Sri Lanka’s Thondaman Remembered

By D.B.S.JEYARAJ

The birth centenary of Saumiamoorthy(spelled sometimes as Saumyamoorthy or Saumiyamoorthy)Thondaman was on August 30th.Thondaman was the undisputed “Thalaiver”(leader ) of Sri Lanka’s predominantly Indian Tamil plantation proletariat for several decades. The founder leader of Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC),Sri Lanka’s largest Trade Union in the estate sector , was born in Munapudoor in what was then the Madras Presidency of India during British rule on August 30th 1913.The paternal grandfather of Sri Lanka’s Livestock and Rural Community Development Arumugan Thondaman , died of a myocardial infarction at the Sri Jayewardenepura Hospital in Colombo on October 30th 1999.

Portrait of  Saumiamoorthy Thondaman is unveiled at the Sri Lanka Parliamentary complex to mark 100th birth anniversary-news.lk-pic: Photo by: Chandana Perera

Portrait of Saumiamoorthy Thondaman is unveiled at the Sri Lanka Parliamentary complex to mark 100th birth anniversary-news.lk-pic: Photo by: Chandana Perera

Thonda as he was widely known passed away at the age of 86. Thondaman had gone to Nuwara Eliya, in the central highlands, to preside over a meeting of the India Vamsavali Makkal Perani (Front of People of Indian Descent), an umbrella organisation of which his Ceylon Worker’s Congress (CWC) was the pivotal force. Having thrown in his party’s lot with President Kumaratunga at that time Thondaman was working to win over the support of the other 19 constituents of the Perani to his way of thinking. Taken ill on the morning of October 30, he was rushed to a hospital in Nuwara Eliya and from there flown to Colombo where he died.

At the time of his death Thonda was both the oldest and the senior most member 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. The mercurial leader of Sri Lanka’s Tamils of recent Indian origin, known as “Indian Tamils” consisting mainly of tea and rubber plantation workers represented the downtrodden, backward community and helped usher in a period of political empowerment and renaissance.

As president of Sri Lanka’s largest and one of the oldest trade unions, the CWC, the political veteran 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.

VIRAKESARI

I had heard of Thondaman as a schoolboy in the early sixties of the 20th century. It was however in the late seventies that I began interacting with him as a Staff reporter on the Tamil Daily “Virakesari” covering the Plantations Industries ministry and related Trade Union activities. I had a stormy encounter with the Plantation patriarch on my first day of work as a cub reporter.

I was assigned by the Editor K. Sivapragasam to do a story on the Price wage supplement for tea estate workers introduced by Dr. Colvin R de Silva as plantation Industries minister from 1970-75. Now the LSSP was alleging that the scheme had been jettisoned. I was not very familiar with the details of the scheme and the “Virakesari” did not have a library where I could read about it. Still with the bold recklessness of youth I ventured into the corridors of the Plantation Industries ministry, Labour ministr and several trade union offices seeking the truth.

I barged into Thonda’s CWC office at Greenpath and plied him with questions. He was taken aback but answered them. At one point he realised that I was not very knowledgeable about the subject. Thonda then started talking tough. I too retorted . Finally he advised me to read up on the subject and then ask questions. I agreed to do so and went away. But one of Thonda’s catchers at CWC “complained” to “Virakesari” that I had been rude to the CWC leader and I was reprimanded for it. Thondaman was a living God then to some “Virakesari” staffers.

Continuing with my efforts , I uncovered much more information on the subject. I now went to meet Thondaman but his subordinates would not let me in. I then went to a telephone booth and called him. I spoke in English and hoodwinked the telephone operator into thinking that I was from an English newspaper. When I was put through to Thonda I told him who I was and that I had prepared the questions. Thonda was amused at my deception and instructed that I be allowed in. He was impressed by my questions and answered them fully. He commended me for studying the subject and advised me then to always read and know about the subject before interviewing busy people. This piece of advice was simple but taught me a valuable lesson.

I continued to be in contact with him and other leaders of the Up Country Tamils during my “Virakesari” days and subsequent years as a Journalist on “The Island” and as Colombo Correspondent of the Indian daily” The Hindu” and newsmagazine” Frontline”. We were in touch infrequently after I relocated to Canada.

FAMILIAR

I was however able to associate with him quite closely in my years as a working Journalist in Sri Lanka. He looked upon me with some kind of paternal benevolence . After a while he discarded the “Vaanga, Ponga” form of respectfully addressing in Tamil and became more familiar with me saying “Vaappaa, Poppaa” to me in private. In public he would talk to me in English.

Despite the tough exterior he could be quite affectionate and concerned at times. I recall an incident where I was suffering from a terrible cold with my nose running. In a rare glimpse of “softness in a stone” Thondaman got down some Vicks ointment and made me apply it and also inhale. He also advised me in Tamil “Konjam Brandy saappiduppaa” (take a little brandy).Later I was totally surprised when Thonda’s affable coordinating secretary Thirunavukkarasu presented me a bottle of cognac with the compliments of his boss saying “some medicine for you”.

Thonda was quite fond of my work as a journalist. I used to write articles on the Politics of India in general and Tamil Nadu in particular while on the “Virakesari” which he used to often read and talk of later. Politics in India during the Morarji Desai period was rather exciting and Thondaman relished discussing developments in Delhi and also about the Tamil Nadu “civil war”between MG Ramachandran and “Kalainger” Karunanidhi. Later when I moved to English Journalism , he used to follow my progress and was happy that I did well. Thonda was rather excited when I became Colombo Correspondent of “The Hindu” offering words of encouragement .

He helped me in my journalistic career by providing quite a few scoops or by passing on a few tips to follow up and get a good story.One such example was on the eve of “Operation Poomalai”the Air drop of food supplies over Jaffna by India on June 4th 1987. It was a risky move violating Sri Lankan air space and sovereignty intended to convey a powerful signal to the JR Jayewardene regime. Feelings were running high then in Sri Lanka vis a vis India and it was anticipated that there would be a tremendous backlash.

So the Indian Envoy of that time Jyotindra Nath Dixit later to be dubbed as “Indian viceroy of Sri Lanka” called on Thondaman in private.It was a secret meeting but I was informed of it discreetly by Thirunavukkarasu. I sought and got an appointment with Thonda, an hour after the meeting with Dixit. What Thonda told me then was explosively exciting.Dixit had told Thonda of the intended air drop and was concerned about possible repercussions.

NEW DELHI

According to Thonda then,New Delhi was worried about Indians and those of Indian descent being targeted in revenge after the Air drop. Contingency plans had been drawn up. As a precaution important Indian Nationals and their families in and around Colombo had been moved to two luxury hotels in Galle Face and Kollupitiya.The idea was to airlift them by helicopter at Galle face green if necessary. Indian war ships were to sail in proximity to Colombo.Important documents at the Indian High Commission were destroyed and burnt in a pit dug up hastily at “India House”premises.

Dixit had told Thonda then that there was a plan to land Indian paratroopers in the Up Country areas if Tamils of Indian origin were attacked en masse in the Plantation highlands.He was told that it may not be possible to protect those living dispersed as small communities but assured that those concentrated in particular places could be ensured safety.

Thondaman had replied that he believed there would not be a terrible backlash and that even if such a thing occurred steps could be taken to protect the estate workers. Thonda also informed JR in confidence about these matters and the Govt of the day prevented such a violent backlash being engineered by vested interests.

Thonda told me of these matters in advance saying that he wanted me to know the truth but cautioned me firmly to use the information carefully and with responsibility.I appreciated Thondaman’s concern and did restrain myself on reporting anything until after the act was over.For obvious reasons”The Hindu” did not want to touch on the matters disclosed to me by Thonda. I did however write a news story touching on a few points disclosed by Thondaman for the new avatar of “Sunday Times”edited by Vijitha Yapa.

It was the lead story of the first issue of the reborn “Sunday Times”under Wijeya newspapers. For reasons that seemed very valid then my byline was withheld. The story was sensational and received well by the reading public. Nowadays I regret that my byline did not appear in the historic lead story of the pioneering issue of”Sunday Times”.However I was glad to see Mr. Vijitha Yapa disclosing details about this news story by me in an article he wrote for the “Sunday Times” anniversary supplement.

Thonda however was happy that I had adhered to his request and acted diligently in handling the sensitive information. Both of us were glad that no backlash occurred as feared. But within a few months I was arrested and detained at the infamous fourth floor for my reporting on the outbreak of war between the Indian army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE)and for obtaining a hard hitting interview of tiger deputy leader Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah alias Mahathaya.I had by then left “Sunday Times”and rejoined “The Island”.

I am reminded of and remain grateful for the efforts undertaken by many in seeking my release from custody then. These include numerous members of the tribe of scribes ranging from then editor of “The Island” Gamini Weerakoon to Richard de Zoysa of IPS and Rupavahini. Lawyers Dr.Neelan Tiruchelvam,HL de Silva, Upali Gooneratne were chief among those outside the Journalist fraternity who played crucial roles on my behalf then. N.Ram of “The Hindu” flew down to Colombo to intercede on my behalf with JR.Among cabinet ministers it was Saumiamoorthy Thondaman and Gamini Dissanayake who pressed for my release then.

TACTICIAN

While recalling these inter-personal aspects regarding Thondaman I also wish to focus on him as a trade unionist cum political leader of a community long discriminated against. It has been my good fortune to observe and admire the man and his mission from a vantage position as a journalist. To my mind Saumiamoorthy Thondaman was the shrewdest tactician among Tamil political leaders in recent times.He was a pragmatic realist who grasped in essence that politics is the art of the possible.

He was in actuality a latter day Moses who led his people from oblivion and irrelevance to equality and self-respect applying Chanakyan methods in a practical sense.I have often compared and contrasted Thondaman with the leaders thrown up by the Sri Lankan Tamils and bemoaned the fact that there were and are no leaders of Thonda’s acumen,sagacity and experience amongst them.

Thondaman himself was critical of the confrontational tactics of Sri Lankan Tamils, both violent and non-violent. He told me several times that the trouble with the TULF leaders was that they did not know how to negotiate. “The art in negotiations is to put up five demands and win one of them completely. We must gain partial compromises on two with one in our favour and one in their favour.Of the remaining two one must be put on hold for another day and the other abandoned entirely as a sop to the other party.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 do not know how to extract meaningful concessions,” Thonda used to say. Incidently the Tamil United Liberation Front acronym TULF was dubbed as Tamil United Lawyers Front then because half the number of TULF Parliamentarians were lawyers.

He also had an earthy way of describing when to call off a strike and when to go in for a negotiated agreement. The comparison was to the cooking of “Thosai” (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.”

MINISTER

Another illustration of his political acumen and tactical shrewdness was revealed to me on the day before his appointment as Minister of Rural Industrial Development in the JR Jayewardene Government. He showed me the list of departments,boards and corporations under the newly created ministry. I found that the Milk Board, Livestock Development Board, Industrial Development board etc had been allocated to him. I was aghast and pointed out that these were running at a loss .I told him that he was being tricked into accepting a white elephant ministry.

Thonda smiled and with a smirk replied”That is where you are making a mistake. This is the first time after Independence that an Up Country Tamil is becoming a cabinet minister. There is lots of opposition in the cabinet too. This ministry I am getting is a new one specially created for me. President(JR) is taking from EL Senanayake’s Agriculture ministry and Cyril Mathew’s Industries Ministry to give me powers. If these were money making departments they wont let go of them and will object strongly. But because they are deadwight they wont protest. If I can make these run at a profit through my administration I will get praised and get credit. But if I fail no one can blame me because every one knows these are running at a loss now”.

Thondaman also enlightened me about his calculated vision in taking up this portfolio.He said that the Milk Board and Livestock development board if handled correctly could bring about a positive change in the lives of the Plantation workers. He pointed out that the plantation worker in line rooms had little living space but were existing in an environment where there was ample “Pullu”(grass).

Thonda said that if he could give each plantation worker family a cow they could tie it up outside during night and let it graze during day. He said that if he could set up more milk collection centers in estate areas then each family could sell the milk and increase their income. This will boost their family economy and bring about a refreshing change in their lives ,Thonda predicted then.

How prophetic his words were!Within a few years the plantation workers were becoming the proud owners of cattle. Thonda’s opponents in the Up Country trade union sector described him derisively as “Maattu Manthiri”(Bullock minister)but the estate economy received a tremendous boost. The lives of enterprising plantation worker families were uplifted. As Minister for Rural Industrial Development, Thondaman was able to foster dairy projects and small industries among the Indian Tamil people.

PRAGMATIC

I also received fresh insight into his pragmatic approach on another instance.He started a scheme of setting up small industrial centres where employment was to be on a fifty-fifty basis for Villages and Estates. Villages and Estates were euphemisms or codes for Sinhala and Tamil. 50% of jobs were for Sinhalese from Villages and 50% for Tamils from estates. I then asked him the rationale for this 50/50 scheme.

Thonda explained to me the existential reality of the central highlands where the villages were mostly populated by Sinhalese and estates by Tamils.He said that by the new scheme Tamils will get 50% of jobs in areas where they did not have any employment at present. Likewise Sinhalese will get 50 % jobs in estates where they have a negligible presence.So both sides have something to gain said Thonda pointing out further that if he stated Sinhala/Tamil 50 % each it would have raised communal resentment but by saying Village/Estate 50/50 he was eliminating unnecessary racist overtones for the project.

His 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.”

SYMPATHETIC

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. The slogan on TULF/CWC platforms then was that the Sun would rise in the East and North contested by the TULF while the Cock would crow in Nuwara Eliya-Maskeliya and Colombo Central contested by CWC.

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. Prabakaran 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. He also admonished the LTTE as saying they had more “Veham”(speed) and less “Viveham” (wisdom)

Thondaman’s father Karuppiah Thondaman was connected by extended lineage to the Pudukkottai aristocracy. 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.

MUNAPPUDOOR

Young Saumiamoorthy , born in Munappudoor in India , came over to then Ceylon 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 an important 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.

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 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.

STATELESS

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.

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 political scientist Prof AJ Wilson 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.

EMPOWERMENT

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. 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 in Lanka

Thondaman was successful in these attempts because of five factors.

Firstly, 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.

REPRESENTATION

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.

As the undisputed leader of the Indian Tamil community, Thondaman enjoyed the reputation of being a king-maker or Queenmaker in Sri Lankan politics. 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. Some of his detractors coined a slogan “kauda Man?Thondaman!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 Plantation Tamil patriarch is an irreparable loss felt keenly by the fragmented “Malaiyahath Thamizhar”(up Country Tamil) polity to this day.

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