1979 – 83: The Mounting Repression

1979 – 83: The Mounting Repression

Chapter 3

“The youth and the more radical elements felt that the parting of ways had come and that coexistence with the Sinhalese was no longer possible. Thus the Tamil bourgeois leadership had to adopt the slogan of “Tamil Eelam – the cry of a separate State – for their political existence…

They kept the people under an illusion, by such slogans calling the TULF leader Chelvanayakam the Mujibur of Eelam, and even hinted at taking up arms from election platforms. Critics of these slogans were called ‘traitors’ to the cause. However, little progress was made inside or outside parliament, apart from the TULF leadership praising [Jayewardene] as the greatest democrat in South Asia. At the same time the Tamil people faced the 1977 race riots…The TULF was impotent. As a result the sense of betrayal was acute amongst the youth and the people.”

                                                                        – Rajani Thiranagama, from The Broken Palmyrah

3.1 The Tamil Polity: From Ambivalence to Violence

3.2 The Left in the Tamil Struggle

3.3 The Tamil Leadership after the 1977 Elections

3.4 The PTA and its Effects

3.5 Turmoil and the Art of Governance

3.6 The Gandhiyam

3.1 The Tamil Polity: From Ambivalence to Violence

It is futile to describe July 1983 in terms of cause and effect. On the one hand we have the authoritarianism of those in power. Their reliance on chauvinist ideology precluded their dealing rationally with the ethnic question. The more they tried to knock the Tamils into conformity, the more they lost control and the less real were their pretensions of control over what they conceived of as a unitary state from ancient times. In turn, the resulting nervousness made them more irrational.   

On the other side, as a consequence of their being knocked about in bouts of communal violence and other forms of discriminatory treatment, many Tamils had by the 70s come to accept that they needed a violent arm. They were clear that they did not want this violent arm to become their rulers, but only to help the TULF, the main Tamil parliamentary party, to negotiate a decent settlement. This position also reflected a failure of moral and political imagination, and the inability of the Tamil community to muster a principled leadership and make the collective sacrifice required for a non-violent struggle.  

It also suited elite Tamil inclinations to promote a jaundiced view of the ordinary Sinhalese people and avoid the nuisance of making sacrifices, while leaving it to the lower orders of society to bear the cost of militant violence. Thus, the TULF leadership exuded a certain ambivalence while promising a non-violent struggle. A TULF leader, who lived in Nallur South, was a refined man with an incisive mind. As with the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, he believed in achieving the separate state of Tamil Eelam through Indian intervention. He had a regular stream of concerned Sinhalese visitors from the South to whom he would very logically in his patient, cultured manner explain the TULF position. Privately he opined that little good would come from the Sinhalese.

The problem with the kind of mindset that was common among the Tamil elite, is its failure to take a responsible view towards the Sinhalese people and to see that the fundamental interests of the Sinhalese are very similar to those of their Tamil counterparts. They also failed to see the need to convince the Sinhalese that Tamil demands are fair in themselves and are not a threat to them. It was a chauvinist approach, albeit the chauvinism of the under-dog. It played into the hands of the chauvinists in the South supported by state power.

A further illustration from the TULF leader mentioned also brings out a serious problem with the TULF. The Jaffna secretary of the Communist Party, Mr. I.R. Ariyaratnam, was his back-door neighbour, separated by the two fences of an access lane. In a conversation in 1975, the Secretary expressed his strong disapproval of the murder of Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiappah by the militant youth. The TULF leader responded, “What else can you do with him?” Taken aback, the communist responded, “Today it is Duraiappah. One day they will come for you!”

This TULF leader, an MP, was disillusioned with the long drawn out negotiations with President Jayewardene, which seemed to lead nowhere. He advocated talking to the Indian Government and could not understand the party leader Amirthalingam’s persistence in talking to Jayewardene. He was exasperated with the leadership’s hesitation in going to India and was apt to say some strong things. Though being a heart patient, in 1981, he personally went on a mission to talk to the Indian Government and succumbed to a heart attack in India, so defying his communist neighbour’s prophecy. Eight years later the LTTE killed his party leader and another fellow MP.  

A number of TULF activists in this leader’s circle formed the following year, in 1982, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Front, led by an elderly physician and former mayor of Jaffna, Dr. Tharmalingam – nearly all of them personally very non-violent and moderate men. Their number included Kovai Mahesen, a Brahmin and editor of Suthanthiran (Harbinger of Freedom), a paper owned by the family of the late leader, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam. Another key TELF member was M.K. Eelaventhan, a former Central Bank employee and disciple of the late Yogaswami – a well-known religious teacher based in Colombogam on the outskirts of Jaffna Town. The TELF’s main grievance was that the TULF had compromised on the goal of a separate state for which it had received a mandate in the 1977 elections. (The LTTE used the same ‘mandate’ from 1986 as a pretext for massacring other militant groups and even leading TULF personalities!)

Two developments had precipitated the formation of the TELF. One was that in the months following the formation of the District Development Councils in mid-1981 as a means to a political solution, the widespread perception became that they were an eyewash devolving no real power and that the financial provision was inadequate for any serious development work. A proposal by the Jaffna DDC to start a badly needed passenger boat service (of course with all the normal customs and immigration procedures) to the Tamil Nadu coast was disallowed by the Government. The need for the ferry was because flights to India from Palaly had been stopped after a fire-bomb was left behind in a passenger plane from Jaffna, which had landed in Colombo. This was in September 1978.

The DDC elections in Jaffna, in June 1981, had been traumatic for the people. Along with disruptive attempts by PLOTE militants and political killings, there were brazen attempts by the Government to rig the elections in favour of the UNP. The grand finale was arson by the Police, which included the burning of the Jaffna Public Library, the press of the Eelanadu daily and the house of Yogeswaran, MP.  Mr. & Mrs. Yogeswaran narrowly escaped the drunken policemen, only to be murdered by the LTTE many years later, in separate incidents.

The TULF leader, Mr. Amirthalingam as a result of these developments came under heavy pressure, both at home and abroad, to go for a UDI – Unilateral Declaration of Independence. On a tour abroad during early 1982, Amirthalingam doughtily defended his position of pushing the Government towards a workable political settlement. He addressed many public meetings among the diaspora. There was protest and heckling. But even so, Amirthalingam was yet the king. The Saturday Review which was started in Jaffna about this time and edited by S. Sivanayagam, was seen by many to lean towards the TELF position even though it admitted a variety of views.

3.2 The Left in the Tamil Struggle

The idea of a revolutionary liberation struggle was in its origins a leftist notion, but the struggle largely became the property of the Right even though the use of leftist jargon persisted. All the militant groups that kept to their Left roots were driven to the margins or to extinction by the LTTE’s violent assertion of sole leadership. A generation earlier a corresponding process had taken place among the political parties in the democratic stream.

V. Karalasingham, a member of the LSSP who contested S.J.V. Chelvanayakam in the KKS electorate in 1960, did creditably, polling 5,042 votes against 13,545 by the charismatic and highly respected Tamil leader. Karalasingham has the distinction of having spoken at election meetings throughout the Island in English. The historian Seelan Kadirgamar in his memoir The Left tradition in Lankan Tamil Politics, presented at the Hector Abhayawardana felicitation symposium in December 1999, made this observation: “Karalasingam’s pungent criticism of the Federal Party is as much applicable to the FP in 1963, the TULF in 1977 and the Tamil political movements and leadership in the present impasse.” We will quote from the memoir in the rest of this section.

In the chapter Why They have Failed, from his book The Way Out for the Tamil Speaking People of 1963, Karalasingham observed: “It is worthy to note that all the parties that have hitherto gained the confidence of the Tamil people, have done so on the basis of resisting the ‘chauvinism’ of the majority community and securing for their people their legitimate demands. But the period of ascendancy of the Tamil Congress and that of the Federal Party has signified to the Tamil speaking people not an increase but a diminution – indeed a sharp and precipitous decline of their fortunes. What heightens their tragedy is that their present plight cannot be attributed either to their apathy or their lack of support to the parties which at different times spoke for them. Apathy there never was on the question of minority rights. If anything, the politics of the last 30 years in the Northern and Eastern Provinces has revolved round precisely this question, to the exclusion of all others. The popular support for the traditional Tamil parties has been so enthusiastic and overwhelming as to incur the envy and jealousy of their rivals.”

Karalasingham pointed to what he described as a strange paradox: “The Tamil-speaking people have been led in the last decade by an apparently resolute leadership guided by the best intentions receiving not merely the widest support of the people but also their enthusiastic co-operation and yet the Tamil-speaking people find themselves at the lowest ebb in their history. Despite all their efforts the people have suffered one defeat after another, one humiliation after another”. He pointed out that the fundamental flaw in the Tamil nationalist strategy is the position that the fight for the rights of the Tamil-speaking people is the responsibility of the Tamil-speaking people alone.

 Karalasingham observed poignantly, “the present leadership because of its close identification with the past will not encourage any discussion of these fundamental questions – it would rather see the Tamil speaking people burn themselves out, in impotent rage and despair against the government than permit a critical re-examination of its politics.”

Another left leader V. Satchithananthan, in his introduction to the 1978 edition of Karalasingham’s book with postscript added, made reference to earlier debates on nationalism among the Tamil intelligentsia. He referred to the booklet Communalism or Nationalism? published by the Jaffna Youth Congress in 1937 as a response to the position taken by G.G. Ponnambalam and recommended it as a document ‘for all time’. Sachithananthan observed, “after fifty years of communal campaigning, what a pathetic admission by the TULF to state in their 1977 Manifesto that the Tamil Nation, ‘gropes in the dark for identity and finds itself driven to the brink of devastation’?”. Having experienced the plight of the Tamil people under the dominance of the LTTE, one marvels at the prescience of several Left Tamil Leaders of a bygone era who were also eminent public figures.

Commenting on the future of Tamil politics after July 1983, N. Shanmugathasan, the leader of the Communist Party (Peking Wing), observed of the Tamil militant movement, that “it is based fundamentally on romantic and petit-bourgeois ideology which is characterised by a lack of faith in the masses.  It places its main reliance on a brand of swash-buckling ‘Three Musketeers’ type of bravado which is expected to perform miraculous exploits against terrific odds.”  He warned that unless the different militant groups stop their internecine warfare and unite against the common enemy, “fascism would have crept upon us even before we know it….”. He said in conclusion, “On the unity of the revolutionary forces of the North and South depends the future of Sri Lanka.” 

Kadirgamar observed that while being strong opponents of chauvinism, both Karalasingham and Shanmugathasan represented a consistent position taken by the Left movement in the Tamil North to condemn and correct Tamil chauvinist tendencies from whichever quarter it emerged.

Shanmugathasan dismissed Satchi Ponnambalam’s book Sri Lanka, The National Question and the Tamil Liberation Struggle (published in 1984) in a review, in which  he deplored the publication of this book as “Tamil communalism gone mad.”  He strongly objected to the misinterpretation of the history of the Sinhalese people and accused Ponnambalam of denigrating their ancient civilization. “It is true“, he wrote, “that the Tamils have suffered violence and the regional autonomy demand had arisen as a result of these events. Why can’t we put this argument straight without embellishments, myths and fantasies?”

The Left had strong electoral support in the Jaffna electorates of KKS, Point Pedro, Uduvil (Manipay) and Vaddukoddai. In Point Pedro the Communist Party candidate V. Kandiah was elected in 1956. The last prospects of the parliamentary Left becoming a mass movement in Jaffna faded after the KKS bye-election of 1975. The Tamil Leader S.J.V. Chelvanayakam resigned his KKS seat after the government of Prime Minister Srimavo Bandaranaike rejected having talks with his party and went ahead to adopt the 1972 Constitution which was very offensive to the Tamils. Chelvanayakam made the bye-election a referendum seeking a mandate for a separate state. The bye-election was deliberately delayed and held in 1975, during which time the Jaffna University had been founded and a strong group of well known Left sympathisers moved into leading positions at the university.

In a straight contest between Chelvanayakam and V. Ponnambalam of the CP, who was backed by the SLFP and the LSSP, Chelvanayakam polled 25,927 votes. But V. Ponnambalam polled a substantial 9,457 votes. It was remarkable considering the growing bitterness against Mrs. Bandaranaike and her coalition. A year later V. Ponnambalam quit the Communist Party and, in Kadirgamar’s estimation, “with him went the last bastion of the Left movement in the North.” Ponnambalam expressed his regrets at having contested the 1975 election against such a venerable figure as S.J.V. Chelvanayakam. He later revealed that he and the Tamil supporters of the Left movement who had worked hard at the 1975 bye-election had been severely let down.  The United Front which formed the government had given him the assurance that 48 hours before the poll the KKS electorate would be flooded with pamphlets promising a substantial degree of autonomy to the North and East that would have gone beyond the aborted Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact in 1957. At the last minute, the SLFP high command went back on this promise and the CP leadership succumbed to this betrayal.

On looking back at the experience there are charges and counter charges and to answer any of them in the affirmative would be unjust. V.Ponnambalam’s change of camp is again illustrative of the dilemma. It has been charged on the one side that the Tamils in the North-East were backward and ungrateful not to support the Marxist parties who stood for their rights. On the other side it has been charged that one cannot give credit to the Left as serious Marxists when they abandoned their principles to join with as communal or even racist a party as the SLFP. Moreover, after their volte face, how can such highly educated Marxists fault an essentially peasant people in the North-East for supporting the Federal Party, several of whose first generation leaders were after all men of character?

There is still no satisfactory explanation of the volte face of the Left. This becomes more enigmatic when one considers that from 1935-1960, over a whole generation, the Left had been consistent and doughty champions against racism. During the 1930s they did not waver in their support for Malayali and Plantation Tamil workers for which they were virulently attacked as traitors, especially in A.E.Goonesinha’s Viraya. It took conviction in those times of economic depression to stand up for the unity of the ‘workers of the world.’

At the same time it would be wrong to single out the people in the North-East for not backing the Left. In the South too outside urban Colombo, most areas supported the nationalist parties. Further, in Jaffna in particular there were not the extremes of poverty and wealth, nor a prevalence of huge landholdings as obtained in the South, for politics to become radicalised. Further, there was no sustained concentration on Jaffna by Left leaders. They were mainly seen at election times. Marxism was something one used to read about in high school or at university.

3.3 The Tamil Leadership after the 1977 Elections

Amirthalingam had many flaws as a politician. A non-violent struggle to which he was verbally committed would have meant building up a mass-movement. The Federal Party (the TULF’s predecessor) had developed as a mass-movement in the latter 1950s, but this was on the wane in the 60s for reasons including the nationalisation of schools, which made many school teachers government servants overnight. Moreover, a feasible goal for non-violent action would have been step-by-step reform, such as the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957. A goal such as a separate state that was bound to heighten emotions on both sides was not an appropriate goal for non-violent action.

Thus by default of not building a mass movement and having to face electoral competition, the TULF was led to stir chauvinistic emotions, brand its opponents traitors and directly or indirectly rely on the militant youth. But its real programme was reform. Its dealings with the militant youth form a dark and dishonourable chapter. When it came to the demand for UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) in early 1982, Amirthalingam knew that it would unnerve the Government and that the Tamil people were in no position to bear the consequences. Yet, the absence of political movement on the part of the Government to resolve the problem placed the TULF in a difficult position. In the meantime, the militant youth were coming into their own.

Perhaps, Jayewardene’s nervousness after the questionable 1982 Referendum (see below) and the actions resulting from this did not let him see that he and Amirthalingam either stood together or fell together. By 1983, any political solution that Amirthalingam could win from Jayewardene was bound to be opposed as inadequate by the militant sections. But Amirthalingam alone among the Tamil leaders of that time, had the self-confidence of a leader and the fighting qualities to take on the militants when he had a solid basis for doing so.

3.4 The PTA and its Effects

Another episode of which we will have more to say later is the passing of the Prevention of Terrorism Act in July 1979 and the order given by President Jayewardene to Brigadier Tissa (Bull) Weeratunge, the Army’s Chief of Staff and his relative. Weeratunge was also a brother-in-law of Jayewardene’s new IGP, Ana Seneviratne, who like Weeratunge, but before him, proved his suitability for the top job, through services of a questionable nature in Jaffna. The order from Jayewardene gave Weeratunge six months, until 31st December 1979, “to eliminate, in accordance with the laws of the land, the menace of terrorism in all its forms from the Island and more specifically from the Jaffna District.” The order placed at Weeratunge’s disposal ‘all the resources of the State’.

For the most part suspected militant supporters, many of whom surrendered in response to public notices, were beaten and tortured. Even Eelaventhan, then a TULF activist, was taken in but was not tortured. There were a few, not more than half a dozen, extra-judicial killings. For the first time the Army had been let loose in this manner in a Tamil area. It caused serious misgivings among many army officers. A good army requires discipline and full trust in the ability and authority of those above. No soldier should be allowed, leave alone under orders, flagrantly to violate the law. For Weeratunge’s ‘success’ he was promoted to Army Commander upon Denis Perera’s retirement, overlooking Brigadier Justus Rodrigo, who was recommended by his retiring chief as the most suitable.

This was the first time when political authority had intervened to this extent in the normal working of the Army and interfered with its system of promotions. It was an inducement to those who wanted quick promotions to play political commissars, as had already happened in the Police, by agreeing to do favours for those in authority however unlawful and inimical to the interests of the Army. Thus according to many within the Army, indiscipline and lack of cohesion go back to the Jaffna operation of 1979. This was perhaps the main cause of the Army’s inaction, if not connivance, during the state-instigated violence of 1983.

We may observe here that Jayewardene’s practices here were not entirely original. Mrs. Bandaranaike had used the Army in Jaffna in 1961 to break up violently the satyagraha for Tamil rights. Jayewardene’s tampering with the Law and Judiciary too had its roots in the practices of Justice Minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike and his secretary Nihal Jayawickrema in the previous government

In his book The Agony of Sri Lanka, T.D.S.A. Dissanayaka has this to say about the 1979 operation: “In a few months it was more than evident that the strategy worked. There were no more murders by the Tigers and even the incidents caused by them decreased sharply….  In 1980 the situation was just as stable… “

This is an example of how misleading it could be to interpret cause and effect by only taking into account events over a small spread of time. A viable operation would have involved a political solution, an amnesty and low key intelligence gathering over a long period. To send a few battalions to Jaffna and knock people about for six months was an entirely misconceived operation – especially when the militants were no more than a few dozen in number. It was more a provocation. What really happened is quite different.

Within the LTTE itself a number of issues were coming to a head. One was the internal killing of Patkunam and Michael on Prabhakaran’s initiative. Moreover, the militant groups then were not such closed organisations. There were friendships and discussion between organisations. Those on the Left, who were more familiar with liberation struggles elsewhere, were critical of the LTTE’s totalitarian structure, reliance on terror by a few individuals, and having no mass base or mass participation. Once there was a concentration of troops in Jaffna, the LTTE central committee met and there was strong criticism by senior members of various aspects of Prabhakaran’s leadership. There was a demand to democratise and to form a viable mass-based organisation that could withstand military pressure. It was proposed to bring in civilians who were not being hunted by the security forces. Also criticised was Prabhakaran’s personal deference and loyalty to Amirthalingam. It was also proposed to have a rear base in India giving those who were wanted by the security forces more flexibility. 

Prabhakaran first agreed to these changes under pressure. However, the differences between members broke the LTTE. Many became inactive. Prabhakaran with a few others joined the Kuttimani-Thangathurai group (TELO) for a time. Sundaram, an arch-critic of Prabhakaran, particularly over the latter’s loyalty to the TULF, later started a group which emerged as the PLOT(E).

After a hiatus, Prabhakaran sprang back in early 1982 with the murder of Sundaram on his orders by an assassin. His order had been  ‘Put off the Main Switch’. Sundaram, a provenly able political and military man, was because of his ability, regarded by Prabhakaran as the biggest personal threat. A new culture of internal terror had been created where the killing of Tamil by Tamil was to attain grim proportions. From here onwards, Prabhakaran emerged as the phenomenon he is today, with no mentors, no loyalties and suspecting all and sundry.

We may thus say that the Jaffna operation of 1979 was an event in the ethnic conflict of considerable significance. Yet, no material damage was caused to the militant movement. Hardly any active militant figure of significance was apprehended. Some of those detained and released became active militants afterwards. But the consequences of the operation were wholly unintended and unforeseen by the planners. As far as the South was concerned, it ended with a few officers getting preferment over others. In a situation of this complexity, every action is bound to have several unforeseen effects. There was neither the capability nor the interest in the state apparatus or civil society in the South to monitor the effects and press for corrective measures and reform in time. Perhaps if a political solution to satisfy Tamil aspirations had been given full effect during 1980 while there was division within the militant movement, there would have been little support for the new and more resilient militant formations, which emerged from mid-1981.

Behind all these developments lay the unresolved problems of the Tamils. This called for a determined political solution. But after flashes of wisdom the authoritarian reflex of the Southern establishment took over. A little more knocking heads, it seemed to them, would do the trick. This was a key element in the violence of August 1977 and July 1983. There were a number of other issues too coming to a boil at the same time. Without perhaps being very conscious of it, an anti-Tamil crusade proved a useful distraction to sweep several other questions under the carpet for the time being. We run through some of these.

3.5 Turmoil and the Art of Governance

Whatever the merits of the Open Economy introduced in 1977, corruption made life harder for the ordinary people by contributing to an inflation rate of 20%-30%. An event highlighted by the SLFP journal in the early 80s was the purchase of 7 Tri-Star jets for Air Lanka, each purchased at double the listed price of USD 25 million. There was much simmering anger and a desire for change. In anticipation of this, President Jayewardene had appointed a commission which put his most potent rival, Srimavo Bandaranaike, out of the way by recommending a suspension of her civic rights for alleged abuse of power. He won the presidential election in October 1982 against Hector Kobbekaduwe, a weaker opponent, obtaining 53% of the vote.

There had been a good deal of anger within the SLFP, knowing well that Jayewardene would use all means fair and foul to thwart their victory. Understandably, some strong, angry and perhaps violent remarks were made within the SLFP’s higher circles. On the basis of some hearsay remarks conveyed to him, Jayewardene pulled another rabbit out of his hat – the famous ‘Naxalite Plot’ involving some leading SLFPers to kill democrats like himself and establish a totalitarian regime. Jayewardene was loath to lose his five-sixths majority in parliament which enabled him to adopt a new constitution and amend it at will – four times by then – always to further entrench his power. Citing the ‘Naxalite Plot’, he proposed to replace the parliamentary elections that were due, by a referendum to extend the term of the existing parliament by six years. People were called upon to vote and surrender their right to elect. 

The referendum was won by Jayewardene, using widespread violence, intimidation and ballot stuffing. A particular method used was related to us by a magistrate in a provincial town. By then the Police had been meddled with to ensure that the right officers were in place. The UNP bigwigs got the Police to arrest SLFP organisers and polling agents on trumped up charges. They were then taken to the magistrate with a view to remanding them. Every magistrate knew that if he did not oblige, his career prospects would be dim. Today’s magistrates become tomorrow’s high court judges, appeal court judges and supreme court judges. The training of the judiciary was under way.

Here was a new and novel practice. The President discovers a plot and the Police look for evidence and come up with a report. The report does not go to court in the form of charges against individuals. It is submitted to the Press. Ironically, the serialisation of the police findings on the ‘Naxalite Plot’ in the press took place during the July 1983 disturbances. To shift the blame for the latter the President discovered yet another plot, which fitted neatly into the earlier one, and banned several Left parties.

Many things happened in the run up to the July ’83 violence. Bye-elections were held in 18 constituencies where the sitting UNP members who had been given another term by the Referendum, on the basis of a poor showing in the Referendum poll in their constituency, were deemed to have lost their support. The elections on 18th May 1983 were marred by the violence of the ruling party. This was particularly so in Kesbewa and Mahara, both won by the UNP. The new MP for Kesbewa was Gamini Lokuge. Vijaya Kumaratunge, the rising star then in the SLFP, lost in Mahara by a mere 45 votes. So the UNP won 14 of the 18 seats, and its supporters who were influential in the Press argued that it continued to retain its popular base. The Referendum was thus given a whitewashing.

Jayewardene seemed to be succeeding in rolling up Sri Lanka’s electoral map. Some of the SLFP’s senior members complained about Anura Bandaranaike consorting with the UNP and making statements inimical to the party. They wanted Mrs. B to check her son, which she seemed reluctant to do. Two senior members, Hector Kobbekaduwe and T.B. Illangaratne, resigned their party posts.

On the 18th May again, local elections were held in Jaffna in the face of a boycott call by the LTTE. A soldier guarding a polling booth was killed, consequent to which the Army burnt a number of houses at Kantharmadam. At least 3 UNP candidates or supporters were killed by the LTTE during that period. The boycott call was the first time the LTTE challenged the TULF in this manner. Amirthalingam was in a quandary. On the one hand he was being blamed as an ineffective leader, failing to condemn the killing of non-TULF candidates and unable to exert any moderating influence on the militants. Amirthalingam was close to admitting helplessness as the Government had left him with DDCs, which were worthless and was not prepared to go any further. His position (e.g. Sun 14.6.83) was that he was prepared to place before the Tamil people a solution based on the ‘right to self-determination’. It was an unenviable position for a leader. He had not built up a base for mass action. He had to depend on wisdom dawning on Jayewardene, or some outside agency driving some into him.

Where the Jayewardene government was concerned, it was haunted by its lack of legitimacy in the South. On the surface, the Opposition was in shambles. But in perpetuating itself in power through legally questionable means, the Government was led to clumsy and highly unedifying means of subduing what remained of the independence of the Judiciary. In all this, the role of members of the Cabinet who could mobilise mobs and underground elements assumed a new importance, whence things could easily get out of control. What began in the Referendum of December 1982, through July 1983, led to several tragic events within the UNP itself over the coming ten years.

For a government basking in mixed feelings of triumph in the South, its every effort to subdue the North brought about the opposite. The ‘Naxalite Plot’ in the South was fiction, but its every repressive move was conjuring up real naxalites in the North. Its use of draconian laws to detain or humiliate those very persons who, if treated differently, could have had a moderating influence, was plunging the North into anarchy. There were clear signs that an angry government was, certainly by early July, moving towards some form of arbitrary or extra-legal action against the Tamils collectively, though perhaps unclear about what form it would take. We now look at certain aspects of the build-up that give us a feeling of what was going on.

3.6 The Gandhiyam

The feeling among Tamils that they needed a separate state reached a peak during the years following the 1977 violence. Securing the border areas of the North and East from state sponsored colonisation had been a burning Tamil concern from the 1950s. The nationalisation of British owned estates in the early 1970s by the SLFP-led government led to disruption. This in turn resulted in starvation. There was also eviction of estate families by organised mob attacks. Many of the victims, Tamils of recent Indian origin, drifted to the North-East in search of a new livelihood. The drift became a flood following the 1977 communal violence.

From the time these displacements began, several politically backed Tamil groups sprang up to help these people to settle in the North-East, often along border areas and to provide them with means to a livelihood. There was a race as it were between these Tamil groups on the one hand and state-backed Sinhalese groups on the other, to match Tamil settlement with Sinhalese settlement. Settlements of displaced Hill Country Tamils came up in the interior of Batticaloa District in 1975 when Bradman Weerakoon was GA, Batticaloa, and Nihal Jayawickrema was Secretary, Ministry of Justice, in the SLFP-led government. The Police were sent in. Settlers were beaten and jailed. Telegrams were sent to Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, on their behalf. Thondaman and Devanayagam (both later ministers in the 1977 government) too were helping the settlers. Shanmuganathan who was then District Judge, Batticaloa, ruled the police action unlawful. The settlers dispersed by police action came back and prospered in areas such as Punanai and other interior areas until the violence of the 80s, when they had to flee once more.

Dr. Rajasundaram who was a medical practitioner, was involved in settlement work from early in the 70s. Following the violence of 1977 he and his wife, Dr. Shanthy nee‘ Karalasingham who graduated from University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, in 1967, returned from England and started the Gandhiyam in Vavuniya. The object of Gandhiyam was to rehabilitate victims of the 1977 violence in the North-East. Its resettlement activities ranged through Trincomalee, Amparai, and Batticaloa districts as well. From the beginning, these activities had the support of all levels of Tamil society ranging through the universities, government services and professional classes.

Posterity may find the passions of the times centred around land and borders truly remarkable. Without them, Tamil separatism and militancy would have lacked their cutting edge. It seemed a game of wits of the Tamil intelligentsia pitted against the wits of the Sinhalese intelligentsia. On the one side it was a passion for the preservation of what goes with a sense of community, and the desire for a homeland, secure from violence. On the other it was a passion to preserve what was deemed a Sinhalese unitary state from ancient times and to prevent what was perceived as the traditional Tamil menace from acquiring space for further expansion. This ideological position, as we shall see, was not unmixed with pedestrian economic and political motives for the ruling class. 

What the Tamil side lacked in state power, man power and gun power, it tried to compensate with an articulate world-wide diaspora with no love for the Sri Lankan State, who could now and then pull off a propaganda coup highly irritating to the latter. The full potential of the Tamil diaspora did not come to be felt until after July ’83, and too often then, not to the best advantage of Tamils here.

The majority of those in and around groups like the Gandhiyam harboured separatist sentiments. Sometimes rural TULF supporters who worked with the Gandhiyam found Dr. Rajasundaram’s criticism of Amirthalingam too strong to stomach.

Depending on how one looked at it, Gandhiyam could have been viewed as causing a problem. But that problem also had an easy solution. For one the Government would have had to demonstrate in the clearest terms that it had no ethnic agenda, and no intention of pursuing demographic changes through colonisation of the border areas so as to bring insecurity to the minorities. The other was to address the many genuine grievances of Tamils in the Hill Country. This meant a political settlement in the broader sense. The Government showed few signs of decisive movement in this direction. That led to problems of a more serious nature.

It was about noon during the Christmas season of 1978. Dr. Rajasundaram was showing Gandhiyam’s settlements around Vavuniya to a visitor from overseas sent to him by K. Kanthasamy of the TRRO (Tamil Refugees Rehabilitation Organisation). His wife ran Vavuniya Clinic in the town, which also treated a number of Sinhalese patients, including service personnel. Their home had all the charm of a traditional home where the couple lived with their children, their parents and with others coming, going and staying.

It was about a year since the refugees from the 1977 violence who came with next to nothing had settled down. The main rains were over and the jungle surroundings were lush green. The refugees were going to have an excellent crop of ulunthu from their first sowing on cleared land. Having walked around Rajasundaram paused under a tree and opened a delicate subject. He said that there was a good deal of annoyance in the South over the work of Gandhiyam. It was quite conceivable, he said, that a politically inspired mob might be dispatched from Madawachiya or Anuradhapura to attack the refugees and drive them away. He then added that if each settlement had two persons trained in the use of firearms for self-defence, such mob attacks would cease after one or two attempts.

As long as there was no political settlement, and communal violence, as in 1956,58 and 77, was perceived by the Tamils as the main tool of government control, Rajasundaram’s logic had a certain validity. His contacts with the emerging militants too had minimally a purely defensive rationale. He has been criticised for having contacts with the PLOTE and so compromising the interests of his refugees. But anyone in his position would have been driven to such contacts as long as the State was seen to be unlawful and unrestrained in its violence. The answer was certainly not to arrest Rajasundaram under the PTA and disperse the settlements as happened.

One of Dr. Rajasundaram’s last public actions was to participate in a multi-ethnic public protest in Vavuniya on 18th December 1982. This protest against the PTA and recent detentions under it came in for a Police attack where even schoolgirls were baton charged, kicked and dragged by their hair. In the meantime, there was a build-up against Gandhiyam with scurrilous articles appearing in the Press. Gandhiyam was hated for its Tamil nationalist connotations. But despite the hate writing no one was sure what to pin on it.

On 6th April 1983 Dr. S. Rajasundaram, Gandhiyam secretary, was arrested by the Police in Vavuniya and the organisation’s offices in Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Batticaloa were sealed. About the same time, the organisation’s president, S.A. David, was arrested at the YMCA, Colombo, where he was a lodger. He was an architect by profession and a bachelor. Both men were idealists.

Subsequent developments showed that there was no case against them. This, the Police and the Government tried to make up for by creating impressions in the public mind. Cyril Mathew, minister for science and industries circulated some pornographic literature in Parliament claiming that they were recovered by the Police from David’s room at the YMCA. Mr. Yogeswaran, MP, asked by what authority the Minister for Science and Industries obtained materials supposedly removed by the Police for investigation.

After 50 days of investigation, the Police had no more than gossip. The Island of 25th May ’83 quoting apparently AG’s department sources said that there was to be a non-jury trial for the Gandhiyam leaders shortly. The CID report is said to have alleged that Rajasundaram had made overtures to make peace between the warring militant groups, the LTTE and the PLOTE.

For another, it was claimed that at a meeting in Paris, Rajasundaram had requested the French authorities to provide training for some youths from Sri Lanka. The AG’s department was to ponder this for a further two months to produce nothing of substance.

Rajasundaram and David were considered so dangerous that they were held at the Panagoda army camp. In mid-May the JMO, Dr. M.S.L. Salgado, who examined Rajasundaram reported that he had sustained non-grievous injuries due to assault and asked for him to be examined by an ENT surgeon. Following this their lawyers applied for them to be transferred to fiscal custody for their safety.

The TRRO (Tamil Refugees Rehabilitation Organisation) run by K. Kandasamy was one of the supporters of the Gandhiyam. An Island report on 25th June 1983 said that the Police were to probe the TRRO after Rs.115,000 had come into its account from abroad. This was again creating impressions among those with no sense of arithmetic. Compared to what government bigwigs and their cronies had made on Air Lanka’s Tri-Star aircraft deal, this was a sum that even a beggar would scoff at. Kanthasamy left for London about this time.

Rajasundaram’s arrest had clearly created a vacuum in Vavuniya. On 1st June, PLOTE militants killed two air force men coming to the market. Two of the attackers too were apparently killed. The security forces went on a rampage burning several premises in Vavuniya town. A house where Gandhiyam cared for 32 refugee children was also burnt down. This preluded a dress rehearsal for the July violence.

https://uthr.org/Book/CHA03.htm

About editor 2668 Articles
Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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