H. L. Seneviratne repeats Ponnambalam’s apocalyptic racism blaming Bandaranaike
H. L. D. Mahindapala
Rising communal tensions and clashes in the thirties of the last century, shattering the pre-colonial and colonial communal harmony, debunk the myths of H. L. Seneviratne, (HLS), the one-eyed theoretician, blaming S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike for the worsening of inter-ethnic relations and everything else that happened since he became Prime Minister in 1956. The evidence printed in black and white in the newspapers of 1939 – a time when history was not politicised by Tamil Vellala supremacists – points the finger directly at G. G. Ponnambalam, the rising proponent of Tamil racism in the dying days of the British rule. Seeing the potential dangers of the emerging trends of racism – a new phenomenon in the political landscape -- the Jaffna papers were quick to condemn the ominous voice of Ponnambalam, the new comer to Tamil politics who was going all out to cut a figure and rise above “the turbanned Tamil aristocracy”, (p. 327 -- Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution, 1931 – 1947, Jane Russell, Tisara Prakashakayo). The Morning Star branded him as “a pygmy politician”. The Hindu Organ referred to him as a “gas-bag”.
Ponnambalam entered politics at a time when the towering figures Ponnambalam Ramanathans, Arunachalams and Coomaraswamys, the turbaned aristocracy, dominated peninsular politics. Compared to them Ponnambalam was indeed a “pygmy politician” who had no credible heritage, nor the aura of the traditional aristocracy to make an impression in the peninsular electorate in the thirties. Besides, the Ramanathans, Arunachalams and Coomaraswamys were hobnobbing with the British and the Sinhala elite, dominating the political stage of the day. Their prestige and integrity were unchallenged by any other Tamil rival. Boxed in by the overwhelming presence of the “turbaned aristocracy” it was virtually impossible for an unknown newcomer like Ponnambalam to breakthrough.
It was a time when the young returnees from English universities were coming home with their heads full of Western ideologies. The future trends of politics were foreshadowed by the ideologies and the activities of young returnees from the West. The two divergent paths that the Southern and the Northern returnees from the West would take in due course, as they stepped into mainstream politics, were signalled early by the different ideologies they brought home. These young ideologues were the promising stars of the politics to come.
The future Left-wing Sinhala leaders got off the ship bringing back their Marxist baggage. Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, a Trotskyite, visited Moscow and wrote an article criticising Stalinism. Since then the Daily News would invariably reproduce it at election time in the forties and fifties to expose the Left-wingers as dictatorial Stalinists who would tyrannise Ceylon, as it was known then. Dr. N. M. Perera wrote his second doctoral thesis on the Weimar Republic when he was under the influence of Left-wing giant of the time, Harold Laski, the great icon of the London School of Economics . Dr. Perera praised the Weimar Republic as the best constitution only to find it being overthrown by Hitler.
In 1939, Selina Perera, the wife of Dr. Perera, was the only known Sri Lankan to have gone as far the Mexican border to visit Trotsky who was living in Mexico as an exile, leading the Fourth International which was opposed to Stalin’s Moscow-centric Third International, owing allegiance to Stalin. She, however, could not meet Trotsky because the Mexican border authorities refused to let her in.(p.186 – Origins of Trotskyism in Ceylon, George Jan Lerski, Stanford University). In a letter she complained bitterly about it to James Cannon, the veteran American Trotskyite. In Left-wing folklore, Philip Gunawardena, the father of Marxism, is also reported to have visited Trotsky when he was a student at Wisconsin University, USA.
Dudley Senanayake who was at Cambridge came home as a liberal nationalist. He and J. R. Jayewardene, the young rebels in D. S. Senanayake’s camp, were more influenced by the Gandhi-Nehruvian nationalism, with Dudley swinging a bit more to the left than JR. Clearly, the first generation of Sinhala returnees from Western universities, like their counterparts in other parts of Afro-Asia, brought with them either radical left-wing ideologies or ideologies of democratic liberalism, all of which were overlaid with fervent doses of nationalism. Of these returnees only S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, the bright star from Oxford, had the foresight to sense the grassroot undercurrents struggling under imperialism to regain their lost place in history.
Ponnambalam was the odd man out. Ponnambalam’s preferred destination was Hitler’s racist Germany. After making a couple of visits to Hitler’s racist Germany when he was at Cambridge, he returned home imbued with the power of racism in politics. In Germany he witnessed the rise of Hitler on anti-Jewish racism. Though Ponnambalam was aware of the Left-wing Marxism, Right-wing liberalism and nationalism linked to the Gandhi-Nehruvian model, he deliberately eschewed all and opted for Hitler’s racism. To him racism was a short cut to power. In hindsight, it is clear, that he arrived at the right place, at the right time as the right man to fulfil his mission of playing the role of a pocket Hitler, fomenting racism, in Jaffna.
Racism also came at the right time to replace feudal casteism which was losing its power as an over-determining political force in Jaffna in the 20th century. The low-castes were openly beginning to rebel against the Vellala regime, not as an organised force but sporadically whenever they were confronted with intolerable casteist injustices. Signs of Jaffna fragmenting on casteist lines were emerging. Jaffna was urgently in need of an ideology to replace out-dated casteism. Radical racism and Ponnambalam arrived in Jaffna at this critical time and the symbiotic relationship between the two, one reinforcing the other, turned the peninsula into a pool of ineradicable racism.
Besides, the climate was right for Ponnambalam to sow his seeds of racism. By the time he came on the political scene Jaffna Vellala leadership could no longer hold Jaffna together, under their Hindu casteist ideology. Equally significant is the fact that the turbaned Tamil aristocracy were either ageing or dying. The last of old guard, Sir. Ponnambalam Ramanathan, died in 1930. The gateway was open for Ponnambalam to fill the leadership gap. Influenced more by Nazi racism, Ponnambalam, filled the leadership and the ideological gaps with racism. Rabid racism, which morphs into fascism invariably, comes in handy when there is no other viable ideology, or leadership to give direction.
In any case, Jaffna soil was not fertile enough to germinate any radical ideologies. The “peninsularity of the mind”( p. 8 –Jane Russell ) was not open for new-fangled ideas to take root and blossom. Michael Banks in his study of Jaffna caste wrote : “Despite the high level of education and the fact that many thousands of Jaffna people have lived most of their adult lives abroad, when they return, they quickly fall back into the local social system for at the village level, the Jaffna social system has persisted for several centuries.” (p. 75 – Caste in Jaffna, Michael Banks.) Even Prof. C. Suntheralingam fell into this Banksian mould and became a caste fanatic, though when he returned from England he was with P. de S. Kularatne, a committed nationalist. Kularatne became the principal of Ananda College and Suntheralingam became the Vice-Principal. He even became a favoured Minister in the first independent Cabinet of D. S. Senanayake. But later he led the Vellala fight against the low-caste at the notorious caste battle fought at the gates of Maviddipuram Temple. He stood guard with his walking stick at the entrance and threatened any low-caste who dared to enter the Temple with a sound beating.
Though changes were creeping in slowly but surely, there was no room for any political leader to break away from casteism in the early decades of the last century. Any liberal or radical ideology would have had to first take on the entrenched and impenetrable Vellala casteist fortress. Conservative Jaffna was not ready for radicalism or liberalism. Furthermore, there wasn’t a ready made groundswell of resistance for him to mobilise a rebellious force to overthrow the Vellala overlords of Jaffna. Nor was Ponnambalam inclined to challenge Vellalaism. As highlighted by Jane Russell he was a dyed in the wool caste fanatic. His trusted junior in his chambers, Sunil Rodrigo, one time Chairman of Lake House, told me that Ponnambalam would not let a low-caste Tamil to ever cross the gate to his house in Colombo. He would redirect them back to his electoral office in Jaffna.
In short, Jaffna stood solidly and immovably on the concretised socio-political base of the Vellalaism, and Ponnambalam, knowing that he didn’t have the TNT to blast it, was ever willing to go along with the dominant mores, norms, laws and institutions of Vellalaism. No one leading the Vellala regime in Jaffna was daring enough to challenge the Vellala establishment. The ruling aristocracy of Jaffna too were die-hard Vellalas. Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan led a delegation to convince the British government in Colombo that the teacher trainees should not sit together at meal time. (p.133 -- Jane Russell). Until the rise of Velupillai Prabhakaran the Tamil leadership had fought only for Vellalaism and nothing else. There were no leaders for Tamil nationalism either. It was never in the political vocabulary of the Tamils until S. J. V. Chelvanayakam brought it up. Even then it was disguised first as federalism in the forties. It was later that the Tamil Vellala leadership spoke of “Tamil nationalism”.
In this overwhelming climate of Vellalaism Ponnambalam could make a dramatic entry and cut an impressive figure only if he could come up with a new strategy that would make him stand out from the ruling casteist elite. So it is not surprising for the new kid in block to take up racism – the only political alternative to Marxism, democratic liberalism and even nationalism. As an ideology, racism grabbed the minds of the derelict Vellalas looking for an alternative to decadent and feeble casteism. The most significant political aspect is that Ponnambalam never raised the banner of “Tamil nationalism”. He argued for “fifty-fifty” which was rejected by the Soulbury Commissioners. Even Chelvanayakam broke away from Ponnambalam taking “50-50” to the next level of federalism and not nationalism. As I said earlier, it was never in the Tamil political vocabulary at the time. Ponnambalam’s main platform was anti-Sinhala-Buddhist racism.
Casteism was for feudal times. It was also a divisive force that fragmented Jaffna society. Of course, in the dying days of casteism, racism was acceptable to the beleaguered Vellalas who were facing virtual extinction as a casteist force in the 20th century. More importantly, the universal franchise introduced by the Donoughmore Constitution forced he Vellalas to come down from their high casteist perch and solicit votes from the low-castes. Since casteism was fading, Ponnambalam stepped in to fill the gap with his cry of racism.
Modernity demanded a new and dynamic political alternative to casteism. The iconic model for him was Hitler. Nazi racist politics had a significant influence in Ceylon, as it was known then. Even the Catholic Guardian of Jaffna expressed admiration for Hitler. Ponnambalam too made a special trip to Germany in 1938. (Jane Russell -- p.157). Considering his leanings towards Nazi Germany, his crude attack on Sinhala-Buddhists at Navalapitiya in June 1939 cannot be considered as an “ill-considered and thoughtless comment” made on the spur of the moment. It was a deliberate political ploy to replace the dying turbaned aristocracy and replace them as “the sole representative of the Tamils” – the ultimate goal in Tamil politics. It not only shocked the nation but also sparked the first Sinhala-Tamil riots, breaking the peace and harmony that existed in pre-colonial and colonial times. His provocative attack on the Mahavamsa and the history of the Sinhala Buddhists in Navalapitiya was condemned roundly by The Hindu Organ of June 22, 1939. (More of this later).
Ponnambalam’s racist attack was a decisive event which marked the beginning of a new era in North-South relations. The anti-Sinhala- Buddhist speech at Navalapitiya set the theme, the tone, and, more importantly, the future direction of Northern politics. Ponnambalam’s provocative speech, rousing racial emotions, laid the ideological foundations for Tamil politics. He was the first to define Vellala racism which became the most offensive and destructive force in the post-independent era. Ever since then the peninsular politics never went back to embrace any other ideology. The Tamil leadership stuck stubbornly to inflexible racism which evolved incrementally down the 20th century until it climaxed in the elusive dreams of Tamil Eelam which, eventually, sank in Nandikadal.
So why has HLS brushed aside the known history and perversely started his partisan narrative from 1956, the time when S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike came into power? Why did he skip the Ponnambalam phase in which racism was taken out of the peninsula and injected into mainstream politics? Why did this so-called social scientist fail to place the evolving events in their sequential, logical and proper perspective to draw clear and objective conclusions? Is it because the sacred facts would point the finger directly at Ponnambalam instead of Bandaranaike? It is obvious that when Ponnambalam was raving and ranting against the Sinhala-Buddhist in the thirties the Sinhala leadership led by Bandaranaike reacted with the launch of the Sinhala Maha Sabha (1936). The Tamils, mark you, had launched their Tamil Maha Jana Sabhai in 1922.
Those who follow historical facts as it evolved in the twenties and thirties will find that the turning point in the worsening of inter-ethnic relations began with Ponnambalam. It is the ethical and professional duty of HLS to follow the available facts and let those facts lead him to the inevitable conclusions. Instead he has followed Ponnambalam, like Sancho Panchez who followed his delusional master, Quixote, to tilt at Sinhala-Buddhist windmills. Obviously, HLS is writing to perpetuate and keep alive the racist political agenda that was initiated by Ponnambalam.
As I said in the previous article, in repeating Ponnambalam HLS is not saying anything new. Ponnambalam attacks Mahavamsa. HLS also attacks Mahavamsa. Ponnambalam rants against Sinhala-Buddhists. HLS also rants against the Sinhala-Buddhists of “1956” as the primary cause for everything that has gone wrong. Ponnambalam went for Bandaranaike. HLS also regurgitates almost the identical accusations against Bandaranaike. So is HLS following facts discovered by his objective research? Or is he following Ponnambalam? The only difference is that Ponnambalam launched his attack in the thirties of the last century. And HLS is repeating Ponnambalam almost a hundred years later word to word. This is not the work of the kings of research. This is the work of stooges crawling for funding from cash-rich American foundations.
This simian behaviour of mimicking his political guru leads to serious questions : Is HLS an objective social scientist committed to the sanctity of facts ? Or is he a plain Ponnambalaya parroting his master’s voice? The original Ponnambalam sowed the seeds of racism in the 20th century? How much can HLS contribute to heal the wounds of racism by being a servile Ponnambalaya in the 21st century?
And knowing that it is the Ponnambalayas, up in the North and down in the South, that prolonged the longest blood bath in Asia, with how many tons of soap does HLS hope to clean his bloody role of being an obscene Ponnambalaya?