Pirabakaran at Fifty - the political legacy
26 November 2004
Source: Daily Mirror - November 26, 2004
[see also Velupillai Pirabaharan -
Future Begins at 50]
"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
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
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
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] -
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.