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Selected Writings by Nadesan Satyendra
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Sathyam Commentary
2 July 1999

Appapillai Amirthalingam

Two visitors to tamilnation.org  (in May and June)  one from Canada and the other from  U.S.A nominated Appapillai Amirthalingam for inclusion as one of the Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century.

"...It may, perhaps, be said for Amirthalingam, that his lasting political contribution was to clarify for many Tamils (who may have thought otherwise) that 'effective leadership of an armed....struggle requires a new style of leadership' and that guerrilla warfare cannot be directed from outside but only from within, by a leadership which accepts 'its full share of the risks involved.' .."

bullet The question deserves consideration...
bullet Chelvanayagam's resignation and Amirthalingam's total support for the demand for Tamil Eelam...
bullet It was no accident that the First National Convention of the TULF was held in Amirthalingam's electorate...
bullet If Amirthalingam had passed away in 1977, few may have questioned his inclusion in the Hundred Tamils list, but today it is necessary to turn to the events after 1977...
bullet States are rarely created by pleading and petitioning...
bullet In attempting to 'rein in and direct' the militant movement from outside, Amirthalingam  failed to understand the nature of an armed struggle...
bullet Amirthalingam failed to recognise that guerrilla warfare cannot be directed from outside, that it can only be directed from within, by a leadership which accepts its full share of the risks involved...
bullet The final humiliation - the TULF accepted the 6th Amendment oath, which it had spurned in 1983 - and it was rejected by the Tamil people at 1989 elections...


up The question deserves consideration...

The question whether the late Appapillai Amirthalingam should be included in a  list of 100 Tamils of the 20th Century deserves consideration.

Amirthalingam was a member of the original group of Tamils who founded the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) in 1949 with S.J.V.Chelvanayagam   as the Founder President and Dr. E.M.V.Naganathan and Mr. V. Navaratnam as Joint General Secretaries. Amirthalingam was a young law student at the Ceylon Law College at that time.

At the General Elections in 1952, Amirthalingam sought election to the Ceylon House of Representatives (as it was known then). He contested the Vaddukodai seat in the Jaffna Peninsula but lost.  Four years later at the 1956 General Election, he won the seat and thereafter served in the House of Representatives for an unbroken period of 14 years until 1970. 

On the 5th of June 1956, when the Sinhala Only Bill was introduced in the House of Representatives, Amirthalingam was one of the satyagrahis who demonstrated near Parliament House.

"A. Amirthalingam M.P. for Vaddukodai, was struck on the head by one of the stones thrown by the (Sinhala) mob. At 2 p.m. C.Suntharalingam M.P. for Vavuniya, took him with his bleeding head and entered the chamber of the House of Representatives where the official Language Bill was being introduced. They were greeted with derisive laughter and cries of 'wounds of war'..." (The Fall and Rise of the Tamil Nation - V.Navaratnam, The Tamilian Library, Montreal and Toronto)

In the subsequent years he participated in several civil disobedience movements, and was imprisoned in 1958 and again in 1961 by the Sinhala dominated government. In the course of time, he emerged as Chelvanayagam's second in command. Amirthalingam, unlike some of the earlier Tamil Parliamentary leaders, resided in the Tamil homeland in the North and even as a lawyer, his court appearances were largely within the Jaffna peninsula. It is perhaps fair to say that Amirthalingam's  appearance on the political scene coincided with a shift in the power centre of Tamil politics from Colombo to the Tamil homeland.

Amirthalingam lost his parliamentary seat at the 1970 General Election and he remained outside Parliament for the next 7 years - until the General Election of 1977. These seven years were significant years for the Tamil people.

In 1970, the newly elected, Sinhala dominated House of Representatives assembled outside the precincts of the Parliament buildings, in  Navrangahala, constituted themselves as a Constituent Assembly and proceeded to give themselves a new republican Constitution which severed the constitutional links with the past, gave a dominant place to Buddhism, renamed Ceylon as Sri Lanka and repealed even the meagre protection given to minorities by Section 29 of the earlier Soulbury Constitution.


up Chelvanayagam's resignation and Amirthalingam's total support for the demand for Tamil Eelam...

The Sinhala dominated Constituent Assembly rejected the proposal put forward by ITAK for a federal constitution and its leader  S.J.V.Chelvanayagam resigned from the Constituent Assembly and the House of Representatives in 1972, declaring his decision to contest the ensuing bye election to obtain a mandate from his people for the establishment of a separate state for the people of Tamil Eelam.

The Sri Lanka government (headed by Mrs. Srimavo Bandaranaike) delayed holding the bye election for a period of two years. When the bye election was eventually held in 1975, S.J.V. Chelvanayagam won an overwhelming victory and the statement that he made on that occasion remains, even today, as a definitive declaration of Tamil aspirations. He said:

"Throughout the ages the Sinhalese and Tamils in the country lived as distinct sovereign people till they were brought under foreign domination. It should be remembered that the Tamils were in the vanguard of the struggle for independence in the full confidence that they also will regain their freedom. We have for the last 25 years made every effort to secure our political rights on the basis of equality with the Sinhalese in a united Ceylon."

"It is a regrettable fact that successive Sinhalese governments have used the power that flows from independence to deny us our fundamental rights and reduce us to the position of a subject people. These governments have been able to do so only by using against the Tamils the sovereignty common to the Sinhalese and the Tamils."

"I wish to announce to my people and to the country that I consider the verdict at this election as a mandate that the Tamil Eelam nation should exercise the sovereignty already vested in the Tamil people and become free."

The stand taken by  S.J.V. Chelvanayagam and the ITAK had the total backing of Amirthalingam.  Though  Amirthalingam was out of Parliament (or perhaps, because he was out Parliament)  he played an important and significant extra parliamentary role in nurturing Tamil togetherness during the period 1970 to 1977. Unquestionably, during this period Amirthalingam enjoyed considerable grass roots support amongst the people of Tamil Eelam. It was period which also saw the rise of Tamil Eelam militancy - a militancy which was fuelled by the standardisation of admissions to the University. Walter Schwarz was to remark later:

"...Nothing aroused deeper despair among Tamils than the feeling that they are being systematically squeezed out of higher education. They have complained particularly of the system of 'standardisation' in force after 1972, in which marks obtained by candidates for university admission are weighted by giving advantage to certain linguistic groups and/or certain districts..." - Walter Schwarz: Tamils of Sri Lanka - Minority Rights Group Report, 1983


up It was no accident that the First National Convention of the TULF was held in Amirthalingam's electorate...

Amirthalingam was now the General Secretary of  ITAK. His views were respected by the young militants. They referred to him as  the Thalapathy, the Tamil word for a General. It appeared to many militants that Amirthalingam reflected their own aspirations more closely than many other Tamils who were members of Parliament. It was no accident that the Tamil United Liberation Front, which  included  the ITAK, the Tamil Congress and other Tamil parties, held its first National Convention (in early 1976) in Amirthalingam's Vaddukodai electorate. The Vaddukodai resolution declared unambiguously, that the

"restoration and reconstitution of the Free, Sovereign, Secular Socialist State of Tamil Eelam based on the right of self determination inherent to every nation has become inevitable in order to safeguard the very existence of the Tamil Nation in this Country."

After Chelvanayagam's death in 1976, Amirthalingam became the undisputed leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and was one of the architects of the 1977 TULF General Election manifesto which declared:

"What is the alternative now left to the nation that has lost its rights to its language, rights to its citizenship, rights to its religions and continues day by day to lose its traditional homeland to Sinhalese colonisation? What is the alternative now left to a nation that has lost its opportunities to higher education through "standardisation" and its equality in opportunities in the sphere of employment?"

"What is the alternative to a nation that lies helpless as it is being assaulted, looted and killed by hooligans instigated by the ruling race and by the security forces of the state? Where else is an alternative to the Tamil nation that gropes in the dark for its identity and finds itself driven to the brink of devastation?

"There is only one alternative and that is to proclaim with the stamp of finality and fortitude that we alone shall rule over our land our forefathers ruled. Sinhalese imperialism shall quit our Homeland. The Tamil United Liberation Front regards the general election of 1977 as a means of proclaiming to the Sinhalese Government this resolve of the Tamil nation ...

"The Tamil-speaking representatives who get elected through these votes while being members of the National State Assembly of Ceylon, will also form themselves into the National Assembly of Tamil Eelam which will draft a constitution for the state of Tamil Eelam and establish the independence of Tamil Eelam by bringing that constitution into operation either by peaceful means or by direct action or struggle."

The TULF won a resounding victory in the Northern Electorates but the results in the Eastern Province were mixed. Nevertheless, the 1977 General Election result was a victory for the TULF led by Amirthalingam and for all that both he and the  TULF stood for.


up If Amirthalingam had passed away in 1977, few may have questioned his inclusion in the Hundred Tamils list, but today it is necessary to turn to the events after 1977...

Indeed, if Amirthalingam had passed away in 1977, perhaps, few would have questioned his inclusion  in a list of hundred Tamils of the 20th century who had contributed significantly to a growing Tamil togetherness.

But, today, it is necessary to turn to the events after 1977.

After the 1977 General Election, the TULF M.P.s took their oaths in the National State Assembly as indeed they had said they would in the Election Manifesto. The TULF was the largest single opposition party, and Amirthalingam also accepted office as the Leader of Opposition. Some have criticised this and have suggested that Amirthalingam was lured by the trappings of office and it was this that led him, step by step, to compromise on the demand for Tamil Eelam.  In addition, they point out to Amirthalingam's failure to honour the manifesto promise of forming the National Assembly of Tamil Eelam.

The matter, however, may not have been as simple as that.  For, one thing, Amirthalingam may have recognised that if a National Assembly of Tamil Eelam had been formed, as promised in the Election Manifesto, by 'the Tamil speaking representatives who had got elected', the representation from the Eastern Province would have been minimal, and this may have undermined the legitimacy of the process. He may have felt that it was more politic to engage President Jayawardene in a talking process and build platforms on which the struggle for Tamil Eelam may be progressed in a more orderly fashion. Amirthalingam may have also taken the view that the office of Leader of the Opposition may be useful in furthering the Tamil cause in the international arena.

Further and more importantly, Amirthalingam may have been concerned as to what to do after the National Assembly of Tamil Eelam was convened and proclaimed Tamil Eelam. What then? And, herein lies, perhaps, a central failure of not only Amirthalingam, but the TULF and even, perhaps, Chelvanayagam as well.

In 1986, one of the leaders of the TULF (not Amirthalingam) was in London to participate, inter alia, in a phone-in programme at the  London Broadcasting Corporation. Before the phone-in programme, a discussion was held at the Tamil Information Centre in London,  amongst the Tamil participants, to agree on responses and strategy. One of the participants asked the TULF leader: "Tell me, when you passed the Vaddukodai resolution, what were your plans about how you were going to achieve Tamil Eelam". The response of  the TULF leader was spontaneous and in Tamil: "Thamby, who ever thought about all that at that time!". It was a response which left an indelible mark on the participant who had asked the question.


up States are rarely created by pleading and petitioning...

States are rarely created by pleading and petitioning.

One option that Amirthalingam may have taken after the General Election victory in 1977, would have been to require that all the elected TULF MPs  resign and engage in an extra parliamentary struggle on the lines that Gandhi had advocated. If the TULF was concerned that other Tamils supportive of the Sinhala government may fill the seats that were so vacated, the TULF under the 1978 Sri Lanka constitution, could have nominated its own junior members to those seats - and released the senior leadership to work amongst the people. In fact, such suggestions were made by concerned Tamils to Amirthalingam in 1979, but he was not persuaded.

The other option would have been for Amirthalingam to integrate himself fully with the armed resistance movement, function as its political wing but at the same time accept that the leadership of an armed resistance must emerge from within the armed struggle and cannot come from outside.

In retrospect, it remains a measure of Amirthalingam's failure that he adopted neither option.

On the one hand, he failed to recognise the political reality that Aurobindo had recognised in 1907:

"Petitioning which we have so long followed, we reject as impossible - the dream of timid experience, the teaching of false friends who hope to keep us in perpetual subjection, foolish to reason, false to experience....   the policy of organised resistance forms the old traditional way of nations which we must also tread. It is a vain dream to suppose that what other nations have won by struggle and battle, by suffering and tears of blood, we shall be allowed to accomplish easily, without terrible sacrifices, merely by spending the ink of the journalist and petition framer and the breath of the orator..."

The path of petitioning and pleading continued during those fateful years from 1977 to 1983.  The TULF which had proudly declared in its election manifesto:

"...Where else is an alternative to the Tamil nation that gropes in the dark for its identity and finds itself driven to the brink of devastation? There is only one alternative and that is to proclaim with the stamp of finality and fortitude that we alone shall rule over our land our forefathers ruled..."

now appeared content with District Development Councils.


up In attempting to 'rein in and direct' the militant movement from outside Amirthalingam  failed to understand the nature of an armed struggle...

At the same time, Amirthalingam continued with his efforts to 'rein in and direct' the militant movement from the outside. Here he failed to understand the nature of an armed struggle. And that was his second failure. To say that is not to be patronising. Admittedly, the whole question of the role of  the 'politician' vis a vis the 'guerrilla army' has attracted some controversy. Regis Debray in his classic 'Revolution in a Revolution' examined some of the issues:

"The phrase 'armed struggle' is brandished, repeated endlessly on paper, in programmes, but the use of the phrase cannot conceal the fact that in many places the determination to carry out the armed struggle and the positive definition of a corresponding strategy are still lacking.

What do we mean by strategy? The differentiation between the primary and the secondary, from which comes a clear priority of tasks and functions. A happy pragmatism will permit all forms of struggle to drag on together, will let them come to an understanding among themselves.

At one point, however, the negative definition of strategy may appear, in the form of a refusal: to the idea that under certain conditions peaceful forms of mass struggle must be subordinate to armed mass struggle has sometimes been opposed the idea that such a subordination would be equivalent to making the political line of the vanguard party dependent on military strategy, on the party's armed apparatus, and would subordinate party leadership to military leadership. In reality this is not the case.

Once more it has been forgotten, in spite of verbal acquiescence, that guerrilla warfare is essentially political, and that for this reason the political cannot be counterposed to the military...

Effective leadership of an armed revolutionary struggle requires a new style of leadership, a new method of organisation, and new physical and ideological responses.. It has been widely demonstrated that guerrilla warfare is directed not from outside but from within, with the leadership accepting its full share of the risks involved. In a country where such a war is developing, most of the organisation's leaders must leave the cities and join the guerrilla army. This is, first of all, a security measure, assuring the survival of the political leaders.

.... there is a close tie between biology and ideology. However absurd or shocking this relationship may seem, it is none the less a decisive one. An elderly mans accustomed to city rising, moulded by other circumstances and goals, will not easily adjust himself to the mountain nor - though this is less so - to underground activity in the cities. In addition to the moral factor - conviction - physical fitness is the most basic of all skills needed for waging guerrilla war; the two factors go hand in hand.

.... That an elderly man should be proven militant - and possess a revolutionary training - is not, alas, sufficient for coping with guerrilla existence, especially in the early stages. Physical aptitude is the prerequisite for all other aptitudes; a minor point of limited theoretical appeal, but the armed struggle appears to have a rationale of which theory knows nothing."

It was Amirthalingam's failure that he continued to see himself and the TULF playing the lead political role in relation to the 'military activity of the boys'. He failed to recognise that guerrilla warfare is essentially political, and that for this reason the political cannot be counterposed to the military.

It may, perhaps, be said for Amirthalingam, that his lasting political contribution was to clarify for many Tamils (who may have thought otherwise) that 'effective leadership of an armed....struggle requires a new style of leadership' and that guerrilla warfare cannot be directed from outside but only from within, by a leadership which accepts 'its full share of the risks involved.'

Amirthalingam's dialogue with President J.R.Jayawardene during the period 1977 to 1983 was a process which alienated Amirthalingam from increasingly large sections of his own people - and from the armed struggle. In the end, even that 'dialogue' was terminated by the genocidal attacks of 1983.

The 6th Amendment to the Sri Lanka Constitution, compelled the TULF to forfeit its seats in Parliament - compelled, because a party which had won its seats by declaring that there was no alternative but 'to proclaim with the stamp of finality and fortitude that we alone shall rule over our land our forefathers ruled', could not have clung to its Parliamentary seats by taking an oath against the division of the country, without losing all credibility. It was one thing to try to persuade the Tamil people  that the District Development Councils Act was somehow a step towards Tamil Eelam - it was another thing to persuade them that taking an oath against the establishment of Tamil Eelam, was also such a step.


up Amirthalingam failed to recognise that guerrilla warfare cannot be directed from outside, it can only be directed from within, by a leadership which accepts its full share of the risks involved...

But, even in 1983, having forfeited their seats in Parliament, Amirthalingam and the TULF could have openly accepted the lead role of the armed struggle.

It is true that the armed resistance itself was divided. But, the way out was not to function as a mediator between the different groups and in this way seek to ensure the lead role of the TULF,  but to openly accept that whatever role that the TULF had to play in the context of an armed struggle, must be subordinate to a leadership which must emerge from those within the guerrilla movement. To paraphrase, yet again, the words of Regis Debray, guerrilla warfare cannot be directed  from outside. It can be directed only  from within, by a leadership which accepts its full share of the risks involved.

The path that Amirthalingam and the TULF adopted, led them, in the years after 1983, to rely almost exclusively on the support of the Indian government to further the Tamil cause. In the result, they acted within the political frame set for them by India - an India where they resided as guests of the Indian Government. 

Amirthalingam could not have been unaware that  India's support for the 'Tamil cause' was of a limited nature and that New Delhi had its own geo political objectives.  Amirthalingam was right to address the question as to whether Tamil Eelam was attainable without New Delhi's acquiescence.   But, he was wrong to do so by isolating himself and the TULF from those who were leading the struggle on the ground.

In 1985, at Bhutan, the TULF subscribed to the Joint Statement made by the Tamil delegation before the walk out,  walked out of the Thimpu Talks together with all the other Tamil groups, but then stayed behind in India to continue discussions with Indian representatives and embark on 'indirect' negotiations with Sri Lanka.  These 'discussions'  eventually resulted in  the fiasco of the Draft Framework of Accord and Understanding of 30 August 1985 which was rejected by the militant groups.

Again, in 1987, Amirthalingam accepted the Indo Sri Lanka Accord and the comic opera of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lanka Constitution. He continued to defend India's stand even after the offensive launched by the so called Indian Peace Keeping Force in the Tamil homeland in  October 1987. Amirthalingam's support of the actions of the IPKF and his refusal to condemn them, set perhaps the final seal on his separation from the Tamil people. But, the final humiliation was yet to come.


up The final humiliation - the TULF accepted the 6th Amendment oath which it had spurned in 1983 - and it  was rejected by the Tamil people at 1989 elections...

At the elections held in 1989 after the enactment of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lanka Constitution, the TULF which had won a resounding victory at the 1977 General Elections for Tamil Eelam, went down to an equally resounding defeat. Amirthalingam was rejected by the Tamil people and that too, at an election conducted with the active presence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force. India, by this time had begun to rely on the armed EPRLF and Varadarajaperumal as its ally to progess its policy objectives.

Significantly, the TULF whose Members of Parliament had, in 1983, refused to take their oaths under the 6th Amendment to the Sri Lanka Constitution were, six years later, willing to contest elections on the basis of taking that oath.  Those who had declared in 1977 that there was no alternative but 'to proclaim with the stamp of finality and fortitude that we alone shall rule over our land our forefathers ruled' were willing to declare on oath that they will secure the territorial integrity of the Sri Lankan state. The ringing tones of the 1977 General Election manifesto now rang somewhat hollow. It was the end of the road to Tamil Eelam, so far as the TULF and Amirthalingam were concerned, though the TULF continued to call itself the Tamil United Liberation Front.

The question that Tamils will ask is whether, on a fair assessment of the totality of Appapillai Amirthalingam's contributions during a political career spanning four decades, he merits a place as one of the Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century, who has 'made significant contributions to the world and to Tamil togetherness - whether such contributions be in scientific thought, literature, political action, personal sacrifice and example, spirituality or any other area.'  Many may answer, perhaps with much regret - No. And that will be understandable.

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