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Tamil “P2P” Protest of 2021 and the Tamil “Satyagraha” of 1961


13 February 2021 12:59 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Satyagraha in 1961


The P2P Protest-Photo courtesy- Tamil Guardian


Years and years of witnessing a brutal armed struggle by Tamil militants has created an impression in the minds of many that the nature of Tamil politics in this country has been intrinsically violent

The Tamil political struggle was basically non – violent and adhered to the noble doctrine of  “Ahimsa” (avoidance of injury/violence) enunciated by that great apostle of non – violence Mahatma Gandhi


D. B. S. Jeyaraj

The “Pottuvil to Poligandy” (P2P) Protest that ended last week was a watershed moment in the political history of Sri Lankan Tamils. The Five day “P2P” protest march began in the East on Wednesday, February 3 and concluded in the north on Sunday,  February 7. Thousands of Tamils marched on foot and proceeded in vehicles from Pottuvil in the Ampara District to Poligandy in the Jaffna District. The P2P protest trek proceeded along the littoral in the Eastern Province and crisscrossed the hinterland in the Northern Province. The long journey covered over a distance of 700 km across the Districts of Ampara, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya, Mannar, Kilinochchi and Jaffna. Tens of thousands of Tamils and Tamil speaking Muslims demonstrated their support for the protest along the route in a remarkable show of solidarity and unity. 

What the P2P protest did was to provide an opportunity where the long-suppressed Sri Lankan Tamil community could engage in an imaginative political campaign of this scale and scope. It displayed to the world at large the creative potential within the community to organise and execute a huge political demonstration of this nature.

Above all, it refreshed memories of past non -violent protests by Tamils and indicated that the future course of Tamil politics in this country could, should and would be proactively dynamic in a democratic, non – violent mode.
Years and years of witnessing a brutal armed struggle by Tamil militants has created an impression in the minds of many that the nature of Tamil politics in this country has been intrinsically violent. This violence has even served vested interests to dismiss the justice of the Tamil cause as “terrorism” and portray the “problem” as being an issue concerning law and order only.

What is forgotten, ignored or conveniently overlooked is the fact that for over three decades in post–Independence Sri Lanka, the Tamil political struggle was basically non – violent and adhered to the noble doctrine of  “Ahimsa” (avoidance of injury/violence) enunciated by that great apostle of non – violence Mahatma Gandhi.

It has been argued by many that it was the failure of the non –violent Tamil struggle to remedy prevailing political maladies that paved the way for an emerging, frustrated generation of Tamil youth to take to the gun. Whatever the merits or otherwise of this argument there is no denying that the third quarter of the twentieth century is replete with instances of non – violent political dissent and protest conducted by the Sri Lankan Tamils. Hartals, Satyagrahas, black flag demonstrations, marches, processions, mass demonstrations, protest fasts, days of mourning, civil disobedience, civil resistance, boycotts, etc were a regular feature of Tamil politics in those days.
The high watermark of this politics of non – violent protest was the great “Satyagraha” campaign launched on February 20, 1961.  The “P2P” of February 3-7 has in a way revived memories of that non – violent protest. Just as the P2P drew widespread support from all the Tamil speaking districts of the North and East, the 1961 Satyagraha too had tremendous support of the people in North-Eastern districts then. It is against this backdrop therefore that this column re-visits the 1961 Satyagraha that paralysed civil administration in the North and East 60 years ago.


July 1960 Parliamentary Elections
The July 1960 Parliament elections resulted in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) winning 75 seats. Its chief rival the United National Party (UNP) came next with 30 seats. The Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK) known as Federal Party (FP) in English came third with 16 MP’s. The fourth-place went to Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) with 12 seats. Other Parties which won seats were the Communist Party (CP) -four, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) -three, Lanka Prajathanthravadhi Pakshaya (LPP) -two, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) -two, and the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC)-one. Six Independent Candidates were also elected as MP’s. In addition, there were six Appointed MP’s who would be nominated by the Prime Minister.

The SLFP with 75 seats with the support of four Independent MP’s formed the Government with a slender majority. However, with the six appointed MP’s the SLFP Government had the support of 85 MP’s in a Parliament of 157 comprising 151 elected and six nominated MP’s. Sirimavo Bandaranaike created history as the world’s first woman Prime Minister.

The new government intended to implement the Bandaranaike (SWRD) policies in full. A key element in this was the total “Sinhalisation” of the Administrative and Judicial spheres. There was increasing insecurity among the Tamil people about their political future. There was much apprehension and fear that the Government was going to implement “Sinhala Only” in a big way throughout the Country. Tamil trepidation in this respect was enhanced by two announcements by the Government. One was that Sinhala would be implemented as the sole official language in all areas of administration with effect from January 1, 1961.The second was the announcement that the Government intended passing legislation making Sinhala as the Language of courts in all parts of the Island. 

The ITAK/FP was now under tremendous pressure from its Tamil constituency to do something in this regard. The FP had contested 21 seats in July 1960 polled 218, 653 votes and obtained 16 seats. The party regarded itself as the legitimate representatives of the Tamil speaking people. The party, therefore, prepared a comprehensive memorandum incorporating the concerns of the Tamil people. The Government agreed to discuss the memorandum and a meeting between the Prime Minister and an ITAK  delegation was set up at Temple Trees on November 8, 1960.

The two-hour-long discussion was conducted cordially. Issues were discussed in detail. A second meeting was also held November 23, 1960 to follow up on matters. Whatever the optimism generated at these two rounds of talks it soon began evaporating as other events began overtaking. Media reports about the Govt-FP talks caused a backlash among hawkish Sinhala elements within the SLFP. The Government went on the defensive and “apologised” to the Sinhala people for talking to the ITAK/FP.


Language of Courts Bill
Even as these brief signs of SLFP-ITAK rapprochement began to fade away, fresh clouds gathered on the political horizon. In a sudden move that took the FP by surprise, the then Justice Minister Sam P. C. Fernando introduced parliamentary legislation relating to the language of courts. The draft Languages of the courts’ bill empowered the Justice Minister to direct that Sinhala language alone be used for pleadings, recording of proceedings and maintenance of records in any court in the Island. This drastic move by the government made the ITAK feel betrayed. Tamils were upset and worried.

The ITAK’s working committee met in Batticaloa on December 4, 1960 and resolved to discontinue the ongoing dialogue with the Government until the draft Language of the courts’ bill was altered to incorporate provisions for Tamil language also. The FP felt no useful purpose would be served by further discussion until this was done.
The Government reacted harshly. It reiterated that it would go ahead as planned on the language of courts issue. Furthermore, the Government emphasised that it would implement the Sinhala only act in full and stated that the administration of the entire country would only be in Sinhala with effect from January 1, 1961.

With the Government flinging down the gauntlet the ITAK held an emergency meeting of its Parliamentary group on December 18. The party decided unanimously to observe a hartal or stoppage of work in the Northern and Eastern provinces on January 2, 1961. This was the first working day after the proposed switching to Sinhala. The hartal was a big success and paralysed normal life for a day.


National Party Convention
Elated by the hartal’s success, the ITAK/FP revived its dormant action committee. The ITAK had formed an action committee comprising selected leaders to plan, coordinate and implement non – violent protests on a mass scale. Now the party revived and reconstituted the action committee which met on January 8, 1961. The action committee decided on two courses of action. The first was to conduct a widespread “Satyagraha” campaign in the north and east before February 20, 1961. The second was to stage the seventh national party convention of the ITAK/FP in Jaffna on January 21, 1961 and ratify the decision to stage a massive Satyagraha campaign.

The stage was now being set for the launching of the Satyagraha campaign. The ITAK/FP leader S.J.V. Chelvanayakam was not convinced about the feasibility of a Satyagraha campaign. He was doubtful whether there would be public support for such a move because of the threat of repressive action by the government. He was also worried about the outbreak of violence and the potential harm to civilian participants.

Without Chelvanayakam’s support, there was little chance of the party endorsing a Satyagraha at the convention. The formidable task of persuading Chelvanayakam fell on the shoulders of former Kayts MP V. Navaratnam. Described as the “Thangamoolai” (Golden brain) of the FP, Navaratnam was a shrewd planner with the reputation of getting things done. In 1957 the action committee had entrusted him with the responsibility of planning and executing the famous FP march to Trincomalee.

Now the action committee had delegated the responsibility of conducting the Satyagraha to V. Navaratnam (different to ex-MP for Chavakachcheri, V.N. Navaratnam). Navaratnam met Chelvanayakam and outlined his proposed modus operandi for the Satyagraha. Chelvanayakam was half – convinced. Chelvanayakam was finally converted to the cause of Satyagraha after an unofficial meeting of party members held at the ITAK headquarters ( No 25, Second Cross Street, Jaffna). There Chelvanayakam invited V. Navaratnam to address the gathering and explain his blueprint for a Satyagraha.

Navaratnam then spoke. He said that batches of dedicated volunteers steeped in the tradition of non – violent protest would sit in front of the entrances to the Kachcheris or administrative secretariats of districts. They would prevent government employees from working by blocking them. If one batch was arrested another batch would replace it. The Satyagraha would continue on an ongoing basis.


Paralyse District Administration 
Since the Kachcheris were the nerve centres of district administration day-to-day governance would be paralysed. Once that happened the Satyagraha could be expanded to other Government departments also. The campaign would commence in Jaffna. Thereafter it would be conducted in Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Mannar and Vavuniya. (At that time the Ampara, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi districts had not been demarcated). The ultimate objective was to paralyse civil administration in the North and East through non – violent action.

After Navaratnam’s incisive explanation the audience was firmly convinced. Chelvanayakam a devout Christian then retired to a private room for prayer. After praying the ITAK leader decided to go ahead with the Satyagraha campaign. Thereafter Chelvanayakam was resolute in conducting the Satyagraha campaign. Once Chelvanayakam threw in his lot with the Satyagraha project party endorsement for the campaign was assured. 
The ITAK convention took place on January 21. Paddiruppu MP S. M. Rasamanickam was elected ITAK/FP President at the convention. In his presidential address, Rasamanickam revealed details of the efforts made by the party to reach an understanding with the SLFP government and why they failed. He said the party had no choice other than to oppose the imposition of Sinhala by the Government. Four resolutions were passed at the ITAK/FP convention. They were on caste discrimination, economic development, citizenship and the prevailing political situation. 

The political resolution was proposed by Chelvanayakam and seconded by Dr. Naganathan. It was carried unanimously amidst thunderous cheers and applause. The concluding part of the resolution stated – “This convention taking into consideration the history of repeated betrayals and the utter futility of the method of negotiation and parliamentary action in the present governmental set-up resolves that the only course open to the Tamil speaking people to protect their national honour and win back their freedom is to resort to non – violent direct action and ratifies the course of action set out in the directive of the party’s action committee”.


Enforce “Sinhala Only” Policy
While this was going on the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike attempted to enforce the “Sinhala only” policy vigorously from January 1961 onwards without any compassion for the predicament of the Tamil speaking people. All government departments and semi-govt. boards and corporations were required to conduct official business in Sinhala only. All records and files were to be maintained in Sinhala alone. Communication with the public was also to be in the sole official language only. Highly educated Tamils in respectable positions were rendered officially illiterate by government fiat.

It could be seen therefore that the Tamil socio-political environment was rippling with tension. It was in this emotionally charged atmosphere that the ITAK/FP national convention ratified the decision to launch a Satyagraha campaign in a phased-out manner. The action committee was empowered to take necessary measures.

The ITAK action committee met on January 29, 1961 and decided to implement the preliminary phase of the direct action campaign. This was to issue a direct appeal to all government employees in the north and east to refrain from working in Sinhala after informing them of the ITAK plans to paralyse civil administration through a Satyagraha campaign. The ITAK followed through by holding meetings and rallies in various parts of the north and east. The public at large was informed of the Satyagraha and asked to be ready. The ITAK  also began registering volunteers for the Satyagraha and conducting classes on the basic tenets of non – violent agitation.

The  ITAK’s action committee went ahead with its plans for commencing the satyagraha on February 20, 1961. On February 19 the action committee formally approved the phased-out plan for the campaign. Chelvanayakam issued a lengthy statement informing the public of the direct action campaign.


The statement issued by Chelvanayakam set out the parameters of the direct action campaign. D-day dawned on February 20, 1961. The first batch of Satyagraha volunteers all from the Kankesanthurai electorate represented by S. J. V. Chelvanayakam converged at the party office at No 25, 2nd Cross Street, Jaffna. The non – violent contingent numbering over a thousand ,then started out in a procession towards the Jaffna Kachcheri situated along the Jaffna – Kandy A-9 highway. 


The Satyagrahi’s reached the Kachcheri premises and took up positions in front of the entrances to the Kachcheri. The time was 7.30 am. The Satyagraha Campaign was officially launched in Jaffna (which included the present Kilinochchi) administrative district on February 20, 1961 with Chelvanayakam and other Jaffna district MP’s. The other Northern and Eastern districts followed suit in the days that followed. It had been decided to wait until the Satyagraha began in Jaffna before commencing the protest in the other districts.


In Batticaloa (which included the present Ampara) administrative district Paddiruppu MP S. M. Rasamanickam, Batticaloa 1st MP, C. Rajaduria,Kalkudah MP P. Manickavasagar. Kalmunai MP M.C. Ahamed, “Thirukkovil” Ariyanayagam and S. M. Mashoor Moulana met with party stalwarts on February 21 and decided to stage a district-wise “Hartal” on February 27. This was a huge success. Thereafter the “Satyagraha” commenced on February 28 opposite the Batticaloa Fort within which the Kachcheri or administrative secretariat was located. Over 600 Satyagrahi’s marched from the ITAK office on Main Street towards the Fort and sat at both the front and rear entrances in two groups. The MP’s took turns sitting with both groups alternately.


In the Trincomalee  administrative district,  Trinco MP N. R. Rajavarothayam and 1st MP for Mutur T. Ahambaram  along with former MP M. E.H. Mohammed Ali held a conclave and decided to commence the “Satyagraha” on  February 27 after a Hartal. This was done as planned. The Hartal was a roaring success. The Satyagraha campaign which followed soon electrified the town.


In the  Mannar  administrative district the Mannar ITAK Parliamentarian V. A. Alegacone led a group of Tamil and Muslim volunteers on February 24  to all Government departments in the town and issued leaflets. Thereafter the “Satyagrahi’s” led by Alegacone carrying placards   launched the Satyagraha opposite the Kachcheri. 


In Vavuniya (inclusive of present Mullaitivu) administrative district, the ITAK candidate G. B. Vincent had lost to an Independent candidate T. Sivasithamparam in the July 1960 Poll. Vincent “Master” and Vavuniya Town Council Chairman Subramaniam started preparing for a Satyagraha launch without the involvement of Sivasithamparam.  On February 24 the Vavuniya MP however  organised a public meeting in support of the Satyagraha in Mullaitivu town.

 The Police in a high-handed action seized the microphone and took it away. T. Sivasithamparam then led 500 volunteers and squatted outside the Police station demanding the return of the confiscated microphone. After several hours it was returned. Sivasithamparam then vowed to join forces with the ITAK and commence a Satyagraha. Thereafter Sivasithamparam, Vincent Master, Subramaniam .and former State  Councillor T. M. Sabaratnam  together formed a committee and began the Satyagraha in Vavuniya on February 28.


Military Repression
This then was how and why the “Satyagraha” was launched and conducted 60 years ago. It is an event that the Tamils of Sri Lanka can be proud of as an achievement where a small, unarmed, defenceless people through united effort and dedication paralysed the administrative machinery of the Colombo government for nearly two months in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka until military repression was unleashed.  Brute force was displayed. Peaceful protesters including elected representatives of the people were placed under house arrest at the Panagoda Army cantonment. A democratic protest campaign was cruelly crushed.

D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at