Personality: Last five months as TNA leader was Lion of Udupiddy’s finest hour

By: M. K. Eelaventhan M.P

The passing away of Murugesu Sivasithamparam, former president, Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), took away a leading personality of the Tamil community. He was born on 20 July 1923 at Karaveddy, Jaffna into an elite family. He had his early education at Vigneswara College, Karaveddy, which was an important influence in shaping his career. He then joined Colombo’s St. Joseph’s College, and later passed out as an advocate from the Law College, Colombo.

In keeping with the youthful tendency to revolt and defy authority, he started his political career as a communist. He later came under the influence of G. G. Ponnambalam – one time hero of the Tamils and world-renowned criminal lawyer. Sivasithamparam became a member of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) and was elected as an MP for Udupiddy. His personality and his commanding voice earned him the name, Lion of Udupiddy.

This was the time (1960s) when he was made deputy speaker of parliament. He earned the respect and goodwill of both the government and opposition by maintaining strict impartiality and by the dignified way he conducted the affairs of the House.

In the early 1970s, ethnic politics in this country took a turn for the worse. The Tamils felt that the Sinhala leadership would never grant them any meaningful concessions and that the political deception of their leaders had become a permanent feature. They concluded that unless and until the Tamils buried their petty differences and raised their voices in unison there would be no future for the community. This compelling factor, made the Tamil Arasu Kadchi, the ACTC and Ceylon Workers Congress to come together and the Tamil United Front was formed.

He was actively involved in this unity move and later became member of the TULF. He contested in the 1977 general elections from the Nallur electorate and won with an overwhelming majority. The TULF brought in the famous Vaddukoddai Resolution in 1976 (often compared to Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s Lahore Resolution of 1942), where it stated that the Tamils were a nation and had the right to chart their political future based on the right of self-determination and declared the state of Eelam as the ultimate goal. The famous trial-at-bar where eminent legal luminaries like S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, Ponnambalam and M. Tiruchelvam played important parts by focusing on the plight of the Tamils followed this. Here too Sivasithamparam played a prominent role.

The ethnic riots of 1977 were a turning point in the history of the Eelam Tamils. It was in that year J. R. Jeyewardene, in typical form, asserted in parliament arrogantly, “If you want war we are for war, if you want peace we are for peace – this is what my people say.” It was virtually a declaration of war on the Tamils. The violence orchestrated by the powers that be in 1977 was exacerbated as a result of this speech and the island witnessed the worst form of racial riots in its history. During these riots thousands of innocent lives were lost, property worth millions destroyed and the entire economy shattered. The homes of the present writer at Nugegoda, and that of Sivasithamparam’s at No. 100 Norris Canal Road, Maradhana, were razed to the ground. Sivasithamparam never cared to rebuild that house. “I too must share the sufferings of my people,” is what he said. This statement of his speaks volumes of his total identification with the Tamil masses.

In 1983 Jayewardene also brought in the sixth amendment to the constitution preventing the TULF from campaigning for Eelam by designating advocacy for a separate state an act of treason. This resulted in the TULF leadership not being able to participate in the workings of parliament and the party leadership, including Sivasithamparam, taking refuge in India. Exile however helped to ventilate Tamil grievances to the outside world.

Sivasithamparam was a highly respected personality. Even his Sinhala friends were in full appreciation of his contribution in parliament. Ajith Samaranayake, the well-known, senior journalist, and a keen observer of political events in Sri Lanka had this to say on Sivasithamparam. “Siva really came into his own in the 1977 parliament when the TULF led a depleted opposition. He was the able second in command to the leader of the opposition A. Amirthalingam. With his towering six-foot appearance, his barrel chest and parade commander’s voice he was perhaps that parliament’s most formidable speaker. He did not go in for flowery oratory and his diction was simple but as a criminal lawyer of long experience he had the forensic skill of going directly to the heart of an argument and destroying it. The speech he made debunking the claims made by the then Industries Minister and arch TULF-baiter Cyril Mathew that Tamil examiners were favoring Tamil AL students, will remain for a long time as a model of parliamentary oratory.”

If Amirthalingam had a fiery tongue and a short temper (although this never lasted long and he was most handsome in his apologies) Sivasithamparam never lost his cool. He was always calm and his most formidable weapon was irrefutable logic. But this did not mean he lacked indignation or feeling for the cause of his people. When driven to indignation he was an antagonist to be feared and such an instance occurred when the security forces, in one of their many (and retrospectively futile operations, which did so much to rouse Tamil resentment), arbitrarily shot dead a young man sleeping on the verandah of his office (Sunday Observer 9 June 2002).

Pages could be written on how close I was to Sivasithamparam. The 1961 satyagraha, witnessed widespread protests in the Tamil areas. The late-lamented Dr. E. M. V. Naganathan and Sivasithamparam were leading the satyagrahies opposite the Jaffna kachcheri (the present Jaffna Secretariat) when a deadly baton charge on Naganathan resulted in a bloody injury to his head. The armed soldiers beat Sivasithamparam who was at the scene giving protection to the satyagrahies, especially the women, on his shoulders and arms. The injury he sustained had an effect on his health till his death.

Because of the emergency during this period (1961), we could not ventilate our political grievances openly. We had meetings in temples and addressed the devotees quoting passages from the devotional hymns of Tamil saints and sages. We excelled in quoting apt phrases from Thirunavukarasar and Manicavasakar, one of which rendered in the English, would read, “We shall not fear death and we refuse to be subjugated by any power on earth.” I vividly recollect the reaction of the audience to our emotional appeal, and how Sivasithamparam was moved by the gesture of the devotees assembled there. We covered many temples on the same mission but the event at Bambalapitiya Pilliyar temple, Colombo, played an important part in our political activities and strengthened our spiritual roots.

In addition to the above we were fully involved in political activities, including addressing mass meetings and attending seminars in the 60s and 70s. But unfortunately for us the TULF, after winning the 1977 election with a massive mandate on the Eelam issue, it succumbed to the pressure of Jayewardene and accepted proposals for district councils in 1981. This led to a debate between the younger and more senior elements in the Tamil political leadership as to how we should approach our future programme based on the mandate given by the people.

The year 1979 was a crucial for me when I faced interdiction from the Central Bank for addressing a Hindu conference at Allahabad, India, without obtaining prior permission from the Bank. This interdiction was followed by my arrest under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), by the CID opposite the Bank. I was taken to Jaffna and kept incarcerated at the army camp in the Dutch fort for three months incommunicado. It was at this critical juncture that Sivasithamparam came to my rescue by appearing for me at the trial. As a legal luminary he presented my case in such a convincing manner that the judge gave a verdict of acquittal. In that hour of dire need, he came to my rescue. If he had not appeared for me, the case would have dragged on for months and years: hence my eternal debt to him.

Events moved fast and the TULF justified its acceptance of the district council proposals as an interim arrangement. But we, the hardened lot in the TULF – especially Kovai Mahesan former editor, Suthanthiran, and Dr. S A Tharmalingam parted company from the TULF and formed the Tamil Eelam Liberation Front (TELF). Though we had moved in opposite directions, we maintained personal cordiality. I respected Sivasithamparam’s age, seniority and political experience, and he in turn, respected and appreciated my deep conviction and my unfaltering stand on fundamentals.

Tamil expatriates felt that I was an ideal choice for propagation and lobbying the Tamil cause and I was sent to India on this mission. Sivasithamparam and Amirthalingam also took refuge in Tamil Nadu and went about their mission of making India understand the plight of the Eelam Tamils. We (the extremists) and they (the moderates) often agreed on some issues and violently clashed on others. Here too, though our differences were visible and audible, we maintained the decorum that was expected of us.

Sivasithamparam and Amirthalingam believed in reconciliation with the Sinhala leadership to extract what concessions they could. But Tharmalingam, Mahesan and I were clear that a compromise formula or conciliatory attitudes would not in any way help us achieve our goal. Even at the international Eelam conferences held in the United States in 1984, we expressed opinions that were diametrically opposed to one another.

A few years went by and Sivasithamparam and Amirthalingam came back to Sri Lanka to try and undo the damage that was done to the Tamils. They failed miserably. But while they were able to return to Sri Lanka and work here, political compulsions stood in the way of my coming back to Sri Lanka, which confined my activities mainly to Tamil Nadu and India. Whenever Sivasithamparam visited Tamil Nadu we shared our opinions on many issues. When he was critically ill I often made courtesy calls to inquire about his health and he was full of appreciation of my gesture.

A turning point in my career occurred in 5 December 2000 when the Indian government thought it fit to deport me to Sri Lanka in a most unexpected way and by indulging in a diabolical lie. The government said I was being packed off to because I had overstayed my visa. In reality however, my wife, children and I were registered as refugees in Tamil Nadu and were officially issued a refugee card.

The political climate in Sri Lanka underwent dramatic changes. The LTTE attacks on Elephant Pass and the Katunayake airport shattered the PA government. President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s party was reduced to a minority and she dissolved parliament. The Sinhalese and Tamils as a whole felt that such a volatile situation was unsustainable. Something had to be done to bring political stability and build up the economy of the country which was facing ruination. Elections of 5 December 2001 resulted in the UNP and its allies headed by Ranil Wickremesinghe returning into power.

The Tamils in turn, had returned the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) by an overwhelming majority, displaying thereby their unity and acting as one people under the leadership of the LTTE. The TNA needed a senior, sober leader to head the party. Sivasithamparam arrived on the 5 January 2002 to take up the leadership. He died on 5 June, after completing exactly five months in his new parliamentary role.

Though he served 50 years in politics, the last five months of his career became a memorable period for me. My intention is not to belittle or decry the earlier, 50-year period of his political life and its ups and downs. But the last five months of his career have made him an inseparable part of history.

During this short period our friendship was renewed and we had intimate conversations on crucial issues. His foreword to my pamphlet on Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan is a lasting testimony for the cause he represented and the love and attachment he had for me in recognition of my services to the Tamil people. In his foreword he says “There is not a Tamil who does not know or at least heard of Eelaventhan. He has gone to every nook and corner of Tamil Nadu and championed the cause of Tamil freedom. He is an unfaltering devotee of Tamil freedom. He has been a loyal and devoted follower of Thanthai Chelvanayakam. At times he might have appeared to be critical of Thanthai. But he was never wanting in loyalty and devotion to Thanthai Chelva.”

Sivasithamparam’s open declaration that Prabhakaran was the accredited leader and the LTTE the sole representative of the Tamils, both inside and outside the parliament, was a shock to his political opponents, but was cherished by all the Tamils. Rising above party differences Sivasithamparam was recognised as a humble servant for the cause of Tamil Eelam. It is said that humility is the essence of greatness, and Sivasithamparam was, in all respects, an embodiment of that virtue. His funeral was one of the biggest in recent history.

The Tigers who were onetime his deadliest opponents became his dearest admirers and the moving tributes paid by the LTTE has become part of history. His removal from the political scene was a deeply moving moment but he can have the consolation that when he died the entire Tamil nation wept. In his death he has become a hero and history remembers him with gratitude.

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