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Home > Tamils - a Trans State Nation > One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century >  Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman

One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century

 Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman
1913-99

by D.B.S.Jeyaraj
Courtesy Frontline, 13 November 1999

 Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman, who passed away on 30 October 30 1999, was the undisputed leader of Sri Lanka's predominantly Indian Tamil plantation proletariat. At 86, he was both the oldest and the seniormost members of the Sri Lankan Cabinet: he had served continuously for 21 years from 1978, under Presidents J.R. Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa, D.B. Wijetunge and Chandrika Kumaratunga. Thondaman was the leader of Sri Lanka's Tamils of recent Indian origin, known as "Indian Tamils" and consisting mainly of tea and rubber plantation workers...

Born in 1913, the political veteran celebrated his 86th birthday on August 30. As president of Sri Lanka's largest and one of the oldest trade unions, the CWC, Thondaman played a prominent role in the country's post-independence politics. His political life was intertwined with the vicissitudes of the Indian Tamil people of Sri Lanka, who form the most deprived section of Sri Lankan society. His goal was to emancipate these people from the wretched plight they were in owing to historical injustice. Although he could not fully realise these aspirations, it cannot be denied that the pragmatic leadership of Thondaman helped the people he represented to better their circumstances from the dire position they were in at the dawn of Sri Lanka's independence.

Thondaman's father Karuppiah Thondaman was connected to the royal family of Pudukkottai. This branch of the family, however, underwent a decline in fortunes, and it was on the verge of impoverishment when Karuppiah migrated to Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was called by the British, to become a "Kankani", or supervisor, of tea estate workers. Through hard work and shrewd business acumen he became the owner of a prosperous tea plantation, Wavendon estate, in Ramboda in the Nuwara Eliya district.

Young Thondaman, born in Munappudoor, came over at the age of 11. He went to secondary school at St. Andrews, Gampola. He then took to planting as estate management was then known. In his late teens and early twenties Thondaman led the life of a brown sahib, as the son and heir of a prosperous plantation owner.

There was, however, an idealist streak in the son, who was not content to lead a luxurious life. Instead, he chose to espouse the cause of plantation workers, who were exploited ruthlessly. The bulk of these workers were Tamil people who were brought as indentured labourers from the then Madras Presidency. Thondaman and other like-minded idealists started organising plantation workers on the lines of trade union movements.

The Indian freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi had a demonstration effect. The Indian community, guided by Jawaharlal Nehru, declared itself formally, in his presence and according to his advice, as the Ceylon Indian Congress (CIC) on July 25, 1939. The War years saw trade unionism taking firm roots in the estates. Thondaman at times spent his own money to finance strikes. The CIC developed into a formidable organisation at the time of independence, with Thondaman as a leader.

In the elections to the first Parliament in 1947, eight persons representing plantation Tamil interests were returned. Of these, six were from the CIC. Thondaman himself won from Nuwara Eliya with a majority of 6,135 votes. In addition to this, Tamil workers helped influence results in a further 12 constituencies. Parliament at that time had 95 elected and six appointed members. Interestingly, Thondaman was the only member of the first Parliament to be a member of the current Parliament.

The United National Party (UNP) government under D.S. Senanayake felt threatened on class and ethnic lines by this "alien presence". It introduced legislation in 1948 and 1949 to deprive the Indian Tamil community of citizenship and franchise. Thondaman and other Indian Tamil leaders, inspired by the Gandhian ethos, chose to combat these blatantly discriminatory measures by resorting to mass satyagraha. After 18 months the struggle was called off.

Accepting the inevitable, the plantation workers began applying, under the new regulations, for citizenship afresh. The stringent requirements imposed and the strict application of those requirements during processing saw most workers being denied citizenship and, by extension, voting rights. Of the 1,071,000 Indian Tamil people who were residents of the Island at the time of independence, only 1,32,000 became eligible for citizenship by 1962. In the meantime, lakhs of Indians returned to India voluntarily.

The 1958 communal riots accelerated this process. The CIC transformed itself into the CWC in 1950. With the deprival of voting rights it became more of a trade union with a political wing than a political party with a trade union. No member of the CWC was elected to Parliament in the 1950s.

In July 1960, Thondaman became an appointed Member of Parliament under Sirima Bandaranaike's government. He represented the hill country Tamil category known as "stateless" people, that is, Tamils who were citizens of neither Ceylon nor India. The worst, however, was yet to come. In October 1964, Prime Ministers Lal Bahadur Shastri and Bandaranaike signed an accord which arbitrarily determined the future of these so-called stateless persons. The Sirimavo-Shastri Pact, as it was popularly known, divided the stateless people on a ratio of seven to four between India and Sri Lanka respectively. Out of the 9,75,000 stateless persons, 5,25,000 were to be repatriated to India while 300,000 were to be granted Sri Lankan citizenship. The fate of another 150,000 people was kept in abeyance. In 1974, Prime Ministers Bandaranaike and Indira Gandhi signed another accord, which divided these people equally - 75,000 each between the two countries.

The tragic dimension to this exercise was that the CWC, which represented the stateless persons, was not consulted. Angered over these developments, Thondaman joined with dissident Sinhala MPs and brought about the downfall of the Bandaranaike government in December 1964; Thondaman abstained during a crucial vote, and the government fell by a one-vote margin.

The incident also brought under the spotlight the political animal that was Thondaman. Instead of striking out against the government in opposition to the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact and inviting political isolation, Thondaman chose to bide his time and team up with other Sinhala MPs on the question of press freedom at the opportune moment and help deliver the coup de grace.

In 1965, Thondaman became an appointed Member of Parliament at the time of the UNP government of Dudley Senanayake. He used the opportunity to delay the repatriation while encouraging the process of re-enfranchisement. Thondaman reportedly told a political scientist that he had single-handedly nullified an agreement entered into by two sovereign governments.

The return of Bandaranaike to power in 1970 saw a reversal of this state of affairs. The nationalisation of plantations saw Indian Tamil people being evicted from the estates and landless Sinhala people being settled in their place. A large number of Tamil people were relocated in the Sri Lankan Tamil districts of North and East.

In spite of the dire economic circumstances, a silent revolution was on within the Indian Tamil community. Aided by CWC leaders, more and more Indian Tamils were regaining citizenship and consequently voting rights. As more and more children grew up and reached the voting age of 18, the community's voting strength increased.

This empowerment became evident for the first time in the 1977 elections when, after 30 years, Thondaman was re-elected to the multi-member constituency of Nuwara Eliya-Maskeliya. He joined the UNP government of J.R. Jayewardene in 1978. The new Constitution of 1978 removed the distinctions between citizens of descent and citizens by registration. This put an end to many problems faced by Indian Tamils.

As Minister for Rural Industrial Development, Thondaman was able to foster dairy projects and small industries among the Indian Tamil people. When it was found that there was a shortfall of 93,000 in the number of applicants for Indian citizenship and a corresponding excess for Sri Lankan citizenship. Thondaman persuaded the Jayewardene government in 1987 to grant citizenship unilaterally to this category and end for all time the "Thrishanku state" of the stateless people. Concessions were also gained in the case of Tamil people who had obtained Indian citizenship but were staying on.

Thondaman was successful in these attempts because of five factors. First, the increase in votes within the community and the CWC's ability to deliver them en bloc provided Thondaman considerable bargaining power. Secondly, the rise of political violence in the northeastern region of the country saw Colombo awarding priority to the needs of the Indian Tamils. Thirdly, India had begun to take greater interest in the affairs of Sri Lanka, thereby impelling governments in Colombo to remove possible irritants pertaining to the plantation Tamil community, which claimed an umbilical relationship with "mother India".

Fourthly, the CWC illustrated through well-executed strikes its capability to paralyse tea and rubber production. This provided economic clout, which enhanced the CWC's bargaining power. Fifthly, Thondaman enjoyed close personal relations with UNP leaders such as Jayewardene, Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali and Anandatissa de Alwis, and used them to the advantage of his people.

The CWC contested several elections in association with the UNP. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement, which helped both parties to increase their representation. For the Indian Tamil people, it was a slow return to political representation after being in the cold for more than 25 years. The Indian vote helped Jayewardene and Premadasa win the presidential elections in 1982 and 1988.

The CWC contested the 1994 parliamentary elections along with the UNP under the latter's symbol of elephant. Seven of its candidates were elected and two persons, including Thondaman, appointed National List MPs. But the People's Alliance under Chandrika Kumaratunga won the elections with a wafer-thin majority. Thondaman then changed sides and became Minister of Livestock Development and Estate Infrastructure in her Cabinet. His colleagues, however, sat in the Opposition but supported the government during voting time. Thondaman helped increase the majority of Kumaratunga in the presidential elections, which were held subsequently, by once again delivering the bulk of the plantation Tamil votes.

In spite of certain problems and tensions, Thondaman remained supportive of Kumaratunga to the very end. When she opted to advance the elections to December 21 this year, the CWC decided to back her again mainly because Thondaman decided to do so in spite of some CWC MPs holding a different opinion.

As the undisputed leader of the Indian Tamil community, Thondaman enjoyed the reputation of being a king-maker in Sri Lankan politics. Even during the Provincial Council elections of April 6 early this year, Thondaman lived up to this sobriquet. He floated the India Vamsavali Makkal Perani. It won six seats in the Central province and one seat each in the Uva and Sabragamuwa provinces. Again, it was Thondaman who provided a narrow but effective majority that enabled the ruling alliance to form viable administrations in the councils of these provinces.

Thondaman was sympathetic to the problems of the Sri Lankan Tamil community but knew clearly that there was no uniform identity of interests. In 1961 he launched a plantation workers' strike as a demonstration of sympathy for the satyagraha campaign undertaken by Sri Lankan Tamils in the North and the East. However, against the Sri Lankan Tamil community's expectations that he would prolong the strike, he called it off early after making his point.

Thondaman cooperated with Sri Lankan Tamil political parties in forming the Tamil United Front in 1971. But when it metamorphosed into the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and opted for a separate state in 1976, Thondaman opted out despite being elected as one of the triumvirate of its leadership. Tamil Eelam will not help resolve the problems of plantation Tamils was his practical credo. He campaigned for the TULF in 1977 and enlisted TULF support for the CWC in elections, but contested separately under the cockerel symbol instead of the rising sun symbol of the TULF.

He was also critical of the confrontational tactics of Sri Lankan Tamils, both violent and non-violent. He told this writer several times that the trouble with the TULF leaders was that they did not know how to negotiate. "The art is to put five demands, win one completely, gain partial compromises on two and put on hold the remaining two for another day. Since we are trade unionists, we know that art. But TULF leaders are all lawyers who only know how to argue their brief eloquently but not how to extract concessions," he said.

Thondaman was not overtly critical of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or the armed struggle by Sri Lankan Tamils. His pragmatic proposal that power be handed over to LTTE leader V. Pirabaharan for a stipulated period of time without being obligated to face elections was thoroughly misunderstood in the South. He was accused unfairly of collaborating with the LTTE to create a "Malaya Naadu" upcountry. But actually Thondaman strove hard to prevent violence entering the plantations. He knew that if the upcountry youth started emulating their northeastern counterparts, it would lead to tragedy. He approved of violence only as a means of self-defence. Thondaman was instrumental in preventing violence from overwhelming the plantations. His importance will be felt only in his absence.

He also had an earthy way of describing when to call off a strike and go in for a negotiated agreement. The comparison was to the cooking of dosa, a staple of Tamils. "The cook has to flip-flop the dosa alternately on the cooking tray so that both sides get cooked. It has to be taken off at the right moment. If this pakkuvam (finesse) is not adhered to, the dosa will be either burnt or not cooked well on one side. It is this pakkuvam of timing that is required in conducting strikes and negotiations. If the correct moment is not seized, everything will be lost."

Tondaman's politics was that of brinkmanship at times. There was however deep subtlety to it. A major example is the plantation strike he launched while being a Minister in the Jayewardene government. "It was not a strike," Thondaman said, "but a prayer campaign where every worker would attend a place of worship and be there praying the whole day for a wage increase instead of working."

To prevent personal pressure being exerted by Jayewardene, the wily Thondaman got himself admitted to hospital and got a no-visitors rule implemented.

The government caved in to Thondaman's demand. There was no triumphant boast by Thondaman. "Prayers can move mountains. Our prayers have been answered," he said in a deadpan tone. Thondaman was a man who could reconcile seemingly irreconcilable contradictions.

An estate owner leading plantation workers, a Minister leading a strike against his own government, an MP elected on the UNP ticket sitting with the P.A. as a Minister - were some of these. When asked about these different aspects of his personality, Thondaman would say with a twinkle: "I am like the ideal woman. She can be a daughter to her parents, sister to her siblings, wife to her husband, and mother to her children, and remain the same woman."

The king-maker role he played and the pragmatic approach he adopted to the dynamics of politics fuelled resentment against Thondaman in certain chauvinist quarters. The fact that an "Indian Tamil" was helping make and unmake Presidents and administrations strengthened these feelings. Also, his role in resolving the problems of the Indian Tamil community was not fully appreciated by some sections of the community.

Whatever the misgivings and misunderstandings, there is no doubt that Thondaman was a leader who helped his people with single-minded devotion for more than 60 years to realise their aspirations against overwhelming odds. The passing of the Tamil patriarch is an irreparable loss.

Thondaman leaves behind a son, Ramanathan, three granddaughters and a grandson, Arumugam Thondaman. The grandson, in his early thirties, is both a Member of Parliament and the general secretary of the CWC and is tipped to be Thondaman's political successor. There is speculation that the CWC may split over the succession question. There was a time when the CWC had 600,000 members. Now the membership has dropped to around 350,000. Still it remains a force to be reckoned with. The reason for this is the astute and bold leadership of Thondaman....

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