Little Memories about a Big Man
by Sachi Sri Kantha
M.Sivasithamparam, the Tamil United Liberation Front leader for the past 25 years, made his graceful exit from the scene on June 5, after being in the limelight of Tamil politics for 42 years. By Sri Lankan standards, he was a big man, both literally and figuratively. He had lived for 78 years, and would have been 79 in July 20, 2002. I wish to recollect little memories imprinted in my mind about this big man from Udupiddy, a neighboring town of my native Point Pedro.
In my autograph collection, I have three short letters, written in left-slanting Tamil alphabets, from Sivasithamparam. After I voted in the 1977 general election, I had a brief infatuation in collecting the signatures of leading politicians of that era, whom I respected, for their intellectual stature and leadership skills. Part of the reason was that, early that year, G.G.Ponnambalam and S.J.V.Chelvanayakam had died before I could get the autographs from them. I did manage to collect the scribblings of S.Thondaman, A.Amirthalingam, N.M.Perera and Colvin R.de Silva. But I received three letters from Sivasithamparam – two written in the letter head of ‘National State Assembly’ and one written in the letterhead of ‘Parliament’. Of course, I took the trouble to write to him, to receive the three letters. Unfortunately, now I do not have copies of the letters I wrote to Sivasithamparam.
The first letter from Sivasithamparam, dated ‘30/8’ [i.e., Aug.30, 1978] was brief, with only two sentences. In translation, it read:
I was very pleased to receive your kind letter. When you have time, please keep in touch.
My letter to him, about which he mentions, was a ‘Thank You Note’ for his kind-heart. I will share with the readers the personal memories relating to this anecdote. In mid August 1978, I organized a cultural function at the New Kathiresan Hall, Bambalapitiya to celebrate the birth centenary of savant Anantha Coomaraswamy and also to release my first book, Thamil Isai Theepam [a 200-page text book, on the theory of South Indian Music]. But, I had an unpublicized motive as well; to commemorate the first anniversary of the 1977 anti-Tamil riots. That function was presided by M.K.Eelaventhan, then the President of the Colombo branch of TULF, and we invited Sivasithamparam as the chief guest for that function. Bro.Karavaiyoor Selvam and musician Mrs.Parameswari Wijeyaratnam (sister of musician Mr.Param Thillai Rajah) were two other invited speakers who graced the event, to review my book. P.Soosaithasan, the then TULF MP for Mannar was also a featured speaker. But he didn’t turn up for some unspecified reason. Thus, Sivasithamparam did the double duty, and as expected of him, he rose to the occasion to cheer the spirits of the gathered audience and simultaneously bless the hopes of a debutant 25-year-old author.
Memories of that night are still fresh in my mind. I had met the leader, whose name was one of the two (the other one was K.Thurairatnam, the long-time MP for Point Pedro), which got imprinted in my brain, when I was a seven year-old boy, residing in Point Pedro in 1960. That year saw two general elections – in March and July. As one would guess of the behavior of a 7 year-old boy, I was only keen in gathering the propaganda pamphlets released by the volunteers from the cars screaming with loudspeakers – “Ungal Waaku Sivasithamparathukke” [Your vote for Sivasithamparam]. Our house was conveniently located at the [Hartley] College Road, and was crossed by the cars canvassing vote for Thurairatnam, standing for the Point Pedro constituency, and Sivasithamparam, contesting the Udupiddy constituency. I should admit that I was clueless then about which parties they belonged to. Since ‘Thamil Arasu Katchi’ [Federal Party] was well heard by my ears, I naively thought that both Sivasithamparam and Thurairatnam belonged to this party. I had to wait till the next General Election in 1965, to clear my ignorance on this issue from my father.
Following the 1965 General Election, Sivasithamparam became the Deputy Speaker of the Parliament. During this 1965-70 phase of his illustrious career, Providence blessed my family that Sivasithamparam also became a savior to my father and by extension to my family. During 1967-69, my father was entangled in a salary embezzlement court case in which one of his subordinate workers at the Health Department was the first accused. My father was tagged as the leading prosecution witness, and Sivasithamparam successfully looked after the legal interests of my father against the wily defence counsel. If not for Sivasithamparam’s legal acumen, we were convinced that my father could have suffered some penalization for negligence of official duties, and that would have depleted the emotional wealth of our family. Thus, like thousands of others in Eelam and Sri Lanka, our family owes a deep gratitude to Sivasithamparam’s legal expertise and his compassionate heart.
The second letter from Sivasithamparam to me was dated “26/12” [i.e. Dec.12, 1978]. It read,
“Deary [the Tamil word he had used was, Anpudaiyeer]
Thanks for your letter and for your correspondence to Tribune [journal]. I believe that I have given proper answer to [Minister] Mathew’s accusations. But, it appears that they will achieve what they wanted to do, from the perceptions of why they made this false accusations. The new university admission policy seems to be more worse than the older standardization policy. We need to do research on this in depth. Folks like you also have to research and provide opinions.
I felt very much encouraged by this note from him, since he had recognized my writing and stimulated me with his last sentence. Sivasithamparam’s reference to “Mathew’s accusations” doesn’t need emphasis, since his rebuttal on demolishing the false charges presented by Cyril Mathew, the then Minister of Industries and the ‘exhaust-valve’ of Sinhalese racism, about the partiality shown by Tamil examiners to Tamil students has been acclaimed by journalists who viewed the drama from the parliamentary lobby [see, Ajith Samaranayaka’s eulogy to Sivasithamparam, Sunday Observer, June 9, 2002].
The third letter from the TULF leader to me was dated “11/6” [i.e. June 11, 1981]. It read:
Thanks for your letter. You might have seen from the dailies that we have decided to boycott the Parliament based on some of our demands. Therefore, I couldn’t give prior notice to the questions related to your issue. Depending on the situation, I will do the needful. I’m happy to hear that you will be joining Jaffna [University]. Persons of your rank are badly needed there.
Sivasithamparam’s reference to ‘your issue’ in this letter, relates to an interview for the ‘permanent assistant lecturer’ I faced on October 22, 1980 in Peradeniya. At that time, I was a ‘temporary assistant lecturer’ in the Dept. of Biochemistry, Faculty of Medicine, University of Peradeniya. I had by then completed two and a half years of service, and when I faced the interview I had all the necessary qualifications, and professional experience which satisfied the job requirements advertised for. But I belonged to the Tamil ethnic group, and by then, because of my activities in extra-curricular areas and my published writings in Sutantiran and Tribune weeklies, I had come to be identified in the ‘back-room gossip’ in Peradeniya circles as ‘a Tiger clothed as a sheep’. In 1980, the ‘Tiger’ word was gaining recognition little by little as an euphemism for ‘trouble maker’, and worse as a ‘terrorist’. Thus, Sri Lanka being Sri Lanka, where ethnic identity and extra curricular activity of a candidate are given predominant weightage than the civilized norms of merit and professional competence, I was not chosen even for one of two positions which were to be filled from that interview.
I was hardly disappointed by the outcome, since I was just one of thousands of young Tamil youths who faced such discrimination and harassment in the post-independent Sri Lanka. I consoled myself that if my idols as talented as champion Ali, Chaplin, and even Einstein suffered harassment in the hands of American bureaucrats and tin-pot gumshoes like John Edgar Hoover, then I can endure the insult and wait for my time. However, there was one difference. In America, the mediocrities who harassed my idols are well known. But in Sri Lanka, I felt that the mediocrities who rejected me need to be recorded for posterity. Thus, I solicited Sivasithamparam’s help in raising a question in the parliament, related to that October 1980 interview I faced in Peradeniya.
The Hansard [Record of Sri Lanka Parliament Proceedings] of Dec.7, 1981 carried the following question and answer by Sivasithamparam and A.M.R.B.Attanayake, in columns 1733-1736.
“Mr.M.Sivasithamparam: asked the Deputy Minister of Higher Education: (a) Was an interview held for the post of Assistant Lecturer in Biochemistry in the University of Peradeniya on the 22nd of October, 1980? (b) Who was selected for this post? (c) Who were the members of the body that did the selection? (d) Will he table the carriculum (sic) vitae of each of the candidates?
Mr.A.M.R.B.Attanayake [Deputy Minister of Higher Education]:
(a)Yes. (b) Miss G.L.R.Wijesinghe and Mr.P.Samaraweera were selected. (c) The Selection Board consisted of:
Prof.B.L.Panditharatne, Vice Chancellor
Prof.R.G.Panabokke, Dean, Faculty of Medicine
Prof.H.W.Dias, Dean, Faculty of Science
Prof.S.N.Arsecularatne, Head, Dept.of Microbiology
Dr.P.A.J.Perera, Head, Dept.of Biochemistry
Dr.B.D.Dharmasena and Dr.K.B.Sangakkara – Members of the University Council.
(d) Yes, the schedules are tabled. (Filed in Hansard Office).”
My name was included in the list of the candidates who faced that interview, presented by Mr.Attanayake, in the above-mentioned (d). Sivasithamparam had sent me a copy of the schedule. By then, I had joined the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign for my Ph.D. studies, having left Sri Lanka on August 5, 1981.
Rejection and Acceptance
In his four decades of public service, Sivasithamparam received both rejection and acceptance at the hands of the Eelam Tamil voters. He absorbed the rejections well in his stride. Unlike the post-1980 period, parliamentary elections held in Sri Lanka during the pre-1980 period were relatively clean. Sivasithamparam’s record in that pre-1980 period came to four wins and two losses. The details are provided below.
In the 1956 Election – standing for Point Pedro constituency, Sivasithamparam lost by a majority of 6,317 votes to the Communist Party candidate.
P.Kandiah (CP) – 14,381 votes.
Udupiddy became a newly demarcated electorate from the old Point Pedro constituency in 1960.
In the 1960 March Election – standing for Udupiddy constituency for the first time, Sivasithamparam was elected with a majority of 1,938 votes over P.Kandiah, the Communist Party candidate.
M.Sivasithamparam (TC) – 7,365 votes
In the 1960 July election – standing for Udupiddy constituency for the second time, Sivasithamparam was elected with a majority of 1,339 votes over K.Jeyakody, the Federal Party nominee.
M.Sivasithamparam (TC) – 9,080 votes
In the 1965 election – standing for Udupiddy constituency for the third time, Sivasithamparam was elected with an increased majority of 3,557 votes over K.Jeyakody, the Federal Party nominee.
M.Sivasithamparam (TC) – 12,009 votes
In the 1970 election – standing for Udupiddy constituency for the fourth time, Sivasithamparam lost by a majority of 1,256 votes to K.Jeyakody of the Federal Party.
K.Jeyakody (FP) – 12,918 votes
In the 1977 election – standing for Nallur constituency as the co-leader of TULF for the first time, Sivasithamparam won a resounding victory, gaining 89% percent of the total votes cast in an electorate – a Sri Lankan election record.
M.Sivasithamparam (TULF) – 29,858 votes
The SLFP nominee for this electorate, C.Arulampalam was the sitting MP for Nallur, who had won the 1970 election as the Tamil Congress nominee. Later, he became a convert to the SLFP.
A glance at the performance of Sivasithamparam’s electoral record shows that he lost in 1956 and 1970 – both times on the ‘sympathy vote for a sentimental loser’. The 1956 victory of the Communist Party candidate P.Kandiah in Point Pedro constituency was mainly attributed by observers in my father’s generation to Kandiah’s personal qualities as an educator and also to the unusual, sentimental appeal of Kandiah’s spouse pleading ‘Thaali Pitchai’ [an improbable phrase to translate into English to bring out its emotional connotations, but literally meaning ‘Begging on behalf of Thaali – the sacred thread tied by the Hindu bridegroom on bride]. That was the only instance, a Communist Party candidate was popularly elected in Eelam. Sivasithamparam’s second loss in 1970 was also on a ‘sympathy vote to K.Jeyakody, the Federal Party nominee’ who had lost three times previously to Sivasithamparam. The big man he is, Sivasithamparam took into stride these two rejections.
Sivasithamparam was the only person of note, whom I interviewed in my itinerant career as a freelance journalist in Sri Lanka. It was in 1980 that I visited his home at the Norris Canal Road. This was before the days when I had access to contemporary journalist accessories like regular camera, audio cassette and video camera. And not to offend the interviewee, I also did not openly take notes in a pad. Thus, I have lost the details of what transpired between us in that interview, other than two items which I remember even now. One was, I asked about his impression on G.G.Ponnambalam as a leader. His reply was that he came to know Ponnambalam, only after the Tamil Congress leader had ‘passed his peak’ and thus, his impressions may be defective. The other item, I remember was my quip that ‘It would have been more easier for younger generation of Tamils, if the leaders themselves write the details for posterity, rather than allowing biased historians to interpret their work.’ When I prodded him about his obligations to the Tamil society on this issue, he put a smile filled with pathos and responded, ‘Thamby! What can I do? – I lost so many papers and materials kept in home, during the last  riots’.
It would be an understatement if one says that pathos found Sivasithamparam as a perfect partner, even after he became the TULF President. As he reminisced about his losses in the 1983 anti-Tamil riots once,
“I was away in Mannar attending the TULF Convention. In the early hours of the [23rd of July 1983] morning, a crowd armed with knives, clubs and tins of petrol attacked my house in 100, Norris Canal Road, Maradana. My wife and teenage daughter jumped over the rear-wall in the clothes in which they were sleeping and a kind Muslim neighbour gave them protection. They came to Jaffna by cargo ship. My house, my new car, all my belongings including jewellery, my valuable collection of books, my notes of cases laboriously prepared over the years were burnt or looted. My wife’s sacred thali was also burnt or looted. That was the ‘protection’ given to me… [Sunday Times, Colombo, Sept.1, 1996]
In the post-1983 period, Sivasithamparam saw his stature diminished as a TULF leader – partly due to the ill-fated option taken to place all the eggs in the India’s ‘rotten basket’. In late 1985, when I met V.N.Navaratnam - long-term MP for Chavakachcheri and a senior Federal Party and TULF leader - at his son’s apartment at the University of Illinois, he complained mildly that by 1985, most of the decisions on behalf of the TULF were taken by a triumvirate [Amirthalingam, Sivasithamparam and Sampanthan] without listening to other opinions. Then, in July 1989, Sivasithamparam also suffered gun-shot injuries and saw two of his TULF colleagues A. Amirthalingam and V.Yogeswaran dying in front of his eyes by those who betrayed his trust. Though popular belief about this unfortunate event – aided by the deceptive campaign of agents for India’s intelligence agency RAW - portrays ‘LTTE’ in blanket terms as the perpetrators of this crime, my study and analysis of the confusing 1989 events shows that the members of the Mahattaya faction of LTTE, at the instigation of Indian intelligence operatives, were instrumental in this despicable attack. [For details, please see my analysis in the Pirabhakaran Phenomenon – part 22].
In the 1980s and 1990s, when TULF leadership was faltering in its functioning after translocating themselves in Chennai, Sivasithamparam was also at the receiving end of sniping in the press releases from Kumar Ponnambalam, the Tamil Congress leader. Ponnambalam Jr. never forgave Sivasithamparam for ignoring his claims for a seat in the TULF ticket in the 1977 General Election. It appears that Kumar Ponnambalam had a grudge on Sivasithamparam (who having become a parliamentarian under the Tamil Congress ticket) had been disloyal to his father G.G.Ponnambalam’s name, in surrendering the identity of Tamil Congress to the Federal Party under the banner of TULF. It is tough for Tamils to score who was right and who was wrong on the Sivasithamparam – Kumar Ponnambalam conflict. It is a moot point to consider what could have happened if Sivasithamparam had supported the claims of Kumar Ponnambalam strongly to Amirthalingam and found him a ticket in the TULF list for that 1977 General Election.
A Real Man
Nobody’s perfect. But, if one ask me the qualities of a real man, in my scale, three features stand out; humility, forgiving spirit and not being a phoney. I (and probably other Eelam Tamils as well) felt that Sivasithamparam was abundant in humility. If Kumar Ponnambalam was brash (which has its merits and demerits), Sivasithamparam showed the wisest trait of forgiving spirit. And that would endear him in the heart of Eelam Tamils. Sivasithamparam’s contributions to the Sri Lankan parliamentary debates, on behalf of beleaguered Eelam Tamils, will also be long remembered. Even in the mid-1990s, when out of parliament, Sivasithamparam took upon the dark-skinned Aryan Nazi-minded Mahindapala in the pages of Sunday Times (Colombo) to challenge the outright lies spread about the Jaffna Tamils. In this act alone, Sivasithamparam showed that he is unlike the phoneys Kadirgamar or Neelan Tiruchelvam or Devananda who have been paraded in the 1990s by the mediocre journalists in Colombo and Chennai as Tamil leaders, and who are incapable of taking on sick hacks like H.L.D.Mahindapala. I, for one, consider that it has been my privilege to be acquainted briefly with a Tamil leader who is not a phoney.
18 June 2002