A Glorious Chapter In Sri Lankan History – Book Review


(Santasilan Kadiragamar, Ed., HANDY PERINBANAYAGAM: A Memorial Volume (Kumaran Book House, Chennai/Colombo, 2012), pp. 339.

By V. Suryanarayan

Prof. Santasilan Kadiragamar has done yeoman service in bringing out this edited volume, which provides rare insights into one of the glorious chapters in the modern history of Sri Lanka. The Jaffna Youth Congress (JYC), inspired by the ideas and ideals of Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress, was in the forefront advocating complete independence for Ceylon from British domination. It stood for national unity, it advocated a secular state and highlighted the necessity to get rid of the evils of untouchability and caste barriers and stood for an education policy which laid emphasis on mother tongue and bilingualism, without ignoring the English language. The book, as Prof. Wiswa Warnapala has written, will be an eye opener for many Sinhalese youth. To quote Prof. Wiswa Warnapala, “People who see Tigers among Tamils should read the book to discover that there were Tamil patriots who fought relentlessly for Sinhala-Tamil unity and total political independence”.

The first edition of the book was brought out in 1980 by the Handy Perinbanayagam Society, Jaffna. This revised edition has been made possible with the financial assistance of the India-Sri Lanka Foundation. The book is divided into two parts. The first part traces the history of the JYC. Written by Prof. Silan, the chapter provides a synoptic view of the origins of political consciousness in Jaffna, the beginnings of the JYC, the leaders who were behind the movement, its policies and programmes and how it was able to galvanise and inspire the educated sections of the Jaffna population. Based on a variety of published materials and interviews with those who were active in the movement, this lucidly written section of the book is delightful reading. For a whole generation of Jaffna youth, the life and writings of Handy Perinbanayagam were a source of great inspiration. More so for an academician/political activist like Prof. Silan Kadiragamar. In the last phase of his life, Mahatma Gandhi was interviewed by a Western journalist, who asked him what his message was for future generations. Gandhiji said, “My life is my message”. The same holds true of Handy Perinbanayagam. He believed in practicing what he preached and in preaching what he practised.To quote Handy Perinbanayagam, “Conscience has been my guide and not my accomplice”. Leaders like Handy Perinbanayagam have become a rare species in South Asia today.

The second part of the volume contains selected speeches and writings of Handy Perinbanayagam. For the convenience of the readers, the editor has arranged them under different heads; politics, language rights and freedom of expression; social and justice issues; education and teachers rights; cultural and religious; Mahatma Gandhi and some memorable personalities. Few statements of Handy Perinbanayagam are pregnant with meaning and points to the perils of nation building in Sri Lanka. In his memorandum to the Constituent Assembly in 1972, Handy Perinbanayagam highlighted the incalculable damage to communal unity brought about by the “Sinhala Only” policy of 1956. To quote, “When “Sinhala Only” was made the law of the land, not the slightest effort was made to temper the wind to the shorn Tamil lamb. The self-esteem of the Tamil-speaking community was trampled underfoot. The law was stark, blunt and without any recognition of the fact that there was in Ceylon another sizeable linguistic group to whom their language was as vital and precious as Sinhala was to the Sinhalese. It was tantamount to a declaration that the Sinhala speakers were the only group entitled by right to the fruits of national independence”. In the same essay, Handy Perinbanayagam describes how Lord Soulbury changed his views about the rights of the minorities in independent Sri Lanka. Lord Soulbury has pointed out “The Soulbury Constitution had entrenched in it all the protective provisions for minorities that the wit of man could devise. Nevertheless in the light of later happenings, I now think it is a pity that the Commission did not also recommend the entrenchment in the Constitution, guarantees of fundamental rights, on the lines enacted in the Constitution of India, Pakistan, Malaya, Nigeria and elsewhere” and adds that in the light of later happenings it was a pity that it did not also recommend the entrenchment in the Constitution of fundamental rights. In the context of the death and destruction brought about by the violence of the Tigers and far more brutal and horrendous response of the Sri Lankan State, the statement of Handy Perinbanayagam made in his presidential address to the First Sarvodaya Conference on May 29, 1963, are relevant: “We who belong to the Sarvodaya persuasion are also revolutionaries- but with a difference- the difference being we have foresworn violence as a method of ushering the new millennium. We have no manner of doubt that revolutions achieved by violence are unstable, have to be maintained by further violence and provoke violent reprisals at every turn”. Speaking on the relevance of Gandhian philosophy Handy Perinbanayagam highlighted that “his feeling for the starving millions of India is not part of a conscious creed, but rather a part of his being … In Gandhiji’s identification with Daridra Narayana there is neither art nor artifice”. I am tempted to quote Gandhiji’s famous talisman: “I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man (woman) whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him (her). Will he (she) gain anything by it? Will it restore him (her) to a control over his (her) own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj (freedom) for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and self melting away”.

I can cite only another book which deals with the period, but not in a satisfactory manner. Jane Russell’s book, Communal politics under the Doughmore Constitution, 1931-1947. The book traces the inter-relationship between communal politics and constitutional changes in Ceylon. However, Jane Russell’s description of the role played by the JYC is very sketchy. In this context, Prof. Silan Kadiragamar’s book fills an important void in the modern history of Sri Lanka.

The question may be asked, how have the protagonists of the separate State of Tamil Eelam dealt with the role of the JYC? Four years ago, I happened to read Dr. Murugar Gunasingham’s book entitled Tamils in Sri Lanka: A Comprehensive History (C 300 BC – C 2000 AD). The author claims that it is the first comprehensive history of the Tamils, based on authentic sources. This lengthy book, running into 575 pages, does not even make a mention of the pioneering role of Handy Perinbanayagam. Understandably so, because a political philosophy which upholds Sri Lankan nationalism and Sinhala- Tamil unity will be repugnant to the votaries of the separate State of Tamil Eelam. It may also be mentioned that this lengthy book does not touch upon the political developments among Tamil speaking Moslems, because the author claims that they are not involved in Tamil nationalism.

S. Handy Perinbanayagam (1899-1977), as Prof. Silan mentions, pioneered the movement for complete national independence. Gandhian ideals were his inspiration. Not even once did he deviate from the ideal of a united independent Sri Lanka. A Christian by religious faith and teacher by profession, from the very beginning, Handy advocated a non-sectarian approach to politics. Handy’s early life coincided with revolutionary changes across the Palk Straits. Naturally the Indian national movement exercised a profound impact on the Jaffna youth. The result was the founding of the Jaffna Youth Congress (JYC) in December 1924. Handy Perinbanayagam was the chief organizer. From its very inception, the JYC adopted a radical line in social reforms. The organisers regularly invited Sinhalese leaders, who shared their political beliefs, to address the delegates in the annual sessions. In addition, the leaders of the JYC were able to persuade great Indian leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Satyamurti, Kamaladevi Chatopadhyaya and Kalyana Sundaram to visit Jaffna and address the people. These idealistic and radical impulses, as Silan highlights, “gave rise to a movement that was independent, democratic, anti-imperialist and anti-feudal”. No wonder the JYC was in the forefront of boycotting elections which were held in 1931. It is the tragedy of Sri Lanka that the JYC gradually lost its momentum and it was replaced by communal forces, which vitiated the political atmosphere in the post-independent period. Finally it led to the parting of the ways of the two communities.

The crowning glory of the Jaffna youth was to persuade Mahatma Gandhi to visit Ceylon in 1927. Gandhiji was involved at that time in the popularization of Khadi and fighting against the evils of alcoholism. When Handy Perinbanayagam, on behalf of the students Congress approached Gandhiji in Bangalore, where he was camping at that time, Gandhiji readily agreed to visit Ceylon, but on one condition, that Ceylon should donate 100, 000 rupees to the Khadi fund. So munificent was the public response in Ceylon, the donation exceeded by 18,000 rupees beyond the target. Rajaji asked Gandhiji to congratulate Handy Perinbanayagam and Handy recalls that “the famous toothless smile was bestowed on me”. After addressing crowded meetings in Colombo, Galle, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya, Gandhiji arrived in Jaffna on November 26. At his very first meeting in Jaffna, Gandhiji said, “Having come to Jaffna I do not feel that I am in Ceylon, but I feel that I am in a bit of India. Neither your faces nor your language is foreign to me”. Gandhiji was plagued by autograph hunters and he insisted that he will oblige them only if they promised to wear Khaddar. In addition to Jaffna, Gandhiji addressed gatherings in Puttur, Atchuvely, Velvettiturai, Point Pedro, Chavakachery, Chunakkam, Telipalai, Moolai and Karainagar. Gandhiji touched upon the burning problems of the day like inter-caste issues, prohibition, revival of ancient culture, Hindu-Christian relations and nationalism. Above all, he drew attention to the starving millions in India. Gandhiji left for India via Talaimannar and before his departure gave his farewell message to the people of Jaffna: “The message that I can leave for Jaffna as for the whole of Ceylon is “let it not be out of sight, out of mind”. Let the description that I have given you of the starving millions haunt you and keep you in touch with them and in so doing keep you also simple and living pure, free from drink and untouchability, if not for your own sakes, at least for theirs”.

Unfortunately Prof. Silan Kadiragamar has not given extracts from the famous speech that Gandhiji delivered under the auspices of Reddiar Sangham in Colombo. In that speech Gandhiji underlined the policy of the Indian National Congress towards Indians Overseas. He highlighted the necessity for Indians to identify themselves with the aspirations of the indigenous peoples. To quote Gandhiji, “I would leave one or two thoughts with you before I leave Colombo. Since you are earning your bread in this beautiful island, I would ask you to live as sugar in milk. Even as a cup of milk which is full to the brim does not overflow when sugar is gently added to it, the sugar accommodating itself in the milk and enriching its taste, in the same way, I would like you to live in the island so as not to become interlopers and so as to enrich the lives of the people in whose midst you are living”.

Sri Lanka today is groping in the dark as to how to bring about ethnic reconciliation in the country. Intoxicated by majoritarianism, the ruling elite is going back on their past commitments relating to devolution of powers to Tamil areas. The only salvation for Sri Lanka is to follow, both in letter and in spirit, what Handy Perinbanayagam said one year before Ceylon’s independence. “In spite of the reverses which the ideal of one Ceylon, has received recently we hold to our faith in it. The conception of a free country where politics is free from the ideas of race and caste calls for courage and imagination and true statesmanship. We shall not subscribe to anything less than that, for nothing less will save Ceylon”.

(Dr. V. Suryanarayan is Senior Professor and Director (Retd), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, Chennai. Since his retirement, he is associated with two think tanks, the Center for Asia Studies and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. Prof. Suryanarayan was a member of the National Security Advisory Board of the Government of India for one term. His e mail address: [email protected])


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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