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Sunday, 1 June 2003  
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From T.D.S.A.Dissanayake's new volume of "War or Peace... ": 

Was early universal franchise a disaster?

The well-known author T. D. S. A. Dissanayaka is now writing his fourteenth book "War or Peace in Sri Lanka" (Volume IV) to be released in October 2003. The Sri Lanka edition will be printed in Colombo and the international edition printed simultaneously in New Delhi.

The Sunday Observer has obtained exclusive rights to publish three instalments of Chapter I "Sri Lanka: What Went Wrong?" Our publication is in conjunction with the crucial conference in Tokyo to be held on June 9th and 10th when forty nations and twenty international organisations will gather to pledge economic assistance to Sri Lanka. Chapter I

Sri Lanka - What Went Wrong?

At the time when the sun never set on the British Empire, the British were so fond of Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then known. That enchantment resulted in the British referring to Ceylon as "The Pearl of the Orient". The affection the British had for Ceylon was due to several factors. For example, the British raved over our scenic beauty. (Today British tourists to Sri Lanka still do so.) The British admired the stability of the Crown Colony of Ceylon.

Besides the British admired how fluently the Ceylonese spoke English, adapted themselves to the British public school system, played cricket, and appreciated the finer points of the British way of life. By the same token the British could never comprehend a complex dichotomy in Ceylon. The English speaking minority and the Sinhala and Tamil speaking majority lived in two separate worlds, of their own making.

Against this background, a very pertinent reference to Ceylon in 1930 was the internal memorandum prepared by Sir Charles Jeffries, later Under-Secretary for Colonial Affairs.

"Ceylon provides the classic example of how with good sense and goodwill two nations can carry through the extremely difficult and delicate transition from a subject-ruler relationship to an equal partnership.

Ceylon has been the prototype and model for the new Commonwealth hopefully in the latter half of the twentieth century.

In Ceylon we British learnt, by trial and error, the art of Colonial administration. They also learnt the wisdom of learning systematically the art of self-governance, which is essentially a process of trial and error."

Taking all these encomiums into account, the British decided to give special treatment to the Crown Colony of Ceylon. Therefore in 1931 universal franchise became a gift to Ceylon from the British, under the Donoughmore Constitution. No leaders of Ceylon had agitated for it in the Legislative Council from 1924-1931. At best there were the lone voices of the Labour Leader, A. E. Goonesinghe and George E. de Silva, the Member for Kandy. Nowhere in the British Empire was the experiment carried out in the decade of the nineteen thirties.

The first General Election in Ceylon under universal franchise was held in 1931. The new State Council of Ceylon had fifty seats to be filled by election. Forty six seats returned duly elected Members. In the electorates of Jaffna, Kankesanturai, Kayts and Point Pedro, the Tamil community which accounted for approximately 95% of the voters in those constituencies, boycotted the General Election because they perceived the Donoughmore reforms were inadequate.

For example the idealistic Jaffna Youth Congress led by Handy Perimbanayagam wanted self-rule immediately. Others bemoaned that in the last Legislative Council, which was elected on a restricted franchise based on property and educational qualification, there were eight elected Tamil Members in a Council of twenty nine elected Members. In the new State Council, there were only seven Members in a House of fifty elected Members.

Yet others claimed that universal franchise being introduced so suddenly, just three years after it was introduced to Britain, was a disaster. This created the impression, both amongst the British rulers and the Sinhalese, that the people of the Jaffna peninsula where over 50% of the Tamil population lived according to the Census of 1931, were opposed to universal franchise.

In fairness to the Ceylon Tamil community, it must be added that outside the Jaffna peninsula they participated enthusiastically in the General Election of 1931. For example G. G. Ponnambalam, then a young, up and coming politician who had taken a First at Cambridge and had done brilliantly as a law student at Lincoln's Inn, wanted to contest either the seats of Jaffna or Point Pedro. He could not do so because of the all pervading boycott.

Therefore he decided to contest the seat of Mannar where he was altogether an alien. He lost narrowly to a candidate who was a resident of Mannar. In Colombo North, Dr. R. (later Sir Ratnajothi) Saravanamuttu won easily. In Trincomalee, M. M. Subramanium formerly an elected Member of the Legislative Council, was duly elected. In Batticaloa South, H. M. (later Sir Mohamed) Macan Markar defeated E. R. Tambimuttu, formerly an elected Member of the Legislative Council.

The Burghers, Christians from all ethnic groups and Ceylon Tamils, in that order, were the pampered minorities in the Crown Colony of Ceylon. They respectively accounted for 0.6%, 9.1% and 11.2% of the population according to the Census of 1931. The British systematically played these minorities against the majority, the Sinhalese Buddhists, who accounted for 64.3% of the population.

With the introduction of adult franchise, the Sinhalese found an equitable representation in the State Council. Nevertheless in the Public Service, the British continued to recruit Burghers, Christians and Ceylon Tamils in large numbers and Sinhalese Buddhists as few as practicable. That pernicious policy of divide and rule continued unabated until Independence in 1948 because it was part and parcel of British policy throughout their Empire. Even after Independence, in the Mercantile sector which was dominated by the British, Company Directors continued the policy of giving favoured treatment to Burghers, Christians and Tamils, be they of Ceylonese or Indian origin. All these considerations filled the hearts of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority with resentment.

For the first time, in 1931 Ceylon had a Legislature which represented a cross section of our population, besides being elected on the basis of universal franchise. The General Election of 1931 was indeed interesting. The Sinhalese accounting for 69.2% of the population were delighted that three quarter of the State Council consisted of their kind. (In the Legislative Council, half were Sinhalese).

The Sinhalese Christians who accounted for approximately 5% of the population were in clover. Twelve State Councillors were Sinhalese Christians. The Muslims could not understand why they won only one seat when their community accounted for 6.9% of the population. The Indian Tamils who accounted for 12.0% of the population also did not fare too well and won only two seats. The Ceylon Tamils bemoaned that adult franchise was not workable in our nation!

Very significantly the Burgher community could not conceivably win a seat because they accounted for only 0.6% of the population. Their sole representative in the State Council was one of the eight Appointed Members. However the Burgher community accepted reality. Some Burghers who went to Britain for higher studies or training, never came back. A small number migrated to Australia. After Independence they migrated to Australia, in large numbers.

The British were embarrassed by the boycott of the General Election in the North. Therefore Sir Edward Stubbs, the Governor of Ceylon, used his influence on the Ceylon Tamil community, and in 1934 by-elections were held in the Jaffna peninsula.

Accordingly Arunachalam (later Sir Arunachalam) Mahadeva (Jaffna), S. Natesan (Kankesanturai), Nevins Selvadurai (Kayts) and G. G. Ponnambalam (Point Pedro) were duly elected.

To be continued next week

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