POLITICS & THE NATION-STATE
When Britons arrived in Sri Lanka in the 18th Century, landing, as many tourists do now, on its coastal shores before carving a path deep into its lush, green geographic centre of Kandy, they were following a well-worn trail to the country opened up as early as 1505 by Portuguese and Dutch colonists (Wickramasinghe, 7). The stray bullets of war fired between European powers had begun to rifle through the globe, touching distant lands to the west in America and to the east in India and beyond. As elsewhere in the British Empire, migrating soldiers and ‘money men’ in the employ of the crown and East India Company were followed by many different types of migrants to the island, ranging from missionaries and civil administrators to plantation bosses (Wickramasinghe, 8).

By the time the British withdrew their imperial seat in Ceylon in 1948, economic and political life throughout the island had both gone through changes and at the same time retained many familiar features. English had been the language and custom of administration yet the vernacular languages and practices of Sinhalese, Ceylon Tamils, Burghers, Upcountry Tamils and Muslims became salient (Wickramasinghe, 40). Independence witnessed the growth of elite political parties representing different regional, linguistic, religious and ethnic communities, the Sinhaleseoriented United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the Jaffna Tamil-based Federal Party, the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) for Upcountry estate workers, and many more. Questions of migration and identity often took centre stage. Up to the deep political polarisation on communal lines in the late 1970s, when Appapillai Amirthalingam’s Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) became the opposition party in government, party allegiance amongst Tamils remained diffuse. Politics, like life, fluctuated with the onset of time.

 

‘You see, we were all happy because we had so many facilities that the British
had brought in. You see, on the one hand, when you look upon the villagers,
you found that our natives lacked so many things. They were – I won’t say
uncivilised – but the Western influence was lacking and – what can I say –
the modernisation wasn’t there.’

SELLATHURAI SIVARASA, 81, JAFFNA

‘At one point in my last year, N. M. Perera, who was the leader of the Sama
Samaja Party, gave visiting lectures on the Soviet Constitution. So we had
some very good teachers. Don’t forget, this was 1942, ‘43, ’44, when the Sama
Samaja’s were just beginning to get their act together and the CP
 (Communist
Party of Sri Lanka) was born with Pieter Keuneman and
 Wickramasinghe and
so on and there was a pre-independence ferment which
 took off on the back of
the Indian struggle for nationalism. We ourselves didn’t
 have the same struggle
as the Indians. We rode on the coattails of the Indian
 struggle for independence.
And so we got independence about the same time in
 ‘48. But this was a period,
before ‘48, where everything, politics was in ferment.
 I was caught up in the
vortex of all this. I began to see what was happening to
 our country. I began to
see that the plantations were at one time agricultural
 land, began to see that
we were self-sufficient in food, that we were the granary
 of the East, all these
things. So my growing into consciousness came through all
 these lecturers and
teachers of the university.’

AMBALAVANER SIVANANDAN, 89, COLOMBO

‘My mother used to be, she’s very political and politicised as well. Her mother
used to be part of the Federal Party, Federal Party kind of members and
supporters so my amma was dragged basically by my ammamma to all of these
political meetings by Chelvanayakam, which is like the Gandhian, the equivalent
to a Tamil kind of Gandhian. And my amma, she used to go there. I wasn’t very
sure she was very conscious about the politics around her but because
 
she grew
up in that environment where women were especially very politicised
 
she,
later on with the war and with the developments and the discriminatory
 
kind
of evolution of Sri Lankan post-colonial politics, she used to become very
nationalist and very supportive of the resistance and very understanding
also
 
of their ideas and of their aims.’

SINTHUJAN VARATHARAJAH, 27, GERMANY

‘I grew up in a political household where politics was the subject. Even my
mother, who was only educated up to grade 8, knew everything about politics.
In fact, my father took a picture of the ‘58 riots from the YMCA top floor…
I listened in on conversations with his friends so I knew all about the politicians
and who did what, satyagraha and Galle Face sittings. And he [father] was also
the right man. He was supporting Congress, Tamil Congress. He worked with
G. G. Ponnambalam, intensely.’

PEARL THEVANAYAGAM, 58, JAFFNA

‘My mum was not into politics at all but my father was very much into service
activities and that kind of thing because he’s originally from Upcountry. He had
that passion, I think, that people who are from the Upcountry, who
 
are educated
and all that, should do something for the workers, estate workers
 
who had a very
raw deal he felt, let down by the Tamils – Tamil politicians from
 
Jaffna and the
Sinhalese politicians. But that age I can’t remember anything.
 
But later, yes,
later I got very much into that. That’s why I went and did political
 
science in
university too. I was very political. No, they didn’t discuss. Mum and
 
dad never
discussed. I can’t remember. But my father was very much involved.
 
Later I
remember meetings would happen, other solicitors and others who
 
were
interested, they would kind of have meetings.’

AMBICA SELVARAJ, 62, COLOMBO

‘…My father always discussed about politics but he’s not a Tamil nationalist.
Actually his ideas belong to always UNP party. He’s always talking about
politics but there is no involvement in anything, not much, yeah.’

MALE, 47, BATTICALOA

‘There was an organisation called Suya-Aadchi Kazhakam (Tamilar Suya-
Aadchi Kazhakam) that is…it actually means self-determination, yeah.
That organisation would put up posters saying that Tamils didn’t have
any
 
nation so we should find a nation and all those kind of posters.
I could have
 
been, I don’t know, but I could have been inspired by those
posters and
 
propagandas as well.’

RAJESHKUMAR, 56, JAFFNA