Northern perspectives on the Tamil homeland

By: Professor Bertram Bastiampillai - Opinion

This is the fourth part of the article, “Northern perspectives on the Tamil homeland,” where the author traces the historical roots of the Tamil homeland concept, which was formulated in the 1950s by the Federal Party as a core demand and is now espoused by the LTTE and TNA.

British in the North
When the British took over the Island in 1796 from the Dutch, they unified the administration of both the Tamil and the Sinhalese areas, which were governed separately earlier. In 1833, the Island was divided into five provinces. The present northeastern Sri Lanka came into existence in 1873. As a colonial power of the industrial age, British rule over the Island was markedly different from those of the previous colonial powers in many ways, including the degree of centralization, unification and consequent ability to introduce social and economic changes. The province came under the administration of the government agent and the kachcheri. Acquisition of English education became a substitute for industrialization and economic growth.

The recognition of Tamil linguistic identity of the present Northeastern Province by the British is evident from the Cleghorn minute of 1799, which reads as, “Two different nations from a very ancient period have divided between them the possession of the island. First, the Cinghalese inhabiting the interior of the country, in the southern and western parts, from the river Wallouwe, to that of Chilow, and secondly the Malabars, who possess the northern and eastern districts. These two nations differ entirely in religion, language and manners.”

This is confirmed by the Arrowsmith map of January 1803, published in London, probably drawn in conformity with the Treaty of Amiens of 1802. Even the British have acknowledged the concept of Tamil homeland when they carved out the present northeastern provinces in 1873.

In the early years of British rule very little was done, and that too cautiously and reluctantly, to upset the social order in the areas of the Tamils of Ceylon and even elsewhere. At the acme of the British administrative structure was a governor, a proconsul of the British sovereign, but in the provinces and districts there were European civil servants to manage the administration under national supervision. Under such a setup, naturally, the areas of the Tamils too came under the administrative sway of these civil servants.

Even with the best of intentions, however, the British could not abstain altogether, or for long, from setting in motion a process of modernization. Influenced by the evangelical and humanitarian ideas that were prevailing in Britain, the new masters abolished by stages the old institution of slavery, which had been nurtured and exploited by the Portuguese and the Dutch. This change affected the northern Tamil areas too where there were a number of slaves. The status of the native aristocracy was reduced and made more dependent on the British, but like their predecessors, the Portuguese and the Dutch, the British continued to use this native aristocracy as a means to rule the Island. This feature is clearly evident in the Tamil areas where the native functionaries were allowed to continue in their offices, but under a stricter supervision by their civil servant superiors.

A significant point to be noted is that even when the British ruled over the whole of Ceylon they recognized the distinctiveness and separateness of the areas in which the Ceylon Tamils mainly lived from those areas of the Sinhalese. These Tamil populated lands were treated as separate administrative provinces from those provinces composed mainly of the Sinhalese people. The British also allowed the continuance of customs, laws and institutions and minor officials peculiar to these Tamil-inhabited areas to remain so long as they were not in diametric opposition to their essential policies or practices. This administrative attitude of the British makes it clearly evident that to them, although the whole Island was under their complete control, the people of the Sinhales areas and the people of the Tamil areas were two distinct elements of the same island’s population. In fact, the recognition of such a distinction by the British authorities grew even clearer when they began to gradually introduce political or constitutional innovations from the late 19th and early 20th centuries onwards.

However, the British rule and missionary activity in the northern Ceylon led to a Hindu renaissance in the 19th century as it was in the case of India. The pioneer of this movement was Arumuga Navalar, who by sheer coincidence hailed from Nallur, the seat of the Kingdom of Jaffna. Although this movement gave a Tamil and Hinduism an identity lately in the 20th century, Tamils in Jaffna were accommodated in the larger horizon of Tamil Nationalism unlike in the case of southern Sri Lanka. The Hindu renaissance movement of the 19th century triggered off a similar movement in southern Sri Lanka, which gave way to Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. Both these movements pioneered Sri Lankan nationalism, which unlike in India transformed itself into Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, a sophisticated form of the Mahavamsa’s Sinhala-Buddhist ideology. The effects of this could be seen in the journey towards self-government and later separation among the Tamils during the post independence era.

The Recognition of Traditional Homeland in Sri Lankan politics
In 1929, the Kandyan National Assembly fostered the case for a federal system of government when its membership gave evidence before the special commission (Donoughmore Commission) on the proposed new constitution. According to Kandyan National Assembly, the island was to be carved into the three self-governing areas: the northern and eastern provinces in which the Tamils predominate; the Kandyan provinces and the southern and western provinces inhabited mainly by the Low-Country Sinhalese. Each of these communities would thus be granted a government of its own. For purposes affecting the welfare of the entire island, those three governments would be united in a federal government thus ensuring that no section would be in a position to dominate over the others. The claim of the Kandyans has been highlighted in an article titled ‘The Kandyans urged for three federal states in 1928 and 1948,’ contributed to the Sunday Observer of 5 January 2003 by Lakshman Kiriella.

The Communist Party of Ceylon too recognized the nationhood of the Tamils of Northeastern Province. Their view was expressed in a rally held in Colombo and their resolution at this rally was later forwarded to the Ceylon National Congress as the Communist Party’s resolutions and memoranda of October – November 1944. It reads as follows: ”As there are distinct, historically evolved nationalities, for instance the Sinhalese and Tamils with their own contiguous territory as their home-land, their own language, economic life, culture and psychological make-up, as well as interspersed minorities living in the territories; the constitution of a free and united Ceylon should be based on the following democratic principles:

  • Recognition of the equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Ceylon;
  • Recognition that the nationalities should have the unqualified right to self-determination, including the right, if ever they so desire, to form their own independent state;
  • Recognition that the free constitution should contain statutory guarantees protecting and advancing the political, social, economic, educational and linguistic rights of interspersed minorities, as their freedom of religious worship, and secondly, statutory abolition of discriminations and privileges based on caste, race or community and making it a penal offence under the constitution to infringe the above.
  • Recognition that those Indians, now in Ceylon, who are prepared to make this country their permanent home and adopt Ceylon citizenship, should have the same rights and privileges as any other community.

“As, however, the most economically developed areas are in the traditional homelands of the Sinhalese people and as the Tamils and minorities have contributed and will contribute towards such development, as well as to the general development of the whole country, this meeting further declares that the constitution of a free and united Ceylon should provide for two equal chambers, one a Chamber of Representatives, elected on the basis of universal adult franchise according to territorial electorates and the other a Chamber of Nationalities, elected on the basis of universal adult franchise and ensuring the principle of the equality of the nationalities of a united Ceylon.”

Even members of the Soulbury Commission who drew up a constitution for an independent Sri Lanka recognized in their report (Chapter VII, P 52) that the Ceylon Tamils constituted a compact and closely knit community dwelling chiefly in the northern and eastern provinces. In order to give sufficient representation of the people of the northeast, sections of which was sparsely populated due to forest coverage, it provided for each province to have one member for every 75,000 inhabitants and an additional member for every 1000 square miles.

The recognition of northern and eastern provinces as the traditional homelands of the Tamils is also seen in the Bandaranaike–Chelvanayakam pact of 26 July 1957, and the Dudley Senanayake–Chelvanayakam pact of 1965. After prolonged negotiations between the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and the Indian government, there emerged the Indo–Sri Lanka Accord signed on 29 July 1987 between the governments of India and Sri Lanka. The Accord recognizes the present Northeastern Province as historical habitation of the Tamils and other communities.

(To be continued)

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