Northern politics during Parliamentary Elections of 1950s

—Lee Kuan Yew

S. Nadesan was a promoter of democratic principles such as regional autonomy, bilingualism, federalism, and constitutional safeguards for the Tamil speaking. Regarding the tension caused by the Official Language (Sinhala Only) Act, he firmly believed that separatist movements only took root in unitary states, and dismissed the suggestion that federalism leads to separation.

Somasundaram Nadesan, QC-Senator

Somasundaram Nadesan, QC was a leading Tamil lawyer, civil rights activist and member of the Senate from end 1940s to early 1970s. He served on the bar for 55 years and was made a Queen’s Counsel in 1954. A passionate defender of minority rights though, Nadesan remained detached from Tamil nationalistic politics of S. J. V. Chelvanaygam (Fedral Party) and G. G. Ponnambalam of Tamil Congress (TC). He was highly critical of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF)- under the leadership of Chelvanayakam and its Vaddukoddai Resolution calling for the creation of an independent Tamil Eelam. However, political violence of the 1980s compelled Nadesan to change his stance from politics to Human Rights. He was a founding member of the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka in 1971.

Cartoon-Sinhala-Only-ITAK (Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi) was founded in late 1949. Commonly known as the Federal Party in English, the Northern based party was formed by a group of three Tamil parliamentarians, SJV Chelvanayakam, Vanniasingam and Senator E. M. V. Naganathan, all members of ACTC (All Ceylon Tamil Congress), who had policy differences with its leader G. G. Ponnambalam over the latter’s decision to go into an alliance with D. S. Senanayke and enter the UNP government and accept a Cabinet Portfolio.

Early splits in Northern based parties

SWRD Bandaranaike’s attitude towards minority rights and success of the Sinhala nationalist government in 1956, made ITAK the main voice of Tamil politics. As racial and political tension between the ethnic groups increased, it forced three Tamil political parties, FP, ACTC and the CWC based in Plantations led by Thondaman snr., to form the Tamil United Front (TUF) in early 1970s. The nationalistic alliance had renamed itself as the Tamil United Liberation Front- (TULF) and began campaigning for an independent Tamil Eelam. JRJ, the ‘old fox’ manipulated the exit of CWC from the alliance weakening the unity of Tamil politics.

Winning 18 seats in the north and east, the TULF became the first Tamil party to run on a pro-autonomy platform in the 1977 Parliamentary election and became the largest opposition party in parliament. The Black July-’83 caused Tamil nationalism’s radicals to turn into a violent movement which subsequently paved way for a 30-year civil war: while the TULF remained as a moderate party to face Tamil politics, it became the target of racist and nationalist forces on both North and South and many of its moderate leaders like A. Amirthaligam, M. Sivasittamparam were assassinated by young terrorists led by V. Prabaharan of LTTE.

1956 Parliamentary Election

A. Amirthalingam contesting the Vadukkodai seat at 1956 election, addressing his constituents referred to S. Nadesan, he said, “none could beat the record of the learned Senator Nadesan of being all things to all men, but the Tamil people could not build their future on the shifting sands of his policies” he further said, Senator Nadesan has told the Jaffna Lawyers’ Association that he was the author of the Tamilnad resolution, moved by V. Kumaraswamy and the brain behind the communist party idea of making Sinhalese the only language for foreign relations. He was also the advisor to Bandaranaike on various political matters. Referring to Nadesan he further said, Nadesan once stated that, “Federalism does not mean that the Tamils will not be able to get employment or do business in South. The right to get employment throughout the country, the right to engage in commerce and trade throughout the island is guaranteed under a Federal Constitution.

Parity of status to both Sinhala and Tamil was the language policy of the two Marxist parties, LSSP and CP who could boast of a strong base in Jaffna. Though somewhat disastrous to their popularity, they stuck to it.

The equal status policy which the LSSP and CP cost them a lot. On October 17, 1955, LSSP held a meeting at the Colombo Town Hall, in support of this; it was broken up and the leaders were escorted by police, (it was repeated in 1956 when SLFP’s Sinhala only bill was debated in the House. Crowds led by racist forces assembled opposite old Parliament to physically handle NM, Colvin and other Marxists).

The chaotic situation compelled UNP to abandon policy of parity status, causing extensive damage to its popularity in the North/East. Tamil Cabinet Ministers and MPs demand to reassess its new language policy, which was ignored by Prime Minister, Sir John Kotalawala because it was suicidal to the Party at the forthcoming Election. The Tamil members charged Kotalawala with linguistic inequity and opted to resign. Attempts by this group to form an alliance of Tamils however, was unsuccessful.

Official Language – the main issue and Muslim factor

There were many differences in political interest between Muslims and Tamils. Muslim factor was not so dominant during the election time of 1956. Muslims in 1950s considered that Tamils enjoyed more privileges in education than the Muslims. An independent contestant for Kalkudah, M. A. Abdul Majeed openly condemned Federalism. The Kalmunai independent candidate declared his support to Bandaranaike, while Macan Markar opposed the Federal Party. However the majority of Muslims was in favour of the Sinhala Only policy.

The 1956 election result was a surprise; out of the 95 seats, the MEP won 51—LSSP and CP won 14 and 3 respectively—Federal party secured 10 seats and Tamil Congress could retain only one while UNP managed eight. Independents won eight too.

Federal Party polled 141,900 votes against 146,500 polled by all its opponents in Jaffna, but won only six seats in the district.

Ponnambalam and Chelvanaygam

The Federal Party established in 1949 as a breakaway group of Tamil Congress was not successful at the General Election it faced in 1952, winning only two Federal Party candidates, but the TC managed to secure four seats out of seven seats they contested. Later, the FP began to emerge as a powerful political force in the North when leader G. G. Ponnambalam a Cabinet minister failed to persuade the government to give up its ‘Sinhala Only’ Policy.

The FP had a great opportunity to tell Tamils in the North/East that they would be discriminated and treated as second-class citizens. They argued that in a Unitary State equality for the people would be an impractical concept and the only option therefore, would be to fight for both Sinhalese and Tamil the official languages. If they succeeded Sinhala would become the official language of the Sinhala State and Tamil the official language of Tamil State under a single country.

The majority of the daily newspapers in 1950s were sympathetic towards the UNP except one Sinhala daily.

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