Last Updated : 2019-08-18 13:23:00

One of Sri Lanka’s Greatest Statesmen – SJV Chelvanayakam: Remembering a gentle leader

8 July 2019 12:16 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


The Thanthai Chelva Memorial Auditorium   


July 1 saw the grand opening of a 1,100-seat memorial conference hall dedicated to SJV, Samuel James Velupillai Chelvanayagam, whom many Sri Lankan Tamils fondly venerate for his leadership, foresight and honest dedication.   
The hall exudes never-seen-before practical grandeur in Jaffna – tall roof, well-lit, with generous windows letting in the fresh air. The basement houses memorabilia from that glorious era of enlightened Tamil leadership.   
The hall had been built through a foundation established by SJV’s third son Raveendran in Altadena, CA who was represented by my cousin Nandakumar Navaratnam and his wife Jega who works for Raveendran. There was graceful, faultless dancing by girls who, it was announced, are disabled. Other dances had girls bouncing about in ebullient happiness. Remarkable was a play, acted out by Jaffna Central College (JCC) boys, from the Ramayanam – I think set in the Ramayanam but newly and 
innovatively written.   
The theme was Ravanan killing his brother-in-law following which his sister seeks revenge by trying to marry Raman. As serious as it was hilarious, the play raised questions about whether today’s Tamil Asurar are on the side of the ancient Asurar, or Raman and the Aryans, whether Raman really was monogamous, etc.   

SJV’s Christian roots   

SJV and his lieutenant EMV Naganathan (Hensman) were of a bygone era. Christians then were readily and repeatedly endorsed by the Tamil electorate despite election campaigns by those such as Ponnambalam Ramanathan’s son-in-law Nadesan’s slogan “The Cross or the Vel?”   
I take great personal pride in SJV, whose niece, Samathanam Muththaiyah of Alaveddy married my mother’s brother Peter Somasundaram, FP MMC from Chundikuli. Also, around 1824, my great-great-great grandfather was the Assistant Priest, Cyrus Kingsbury, at the Tellipalai America Ceylon Mission (today’s Church of South India and distinct from today’s breakaway ACM). That parish was SJV’s home-church.   


"The hall had been built through a foundation established by SJV’s third son Raveendran in Altadena, CA who was represented by my cousin Nandakumar Navaratnam and his wife Jega who works for Raveendran. There was graceful, faultless dancing by girls who, it was announced, are disabled"

SJV’s deep Christian faith is to be seen from what older folk know about him. His fastidious observance of the Decalogue is widely known from his refusing to accept Holy Ash when offered it. I know two less known things about him. When travelling first class in the bunk berth of the Ceylon Government Railways, he would kneel even though a stranger might be his bunkmate, and say his evening prayers (Vespers). Second, in the year of his death, he was giving away his books and gave my wife his copy of Imitation of Christ, a book usually read by Christian mystics. It had his daughter’s name Susila on it and my wife says she benefited immensely from reading it.   
Prof. A.J. Wilson, D.Sc. Lond., Susila’s husband, has said that SJV was a Christian by religion and Hindu by culture. It is something that might be said of any Tamil Christian but has been misinterpreted by seeing a contradiction in that by writing, using the word “although,”as in the Wikipedia: “Although he was a Christian..,” etc. as if to suggest that a Christian cannot continue Hindu customs –like wearing a verti –as SJV did.   

Location of the hall   

SJV was educated at the Tellippalai Mission of the ACM, and then at St John’s and St Thomas’, the Low Church (Protestant) and High Church (Catholic) wings, respectively, of the Anglicans that live together in one Anglican Church. We were wondering how his memorial hall is situated at the Methodists’ now-nationalized JCC. Well, it is not on JCC land; but rather sited on a plot in the middle of JCC once owned by Justice H.W. Thambiah and passed on to 12 heirs. The SJV Memorial Trust eventually bought the land. After deciding against donating the hall to JCC, thinking it unwise to give it to the government, it is run as a public charity to advance the values of non-violence that SJV stood for.   

Does the SJV heritage continue?   

Appropriately SJV’s successor R. Sampanthan was the Chief Guest. Apostle of Non-violence, Sarvodaya’s Dr A.T. Aryiaratne, was the guest of honour. The latter took ill but sent a representative to read his message.   
It is widely recognized that SJV, perhaps uniquely among our politicians,was free of any corruption, whether financial or sexual. When the opportunity came, at last, to join the cabinet in 1965, he let his trusted and honest colleague M. Tiruchelvam take the Federal Party’s (FP’s) seat in the cabinet. In contrast, almost every minister today has accumulated inexplicable fortunes.   

Peace talks as a tool of oppression?   

At speech-time, the Rev. Galkanda Dhammananda Thera of Walpola Rahula Institute and Kelaniya University delivered a gracious address promoting reconciliation.   
However, in the country, it has come to the point where peaceniks lull us, making us lambs readied for slaughter. The past three years have been a journey where Tamils collaborated, while the Government took away the little we have left, like our lands and temples.   
That day, July 1, was a couple of days after Mavai Senathirajah had been resoundingly re-elected at the FP’s annual convention as party leader, and Sampanthan as TNA Leader.   
Sampanthan in his key-note address echoed positive sentiments of SJV and bemoaned the fact that Tamils have been cheated for so many years and have been cheated once again during the recent negotiations.   
He explained, the then government said the LTTE were a terrorist group and promised to destroy them and give a solution. The International Community including India on that basis agreed to help Sri Lanka. But now after they helped destroy the LTTE, no settlement has been given to us.   
Sampanthan asserted that other countries including India [sic.] had destroyed the LTTE and have an obligation to find a solution to our problems, but have failed to do so.   
He said that the recent peace talks could have delivered such a solution paving the way for all communities to live together but the international community failed in this by not exerting the necessary push. It has come to the point, he said, where the youth may think once again about taking to arms.   
He quoted SJV who famously said, “Only God can save us.”   
Shri S. Balachandran, the Indian Consul, 
quietly listened.   

Conjuring old ghosts  

The previous week President Maithripala Sirisena speaking on his anti-drug campaign had alleged that the LTTE raised funds through the drugs trade and thereby awakened old ghosts.   
Other TNA MPs defended the LTTE saying that it was untrue and that they met their financial needs from other countries and displaced Tamils abroad.   
While the LTTE apologists’ position might be somewhat true, there are well-known instances of LTTE fund-raisers being jailed in France and Canada for dealing in drugs.   
They say these are LTTE operatives who went rogue. However, I have seen a responsible newscast where the LTTE tried to break their jailed colleagues out of their cells in Canada.   
The Washington Post reported how when Israel wanted to sell Uzi Machine Guns to the drugs cartels, to keep their hands clean, LTTE intermediaries were paid to ship the arms and transfer them to the cartels off South America.   
As the preceding week saw emotions rising with the President’s interjection, Mavai Senathirajah claimed that the LTTE had instilled some order in society.   
We all know that houses were taken over by LTTE big-wigs for their personal use and that the owners, who will see no order in their houses being nationalized.   
Worse would be Neelan Tiruchelvam’s family (including me) who see no order in the killings of those who did not agree with the LTTE. A Trincomalee refugee near my home in Nallur was shot after naming her a prostitute for selling string-hoppers to the Sri Lankan Army.   
I saw no order in that, and an insult to Trincomalee culture to point to her blue plastic ear-studs to prove she was a prostitute Good caste women wear gold, that was their claim.   
Mavai Senathirajah at one point during the party convention got emotional and said that unless there was a solution to Tamil problems in the next three months, to translate him directly, “War will breakout.”   

Time for peace and reflection   

When we should speak of delivering on the promises of 2015, we are losing sight of the context of war, and trade in inflammatory speeches.   
The unnecessary white-washing of the LTTE threatens and does violence to the SJV legacy of non-violence.   
The LTTE is gone and there is no point in criticizing them or defending them. We must tend to the living.   
That tending requires punishing war crimes so the living will feel safe.   
Sampanthan, in particular, was on the hit list of the LTTE for years, living in terror and in hiding. He risked his everything, persuading the community to renounce the LTTE heritage to give peace talks a chance at the end of the war.   
Going by the clear electoral endorsement, the community was fully behind him. He delivered his side of the 2015 bargain.  The Government must keep to its bargain.   
Alas! As the Government reneged on its promises of 2015, Sampanthan holds fast to his end. He has saved the Government at every turn, even getting the bond-scam report suppressed by asking for a translation. And the Government?   

Peace rejected   

In response to Sampanthan’s peace overtures, the Southern Sinhala polity has gone berserk.   
One of the highest prelates of the Buddhist establishment says Muslim shops should be boycotted and Muslims stoned.   
Nothing happens to him but liberal writers, like Kusal Perera, are threatened using hate-speech laws.   
It seems apparent by now that a Muslim doctor has faced false allegations of performing sterilizations on Sinhalese women. Gnanasara Thera has been pardoned and lets loose after conviction, and openly threatens havoc.   


"In the country, it has come to the point where peaceniks lull us, making us lambs readied for slaughter. The past three years have been a journey where Tamils collaborated, while the Government took away the little we have left, like our lands and temples"

On the other hand, numerous Tamil suspects whose time in incarceration exceeds a life sentence, remain incarcerated without trial, let alone a conviction.   
I cannot blame the extremism of Tamil leaders’ nostalgia for the LTTE days.   
Sampanthan will have difficulties cracking the whip on them when his partnership with the Government in good faith has been betrayed and he is frustrated by the Government in the one-way street where he gives but is not allowed to bring anything to his people, let alone safety from war criminals.   
Unless Sampanthan has something to show, peace will be more distant and Tamil grievance more severe.   
Sampanthan could exit politics and leave the field open to wild extremists. However, many Tamils would like him to stay on in politics and wisely steer the floundering Tamil ship to safety as he has always tried.   
It is in the interests of the Sinhalese establishment to rein in the extremists they hatched rather than to hide in fear of them.   

Gentle spirit of Christ   

Fitting, is it not that, Sampanthan personally declared open a hall that is for the purpose of advancing SJV’s non-violence?   
Indeed. SJV, whose visage reflected the gentle spirit of Christ, was equally frustrated by the Government’s racist intransigence. Sampanthan in his equanimity in the face of betrayal is a fitting successor to SJV.     

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