Connect with us

Features

Jungle trek with tappal runner Kalua: Laggala — Pallegama in 1947

Published

on

By Frederick Medis

It was 1947, and everywhere there was the lingering post-war euphoria of victory in the Second World War in which Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) had played a significant role with Lord Louis Mountbatten’s South-East Asia Command headquarters in Kandy. By now British, American, African and Indian troops had ceased to be evident in most of the populated areas, and the skies were free of the continual droning of British fighter airplanes as they rummaged the skies.

The Soulbury Commission had made its recommendations. Our college class studying the subject of government had been asked to go to the Colombo Town Hall and listen to some of the submissions and recommendations. Food scarcities and queues were quietly being eliminated, but prices were stabilizing at higher levels. The war had brought money into the hands and purses of many people, and a noveau riche was emerging. The five-cent emergency currency-note of June 1,, 1942 (divisible into two and three cents values) was slowly going out of use. The British Government had followed a policy of issuing low denomination currency as being the most effective method of stalling inflation.

Invitation to Laggala-Pallegama

I had just passed 20, and was awaiting results of the university entrance examination. Time was hanging heavy on my hands when, along with my parents and my sister, I attended the wedding reception of a family friend at the Silver Fawn Ballroom. This was one of Colombo’s fashionable places at the time; there were only three recognized hotels in Colombo and another in Mount Lavinia.

At this wedding reception I met a childhood friend and her husband, a planter of Eurasian descent, James Gibbs Martin. He was a happy-go-lucky man and a few years elder to me. He was interested in places connected with history and wildlife. While on a short holiday in the fast developing tea estate at Panwila in August 1945, we had explored what was then the dense jungle fastness of Hunasgiriya peak. Miles and miles of jungle were there with little life at all, both human and animal. Today it is vastly different.

We got into conversation and they invited me to spend a few days on the remote tea estate where he was now stationed temporarily. “Come”, he said, “to be in Kandy at night. Then at 5.20 in the morning take the train to Matale. From Matale there is a bus to Rattota, a sleepy village. Inquire at the Rattota Post Office and they will direct you to the only vehicle which plies the route.” (This “bus” was a small-sized converted lorry with strapped-on wooden benches and open wire grills for windows on either side.) “This makeshift bus will leave at about 9 am. They will charge you 40 cents as fare. It will stop a short distance from the rocky roadway leading to the small bungalow on Laggala Estate. The road that the bus travels is about 10 miles distant. It is narrow, rough and boulder-strewn. But hopefully, you can be with us for lunch by one o’clock in the afternoon.”

The description and the veiled warning forebode a journey of adventure, and I listened with ears and eyes wide open. Naturally, I agreed instinctively (with my parents’ permission). “Write,” they said, “before you come. There is no telephone communication. But in any case it does not matter. We are lonely out there and only the servants, estate workers and trackers are there in the vicinity.” I promised to write.

Rattota via Kandy and Matale

It was just before the Vesak festival in May that I decided to go. The evening train from Colombo Fort took me to Kandy for 90 cents in a third class compartment. At Kandy, it was too late to get to the home of friends in Suduhumpola. Besides, I had to be up and ready to board the 5.20 am train to Matale while it was still dark. I stayed in the rest room, where there was nobody else. The lounge chair was bug-infested. So I slept on the large table in the centre. A fair-sized cut-out of soft plastic, which I had brought with me, served as a good spread. It had served the purpose of a protective barrage balloon over ships in Colombo harbour during the war, and was freely available for sale in the Pettah at the time.

I was up at four in the morning, with the huffing and puffing of steam engines of trains serving as an alarm clock. I washed, ate some biscuits with plain tea from my vacuum flask (milk-tea gets spoilt after some hours) and I was ready.

My luggage consisted of my canvas boy-scout haversack in which I carried a change of clothes, a camera which was a gift from my father, a tripod stand for use with the automatic self-timing shutter, a vacuum flask and some miscellaneous essentials including aspirin, iodine, cotton wool and sticking plaster. For some unaccountable reason, in addition to biscuits, I had taken three anamalu plantains and a generous helping of jaggery cut into manageable pieces.

The train to Matale had a fair number of passengers. On reaching Matale, I crammed along with my haversack into the first available bus, which was shaped like Cinderella’s coach, and reached Rattota. I was shown the post office, which had not yet opened for business. I spent the extra time gainfully watching some well-cared for and trained Sinhala game-cocks tethered to a clump of plantain bushes down the shadowed slope on the opposite side of the road.

The owner, a bare-chested stalwart, was happy to discuss game-fowl characteristics with me. A few years earlier I had joined as a junior member of the Ceylon Poultry Club and by now I owned a few Sinhala game-birds, which had won awards at exhibitions. When he learnt where I was going, the man told me that the bus would not ply the route that day, as it was under repair. This was disturbing news.

When the post office opened, I renewed my inquiry regarding the bus. The officials confirmed the bad news. When they found out that I was determined, if necessary, to walk, they told me that it was a long and circuitous route of 17 miles to Pallegama, through streams and dense jungles infested by bear, wild boar and an occasional leopard. It was impossible, they told me disparagingly. I would get lost, and most likely never return.

Jungle walk with Kalua

However, there was a ray of hope, for soon after 9 am Kalua, the tappal-runner would leave the post office with the mail bag. I could go with him, if I was so inclined. They warned me: “You have to keep pace with him; he walks fast through the jungle. Don’t lag too far behind. You are inexperienced, and the jungle is dangerous.”

I had come this far, and I was determined to go on. I was wearing khaki shorts, my scout shirt with its numerous pockets, belt and pith hat. The haversack was strapped round my shoulders. I wore khaki hose-tops, for I probably thought of leeches, and comparatively new leather shoes with light-coloured compressed rubber soles.

A postal officer introduced me to Kalua. He was a dapper, black-complexioned man, as the name implied, nearly six feet tall, bare-footed and wearing a grey-brown sarong about 10 inches above ground, with a brass-buttoned official black serge coat. When told that I was keen to join him, Kalua grunted his approval. Aside, he spoke a few words to those who were sealing the smaller bags to be enclosed in the large canvas sack to be carried by him. I gathered from his gesticulations that what he was saying was “I have no time to waste. If he is slow I will leave him behind.”

The postmaster, as I guessed him to be, edged close to me. He said, “Don’t take off your shoes. Your feet are not used to the sharp rocks and thorns like our tappal-runner.” I nodded my thanks.

By now Kalua was ready. “Yamu (let’s go)”, he said bluntly and somewhat condescendingly. Impulsively, I moved forward at a steady pace behind him, with shoes and all.

For about one mile of descent, Kalua’s sturdy frame pushed through narrow jungle paths where there was evidence of at least some agricultural use. We were now leaving the semi-cultivated land and moving upwards for half a mile through brushwood and patna with sparse and heavily foliaged, gnarled trees.

The scene then changed. An occasional grunt made my muscles tense, but I was relieved to realize it came not from an animal, but from my leader and guide. Both Kalua and I took cautious steps as it was evident that hidden under the bushes with innocent-looking leaves were sharp drops that hid dangerous ravines and streams.

We had now reached an open valley. The gurgling sound indicated that there was a fast-moving stream winding over both sharp and rounded rocks of massive proportions. Kalua, balancing the mail-bag on his head, walked steadily through the water gushing a few inches below the knee. Above the sound of the rumbling water, he shouted to me to keep to the identical path he was taking. As there was no time for me to take off my footwear, I plunged in after the leader, with shoes and hose-tops to boot.

The upward climb through a heavily wooded area was not easy, especially with the fair weight of my haversack. It was then that I noted his feet. They were broad, strong and the toes splayed apart. This gave him a firm grip of whatever came in contact with them. This man walked with unusually erect posture. He was balancing the canvas postal bag vertically and sometimes horizontally on his head without the aid of his hands, except when he bent under creepers and low branches.

In his right hand he held something like a light manne knife and a nail about six inches long. From a cord on his left wrist was suspended a thin metal plate about two inches by five inches in size. He struck the nail on the plate from time to time, much like an alarm bell, whenever we crept through the bushes. Each alarm he sounded four or five times in a staccato rhythm. In the still silence of the morning it echoed, specially in those areas where a stray wind was swaying the low trees.

Kalua was a strong and bold man. How intrepid he was became evident to me when we were in a dense jungle area where he cut his way through the creepers and the tall, slender undergrowth, while I followed in his footsteps. The pathway he had cleared two days earlier had to be cut once again, so fast did the jungle regain its lush strength after the light rains.

In front of us was a sizeable mound, partly hidden by bushes and wild creepers. There was no other way in which we could move out except by going round the hillock. Trees on the sides were too dense and their huge trunks of wide circumference would daunt anyone thinking of going through their interstices.

Kalua moved round the hillock and I followed. And then I saw what made me tremble. Kalua simultaneously turned round with the bag gyrating on his head to keep direction. Looking at me he clamped his four fingers and thumb over his mouth. This was in much the same way that a school teacher places her index finger vertically over her lips, indicating that the pupils must keep silence.

On the mound I saw them; there were four black bears, three large and one small. Two were stamping around, and we heard the sound of loose earth being scattered on the leaves in front of us as they clawed the dry ant-hill, which was a fairly large termites’ nest.

Kalua paused momentarily, and without any hasty movement, indicated that I follow him in close formation. I was trembling. The sight was a menacing one, and the bears were above us about four yards away. After the encounter, Kalua was more relaxed and spoke occasionally.

As we passed the area of wet vegetation resulting from light rain, there arose from the ravine an uninterrupted sound of shrieking whistles, five or six long calls of high and low-pitched notes resembling a hen’s cackle, but reaching a crescendo and then going lower down the scale. This continued for a long time on a raucous, almost quarrelsome note. Without my inquiring, Kalua volunteered the information that it was the call of the Ceylon spur fowl (haban-kukula). He told me that we would perhaps see them if we were fortunate enough.

We continued to climb over the incline of what appeared to be a semi-montane wilderness, but the trees, though shorter, let in more streaks of sunlight on the dry decayed leaves which formed a thick carpet over the long and broad supporting roots. I asked Kalua about leeches. He grunted again, as the question appeared absurd to him. In any case, who bothered about leeches?

Then we heard the clattering as about 30 red-faced monkeys (rilaw) were swaying high up in the trees. They were a diversion. Kalua informed me that we were approaching a jungle clearing where three families chose to plant millet and kurakkan in the valley fed by a small ravine. They were a good distance away from the rest of humanity.

We came upon them in a few minutes. A tiny straw-thatched hut served as a small boutique, but there was nothing to buy except a welcome cup of plain tea, and of course some dried fish, dried game meat, kurakkan seed and wood-apple. These were not on display but brought out only when there was a wayfarer who stopped by. They said that monkeys were thieves and nothing could be kept exposed.

Kalua gave the order for boiling water for tea, while I gladly pulled off my haversack and slumped on the sliced log-seat placed on two flat stones in the compound. Although there was ample room on the seat, Kalua refused to sit with me. He preferred to squat on his haunches. Two middle-aged women and two men, who were sparsely clad, fetched and boiled water for tea on an open hearth fed by dry twigs.

Kalua sniffed at and declined the round kurakkan rotti, which was placed on a flat, woven mat-tray. He drew up the sleeves of his black coat and showed me two long welted scars on his forearm. “This is what a bear did to me one morning in the jungle. I did not see him in time.” He had also lost part of a little finger in the fray.

While we sat waiting for the tea to brew, the two men asked me some questions. I answered as best as I could, but most of the words were strange to me as the Sinhala they spoke had a peculiar drawl and accentuation. Kalua therefore answered for me. He was a familiar figure to them and was a link with the world outside the jungle. They were able to gather from him information relevant to their lonely lives, and they awaited his twice-weekly arrivals to and fro.

He would go alone through the jungle to Laggala, Illukkumbura, Makumbura and Laggala-Pallegama. Then he would rest for a day and come back to Rattota with mail for onward transmission through Matale and Kandy.

The cost of the two cups of tea was two cents, and I paid with two copper one-cent coins I had in my bag. This was about the price anywhere in the country at that time. Instead of sugar they gave us a spoonful of tal sukiri, a type of jaggery, to the palm of the hand.

Refreshed, Kalua sprang to his feet, as he had no time to lose.

After we had walked for about a mile in silence, Kalua asked me why I was going to the jungle tea estate of Laggala, which he knew. I told him I had friends there. Again he grunted. When I asked whether anyone else had made the trek with him earlier, he said there was no need for company. He knew the jungle well enough, and there had been tappal runners who carried staves for defence and bells for scaring away the wild animals.

He had hardly finished speaking when two large sambhur stopped in their tracks a few yards ahead of us with a young fawn on slender quivering legs. They looked at us and almost immediately ran across with a thumping sound on the dry earth. It was a beautiful sight. “As I was telling you,” Kalua said, “today there are fewer animals. They cannot harm us. They are afraid of us.”

He told me he was brought up as a young boy in a walauwa (stately home) with many children. He was their servant and messenger, and later the master arranged with the postal authorities for him to serve as a tappal-runner. They had been kind to him and even given him a small outhouse in the walauwa garden where he stayed and did odd jobs during his free time.

By now the uphill climb and the downhill drag were making me feel hungry and exhausted. If I lagged behind I would lose my way, for other than Kalua there was no human being in sight. Then it occurred to me that in my haversack were plantains and pieces of jaggery. This was a wonderful discovery. I offered Kalua his share, but he took only the plantains. Within a minute of taking a few bites, I was back to normal with revived energy. I plodded on, ready to walk many more miles.

Ahead of us, in a partly open area with low bushes, we heard a persistent series of short grunts. As the bushes moved to and fro, we stopped to watch an amazing struggle between two full-grown porcupines as they came to the open patch of jungle. They were contending for a point of vantage. Instead of facing each other, they were turning around in semi-circles so that they attacked by backward thrusts in order that the sharp quills would injure the exposed part of the opponent.

At first I thought it was a mating ritual, but soon we heard the rattling sounds of the quills grating, mixed with the low pitched sniffs and grunts. It was for me an interesting combat, but Kalua decided to move on.

Within minutes after this encounter, we were confronted only a short distance away by the tall grasses being flattened. Kalua showed me a grey-black wild sow with about a dozen piglings as they moved very fast trampling the mana grass. He stopped until they were out of sight, and then he uttered one sentence: “They are dangerous”.

The sun was now right above us as we came to a dense jungle of low trees. Kalua set to work with his knife, as he struck at the wild creepers and slender twigs that blocked our path. Our progress was slowed down, but when we finally emerged, there was open country, desolate except for the omnipresent low bushes.

I was cautioned to be on my guard. There was an animal that soon made its way out, and to our relief it was a peacock that nuzzled its way out of the grass. In a jerky way it rose in the air with its bedraggled, cumbersome tail folded behind. Within seconds it was followed by two peahens making persistent, awkward noises.

The heat had made me thirsty. Before I could communicate this to Kalua, he moved to a rocky outcrop where we drank from a cascade of cool gushing water.

I looked at my watch. It was nearly 2 pm. Above and beyond the canopy of trees I now saw smoke coming from the kitchen chimney of a large zinc-roofed house half a mile away. There was a sense of relief when Kalua announced we had almost arrived. I could then see patches of tea with some shade trees on an estate.

While we were within sight of the bungalow, he told me it was time to part company. I thanked him for all his help, and the protection and advice he had offered me. When I took out from my purse a new King George VI one-rupee currency note and gave it to him, he politely refused to take it.

As I moved forward and away from him, he paused to watch me go, and even at a distance he cautioned me to move slowly across the narrow metal bridge, which had no balustrades. When about 25 yards away, as the dogs started barking, my friend’s wife appeared in the doorway. As soon as she recognized me, I turned round to Kalua and asked him whether he would come in. He grunted, shook his head and was on his way where duty called.

His help made the journey possible, and naturally I was grateful to him. I had earlier heard of postal runners, whose duty was to distribute on foot letters from a post office to distant, out of the way villages, but this was the first time I had seen one. With time, their breed has suffered a natural death.

(To be continued)

(Excerpted from Jungle Journeys in Sri Lanka edited by CG Uragoda)



Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Features

Thomians triumph in Sydney 

Published

on

Nothing is happening for us, at this end, other than queues, queues, and more queues! There’s very little to shout about were the sports and entertainment scenes are concerned. However, Down Under, the going seems good.

Sri Lankans, especially in Melbourne, Australia, have quite a lot of happenings to check out, and they all seem to be having a jolly good time!

Trevine Rodrigo,

who puts pen to paper to keep Sri Lankans informed of the events in Melbourne, was in Sydney, to taken in the scene at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition. And, this is Trevine’s report:

The weather Gods and S.Thomas aligned, in Sydney, to provide the unexpected at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition, graced by an appreciative crowd.

Inclement weather was forecast for the day, and a well drilled Dharmaraja College was expected to go back-to-back at this now emerging competition in Sydney’s Sri Lanka expatriate sporting calendar.

But the unforeseen was delivered, with sunny conditions throughout, and the Thomians provided the upset of the competition when they stunned the favourites, Dharmaraja, in the final, to grab the Peninsula Motor Group Trophy.

Still in its infancy, the Sevens Touch Competition, drawn on the lines of Rugby League rules, found new flair and more enthusiasm among its growing number of fans, through the injection of players from around Australia, opposed to the initial tournament which was restricted to mainly Sydneysiders.

A carnival like atmosphere prevailed throughout the day’s competition.

Ten teams pitted themselves in a round robin system, in two groups, and the top four sides then progressed to the semi-finals, on a knock out basis, to find the winner.

A food stall gave fans the opportunity to keep themselves fed and hydrated while the teams provided the thrills of a highly competitive and skilled tournament.

The rugby dished out was fiercely contested, with teams such as Trinity, Royal and St. Peter’s very much in the fray but failing to qualify after narrow losses on a day of unpredictability.

Issipathana and Wesley were the other semi-finalists with the Pathanians grabbing third place in the play-off before the final.

The final was a tense encounter between last year’s finalists Dharmaraja College and S.Thomas. Form suggested that the Rajans were on track for successive wins in as many attempts.  But the Thomians had other ideas.

The fluent Rajans, with deft handling skills and evasive running, looked the goods, but found the Thomian defence impregnable.  Things were tied until the final minutes when the Thomians sealed the result with an intercept try and hung on to claim the unthinkable.

It was perhaps the price for complacency on the Rajans part that cost them the game and a lesson that it is never over until the final whistle.

Peninsula Motor Group, headed by successful businessman Dilip Kumar, was the main sponsor of the event, providing playing gear to all the teams, and prize money to the winners and runners-up.

The plan for the future is to make this event more attractive and better structured, according to the organisers, headed by Deeptha Perera, whose vision was behind the success of this episode.

In a bid to increase interest, an over 40’s tournament, preceded the main event, and it was as interesting as the younger version.

Ceylon Touch Rugby, a mixed team from Melbourne, won the over 40 competition, beating Royal College in the final.

Continue Reading

Features

Marked stress on Asia in US foreign policy

Published

on

US President Joe Biden disembarks Air Force One as he arrives at the Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea May 20, 2022

US President Joe Biden’s recent tour of some Asian powers is indicative of a renewed and enhanced interest the US is beginning to take in the Indo-Pacific region. In this his first Asian tour the President chose to visit Japan and South Korea besides helming a Quad meeting in Tokyo and there is good reason for the choice of these venues and engagements.

The first phase of these bridge-strengthening efforts by the US began in late August last year when US Vice President Kamala Harris visited South-east Asia in the wake of the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Besides being driven by strong economic compulsions, the US intention was also to ensure that too much of a power vacuum did not open up in the region, following its pull-out from Afghanistan, since China’s perceived expansionist designs are a prime foreign policy concern of the US.

However, the US President’s recent wide-ranging tour of East Asia seems to have been also prompted by some currently intensifying trends and tensions in the wider stage of international politics though the seeming power vacuum just referred to has a significant bearing on it. The immediate purpose of the US President’s tour seems to have been to bolster his country’s backing for Japan and South Korea, two of the US’ closest allies in East Asia. This is necessitated by the ‘China threat’, which, if neglected, could render the US allies vulnerable to China’s military attacks on the one hand and blunt US power and influence in the region on the other.

While Taiwan’s airspace has reportedly been frequently violated by China, sections in Japan have reasons to be wary of perceived Chinese expansionist moves in Japan’s adjacent seas. Moreover, many of China’s neighbours have been having territorial disputes with China, which have tended to intensify the perception over the decades that in the Asian theatre in particular China is a number one ‘bogey’. For historical reasons, South Korea too has been finding the increasing rise of China as a major world power considerably discomforting.

Accordingly, the US considers it opportune to reassure South-east Asia in general and its allies in the region in particular of its continuous military, economic and political support. Though these are among the more immediate reasons for Biden’s tour of the region, there are also the convulsions triggered in international politics by the Russian invasion of Ukraine to consider.

Whereas sections of international opinion have been complacent in the belief that military invasions of one country by another are things of the distant past, the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine in February this year proved them shockingly wrong. We have the proof here that not all authoritarian rulers are prepared to adhere to the international rule book and for some of China’s neighbours the possibility is great of their being attacked or invaded by China over the numerous rankling problems that have separated them from their economic super power neighbour over the decades. After all, China is yet to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is increasingly proving an ‘all weather friend’ of Russia. Right now, they are the strongest of allies.

The ‘China threat’ then is prime among the reasons for the US President’s visit to East Asia, though economic considerations play a substantive role in these fence-strengthening initiatives as well. While South-east Asia is the ‘economic power house’ of the world, and the US would need to be doubly mindful of this fact, it would need to reassure its allies in the region of its military and defense assistance at a time of need. This too is of paramount importance.

President Biden did just that while in Tokyo a couple of days back. For instance, he said that the US is ‘fully committed to Japan’s defense’. Biden went on to say that the ‘US is willing to use force to defend Taiwan.’ The latter comment was prompted by the perceived increasing Chinese violations of Taiwan’s air space. After all, considering that Russia has invaded Ukraine with impunity, there is apparently nothing that could prevent China from invading Taiwan and annexing it. Such are the possible repercussions of the Russian invasion.

Meanwhile, North Korea is reportedly carrying on with its development of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. On this issue too, South Korea would need to have US assurances that the latter would come to its defense in case of a North Korean military strike. The US President’s visit to South Korea was aimed at reassuring the latter of the former’s support.

However, as mentioned, economic considerations too figured prominently in the US President’s South-east Asian tour. While being cognizant of the region’s security sensitivities, bolstering economic cooperation with the latter too was a foremost priority for the Biden administration. For example, the US is in the process of formalizing what has come to be referred to as the Indo-Pacific Trade Treaty. The US has reportedly already inducted Japan and South Korea as founding members of the Treaty while, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand are mentioned as prospective members to the treaty.

The perceived threat posed to Western interests in South-east Asia by China needs to be factored in while trying to unravel the reasons for this region-wide endeavour in economic cooperation. It needs to be considered a Western response to China’s Belt and Road initiative which is seen as having a wide appeal for the global South in particular.

While the Russian invasion of Ukraine is having a divisive political and economic impact on the world, international politics will increasingly revolve around the US-China stand-off on a multiplicity of fronts in time to come. Both sides are likely to try out both soft and hard power to an exceptional degree to exercise foremost influence and power in the world. As is already happening, this would trigger increasing international tensions.

There was a distinct and sharp note of firmness in the voice of the US President when he pledged defense and military support for his allies in Asia this week. Considering the very high stakes for the US in a prospering South-east Asia, the US’ competitors would be naive to dismiss his pronouncements as placatory rhetoric meant for believing allies.

Continue Reading

Features

A Majoritarian Constitution

Published

on

1972 Constitution in Retrospect – II

By (Dr) Jayampathy Wickramaratne, President’s Counsel

In this the second part of a three-part article on the 50th anniversary of Sri Lanka becoming a republic, the writer submits that the 1972 Constitution paved the way for constitutionalising majoritarianism in multi-cultural Sri Lanka.

The unitary state

Although Tamil parties expressed their support for the Constituent Assembly process, they were to be disappointed by the substance of the new constitution.

Basic Resolution No. 2 proposed by the Government called for Sri Lanka to be a unitary state. The Federal Party (FP) proposed an amendment that ‘unitary’ be replaced by ‘federal’.

In a memorandum and the model constitution that it submitted to the Steering Committee of the Assembly, the FP proposed that the country be a federal republic consisting of five states made up as follows: (i) Southern and Western provinces, (ii) North Central and North Western provinces (iii) Central, Uva and Sabaragamuwa provinces (iv) Northern Province and the districts of Trincomalee and Batticaloa and (v) Ampara district. The city of Colombo and its suburbs were to be administered by the centre. A list of subjects and functions reserved for the centre, with all others going to the states, was included. Interestingly, law and order and Police were to be reserved subjects.

However, Assembly proceedings show that the Tamils were clearly for a compromise. Dharmalingam, who was a main speaker of the FP under Basic Resolution No. 2, stated that the existing constitution had failed as it was not designed for a multi-ethnic country. He pointed out that in ethnically heterogeneous countries where unitary constitutions had been in operation, concessions to the federal principle have been made to meet the demands and aspirations of the minorities. Where there has been a refusal to concede the federal principle, there have been movements for separation. The FP distanced itself from secessionists such as C. Sunderalingam and V. Navaratnam, referring to them by name, and stated that it was not asking for a division of the country but for a division of power.

Dharmalingam made it clear that the FP’s draft was only a basis for discussion. Stating that the party was only asking that the federal principle be accepted, he suggested that as an interim measure, the SLFP, LSSP and CP should implement what they had promised in the election manifesto, namely that they would abolish Kachcheris and replace them with elected bodies. He stated: “If this Government thinks that it does not have a mandate to establish a federal Constitution, it can at least implement the policies of its leader, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, by decentralising the administration, not in the manner it is being done now, but genuine decentralisation, by removing the Kachcheris and in their place establishing elected bodies to administer those regions.”

Sarath Muttetuwegama of the Communist Party, the first political party in the country to propose federalism, in 1944, followed Dharmalingam and stated that ‘federal’ had become a dirty word not because of the federal system of government but because of what the FP had advocated. He was clearly referring to the FP’s association with the UNP and the conservative policies it had followed, such as voting against nationalisations, the takeover of private schools and the Paddy Lands Bill. Seemingly oblivious to the offer that Dharmalingam had made, he asked why the FP had not used the phrase ‘regional autonomy.’ Speakers from the UF who followed Muttetuwegama made it clear that the UF was in no mood to consider the FP’s offer to settle for much less.

Consequently, Basic Resolution No.2 was passed, and the FP’s amendment was defeated in the Steering and Subjects Committee on 27 March 1971.

Dr Nihal Jayawickrama, who was the Secretary of the Ministry of Justice, under the UF Government, and played an important role in the constitutional reform process, has said that the first draft prepared under the direction of the Minister of Constitutional Affairs did not contain any reference to a ‘unitary state’. However, Minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike proposed in the Ministerial Sub-Committee that the country be declared a ‘unitary state’. The Minister of Constitutional Affairs did not consider this to be necessary and argued that while the proposed constitution would have a unitary structure, unitary constitutions could vary a great deal in form. Nevertheless, the proposed phrase found its way to the final draft. ‘In course of time, this impetuous, ill-considered, wholly unnecessary embellishment has reached the proportions of a battle cry of individuals and groups who seek to achieve a homogenous Sinhalese state on this island’ Dr Jayawickrama observed. ‘Reflections on the Making and Content of the 1972 Constitution: An Insider’s Perspective’ in Asanga Welikala (ed), The Sri Lankan Republic at 40: Reflections on Constitutional History, Theory and Practice vol 1 (Centre for Policy Alternatives 2012) 43.

It is significant that the FP continued to participate in the Constituent Assembly even after its amendment was rejected. Records show that its leader, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, regularly attended the meetings of the Steering and Subjects Committee.

With the advantage of hindsight, it could be said that acceptance of the FP’s proposed compromise for a division of power would have proved to be a far-reaching confidence-building measure on which more could perhaps have been built later. Moreover, such an acceptance would have ensured the continued participation of the FP in the Constituent Assembly. Even had the FP, as the UNP eventually did, voted against the adoption of the new constitution, their participation in the entire constitution-making process would have resulted in greater acceptance of the 1972 Constitution by the Tamil people.

Although they discontinued participation at a later stage, Federal Party MPs nevertheless took oaths under the new Constitution. Tamil parties soon united under the banner of the Tamil United Front (TUF), which later became the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). At the famous Vaddukoddai conference of 1976, the TULF embraced separatism and adopted a resolution calling for a separate state called ‘Tamil Eelam’ in the Northern and Eastern provinces. At the 1977 elections, the TULF contested on a separatist platform and swept the Tamil areas.

The place of Buddhism

According to Dr Jayawickrama, Dr. de Silva’s original proposal called for the guarantee of freedom of thought, conscience and religion to every citizen. However, the Prime Minister requested that this proposal be added with a provision for the protection of institutions and traditional places of worship of Buddhists.

Basic Resolution No. 3 approved by the Constituent Assembly was for Buddhism to be given its ‘rightful place’: ‘In the Republic of Sri Lanka, Buddhism, the religion of the majority of the people, shall be given its rightful place, and accordingly, it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster Buddhism, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Basic Resolution 5 (iv).’

Basic Resolution 5 (iv) referred to read: “Every citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have and adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.”

But by the time the final draft was approved, the proposal had undergone a further change. Article 6 of the 1972 Constitution is as follows: ‘The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster Buddhism while assuring to all religions the rights granted by section 18 (1) (d).’ Section 18 (1) (d), in the chapter on fundamental rights, assures to all citizens the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

To the question of whether constitutionally guaranteeing special status to Buddhism not available to other religions of the land might adversely affect the non-Buddhists, Dr de Silva retrospectively responded in the following manner: “The section in respect of Buddhism is subject to section 18 (1) (d) and I wish to say, I believe in a secular state. But you know when Constitutions are made by Constituent Assemblies they are not made by the Minister of Constitutional Affairs. I myself would have preferred (section 18(1) (d)). But there is nothing…And I repeat, NOTHING, in section 6 which in any manner infringes upon the rights of any religion in this country. (Safeguards for the Minorities in the 1972 Constitution (Young Socialist 1987) 10.)

Dr Jayawickrama has been more critical. ‘If Buddhism had survived in the hearts and minds of the people through nearly five centuries of foreign occupation, a constitutional edict was hardly necessary to protect it now’, he opined. (‘Colvin and Constitution-Making – A Postscript’ Sunday Island, 15 July 2007).

Language provisions

Basic Resolution No.11 stated that all laws shall be enacted in Sinhala and that there shall be a Tamil translation of every law so enacted.

Basic Resolution No.12 read as follows: “(1) The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala as provided by the Official Language Act No. 32 of 1956. (2) The use of the Tamil Language shall be in accordance with the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act No. 28 of 1958.”

Efforts by the FP to get the Government to improve upon Basic Resolutions Nos. 11 and 12 failed. On 28 June 1971, both resolutions were passed, amendments proposed by the FP having been defeated. S.J.V. Chelvanayakam informed the Constituent Assembly that they had met with both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Constitutional Affairs, and while the meetings had been cordial, the Government had refused to make any alteration to the Basic Resolutions. He stated that the FP would therefore not attend future meetings. “We have come to the painful conclusion that as our language rights are not satisfactorily provided in the proposed Constitution, no useful purpose will be served in our continuing in the deliberations of this Assembly. By taking this step, we mean no offence to anybody. We only want to safeguard the dignity of our people.” There was not even a dramatic walk out. ‘We do not wish to stage a demonstration by walking out’, he added.

That Dr Colvin R. de Silva, who prophetically stated in 1955, ‘one language, two countries; two languages, one country’, should go so far as to upgrade the then-existing language provisions to constitutional status has baffled many political observers. In fact, according to Dr Jayawickrama, the Prime Minister had stated that it would be unwise to re-open the language debate and that the better course would be to let the ordinary laws on the subject operate in the form in which they were. By this time, the Privy Council had reversed the decision of the Supreme Court in A.G. v Kodeswaranthat a public servant could not sue the Crown for breach of contract of employment and sent the case back for a determination on other issues, including the main issue as to whether the Official Language Act violated section 29 (2), as the District Court had held. Dr. de Silva did not wish the Supreme Court to re-visit the issue. ‘If the courts do declare this law invalid and unconstitutional, heavens alive, the chief work done from 1956 onwards will be undone. You will have to restore the egg from the omelette into which it was beaten and cooked.’ He had, however, resisted a proposal made by Minister Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike that Sinhala be declared the ‘one’ official language of Sri Lanka.

Continue Reading

Trending