23 October, 2020

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Jaffna Development Council Election 1981

By S.Sivathasan –

S.Sivathasan

Nineteen centuries back, Silappathikaaram a Tamil epic cited the inevitability of retributive justice as a warning for misgovernance. Perennially true the learned would affirm. The discomfiture of a national political formation which sought to usurp power and failed would reaffirm. In Jaffna the party that tried through means that were devious, remains consigned to continued oblivion. Thirty two years are now past and the party in power which lacerated the electoral process is out of power for seventeen years. The Library Fire in Jaffna preceded the rigging that failed. The Reichtag Fire in Germany preceded the election for usurpation. Inexplicable are the ways in which the hand of destiny moves to relegate the guilty to the dustbin of history. But are lessons learnt?

It may be good to recall the forms that the exercise in Jaffna took. In times past, in Sri Lanka as in other countries, societies were divided, some with faith in elections and others having only a cynical disdain for it. Perceptions and judgment have changed over time with opinion moving heavily in favor of the vote as an expression of political sentiment. With abiding faith, Sri Lanka refined the electoral process assiduously. In three decades following independence it had become a model, much to the credit of the late Felix Dias Abeysinghe who made a distinguished contribution as Election Commissioner. At such a juncture, it received a jolt from the Government of Sri Lanka. The place was Jaffna, year was 1981 and the occasion the DC election. As a witness to the destruction of a well streamlined process, I wish to give an account of my ringside view.

As per the election law, polling starts at 7 AM on the stipulated date and closes at 4PM. Preparatory work which includes training of staff is spread over two months. Preliminaries antecedent to polling commence twenty six hours prior, for the issue of ballot boxes, ballot papers and the whole gamut of essentials. The respective senior presiding officers (SPO) take over the materials. Jaffna district with 11 electorates ( Kilinochchi was a part of JD) had 11 issue officers located in the secretariat and the old kachcheri just across. The offices were competently manned with procedures perfectly streamlined.

The writer being the Assistant Returning Officer (ARO) in charge of issues was on duty from 6 AM on the said day. Delft as an island with access only by launch for a distance 12 miles, was selected for the first issue. The operation flowed smoothly as on prior occasions with the Police providing escort. Next in line was Kilinochchi covering an area larger than Jaffna District and with polling booths 30 to 50 miles away from the Kachcheri. The issues and movement along with police escort were proceeding seamlessly. There was a glaring lacuna however since the Government Agent was away. The GA as the Returning Officer is the central figure for an election in a district. He was not available at the Kachcheri in the morning since he had been summoned to Colombo the previous day.

At 10 am the GA arrived at the Kachcheri and immediately summoned four of us, senior officers of the Kachcheri who were Assistant Returning Officers. A decision taken in Colombo about change of personnel to man election booths was placed before us. All four of us raised our hands in horror. But even before we could finish our first sentence, in walked a senior Minister accompanied by his additional secretary. Soon to follow was a Brigadier detailed in Jaffna. Within a short while the GA’s room was packed with Ministers, Deputy Ministers, District Minister and senior officials from Colombo. The four of us got back to our rooms and awaited instructions. The time was 10.30.

The first decision taken with none of us participating was to suspend all issues. The reason being that the Police personnel were ‘refusing’ to provide escort because they were ‘afraid’. Till the Colombo high ups so decided they made bold to go. With issues stopped, the whole Kachcheri was in a state of suspended animation. Facile description, but the chaos and the agony had to be experienced to know of the frustration. All this was soon after the burning of the library and several acts of arson. Life in the city was greatly immobilized. Kachcheri had no water and all utilities were dysfunctional. All officers had reported for duty but since nobody moved out, several hundreds just walked about in the kachcheri premises. All were without food or water. Their stamina stood out. To add to the congestion were a few hundreds of minor employees brought down from Kurunegala.

At 5.30 pm there was some movement. Spewing out from the GA’s room were replacement lists. For very many booths officers holding responsible positions and trained for their respective assignments were unceremoniously dropped. They were replaced by minor employees who knew neither Tamil nor English and least of all election work. Habituated more to physical than to mental routine, they were overnight elevated to their level of incompetence. With confidence deriving from ignorance and perhaps trusting to assistance from the Tamil staff they left for their destinations with remarkable nonchalance.

Buses started leaving Old Park by 6.30 pm. The Police afraid to travel by day were now bold enough to travel by night. Movement out however ceased after a few hours. It was resumed early in the morning. By then a further few hundreds sourced from Kurunegala alighted at the Kachcheri. They looked vacant and clueless not knowing what to do or where to go. They only wanted  the inner man looked after. The election staff of the District assembled at the Kachcheri, not losing its temper even in the midst of man made chaos was a tribute to their discipline and culture.

On election day the last bus left the Kachcheri at 7.30 am. The statutory commencement time for voting was 7.00 am. Several polling booths commenced operations after 7 am and some as late as 10.30 am. A replacement employee inquired from an inspecting ARO where he could get palmyra toddy! The attempt at dislocation made the people turn out in overwhelming numbers and to vote with a vengeance. Even though a few booths closed early in the afternoon the people had their way at other places.

Polling officially closed at 4 pm and the counting staff waited in the large conference hall, the single counting venue, for the arrival of ballot boxes. They came at a pace slower than at earlier times since the operation was tardy at some booths. A total of 17 boxes with ballot papers did not come. Talking to some of the officers we got an idea of the meddling. As we walked around supervising the counting, we found the hoof marks of the meddlers in clear light. One whole ballot paper book with no paper detached from the counterfoil but voted for the ruling party was found. A few others with a major portion intact but voted for were also found. Evidence of tampering in the clumsiest manner was ample.

When counting concluded past midnight, it was seen that voters gave an overwhelming victory to the TULF. Yet with missing ballot boxes, results could not be declared. A later date was fixed for it with the idea of searching for the missing ones. The search was futile and as per the results all 10 seats in the Development Council went to the TULF. Mr. S. Nadarajah a former Senator was elected Chairman.

The Department of Elections was the product of a long line of administrators who were committed to doing a job beyond their call of duty. The office of Election Commissioner was adorned by capable civil servants. The king pin in the conduct of elections was the Government Agent.  The civil servants were ably supported by a competent administrative service. An election well conducted to the acceptance of all was the recompense for their labour.

The conduct of elections was taken to a level of perfection particularly after 1956. To the initiatives of the Election Commissioner the government of SWRD Bandaranaike extended both legislative and administrative support. It was such a tradition built and protected for long, that was attempted to be smashed at one stroke.  That both initiative and complicity came from those in governance was known to all. The sinister effort ended in a fiasco. The structure stood and foiled the onslaught. Jaffna’s reputation for defiance in the face of insolent might remained. The Council as a supposed instrument of devolution with little power and no finance assumed office. An upright Chairman gave it a chance for two years and frustrated with its impotence threw it away in July 1983.

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Latest comments

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    Mr. Sivathasan,

    A timely revelation. Did this set a precedence and pave the way for more refined tactics to distort the vote? Is there a lesson to be learned in terms of the impending Northern PC elections?

    Dr. RN

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    The collapse of the political system did not begin with the SLFP-Coalition of the Rajapakses or post-2009. Some may argue the steep climb-down began much earlier – and that estimate may not be altogether wrong. JRJ’s UNP Govt – that gained a 5/6th majority
    should have acted more responsibly and democratically.

    As Mr Sivathasan narrates here “….Spewing out from the GA’s room were replacement lists. For very many booths officers holding responsible positions and trained for their respective assignments were unceremoniously dropped. They were replaced by minor employees who knew neither Tamil nor English and least of all election work. Habituated more to physical than to mental routine, they were overnight elevated to their level of incompetence…” If JRJ and his then goons presumed they were acting smart, they were wrong. They were planting the seeds of the subsequent collapse of good governance in this country that has now become the laugh of the world. In the final analysis both UNP and SLFP/PA Govts contributed to the destruction of our democracy from the sublime heights where even Sianpore’s LKY was so impressed. The system has now crashed to the level where drug-traffickers and underworld crime lords are now Ministers and Advisors to this regime.

    Senguttuvan

  • 0
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    Who should learn the lessons? We have seen these sort of political thuggerism from Sinhala leaders again and again. Even IPKF did the same sort of thuggerism for North-Eastern Provincial council elections?President Rajapakse government did the same thing during Presidential and General elections recently.

    These are facts! Powerless Government officials cannot do anything to prevent this. Tamil Parliamentarians cannot raise their voice. They will be arrested and charged under PTA.

    It is those within the Government and Sinhala masses can bring this to a halt? It is for the question for those who can influence the Government? Can they do it?

  • 0
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    MR Sivathasan,

    This was how the elections were conducted for the District Development Council elections in 1981.

    But how was the first( and only one) North- Eastern Provincial Council Elections conducted in 1988.

    India taught lessons to Sri Lanka how to conduct elections in 1988 when IPKF was in control of Jaffna.

    Thanks to IPKF all candidates to the Northern Province of the merged NEPC were elected uncontested.

    Only the Indian sponsored group was allowed to contest.

    IPKF had ensured that none reached the Kachcheri to submit nominations.

    That was how IPKF/EPRLF won the elections uncontested and even Dayan Jayathilske became a member and later Minister.

    Of course elections were conducted in the Eastern Province of the then merged North East Provincial Council with the strong presence of Sinhalese and Muslims-It was too much even for the IPKF and SLMC had become the leading opposition party in the entire North East.

    What is the lesson learnt for the forthcoming Northern Provincial Council elections?

    The DDC election of 1981 or the first North East Provincial Council Election in 1988 or an improved version.

    If adequate precautions are not taken history might repeat in 2013 –(first as farce then as tragedy)!

    Over to Election Commisioner!

  • 0
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    All four responses are flawless and correctly directed. The lesson to be learned is that the moral law prevails over all others. This is what life has taught at least some of us. But will it be learned in SL in the near future? No. Karma also should permit.

  • 0
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    What the author has not said is that the the kingpin of the elections was a defeated candidate who was appointed GA by JR. It was the first time a non administrative officer was appointed replacing Lionel Fernando. He did not know the procedures and he did not have the courage to stand up against the wrongdoings. This man did not resign after the election debacle. He cringed and sat upon his seat until he was thrown out by JR hmself.

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    Simhi

    What you are mentioning is false, blemished and defective. You do not know what you are talking about! A few facts. The GA fiercely resisted what Jayawardene had demanded he do which was to change the returning officers. Jayawardene threatened him that his ‘head would roll’ if he did not do as instructed. The GA continued to resist until the Chief Elections Officer who was then Secretary Defense had given him instructions in writing!! The GA left office within a week of that event.

    You seem to be giving the TULF line as epitomized by the cynical Appapillai Amirthalingam and Sivasithambaram. They had run on the Eelam ticket in 1977, whipped up communal settlement and then settled for this miserly District Development Councils in 1981 which had the power of a municipal council. They were assassinated by the LTTE in 1989 for what the latter saw as a gross betrayal.

    So Simhi, do not talk on subjects you evidently know nothing about!

    Now to Sivathasan who continued in what was otherwise a flawed Government service in one capacity or the other for the next 25 years!! Is he trying to atone for his guilt by serving several majoritarian administrations thereafter?? Jayewardene was not the only crook you know!

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    Amirthalingam was assassinated as was Yogeswaran. Sivasithambaram continued a miserly existence in South India – a far cry for his shrill rhetoric against Colombo. These were the Tamil leaders who brought us into a mess that we are in. At least, the Tigers did what they said they would which was to fight for Eelam. We need to document the history of the TULF in the 1980s and the classic cynicism that they demonstrated.

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    You are correct Tamizhan. Not only did the ‘GA’challenge JR but he also did a heroic role fighting the flames of the Jaffna Public Library (which was burnt just a day or two before when Yogeswaran, Amirthalingam and the like ran away. The MPs only came back to collect ‘compensation’ from the Government..These events are documented in a book that makes for worthwhile reading if one were to reconstruct the events of that era.

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    How cultured the Romans were when they followed these words from about 2600 years ago “De mortuis nil nisi bonum”- ONLY THE GOOD ABOUT THE DEAD.

    The world will call us refined if we Tamils too observe such norms.

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      Come come sivathasan, your intentional ambiguity created the controversy. A rebuttal to your cry of culture is in order. Alfred Duraiappah was murdered in 1974 in cold blood murder. He did much to develop Jaffna municipality. In early 1977, three Tamil police constables were killed – Karunanidhi, Shanmughathasan and Shanmugathasan. 1978 witnessed the murder of Inspector Bastiampillai, Subinspector Perambalam and Sargeant Balasingham. Soon after, Inspector K. Pathmanathan was murdered. 1979 witnessed the murder of Constables Gnanasambandan, Sivanesan and Guruswamy. In 1981 ex MP Thiagarajah was murdered. Each of the dead had wives, sons, daughters and family. No one moaned for them. The TULF Amirthalingam, Sivasithamparam and Yogeswaran cheered on the sidelined – directly or indirectly until the guns were pointed at them. Mrs. Amirthalingam said – “Sinhala rethathil neeraaduvom, Sinhala tholaal seruppu aakuvom”. If this was not outright racism, what is, I ask you? She was murdered herself 20 years later. Do not try to censor honest debate, Sivathasan with your twisted account that seeks to glorify your role. The fact remains that Tamil politics between 1977 and 1981 was in the cesspit with grandstanding and political opportuntism.

      I had respect for Yogendra D for what he did – which was development. You took an indirect dig at him in classic bureaucratic opportunism. I also had respect for the many others who were killed for their principle as opposed to arm chair activists spending their retirement in comfort overseas writing memoirs for all of us to read and puke.

  • 0
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    Readers Simhi, Thamilan and Ilanko compel us to visit the 1981/82 period in Jaffna. Yogendra Duraiswamy – the Special Commissioner (?) at that time – was identified with JRJ and his regime but had the personal integrity and honour to do what is right.
    The ex-diplomat is more. But the other actor Devanesan Nesiah, the Civil Servant – is still with us and eminently does his duty as a public-spirited citizen. He too qualifies for the same accolades and is an able and seasoned administrator.

    But what could they do – with Mathew, Premachandra, Gamini D and the communal-killers of the JSS lead by Gamini Lokuge in the scene with JRJ controlling matters from Colombo. There was a Senior Police officer, now around into public writing as well, who was collusionist with the crimes of that time. He now desperately tries vainly to erase his tainted name and reputation writing books with false accounts of events that took place. The pity of it is respected Leftist octogenarian intellectuals too have taken the brush to whitewash the policeman’s sins.

    Senguttuvan

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      Senguttuvan

      “But what could they do – with Mathew, Premachandra, Gamini D and the communal-killers of the JSS lead by Gamini Lokuge in the scene with JRJ controlling matters from Colombo.”

      I agree with you that when state institutions are controlled by a few supported by majoritarian democracy you could not do anything.

      However when elections are conducted (presidential) there is no need for the Tamils to vote. As a protest vote can they not refrain from voting? By voting one way or another they inadvertently or out of their stupidity lend support to a Sinhala/Buddhists candidate.

      For example in the last presidential election why did the Tamils vote for or urge to vote for a racist Sinhala/Buddhist alleged war criminal instead of another racist Sinhala/Buddhist alleged war criminal? I find it very difficult to reconcile.

      There was at least one alternative candidate to chose from.

      In the 1982 presidential election, more Tamils voted for H.S.R.B. Kobbekaduwa (SLFP) another racist than for Kumar Ponnambalam, a Tamil candidate.

      In total Ponna won just over 174,000 votes.

      Were the Tamils who voted for H.S.R.B. Kobbekaduwa (SLFP)racists or perhaps masochist?

      As a senior commentator you believe in non racist Sinhala/Buddhist and a few do gooders from the majoritarian community. If they were non racist at all why didn’t the liberal Sinhalese vote for Kumar Ponna? Were the Sinhalese racists or masochists?

      You may not like it but I believe both the Sinhalese and Tamils are racists, bigots, stupid and sado masochists.

      Please prove me wrong.

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        My friend Native Veddah

        Indeed there are racial bigots in the two major communities – let there be no doubt about that. But there are many liberals too on
        both sides.

        Kumar P told me many a times, in lighter vein, “In Colombo the Sinhalese don’t want me. In the North the Tamils don’t want me”
        But let me tell you this, if Kumar survived his own murder the Tamil Nation would have voted him in – both in the North and even in Colombo. The political landscape had by then changed – and his son Gajendran got in. He (Kumar) would have been a honourable and incorruptible politician. He was immensely wealthy – in Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia – and was proud of his enviable lineage. He had many friends among Sinhalese – within and outside the legal fraternity. It is sad the country lost the services of such a man – demonised by the media and others in the South.

        Senguttuvan

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          “He was immensely wealthy – in Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia”

          Not to mention former mother country, the Great Britain.

          Who was behind his assassination?

          Had Ponna survived his assassin was there a slim chance the Sinhalese voting Ponna in the last presidential elections?

          One should accept the fact that Sinhalese were used to voting for 8 measures of free grain, or whichever candidate killed more minorities than the other.

          Why did TNA chose to support self confessed racist and an alleged war criminal?

          • 0
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            The Sunday Leader – and possibly other media outfits as well – said it was the notorious IRC and serial-killeer Moratuwa Saman who did the deed and even gleefully reported it to his instructor having carried out the Contract successfully. Saman’s Contractor was then very much highly placed running matters Defence – riding a horse and all. Some mocked him as the Paddy Field Marshall. He had so much dough stashed away in the vaults of many banks even when he was caught red-handed with the loot, the law did sweet nothing to him. Our laws have fallen to such levels when the man’s close relative gunned down nearly a dozen from a minority community in the hills – the assassin escaped totally untouched. That old law “all are equal except some more equal than others” worked to the letter in both cases here.

            “Why did TNA chose to support self confessed racist and an alleged war criminal?…” The peculiar culture of politics, dear chap is the answer. This in your part of the world concedes it makes strange bedfellows. You are sufficiently lettered to know the saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”

            Senguttuvan

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    Senguttuvan,

    I completely agree with you. Yogendra Duraiswamy was a seasoned diplomat who joined the Foreign Service in 1949. That was the first batch of the Ceylon overseas service. He was an eminent individual of immense integrity who did so much of development work in Jaffna for the two years he was District Secretary. The roads paved, the bus services introduced, the houses constructed, the jobs provided, the micro credit schemes started and the schools refurbished stand in his memory. I remember the press accounts of the period where he was at the Jaffna Public Library trying to douse the flames at 3.00 AM in the morning when the thugs were running amok. He was a man of defiance and integrity I think Simhi’s comments were untruthful and completely uncalled for. Tamils need to band together not resort to such cheap attempts at character assassination

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