Woollacott’s Insight in 1976: Tamils set for Guerilla War and Secession

In sorting through my papers I came across a news cutting that is historically significant. Here was one occasion where a visiting journalist deciphered a developing scenario correctly. That I retained the clipping in papers relating to an article  I drafted in 1976 is also significant. These circumstances are clarified briefly at the end of Woollacott’s piece. It is fitting that he should hold centre stage ((though, alas, Alamy have put a price on the only photograph I can find of Woollacott)…. Michael Roberts

Tamil satyagrahis being foricbly removed from Galle Face Green by Sinhala enthusiasts in 1956 during the former’s protest vs the Sinhala Only Bill … 1956 or thereabouts (see Victor Ivan: Paradise in Tears … http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2009/12/20/paradise-in-tears-%E2%80%93-new-edition-by-victor-ivan/)

 Ponnadurai Sivakumaran of Urumpirai was a budding resistance fighter who committed suicide by cyanide in 1974 when trapped by police. He is embodied here in high profile with SJV Chelvanayagam of the Federal Party as the embodiment of resistance to oppression. As such, he reflects the strands of Tamil thinking that Martin Woollacott discerned in 1976. Note that the Tamil New Tigers or TNT had been formed in 1972 and metamorphosed into the LTTE in 1976. In the meanwhile the Tamil United Liberation Front under SJV Chelvanyakam adopted the Vaddukoddai Resolution on 14 May 1976 calling for a separate state of Thamililam.

1- The Two Nations of Sri Lanka0001

ONE = Martin Woollacott: “The Two Nations of Sri Lanka,” Guardian Weekly, 7 September 1976

THE trumpets and drums reach a joyful crescendo as the bride, dressed in her new red sari, and with glittering bangles and nose jewellery, takes her place beside the equally resplendent groom. Flowers garland the wedding tent, lights flash on an ornate arch crowned by a figure of Krishna, there is the smell of burning sandalwood. This is a Hindu wedding in Jaffna, the “capital” of the Ceylon Tamils, Sri Lanka’s largest and angriest minority. Children tumble about while their parents sip passion fruit juice and some chew the betel given to every guest.

It is a happy occasion, but it is also a political event, in a town full of secessionist talk. One of the bride’s brothers has just been released from goal. Another is still inside, one of more than a score of Tamil youths held without charge under emergency laws.

As the priest sprinkles holy water, a young man leans across and whispers: “It will be guerrilla war. When we are ready we will smash their army and send it back to Colombo like the rabble that it is.”

The State structures left behind by the British in the subcontinent have buckled and, in the spectacular case of Bangladesh, collapsed under the pressure of local nationalism in the years since independence. Now even Sri Lanka faces a separatist movement that is committed, at least verbally, to taking up to a fifth of the island’s population and a third of its territory out of the State.

The Ceylon Tamils, who had a separate kingdom from the majority Sinhalese when the European invaders arrived, like to compare themselves with Scotland. If that is so, the Sinhalese are now in the position in which England would be if two proportion to their numbers, and that the balance must now be redressed.

The Tamil middle class speciality is the production of professionals for service outside Tamil areas, mainly in the Sinhalese part of Sri Lanka but also abroad. One typical family described to me includes a son in the Sri Lanka civil service, a lawyer in practice in Colombo, an accountant in East Africa, a doctor in London, and a teacher in Canada. Only one of the children remained in Jaffna.

This “talent industry” has been disrupted by Colombo’s policies. What in practice it means is that the clever middle class boys who 10 years ago would have been on their way to a professional qualification of worldwide value are now sitting at home without a university place or a job.

The Tamil peasantry also has a serious grievance in that colonisation schemes are inevitably changing the ethnic balance in some areas. There is much truth in the claim that the Indian Tamil plantation workers have been treated by successive Colombo Governments as an underpaid labour force without political or social rights. However, it is the embittered middle class that is leading the way.

***  ***

TWO = Michael Roberts: My Rising Concerns in the 1970s

Woollacott’s article was located recently as a news clipping in an envelope that contained a typescript copy of an article I drafted while I was a Humboldt Fellow at the SudAsien Institut, Heidelberg Universitat, in 1976. This article is entitled “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhalese Perspectives: Barriers to Accommodation” and was eventually published in Modern Asian Studies, vol. 12, pp. 353-76. It is a pessimistic assessment of the situation in Sri Lanka and ended by noting that the only requisite for the intensification of  Tamil youth resistance was the acquisition of military technology and expertise. The fuller tale of the incidents and information that led me to this pessimistic appraisal will be presented soon. But let me note some factors that informed my thinking

A. Some of the intellectual discussions associated with papers presented at the Ceylon Studies Seminar in Peradeniya in the 1970s

B. The reading and teaching associated with a course I had started at Peradeniya in 1972: viz., “Nationalism and Its Problems.”

C. My own historical research work on Ceylonese nationalism and the parallel strands of Sinhala nationalism in the course of research that had been inscribed in my Introduction to The Documents of the Ceylon National Congress (which appeared in 1977). This reading included a study of the Anagarika Dharmapala’s thinking and stressed that he tended to equate “Ceylonese” with “Sinhalese” — so that the major part swallowed the whole in both a conscious and a subterranean manner. Since  he could be identified as the patron saint of the Sinhala Buddhist groundswell of the year 1956 and after, this boded danger for the existing polity.

D. Interaction with an old friend Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe of Kurunegala — a person who had many Tamil contacts and one who had a finger on the pulse of political currents in most quarters.

E. Information conveyed by Jane Russell, a postgrad research student at Peradeniya, who had spent some time in the Jaffna Peninsula on her Ph.D research work in 1972/73. Some youth, she told me, had indicated that they were disgusted with the existing Colombo based Tamil leadership and had told her that as far as they were concerned “all the Tamils in Colombo could die.In brief, these guys had moved to the extreme pole and therefore possessed “the power of polarity.”

F. The presence of Woollacott’s news item as cutting in my papers indicates that his discerning reportage contributed to the pessimism informing my analysis in that draft article. Indeed, his ethnographic note about the whispering young man who promised “a guerilla war” matched the ethnographic findings recorded by my friend Jane.

The snaps below mark what came to pass

  Tiger leaders at an Indian training campat Sirmalai mid 1980s – each with a different type of automatic  rifle

 Tigresses receive kuppi (cyanide ‘thali’) as induction promise at a passing out ceremony filmed by a BBC team in 1991 — film called “Suicide Killers’

 Some Tiger boys on guard duty as Tamil refugees flee date uncertain –probably wotk of Shyam Tekwani

1- The Two Nations of Sri Lanka0001

THREE = Michael Roberts: “Woollacott’s Typical Error: Accepting the Expanded Geo-historical Claims of the Tamils”

In referring in passing to the “separate kingdom” of the Tamils in The past and to alteration of “the ethnic balance” in favour of the Sinhalese in some areas via the “colonisation schemes, Martin Woollacott accepts the standard claims postulated by the ITAK (Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi) since 1949. The emblem ITAK is translated as “The Federal Freedom Party of the Tamil-Speaking People of Ceylon” in the pamphlet printed for the inaugural meeting on 19 December 1949 at the GCSU Hall in Maradana, Colombo.[1] Thus, the Tamil leaders sought to embrace the Tamil-speaking Muslims  in their presentation of self — an unsolicited claim directed towards a maximization of their public face. The concept of “traditional homelands” was a similar act of maximisation. Since 1949 it has been postulated fervently for decades. Just as Woollacott was impressed by the intensity of commitment among the dissident Tamil youth, this fervour seems to have won him over on a topic he knew little about and where he had no immediate contemporary wherewithal with which to assess its claims.

This is a set of claims that Tamil political spokesmen as well as scholars have postulated in ways that are as devious as fallacious – sometimes (a) implying that a Tamil kingdom existed for over 19 centuries; and (b) implying that the areas that sustain a majority of Tamils today were part of an independent Tamil kingdom since whenever. Since Woolacott’s focus was the present, it is not surprising that he did not delve into history and cross-check the claims about the “colonisation schemes” encroaching on “traditional homelands”.

He would have been misled by the boundary of the Eastern Province carved out by the British in the 19th century. This line on the map running zig-zag from north to south was as arbitrary a line as any of the boundaries developed in Africa by the various European colonisers. From when it was defined in the 19th century right through into the 1940s the littoral areas of this Eastern Province sustained some 85-90 per cent of the total population in that provincial ‘unit’.

This means that the remaining interior districts embracing some 80 per cent of the land area sustained only 10-15 percent of the total EP population. These people were mostly Sinhala or Vadda.

The mapwork presented by Gerald Peiris depicting the settlement patterns in 1921 on the basis of the census figures of that year provides a graphic picture of this skewed distribution.[2]  While it was not in the public realm till 1985, this understanding of the  character of the Eastern Province would have been known to both residents and government servants who had served in the province.

homeland maps (2)

Moreover, the Tamil majority of the eastern littoral from north of Trincomalee right down to the Kumana area had never been part of a kingdom ruled by Tamil monarchs. They had been subjects of the Kingdoms of Kotte, Sitawaka and Kandy.

The manner in which the “traditional homelands thesis” has been presented by some Tamil political spokesmen as well as personnel wearing the caps of scholars is a case study in dissimulation. Books have been presented in recent times which pretend that the work of Gerald Peiris on population distribution in the colonial period does not exist. The historian Indrapala has joined this unholy band by disclaiming his earlier thesis work which indicated that some of the earliest place names in the Jaffna Peninsula indicate “proto-Sinhala” language practices. A Tamil activist of some sort has assisted the cause by stealing the copy of this dissertation from its location in the SOAS Library in London.

Within a new book on the topic (2015)Indrapala tells us that he has thrown away his thesis. He does not go into detail why he has done so.[3]  That is what is required of decent scholarship. In its absence we are left to infer that he wishes to step forth as a Tamil patriot in his new home in Sydney. My disgust is unlimited.

***  ***


[1] The cover illustration and full text of the ITAK pamphlet of 19th December 1949 can be found at the tail end of Roberts, Tamil Person and State. Pictorial, Colombo, Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2014, pp 273-92.

[2] Peiris, An Appraisal of the Concept of a Traditional Tamil Homeland in Sri Lanka, paper presented at an international conference on “Economic Dimensions of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka‟, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, August 1985. This essay was published in Ethnic Studies Report, IX (1): 1991: 13-39.  1984.

[3] K.Indrapala, The Evolution of an Ethnic Identity: The Tamils of Sri Lanka C. 300 BCE to C. 1200 CE, 2015, …. ISBN-13: 978-1511674126




June 16, 2018 · 4:29 am

3 responses to “Woollacott’s Insight in 1976: Tamils set for Guerilla War and Secession

  1. Rohan de Soysa

    Woollacott’s article is indeed perceptive. It brings to mind a conversation I had on a flight to London in 1975 shortly after Alfred Duraiappah, Mayor of Jaffna, had been assasinated. Most of the passengers were Tamil youth and I struck up a conversation with those in my row. I asked them if Duriappah had been a bad guy. They said he was very helpful to them personally and had gone out if his way to help obtain visas but they were not sorry he had been killed as he was a traitor, since he was collaborating with a Sinhala party. Further talk brought out the fact that they felt they were denied their rights.

    My pointing out that everywhere in the world it was the language of the majority that was the official one was of no avail. I guess it was the rough shod way the Sinhala Only Act was foisted on them that sent a clear message to make them feel unwanted.

    Later that year when our cricket team played in England there were pro-Eelam demonstrations held at the matches, which our politicians ignored in cavalier fashion!

    • Many thanks ROHAN: oral history is important and this adds to the “store”. I have written on the 1975 cricket match at the Oval from both a cricketing and political [point of view. There is a snap that captures one moment in a non-threatening pitch invasion …but I am not sure how to inset it here

      • Rohan de Soysa

        If I remember right Kamini was a spectator at that match and saw the pitch invasion.

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