Racism and religious bigotry, the double-edged scourge, has ever been the enormous impediment for the forward march of Sri Lanka. In the country’s recent history, such a phenomenon emerged in the early 20th century, and has persisted to this day in varying degrees. Even though the situation was initially relatively peaceful when Independence from foreign rule dawned in 1948, and the economic situation apparently signaling a forward movement, thanks especially to the Korean war boom and the Rubber-Rice pact with China, it soon began to change drastically for the worse with the rise of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemonic positions. As is well known, on the occasion of the 1956 elections, both the UNP as well as the SLFP vied with each other to make Sinhala the sole official language. On his visit to Jaffna on the verge of the 1956 General Elections , the then Prime Minister, Sir John Kotelawala, made a pledge, inter alia, to accord official language status to Tamil as well. It provoked strong resistance in the South, and the UNP swiftly changed course to make Sinhala the sole official language, as the election pledge. And, not to lag behind, SLFP leader, S.W.R.D Bandaranaike had no qualms jettisoning his own pledge to make Sinhala and Tamil official languages when he founded the SLFP in 1951. Thus, In his bid to outwit the UNP, Bandaranaike announced “Sinhala only within 24 hours” as his battle cry. The LSSP then made the historic warning, “Two languages, one Nation, One language, 2 Nation s”, nay two bleeding halves, as prophesied by Colvin R de Silva, that it would someday lead to a demand by the Tamils for a separate State . And the Tamil leaders opposed the “Sinhala only” bill because exclusion of the Tamil language would not only be repugnant to the principle of justice and fair-play, but also constituted an infringement of the letter and spirit of section 29 of the Soulbury Constitution then in force. But Bandaranaike would not relent, for his own opportunistic reasons which propelled his election pledge.
What followed was a call by the Federal Party leader, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, for a civil disobedience campaign. However, in order to forestall such an eventuality, Bandaranaike opened negotiations with the Federal Party leader and entered into what came to be known as the Bandaranike-Chelvanayakam Pact (BC Pact) on 26th July, 1957. Bandaranaike then launched a campaign to explain the need for such a pact, extolling his own virtues as a true Buddhist. Strong opposition to the pact was mounted by the Sinhala Buddhist constituency, as a sell-out to the Tamils. Adding weight to that campaign was the protest march to Kandy launched by UNP strongman J.R. Jayewardene. Meantime, the Buddhist clergy intensified their opposition to the Pact, culminating in a siege on Bandaranaike’s Rosmead Place residence on 9th April, 1958, raising an implacable hue and cry, and Bandaranaike found himself with no option but to cave in; a bi-lateral pact was instantly abrogated unilaterally.
What indeed did the B-C pact provide for? Certainly not for any federal arrangement, nor any change in the Sinhala only Act, but of course (a) Establishment of a Regional Council for the Northern Province, and two or more such entities for the Eastern Province, with powers “over specified subject including agriculture, co-operatives, lands and land development, colonization, education, health, industries, fisheries, housing, social services, electricity, water schemes and roads. (b) It was agreed that in the matter of colonization schemes, the powers of the Regional Council shall include power to select allottees to whom lands within their areas of authority shall be alienated , and power to select the personnel to work on such schemes, (c) The Central Government will provide block grants to the Regional Councils which will also have powers of taxation and borrowing”
Upon reaching this framework agreement, the Federal Party agreed to cancel the Satyagraha campaign that had been planned. Lo and behold, it didn’t take long for anti- Tamil riots to be unleashed by the racist forces, which the then redoubtable English journalist of Sunday Observer fame, Tarzie Vittachchi, described as “man’s inhumanity to man” Bandararanaike not only refused to declare a State of Emergency which some prominent citizens jointly urged was warranted. On the contrary, Bandaranaike went on to address the Nation, and Vittachhi described the speech as “raw oxygen blown into a raging fire”, thus escalating the riots which Vittachchi exhaustively documented in his book titled “Emergency ‘58 – History of the Ceylon Race riots”. Bandaranaike’s own interpretation of the unfolding events and his awful contribution was to add ”fuel to the fire”.as Vittachi chose to add . That is to say, whereas the riots broke out on 22nd May 1958, Bandaranaike misled the country in his broadcast to the Nation on 26.05.1958, maintaining that “the murder of the former Mayor of Nuwara Eliya, Mr. D.A. Seneviratne in Batticaloa on 25th June was the incident that led to the riots breaking out”. Federal Party Leader Chelvanayakam stated in Parliament on 4th June, 1958 that murder of Seneviratne arose out of a private feud, , and that was not contradicted from any quarter.
In 1965, negotiations conducted between FP leader Chelvanayakam and Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake on 24 March brought forth the Dudley-Chelvanayakam pact (D-C Pact) Here again, arose racist, extremist opposition to the Pact notwithstanding its lesser parameters than the B-C pact. Dudley Senanayake easily succumbed and lost no time to abrogate the pact “ which provided for (a) the Tamil language to be the language of administration in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, (b) Legal proceedings in the Northern and Eastern Provinces will be conducted and recorded in Tamil (c) District Councils to be established in the country with powers over subjects to be mutually agreed upon between the two leaders. “ It was agreed, however, that the Government should have the power under the law to give direction to such Councils under the national interest”. And then, Mr Senanayake further agreed that in the matter of granting land under colonization schemes, the following priorities be observed in the Northern and Eastern Provinces: (a) Land in the Northern and Eastern Provinces should in the first instance be granted to landless persons in the District, (b) Secondly, to Tamil-speaking residents in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, (c) Thirdly, to other citizens in the country, preference being given to Tamil citizens in the rest of the Island”
So, had either of these pacts been implemented, Tamil armed struggle which, objectively speaking, came on the scene as a last resort , could well have been obviated, leaving no cause for the 26-year long war, which the worst 1983 anti-Tamil riots (Black July) precipitated.
Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC)
This Commission, appointed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2010, headed by a former Attorney-General, the late C.R de Silva , pinpointed, inter ala, that there had been periodical , anti-Tamil violence, culminating in war , since none of the Governments since Independence took concrete measures to resolve the Tamil national question , and strongly recommended that a viable solution would soon have to be found. It was not to be, and, in fact the Commission lamented that even its interim report issued at the end of 1 year was not acted upon.