Colombo Telegraph

The Tamil Polity: From Ambivalence To Violence

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

1979 – 83: The Mounting Repression – Part I

The youth and the more radical elements felt that the parting of ways had come and that coexistence with the Sinhalese was no longer possible. Thus the Tamil bourgeois leadership had to adopt the slogan of “Tamil Eelam – the cry of a separate State – for their political existence…

They kept the people under an illusion, by such slogans calling the TULF leader Chelvanayakam the Mujibur of Eelam, and even hinted at taking up arms from election platforms. Critics of these slogans were called ‘traitors’ to the cause. However, little progress was made inside or outside parliament, apart from the TULF leadership praising [Jayewardene] as the greatest democrat in South Asia. At the same time the Tamil people faced the 1977 race riots…The TULF was impotent. As a result the sense of betrayal was acute amongst the youth and the people.” ~ Rajani Thiranagama, from The Broken Palmyrah

It is futile to describe July 1983 in terms of cause and effect. On the one hand we have the authoritarianism of those in power.

Their reliance on chauvinist ideology precluded their dealing rationally with the ethnic question. The more they tried to knock the Tamils into conformity, the more they lost control and the less real were their pretensions of control over what they conceived of as a unitary state from ancient times. In turn, the resulting nervousness made them more irrational.

On the other side, as a consequence of their being knocked about in bouts of communal violence and other forms of discriminatory treatment, many Tamils had by the 70s come to accept that they needed a violent arm. They were clear that they did not want this violent arm to become their rulers, but only to help the TULF, the main Tamil parliamentary party, to negotiate a decent settlement. This position also reflected a failure of moral and political imagination, and the inability of the Tamil community to muster a principled leadership and make the collective sacrifice required for a non-violent struggle.

It also suited elite Tamil inclinations to promote a jaundiced view of the ordinary Sinhalese people and avoid the nuisance of making sacrifices, while leaving it to the lower orders of society to bear the cost of militant violence. Thus, the TULF leadership exuded a certain ambivalence while promising a non- violent struggle. A TULF leader, who lived in Nallur South, was a refined man with an incisive mind. As with the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, he believed in achieving the separate state of Tamil Eelam through Indian intervention. He had a regular stream of concerned Sinhalese visitors from the South to whom he would very logically in his patient, cultured manner explain the TULF position. Privately he opined that little good would come from the Sinhalese.

The problem with the kind of mindset that was common among the Tamil elite, is its failure to take a responsible view towards the Sinhalese people and to see that the fundamental interests of the Sinhalese are very similar to those of their Tamil counterparts. They also failed to see the need to convince the Sinhalese that Tamil demands are fair in themselves and are not a threat to them. It was a chauvinist approach, albeit the chauvinism of the under-dog. It played into the hands of the chauvinists in the South supported by state power.

A further illustration from the TULF leader mentioned also brings out a serious problem with the TULF. The Jaffna secretary of the Communist Party, Mr. I.R. Ariyaratnam, was his back-door neighbour, separated by the two fences of an access lane. In a conversation in 1975, the Secretary expressed his strong disapproval of the murder of Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiappah by the militant youth. The TULF leader responded, “What else can you do with him?” Taken aback, the communist responded, “Today it is Duraiappah. One day they will come for you!

This TULF leader, an MP, was disillusioned with the long drawn out negotiations with President Jayewardene, which seemed to lead nowhere. He advocated talking to the Indian Government and could not understand the party leader Amirthalingam’s persistence in talking to Jayewardene. He was exasperated with the leadership’s hesitation in going to India and was apt to say some strong things. Though being a heart patient, in 1981, he personally went on a mission to talk to the Indian Government and succumbed to a heart attack in India, so defying his communist neighbour’s prophecy. Eight years later the LTTE killed his party leader and another fellow MP.

A number of TULF activists in this leader’s circle formed the following year, in 1982, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Front, led by an elderly physician and former mayor of Jaffna, Dr. Tharmalingam – nearly all of them personally very non-violent and moderate men. Their number included Kovai Mahesen, a Brahmin and editor of Suthanthiran (Harbinger of Freedom), a paper owned by the family of the late leader, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam. Another key TELF member was M.K. Eelaventhan, a former Central Bank employee and disciple of the late Yogaswami – a well-known religious teacher based in Colombogam on the outskirts of Jaffna Town. The TELF’s main grievance was that the TULF had compromised on the goal of a separate state for which it had received a mandate in the 1977 elections. (The LTTE used the same ‘mandate’ from 1986 as a pretext for massacring other militant groups and even leading TULF personalities!)

Two developments had precipitated the formation of the TELF. One was that in the months following the formation of the District Development Councils in mid-1981 as a means to a political solution, the widespread perception became that they were an eyewash devolving no real power and that the financial provision was inadequate for any serious development work. A proposal by the Jaffna DDC to start a badly needed passenger boat service (of course with all the normal customs and immigration procedures) to the Tamil Nadu coast was disallowed by the Government. The need for the ferry was because flights to India from Palaly had been stopped after a fire-bomb was left behind in a passenger plane from Jaffna, which had landed in Colombo. This was in September 1978.

The DDC elections in Jaffna, in June 1981, had been traumatic for the people. Along with disruptive attempts by PLOTE militants and political killings, there were brazen attempts by the Government to rig the elections in favour of the UNP. The grand finale was arson by the Police, which included the burning of the Jaffna Public Library, the press of the Eelanadu daily and the house of Yogeswaran, MP. Mr. & Mrs. Yogeswaran narrowly escaped the drunken policemen, only to be murdered by the LTTE many years later, in separate incidents.

The TULF leader, Mr. Amirthalingam as a result of these developments came under heavy pressure, both at home and abroad, to go for a UDI – Unilateral Declaration of Independence. On a tour abroad during early 1982, Amirthalingam doughtily defended his position of pushing the Government towards a workable political settlement. He addressed many public meetings among the diaspora. There was protest and heckling. But even so, Amirthalingam was yet the king. The Saturday Review which was started in Jaffna about this time and edited by S. Sivanayagam, was seen by many to lean towards the TELF position even though it admitted a variety of views.

*To be continued..

*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder” published in Jan. 2001. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here

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