The First Sinhala-Tamil Riot, 1939

Prior to about 1935, the politics of caste was more important than the politics of race, and there was little race animosity. Racial representation was begun by the British, who appointed reprentatives to the Legislative council, based on race. The Sinhalese were further split into Low-country and Kandyan, to weaken their power. The Donoughmore commission (1927) brought in the possibility of Universal Franchise, which gave a vote to every one, irrespective of Caste, creed ot ethnicity. The strong political position of the Tamil community was thus threatened. At first the opposition to the Donoughmore commission, esp. from the Colombo Tamils, was based on caste elitism. This was rapidly replaced by ethnic parring between the Tamil and Sinhala leaders.

The 1930s were the seed bed of the racist politics that plague Sri Lanka today. It was also the period when world politics was dominated by the rise of racism (Nazism) and Marxism (Stalinism in the Soviet Union). These influenced the young Ceylonese intellectuals as well as their Indian counterparts. The similarities between Indian and Sri lankan nationalist politics have been discussed by many authors. For our purpose, the emotively written brief list by C. Wijeyawickrema, Ravana's land and Tamil Nadu politicians: a brief history is probabaly sufficient.

The politics of communalism was dominated by the platforms of G. G. Ponnambalam and S. W. R. D Bandaranaike, while D. S. Senanayake, Baron Jayatilleke, and Arunachalam Mahadeva tried to forge a "Ceylonese" point of view. The following article, which appeared in the Lanka Herald (Dec 2008) discusses the background to the politics of the period, from a largely pro-Bandaranaike point of view. A detailed discussion of the period is found in Dr. Jane Russell, "Communal Politics of Sri Lanka in the Donoughmore Era, 1927-1947 (Tissara Publishers, Colombo 1982), and in the Book by Prof. K. M. de Silva, History of Sri Lanka (Penguin 1995).

We reproduce the following article by Bodhi Dhanapala Monday, 19 November 2007, Lanka Herald

There is a common misconception that Bandaranaike was primarily responsible for the present crisis, and that he donned the national dress and embraced Buddhism soon after he arrived from London just to power.

At the time when S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike (SWRD for short) came back to Sri Lanka, the national dress and Buddhism were not respected, and did not get votes. Voting was restricted to an elite class; but even the "lower" classes respected the dress of the white master. People like Bandaranaike, by donning the National dress and taking up Buddhism, gave prestige to Buddhism and the national.

At that time, the way to get power was not by donning the National dress, but by copying the British, as most of Bandaranaike's family did. The Brian Seneviratne types - Australian Kotiyas- are from that section of Bandaranaike's family which despised everything Sinhalese. They also despised SWRD for going against the family fold.

Tamil leaders' rejection of the "Ceylonese" model

Bandaranaike and others at first worked in the Ceylon equivalent of the "Indian national congress" and sought to obtain independence within the concept of a " Ceylonese" nation which embraced the Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and other groups. The Older Tamil leaders (Ponnambalam Arunachalam and Ponnambalam Ramanathan) were favorable to this, as long as they controlled the show. To break their power, G.G. Ponnambalam (GGP for short), an ambitious young Catholic lawyer who did not belong to the elite group, had to find a formula to capture the support of the Tamils. Recognizing that the proposal for universal franchise would reduce the Tamils to a minority, GGP began the racist cry in the 1930s. The Hansard reports in 1935 (column 3045) shows Ponnambalam claiming that he is a PROUD DRAVIDIAN, and rejecting the ceylonese concept that embraced all the ethnic groups (The references are in the book by the British historian Dr. Jane Russell, Communal Politics under the Donoughmore Constitution, Tissara Publishers, 1982).

Attacks on the Mahavamsa and the First Sinhala-Tamil riot in 1939.

The Tamil Vellalas realized that they would loose their dominant position if universal franchise was upheld. GGP began a full campaign against Universal Franchise and the historical position of the Sinhalese. Jane Russell writes (page 131): "The Ceylon Tamils had no written document on the lines of the Mahavamsa to authenticate their singular and separate historical authority in Sri Lanka, a fact which Ceylon Tamil communalists found very irksome". Because of this, Tamil writers,and budding politicians like Ponnambalam began to attack the Mahavamsa. He went to political meeting claiming that the Tamils have always ruled the Sinhalese, and that the Sinhalese were "a race of hybrids" and an offshoot of the Tamils. The Dutugamunu-Elara story was used by "Ceylon Tamil agitators ? (as) an historical justification for the sense of grievance which they were so carefully nursing, and it was used to suggest that Sinhalese perfidy in the name of Sinhalese Buddhism would be the accepted practice in the future as well as in the past" (Russell, p. 154). Meanwhile, the Tamils continued to insist that they are effectively a majority community (Morning Star, January 2, 1934). The famous Peradeniya historian, Prof. K. M. de Silva has cited this fact as a main cause of the failure of the Ceylon National Congress and the concept of a united Sri Lanka (University of Ceylon History of Ceylon , p401).

At a meeting in Navalapitiya in 1939, Ponnambalam attacked the Mahavamsa and the Sinhalese in such extreme terms that the people attacked him, and the first Sinhala-Tamil riots began, with clashes in Navalapitiya, Passara, Maskeliya and even in Jaffna (reported in full in the newspaper, Hindu Organ November 1, 1939. This paper is said to be available at the Jaffna University Library). The British government rapidly put down the clashes and so they did not become extensive as in the post-1950s clashes.

The formation of the Sinhala Mahasabha.

The anti-sinhala movement of G. G. Ponnambalam made him popular among the Jaffna people. His Tamil Congress captured power from the moderate Tamils. Bandaranaike had meanwhile begun to reply G. G. Ponanmbalam. The Sinhala Maha Sabha was founded in 1936, spurred by attacks on the Sinhalese which were spearheaded by Ponnambalam. They had become intense in the 1930s. Bandaranaike set up branches of the Sinhala Maha Sabha in exactly the same cities that G. G. Ponnambalam went to give anti-sinhala speeches. In establishing the Nawalapitya branch of the Sinhala Mahasabha, SWRD stated thus: " The Nawalapitiya Sinhala Maha Sabha should erect a statue of Mr. Ponnambalam as we should be grateful to him for provoking the formation of this Sinhala Maha sabha" ( Hindu Organ, June 19, 1939). It is over Ponnambalam's explicit racism that Philip Goonawardene came to blows with him inside the State Council Chambers in the early 1940s.

Bandaranaike and many others took up this more polarized, nationalist position in reaction to G. G. Ponnambalam's racist program, just as today many Sinhalese have taken a more polarized position in reaction to the LTTE.

G. G. Ponnambalam held that:

(1)Universal franchise was a mistake. There were roughly equal numbers of "educated upper-caste Tamils" and "educated upper-caste Sinhalese". So the vote should be restricted and the chamber should be 50%-50% between the two communities ("balanced representation"). Basically, low-caste Tamils and Indian Tamils, and also most Sinhalese should not count!

(2)He upheld the caste system, and agreed with Ponnambalam Ramanathan, who went several times to London in the 1930s to ask the British government to uphold the caste system.

(3)Ponnnamblam held that the Tamils had always ruled the Sinhalese, and that Vijaya was " Vijayan", Kasyapa was "Kasi-appan", and Parakramabahu was a Tamil whose actual name was Pandya-Parakrama. His favorite attack theme was to begin by bashing the Mahavamsa.

(4)Ramanathan Ponnambalam, and also G. G. Ponnambalam and others REFUSED to accept that the Tamils are a minority in a democratic government, and did not attempt to create a political strategy that accepted the reality of being a minority.

(5)GGP visited Nazi Germany several times, accompanied by his right-wing British friends, in the mid 1930s, and probably copied the racist nationalism of Europe, just as N. M. Perera, Philip Gunawardena, Colvin R de Silva and other intellectuals copied the equally deadly leftist ideology of Marxism. Racism was fashionable in Europe in the 1930s and GGP imported it to Sri Lanka .

(6)When D. S. Senanayake managed to get both SWRD and GGP into his cabinet by his adroit political manipulations, a vacuum was created in the Tamil extremist space, and this was filled by the Tamil Sovereign party (Tamil Arasu Kachchi), falsely translated as "The Federal party", as every one knows the real meaning of the Tamil word "Arasu". The name came from the "League of Tamil federations", which had published a book in 1942 claiming to show that the Tamils were the main inhabitants of Sri Lanka, and that the Mahavamsa was a recent (16th century), false fabrication.

Bandaranaike as the opponent of Tamil racism nursed by Ponnambalam.

This writer holds that that SWRD had no option but to oppose the forces unleashed by GGP, by setting up the Sinhala Maha Sabha etc. The national dress and other things came with the temperance movement and the Sinhala and Tamil nationalist movements. These were in turn influenced by the Indian nationalist movements. The early life of SWRD shows that he was influenced by the Indian nationalist movements in Oxford. He was a sincere, sensitive politician who overestimated his capacity to control the nationalist forces and the intrigues of the anti-nationalist forces that were unleashed within the racist politics of the 1930s. The rank communalism of the Tamils was made respectable, socially acceptable and nourished by the Tamil Congress in the 1930-40s. That is why the idea of a Ceylonese nation failed, already by 1939. The continued program launched by the Federal party was based on a separate Tamil identity for the Tamils, fully denying the Ceylonese concept of D. S. Senanayake and Oliver Goonatileke . The Federal party began to invent grievances and organize provocative "Sathyagrahas" instead of building bridges between the two communities. E. M. V. Naganathan enjoyed claiming that he was a descendent of a Chola aristocrat. The Federal party leaders wanted to carve out a North-Eastern fiefdom for themselves, governing it from the comfort of Colombo. In time to come the local militants in the north realized this and eliminated the Federal Party-TULF leadership. There was no way of preventing a final show down as long as the Federal party continued on its path, towards the TULF and BataKotte (Vadukkoddei), and then to the active support of the armed militancy of the LTTE and Giranikke (KIllinochchi).