The British Prime Minister David Cameron seeking ‘engagement’ with Tamils needs to be reminded of the root injustice the imperial Britain had committed against Eezham Tamils by making them prone to more than 60 years of genocide in the hands of the unitary Sri Lankan State. The British cabinet in 1947 decided to short-circuit the discourse of an evolutionary constitutional approach with an accelerated process of handing over of power to Sinhalese, an exercise it carried out on the basis of its own geostrategic considerations amidst the pressure exerted by DS Senanayake, a shrewd politician on the Sinhala side. In their geostrategic concerns to secure defence, trade and external-affairs control of the independent Ceylon within the British Commonwealth, the British ignored the Tamil ‘50-50’ balanced representation demand as well as the Kandyan claim of three federal units.
Earlier, the British commissions had even disregarded the Switzerland model of federalism as ‘inferior’ to that of their own Westminster model, cabinet documents of the past reveal.
On 5th May 1947, a top secret document, titled ‘Ceylon Constitution’ was submitted to the British Cabinet by the Chiefs of Staff of the British armed forces at that time, Chief of the Air Staff , Marshal of the Royal Air Force Arthur William Tedder, who held high command during World War II as the deputy commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, Royal Navy’s Admiral of the fleet, Sir John Henry Dacres Cunningham, who was the First Sea Lord and British Army’s General Sir Frank Ernest Wallace Simpson, who served as the Vice Chief of Imperial General Staff (VCIGS).
Again, on 9th June, 1947, a document with more details was produced jointly by the Chief of the Air Staff Marshal of the Royal Air Force Arthur William Tedder and Field Marshal Montgomery of Alamein who was the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and Vice Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Rhoderick Robert McGrigor.
Both these documents serve as the most crucial evidences establishing the geostrategic importance of the island of Ceylon from a British military perspective in late 1940s.
This geostrategic interest was a major reason for the ignorance of Tamil demands. And the failure to address the issue escalated the conflict further into a full-blown genocide.
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Earlier, the British, despite their injustice of making Tamils a minority in the unitary Ceylon, were concerned of an evolutionary constitutional process to arrive at an acceptable framework.
In an important memorandum to the War Cabinet in 1941, on the interpretation of point III of the Atlantic Declaration, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, observed: “Even in Ceylon where responsible government is in fact demanded by the Sinhalese majority, no solution has yet been found to secure the interests of Tamil and other minorities.”
In 1943, the British government had laid it down that the final acceptance of any scheme of constitutional reform formulated by Ministers in Ceylon should be conditional inter alia on its acceptance by three-quarters of the members of the State Council. This was argued as a safeguard to protect ‘minority’ interests.
In 1945, the Soulbury Commission, in response to G.G. Ponnambalam’s 50-50 balanced representation demand noted: “We are not inclined to agree that the system of representation recommended by the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress contains the germs of development, and we do not regard it as a natural evolution from the Constitutions of 1921 and 1924. On the contrary, we should describe a system which purported to reimpose communal representation in the rigid form contemplated, as static, rather than dynamic, and we should not expect to find in it the seeds of a healthy and progressive advance towards Parliamentary self-government.”
The Commission report also went further in stating: “We think it is highly probable that if the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress scheme were adopted action would be taken by the Sinhalese which would be by no means acceptable to the advocates of balanced representation.”
Further, in rejecting the Kandyan claim the Soulbury Commission noted: “At all events, it is clear that under a Constitution providing for full responsible Government in all matters of internal civil administration, those who advocate special concessions to the Kandyans must first convince their own people before they can hope to gain their ends. This is one of the reasons—there are many others—why we unhesitatingly reject a solution of the Kandyan problem suggested to us, as to the Donoughmore Commissioners, that Ceylon should be divided into three self-governing States, Kandyan, Low Country Sinhalese, and Tamil, under a Central Federal Government.”
Following the Soulbury Commission report, a British Cabinet document from 3rd September 1945, notes: “A special point arose in regard to the condition in the 1943 declaration that the acceptance of any constitutional scheme would depend upon its subsequent approval by three-quarters of the members of the State Council of Ceylon. This stipulation had been made because it was feared that the Ministers, in formulating their scheme, would ignore the views of minorities. What His Majesty’s Government now had before them, however, was a scheme formulated by the Soulbury Commission after full consultation with the minorities, and it was accordingly suggested in paragraph 10 of C P . (45) 132 (Revise) that, in the discussions with Mr. Senanayake, it should be open to the Secretary of State for the Colonies to indicate that His Majesty’s Government would not necessarily insist on this condition.”
Despite being aware of the concerns of the ‘minorities’, the geostrategic consideration was a major factor that caused the British to even abandon the ‘safeguard’ concerns in an accelerated process of giving independence to Ceylon.
The British were seeking a collaborative atmosphere from the ‘majority’ Sinhalese through DS Senanayake, as opposed to how they were being treated in India by the Indian Congress that was waging anti imperialist struggle.
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Some extracts from a memorandum by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, titled ‘Report on Ceylon’, dated 17th March, 1948, give further insight on the British approach towards Ceylon. It also illustrates how Senanayake used the ‘Indian threat’ to the favour of the Sinhalese:
“Of the two contradictory themes the one of loyalty and rejoicing was far the more emphatic and dominant. The friendship of Ceylon for Britain, which was always strong, became stronger after 4th February. There is, however, a subdued note’ of doubt that is still to be overcome. It seemed to me that the root cause of this is the military agreement that was made a condition precedent of Dominion status. Why, it is asked by the opposition, was this insisted upon if it does not diminish independence? And Ministers do not find this easy to answer. Our defence relations with Ceylon will depend upon mutual friendship and confidence: this cannot be written into a document and certainly cannot be forced out of Ceylon as the result of a document. On balance the Prime Minister favours as early talks on defence as possible. His motives are:
(a) Doubt whether the existing Defence Agreement, which was agreed to by Ceylon before its independence, may not prejudice Ceylon’s entry into the United Nations Organisation; and
(b) His desire to get a firm defence agreement that will allay his fears about excessive Indian influence in the affairs and future of Ceylon.
It was not my intention to bring up this subject but it was immediately raised on their side. The chief points are :
(a) Ceylon will insist on the formal preservation and assertion of its sovereignty and would prefer unpublished agreements and assurances to a Formal Treaty.
(b) Ceylon is eager to get an extremely close military tie-up with us and will in fact give us all we want, if the forms of sovereignty are preserved.
(c) We may have some bargaining to do about rent, &c, for ground we use : but I do not think they will try and pinch us too far.
(d) They are not prepared to spend very much themselves on their own defence : and we may need to push them in this matter. They want an independent force of their own but are thinking of a force only 1,000 strong.
(e) They want us to train Ceylonese in our military bases and to raise Ceylon units of the Imperial forces, which can serve outside Ceylon. They want the Pioneer Corps in Malaya to be continued.
I am sure we can get all we want in the way of facilities for ourselves if we make the right approach. Everything could be spoiled if we talked to Ceylon as if it were a colony or dependency or as if we had rights in its territory. Any defence agreement we may make will depend upon the good will of the Government and people of Ceylon: we must assume this and can count on it. We must not attempt to substitute for it cast-iron concessions or extraterritorial rights.
Confidential defence talks should, I am sure, be conducted very soon and by our High Commissioner to whom the military should act as expert advisers.
The successful entry of Ceylon into the United Nations Organisation is of paramount importance, and is largely bound up with the Defence Agreement. The Prime Minister impressed this on me several times. If Ceylon fails and Burma succeeds in getting into the United Nations Organisation the present Government might be seriously shaken and might even be compelled, with the utmost reluctance, to leave the Commonwealth. Ceylon Ministers are alarmed about Russia’s possible attitude and use of the Veto.
Relations with India play a leading part in Ceylon’s policy. The Prime Minister told me that he regarded the Indian problem as one of the two dangers facing Ceylon (the other is the Left opposition). In part Ceylon fears Indian pressure and for this reason wants a close military tie-up with us. They want to be treated on their merits and do not wish to come too closely within the Indian orbit.