By A.N. Rajendram –
Today, 26 August 2018, is the birthday of Appapillai Amirthalingam – unquestioned Leader of the Tamils and first Tamil Leader of the Opposition. To remember such a powerful politician, a Tamil leader with pleasant personal abilities and commanding presence, is I consider a joyful and appropriate thing.
Leader Amirthalingam was born in the village of Pannaaham in Vaddukoddai. After a stint at Pannaaham Meikandaan Tamil School he moved on to Victoria College, Chullipuram. He was the first student from there to enter the University of Ceylon. At the university he was acknowledged as one of the few who could speak in both Tamil and English. Joining people like Prof. Vidyananthan, he acted in Tamil plays.
His fluency in Tamil and English, and his ability to speak impromptu on various topics with rich content and succinctness has been paraised by many. His speeches were a source of joy to many youth like me.
A good leader may be assessed by his decisions and how he comes to them, and then implements them in ways acceptale to other people. He would read up on arguments on all sides of a topic, come to his decision very rationally, explain his position even to those who opposed him and often bring them over to his point of view. He was an excellent leader because of this.
At the Law College in 1949, he joined Thanthai Chelva (S.J.V. Chelvanayakam) in forming the Ilanka Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK, aso known as the Federal Party). He participated at the initial meeting of the ITAK and was appointed the Head of the party’s Youth Wing. From that time to his death, he faithfully worked for the well-being of the Tamil people. He contested the Vaddukoddai seat in 1952. Although he was not returned then, he continued to build up the party and saw his work’s fruition in the 1956 General Election when he himself was elected as the Member for Vaddukoddai and the ITAK trounced to victory in the North and the East as the Tamil people endorsed the ITAK’s policies on language parity and citizenship for the Estate Tamils who had been cruelly betrayed by the Tamil Congress which turned its back on promises made to Mr. S. Thondaman.
That same year, our Leader participated in the Satygraha Campaign on Galle Face Green organized by Mr. Chelvanayakam and the ITAK to oppose S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s “Sinhala Only” language policies for Sri Lanka. At the Satygraha, Amirthalingam was assaulted by Sinhalese goons. However, even as he bled, he went to Parliament and gave voice opposing the language laws of the government. We cannot forget Prime Minister S.W.R.D. sarcastically and cold-heartedly insulting them saying that they had come to Parliament with the heroic wounds of war.
In the two elections that followed in March and July 1960, the ITAK prevailed impressively, showijg that it had the Tamil people fully behind it. As SJV Chelvanayakam consolidated his status as the unchallenged leader of the Tamil people, Leader Amirthalingam became his trusted right hand man. Mr. Amirthalingam immersed himself in all activities of the ITAK – whether the Anti-Sri Campaign or protest march for parity for Tamil or Satyagraha. He organized these to perfection and often brought them to successful fruition. He was the man of action of the ITAK, the Action Hero as he was often called.
In 1961, Satyagraha Campaigns were held in front of the Kachcheris of the North and East. In these, the participation and contribution of Mr. and Mrs. Amirthalingam were found to be a violation of the laws as Satyagrahas are intended to be. As a result both were arrested by the Government and imprisoned at the Panagoda Military Camp for six months.
In the year 1965, he contested again in the General Elections and was returned as the Member for Vaddukoddai. The ITAK offered its cooperation for the UNP to form a government.Mr. M. Tiruchelvam was nominated by the ITAK for the Senate, and represented the ITAK as the Minister for Local Government. As the compact between the ITAK and the UNP was not honoured by Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, the ITAK quit the government.
In time as Thanthai Cheva became progressively more afflicted by Parkinson’s Disease, it had become difficult to comprehend his speech. However, the ability to understand and communicate with him ony one person had – and that was Leader Amirthalingam.Once the late MP for Paruthiththurai, Mr. Thurairathinam,was repeating Thanthai Chelva’s speech on a loudspeaker and rather loudly at that. Thanthai Chelva who heard Thurairatnam speaking, signalled him to sit down and requested Amirthalingam to repeat what he was saying. I am describing this incident to demonstrate how much Mr. Amirthalingam enjoyed Thanthai Chelva’s confidence!
Functioning as a sympathizer of ITAK from 1966, it was from 1970 that I developed a relationship with Mr. Amirthalingam. In the 1970 elections Mr. Amirthalingam contested the Vaddukoddai seat against the Tamil Congress’ Mr. A. Thiyagarajah and lost. This defeat caused us great grief. To grieve with Mr. Amirthalingam, I joined my friends at Tellippalai, hired a van and went to meet him at his Moolai residence. Instead he consoled us, and pointed to the half-built state of his house, telling us, “I have been so busy with politics that I have been unable to finish building my house; but now I will return to my practice as an advocate and finish the job.” That he did. In those days, parliamentarians did not have the perquisites and privileges like MPs today. They travelled about using the railways and bus services. Rarely would they resort to air travel. They had no privilege of constructing houses and building up fat bank accounts.
In 1972 he did much work opposing the new Constitution by Mrs. Srimavo Bandaranaike. Recognizing the urgent need for Tamil unity, he worked closely with the Tamil Congress’ Mr. Gnanamoorthy of Valvettithurai. Unitng with the Tamil Congress and the Ceylon Workers’ Congress, he worked on the frontlines in establishing the Tamil United Front which later became the Tamil United Liberation Front.
With Srimavo Bandaranaike unwilling to concede Tamils’ basic reights, and all avenues closing, in 1976, the Vaddukoddai resolution was put forward. On the charge of distributing leaflets relating to this resolution, Messers Amirthalingam, K. Thurairatanam, V.N. Navaratnam, and K.P. Ratnam were charged and faced a Trial-at-Bar before a three-judge bench. More than 70 lawyers appeared and prepared briefs on behalf of the accused. I took leave to attend the hearings. On account of the skills our lawyers displayed, a “Not-guilty” verdict was returned for all four accused.
In 1977 with the sad demise of Thanthai Chelva, his mantle as Tamil Leader devolved on Leader Amirthalingam. Naturally, as Thanthai’s heir, Leader Amirthalinagam successfully contested the 1977 election from Mr. Chelvanayagam’s seat at Kankesanthurai. Eighteen persons including our leader were returned from the TULF while the UNP got 14 seats. The SLFP got only 8. As a result the TULF was the seond biggest party in Parliament and our Leader Amirthalingam became the Leader of the Opposition. The position was the first for a Tamil.
Leader Amirthalingam used his office to highlight the problems of Tamils in foreign fora. It was in this climate that he developed a close relationship with the Indian central government and in particular with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Unable to bear these activities of our Leader, the Sinhalese Government moved a motion of no confidence against him. This was the first such motion of no confidence against a Leader of the Opposition anywhere in the world. Communalists seemed determined to tear him apart like in the old days when elephants tore a body into two. Refusing to be bullied, Amirthalingam asked for time to reply. Being refused permission to respond, all TULF MPs walked out of Pmarliaent.
Today, the absence of a fearless, brave and well-informed leader with the intuition to do the right thing when confronting the unexpected is a matter of great misfortune for us as Tamils.
When J.R. Jayawardene’s UNP government on 16 July 1980 brought a motion in Parliament to strip Mrs. Bandaranaike of her civic rights, the speech our Leader made in Parliament against that motion earned the praise of leaders worldwide. Said he, forthrightly and firmly, “You are doing a wrong thing. You are trying to politically murder an opponent and leader of a party. This is not the forum for punishing her. The people of Attanagalle have chosen her as their representative. If she has erred, the people of Attanagalle must punish her. This motion is an international violation of her basic human rights.”
Even though Mrs. Bandaranaike refused us our basic requests for the 1972 Constitution, our Leader argued for her rights in Parliament and thereby his greatness, his humane character in guarding her and sending her safely home from Parliament. After she was stripped of her civic rights, he as a democratic leader organized a grand welcome for her in Jaffna’s Open Air Theatre. Perhaps because of this, after our leader was murdered, Mrs. Bandaranaike cryptically said, “Although the Sinhalese people had many reasons for murdering him, I am so glad that they did not commit this murder.” Those who understand what she meant must reflect on it.
Following the 1983 riots Leader Amirthalingam journeyed to India joined by his stalwart supporters in M. Sivasithamparam and R. Sampanthan. He participated in tripartite negotiations between the Sri Lankan, Tamil Nadu and the Indian Central governments. The Indo-Sri Lanka agreement was the product of these talks. However, not all that Mr. Amirthalingam wanted was incorporated in this. There were shortcomings. Be that as it may, it cannot be denied that it is that agreement that has given us the few powers we have over our own affairs. It was as a result of Mr. Amirthalingam giving voice to the shortcomings, that the agrrement stipulates that matters left out are subject to further negotiations and agreement.
In the 1989 general elections Mr. Amirthalingam contested from Batticaloa, aligning with the Eelam People’s Liberation Front, Tamil Eelam Liberation Front, and the Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front. The preference vote was misused as a weapon by the parties of comrades and caused Mr. Amirthalingam’s defeat.Nontheless, our leader became MP when he was nominated for a seat by the Tamil Uited Liberation Front. From then to his death I had the privilege of serving as hisSecretary.
During this period I have been many times to Parliament with my Leader to simply listn to him and learn from him. I was thereby able to observe the great respect and awe with which he was beheld by all. Everytime he rose to speak, parliaentarians would lapse into pindrop silence to listen to his words and dwell on his thoughts. On one occasion he rose to speak on the subject of sending back the Indian Peace Keeping Force, the IPKF. I do not recall who but someone got up and said, “Don’t you want to send out the IPKF, the Innocent People Killing Force?” Our Leader immediately without any delay, shot back with his classic penchant for repartee “No, I do not want them replaced by the All People Killing Force.” That we do not have a leader of Mr. Amirthalingam’s stature is a matter for great regret.
On 13 July 1989, Leader Amirthlingam was cruelly murdered in what I call an unholy hurry. We have still not been able to fill the vacuum that was created as a result. To detail this will make this essay too long. Deo Volente, I shall do that when another opportunity presents itself.
*A.N. Rajendram, APFA, FMAAT, FIPFM (UK). Former Head, Jaffna District Development Society, and Member, Valikamam East Prathesiya Sabai