Is the ITAK President Elect Shritharan Changing Party Policy From Espousing Federalism to that of Supporting Tamil Eelam?
The premier political party representing Sri Lankan Tamils in Parliament has got a new leader. The Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi(ITAK) known in English as the Federal Party(FP) has elected Jaffna district Parliamentarian Sivagnanam Shritharan as its president in Trincomalee on 21 January 2024. The president elect will be formally installed in office at the party convention to be held on 28 January in Trinco. Shritharan will serve a two-year term as ITAK/FP president.
Initially there were three contenders in the fray for the ITAK Presidency. The three aspirants to the ITAK leadership mantle were Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran, Sivagnanam Shritharan and Seenithamby Yoheswaran. Sumanthiran born in 1964 and Shritharan born in 1968 are both Jaffna district MP’s while Yogeswaran born in 1970 is a former Batticaloa district Parliamentarian.
What was perceived as a triangular contest turned into a duel between Sumanthiran and Shritharan after the “third man” Yoheswaran declared solidarity with Shritharan and called upon his supporters to vote for Shritharan. Both Shritharan and Yoheswaran conducted an overt and covert campaign together against Sumanthiran who was unfairly and viciously attacked as an enemy of “Thamil Thesiyam”(Tamil nationalism) whose victory would ring the death -knell for Tamil nationalism.
Shritharan on the other hand was promoted as the protector of “Thamil Thesiyam” who would follow in the footsteps of the “Thesiyath Thalaiver” or (national leader). Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) supremo Veluppillai Prabhakaran who died in May 2009 is referred to by his supporters and sycophants as the Tamil National leader or “Thesiyath Thalaiver”
Sumanthiran’s direct campaign was restrained and dignified. He did not respond to the accusations and allegations levelled covertly and overtly against him by the Shritharan-Yoheswaran duo. He only outlined his plans for the betterment of the party and the Tamil people if he was elected President of ITAK. Sumanthiran did not try to refute the untrue accusation that he was against Tamil Nationalism. He ignored it with supreme disdain. To his credit, Sumanthiran also made no reference to the LTTE in his campaign.
However Sumanthiran’s decorum was not followed by his supporters on social media. They fired away at Shritharan in their posts and tweets. This was the situation in Shritharan’s case too. His supporters kept shelling Sumanthiran with their tweets and posts. Supporters of Tamil parties opposed to the ITAK exploited the situation to vilify both Sumanthiran and Shritharan as well as the ITAK in their posts and tweets.
In fairness to both Shritharan and Sumanthiran, I do not think that either of them could stop, check or control their supporters on social media even if they want to or try to do so. The social media phenomenon is uncontrollable like Dr.Frankenstein’s monster in some aspects.
A recurring theme in the pro- Sumanthiran social media was the extolling of his positive attributes especially his legal prowess and deftness in handling diplomatic engagements. Shritharan was criticized for his deficiency in legal matters and linguistic (English)skills.
Shritharan’s supporters countered this by saying knowledge of the law and English was not necessary to lead the Tamil people. They pointed out that LTTE supremo Prabhakaran did not have these attributes. They also said that Shritharan could make up for these by enlisting the services of legal experts and experienced interpreters and translators. They even cited KV Thavarasa PC and Ex-Judge CV Wigneswaran as those who could serve Shritharan in this regard.
The ITAK party constitution stipulates that members of the “Podhuchabai”(general Council) and members of the “Mathiya Seyal Kuzhu”(Central Working Committee) will form the electoral college to elect a president if an election was held. The election would be by secret ballot. However the ITAK from its inception in 1949 has not held a president election. It has followed the tradition of averting a direct election by arriving at a choice through consensus.
This tradition was not followed by the party this time. The main candidates Sumanthiran and Shritharan were unable or unwilling to reach a compromise on the matter. Thus the ITAK for the first time in its 74 year old history has held an election for the post of Party President.
Conducting an inner party election is the responsibility of the party general secretary and administrative secretary. The party deputy general secretary Dr.P.Sathialingam has been functioning as the acting general secretary after the gen secy K. Thurairajasingham resigned in 2020. A new General Secretary can only be elected at the ITAK convention next week-end. However Dr. Sathialingam afflicted by pneumonia was hospitalised.
The administrative secretary Xavier Kulanayagam had earlier nominated MA Sumanthiran as a candidate. Thus he was ineligible to conduct the poll as he was not perceived as being “neutral”. The same applied to ITAK senior vice president and former Northern Provincial Council chairman CVK Sivagnanam. He too was among the 12 persons who nominated Sumanthiran as candidate.
In this situation an ad-hoc arrangement was made with the consent of candidates Shritharan and Sumanthiran. A committee was formed to handle and coordinate the election arrangements. The 8 member committee represented all eight districts of the North and East.
The committee members and districts they represented were as follows – Kugathasan -Trincomalee, Saravanabavaan -Batticaloa, Kodeeswaran -Amparai,Kanagasabapathy- Jaffna,Kurukularajah-Kilinochchi, Paranjothy -Mannar, Karunanidhi- Vavuniya and Shanthini Sriskandarajah -Mullaitheevu. Ms. Sriskandarajah and Kodeeswaran are ex -MPs. Kurukularajah is a former Northern provincial minister while Saravanabavaan is the former Mayor of Batticaloa. Since the election and party convention are being held in Trincomalee the ITAK Trinco district chairman Kigathasan played an important role in the logistics of the poll.
The General council comprises members elected at grass roots level by the party branches in each district, The branches represented by and large the respective AGA divisions in each district. Each branch with the exception of Colombo has 5 members in the General Council. Since the Colombo branch is for the entire district, it was entitled to 8 members in the General Council.
On this basis 288 members of the General Council elected by57 branches were entitled to vote at the ITAK presidential elections. The respective districts and the number of representatives are as follows – Jaffna -75, Batticaloa – 50, Amparai-35, Trincomalee -30, Mannar -25, Mullaitheevu -25, Kilinochchi-20, Vavuniya -20 and Colombo -08.
The Central Working Committee comprises 43 members at present. Apart from these the outgoing president Somasundaram Sriskandarajah alias “Maavai” used his presidential discretion to nominate 18 others. These included Sashikala Raviraj who contested the 2020 elections from Jaffna and is the widow of former MP Nadarajah Raviraj who was killed in Colombo in 2008. Incidentally Senathirajah’s son Kalai Amuthan is married to Sashikala’s daughter Pravina.
349 Eligible to Vote
Thus a total number of 349 consisting of 288 General council members along with 43 from the Central working Committee plus 18 nominated by Senathirajah were eligible to vote. However several were not present to vote. These included Veteran Tamil leader R.Sampanthan dubbed as “Perunthalaiver” (Great Leader)by the Tamil media who was absent due to ill -health. Acting secy Sathialingam was in hospital. Former Jaffna MP Saravanabavan was absent as his mother had passed away/
Due to these reasons only 322 were present in Trincomalee to vote. Among these were three Muslims from K’nochi, M’theevu and Trinco. ITAK President Senathirajah stated he was neutral on the question of his successor and abstained from voting. Although Yoheswaran had pulled out of the contest, his name was yet on the ballot paper. The names of the candidates were in alphabetical order. Thus Shritharan was first, Sumanthiran second and Yogeswaran third in the ballot paper order.
As stated earlier the three cornered contest had become a straight fight between Shritharan and Sumanthiran.Most political observers anticipated a close tussle in the election. The expectation was that Sumanthiran would win with a slender majority. The unexpected occurred. Shritharan won polling 184 votes. Sumanthiran polled 137. As expected Yoheswaran had zero votes. Shritharan polling 57% of the vote to Sumanthiran’s 43% had a majority of 47 votes.
Though the voting was by secret ballot, it has been possible through “unorthodox” measures to gauge the voting trends and arrive at a preliminaty assessment of the voting pattern. It appears that Sumanthiran got slightly more votes than Shritharan in Jaffna and Mullaitheevu districts. The situation in Mannar, Vavuniya and Colombo saw Shritharan edging out Sumanthiran . Shritharan got the bulk of the votes in Kilinochchi, Amparai and Trincomalee . in Batticaloa Sumanthiran had a slight lead over Shritharan. Interestingly the bulk of the 18 nominated by Senathirajah supported Shritharan.
Eastern Vote Swing
These preliminary estimates are subject to correction if and when more concrete details are available. It appears that Sumanthiran got less votes than Shritharan in both the North and East.. At the outset of the election it was surmised that Sumanthiran would sweep the eastern province with support from Batticaloa MP Shanakiyan Rasamanickam, Trincomalee district ITAK chairman Kugathasan, ITAK National ilst MP Kalaiarasan from Amparai and ex- Amparai MP Kodeeswaran. Yet the eastern vote had swung in favour of Shritharan.
Another feature of the voting was that in terms of age, more “seniors” seem to have supported Sumanthiran while more “juniors” have seemingly backed Shritharan. Sumanthiran got more support than Shritharan in the Central Working Committee. How this situation came about and the reasons for the shift in Eastern voting will be discussed at length in future articles.
After his victory, Shritharan went to the historic Koneshwaram temple in Trincomalee and did a special pooja. He then went to the Pathrakali Amman temple in Trincomalee. Incidentally the Pathrakali is the family deity of “perunthalaiver” Sampanthan. The temple priest draped a “ponnaadai”(golden shawl) around Shritharan’s shoulders and welcomed him. The priest also said that Sampanthan had already informed him of Shritharan’s coming. Incidentally Shritharan met Sampanthan and paid his respects after he returned to Colombo the following day.
Shritharan returned to Kilinochchi his home turf immediately after the election on Sunday. He made a beeline to the LTTE cemetery known as the “Maaveerar Thuyilum Illam”(resting abode for great heroes) at Kanakapuram in Kilinochchi. He was accompanied by supporters including a cassock-clad priest.
Shritharan paid his respects to the fallen tigers and laid “Karthigaipoo” flowers known as flame lily flowers. The botanical names are Liliaceae Glory lily or Gloriosa superba. The LTTE declared this flower as the national flower of Tamil Eelam during its heyday. The red and yellow colours of the flower are the same as LTTE colours too.Shritharan took an oath to the memory of the fallen tigers and pledged that he would strive to achieve their dreams.
It was after he paid homage at the LTTE Cemetery that Shritharan went to worship at the Kilinochchi Sithi Vinaayagar temple dedicated to Lord Ganesh. Thereafter the new ITAK leader attended a celebration organized by his supporters in Kilinochchi.
It is noteworthy that Shritharan did not visit the SJV Chelvanayagam memorial in Jaffna as a mark of respect to the ITAK’s co -founder and pioneering leader. SJV called “Thanthai Chelva” is described by many as the father of federalism in Sri Lanka. It has been customary for anyone being elected afresh to important posts in the ITAK to pay their respects to Father Chelva. Shritharan did not even visit the Chelvanayagam statue in Trinco. However he made it a point to visit the LTTE Cemetery in Kilinochchi and take a pledge. This has raised fears that the new ITAK leaders is going to abandon federalism and revive separatism.
Diaspora and Hindutva
By paying homage to the fallen LTTE fighters and by worshipping at Hindu temples, Shritharan displayed his gratitude to the twin forces that helped him win the ITAK presidency. The first was the pro-LTTE elements in the global Tamil Diaspora. The second was the Hindutva elements in India.
Both these sections worked ceaselessly via email, Whats App, Telephone and messenger to promote Shritharan’ s candidacy among members of the General Council and Central working Committee. The carrot and stick method of Incentives and Threats was utilised.
This is why Shritharan made special mention of those overseas who had helped him to win and thanked them specifically in his victory speech in Trincomalee.
Subsequently Shritharan issued a public statement in Tamil and sent it to the Tamil media on Monday January 22nd. In that he declared that he was for greater Tamil unity. Shritharan requested all those who had left the ITAK and/or the Tamil National Alliance(TNA) to return to the ITAK/TNA folds. He also invited all Tamil nationalist parties to accept his invitation and join him.
The new ITAK leader said in his statement that his desire and intention was to restore the TNA to its former glory by returning to the pre -2009 situation when the TNA backed by the LTTE was a powerful entity. (It may be recalled that the ITAK was the chief constituent of the TNA and that in the 2004 elections , the TNA had 22 seats in Parliament). Shritharan ended by saying let us win back our rights and fulfill the dreams of our great heroes.(Maaveerar Kanavuhal).
Thirst of the Tigers
The sting of the scorpion lies in its tail. Likewise it is the end of Shritharan’s statement that is problematic and puzzling. It is an established fact that the fallen fighters of the LTTE including its supremo Prabhakaran were uncompromisingly intransigent in espousing their cause of Tamil Eelam. The motto of the LTTE was “Puligalin Thaaham Thamil Eelath Thaayagam”( The thirst of the tigers is for the Tamil Eelam motherland). Regardless of whether they were right or wrong in their quest, the tigers remained steadfast in their beliefs and ultimately paid the supreme price for their cause and conviction.
ITAK Policy is Federalism
Now what is the fundamental policy of the ITAK known as the Federal Party in English? The ITAK wants a power sharing arrangement on federal or quasi-federal lines. The ITAK aspires to a political structure within a united, indivisible Sri Lanka.
A key element in Tamil extremist attacks on Sumanthiran is that the Jaffna district MP has been advocating a power sharing scheme on federal lines. This was depicted as treachery to Tamil Nationalism. Viewed against this backdrop , how does Shritharan hope to reconcile the separatist dreams of fallen LTTE fighters with the avowed Federal objective of his party?
Another related question is whether the ITAK has now changed its policy of federalism to separatism? Has the ITAK general council, Central working Committee or Politbureau approved or endorsed Shritharan’s policy change or is it a unilateral declaration by the ITAK president elect who is yet to be officially installed in office?
Moreover has the ITAK as a party endorsed or supported his invitation to other Tamil Parties? Are those parties being invited to subscribe to the ITAK’s stated policy or the radical policy announced by Shritharan?
Jaffna district MP Shritharan has been elected to Parliament thrice in 2010, 2015 and 2020. In all three elections he has signed his nomination papers in accordance with the sixth Constitutional amendment disavowing separatism, He has been enjoying all the perks and privileges of an MP for nearly 14 years. Is it not sheer hypocrisy then for him to project himself as a Tamil nationalist supporter of the LTTE dream of Tamil Eelam?
Shritharan contested the 2010 elections as a nominee of the EPRLF in the TNA. It was after he won that he switched sides and joined the ITAK. When he was fielded as a candidate, some questions were raised about his connections to the LTTE. Shritharan’s brothers in law are the late “Brigadier”Theepan and “Lt Col” Kilman of the LTTE. Shritharan said that though the LTTE stalwarts were his brothers in law by marriage, he himself had no links to the LTTE.
Yet during his recent campaigning in the East, Shritharan made startling disclosures. He claimed that he had joined the LTTE as a 13 year old when studying in grade 8; he claimed that he had received arms training, he claimed that he had helped bury the bodies of fighters belonging to the Jeyanthan infantry division at the Tharavai LTTE Cemetery; he said that he was part of a special LTTE team that helped the victims of Tsunamil.
Awaiting Shritharan’s Response
When I heard of Shritharan’s claims and heard recordings of his utterances, I wrote to him seeking clarification on these issues. I have not received any responses. At least not yet. Now after his statement calling for a return to the pre-2009 situation and the invitation to realise the dreams of fallen LTTE fighters, I have sent him another set of questions seeking clarification. I hope to follow up with more articles after the ITAK President Sivagnanam Shritharan replies.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org