09th June 2002, Volume 8, Issue 47

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ISSUES

Life and times of Sivasithamparam

 By D. B. S. Jeyaraj

 

The departure of Murugesu Sivasithamparam evokes nostalgic memories of a mercurial personality that strode like a colossus across the Tamil political horizon. When news of Siva's death emerged, a sadness enveloped most people who knew of him. In contrast, the younger generation of Tamils who know very little about the pre-militancy period of the Tamil non-violent struggle for restoration of lost rights seemed the least concerned.

It is relevant therefore to dwell briefly into Sivasithamparam's past to know more about a man who devoted his life to the Tamil cause and made great personal sacrifices for it.

Sivasithamparam was literally a towering personality in the political landscape of the island. A well built six footer with a stentorian voice, the mercurial Sivasithamparam was for more than four decades an accredited leader of his people. The brilliant lawyer was a powerful orator and ebullient debater who cut a flamboyant figure at the height of his career. He was at the time of his death the senior-most Tamil parliamentarian, having been nominated last year on the national list by the newly formed Tamil National Alliance.

Hereditary chieftan

He was of aristocratic lineage being the scion of a "maniagar" or hereditary chieftain in charge of a revenue division during British colonial days. Sivasithamparam studied at Karaveddy Vikneshwara College and St. Joseph's College in Colombo. He enrolled at the University College and read for his BA. Despite the feudal upbringing, the younger Sivasithamparam was enamoured of Marxism and a Communist Party supporter in his undergraduate days. One reason for this apart from the idealism of youth, was the influence of the legendary Pon. Kandiah or 'Communist' Kandiah of Karaveddy.

He dropped out of university after getting his London Inter and joined the Law College becoming an advocate. He also abandoned his Communist sympathies in later years and took up the cause of Tamil nationalism. The process was gradual. In 1947 he supported Pon. Kandiah of the CP in the Point Pedro electorate of old that encompassed Karaveddy. In 1952 while sympathetic to the CP still, Sivasithamparam supported his uncle and well known lawyer K. C. Nadarajah, who contested as an independent in Point Pedro. It was 'K. C'. who helped Sivasithamparam set up practice in Colombo.

Return to parliament

Siva contested the Point Pedro electorate in the Jaffna peninsula as an independent candidate in 1956, polled 8054 votes and lost to his former mentor, Pon. Kandiah of the CP. Although an independent, he had the support of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress led by G. G. Ponnambalam  for the campaign. The break with the CP was complete. The Federal Party led by S. J. V. Chelvanayagam fielded K. Thurairatnam. Two years later, Sivasithamparam joined the Tamil Congress and went on to become its general secretary.

The re-demarcation of 1959 saw the former Point Pedro being carved into Udupiddy and Point Pedro. Siva was returned to parliament for the first time in March, 1960 getting 7365 votes and winning the Udupiddy seat on the Tamil Congress ticket. He defeated the sitting MP, Pon. Kandiah, his one time guru by a majority of 1938. The left being divided, helped Siva as the combined votes of the LSSP's R. R. Dharmaratnam and the CP was higher than the TC's tally. Siva repeated his performance in 1960 July, too, harvesting 9080 votes.

The TC was routed by the FP in both elections. But the personal charisma and popularity of Siva helped him withstand the T. Thamilarasu tidal wave. He was then the sole representative of the Tamil Congress in a parliament of 157 MPs. The mercurial Sivasithamparam and his unique voice made a tremendous impression and the lobby correspondents of the day referred to him as the most promising new face from the north in parliament. Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike was his equivalent from the south.

In 1961, Sivasithamparam shed party differences and participated in the massive Satyagraha campaign launched by the FP. He was a member of the action committee in Jaffna. When the "illegal" Tamil Postal Service was organised as part of civil disobedience, separate stamps and envelopes were printed. Sivasithamparam was one of the 'postmen' and delivered by motor cycle an 'official' letter informing the Jaffna police superindent of the postal service. He was assaulted severely by the army when trying to protect women Satyagrahis. He was hospitalised for days.

This incident increased Sivasithamparam's political stature among the Tamil people. Interestingly Sivasithamparam was not placed under house arrest at Panagoda along with FP leaders and stalwarts by the government. This was a not so subtle move to divide the FP and TC who were coming close politically. Sirimavo Bandaranaike's government resorted to such stratagems in 1976 also. The newly formed TULF leaders were distributing leaflets in Jaffna. Messrs A. Amirthalingam, M. Sivasithamparam, K. P. Ratnam, K. Thurairatnam and V. N. Navaratnam were arrested. Then Sivasithamparam of the Tamil Congress was released while the others, all of them from the FP were taken to Colombo and detained for 10 days. This was followed by the famous trial at bar case over charges of sedition against Amirthalingam.

Sivasithamparam with 12009 votes won again on the Tamil Congress ticket in 1965 March, in a triangular contest with the FP ( 8452) and LSSP( 5268). Again the combined vote of his opponents was higher than Siva's total. But then, the first past the post winner system in vogue permitted such winner take all type of victories. The Tamil Congress with three seats joined the national government of Dudley Senanayake. While Murugesan Tiruchelvam of the FP became local government minister, the TC took no office.

In 1967, the then Speaker, Sir Albert Peries of Nattandiya died and was succeeded by his deputy Shirley Corea of Chilaw. The deputy speaker's office was filled by Sivasithamparam. He served as deputy speaker of parliament from 1967 to 1970. He was proficient in all three languages and presided over the House in a creditable mode. Once when T. B. M. Herath of Walapane was troublesome, Sivasithamparam spoke to him in chaste Sinhalese and tactfully persuaded the overwhelmed Herath to yield. On another occasion Siva admonished his own leader G. G. Ponnambalam, much to his chagrin for unfairly criticising Amirthalingam when the latter was not present in the House.

Udupiddy lion

In spite of the prestige he acquired as deputy speaker, Sivasithamparam lost his seat in 1970 to the Federal Party in what was widely regarded as an electoral upset as the 'Udupiddy lion', regarded as unbeatable was beaten in his own den. Three factors contributed. First, the FP candidate K. Jeyakkody, a former district judge had contested and lost all three previous elections and cut a pathetic figure. There was a groundswell of sympathy on account of this.

Second, the large numbers of so called "low caste" Tamils who had voted along with progressive Tamils for the left parties were now disillusioned with both LSSP and CP for aligning with the racist and reactionary SLFP. These sections deserted these left parties and preferred the comparatively progressive FP to the more conservative Tamil Congress and Sivasithamparam.

Third, Sivasithamparam's own cousin Pon. Kumaraswamy contested on the CP ticket. This created a major split among relatives, fellow villagers and family oriented supporters. While some voted for Kumaraswamy many remained non-committal and aloof, voting for neither. A combination of all three factors saw Sivasithamparam with 11662 votes losing to Jeyakkody with 12918 by 1256.

Blessing in disguise

This defeat was a blessing in disguise for Tamil nationalism. Like Siva, the FP's Secretary Appapillai Amirthalingam also lost in Vaddukkoddai. Both defeated leaders - easily the single most popular younger leaders in their respective parties. - began working together in the larger interests of the community. The turbulent seventies saw the Tamil parties forming together the Tamil United Front in 1972 which went on to become the Tamil United Liberation Front in 1976. The TULF contested the 1977 elections on a separatist platform.

The Udupiddy electorate had a substantial concentration of so called low caste Tamils. Sivasithamparam moved out of the constituency to Nallur at the polls to enable a minority Tamil candidate to be fielded. Former educationist T. Rasalingam contested and won in Udupiddy. Sivasithamparam though contesting the unfamiliar semi-urban terrain of Nallur, was riding the crest of a TULF wave. He swept the seat with 29858 votes and created history by recording the largest majority of 28, 137 votes in the entire country in that election.

The TULF with 18 seats was the largest opposition party in 1977. Appapillai Amirthalingam and Murugesu Sivasithamparam became leader and deputy leader of the opposition respectively. Sivasithamparam became president and Amirthalingam, secretary-general of the TULF in 1978. Thereafter, Amir was referred to as the nation's leader (Inathin thalaiver) and Siva as the movement's leader (Iyakkathin thalaiver).

Though elected on a separatist mandate, the TULF was prepared to compromise. It tried to cooperate with Jayewardene over the district minister system, the Devolution Commission and the District Development Councils (DDC). It accepted the DDCs against the wishes of the extremists and the militant youth.

When the DDC polls campaign was underway, violence broke out in Jaffna with the police running riot. Several TULF leaders including Amir and Siva were arrested and later released. The TULF won all DDCs in the north and Trincomalee and Batticaloa in the east. Had the UNP government allowed the DDCs to work, it may have helped stem the growing tide of violence. But the UNP did not and instead tried to undermine the TULF. Matters declined rapidly thereafter.

The 1983 July violence resulted in a tragic upheaval for the Tamil minority. Thousands of families were affected and uprooted. Sivasithamparam's house in Norris Canal Road and both vehicles in Colombo too were burnt and his family members escaped death miraculously. Siva himself was at Mannar for the TULF convention then. The Sivasithamparam family along with many others relocated to Tamil Nadu. Former Chief Minister M. G. Ramachandran allocated a flat to the family. The TULF president has since remained a resident of Chennai although interspersed with long periods of absence to do politicking in Sri Lanka while leaving his family behind.

The TULF forfeited their parliamentary seats by refusing to take the mandatory oath of allegiance to a unitary state as provided for by the hastily passed sixth amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution in August 1983. The TULF however welcomed the good offices of India and cooperated fully in the mediatory efforts undertaken by New Delhi. Sivasithamparam along with TULF colleagues Amirthalingam and Sambandan participated in all forms of Indian sponsored negotiations. These included the Colombo All Party Conference of 1984, the aborted talks in Bhutan in 1985, New Delhi-Chennai-Colombo talks of 1986 and the 1987 discussions in India. In 1987 the TULF accepted the Indo-Lanka accord and re-entered the political mainstream of the island.

Sivasithamparam contested the Jaffna and Wanni electoral districts in 1989 and 1994 respectively. Earlier he was reluctant to contest in 1989 along with other ex-militant groups under a common symbol. He was persuaded to do so against his better judgement by Amirthalingam. He failed to gain representation in the polls conducted under the propotional representation system because of its inherent defects and vote rigging by others.

Sivasithamparam survived with injuries an assassination attempt by the LTTE in 1989. TULF leaders Amirthalingam and Yogeswaran were killed in the incident. He was shot in the chest and underwent a long stint in hospital. Thereafter the mantle of TULF leadership was Sivasithamparam's. He shuttled between India and Sri Lanka while facing considerable hardship.

The TULF was actively involved in the peacemaking efforts of President Chandrika Kumaratunga from 1994 to 1997 and Sivasithamparam himself played a commendable role in it. Ill health and growing disillusionment with Kumaratunga compelled him in 1998 to return and stay continuously in Chennai till early this year. By this time he was thoroughly skeptical of Kumaratunga and was virtually "retired" from political life. He did not contest the elections of 2000 and 2001.

Failing health

The 2001 poll however saw four parties including the TULF  forming the Tamil National Alliance and contesting. It won 14 seats and on the basis of votes received entitled to one nominated seat on a national basis. Sivasithamparam was the unanimous choice for the seat. Any other being nominated, would have shattered fragile TNA unity because of infighting. But there was no vetoing Siva. Besides, the alliance needed a well known leader respected by all shades of opinion. Also there were prospects of peace again with the victory of Wickremesinghe.

Despite his failing health the old war-horse returned to Colombo in a wheelchair to become an MP again and play once again a role in the island's politics, albeit under changed circumstances. The divinity that shapes our ends had other plans. Sivasithamparam leaves behind his wife, son and daughter and their families. The son is in Britain and the daughter in India. His son in law is an Indian national.


Damp squibs dominate dull week

By Amantha Perera

Parliament last week was a totally dull affair, with two extended adjournment debates dominating proceedings. Both had been agreed at the party leaders' meeting held the previous Friday. One was the adjournment debate proposed by TULF Trincomalee District Member, R. Sampanthan on the cease-fire violations, the other, cricketer turned politician Arjuna Ranatunga's motion on the state of the Cricket Board.

The much vaunted 18th Amendment to the constitution did not make its appearance, leaving the nation in suspense yet again. With developments outside the House dominating the news, parliamentary proceedings were relegated to a position of minor importance.

The aid group meeting and the SLFP annual convention dominated political small talk. The former for the manner in which donors had shifted from finance to peace making and the latter for the manner in which President Chandrika Kumaratunga was playing pandu with the SLFP. Proposing the adjournment debate, Sampanthan said that the only way towards a peaceful solution to the north-east conflict was by way of forming an interim administration. He listed ceasefire violations committed by the security forces and argued that the LTTE's arms shipments were due to the fact that successive governments had deceived the Tamil people.

Sampanthan's colleague from the Batticaloa District, Joseph Pararajasingham lamented that the cease-fire agreement was not as spectacular now as when it was signed. He said that the goodwill between the two warring parties had gone down since the signing of the agreement. He blamed certain sections within the armed forces for acting contrary to the cease-fire agreement and made specific reference to the continued fishing restrictions and the occupation of public buildings by the security forces.

Minister G. L. Peiris thought it fit to give attention to the aid group meeting set to commence in 48 hours, observing that donors had been willing to commit funds to the rehabilitation of the north-east even before complete normalcy had been restored. He told the House that reconstruction and rehabilitation of the war-ravaged region would be one of the prime topics at the aid group meeting.

It was MEP Leader Dinesh Gunawardena and JVPer Anura Kumara Dissanayake who came out as dissenting voices. Gunawardena who has been in the forefront of the PA/JVP protest campaign against the peace process, questioned the TULF whether its members sanctioned the killings of party stalwarts by the LTTE. He also said he had information regarding abductions by the LTTE and other crimes. He referred to the TULF as a group that was holding a brief for the LTTE and said the whole country was for peace but that they were against the promotion of the rules set by the LTTE.

Referring to vacation of camps by the armed forces, Gunawardena said that it would have been alright if the LTTE also reciprocated. He warned that the government was trapped in the whole process. Dissanayake too spoke in the same vein.

Defence Minister Thilak Marapone replying for the government said the armed forces had vacated all but three temples where the monks and the people had asked them to remain. He added that it was however, difficult to clearly define places of worship. "We are not blindly walking into a minefiled," he assured the nation, arguing that the government was aware of the pitfalls and dangers involved in the process.

The week however closed a chapter in parliament when TULF stalwart and former Deputy Speaker A. Sivasithamparam passed away on Tuesday night.


SB opens door to elephant slaughter

By Nihal de Silva

Last week's announcement by Agriculture Minister S. B. Dissanayake that the government will issue firearms to farmers to protect their crops sent shock waves across the nature conservation establishment. According to Dissanayake, crop depredation by wild boar! has reached epidemic proportions, and given that they have no arms with which to defend their fields, farmers are forced to watch idly by as wild boar! lay waste to their crops.

Dissanayake is right: farmers, especially rice and vegetable farmers, have a serious problem with wild boar. Since farmers (and almost everyone else) were deprived of their guns in the late 1980s as a result of the JVP insurgency, wild boar populations have increased to menacing proportions. Large sounders of pigs roam farmlands by night, rooting crop plants and creating losses that must, on a national scale, amount to millions.

Law's an ass

Together with hare, porcupine and monkeys, wild boar are considered pest species under the law, and may legally be killed, although the transport and sale of their flesh is prohibited. The image of farmers (merely in order to avoid having to transport the flesh) tearing apart freshly-killed boars in a paddy field and roasting chops over a barbecue in the fashion popularised by Asterix and Obelix surely drives home the fact that the law's an ass. What is more, given that firearms are prohibited, hunting is today the province of the habitually criminal poacher, and wild boar flesh is available for sale in almost every small town from Morawaka to Medawachchiya at prices as low as Rs 40 a kilo. In many places, the police play a pivotal role in the trade: after all, they have the guns and the free ammunition.

Every visitor to Sri Lanka's dry zone national parks knows that gunshots ring out throughout the night, making it clear that poaching is rampant. In Pottuvil, on the eastern side of Yala, organised gangs of poachers do brisk trade in venison and wild pork (which is far cheaper than the tame variety). Regardless of this, boar are an agricultural pest of epidemic proportions, and it is no doubt through frustration as much as anything else that Minister Dissanayake has taken the drastic step he has.

The impact of putting guns in the hands of farmers however, could be catastrophic for elephants. When it comes to raiding farmlands, elephants are every bit as bad as wild boar. And even without guns, Sri Lanka's farmers succeed in killing at least 1,261 elephants (that is the official figure) during the decade ending 2001. Barring a handful of tuskers shot for ivory, the vast majority were killed in defence of crops. That translates into roughly one elephant killed every 70 hours over the past 10 years. And some years, such as last year, have been much worse: one elephant was killed every 54 hours.

The future of Sri Lanka's elephant population given this extraordinary war of attrition, is surely bleak. However, there is hope. Effective management and enforcement by the Department of Wildlife Conservation can make a world of difference. For example, in 1990 and 1991, when the department was headed by the maverick Professor S. W. Kotagama, only 49 and 59 elephants respectively, met their deaths. With Kotagama's ouster in 1992, ironically as a result of the deaths of three elephants captured for the wildlife author Mark Shand, elephant deaths rose to 103 in 1993. They have stayed well above those figures since. And from the conservationists who cried out for Kotagama's dismissal in the heat of the Shand Affair, few alternative solutions have been forthcoming.

Dissanayake's proposal to put guns in the hands of farmers should be resisted. His intention is that the issue of firearms to individual farmers would be based on recommendations made by Samurdhi animators and rural credit organisations. Jumping the gun, as it were, the minister has already sent application forms for firearms to the various divisional secretariats. His decision, it seems, was precipitated by a survey conducted by the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agricultural Training Institute. It is now clear that neither the Wildlife Department nor its minister, Rukman Senanayake, was consulted by Dissanayake. Neither has the Kobbekaduwa Institute looked into the wider ramifications of issuing firearms to farmers, for it is not only elephants that are at risk.

Suicidal move

It is necessary to acknowledge the fact that thanks to the JVP and LTTE, Sri Lankan society has sunk to a level of barbarism that would be the envy of the Taliban. Cruel and bloody murders are commonplace, as events of just the last few weeks have shown. Law and order have sunk to their lowest depths, and the UNF government has shown itself hardly more able than the PA in curbing this trend. Despite their being relieved of duties at checkpoints and sentry posts, the police have displayed neither the enthusiasm nor the ability to check the violence. The arming of farmers in this milieu, especially if overseen by an organisation as politically stilted as Samurdi is, would be suicidal. Its impact on crime would be incalculable.

The issue of conflict between farmers and wildlife must be resolved through better management and not by force of arms. As far as the farmer is concerned, there is little difference between a boar and an elephant, except perhaps that the boar can be eaten. Yet, farmers are in a genuine plight. A whole year's labour and investment can be laid waste in one single night; their vigil is endless. The solution must come not from the slaughter of wildlife that enters farmland, but from better planning and land use. If the government goes on settling farmers in the midst of wildlife corridors, then conflict is inevitable. However, if indeed the Wildlife Department goes on to help farmers in wildlife - especially elephant - areas to convert to more nature-friendly means of earning a livelihood, then conflict will reduce.

Regardless of what is done, the answer is not to distribute guns willy-nilly and precipitate a war against wildlife. What is needed is a rational evaluation of viable solutions and a long, hard look at turning wildlife and agriculture into bedfellows. That is the challenge before Wildlife Minister Rukman Senanayake: as a grandson of the father of modern-day agriculture in Sri Lanka, who better than he to tackle this elephantine problem?


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