The odyssey of a Tamil giant

by Ajith Samaranayake

The death of M. Sivasithamparam at the age of 79, even as the national conflict enters upon a period of lull, removes from Tamil politics its last major figure. For Murugesu Sivasithamparam, for long the President of the Tamil United Liberation Front, was the last of the charismatic parliamentarians of the heroic age of democratic Tamil politics which ceased to exist when the TULF MPs were driven out into the cold by the 13th amendment to the Constitution in 1983 and when parliamentary Tamil politics was eclipsed by the rise of militancy in the period which followed.

In his autobiography “Memoirs of an Unrepentant Communist”, the Maoist Communist leader N. Sanmugathasan recalls how he and Siva had entered the University College in 1938-39 as its last batch. Both of them had been in the University Communist cell at the time when the United Socialist Party having broken away from the Troskyist LSSP, was in the process of being transmogrified into the Communist Party of Ceylon.

Siva then began life as a Communist in the time of Stalin but coming from a Vellala Hindu family in Karaveddy he was the victim of contrary pressures from the time of his young adulthood. His family managed the Vigneshwara College and Sanmugathasan recalls the young Siva having a portrait of Goddess Saraswathi in his hostel room when Shan no doubt proudly displayed one of Lenin.

The late Nimal Karunatilleke who was also a Communist at the time (long before he joined the SLFP and later the UNP) recalled when he and I covered the 1977 Parliament of which Siva was one of the most formidable debaters that the young Siva felt somewhat squeamish about going out in the night to paste posters which was, of course, part of the apprenticeship of any young aspiring Communist.

The young Sivasithamparam then was a typical product of his times and his milieu. Although he had embraced Communism doubtless through intellectual conviction and not material deprivation he nevertheless felt helpless about rebelling against his ancestral gods and the deeply-held values of his caste and class. But there was no dishonesty or bogusness here for this generation of youthful idealists believed honestly in a socialist society before those dreams were blotted out by the exposure in the ‘God that Failed’ that the deity had feet of clay.

In fact Siva’s colleague A. Amirthalingam used to recall that as an undergraduate himself he had learnt his Marxism at the feet of Dr. N.M. Perera and indeed when Amirthalingam and Siva led the Opposition from 1977 their criticisms of the UNP Budgets presented by Amrithalingam’s fellow university mate Ronnie de Mel were from a consistently socialist perspective.

After leaving the Communist Party Siva joined not the Federal Party but the All Ceylon Tamil Congress of G.G. Ponnambalam whose platform was the just rights of the Tamil people within a unitary state as opposed to the advocacy of a federal unit for the Tamil areas. This might have placed him in something of an accommodationist position vis-à-vis the more militant FP but perhaps it was also a measure of a more practical nature.

This brought its own rewards such as the time when during the 1965-68 period of the National Government between the UNP and the FP and ACTC he was made Deputy Speaker (a position which he occupied with great acceptability) but when the chips were down and the Tamil struggle took on a militant edge Siva had no doubt in his mind about where he stood. He left the ACTC and joined the TULF at its formation even as the Government of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1970, with both Ponnambalam and Sivasithamparam out of Parliament, put up a caricature of an ACTC for public consumption.

Siva really came into his own in the 1977 Parliament when the TULF led a depleted Opposition. He was the able second in-command to the Leader of the Opposition A. Amirthalingam. With his towering six foot appearance, his barrel chest and parade commander’s voice he was perhaps that Parliament’s most formidable speaker. He did not go in for flowery oratory and his diction was simple but as a criminal lawyer of long experience he had the forensic skill of going directly to the heart of an argument and destroying it. The speech he made debunking the claims made by the then Industries Minister an arch TULF-baiter Cyril Mathew that Tamil examiners were favouring Tamil AL students will remain for a long time as a model of parliamentary oratory.

If Amrithalingam had a fiery tongue and a short temper (although this never lasted long and he was most handsome in his apologies) Siva never lost his cool. He was always calm and his most formidable weapon was his irrefutable logic. But this did not mean that he lacked indignation for the cause of his people. When driven to indignation he was an antagonist to be feared and the turning point came when the security forces in one of their many retrospectively futile operations of the time which did so much to rouse Tamil resentment arbitrarily shot and killed a young man sleeping on the verandah of his office.

Having watched the debates of that Parliament I can see it as the long unfolding of a tragedy which could not be avoided. Days before July 22, 1983, the MP for Chavakachcheri V.N. Navaratnam, bearded and sombre, had bid good bye to the House saying that he had outlived his mandate which had anyway been nullified by the Referendum of 1982. The shadows were lengthening on the playing fields and pleasure gardens of Colombo. Came Black July and Siva was in Mannar attending the annual TULF conference as were other principal Tamil leaders. His home at Norris Canal Road was attacked and his wife and family had to scale a wall to safety before the house was reduced to rubble.

The last years of his life Siva led in Chennai and in Colombo fighting a long illness but not giving up until last Wednesday morning when he passed away at the National Hospital close to his burnt out former home. His state of ill health was worsened by the injuries he suffered when the LTTE opened fire on three of them killing Messrs Amirthalingam and V. Yogeswaran in 1989 leaving Siva as the only forlorn survivor. Although not in the best of health by any means he returned from India at the behest of his party to take up its sole National List seat in Parliament after last December’s election.

It was perhaps paradoxical that the man the LTTE tried to kill was returning as MP of the Tamil National Alliance which had recognised the LTTE’s primacy over Tamil politics but that too is part of the irrefutable logic of contemporary Tamil politics, a paradox which Siva I am sure would have relished.

It is easy to point the finger of accusation at Parliamentarians of the generation of Sivasithamparam as letting down the Tamil youth but then aren’t the Sinhala leadership which offered them the illusion and carrot of a supposedly honourable solution from Independence onwards equally to blame? In his time Siva may have moved from Communism to Tamil nationalism and even Tamil militancy but by their very education and conditioning this was a liberal leadership which was ready to come to a honourable accommodation within the framework of united although not necessarily unitary polity.

For M. Sivasithamparam it has been a long and perhaps painful personal and political Odyssey but if the passing of this last towering figure of the democratic movement in Tamil Politics does not strengthen our resolve to end this wasteful conflict all of us are bound to be irrevocably impoverished.

Note: Please see Pirabhakaran Phenomenon Part 22 on the murder of Messers Amirthalingam and Yogeswaran.

Courtesy: Ceylon Daily News [09 June 2002]