Ilankai Tamil Sangam

19th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Sri Lankan Tamil Struggle

Introduction

by T. Sabaratnam, July 17, 2010
A journalist who reported the Sri Lankan ethnic crisis for over 50 years

Since then I have reported the events that turned Sri Lanka, the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, into The Tear Drop Island and The Killing Field.

It is definitely a sad story. It is sad especially to the men and women of my generation who celebrated the birth of independent Ceylon waving frantically the Lion Flag.

I will relate this melancholy story which I was destined to cover for Tamil and English language newspapers in Sri Lanka and abroad. To make the narrative understandable and realistic I will add the details and background information which the tight writing style of news reports forbid.

I joined Lake House, Sri Lanka’s biggest newspaper publishing house, as a reporter on January 2, 1957, after graduating from Madras University in economics, politics and history. I studied in India when ethnic nationalism was shaking South India. I witnessed the death fast staged by Telugu leader Amarajeevi Potti Sriramulu and the forces his death unleashed.  

I attended the huge funeral procession that followed his death in the early morning of December 16, 1952. When the procession reached Mount Road the slogan-shouting mob turned violent and smashed public property. The rioting ignited the entire Telugu-speaking area within the next three days. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru doused the revolt by announcing on December 19 the formation of the separate state of Andhra for Telugu-speaking people. Today India is a country of linguistic states. Nehru with his foresight and spirit of accommodation turned a divisive force into a uniting power.

I was in India during 1952 to 1956 when the process of the formation of linguistic states was the focus of political activity.  Underneath, I noticed, an equally destructive force was gathering strength. A movement was building up against making Hindi the sole official language. Tamil Nadu was in the forefront in opposing the adoption of Hindi as the official language of India. Yet, the Constitution Assembly adopted Hindi as the official language of India with English continuing as an associate official for a period of fifteen years, after which Hindi would become the sole official language.

The new Constitution came into effect on January 26, 1950. Efforts by the Indian Government to make Hindi the sole official language after 1965 was opposed by many non-Hindi Indian states. They wanted the continued use of English. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) led the opposition. Nehru, again, realized the danger India would face if it insisted on making Hindi the only official language and enacted the Official Languages Act in 1963 to ensure the use of English beyond 1965.

The DMK was not satisfied because the  Official Languages Act gave room for a future government to discontinue the use of the English language. It launched an anti-Hindi agitation which gained popular support. Riots broke out on January 25, 1965 in Madurai and spread throughout Tamil Nadu. The new Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, following the precedent set by Nehru, gave an assurance that English would be used as an additional official language as long as non-Hindi-speaking states wanted. With that assurance the riots subsided.

Indira Gandhi amended the Official Languages Act in 1967 guaranteeing the indefinite use of Hindi and English as official languages. This effectively ensured the current "virtual indefinite policy of bilingualism" of the Indian Republic. India thus turned the second divisive force also into a unifying factor by accommodating the aspirations of the minority communities.

In Sri Lanka I witnessed the opposite process at work. The government refused to accommodate the aspirations of the minority communities and followed the process of concentrating state power on itself. It kept tightening the control of the Sinhala people over the state.

I witnessed the agitation for “Fifty-fifty’, a demand for the sharing of power with the Sinhalese under a unitary constitution during my student days. Its failure led to the change of the demand of the Tamils to an autonomous unit under a federal constitution. That led to the formation of the Federal Party in December 1949.

I was in Jaffna when the Federal Party commenced its agitational politics. I left for India in 1952 and had returned by the time the S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike Government enacted the Sinhala Only Act on June 5, 1956. That day saw the first non- violent Tamil protest, the Galle Face satyagraha which was disrupted by violent Sinhala extremists.

By the time I joined Lake House the foundation for the Sri Lankan conflict had been firmly laid. Since then I have reported the events that turned Sri Lanka, the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, into The Tear Drop Island and The Killing Field.

It is definitely a sad story. It is sad especially to the men and women of my generation who celebrated the birth of independent Ceylon waving frantically the Lion Flag.

I will relate this melancholy story which I was destined to cover for Tamil and English language newspapers in Sri Lanka and abroad. To make the narrative understandable and realistic I will add the details and background information which the tight writing style of news reports forbid.

To take you to the real story I will place the Sri Lankan ethnic problem and the struggles the Tamil people waged in contest in my first chapter.

I will try my best to be fair and factual. I am aware that I will be accused of presenting the Tamil perspective. That cannot be avoided. If I make any factual errors please be free to point them out. I will definitely mention the objection and if needed make the correction. But please avoid forcing your opinion on me. I prefer you to contract me through the editor, Tamil Sangam.

This is not a research paper. It is primarily an account by a journalist who reported the events as they occurred. This is the compilation of what is called “the first draft of history.”

Chapter 1: The Context