Biography of S. J. V. Chelvanayakam

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Deputy Leader S. J. V. Chelvanayakam Biography

Samuel James Veluppillai Chelvanayakam (also spelt Chelvanayagam, March 31, 1898 – April 26, 1977) was a Sri Lankan Tamil lawyer, politician and Member of Parliament. He was the political leader and father figure of the Sri Lankan Tamil community for more than two decades.

S. J. V. Chelvanayakam Early Life

Chelvanayakam was born on 31 March 1898 in Ipoh, Malaya. He was the first child of James Visvanathan Velupillai and Harriet Annamma. Chelvanayakam’ father was a teacher from Tholpuram, Jaffna who emigrated to Ipoh and became a businessman.

The family later moved to Taiping. Chelvanayakam’s younger brothers Ernest Velupillai Ponnuthurai and Edward Rajasundaram were born in 1901 and 1902 respectively. Chelvanayakam also had a younger sister Atputham Isabel who died young.

When Chelvanayakam was aged four he, his two brothers and his mother returned to Ceylon. His father remained in Malaya. The Chelvanayakam family lived in Tellippalai, Jaffna District. Chelvanayakam studied at Union College, St. John’s College and St. Thomas’ College where he was a contemporary of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, a future Prime Minister of Ceylon.

S. J. V. Chelvanayakam was an external student of the University of London and at the age of 19 he received a Bachelor of Science degree. After graduation Chelvanayakam took up a teaching career at St. Thomas’ College. He resigned from St. Thomas when the principal refused to grant him permission to visit his seriously ill brother.

Chelvanayakam then started teaching at Wesley College. Whilst teaching he studied law at Ceylon Law College and in 1923, aged 25, he was called to the bar. He married Emily Grace Barr Kumuarakulasinghe in 1927.
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The had a daughter (Susili) and four sons (Chandrahasan, Vaseekaran). Chelvanayakam resigned from Wesley College when the principal complained about Chelvanayakam wearing the Tamil national dress whilst teaching.

S. J. V. Chelvanayakam Political Career

Chelvanayakam entered politics in 1944 when became active in the All Ceylon Tamil Congress during the drive for independence, becoming the party’s deputy leader. At the 1947 parliamentary election he was elected to represent Kankesanthurai in Parliament.

After Ceylon’s independence the ACTC was torn between Chelvanayakam and G. G. Ponnambalam, the party’s leader who pushed for greater cooperation with the United National Party government. In September 1948 Ponnambalam and the ACTC joined the UNP government but Chelvanayakam, C. Vanniasingam and Senator E. M. V. Naganathan refused.

After unsuccessfully trying to take control of the ACTC, the rebels formed a new, more aggressive party, the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (Federal Party), on 18 December 1949.

Chelvanayakam lost his parliamentary seat at the May 1952 parliamentary election but regained it at the April 1956 parliamentary election. He was subsequently re-elected at the March 1960, July 1960, March 1965 and May 1970 parliamentary elections.

After the 1956 election ITAK became the leading party in the Tamil regions, but the new Prime Minister, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, pushed through the Sinhala Only Act, which met with stiff opposition from the Tamils. Chelvanayakam led a satyagraha protest against the new law.

The campaign succeeded at first in swaying the government, which negotiated the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact which agreed to provide government services in Tamil and devolve powers to a set of provincial councils.

Bandaranaike abandoned the pact after stiff opposition from Buddhist monks (Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Buddhist monk in 1959). After his fruitless experience dealing with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party governments of 1956-65, Chelvanayakam turned to the UNP.
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After that UNP’s victory in the 1965 election, ITAK joined the national government of Dudley Senanayake.

S. J. V. Chelvanayakam signed the Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact which also provided for Tamil services and district councils. Senanayake’s regime failed to implement the Pact and as a result, Chelvanayakam and the ITAK left the government in 1968.

By the 1970s, Chelvanayakam had grown bitter over his failure to win any meaningful concessions from the Sinhalese, and became sympathetic to the cause of Tamil separatism. ITAK and other Tamil parties formed the Tamil United Front in May 1972, with Chelvanayakam as their leader.

Chelvanayakam resigned from Parliament on 2 October 1972 as a protest against the new republican constitution. The government deliberately delayed holding the by-election in Kankesanthurai until 6 February 1975. Chelvanayakam won the by-election easily.

By 1976 the TUF had restyled itself as the Tamil United Liberation Front and was openly calling for an “free, sovereign, secular, socialist state of Tamil Eelam”.

S. J. V. Chelvanayakam Death

Chelvanayakam health was increasingly poor; he had suffered from Parkinson’s disease and growing deafness since the 1950s. In 1961 he underwent surgery in Edinburgh to relieve the stress from Parkinson disease at the hands of a neurosurgeon, Francis John Gillingham and the operation “proved successful.” Despite the success of this operation, he died on 26 April 1977 at his home in Jaffna.

Three months after Chelvanayakam’s death the TULF contested the 1977 parliamentary election with its main manifesto pledge being “to establish an independent sovereign, secular, socialist State of Tamil Eelam.”

The TULF won all 14 seats in the Northern Province after receiving more than 278,000 votes (68%). In the Eastern Province the TULF won 4 of 10 seats after receiving nearly 140,000 votes (32%). Sri Lankan Tamils constituted 92% and 43% of the population in each of the provinces respectively.

S. J. V. Chelvanayakam Legacy

Chelvanayakam was a beloved figure to Sri Lanka’s Tamils, to whom he was known as “Thanthai Chelva” or “Father Chelva”. He was called as Eezha Thahthai Selva in Tamil Nadu.

S. J. V. Chelvanayakam was sometimes compared to Mahatma Gandhi due to his reliance on nonviolence and, even at the end of his life, his commitment to use only peaceful means to achieve his political ends.

Chelvanayakam’s political biography was published in 1994 by his son-in-law and political science professor A. Jeyaratnam Wilson.

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