaign commenced with the hoisting of the Tamil flag, the Rising Sun flag. It was followed by Poojas. Thondaman participated in these events
. On October 3, the next day, Chelvanayakam resigned his seat in Parliament. In a statement in parliament Chelvanayakam said: "The history of the Tamil people in this country since 1948 has been one of deterioration. As soon as Ceylon became independent the first thing the Sinhalese government did was to deprive Tamil estate workers of the vote. This was carefully manoeuvered through a citizenship law that deprived them of citizenship and by granting the vote to citizens only. The next most important thing that took place was the passing of the Sinhala Only Act by the S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike government in 1956.The next important event was the creation of a new constitution by a legislature that was Sinhalese - weighted. The constitution has given everything to the Sinhalese and nothing to the Tamils. The Sinhala Only Act has been so strengthened that it requires a two - third majority to alter it."
Chelvanayakam concluded his speech challenging the government to contest him at KKS.
The KKS by-election was postponed repeatedly and Thondaman had persisted in demanding it. It was finally held on 6 February 1975 Chelvanayakam winning convincingly.
Drawing Closer To UNP
During this time the CWC was drawing closer to the UNP and other opposition parties. The CWC joined the dawn-to-dusk hunger strike, organized by five trade unions and Prins Gunasekera, on 18 October 1972. The five unions were the CWC, Ceylon Estate Staff Workers' Union and the New Red Flag Plantation Workers' Union. The hunger strike was to protest against three repressive legislation - the Public Security Act, the Criminal Justice Commission Act and the Press Council Bill - which the coalition government was then rushing through parliament.
Thondaman aligned himself closely with the UNP on the question of the Lake House take-over. He said in an interview: "Lake House has always been my greatest critic and detractor. It has always campaigned against my people. If there is anyone who should not worry about the Lake House take-over it is myself. I believe in press freedom.
"I believe in democracy. Freedom of expression is one of the pillars on which democracy rests. That's why I opposed the Lake House take-over."
In August 1973 the UNP organized a boycott of the newspapers published by Lake House that had been brought under state control. The CWC supported the boycott.
Throughout 1973, the CWC continued its agitation for a monthly wage, It organized a token strike on 15 February 1973,to impress upon the government the urgent need for a monthly wage. It also informed the CEEF that, the executive committee had decided to ask minimum monthly wage to be fixed at Rs. 180, double the original demand. Its reasons for the upward revision were the steep rise in the cost of living and the relative profitability of the tea industry. The CWC also added new demands: a six - hour working day and no denial of work for late attendance.
The CEEF was adamant. It had the support of the government. The LSSP and CP, partners of the government, were also not happy about Thondaman winning the monthly wage demand. The Minister of Lands and Land Development, Hector Kobbekaduwa, took up a blatant anti-Thondaman stand. He even threatened to throw him out the country.
Thondaman did not yield. He kept up the pressure. He gave notice of a seven - day token strike starting September 13. On September 12, a day before the strike, Labour Minister Siriwardene asked Thondaman over for talks at his residence. He conveyed Prime Minister Srima Bandaranaike's concern, over the proposed strike. When matters could not be resolved by negotiation Siriwardene told Thondaman that the monthly wage demand would receive his earnest consideration.
Thondaman told the minister the strike was to commence the next morning but he was prepared to delay it by one day if the Minister would give him in writing that the matters in dispute would be settled by negotiation. Siriwardene agreed to send him such letter the next morning.
The minister kept his word and Thondaman placed the letter before the executive committee. He told the committee that it was the first time the minister had committed himself in writing and they should give him a chance to resolve the dispute. He advised the committee that in negotiations one must always try to win over the neutral side. "By agreeing to accede to the wish of the minister I have won his sympathy. That is the foundation for future victory," he told his critics.
Calling on the workers to report to work the next day the CWC said the first stage of the struggle had been won and they should prepare for the second.
The second stage began on 20 December 1973. Negotiations with the CEEF had failed and two new grievances had accumulated meanwhile. The first was the cut in the rice ration. The coalition came to power in 1970 promising two measures of rice per person per week on ration. It honoured its promise by supplying one measure of free rice and charging the bare cost for the other. But a severe shortfall in local rice production combined with a shortage of foreign exchange compelled the government in October 1973 to cut the ration to half a measure of free rice per week. It also curtailed the issue of flour to two pounds a coupon. Earlier there had been an unrestricted supply of flour. This led to conditions of starvation on the estates and to long bread queues. There were also instances of estate workers not being allowed to join the queue. Agitation by the workers and representations by the CWC forced the government to issue the estate workers with 'atta' flour at Rs. 1.10 a pound.
The second grievance was the displacement of estate staff when estates were taken over by the sate under the Land Reform Law. This became a major problem as most of the estates were vested with the government under land reform.
The CWC and the other four unions in the Joint Committee of Plantation Trade Unions called a 10-day token strike on 20 December 1973. The demands were: a monthly wage, equality of wages for men and women, gratuity, six-hour working day, no denial of work for late attendance. Restoration of the rice ration, decrease in the price of flour and sugar and non-displacement of staff on estates acquired by the state.
The strike turned out to be a trial of strength between the pro - government and anti-government trade unions. The DWC, LEWU and other pro - government unions ordered their workers to work. The government also mounted a strong campaign to discredit the CWC. It called the strike anti-national. In a statement on December 17, the government threatened strong action to protect the tea industry. There was also an attempt to show the strike as part of the Tamil United Front's non- cooperation movement launched in the north and east.
On December 20, first day of the strike, the TUF MP v. Dharmalingam raised the issue in parliament during adjournment. In his reply, Finance Minister Dr. N. M. Perera said, "The strike is part of the opposition Satyagraha campaign. It has failed to encompass all estate workers." The Minister of Plantation Industries, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, said, "All striking estate workers will return to work either today or tomorrow."
They did not. Thondaman claimed that the strike was a total success. CEEF Secretary, Roland Wijewickreme said, "I wouldn't say work is at a standstill. It's true that estate workers are on strike. But there are also several unions whose people have agreed to work."
As the strike progressed the government's criticism increased. The pro - government unions campaigned to show that the strike was politically oriented and reactionary. Aziz called it a misadventure. The Communist Party dubbed it anti-working class.
The action committee of the Joint Committee of Plantation Trade Unions met on December 27, the eight day of the strike at the CWC headquarters. Thondaman advised the committee to call off the strike. There was some murmur of dissent. Thondaman said the government seemed to be adamant not to yield. Prolonging the strike would be useless. The correct strategy in such a circumstance would be to call it off and resume it at a more favourable time.
The strike was called off on December 27. The statement read, "Having succeeded in our primary objective of demonstrating to the government and employers the unity of purpose of the overwhelming sector of the plantation workers the Joint Committee of Plantation Trade Unions has decided unanimously to call off the token strike and to give notice to the government and the employers to grant its demands within three months."
Thondaman told the press that the second stage was over and the third stage would be launched in March 1974. "We are progressing, step by step," he told the press.
Indira- Sirimavo Pact
Implementation of the Sirima-Shastri Pact of 1964, was very slow and both countries were concerned about it. Periodic official reviews pointed to the necessity for both governments to find a solution to the residual problem of 150,000 stateless persons. A meeting was arranged in New Delhi between Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for a review of the problem. The two leaders agreed to quicken implementation of the 1964 solution and to share the 150,000 persons left equally between Indian and Sri Lanka.
The agreement was hailed by most of the Lankan political parties. The Sri Lanka Communist Party's General Secretary, Dr. S. A. Wickremasinhe said, "I am glad that the final solution had been reached between Sri Lanka and India amicably."
Many estate unions welcomed the agreement. Aziz called it a historic achievement and thanked Mrs. Bandaranaike for it. The LEWU leader, Dr. N. M. Perera described it as a great victory for diplomacy. Thondaman was not happy. He told the press, "The two governments have continued with their numbers game in determining the future status of a group of human beings without any regard to their preferences or choice."
He continued, "At face value, the agreement would appear to be an improvement on the original Sirima-Shastri pact in respect of the ratio. The ratio 7:4 has been reduced 1: 1. However, it must not be forgotten that the late Shastri had only an estimate of the numbers involved to guide him whereas Mrs. Gandhi had definite numbers to go by, relating to the preferences of the affected people. In this context it is manifest that India has once again made a substantial concession to the government of Sri Lanka in this matter."
On February 13, the CWC wrote to Mrs. Bandaranaike, congratulating her on the success achieved at the Indo-Sri Lanka talks with Mrs. Gandhi and it asked her to take steps to integrate stateless persons into the fabric of national life.
It said the handicap cast on people of Indian origin by disfranchisement had strangled their development. It requested her help in the fields of education, social and economic advancement, the right to own their dwelling houses, the right to travel, the right to equal job opportunities, the right to obtain scholarships for higher education and the right to enter vocational training institutions.
Thondaman also wrote to Mrs. Bandaranaike about the difficulty in buying rice. In her reply Mrs. Bandaranaike informed Thondaman that she was endeavouring to give the country a basic minimum of one measure of rice a week on the ration.
On 3 April 1974 the government announced a 20 per cent pay rise for the public sector and a 10 percent in crease for the mercantile sector. The plantation sector was overlooked or ignored. That gave Thondaman a platform for reviving his agitation for a monthly wage. He also wanted the campaign to be more broad - based. On invitation of the CWC a meeting of ten plantation trade unions was held in May 1974 at the Tea Propaganda Board auditorium in Kollupitiya. A Committee of Plantation Trade Unions (CPTU) was set up to strive for a monthly wage.
The committee prepared a memorandum to be presented to the Prime Minister and decided to meet on June 5 to ratify it. However, all attempts to map out a plan for unified action failed. Then the DWC asked for a postponement of the meeting for June 17. At that meeting the DWC Secretary, v. P. Ganeshan, wanted more time to ensure that everything had been done to forge unity among all estate unions on the wage demand. The CWC opposed postponement and decided to formulate its own program of action.
Later, in order to carry the DWC with it, the CWC called another meeting on July 5. The DWC accepted the invitation. Aziz told the press, "We will stress that we should strive to win the demands but insist that our action should not be motivated to strengthen reactionary forces. They should not be directed to frustrate the socialist policies of the government."
On July 5, the CWC and DWC reached an agreement on a memorandum to be sent to the prime minister which contained five demands: reasonable monthly wage; adequate supply of food at fair price continuity of employment in the estates taken over under the Land Reform Law workers already thrown out to be reinstated or given alternative employment and land to be given to estate workers for food production.
The Minister of Plantation Industries Dr. Colvin R. de Silva invited the estate trade unions for talks on the government decision that plantation labour should be ensured a minimum earning. Labour Minister Siriwardene was also present. The minister suggested a minimum of 20 days' work a month. The DWC accepted it. Thondaman rejected it saying it was no substitute for a monthly wage.
By this time the political environment had deteriorated. Tamil - Sinhala relations had worsened steadily since the enactment of the 1972 constitution. The youth wing of the TUF had become disillusioned not only with the Sinhala leadership but its own traditional Tamil leadership too.
A small group of youths, among them Uma Maheswaran and Pirabhakaran, opted to take up arms to win the rights of the Tamil people. Unemployed graduates and a few who were denied university entry because of the media-wise standardization introduced the previous year to lower intake of Tamil students. They reasoned that the Tamil leadership had failed to win Tamil rights through democratic means and the only option that remained was an armed struggle.
This group commenced a clandestine arms training program and stepped up pressure on the TUF leadership to alter it goal from federalism to a separate state called Eelam. The TUF, ignored by Mrs. Bandaranaike and smarting at its failure in forging alignments with both the SLFP and the UNP caved in and adopted the Eelam resolution at the vaddukoddai Convention of May 1976. The main resolution adopted by that sessions, dubbed vaddukoddai Resolution, also changed the name of the group from the Tamil United Front to the Tamil United Liberation Front(TULF).
Chelvanayakam on his return to Colombo after the sessions told me, in an off-the-record conversation, that Mrs. Bandaranaike should ultimately take the responsibility for Tamil militancy. "It's the immature Felix who caused the damage but as the prime minister Mrs. Bandaranaike should take the blame," he said.
He explained that separation was the only alternative available to the Tamils if the Sinhala politicians continue to play politics with the Tamil problem.
I asked him whether the Sinhala leadership would agree to an autonomous Tamil region. He replied, "The Sinhala leadership never looked beyond the next election. They only think of themselves and not about the country."
Disapprove Eelam Solution
Thondaman was not happy with the Vaddukoddai resolution. He dissociated himself and the CWC from the Eelam resolution. The establishment of a separate state would not help solve the plantation Tamil problem, he said. In a letter to the Secretary of the TULF on May 21, CWC General Secretary, M. S. Sellasamy, said the Vaddukoddai resolution had gone beyond the mandate given to the CWC.
"The CWC will continue to associate with the TULF only to the limited extent of its own policies and programs," the letter said.
Sellasamy also informed the TULF that in the context of the Vaddukoddai resolution it would not be possible for Thondaman to function as a president of the TULF. However, he maintained a very close relationship with that group.
Chelvanayakam died on 26 April 1976 and Amirthlingam took over the TULF leadership. The CWC and Thondaman maintained the close link with the TULF and that relationship helped him in bringing the UNP and the TULF together during the 1977 general election. Thondaman arranged a meeting between the UNP and TULF leaders at his flat opposite Royal College. Jayewardene, M. D. Banda and Esmond Wickremasinghe represented the UNP. The TULF's theoretician, S. Kathirvelpillai, Amirthalingam and Sivasithamparam comprised the TULF team. Thondaman urged the necessity of unity among all the opposition groups, especially the UNP and TULF, if they were to defeat the SLFP. Both sides agreed.
Kathirvelpillai said, "We are not here to make demands. This is not the time. Democracy is in peril. We are prepared to support you in your effort to save democracy."
Jayewardene was pleased. He thanked Kathirvelpillai for such sentiments. He asked the TULF leaders what specific demands they would like granted if the UNP captured power.
Kathirvelpillai reminded Jayewardene of their experiences and suggested that, instead of bargaining, it would be better if the UNP undertook to redress Tamil grievances.
Jayewardene readily agreed and the areas were identified: use of Tamil Language; halting the colonization of Tamil areas; employment; media-wise standardization citizenship to the stateless.
Jayewardene was pleased with the outcome. While enjoying the sweets and coffee that Kothai Thondaman, a pleasant hostess, served Jayewardene remarked: "You win fifteen seats and we can win about 70. Then we can form our government.”
Details of this secret meeting were told to me by Kathirvelpillai on an off - the - record interview and made public by Thondaman in 1983, in his speech in parliament. Thondaman also tabled the text of the letter he had written to Jeyewardene about this meeting.
By the time the UNP-ULF meeting took place the political atmosphere in the country had grown fairly hot. The UNP had launched a Satyagraha movement on 22 May 1974, Republic Day, at Attanagala, Mrs. Bandaranaike's electorate, to force the United Front Government to hold elections the next year, on completion of its five-year term.
The United Front, comprising the SLFP, LSSP and CP, was elected for a five year term on 27 May 1970 but extended its term by including a provision in the new constitution that the term of the first parliament would be five years from the day Sri Lanka became a republic which was 22 May 1972. The UNP argued that this extension was decided without the approval of the people and therefore not binding on the people. The CWC supported that stand.
There was a mass meeting in Colombo and Satyagraha in Anuradhapura, Kandy and Attanagalla. The CWC participated in them all. The Attanagalla Satyagraha was fixed for 22 May 1974, Republic Day. The atmosphere was charged with tension. There was information that the SLFP was preparing to block the roads to prevent the UNP leaders and supporters from reaching the Satyagraha venue. When he heard of it, Jayewardene rushed to Attangalla the night before and stayed in a supporter's home. Some other leaders also managed to reach Attanagalla that night.
Thondaman got a call early the next morning. Banda was on the line. He told Thondaman of the SLFP scheme. Thondaman acted fast. He telephoned Sellasamy and asked him to get his people ready early. He drove to the CWC headquarters and found that about 20 persons had arrived. They took the byroads and managed to reach the Satyagraha site.
Jayewardene was surprised to see Thondaman so early. "Thonda! You've come. How did you manage?"
"No problem," Thondaman replied.
"You're a great man," said Jayewardene, highly pleased.
Many of the UNP leaders could not reach Attanagalla. Gamini Jayasuriya was waylaid.
When SLFPers came to know that Thondaman had participated in the Satyagraha they were enraged. They raised it as a major issue and Minister Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike made a caustic comment about it in parliament. The communal tune that Sri Lanka was being sold to Thondaman was played again.
Thondaman always had a soft corner for Felix. He admired his intellect, his capacity and quick grasp of problems. He still recalls, with pleasure, the many times he took problems to him for solution. One was concerning the Labour Tribunal. The judge in question had insisted that the cases should be filed in Sinhala. Thondaman objected and argued that he had the right to file the case in Tamils to help the judge however he would file it in English. The judge was adamant on Sinhala only.
Thondaman went to Felix - who immediately phoned the Secretary of the Justice Ministry and told him that the judge was there to solve industrial disputes not the language problem.
In May 1975, Jayewardene resigned his Colombo South seat in parliament and called on the government to conduct a by - election as a test of popular support. The by - election was held later that year and Jayewardene won with a big majority. Thondaman and the CWC campaigned for him.
Meanwhile the United Front, formed on 5 June 1963, "to carry forward the progressive advance begun in 1956 under the leadership of Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike in order to establish a socialist democracy" began to rot. There was constant in - fighting in the cabinet and the LSSP was "sacked" in August 1975. It happened over a speech that Finance Minister Dr. N. M. Perera had delivered at the hartal commemoration meeting held at the New Town Hall, Colombo.
There Dr. Perera had stated that the LSSP would quit the government if the foreign - owned company estates were not nationalized in the proper way. He said the LSSP had accepted portfolios in the government of Mrs. Bandaranaike not for personal glory but to further socialist policies and to develop the country. If anybody tried to thwart their attempts to march towards socialism they would leave the United Front government.
Mrs. Bandaranaike called for an explanation and Dr. Perera said sorry. Mrs. Bandaranaike then called on President William Gopallawa the next morning (August 14) and asked him to dismiss the LSSP ministers.
As the 1977 elections approached the political forces in Sri Lanka were polarizing into three centres. The SLFP was left alone as the representative of Sinhala extremism. The traditional left, comprising the LSSP and the CP, formed a united front. The UNP gathered within its fold the TULF, the CWC, and the All Ceylon Muslim League.
An incident that took place during the Satyagraha campaign brought Thondaman very close to the UNP leadership, particularly to Jayewardene.
It happened one night when Thondaman was fast asleep. His wife Kothai put him up saying someone was ringing the door- bell. Thondaman found that his midnight visitors were three UNP leaders. They told Thondaman that they had information that government was going to arrest Jayewardene.
"Let him get out of his house immediately. He must go underground," Thondaman said.
The visitors said that had already been done.
"If you can evade arrest for 72 hours I will call my people out."
And Thondaman meant it. He immediately informed Sellasamy to instruct the district offices to stand by for a strike. Fortunately noting happened, but the UNP leader reporting the incident to Jayewardene remarked, "Thondaman is a real friend."
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