Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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On V. Navaratnam (1910-2006)

by Sachi Sri Kantha

The conflict is mainly between the two major linguistic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The two races are locked, as it were, in a mortal combat, the Sinhalese majority fighting for perpetual domination over the Tamils with the ultimate object of an extinction of the Tamils as a distinct entity and the Tamils struggling for sheer survival.

The combat is an unequal one, for the Sinhalese with their numerical superiority are in possession of all political power and the exclusive control of Government. The Tamils have only the justice of their cause to give them the necessary strength to sustain the struggle. -- V. Navaratnam, 1957

He was a prophet scorned by his generation. He was scorned after 20 years of association by S.J.V.Chelvanayakam, whom he considered his political mentor. He was scorned by his fellow parliamentary colleagues (of the then Federal Party of the late 1960s), who had settled cozily for chairs in the legislative assembly. He was even scorned by the Tamil voters of his Kayts constituency in the 1970 and 1977 general elections. But Vaithianathan Navaratnam, who became a proctor in 1936 and entered public life at that time, was made of stern stuff, even in his will to outlast his political contemporaries. V.Navaratnam had scored a solid 96 (in all probability a record for a Sri Lankan legislator) when he said his adieu from Eelam Tamils, and when he was called back to God’s pavilion.

For only six years was Mr. Navaratnam permitted to plead his case on behalf of Tamils of both indigenous and recent Indian origin and Muslims in the legislature of Ceylon. It’s not the quantity that counts. Eventually, in history’s count, quality wins over quantity. We have had enough of honorable people's representatives in the Sri Lankan legislature who merely warmed their parliamentary chairs for decades in search of personal glory or for being used as a ‘token Tamil’ in the Cabinet ranks.

Ceylon Faces Crisis 1957

V.Navaratnam’s greater contributions to Eelam Tamil nationalism are his two works, namely ‘Ceylon Faces Crisis’ (1957) and ‘The Fall and Rise of the Tamil Nation’ (1991). The first was a promotional tract he authored anonymously for the Federal Party, before he entered parliament. His name as the author does not appear in the booklet of 36 pages.

Two Paragraphs from ‘Ceylon Faces Crisis’

Navaratnam was skilled in writing lucidly. No wasting of words. Not much flowery language. Crisp and to the point. He wrote like a boxer who went for a ‘knockout’, rather than plodding and jabbing aimlessly, from the time he heard the bell in the ring. I provide two paragraphs (in reality, the third and fourth paragraphs of the tract) for a taste.

“The problem is an inter-racial one. From a historical standpoint it is even an international one. Ceylon is peopled by two major races, the Sinhalese constituting the majority nationality and the Tamils the minority nationality. The latter group includes a Muslim minority, but since they speak the Tamil language they may, for the sake of convenience, be referred to as Tamils although in view of other factors it may be doubtful whether they could be included in the Tamil race. There are other very small minorities, like the Burghers who are the descendants of the Portuguese and the Dutch settlers, but they are small in numbers and are scattered throughout the Island. The conflict is mainly between the two major linguistic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The two races are locked, as it were, in a mortal combat, the Sinhalese majority fighting for perpetual domination over the Tamils with the ultimate object of an extinction of the Tamils as a distinct entity and the Tamils struggling for sheer survival.

The combat is an unequal one, for the Sinhalese with their numerical superiority are in possession of all political power and the exclusive control of Government. The Tamils have only the justice of their cause to give them the necessary strength to sustain the struggle. How was this state of affairs brought about? Whether the British at the time of their withdrawal from Ceylon foresaw this contingency or not it is not easy to say. Nor is it helpful at this present moment to apportion blame. But the paradox of the whole situation is that when on the conclusion of the Second World War ancient nations and vast peoples in South East Asia regained their political freedom and independence, in so far as the Tamils of Ceylon are concerned, who were once rulers of their own independent kingdom right down the ages, it was merely a change of rulers, from the British to the Sinhalese.”

On why he came to write this booklet in 1957, Navaratnam had this to say in his 1991 memoir. “I felt that it would help the Tamil cause if the world at large is kept informed of the existence of this ethnic conflict in Ceylon. A.Amirthalingam, MP for Vaddukoddai, was in England…, and so was V.N.Navaratnam, MP for Chavakachcheri, in the United States…Chelvanayakam and I decided to send them some literature for distribution…The Party had none to assist us at that time. So I sat down and wrote out a small booklet under the title CEYLON FACES CRISIS…writing, printing and dispatch…were all completed within the space of two weeks. This was the first exercise by the Federal Party in foreign propaganda.”

‘The Fall and Rise of the Tamil Nation’ (1991)

For students of history, Navaratnam solved the puzzle of who was the author of the 1957 tract, in the introspective political memoirs he wrote at the age of 81, long after the eclipse of his parliamentary career. As a political memoir spanning the period from 1949 to 1970 by an Eelam Tamil politician, Navaratnam’s ‘The Fall and Rise of the Tamil Nation’ (344 pages) is an incomparable gift for students of Sri Lankan history. In this memoir, Navaratnam depicted the character traits of some of the Sinhalese political leaders with whom he had to interact as the Federal Party negotiator in the 1950s and 1960s. I provide five candid examples.

Don Stephen (D.S.) Senanayake: “the shrewd and cunning Singhalese leader who outmanoeuvred the Tamils…was a politician of no mean order. He was a leader endowed with an inborn horse-sense in statesmanship and political manoeuvre rather than academic knowledge and book learning. He had an inherent ability to judge character of men and situations.” (p.15)…One of the first acts of Prime Minister D.S.Senanayake was to introduce a resolution in the Cabinet requesting Britain to grant complete independence. The Cabinet approved it unanimously, C.Sundaralingam gave his consent to signify that the Tamils joined in the request…That last act Sundaralingam giving his consent constituted the final seal placed on the fate of his people, the Tamil race in Ceylon. The last remaining shred of a trump card which the Tamils might have used to their advantage at an opportune moment was bartered away by a Tamil minister.” (p.42)

Solomon W.R.D. Bandaranaike: “Had Bandaranaike been given a chance, it is quite possible, with his stature as a statesman and his personal qualities, that he might well have succeeded in building foundations for such a future for Ceylon. But his political enemies, who still wallowed in the medieval world of the Mahavamsa and the Culavamsa, would not let him have that opportunity. Like Sir John Kotelawala before him, he failed to reckon with the power of J.R.Jayewardene and the UNP. Not having been born or grown up as a Buddhist, he had little understanding of the ways of the Buddhist clergy. These were forces who had different ideas from his for the future of the country, and different ambitions, and in whose political power play, sanctity of a treaty had no place.” (p.136)

Charles Percival (C.P.) de Silva: “was a great believer in racial assimilation. He once told some of us Tamil MPs – ‘Look at me. Four hundred years ago my forefathers were Tamils who came from India. I am now a Singhalese. What is wrong with me?” (p.130). Following the assassination death of Solomon W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Silva had the seniority to become the next leader of SLFP. But since he belonged to the inferior caste, he was pushed out of leadership by a kitchen coup of Govigama high caste courtiers who brought in Solomon Bandaranaike’s widow Sirima to lead the party. Disgruntled Silva took his revenge in December 1964 by deserting the party, an act which was described by Sirimavo Bandaranaike as a ‘stab in the back’. The phrase was apt, but Sirimavo forgot to mention that it was the Govigama caste courtiers who first stabbed in Silva’s back in 1960.

Philip Gunawardene: “a Singhalese intellectual to whom socialism was nothing more than a veneer to cover up his political ambitions, but essentially and in reality he was a diehard Singhalese nationalist.” (p.210). Now, Philip Gunawardene’s son Dinesh Gunawardene follows the path of rabid Sinhalese nationalism – nothing but a chip off the old block.

Edmund Samarakkody: “Samarakkody’s socialism adhered to the letter as well as the spirit of socialism, and therefore was different from the socialism of most of his colleagues in the LSSP who believed that socialism must become pliable as and when opportunist politics required it to bend…He and I have been good friends from our student days when we used to exchange notes on the theory and practice of socialism. As a true socialist he never saw any difference between a Sinhalese and a Tamil or a Muslim or a Burgher. To him they were all human beings. (pp.147-148)

On Tamil Political Leaders

Guess who appear as leading villains in Navaratnam’s 1991 book?

M.Tiruchelvam, Sr (1907-1976) – the father of collaborator Neelan Tiruchelvam and A.Amirthalingam (1927-1989). Navaratnam had kinder words for a few of his Tamil contemporaries. These included G.G.Ponnambalam, C.Vanniasingham and C.Rajadurai. Among these three, he felt that Ponnambalam – for all his flip flops in his stellar career – had “sincerity and consistency” that “even his political enemies cannot stint paying due respect”. Navaratnam also sincerely lamented on the premature death of C.Vanniasingham, the then Deputy Leader of the Federal Party, in 1959, which brought to the front what he derisively called the ‘Colombo Tamil intelligentsia’ – “a class which consisted of a few individuals who had retired from high judicial and other Government office and whose vested interests are all centred in and around Colombo.” Tiruchelvam, Sr. was the leader of this pack.

Navaratnam’s accolade to Chelliah Rajadurai’s services to the Federal Party need notice, since the orator from the Eastern Province had been presented in a bad light during Amirthalingam’s stewardship of the TULF beginning in 1976. To quote Navaratnam, “C.Rajadurai had been a journalist on the editorial staff of the Sutantiran weekly newspaper. His scintillating Tamil oratory from platforms, and unswerving loyalty to the Federal Party and its ideal, so long as Chelvanayakam was its leader, were an asset to the Party in building up its image. His contribution was not little in forging a unity between the Northern Province and Eastern Province Tamils through the medium of the Federal Party, and in overcoming the traditional Batticaloa-Jaffna prejudice. He too holds the record of representing Batticaloa as its First MP for an unbroken period of 27 years.” Rajadurai was a legislator from 1956 to 1989, a record period of 33 years – the final ten years as a Cabinet minister in the J.R. Jayewardene presidency. The “27 years” noted by Navaratnam was a slip, explainable by a fact that when he wrote the text it might have been 27 years, but went uncorrected during the printing of the book.

Reading this from a Federal Party founder member, one has to balance this case of who is to blame for Rajadurai’s desertion from the Federal Party (or renamed TULF) in 1979. The verdict seems to be Rajadurai was slighted badly by the post-Chelvanayakam leadership and the fault lies squarely on Amirthalingam in mishandling the issue by his overt preference for poet Kasi Anandan over Rajadurai (Federal Party’s senior and undefeated legislator in the East) in the 1977 election.

On Why War is a Recurring Visitor

Navaratnam’s take on why war is a recurring visitor to many lands is a delight which deserves a reading by the 'Poo-Bahs' who mouth homilies on democracratic ideals and dictate global policy from Washington DC and New York. To quote,

“It is always a fashion to advise disputants to sit round a table and solve disputes by dialogue and discussion, and not to resort to violent confrontation and wars. Whether in national disputes or in international conflicts parties are being constantly advised to avoid wars and to negotiate, while governments continue to oppress, persecute, and even commit genocide.

No doubt, it is a very salutary advice and a noble ideal, quite often well-meaning, too. Nobody fights a war for the pleasure of it. But the trouble is, it has never been pragmatic ideal, and never will be so long as governments being what they are and the tyranny of the majority and armed might being the ruling principle of democracy…The weaker is left to its own devices to shake off tyranny and oppression.

If the weaker side listened to this idealistic advice and waited till the end of time for a solution to its problems there would have been no wars of independence. If the American colonies of George III’s England listened to such advice and continued to be governed by England and to pay taxes to England without representation in the Parliament at Westminster, there would have been no American War of Independence, no American Declaration of Independence, and there would be no United States of America today…” (pp.279-280)

One would be happy to hear a sensible response from any mandarin in Washington DC to this poser by V.Navaratnam.

On TULF’s bells and whistles of 1976-1977

Navaratnam also provided cogent and acceptable reasons – not one or two but ten (pp.312-317) – to prove that the formation of the Tamil United Front in 1972 (later to be christened the Tamil United Liberation Front in 1976) was merely a deception on the Tamil masses by the Federal Party and Tamil Congress politicians (who influenced party decisions between 1970 and 1977) to protect their parliamentary seats in the general election of 1977.

Two perceptive paragraphs from the book on this issue of the TULF’s 1976 platform for a separate state deserve reproduction, since Navaratnam, with an eye for legal dissection, made a vital case that had been drowned by the bells and whistles carried by the then TULF’s newly anointed top guns, in the post-Chelvanayakam and post-Ponnambalam era. Navaratnam wrote,

“It is a view among some political commentators in the West that ‘The ability to steal good ideas is one of the first requirements of successful politics.’ Whatever be the justification for this view it is, of course, true in the case of TULF. Even so, they never spelled out the TULF’s objective without equivocation. They always referred to a resolution passed at a meeting in Vaddukoddai as setting out the party’s objective. That resolution was a skilful piece of draftsmanship which merely recited that the TULF might be driven to take up the posture of a separate state, but stopped short of positively making it the objective. They were in command of an efficient publicity machine which, however, made people believe that the TULF was working for a separate state.” (p.312).

Wins and Losses in Elections

In his 1991 Memoir, V.Navaratnam made only passing mention of his wins and losses in parliamentary elections, as a contestant in the Kayts constituency. He lost three times (in 1952, 1970 and 1977) and won twice (in the 1963 by-election and in 1965). The missing details for the Kayts constituency elections, in which Navaratnam was a contestant, are given below, with the following abbreviations: Tamil Congress (TC), Federal Party (FP), Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), Independent (Ind).

1952 election

Total electorate - 30,138; Total votes polled – 22, 109; Alfred Thambiayah (TC) – 9,517; A.Thiyagarajah (Ind) – 5,649; C. Balasingham (Ind) – 5,090; V. Navaratnam (FP) – 1,420; S. Senathirajah (Ind) – 234; majority of winner – 3,868.

1962 by-election

Total electorate – 31,473; Total votes polled – 19,691; V. Navaratnam (FP) – 14,946; A.G. Rajasooriyar (Ind) – 4,602; majority of winner – 10,344.

1965 election

Total electorate – 31,785; Total votes polled – 19,544; V. Navaratnam (FP) – 13,558; N.T. Sivagnanam (TC) – 5,816; majority of winner – 7,742.

1970 election

Total electorate – 32,015; Total votes polled – 24,612; K.P. Ratnam (FP) – 13,079; P. Kathiravelu (Ind) – 5,013; V. Navaratnam (Ind) – 4,758; majority of winner – 8,066.

1977 election

Total electorate – 36,372; Total votes polled – 27,673; K.P. Ratnam (TULF) – 17,640; V. Navaratnam (Ind) – 8.673; M. Amirthalingam (Ind) – 661; Yogendra Duraiswamy (Ind) – 279; T. Paranirupasingham (Ind) – 185; K. Kanagaratnam (Ind) – 103; majority of winner – 8,967.

To be fair, it should be mentioned that Navaratnam stated in his preface to the memoir that he was forced to write the book “entirely from memory” while residing in Canada, since his “collection of valuable books, documents, notes and papers, which were left behind in in Jaffna, have all been vandalised and destroyed, not by the Singhalese as in the case of the Jaffna Public Library, but by robbers who strut about as Tamil people’s revolutionary freedom fighters.”


When I became interested in the island’s Tamil politics 45 years ago as an eight year old (in 1961), initially I was mildly confused by four Tamils in the news, who carried two names. These were, V.Navaratnam, V.N.Navaratnam, M.Sivasithamparam and T.Sivasithamparam. To distinguish the two Navaratnams of the Federal Party, my father mentioned a facial marker; V.N.Navaratnam is the one with the beard, while V.Navaratnam is the one without the beard. At that time, the latter was yet to be an MP. V.Navaratnam was first elected to the parliament from Kayts constituency in a by-election on Aug.31, 1963, caused by the death of V.A. Kandiah, the then sitting MP for Kayts on June 4, 1963.

It appears that my confusion of the two Navaratnams was not an exception. In his memoirs, even V.Navaratnam mentions an anecdote about P.B.G. Kalugalle, the then SLFP Minister for Education, suffering the same plight in congratulating V.N. Navaratnam for a speech made by V. Navaratnam, and V.N. Navaratnam taking advantage (on behalf of one of his constituents, for a minor favor relating to job transfer) of this slip by Kalugalla.

Later, of the four Tamil MPs I mentioned in the above paragraph, I was provided with opportunities to meet and exchange views with M. Sivasithamparam (between 1978-80), T. Sivasithamparam (in 1981) and V.N. Navaratnam (in 1985). But my chance for meeting with V. Navaratnam never came. Nevertheless, because of his two written works discussed above, I feel that V. Navaratnam is still accessible to me.

With V. Navaratnam’s passing, the mantle of ‘chronologically elder Tamil legislator who is still amongst us’ has passed to Navaratnam’s old nemesis in Kayts, Pundit K.P. Ratnam. Born in 1914, Pundit Ratnam has completed 92 years. I mention this for the only reason that in some of the news releases, V. Anandasangaree (the current President of a rump TULF) has made claims that he is the most senior Tamil legislator, which is factually off the mark either chronologically or in terms of years as a Tamil MP.