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C. Suntharalingam - reminiscences

C. Suntharalingam's 110th birth anniversary fell on August 19. He hailed from a distinguished family. His brother C. Nagalingam, was an eminent Supreme Court judge who once acted as Governor of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon. Another brother, Panchalingam was a popular and successful doctor of medicine while Dr. C. Amirthalingam was yet another brother, an outstanding Director of Fisheries. Another brother, C. Thiagalingam, shone in the legal field as a leading lawyer, whose services were much sought after.

However, C. Suntharalingam became a remarkably brilliant scholar who adorned the academic arena as a much loved and noteworthy intellectual, Professor of Mathematics. Having entered the much coveted Indian Civil Service, and later the esteemed select Ceylon Civil Service he served for a while. He found no excitement in conforming to office routine.

It was often talked among those who knew Suntharalingam that the Professor was quite sympathetic to undergraduates whose foibles he tolerated in a broad minded manner. A renowned and respected scholar and reachable mentor, he was frank and never hesitated to espouse the cause of students against British trained stern disciplinarians who headed these institutions of higher learning.

Suntharaligam renounced the mundane routine of the civil service, however superior it was and instead chose the relatively more challenging duties and demanding responsibilities as a higher university don.

The story may sound apocryphal, but is often peddled around that Suntharalingam did not want to sign gun licences, issued to applicants as a desk bound civil servant. But it may really be true reckoning his sense of wit and independence restless nature, and as a man of many parts.

One can recall a rather amusing incident later when Suntharalingam visited the then University of Ceylon at Peradeniya to speak to the undergraduate students in the spacious Room or Hall on questionable governmental issues that left minorities, such as the Tamils, in disadvantaged and unequal position in comparison to dominant Sinhalese majority community.

Readily resourceful speaker, Suntharalingam, commenced his talk respectfully addressing the large eager audience as "undergraduates and undergraduattes" in referring to ladies. The audience who perhaps had never heard of the appellation "undergraduattes" broke into boisterous laughter and applauded the distinguished speaker for his decorous and considerate manner in which he kept on speaking bowing to the audience at intervals.

He kept on readdressing them as undergraduates and undergraduattes at intervals in his speech. At the end, many who came to boo or to sneer at his criticism of governmental measures that hurt the Tamils and minorities merrily vociferously applauded Suntharalingam.

In this trail he left behind him, the students regaled at the entertaining address interspersed with witty asides and continued to recall his mannerisms and unusual words later on. Those who came to sneer cheered instead.

Now we may recall the most vital role of C. Suntharalingam in the politics of Sri Lanka. He could not resist the pressing lure of participating actively in public and national affairs of the independent island. His clear and cardinal role as an independent public personality engaged in the quest for justice and fair play for all citizens comes into prominence in the involvement in the vexed Indian Residents' Citizenship issue.

The first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka's policies on the hill country Tamils demonstrated an anti-hill country Tamils attitude in 1948 itself, the year of Independence. Ceylon Tamil Members of Parliament were firmly and forcefully opposed to the government's anti-hill country Tamils stance.

Suntharalingam, a long-time friend, and adviser to D. S. Senanayake, the first Premier, walked out of the legislature, lower chamber, when the division was called on the second reading of the Indian Residents Citizenship Bill on 10 December, 1948. Prime Minister wanted Minister Suntharaligam's explanation who immediately resigned in protest.

Suntharalingam cleverly saw in the measure a plan to decitizenise and disenfranchise a majority of hill country residents who had made Sri Lanka their home from early 19th century, and contributed immensely to build the island's economy. This was on obvious flagrant injustice. Suntharalingam had the courage of his conviction to forego a ministerial portfolio.

At a seminar conducted by the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Sciences, some years later G. G. Ponnambalam Jr. was embarrassed when alleged that his father, a member of the same Parliament, had instead voted for D. S. Senanayake's Bill unlike Suntharalingam.

G. G. Ponnambalam Jr. endeavoured to justify his father's conduct stating that his father nonetheless later voted for the Indian and Pakistani Residents (Citizenship) Act of 1949 which enabled a selected lot of privileged residents of Indian or Pakistani origin to be favoured with citizenship.

But Suntharalingam's son Dr. Gnanalingam, leading scientist, countered this contention referring to another Tamil Minister's bold response in forfeiting a portfolio than endorse an unjust act as Ponnabalam Sr. had done.

Again, Prime Minister, John Kotelawela, in 1954 concluded a Nehru-Kotelawala Agreement about hill country Tamil residents. It evoked controversy with a Sinhalese-Tamil problem and the bill was abandoned following vehement Sinhalese antagonism. Contention was riveted on the number of Indian residents to be absorbed into Sri Lanka, approximately at least 300,000.

Still, more cardinal was that the Kotelawala government planned to repatriate Indians unqualified for Sri Lankan citizenship. However, the Indian government insisted that only those eligible for Indian citizenship will be registered as Indian citizens. Those who fail to qualify for such citizenship in either country will remain "stateless" in Sri Lanka.

To clear doubts a second agreement was designed in October 1954. Finally neither agreement settled the differences between Indian and Ceylon on the citizenship issue of Tamil residents. The problem remained unsolved for long till Sri Lanka settled it early this year.

The second section of the agreement wanted Indians obtaining Sri Lankan citizenship to acquire a knowledge of the language of the area, Sinhalese. Tamil leading personalities disagreed with this provision. Another disputed issue in the agreement was about four Indian Tamil citizens of Ceylon, to be elected as Members of Parliament by a separate islandwide Indian and Pakistani electorate of registered citizens. C. Suntharaligam once more condemned forthright this demand of Sri Lanka as "inhuman, uncharitable and a disgrace".

He additionally pointed out that, "If the Buddha were to come to the country today, he himself would be deported". Suntharaligam uncompromisingly stood up for fair and civilized treatment of residents who had been brought in early 19th century to build the economy of Sri Lanka. He saw that they need not suffer now.

As 1956 progressed on June 24, Independent Tamil Member of Parliament for Vavuniya, and one time Cabinet Minister, C. Suntharalingam moved an amendment to the Throne Speech voicing serious discontent with governmental policy on the use of the single national language for governmental purposes and as medium for instruction in higher education.

It climaxed in a demand for "the formation of a separate independent autonomous state of "Tamil Ilankai" composed of Tamil speaking peoples in Ceylon, within the Commonwealth". He stressed that if the impending changes in language use did not satisfy Tamils they would demand a separate State.

His prophetic statement proved to be true. The demand for autonomy by Tamils grew and caused immense troubles in the future. Suntharalingam recognized that decitizenisation of hill country residents and disenfranchisement of them was a grave mistake which took so late to remedy.

Second, his realization of the use of the official language, Sinhalese alone, in the public services was a gross denial of justice and disadvantaged Tamils to be handicapped in a multiracial state. Finally, his blunt and bold refusal to countenance a separate electorate and thereby to qualify the grant of the franchise only to hill country Tamil residents.

This was a serious and calculated discrimination of citizens and denied equality to them in voting. Suntharalingam's profound understanding and salient vision was no error as time has proved it correct with continuous civil disturbances and intractable conflicts.

Suntharalingam never missed an accurate vision and fearlessly and boldly pronounced his disapproval of deprivation of and blatant discrimination of minorities, especially the Tamils. Time proved him right and a leader with foresight and sagacity.

C. Suntharalingam resorted to various protests and demonstrations such as publicly noticeable "satyagrahas" to convince governments of wrongs done by various State measures towards the minorities, especially Tamils, that needed to be remedied without delay.

He formed the 'Tamils who would not be subjugated Front', a singular Tamil movement, demanding equality with Sinhalese in treatment in a multiracial island in every respect. Failure to pay heed to his equitable demands resulted in so much pain to Lanka and its people.

It is unfortunate that there is no proper study devoted to a leader like Suntharalingam. The younger generations know little or nothing of a significant great public personality.

An enigma that baffles many is why did Suntharaligam object to all worshippers entering the temple at Maviddapuram. No one knows! Perhaps, Suntharalingam did not welcome the government ordering temples to be made accessible; he wanted to take the decision himself.



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