“Fifty-Fifty” my father's cry
The late Kumar Ponnambalam, only son of G.G. wrote…
I was not ‘alive’ when the demand for the scheme of “balanced representation” in Parliament was put forward by my father, G.G. Ponnambalam.
Appu, as my sister and I called our father, put forward this demand in June 1936.
Appu had returned to Ceylon sometime in 1927 via France. After his days at Fitzwilliam House, Cambridge University and Lincoln’s Inn in London, he could not quite resist the allure of France, doubtless because of its proximity to England!
Having returned to Ceylon in 1927, Appu started dabbling in politics rather tentatively because he was studying French also during his spare time.
|Appu’s day: Young Kumar, then 9, with his father the day he took oaths as Minister of Industrial Research and Fisheries in the D.S. Senanayake government. The family is at the Colombo jetty, from where G.G.Ponnambalam sailed to England the same day for a conference.
His first foray into politics was at the 1931 General elections to the then legislature which was the State Council under the Donoughmore Constitution. This proved an absolute disaster as he lost by a mere 980 votes to S.M. Anantham whom he opposed at Manar-Mullaitivu.
Appu contested Mannar-Mullaitivu as there was a boycott of the General Elections in the four of the five Northern Province constituencies called by the Jaffna Youth Congress.
Appu strenuously campaigned for the lifting of the boycott in the Jaffna peninsula and succeeded. By-elections were called in 1934 and he ran at Point Pedro and won by a majority of 8600 votes. At the General Elections of February-March 1936, Appu again contested Point Pedro and won. It was during his membership of the State Council, after the 1936 General Elections, that Appu put forward his demand for balanced representation in parliament.
When I was at Royal, both teachers and friends used to taunt me over this demand, calling me “Fifty-Fifty”. In fact that became my nickname. I did not know what all this was about and could not understand either.
After I got interested in politics, perhaps due to the environment at home, I mustered enough courage to ask Appu what on earth “Fifty-Fifty” was all about.
The very, very hard man that he was, Appu did take time to explain to me what “Fifty-Fifty” was all about, not because he wanted to be patronizing towards me but because he had two pet positions. One was that a son’s best friend was really his father. The other was that he always wanted to be a teacher, of sorts, to me, as he indeed was for the best part of my life.
So, this is what Appu told me about “Fifty-Fifty”. He said that it was in 1931 that the pan-Sinhala Board of Ministers was set up. This was the Cabinet of that time and it consisted entirely of Sinhalese. This move meant that the Tamils were thrown out, lock, stock and barrel from the decision-making process of this country. Appu could not accept this but was helpless to do anything about it because he was, at best, only a voice in the wilderness, as indeed I am at this moment.
Appu said that he was convinced that the pan-Sinhala Board of Ministers was set up with impunity because the Tamils were a minority and, therefore, helpless. He believed that this was an act of oppression on the part of the Sinhalese and set him thinking about how best to prevent the Tamils from being trampled upon. It dawned on him that if a mechanism could be evolved whereby the legislators would not be able to ignore the Tamils, there would not be oppression by the majority. It was this process of thinking that culminated in his formula of “Fifty-Fifty”.
Appu thought that in any legislature, if exactly half the number of seats is reserved for the majority and the other half given to all the minorities put together, the majority will never be able to bring legislation that would be detrimental to any minority.
Appu said that the Englishman understood his scheme very well as was evidenced in the Soulbury Commission Report which said that “the voting powers in the legislature should be based on a balanced scheme of representation that would avoid the danger of concentration of power in one community, but would ensure its equitable distribution among all communities and the people as a whole”.
Appu was alive to the inherent weakness of his scheme too. He said that this scheme was not foolproof because if one or more in the minorities group decided to join the Sinhalese, what he sought to prevent would not be achieved.
Appu also said that his scheme presupposes a number of situations - that all the minorities will be keen on seeing that it is not discriminated against; and that there will be loyalty to high principles and idealism.
Appu thought that he could put forward this demand in a meaningful way only if he himself was in Parliament. That is why, he said, he started contesting elections.
Appu said that he did not put his theory in Parliament after he won the 1934 by-election at Point Pedro because he wanted to ensure winning the General Elections in 1936 when he would have more time to see that his demand was accepted. So it was that he put forward the demand in June 1936 after the February-March General Elections.
Appu said that the “Fifty-Fifty” cry was very popular with the Europeans, Burghers, Muslims and Indian Tamils who were all “minorities” like the Ceylon Tamils, whom I refer to as the “Tamil Eelavar” today.
I asked Appu about some vague talk that he was offered “45-55” by the Sinhalese political leaders but that he refused to accept it because of his “arrogance” and that he had thereby done a disservice to the minorities. Appu said that such talk could only come from fools because if the whole idea of balanced representation was to see that the minorities were not oppressed by the majority, then it had to be “Fifty-Fifty” or nothing. Not even 49-51. No other combination or permutation would have achieved what he sought to achieve.
Appu said that at first he wanted the whole island to have 100 constituencies and Parliament to comprise 100 members. Of the 100 seats, 50 would be reserved for all the minorities. Of the 50 seats for the minorities, he wanted 25 seats for the Indian and Ceylon Tamils with the other 25 being divided between the Muslims, Burghers and Europeans. The other 50 seats were to be termed “general seats”. He said it was this scheme that got him into hot water with the Sinhalese because they cried that it was open to minorities to contest and win some of the “general seats” in which case the majority (Sinhalese) would become a minority. He immediately made his first amendment to his scheme and conceded that the other 50 seats described as “general seats” must be reserved for the Sinhalese.
Appu was so wedded to this demand that he put it before the Soulbury Commissioners when the All Ceylon Tamil Congress gave evidence before them in February 1944. For two long days he laboured on this point.
But the Soulbury Commissioners did not bite and gave, as a sop, Section 29 in the 1946 Soulbury Constitution only as a “safeguard”. Even this “pittance” was removed by the great Sinhala Constitutions of 1972 and 1978!
Appu said that it was his insistence on “Fifty-Fifty” that earned him the appellation the “Father of Communalism” because his demand had the seeds of communal representation. But Appu said that if his scheme was accepted, communal tension would have ceased to exist and there would have been more compromise and co-operation between ethnic groups.
Appu said that he was even prepared to consider a second amendment to his original scheme when he put forward the proposition that the Cabinet, at least, should be such that any one community should have less than half the Cabinet as its component of members. By this means, he said, he tried to ensure that the minorities took their due place in the government of the country. The Sinhalese and the Soulbury Commissioners were against even this.
Appu emphasized that his original scheme and two subsequent amendments would show that he had the interests of all the minorities at heart and not only one group. They also showed that he was prepared to be reasonable and accommodative at every stage and not arrogant or difficult.
I verily believe that if Appu’s demand for “Fifty-Fifty” was accepted, then all discriminatory and draconian legislation, starting with the macabre Sinhala Only law would not have seen the light of day, the country would have been spared much loss of blood and lives and we would not be standing at the parting of the ways, as we surely are at the moment.