April 26, 2017 marked 40 years since the demise of a legendary Tamil political leader, SJV Chelvanayakam.
Fondly known as Thanthai Chelva, he was the founder of the two major Tamil political parties of this country, the Ilankai Thamiz Arasu Katchi (ITAK) and the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF).
He was also instrumental in forming the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) along with G.G. Ponnambalam when the Soulbury Commission was established in 1944.
He was part of the delegation which campaigned for balanced representation in Parliament, which called for 50% seats for Sinhalese while the remainder was allocated for all other ethnic groups in the country. The campaign was however unsuccessful.
In 1947 he contested for the Parliamentary election and got elected.
He then split from the ACTC after its leader, Ponnambala decided to join the United National Party (UNP), and formed the ITAK, which was also known as the Federal Party.
Today, while ITAK is the main constituent of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the TULF, headed by veteran politician, V. Anandasangaree is an independent party which works with the TNA on certain occasions based on particular understandings.
It was Chelva who first called for a creation of a federal union in the country with two states.
Chleva also headed the infamous protest against the Sinhala Only Act on June 5, 1956 where they were attacked and assaulted by a mob.
The Banda-Chelva pact
The Bandaranaike–Chelvanayakam Pact was signed on July 26, 1957 almost 30 years before the Indo-Lanka pact. The agreement allowed the establishment of regional councils with powers over specified subjects such as agriculture, colonisation, cooperatives, education, electricity, fisheries, health, housing, industries, lands and land developments, roads, social services and water schemes.
It also allowed powers of taxation and borrowing; amalgamation and division of regions; and allowing regional councils to allocate land in colonisation schemes to residents from their regions.
The pact was opposed by the opposition UNP, who considered it to be division of the country.
During its sixth annual convention in Vavuniya in May 1958 the ITAK resolved to launch a non-violent campaign of civil disobedience to achieve its goals.
In May and June 1958 the then Ceylon witnessed the first riots. ITAK leaders were placed under house arrest which meant that Chelvanayakam could not communicate with the public until late 1958 when the detention order was lifted.
Chelvanayakam was re-elected in the March 1960 parliamentary election which resulted in a hung parliament.
The new Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake tried to get ITAK’s support for his minority government but refused to give into ITAK’s demands.
This followed several political turmoils in the political scenario.
The second infamous agreement known as the Dudley-Chelvanayakam Pact was signed on March 24, 1965.
The agreement was a modified version of the B-C pact.
Accordingly, Senanayake agreed to make Tamil the language of administration and of record in the Northern and Eastern provinces (Tamil Language Special Provisions Act); amend the Languages of Courts Act to allow legal proceedings in the Northern and Eastern provinces to be conducted and recorded in Tamil; establish District Councils vested with powers over mutually agreed subjects; amend the Land Development Ordinance to provide allotment of land to citizens; and grant land under colonization schemes in the Northern and Eastern provinces to landless persons in the district in the first instance, secondly to Tamil-speaking residents from the two provinces and thirdly to other citizens with preference being given to Tamils from other provinces.
Even though ITAK joined the UNP led national government later, it refused to accept ministerial portfolios.
As time went by, Chelvanayakam continued to struggle for his demands despite setbacks and obstacles.
The Tamil United Front was formed in 1972 with Chelvanayakam as president. He resigned from Parliament seeking re-election. However, the then government delayed by-election fearing violence following which Chelvanayakam was exiled from Parliament for over two years.
In the meantime, Tamil political opinion started shifting as a result of the government’s indifference and ignorance. During its 12th annual convention in Mallakam in September 1973, the ITAK for the first time considered establishing a separate state. The campaign gained momentum and Chelvanayakam was their father figure.
Chelvanayakam was also instrumental in passing the Vaddukkoddai Resolution in May 1976, a year before he passed away.
As time went by, the ethnic crisis worsened and snowballed into a fully fledged war which lasted for 30 years.
The lessons learnt through the struggles, and the war, should be revisited if Sri Lanka is to avoid a similar era of fighting and war.