Pirabakaran at Fifty – the political legacy
by Dharmeratnam (Taraki)
26 November 2004
Source: Daily Mirror – November 26, 2004
“If we do not win our freedom we have to live as slaves, we loose our self-respect and live in shame, live in eternal fear and suspense, get wiped out step by step.”
“Rather than idleness of people, it is the activeness of people that turns the wheels of the struggle”
It is not my intention here to interrupt the unceasing labours of those who love to hate him. There is little I can add to the invectives that Sinhala nationalist politicians, academics, opinion makers and editorialists relentlessly heap on the LTTE leader.
To them he is the main enemy. But little is understood of him. The Sinhala polity is always ready with neat but simplistic categories to condemn the man and explain him and his actions. Knowledge about him is still so superficial and anecdotal that even informed writers in Colombo assume the LTTE’s Great Heroes’ Day falls on Pirapaharan’s birthday on November 26. He is presumed to be so self centred that one writer thinks that his birthday is the “grand climax” of the Great Heroes’ Week. Nothing could be further from the truth. The desire to despise him is so great that the oft reiterated fact that Great Heroes’ Day falls on November 27 in memory of ‘Shankar’, the first LTTE’s to die in the war, is forgotten. And what does Pirapaharan do on his birthday on November 26? Cuts a big cake? No. He fasts the whole day in remembrance of one of his lieutenants who died 22 years ago.
If he is so full of himself, why has he cancelled the construction of a 50 foot cut out of his image in Valvettithurai that was planned for his birthday? Why don’t we see statues of the man a la Saddam and Kim Il Jong in every street corner in Kilinochchi? Why doesn’t he call himself a general? Why did he refuse to shake hands with President J. R Jeyawardene when Rajiv Gandhi urged him to in Bangalore in 1986? Why did he unilaterally declare a cease fire in December 2000 when he was doing quite well on the battle field and his eastern commander was eagerly awaiting orders to march on Trincomalee?
The problem is that whatever the basis for hatred one may harbour towards him (class, caste, his vernacular education etc.,) his enemies cannot afford not to understand the man. The Indian army and the Sri Lankan military have not been able to destroy him. Hence all who inveterately hate him have to live with the fact that Pirapaharan is fifty and may be around for quite some more time. Pretending otherwise and doing nothing but nursing the different reasons for abhorring him is pretty meaningless when you can’t get him.
Again, the perception of him as a pure militarist was so dominant that it gave rise to strong predictions when the peace process started three years ago that he would go back war soon because he is uncomfortable with politics. Although he is a man whom many Sinhalese inveterately abhor and call names, it is a fact that he has been engaging the Sri Lankan government politically since October 2003. This is quite evident from the manner in which the ISGA is politically agitating the Sinhala polity today.
Pirapaharan has emerged as the chief political strategist of the Tamils. Whether they like it or not, it is a fact that the Sinhala polity and the world are dealing with him primarily as a political phenomenon today.
So it might be useful to inquire into the political origins of a man who has at best been described anecdotally.
Pirapaharan says that one Venugopal Master was his political guru. The LTTE leader says that in his early days he and his politically minded friends learnt about the principle of self determination and the ‘betrayals of Sinhala governments’ in the night classes conducted by Venugopal Master.
Who was Venugopal Master and why was he teaching the politics of national self determination to young Tamils in the early seventies?
Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict can be described as a contradiction between the position that Tamils have a right to share legislative, executive and judicial powers of the state and the right to claim their due share of the national wealth in accordance with their status as a distinct people and the stand that the Sri Lankan state shall not in any manner share or devolve these rights as stipulated in its unitary constitution.
“I am seventy-seven years old now and even in this old age I am fighting for the liberation of the Tamils because I am aware of the dangers that are lurking for the Tamil community in the Eastern Province. There is no other alternative for the Tamils to live with self-respect other than fight to the end for a Tamil Nadu. ” [i.e. a Tamil State] – S.J.V. Chelvanayagam in a speech in Batticaloa , May 11, 1975
“We have abandoned the demand for a federal constitution. Our movement will be all non-violent . . . We know that the Sinhalese people will one day grant our demand and that we will be able to establish a state separate from the rest of the island…” – S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, November 19, 1976 in Parliament
Historically, the Tamil reaction to this contradiction since the early fifties can be broadly categorized into two schools of political thought. One was represented by the late S. J. V Chelvanayagam and the other by his colleague and co-founder of the Federal Party V. Navaratnam.
The first argued that Tamils should negotiate their share of state power and national wealth from the Sinhala polity.
The second school averred that Tamils have to establish their rights as a sovereign people on their own because the Singhalese would never voluntarily share the executive, legislative and judicial powers and the country’s national wealth which the unitary state helps them to monopolise unhindered.
The second school (to which Navaratnam did not belong in the beginning) rose to prominence in their opposition to the adoption of the Lion Flag, the disenfranchising of hill country Tamils and the state sponsored colonisation schemes in the east in the early years of Ceylon’s independence. They held these out as proof that the Sinhalese would never share state power with the Tamils.
Their arguments were so compelling that on the eve of the 1956 general elections Suthanthiran, the official organ of the Federal Party, serialised an article which argued that carefully negotiating with the Singhalese would in the best interests of the Tamils to obtain their rights peacefully.
The writer, obviously advised by S. J. V Chelvanayagam, says Tamil rights in Ceylon are like a delicate piece of cloth that has fallen on a thorn bush. “If we pull it off the bush the cloth would be torn. Hence we should remove it thorn by thorn even though it means hard and patient work”. The Federal Party’s opponents at the time were accusing it of betraying the Tamil cause by adopting the path of negotiations and compromise. Chelvanayagam and his colleagues could not ignore their popularity. One could gauge it from the success of the play ‘Thurohihal’ (traitors), written and directed by Prof. K. Kanapathipillai. The play is about a group of young men in a land called ‘Tiger Country’ who are waging an armed struggle to secede from ‘Buffalo Country’. The rebels of Tiger Country are betrayed – a patent reference to Tamil leaders who were for co-operating with Sinhala majority governments.
Curiously, the voice of the early separatists found a convenient medium in the Lake House at the time, prompting the Federal Party organ to brand the Tamil secessionism of early and mid fifties as a UNP conspiracy! Singled out for Suthanthiran’s flak was one Cumarasawmy of Chavakachcheri who was an independent candidate in the 1956 general elections.
The political endeavours and arguments of S. J. V Chelvanayagam eventually won the day and the overwhelming support of the Tamils. V. Navaratnam was closely associated with Chelvanayagam in his work in the northeast to win the Tamils over to the Federal Party from the time they formed the FP in 1949. He was called the brains of the party at the time.
The introduction of the Sinhala Only Act and attacks by state backed Sinhala colonists in the east after the 1956 elections won great credence for the second school of thought (which was not exactly separatist at the time) within the Federal Party. Although they were not separatists per se, V. Navaratnam and many young men from the provinces such as Sellaiah Rajathurai believed and said that Tamils had to establish their rights as a people on their own through ‘Arappor’ (which literally meant ‘Just War’ but was understood as non violent struggle).
Their growing influence among the youth and ordinary Tamil folk in the provinces was seen in the success of the ‘long march’ to Trincomalee for the FP’s annual convention in August 1956. The FP’s Trinco convention resolved with overwhelming enthusiasm that the Sri Lankan government “should take necessary steps for the establishment of an autonomous state for the Tamil speaking people in their homeland in the Northern and Eastern Province” and that “in the event of the government failing to do so within one year, the Federal Party would launch a campaign of peaceful and non violent direct action for achieving the establishment of such a state”.
The separatists’ case had a windfall in the form of the anti-Tamil pogrom in 1958. Thousands of young Tamils who were angered by the pogrom were drawn to the Navaratnam School of the Federal party and were fired by the nationalist speeches of Sellaiah Rajathurai MP for Batticaloa and the writings of S. D Sivanayagam, editor of Suthanthiran. Yet Chelvanayagam’s charisma was so powerful that the struggle envisioned by the Trinco resolution was postponed for almost four years by the Banda-Chelva Pact.
It has been well recorded how the deployment of the army against the FP’s civil disobedience campaign in the northeast radicalised Tamil politics. The only point that needs to be emphasised here is that the ‘Navaratnam School’ put its thoughts into action for the first time by attempting to start an independent Tamil state postal service and a mock Tamil Police station.
Again, this radicalisation was ‘arrested’ from proceeding on its natural course when Chelvanayagam and M. Thiruchelvam negotiated the Dudley-Chelva Pact. Thiruchelvam became a minister in the UNP cabinet as part of the deal.
The UNP-FP alliance eventually hammered the last nail on the coffin of the Chelvanayagam School. The tail end of the alliance saw the younger generation crying foul at what was at that time decried in nationalist sections of the Tamil press as the “Thiruchelvam’s great betrayal”. Four things led to the parting of ways of the two schools that had co-existed albeit uneasily within the FP. The first was the nationalisation of the Trinco Harbour, which Tamils saw as a ploy by the Sri Lankan government to ‘Sinhalise’ the port town. The second was the FPs compromise on compulsory Sinhala for government servants. The third was the repatriation of hill country Tamils and the fourth was the passing of the national identity card bill. Navaratnam and the majority of politically minded Tamil youth at the time were angry that Thiruchelvam had conspired with the UNP in all this for the sake of clinging to his portfolio in Dudley Senanyake’s government.
And to cap it all, after all the compromises that Thiruchelvam had put the FP through amidst strident opposition from the provinces and the Tamil press, the Dudley-Chelva Pact remained unimplemented. What Thiruchelvam got for the Tamils in lieu in the form of a white paper was rubbished by Navaratnam and his followers as a travesty of devolution. It was a reworked Kachcheri system.
Opposition to the ‘Thiruchelvam betrayal’ saw some FP stalwarts like Senator Manickam and Sivagnanasundaram leaving the party to form an Eelam Liberation Organisation.
And then Navaratnam was sacked from the Federal Party soon after he spoke up against the Registration of Persons bill in 1968. This was the period when some Tamil youth like Thangathurai began speak about an armed struggle for Thamil Eelam. After leaving the FP, Navaratnam formed the Suyadchi Kazhagam (Self Rule Party). He and his followers conducted political classes on the right of national self determination for young men in many parts of Jaffna.
The Tamil political legacy which Navaratnam represented was the foundation of the Thamil Eelam movement. In his political testament written in 1984 Navaratnam prefigures the Tamil mindset that emerged from this legacy:
“Who can say that the Tamils in Ceylon have ever been wanting in a sincere desire and willingness to settle their disputes with the Singhalese by negotiation and dialogue? Who in the world have gone for dialogues again and again in the face of betrayal after betrayal? It is always a fashion to advise disputants to sit round a table and solve disputes by dialogue and discussion, and not resort to violent confrontation and wars. Whether in national disputes or in international conflicts, parties are being constantly advised to avoid wars and negotiate while governments continue to oppress, persecute and even commit genocide… If the weaker side listened to this idealistic advise and waited till the end of time for a solution to its problems there would have been no wars of independence” (The Fall and Rise of the Tamil Nation)
Navaratnam’s legacy has been little recognised by many who endeavour to understand the Tamil movement.
V. T Thamilmaran who contributed significantly to the public debates that eventually led to the ISGA was one of Navaratnam’s young disciples.
In Valvettithurai and Pt. Pedro, the politics of the Navaratnam School was propagated by Venugopal Master, a school teacher. He was the Suyadchi Kazhakam’s candidate for Pt. Pedro at the 1977 elections. He is Pirapaharan’s political mentor, the man who shaped the political outlook of the young rebel when he set out to wage an armed struggle against the Sri Lankan state.
(If anyone wants to understand the Tamil mindset epitomised by Pirapaharan and men and women of his generation, I suggest that he or she should read Navaratnam’s ‘Fall and Rise of the Tamil Nation’).
Pirapaharan has come a long way politically since he was one of Venugopal Master’s nocturnal students. At fifty, his biggest political achievement is the confluence of the Chelvanayagam and Navaratnam Schools of the Tamil movement.
The Tamil National Alliance is the manifestation of this political confluence which he has brought about.
The remarkable failure of his opponents to plead even an iota political concessions for the Tamils from the Sinhala polity for the last 17 years (1987-2004) has contributed in no small measure to strengthen Pirapaharan’s political strategies in taking forward his current ‘peace offensive’.
Therefore the challenge before the Sinhala polity today is to politically engage the man who fasts on his birthday and never forgets to keep his powder dry.
[see also Velupillai Pirabaharan – Future Begins at 50]