Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Left Tradition in Lankan Tamil Politics

        LANKAN TAMIL POLITICS          

Santasilan Kadirgamar

It is attempted in this paper to place in historical perspective a clearly discernible trend in Tamil politics in this country primarily in the mid-decades of this century. The scope of this presentation, in spite of its title, has been limited to the Jaffna district, which was the scene of the rise and fall of numerous political parties and movements in the twentieth century.  No attempt is made to go into a larger study including the plantation sector, the eastern districts and the Vanni. The documentation available for a study of the above topic is limited due to a variety of reasons. One has to visit Jaffna to have access to most of the sources if they are still available. The writings on the left movement in English by researchers and others in most cases have made only passing references to the history of the left in the north. This is partly due to the fact that these writers do not read Tamil. Even to those who read Tamil, documents in Tamil are scarce and not easily obtainable. The University of Jaffna was founded only in 1974. Efforts were made in the 70s and early 80s to encourage people in Jaffna to deposit valuable documents in the university library. The destruction of the Jaffna Public Library and subsequently of thousands of houses has resulted in the irreplaceable loss of the private collections of several valuable publications and documents painfully collected over decades.

Consequently this narrative is in many ways incomplete. It is interpretative and draws heavily from memories. One purpose is to initiate an on-going discussion. It is necessary to place on record the memories of those who have lived through this period, especially those that have personally interacted with the several personalities mentioned below. One attempts here to place in perspective what is considered a valuable, memorable and meaningful period in the history of the Tamils in this country. This is also an effort to set right the malicious propaganda carried out against the Tamils by interested parties and groups through misrepresentation and distortion, without acknowledging this other vital dimension in their history.

Towards a Broader Definition of the Left

The term left generally signifies socialist or radical movements and has been used from the time of the French Revolution. In Asia the term became common usage with the emergence of liberation and Marxist movements. With the fragmentation of Marxist- Leninist parties into Stalinists and Trotskyites and subsequently Maoists and several factions, the left came to symbolize and was accepted as a generic term for all parties and movements with a Marxist Leninist ideology or an anti-imperialist socialist program. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and Communism in Eastern Europe there is some confusion regarding the left/right dichotomy as well as conservative and progressive, especially in Europe. The same however is not necessarily true in parts of the third world. 

In its broadest definition, the term left is used as comprising and incorporating a variety of movements and groups. It does not pre-suppose an ideological commitment.  A ‘left-wing’ position in modern politics would involve leaning towards such positions as the following in some mix or other. These would include nationalisation or control of industry, land reform, state control of the economy, and tax policies that favour the low and middle-income groups. Also included would be pacifism or arms reduction, egalitarian policies in education, universal health care, and a preference for ecological rather than industrial expansionist policies, and positive discrimination in favour of minority groups. In the Third World one would add a strong commitment to the rights of peasants and workers, human rights, civil and political rights, and especial1y social, economic and cultural rights. It would also include the struggle against imperialism or neo-colonialism and in the contemporary context exposing and resisting First World domination in its politica1, economic, social and cultural dimensions. Increasingly the line between a liberal and a left position has become thin. Gender issues, rights of children, human rights, refugees and victims of war find an important place in this tradition.

Every left movement would have to be defined in the specific situation both in time and place where it emerges and functions. In the Lankan context one defining factor is whether the movement has taken a stand against national, especially majority, chauvinism and a political program that favors justice to the minorities including the right to self-determination.

Tamil politics in northern Lanka has been dominated by conservative political parties, which represented a degree of continuity in Tamil politics from the mid-1930s until 1983. These were the Tamil Congress from the 1940s to 1952, the Federal Party from 1956 to 1972 and its successor the Tamil United Liberation Front from 1976 to 1983. These parties under the leadership of G.G. Ponnambalam (Tamil Congress and later Tamil United Liberation Front), S.J.V.Chelvanayakam (TC, Federal Party and TULF) and A.Amirthalingam (FP & TULF) and M.Sivasithamparam (TC and TULF) represented continuity in Tamil politics. These parties sought to represent and claimed to represent the Tamils or the Tamil-Speaking people (including the Muslims in the eastern province) and demanded constitutional safeguards for the Tamil-speaking people. They were not very much concerned with the larger issues, that rose above narrow ethnic identities, confronting all the people of Lanka, primarily economic issues, cost of living, wages, rights of workers, neo-colonialism and exploitation. Their identity and politics were defined primarily in relation to Sinhalese politics, originally focused on fears of discrimination and domination and subsequently by clear and blatant acts of discrimination, oppression and violence against the Tamils. They gave first importance to the rights, welfare and aspirations of the Tamil people. Their politics ultimately led to the secessionist demand in 1976 and is a major factor that has contributed to the present crisis.

On the other hand there continued to exist in the Tamil north, throughout these years, a committed and articulate minority, which we have here referred to as the Tamil Left. This group persisted in espousing policies that sought to seek justice for the Tamils within the larger framework of a united Lanka with justice to all. We attempt here a brief survey of this Left Tradition in Lankan Tamil Politics.

The Jaffna Youth Congress        

This invariably begins with the anti-imperialist movement that emerged in Ceylon in the 1920s and was best exemplified among the Tamils by the Jaffna Students’ Congress founded in 1924, later re-named the Jaffna Youth Congress. The Youth Congress from its inception was committed to social reform, especially the removal of caste discrimination and oppression, the revival and development of national literature and the national languages and propagated the teaching of Sinhalese to Tamil students and Tamil to Sinhalese students. Influenced profoundly by the Gandhian movement and the Indian National Congress, the YC attempted to build-up a movement that was to be representative of all races, creeds and interests. In the 1920’s individuals rather than political parties dominated Tamil politics. In fact political parties came into existence only in the 1930s and 1940s. The Jaffna Youth Congress did not perceive itself as a political movement. It eventually did take a radical stand in favor of self-government, but for the most part it was concerned with social and cultural issues and the revival of indigenous 1anguages, literature, cultural festivals and local industries that had been neglected and discriminated against through centuries of European domination. (Kadirgamar 1980)

In addition to the Gandhian influence there was also the impact of western liberal and democratic values. There emerged a radical fringe, which was of decisive significance in the political and intellectual life of Jaffna in the twenties and thirties giving rise to a movement that was nationalist, democratic, anti-imperialist and anti-feudal. When viewed in the context of the then existing attitudes to politics, caste, education, the national languages and culture the Youth Congress is seen to be a movement that was radical and in advance of its times. In the absence of any major movement in Ceylon that was clearly anti-imperialist the Youth Congress took upon itself the task of bringing an anti-imperialist consciousness to the people of this country.

The Youth Congress was primarily the Tamil north’s response to the Gandhian nationalist movement in India. In the context of its activities and the following it commanded there was no parallel movement with a substantial following in the Sinhalese South until the emergence of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party in 1935. Gandhi’s visit to Ceylon in 1927 on the invitation of the Youth Congress was a great success. The warm welcome given to him in Jaffna by old and young and the tremendous enthusiasm that prevailed, influenced the Congress to declare in favor of ‘Purna Swaraj’ (total independence).

The YC had also taken a firm stand in favour of an all-island ‘nationalism’ as against ‘communalism’. This issue figured prominently at the fourth sessions of the YC held at Keerimalai in 1928. S.Nadesan, in later years distinguished lawyer and Senator, delivering the welcome address rejected communal representation as a quack’s remedy and an evil that ought not to be recognised. The YC took a firm stand in favour of national unity and affirmed that Home Rule or self-government was the only remedy for the growing parochialism in the country.

The efforts made by the Youth Congress to publish a paper did not materialise. The Ceylon Patriot a secular weekly founded in 1862 was in this period owned and edited by J.W.A.Kadirgamar. Published in English by the Lankabhimani Press in Chavakachcheri the paper for all practical purposes became the organ of the Youth Congress. !930 also saw the publication of the influential Tamil weekly the Eelakesari. Both the Chunnakam based paper and the Thirumakal Press where it was published were owned by E.Ponniah who was a staunch supporter of the YC. The paper gave wide publicity to the proceedings and policies of the Congress, and to the developments in India which influenced public opinion in Jaffna. The poems and songs of freedom by the nationalist and anti-imperialist poet Subramaniya Bharathi received wide publicity in Jaffna and the rest of the country through the Eelakesari and other publications of the Thirumakal Press.    

In 1930 took place the historic Gandhian salt march resulting in the detention of thousands of Indians. This non-violent struggle received world-wide attention and had a major impact on the members of the Jaffna Youth Congress. The annual sessions of the YC took place in April 1931. The prevailing atmosphere was charged with excitement. There had always been present at the annual sessions some women. The YC at previous sessions had called upon women to take their rightful place in the life of the nation. The guest speaker on this occasion was Srimathi Kamaladevi Chattopadhayaya from India. She had established herself as a rising star from among the younger generation and belonged to the radical wing within the Indian National Congress. Young and eloquent she virtually took the Youth Congress by storm. K.Nesiah delivering the welcome address noted that she was one who had earned for Indian women a name for patriotism, and courage as a social reformer. She was in addition an authority on education. The content of her address struck new ground in focusing on economic issues. Hitherto addresses at the Youth Congress sessions were primarily concerned with the political and cultural aspects of imperialist domination and social discrimination within Tamil society. She for the first time gave an instructive lecture filled with facts and figures on the nature of capitalism, imperialism and the exploitation of subject peoples in the colonies. She broke new ground in providing Jaffna youth with a lecture amounting to a socialist critique of imperialism. She said:

Under the guise of a beneficial rule the imperial lords loot rich lands for the            benefit of their own kinsmen. Many a country in thus being bled to the sweet            tune of ‘God Save the King.’ The glorious flag of the British Empire is dyed in the scarlet blood of millions … The British nation so highly developed commercially, must find fresh fields for investing its capital and once again our lands come to their help. Thus in the shape of missionaries of modern civilization and priests of modern culture they step on to our shores and begin their exploits… In the process of the establishment of this imperialistic rule by “Law and Order” and, with the consent of the people, these imperial agents ruthlessly destroy all indigenous industries, commerce, and institutions and by setting up their own powerfully organised ones shut out possibilities for starting any national enterprises. This unequal competition, pronouncedly decided in favour of the rulers, leaves the country and its people helpless and impoverished. This economic enslavement is systematic and crushing … In order to discover the remedy it is necessary to have a clear diagnosis of the disease.

She was careful to point out that freedom did not mean the mere hounding out of the white man and a transference of power from one powerful minority to another equally tyrannical. In the just society that was looked forward to every man will get for himself and his family what he is actually entitled to by the value of his labour. On the pursuance of these aims she stressed the need to organise labour in Ceylon. The speaker concluded with an appeal for cultural freedom.

It is only when you meet the West as an equal and as a partner in the search and    appreciation of beauty that the two cultures will blend into each other. But you have lost your bearings today. The children of the people that created the wonderful works of art at Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura are today feeding their hungry souls on Dunlop tyre advertisements and match labels that adorn the walls of the huts in the villages. The colossal tragedy of this is but little realised…Art is not a luxury of or the privilege of the        rich few. It is the life-giving force that touches all ordinary things of everyday common use with its vitality transforming them into sublime things of joy. (Chattopadhyaya 1931)

Her presidential address at the 1931 sessions had an electrifying effect and was a major factor that influenced the decision made to boycott the 1931 elections. This was the first time that a woman had been invited to deliver the presidental address of the Youth Congress. It was also very likely the first time that a woman addressed a major public rally attended by thousands, in the whole island.

The four northern seats remained vacant as a result of this boycott. The YC had called for a boycott of the elections, the first under the new constitution of 1931, following reforms recommended by the Donoughmore Commission. These included some degree of self-government and universal adult franchise. A short-lived attempt was made to develop a mass movement both in the north and the south on an anti-imperialist platform.

The 1931 boycott has been frequently interpreted and misrepresented as having been inspired by communal motives. Handy Perinbanayagam the leader of the Youth Congress on several occasions attempted to correct this view. He once declared, “nobody who has watched our lives and noted the price that we have paid for our consistent devotion to the ideal of a United and Free Ceylonese Nation can accept this view. The boycott was launched because the Donoughmore Reforms fell far short of complete independence.” (Kadirgamar 1980)

The founding of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party in 1935 marks the beginning of radical Marxist politics in Lanka. Founded by young radica1s, several of whom had been educated in the west, the LSSP spearheaded the anti-imperialist struggle in Lanka. In the South the Suriyamal movement and other social movements laid the foundations for the emergence of the LSSP. The Jaffna Youth Congress had made common cause with these movements. Dr.Colvin Silva once declared that the roots of the LSSP were inasmuch in the YC in the north as in the Suriyamal movement in the south. Philip Gunewardene commenting on the 1931 boycott wrote from London referring to the YC as, “the only organisation in Ceylon that has been displaying political intelligence … Jaffna has given the lead. They have forced their leaders to sound the bugle call for the great struggle for freedom – for immediate and complete independence from Imperialist Britain. Will the Sinhalese who always display supreme courage understand and fall in line?”

When the LSSP was founded the Youth Congress became the movement in Jaffna with which the LSSP established solid links. Some members of the Youth Congress such as P.Nagalingam, K.Tharmakulasingam, S.Sittampalam and K.Satchithanandan joined the LSSP. Some others like T.Duraisingam initially LSSP later became founding members of the Communist Party when it was formed in the early 1940s. Several other members of the Youth Congress remained sympathizers and supporters of both left parties. Handy Perinbanayagam, though occasionally a critic of the Marxist left, affirmed that his political sympathies were by and large with the left. Though they did not formally become members of either the LSSP or the CP several stalwarts of the YC to the end were identified with these two political parties. Some later identified with the pro-Beijing breakaway groups. When the Youth Congress declined the left parties took its place in Tamil politics.

The question has been raised as to whether a Marxist wing prevailed within the Youth Congress and if not as to why a Marxist left did not emerge in Jaffna. At that point in history in the 1920s, in spite of the Bolshevik Revolution, Marxist ideology had not made an impact on the English educated youth even in Colombo. The stalwarts of the YC who later became well known leaders of the two main left parties were primarily anti-imperialist. Their Marxist orientation took place in Colombo in the 1930s. The members of the YC were above all influenced by the Gandhian movement. The same was true of several individuals in the South. In addition the antagonism between Gandhian idealism and Marxian socialism were too sharp to enable a Marxist radical transformation of Jaffna youth at that time. These were real tensions that prevailed within the Indian National Congress itself in the 1920 and 30s. 

The LSSP and the CP

From 1935 to 1964 these two left parties commanded a fair amount of support in the north among the Tamils. This was not necessarily in terms of votes garnered at successive elections, though in some electorates the support they received was consistently substantial as indicated below. In fact at the local government level several village committees and town councils were headed by leftists. These included Chunnakam, Manipay, Uduvil, Anaicottai and Puloly in the Jaffna peninsula. There is a tendency to measure successes and failures purely in electoral terms, overlooking the influential role played by pro-left elements in the social, economic and cultural life of the people, and in shaping the thinking of the intelligentsia. In Jaffna society, semi-feudalistic and conservative as it was, the presence of numerically small but highly influential left-oriented individuals had a considerable impact. The support for the left came from a variety of groups. These included members in government service which the left parties had help organize into the General Clerical Services Union (GCSU), Teachers’ Unions, Bank and Mercantile Unions, the Transport (Bus) Workers Unions, the Cigar Workers Unions, and the Toddy Tappers’ Union. Also included were several organizations of the oppressed castes (also referred to as minority Tamils) and land-less labourers. In fact the stand that the left took on caste discrimination and oppression was a major reason why they failed to win seats in parliamentary elections. The equal seating that emerged in the Youth Congress days now became a struggle for equal rights in all aspects of socio-economic life. The red flag became identified with oppressed castes.(1) The dominant and hegemonic Vellala caste, which monopolised the ownership of cultivatable land, education, the professions and business resisted changes in the 1940s and 50s. Notable changes began to occur only in the 1960s. The nationalisation in 1961 of assisted schools owned and managed by religious hierarchies both Christian and Hindu loosened the grip that the dominant caste had on education. This vital change opened the way for the members of discriminated castes to move up the social ladder as they obtained more positions as teachers in schools including promotions to administrative positions.

But one particular aspect of the left cannot be ignored. Practically all the highly influential left-oriented individuals mentioned in this paper came from the dominant castes. This included leaders from every left party. M.C.Subramaniam of the Communist Party was a notable exception. He not only rose up to a position of leadership within the party but also took his place as a nominated member in the 1970 parliament. It must be stated in fairness to the Federal Party and the later Tamil United Liberation Front that they once nominated one person from the minority Tamils to the upper house. He was Senator Nalliah, a prominent member of the FP. Later they reserved one parliamentary electorate in the Peninsula for a person from the discriminated castes. It should also be noted that at the District Committee level of the Communist Party, a fair number of members were from these castes. 

Tamil areas in the north and east were primarily rural societies with minimum urbanization and hardly any industries. The left parties therefore did not have a substantial workers base as developed in the south. But support for the left movement came from sections of the Tamil intelligentsia that had been profoundly influenced by the earlier Youth Congress. These were not necessarily ideologically Marxists but shared the socialist and anti-imperialist aspirations of the Marxist left. The Northern Province Teachers’ Association and the subsequent Progressive Writers’ Association as discussed  below, were among the organizational sources of support for the Jaffna Left.

An All-Island Left and Dual Loyalty – Religious and Linguistic

While the left movement had a following primarily composed of sympathisers, party membership was limited. The closed structure of the parties and the rigid ideological positions taken inhibited membership. Lanka is a country where everyone is believed to be an adherent of one of the four major religions, whether he or she liked it or not. Except for some famous self-proclaimed rationalists very few denied a religious affiliation. It was extremely difficult for persons with a Christian identity (even more difficult for Catholics) and for Muslims in particular to subscribe to Marxist dogma in the pre-Liberation Theology period. In this context what the Communist Party leadership was able to achieve in Kerala as early as in the 1950s is significant. Prominent Christians in leadership positions in the church and church related institutions such as university colleges, and also in the ecumenical movement including the World Council of Churches became staunch supporters of the left. The position they took was to accept the political and economic program of the left as distinct from a commitment to an ideological position which in the Lankan context was further complicated by the Communist-Trotskyite perennial dogmatic conflicts. The numerous splits and fragmentation of the left parties made it worse. It was somewhat different for Hindus and Buddhists. Both are non-evangelical faiths and historically never expanded at the point of the sword or the gun. Philosophically Hinduism is a liberal and tolerant religion where it was possible to subscribe to its rituals, ceremonies and festivals and still be a committed Marxist. Buddhism is the most rational of faiths and stripped of its feudalistic structure posed no problems to potential Marxists. The dominant ethos of Jaffna society like in most of the countryside in the island was religious. The Youth Congress being Gandhian had no problems commanding a following in such a society. The Marxist left was up against considerable opposition.

Though the following the left had was numerically small, every major national strike called by the trade unions received support from their respective branches in the north and east. These included the 1946 GCSU strike, the Hartal of 1953, and several strikes by Bus and Railway Workers, Bank and Mercantile Unions from the 1940s and 50s to the early 80s. Politically this participation in the trade union movement including strike action was significant. The left movement gave a great deal of importance to the support derived from the Tamil north. Their participation gave the trade union movement an all-island national character. This was of importance at a time when the country was already beginning to feel the strain of divisive nationalist politics by both Sinhalese and Tamil political parties and movements. This continued right into the early 1980s even after the left ceased to have an electoral following in the north, and was evident in the strike of 1980 in which several workers in the north were victimised losing their jobs. During this period the Jaffna branch of the Organization for Justice to the Strikers played a notable role. The left movement represented an effort to forge national unity placing economic issues, a socialist program and the rights of workers in the forefront.

The existence of a strong all-island left movement prevented the break-up of the country for nearly twenty-five years after de-colonization in 1948.  When the Tamil plantation workers lost their citizenship rights the LSSP and CP took a firm stand supporting these workers’ right to citizenship. In I955-56 when Sinhalese nationalism/chauvinism reached its peak (under the slogan ‘Sinhala Only’) the left again took a principled stand that Sinhalese and Tamil should be the official 1anguages of the country. When anti-Tamil violence broke out in 1956 and 1958, and when the SLFP government of 1961 broke-up the non-violent Satyagraha organized by the Federal Party and placed the FP leaders under detention and imposed stringent emergency regulations in the Tamil north and east, the Left again championed the cause of the Tamil people. The result was steady support for the left from Tamils residing in the Western Province in particular and in other pre-dominantly Sinhalese areas. But there was a dual loyalty and conflict of interests here. The very Tamils who voted for the left in the south and participated in trade union action under the leadership of the left supported the Tamil Federal party in the north and east. They were called leftists in the south and federalists in the north. There was however always a numerical1y sma1l but committed group of Tamils who consistently supported the left in the north.

This dua1 loyalty was partly due to the fact that the left parties at that time did not take a clear stand on regional autonomy, in response to the FP's demand for a federal constitution. In retrospect it is evident that this was a fatal error. It must however be acknowledged that the left parties long before the Federal demand was made by the Tamils had consistently advocated devolution of power, calling for the replacement of the Kachcheri system by decentralised administration. When the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact was signed in 1957 Philip Gunewardene remained a consistent supporter of the Pact.  The reluctance of the Federal Party to support socio-economic reforms such as the Paddy Lands Act, the nationalisation of Assisted Schools and similar measures widened the gulf between the left and the FP. Today the remnants of the one time powerful left in the south solidly support devolution amounting to if not going beyond the original federal demand of the FP.  But from 1958 to 1977 the left failed to respond positively to the federal/ regional autonomy demand as well as the ‘no state sponsored colonization of Tamil areas’ demand that had become a major factor in the late 1950s and thereafter. There were also lurking suspicions among many Tamils that later proved to be correct that the LSSP and the CP could make compromises with Sinhalese nationalist/chauvinist forces that denied the legitimate demands of the Tamil people.


Significantly the very influential and powerful Northern Province Teachers Association from the 1940s to the 60s counted among its members several left sympathizers and some leaders of the left movement. The NPTA membership included distinguished teachers and principals of schools who championed the campaign for free education, for a national system of schools and for Swabasha (national languages). Formidable opponents of government's control of teachers, these men did assert that education was the responsibility of the state, though not necessarily a monopoly of the state. They remained committed to the role that education could play in the social advance of the country. They played a conspicuous role in the All Ceylon Union of Teachers and were regular contributors to the journal of the ACUT. Outstanding members of the NPTA were Handy Perinbanayagam, C. (Orator) Subramaniam, N. Sabaratnam, A.E.Tamber, A.S.Kanagaratnam, A. Vaidialingam and M.Karthigesan. Many of them were teachers of English and English Literature, but were equally proficient in Tamil and were deeply rooted in Tamil culture like their counter-parts in India influenced by the freedom movement. They were community leaders as well and commanded great respect in Tamil society. They were staunch opponents of Tamil nationalist/chauvinist politics to the end.

Mr. Subramaniam or Orator as he was affectionately and popularly known was principal of Skantha Varodaya College, the school that was best known for its radicalism and counted among its teachers members of the left parties like V.Ponnambalam. Mr.N.S.Kandiah, the manager of the London based Tamil Times, was a former teacher at Skantha and editor P.Rajanayagam together with Dr. N. Shanmugaratnam and others were products of this school. (2)  Handy Perinbanayagam after several years of teaching at Jaffna College where he influenced a whole generation of students and future teachers was later principal of Kokuvil Hindu College. In 1954 when Sir John Kotelawala paid his official visit to Jaffna attempts were made by the local bureaucrats to get students to line up along the streets to welcome the Prime Minister, a particularly objectionable practice widely prevalent in this country. Handy being the educator that he was, found it obnoxious and repulsive to get students to kowtow to visiting dignitaries whoever he or she may have been. He staunchly resisted this and instead extended a welcome to Sir John to address the students in the school hall.  It was here that he put the famous question to him whether he would grant parity of status to the Tamil and Sinhalese languages. Sir John heartily agreed and thereby sparked of the language controversy that was to shape contemporary history.

A.E.Tamber was the distinguished principal of Jaffna Central College. N. Sabaratnam became principal of Jaffna Hindu College and in later years wrote the editorial for the Eelanadu, the Jaffna based Tamil newspaper and for that matter the only daily newspaper published outside Colombo. This press was burnt down in 1981 together with the public library but re-emerged only be closed down by other forces later. A.S.Kanagaratnam was Principal of the Chavakachcheri Hindu College, A.Vaidialingam of Urumprai Hindu, and M. Karthigesan of Kopay Christian College. Several of them attained these top positions only after the nationalisation of the schools. Neither the Hindu Board nor Christian managers of schools under the assisted schools system would have placed these men in these positions. The exceptions were Handy and Orator. In fact A.S.Kanagaratnam was moved out of his position due to his left affiliations. He was later LSSP candidate for Chavakachcheri in the 1960 election. 

The Christian schools, both Catholic and Protestant were politically conservative in relation to the left. Efforts were made by Dr.N.M.Perera and P.Nagalingam to persuade the popular Dr. Sampanthar, of the Moolai Cooperative Hospital, to contest the Vaddukoddai seat as the LSSP candidate in the March 1960 election. Some senior teachers at Jaffna College who were close friends of the doctor exerted severe pressure and prevented him from accepting the nomination. He would have been a formidable opponent to Amirthalingam and may have won the seat. Soon after the nationalisation of schools St. John’s College which opted to remain non-fee levying dismissed Banudevan, the well known LSSPer and outstanding teacher at the College together with three others for having led trade union action in the school. This was the period when private schools exploited teachers extensively. In Jaffna the few schools that went private were all Christian. He fought the case for several years and finally won compensation which when granted was worth nothing. He was among those in Jaffna who quit the LSSP in 1964 but played a major role in founding MIRJE Jaffna in 1979.

The Progressive Writers

In later years the Progressive Writers in Tamil wielded considerable influence among the Tamil educated intelligentsia. These included prominent academics such as K. Kailasapathy, and K.Sivathamby and others such as Dominic Jeeva, K.Daniel and M.K.Ragunathan. As Sivathamby has placed on record:

By the 1950s, two trends began to surface, one denoting the emergence of a Tamil consciousness all over the island in response to the emerging Sinhala nationalism, and the other a Marxist-inspired literary movement which was nationalistic and at the same time was opposed to social oppression and deprivation. The former expressed itself largely in terms of the Dravidian ideology and of the poetry of Bharathidasan, which were then very much in vogue in Tamil Nadu. But it was the latter trend of opposition to social oppression and deprivation, led by the Progressive Writers' Association that created an unprecedented literary impact.” (Sivathamby 1999)

A whole new generation of writers surfaced, including several from the Dalit group. These writers were victims of socio-economic oppression and exploitations linked to the caste system associated with the rigours of Jaffna feudalism. In their writings they highlighted the sufferings, humiliations and deprivations based on caste and class. The Thinakaran (Lake House group of newspapers) nurtured this new writing of the late 1950s and the early 1960s, with Kailasapathy as its editor in the period 1958-1962.

In a culture where literature had been the handmaid of social conservatism, it soon led to bitter polemics in defining the role of tradition and the social function of literature. A debate ensued, and the left oriented writers Sivathamby included and “the punditry were locked in a bitter controversy.” Sivathamby mentions numerous writers and the debates that followed and adds “this creative efflorescence marks an important phase in the development of modern Lankan Tamil literature ... in poetry, fiction, and full-fledged novel-writing.” A theatrical upsurge, he notes, took place in the late 70s.

In the 1970s, contemporary Sri Lankan Tamil literature became a part of the educational curriculum at the university entrance level, and this paved the way for the participation of teachers and students in the literary debates of the day. Writers became important social figures. But in politics people were increasingly taking to the streets resorting to extra-parliamentary action. State intervention increased and Tamil youth turned to militancy. With these changes literature ceased to be open. The mainstream media both print and electronic became over-cautious if not restrictive. Following the 1983 anti-Tamil riots uncertainty and gloom spread to the North and East and the pattern of life changed. A new era in Lankan Tamil literary sensitivity and expression had dawned.

The Fragmentation of the Left

In electoral terms the left movement in the north reached its peak in the 1960 general election when the left projected itself as a political alternative to the Federal Party and the Tamil Congress, and to the SLFP and the UNP in the south. This was shortly before the Sino-Soviet ideological split that led to the fragmentation of communist parties worldwide. In Lanka this was also the last general election before the Trotskyites in the LSSP split into several groups after the historic decision made by the LSSP in 1964 to enter a coalition government led by the SLFP under the leadership of Mrs. Bandaranaike.

In the March 1960 parliamentary election the Federal Party won nine seats and the Tamil Congress a single seat. Tamil Congress leader G.G.Ponnambalam tasted defeat for the first time, the winner being Alfred Duraiappah who ran as an independent with the support of sections of the left. In the Jaffna district then consisting of eleven electorates, the left consisting of the LSSP and the CP contesting separately polled a total of 40,363 (LSSP 25,904 and CP 14,363) exceeding the total votes polled by the Tamil Congress. With 74.7 voters casting their votes the FP polled 96,870, and the TC 38,275. Fifteen independent candidates in the district polled a total of 29,231 including Duraiappah’s 6201 votes. Though failing to win a single seat, it was a remarkable result for the left. The failure to form a United Front and the inability to grant nominations to independent candidates who had been left sympathisers due to narrow party and sectarian factors, the forces opposed to Tamil nationalist/chauvinist vote got fragmented. When the July election came around and the left formed a united front the results were a foregone conclusion. The total poll went down to 65.5 per cent as the left demoralised island-wide put up a poor showing. Even then contesting in only four electorates the votes cast for LSSP and CP candidates totaled 17,365.   

After this the mainstream left (the LSSP in particular and CP to some extent) never regained the position they held in the north, and among the Tamils in the whole island. The Communist Party (pro-Moscow) continued to have a base in Jaffna until 1983, but remained considerably weakened. The pro-Beijing Communist parties grew in strength having taken a militant stand on caste issues, especially in the 1968 struggle for temple entry. There were still some temples in Jaffna that did not allow members of the oppressed castes entry. The most noteworthy struggle took place in Maviddapuram.  The Beijing groups dominated May Day in Jaffna until the rise of Tamil militancy. In the University of Jaffna both in the faculty and among students the pro-Beijing groups exercised a fair amount of influence. This lasted until the end of the 1970s. Thereafter the Colombo based left lost its support in Jaffna. Every split in Colombo had its ramifications in Jaffna. The remnants of the Trotskyite and the pro-Beijing Communist groups practically became “one man parties” as they were called in Jaffna.

In 1983 the parties that had branches in Jaffna were the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, Communist Party, Nava Sama Samaja Party, Ceylon Mercantile Union, Communist Party (Beijing), Communist Party (Shanmugathasan Wing), Revolutionary Communist League and the short lived Revolutionary Marxist Party. There were other factions in Colombo that had a small following in Jaffna. Most parties ran small offices, had a district secretary and followed the political line laid down in Colombo. The funding obviously came from Colombo or abroad. In the post-1964 period the support for the left both in electoral terms and in trade union following gradually diminished in Jaffna and the other Tamil districts. But a left tradition persisted without taking organizational forms. This tradition continued right into the 1980s and an attempt is made below to place this tradition in perspective.

Karalasingam - Problems of Method and Leadership

The classic position of the Left on the national question was eloquently put forward by V. Karalasingham in his “The Way Out for the Tamil Speaking People” originally published in the Young Socialist in 1962 and later published as a book in 1963. Written in English a Tamil translation was released soon after, but had little impact on Tamil youth and their politics. This in spite of the fact that Karalasingam polled a sizeable vote in the KKS electorate in the March 1960 election receiving 5042 votes against the formidable  Chelvanayakam's 13545. Apparently part of the support he received came from the aging English speaking class carried away by his eloquent English oratory. He was probably the only candidate island-wide who addressed all his meetings in English (1960 and 1970), and yet drew enthusiastic crowds at a time when the language issue occupied center stage evoking intense emotions and tension. A second edition was issued in 1978 with a postscript and a foreword by another noted left leader from the north V.Satchithanandan.

In the post-1956 period the Federal party dominated Tamil politics, having won a major victory in the 1960 March and July elections which were to be later improved upon only by the Tamil United Liberation Front in 1977. In spite of the massive electoral victories and the mandate given by the Tamil people neither the FP nor the TULF were able to find a solution to the problems faced by the Tamils. Karalasingham’s pungent criticism of the FP is as much applicable to the FP in 1963, the TULF in 1977 and Tamil political movements and leadership in the present impasse. In the chapter titled “Why have they Failed” Karalasingham comments that:

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.

We have come against 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 cooperation 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. How is one to explain the yawning gulf between the strivings of the people and the virtually hopeless impasse in which they find themselves?

The fundamental flaw in the political strategy of the Federal Party is their conception that the fight for the rights of the Tamil-speaking people is the responsibility solely of the Tamil speaking people themselves and that it is only the Tamils who can wage this fight and that they must do this as Tamils. Therefore it is necessary for the Tamils to build their own exclusive organizations to lead the Tamil people in their fight." (Karalasingam 1978)

What Karalaingham said of the FP then has a telling contemporary relevance. “It is high time that the Tamil speaking people paid attention to the problems of method and leadership of their struggle as these are fast becoming the key questions.” He stressed the need for a correct policy to fight the government and added “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.”  Karalasingham's critique of Tamil political leadership from TC to FP to TULF has proved to be prophetic. Not only have they led the Tamil people into the present predicament, but created the conditions that destroyed them leaving it to
another generation to help the Tamil speaking people to burn themselves out.

In his introduction to Karalasingham’s 1978 edition V.Satchithanandan said,

He is republishing these chapters without any alteration or amendment; the readers will observe that they have stood the test of time ... not so with the writings of communal leaders ... to illustrate this point, one has only to read the booklet ‘Minorities and Constitutional Reforms by Mr.G.G.Ponnambalam in 1939 ... But another booklet ‘Communalism or Nationalism’ Published by the Jaffna Youth Congress in reply to this booklet - also in 1939 - has become a document for all time ... After 50 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?’ (Satchithananthan 1978)

Shanmugathasan - Stop Internecine Warfare

Karalasingham and Satchithanandan did not live to see the bitter and prolonged struggle the Tamil armed organizations have been involved in through the 1980s to the present time. But others did. N.Shanmugathasan who died in 1993 has placed on record his views, which provide a remarkable analysis from the left standpoint of the failure of the Tamil political 1eadership. Whi1e Karalasingham was a Trotskyite and a leading member of the LSSP, Shanmugathasan was well known and widely respected as a staunch Marxist-Leninist who led the split from the pro-Moscow Communist Party. Commenting on the future of Tamil politics after the holocaust of 1983 he wrote:                 

I cannot close this story without a comment on the future of the so-called terrorist movement in the North. The Marxist-Leninist attitude to individual terrorism is quite clear. We do not support it because it is based fundamentally on romantic and petit bourgeois ideology, which is characterized by a lack of faith in the masses. It places its main reliance on a brand of swashbuckling ‘Three Musketeers’ type of bravado, which is expected to perform miraculous exploits against terrific odds. It advocates actions which can be carried out by a few individuals without the need for popular support and which can cause enemy losses without securing the support of the proletarian masses.

Where do they go from here? Not only must they not engage in activities that would alienate them from the people, but they must quickly convert them into a people’s movement of resistance. They must never make it a closed-door organization, with excessive secrecy. They must base themselves in the people … It is important that the different militant youth groups that are flourishing in the north and east must stop their internecine warfare and unite against the common enemy ... Fascism would have crept upon us even before we know it unless the working class and the progressive forces read the symptoms aright and take counter-action. On the unity of the revolutionary forces of the North and South depends the future of Sri Lanka.” (Shanmugathasan 1984)

While being strong opponents of Sinhala chauvinism/nationalism both Karalasingham and Shanmugathasan represented a consistent position taken by the left movement in the Tamil north to condemn and correct Tamil nationalist/chauvinist tendencies from whichever quarter it came. One notable instance was when Sanmugathasan dismissed Satchi Ponnambalam's book “Sri Lanka, The National Question and the Tamil Liberation Struggle” (one of the earlier works 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 misrepresentation of the history of the Sinhalese people and accused Ponnambalam of denigrating their ancient civilization. “It is true,” he wrote “the Tamils have suffered violence and the regional autonomy demand has arisen as a result of these events. Why can’t we put this argument straight without embellishments, myths and fantasies” (Shanmugathasan 1983)

It has been pointed out that Shanmugathasan in later years observed a progressive content in the Tamil militant movements. There is no doubt a left element or tendency in the militant movements and this remains an issue that has got to be addressed. This has been overshadowed by the strident nationalist postures Tamil militancy has taken and the complexities and contradictions that have surfaced in the contemporary struggle. It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss these issues at this juncture.

Electoral Support and the KKS Bye-election

Other prominent personalities who occupied positions of leadership or were candidates at parliamentary elections from 1947 to 1965 included P.Nagalingam, R.R.Dharmaratnam, A. Visuvanathan  (LSSP) and P.Kandiah, A.Vaidialingan, V.Ponnambalam (CP) M.Karthigesan (CP and later CP-Beijing), and N.Vaikunthavasagan (editor of the Peoples Voice). These men were actively engaged in politics. They were mostly lawyers or teachers. Numerous other party members were teachers (including university academics), lawyers, doctors, journalists, writers and trade unionists. People like Vaikunthavasagan and K.C.Nithiyananda were involved in the 1946 strike but later became disillusioned with the mainstream left parties. They retained a keen interest in politics bordering on support for Tamil Eelam. Tharmakulasingam's premature death in the 1940s deprived the LSSP of a rising star in the Vadamaratchy area.

Constituency wise consistently strong following was demonstrated at successive elections from 1947 to 1960 (March & July) in the Kankesanturai, Pt.Pedro, Uduvil and Vaddukoddai electorates. In these electorates, especially at the 1956 and the 1960 March & July elections the FP candidates had to fight hard to win their seats. The polling figures do not do justice to the intense campaigning and heated debates that took place in these electorates. Significantly the left polled a sizeable vote against FP leader Chelvanayakam in KKS. In 1956 V. Ponnambalam (CP) polled 4313 votes, 1960 March V.Karalasingam polled 5042, and in 1970 V.Ponnambalam polled 8164.

Following the adoption of the 1972 Constitution Chelvanayakam resigned his seat and demanded the holding of a bye-election. Mrs. Bandaranaike deliberately delayed the holding of this election until February 1975. By this time the United Front Government had established the University of Jaffna (1974) and prominent left sympathiser Kailasapathy had been appointed President of the Jaffna Campus. Other well-known left sympathisers like Sivathamby had moved to Jaffna to assume senior positions in the Faculty of Arts. This was the brief period when the Jaffna campus was projected as a national campus and a fair number of Sinhalese students and faculty members were moved to Jaffna. The Federal Party did not approve of the manner in which the Jaffna Campus was established. The small but influential Tamil Protestant Christian community was alienated when the prestigious Jaffna College premises including its valuable library were taken over by the state to establish the University of Jaffna. It was also the period when due to the so-called standardisation issue in admissions to the Medical, Engineering and Science faculties student unrest had begun to take shape in Jaffna. Bitterness and anger against the United Front Government had been heightened by the death of nine persons - a result of the rampage created allegedly by the police - on the final day of the sessions of the International Association for Tamil Research. In addition several Tamil youth associated with the Elaignar Peravai (Youth-wing) of the Federal Party having protested standardisation and the 1972 constitution languished in jail without trial under emergency regulations. These included now well-known names such as Mavai Senathirajah of the TULF (presently MP), Varatharajah Perumal later of the EPRLF and one time chief minister of the NE Provincial Council and Kasi Anandan later elected TULF MP for Batticaloa in 1977.

It was in this tension packed atmosphere that the KKS bye-election was finally held in February 1975. Chelvanayakam contested rejecting the 1972 constitution and sought a mandate for Tamil Eelam. The election turned out to be a straight contest with V.Ponnambalam of the CP backed by the SLFP and the LSSP. It was a much observed and bitterly fought election. Chelvanayakam won with a majority of 16470 having polled 25927. But V.Ponnambalam polled a substantial 9457. This was the third highest polled by the left in and after 1947 in the Jaffna district. The highest ever was polled by P. Kandiah of the CP (14381) when he won the Pt. Pedro seat in 1956, and the second highest by A.Vaidialingam of the CP also in 1956 (10,850) in the Vaddukoddai constituency where he lost to Amirthalingam. The latter was an outstanding member of the Federal Party. He later succeeded Chelvanayakam as leader of the TULF. Contesting the Vaddukoddai seat at successive parliamentary elections he had to fight hard to win his seat often in a triangular contest against the Tamil Congress or independent candidates and the left. In 1956 the contest for the Vaddukoddai seat was a straight fight between Amirthalingam (14,937) and Vaidialingam (10,850) of the CP. Chelvanayakam's victory however was never in doubt but the number of votes polled by his opponents is significant given his stature in the party and among the Tamil people.

It was a remarkable turn out in favour of V.Ponnambalam and the left in spite of the growing bitterness against Mrs. Bandaranaike and the coalition that she led. But this very fight put up against Chelvanayakam and his program had a sequel worth noting. A year later Ponnambalam quit the Communist Party and with him went the last bastion of the left movement in the north. He expressed his regret for having contested the 1975 election against the venerated Chelvanayakam and he signed the nomination papers of Amirthalingam when he contested the KKS seat in 1977 after the death of Chelvanayakam. Ponnambalam placed on record the reasons why he quit in a book in Tamil titled "Senthamilar Ahuvom." He had founded the short-lived Senthamilar Iyakkam (Red Tamils Movement) arguing in favour of the right to self-determination of the Tamil people. He revealed how 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 had given him the assurance that 48 hours before the poll the Kankesanturai 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- Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957. At the last minute the SLFP high command went back on this promise and the CP leadership succumbed to this betrayal.

This particular experience destroyed whatever credibility the traditional left had in the north. The army of young volunteers, in particular, who did the canvassing for Ponnambalam felt doubly let down, by the local leadership and the Colombo based leadership. They had seen the document, in fact carried it in their pockets, and worked for the coalition candidate with dedication and enthusiasm. The 1972 Constitution and its consequences, the disruption of the IATR conference mentioned above and the betrayal of 1975 put together marked a major turning point in the history of the Tamil north.   

The left leadership in Jaffna thereafter was deeply disillusioned. Several remained in their respective parties out of loyalty to their old comrades and having no faith in the growing Tamil nationalist forces. Attempts were made to regroup when V. Ponnambalam having quit the Communist Party had organized the above mentioned Senthamilar Iyakkam. The inaugural meeting in 1977 held in Nallur was attended by a few hundred, mostly former members and sympathisers of the several left parties. The meeting was addressed among others by Amirthalingam, Sivasithambaram and Mavai Senathirajah who were identified as belonging to a potential left wing within the TULF. The Senthamilar Iyakkam pledged itself to maintain fraternal relations with the CP, LSSP and other Colombo based left parties. It was also resolved to maintain close relations with the Soviet Union, China and the East European socialist states and the worldwide parties of the left, V.Ponnambalam having had a variety of close contacts all along. When the movement sought membership within the TULF, the application was defeated by one vote within the politburo of the Front, which was dominated by what was then categorised as the conservative right wing. The TULF was meant to be a front and not a monolithic party. It failed to broaden its base. This was one among several factors that led to its decline.

In Defense of Human and Democratic Rights

In the late 1970s and 80s when the left movement declined both in the north and south the remaining members of the left became active in the human rights movements in the north. When the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality was founded in 1979 practically all the remnants of the left parties supported it. In Jaffna several, if not all, the left groups were able to work together on a common minimum program (unlike in the Colombo dominated south where they were deeply divided). MIRJE Jaffna while primarily involved in human rights work provided a common platform on which appeared members of the left parties, TULF and its breakaway Tamil Eelam Liberation Front and prominent citizens in Jaffna. It hosted visits by various groups from the south, which included left sympathisers, journalists, the Student Christian Movement, the Christian Workers’ Fellowship, and the Devasaranaramaya, the All Ceylon Peasants Congress, Buddhist Monks and others. Several mass protests in the form of meetings and Satyagraha sit-ins were organised by MIRJE, initially by itself and subsequently jointly with a coalition of organizations both religious and secular groups. The most politicised of these was the General Union of Eelam Students, which was affiliated to the Eelam Peoples’ Revolutionary Liberation Front. GUES continued the tradition established by the left in observing May Day. In fairness to the EPRLF it must be admitted that while involved in armed struggle that demanded utmost secrecy, it alone among Tamil armed organisations had a student wing that functioned openly and among the people. EROS for a while had some activists who organized an occasional meeting or seminar but did not have the following or the public profile that GUES had.

Most of the human rights work though not all was done by one time left party members or sympathisers. The late Dr.S.A.Tharmalingam was a founding member of the FP and the later TULF. He subsequently broke away with K. Eelaventhan and Kovai Mahesan (editor Suthanthiran) in forming the Tamil Eelam Liberation Front. (3) Politically he was not associated with the left. Yet he made his house available for MIRJE committee meetings. He once commented that in his thirty years in politics within the highest decision making bodies of the above two parties, he had never witnessed the commitment, dedication and organizational expertise that he now saw within MIRJE and the left-oriented groups that worked together within the framework of democratic struggles. That kind of commitment and organisational ability without indulging in populist rhetoric was a legacy from the more responsible and democratic forces of the left. One must admit that subsequently the Tamil Armed Organizations moved to the other extreme from populist rhetoric to well-organized, disciplined and trained cadres with a degree of commitment and a capacity for sacrifice unprecedented in our history, whatever their failures in method and leadership.

Noteworthy among the mass meetings and Satyagraha were the first ever human rights day commemorated in Jaffna on 9 December 1979. Satyagraha took place in the vicinity of the Nallur Temple, the Catholic Cathedral, and the Jaffna Mosque and in the Jaffna University Campus protesting Emergency 79. About 70 delegates representing several left groups in the south together with members of Colombo MIRJE participated. In 1981 in the aftermath of the destruction of the Jaffna Public Library and three consecutive nights of arson in Jaffna MIRJE took the lead in documenting and protesting what happened. It was MIRJE members who visited every site of destruction and documented what had happened. The final document was drafted by Fr. Paul Casperzs and Regi Siriwardene and published under the title "Jaffna - Days of Terror." It was on the initiative of Bishop Deogupillai and MIRJE Jaffna that the first Jaffna Citizens Committee came into existence in the Bishop’s House. This was composed of about 25 professionals and well known citizens. The whole group registered a strong protest with the commanding officer of the Sri Lankan Army and the ministers and officials present at the GA's residence in the Kachcheri premises. The demand made was that police be confined to barracks and that the army patrol the streets (the army was not yet involved in violence and pogrom type incidents at that juncture). The members of the Citizens Committee jointly with the army patrolled the four main roads in the peninsula for five consecutive nights until normalcy was restored. (4)

The concerns of the above groups were not confined exclusively to the national question though this occupied centre stage. Support was given to those concerned with the struggles of the oppressed castes and landless labourers in Jaffna’s semi-feudal society. Among these were the activities of Rural Labourers’ Union, and the Non-Violent Action Group. MIRJE members got involved seeking redress for the caste based landless labourers who had gone on strike in Sirupiddy in 1982. Support was also given to protests organised by NSSP District Secretary A.K.Annamalai condemning acts of arson and violence against oppressed caste workers in Punnalaikadduwan.

 Sympathy and Solidarity

The destruction of the public library, created a great deal of sympathy for the Tamil cause. The 1981 acts of violence more than any other events at this moment in history internationalised the predicament of the Tamils and the violations of their human rights. It was not possible for the state or the Colombo based mainstream media to any longer suppress the truth. Delegation after delegation from a broad spectrum of concerned citizens and groups from Colombo and the rest of the country visited Jaffna to gain first hand information and to express their solidarity with the people of Jaffna. It however took six weeks for the first foreign journalist to arrive. Thereafter came a stream of foreign journalists, academics, human rights groups and peace activists. Invariably most visitors called on the Citizens’ Committee and members of MIRJE Jaffna, in addition to prominent members of the TULF including R.Viswanathan the dynamic and outspoken Mayor of Jaffna and the Leader of the Opposition Mr. Amirthalingam.

The first to arrive was a distinguished group of church leaders. Led by Lakshman Wickremasinghe, Bishop of Kurunegala, the group included Roman Catholic Bishop Leo Nanayakkara, Methodist Conference President Rev. Soma Perera, Fr. Tissa Balasuriya of the Centre for Religion and Society and Fr. Paul Caspersz of Satyodaya and President of MIRJE.  Politically left of centre these leaders understood the fundamental grievances of the Tamil people, though they did not necessarily agree with the solutions put forward by the Tamil political parties. They had more in common with the left movement (not necessarily with the left political parties per se) and did have a history of standing up in defense of the economic, social and political rights of the working class and exploited peoples of the whole country. Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe never failed to visit Jaffna every year. His address at the funeral of S.J.V.Chelvanayakam in Jaffna in 1977 in the presence of the largest gathering ever in contemporary times evoked immediate response and won for him the unrivalled affection and respect of the Tamil people given to a leader from the south. Sick and under-going treatment in the U.K. he returned to the country soon after the 1983 holocaust. Deeply agitated and in failing health he persisted in visiting the refugee camps in the north and east and witnessed first hand the irretrievable damage that had been done to his ideal of a united Lanka. Broken-hearted his pre-mature death was without doubt expedited by the pain and suffering he had seen. To the end he had remained a consistent friend of the Tamils.

Representatives of every left party in the south visited Jaffna in this period including Lionel Bopage from the JVP. The SLFP, rather late, nevertheless sent S.D.Bandaranaike and Vijaya Kumaratunge. Both were received initially by representatives of the Citizens’ Committee. This was probably Kumaratunge’s first exposure in Jaffna to the escalating crisis in the context of the national question. He was to play a notable role in relation to this in later years, which also led to his assassination. The only party that was not welcome in Jaffna at this time was the ruling UNP, which to this date has neither made an apology nor done any self-criticism in relation to the massive acts of violence committed in their years in power. 

The only major public meeting organised in Jaffna to protest the above days of terror was organized by MIRJE jointly with the Organization for Justice to the Strikers in October 1981. Participants included a Buddhist monk whose speech drew the biggest applause in the fully packed Veerasingam Hall when he unreservedly condemned the incidents in Jaffna. Among others present were Fr. Paul Casperzs, Regi Siriwardene, Rev.Yohan Devananda and several representatives from the left parties from the South. Mr. Amirthalingam made the major speech. It was a remarkable joint protest.

The Final Stage

Other major protests included the huge Satyagraha that took place on 27 November 1982. It was organised to protest the detention and solitary confinement of Nirmala. Nithiyanandan, Fr. Singarayar, Fr. Sinnarasa, Dr. Jeyakularajah and Rev. Jeyathilakarajah. The efforts made by MIRJE to have a joint protest failed. TULF and GUES refused to participate together, GUES having made the first move to organise protest. MIRJE representatives participated with both groups. These were early signs that sectarianism was gaining dominance and efforts made by the human rights groups in Jaffna were weakening.

While coming together off and on to protest the escalating violence against the Tamils, the several left oriented groups in Jaffna were not able to form a common political front. While standing together solidly in Jaffna, ideological quibbling, lack of trust and inability to work together in Colombo and the south prevented continuing joint action in Jaffna. Nor was the TULF willing to go beyond a certain point in joint action. Mr. Amirthalingam placed the TULF's position in clear perspective at the above Veerasingam Hall meeting. He first thanked Fr. Paul, Regi Siriwardene, Yohan Devananda and others who had come from the south and for demonstrating solidarity with the Tamil people. Having said that (speaking in Tamil) he quoted a well known Tamil proverb “Aluthalum pillai avale peravendum” which in English has been translated to read “Though she weeps a mother must give birth to her own child.” (Jensen 1982)  In saying this he conveyed the often-repeated message that “the struggle is ultimately ours and it is only we as Tamils who can win our liberation." This excluvist approach once again illustrated the "fundamental flaw in the political strategy” of the Tamils that Karalasingam pointed out. This attitude still persists, though amongst a younger generation, and has been one among other major factors responsible for the prolonged nature of the conflict with no end in sight in this country. But the failure, it must be emphasised, has not been on the Tamil side alone. 

The minimum program for the left in Jaffna in the 1980s was to defend the democratic and human rights of the Tamil people. At this juncture armed struggle attracted and absorbed politicised youth. Some of the political organizations involved in the armed struggle for a period claimed to be left-oriented. Nevertheless the left tradition persists and is evident in the writings and activism of a younger generation locally and abroad. Whether this will take organisational forms is yet to be seen. The fact that there are young people seeking alternatives is a sign of hope.

The last attempt made by a local branch to contest an election was when the CP put up A.Vaidialingam, a veteran member of the party as the mayoral candidate for the 1980 Jaffna Municipal Council election. Without a campaign of any sorts or even one meeting he polled a significant and solid 1000 votes. Mr.Poopalasingam was a well-known left sympathiser in Jaffna. Having started as a small time newspaper agent he eventually provided left and progressive literature from both Colombo and South India, and provided the Jaffna public with a newsstand where every left or pro-left publication published in the south was made available, including Sinhalese language newspapers. Out of loyalty to an old but dying tradition he led one solitary token demonstration, by a small group of supporters through the streets of Jaffna in support of Vaidialingam. It may be noted that Poopalasingam's three book shops and newsstands were repeatedly burnt down allegedly by sections of the police force in their barbaric attacks indulging in extensive acts of arson against the Jaffna market, and adjoining shops and houses in 1977, 1981 and 1983.

Jaffna gave one of the highest ‘no vote’ to the 1982 referendum. This was in spite of a lukewarm campaign carried out by the TULF, and a call to boycott the referendum by the NSSP. It came to be known that the TULF was not intending to use TV and Radio time allocated them. When Mr. Amirthalingam was approached with a request that they use the time in all three languages he confessed that they did not have the funds to do so - at that time Rs.15, 000 for 15 minutes. He expressed the view that if it were a parliamentary general election he could raise a lakh or two in a couple of days in the grand bazaar but not for a referendum. "The Jaffna businessmen" he said “preferred a UNP government in power but they wanted us in parliament." The left groups primarily through MIRJE organised a campaign, which included several meetings and issued a statement signed by 40 trade unions and other organizations and included several prominent senior citizens calling for a no vote. Jaffna University teachers constituted the single largest group (for any campus) of signatories constituting over thirty per cent, in a joint statement issued and published in one of the Colombo dailies calling for a ‘no vote’ by university teachers island wide.

MIRJE ceased activities in Jaffna in 1987. Prominent members of the original Citizen's Committee of 1981 moved to other parts of the country and abroad. In a growing political scenario of violence and counter-violence by several players including the state, there was no space for traditional left oriented civic organisations. Mainstream left activism that prevailed for five to six decades from the 1930s came to an end.

This narrative does not go beyond the early 1980s and is primarily concerned with the mid-decades of this century. It is not attempted here to go into the radical, rapid and complex changes that have taken place among the Tamils, especially Tamil youth, in this country in the last two decades. As admitted at the very beginning this narrative is in many ways limited. No attempt is made to place in perspective or to critically evaluate a continuation of a left tradition within the movements engaged in prolonged armed struggle. That task necessarily has to be accomplished by members of the younger generation who have been through it all.

This paper is essentially an attempt to place on record a vital period in Tamil politics and in doing so remains a tribute to those, including members of an older generation, who from a left standpoint established a tradition that respects human and democratic rights. Some paid the supreme price with their own lives. These were people who stood for an egalitarian society free from discrimination and oppression, and for a Lanka in which the Tamils together with the Sinhalese, Muslims and members of all communities shall live with dignity, self-respect and security, assured of their political, economic, social and cultural rights.


The above paper has been re-written incorporating comments and answers to questions raised at the symposium. Hence the transcript of the discussion is not included here. The discussion both constructive and encouraging was immensely helpful, especially the critical comments that came from participants who had lived in Jaffna and had been knowledgeable observers and participants in the evolving struggles there in the 1960s, 70s and the early 80s. Thanks are due to those who contributed to the discussion which include the chairperson Dr Carlo Fonseka, discussant Sumanasiri Liyanage, Jayadeva Uyangoda, Kethis Loganathan, Rajan Philips, Lakshman Gunasekere, Kumar David, Tissa Vitharna, N.Kandasamy, Siva Subramaniam, Sumathi Rajasingam and Sivagurunathan.


(1) The writer was among the returnees from war-torn Malaysia (then the Federated States of Malaya) in 1946, without any knowledge or exposure to the caste system that prevailed in Jaffna. When the 1947 election came around the red flag was prominently displayed on the streets, on vehicles and at meetings etc. When he attempted to find out what these people stood for the answer given was that these were political parties that demanded that the members of certain castes be given the right to draw water from public wells. It was a shockingly whole new world for the returnee.


(2) Orator Subramaniam outlived all his contemporaries and was honoured by the alumni of his school in London and Toronto. When he passed away in 1996 V.Ponnambalam much against the advice of members of the family and doctors insisted on paying his tribute, to a leader who stood by him all along, at the largely attended memorial meeting in Toronto. He collapsed and died on the platform soon after his speech.

(3) The J.R.Jayewardene government did not spare Dr.Tharmalingam in spite of his age. In 1984 he together with Kovai Mahesan (editor of the Suthanthiran) were placed under detention in the Colombo prisons under the Prevention of Terrorism Act..

(4) The formation of the Jaffna Citizens’ Committee has not been documented. It became the model for several citizens’ committees in the towns of the Northeast thereafter. It came into existence on the first of June 1981. Jaffna MIRJE office-bearers S.Pararajasingam (secretary) S.B.Arumainayagam (treasurer and later president) and Silan Kadirgamar (president) had visited every major site including shops and houses set on fire on 31st May and had drafted a report to be published in the Eelanadu and also despatched to Colombo. It never got published or despatched with a total breakdown in communications as the violence escalated turning Jaffna city into a ghost town where fear reigned supreme. On the night of June first the arson continued with the destruction of more houses including the residence of and attempt on the life of V.Yogeswaran M.P.for Jaffna, the Eelanadu Press, three bookshops owned by Poobalasingam, the huge Jaffna market and numerous other buildings the most noteworthy being that of the Jaffna Public Library with its 95,000 volumes. Jaffna gave the appearance of a bombed out city, though actual bombing was to take place years later. The event sent shock-waves to the Jaffna community. The Roman Catholic priests deeply agitated and seeking action of some sort, had gathered in large numbers at Bishops house. It was in this tension packed atmosphere that two of the above MIRJE members called on the courageous and committed Bishop Deogupillai. He was getting ready to personally call on the Commanding Officer of the Armed Forces in Jaffna Colonel Weeratunge. The Bishop agreed to the suggestion made by the MIRJE members that he take with him some well-known citizens. Several who had telephones and had their own vehicles arrived within 20 minutes of being called. After preliminary discussions the group drove in convoy to the GA’s residence in the Old Park, opposite the Jaffna Kachcheri where the Army Commander resided. Some UNP government ministers who had come to Jaffna to campaign for the UNP at the District Council elections were also present.  Bishop Deogupillai and Silan Kadirgamar were appointed spokespersons on behalf of the delegation. Having registered their protests in the strongest terms possible these persons returned to Bishops House and constituted themselves as the Jaffna Citizens’ Committee. It was proposed that president of Jaffna MIRJE be also president of the Citizens’ Committee. This was declined because it would have inhibited the broader concerns of MIRJE at that time. Hence Prof. Luther Jeyasingam of the Jaffna University was elected president. They met everyday for weeks and thereafter once a week to monitor the situation. The role of the Citizens’ Committee was clearly defined as that of helping to contain the situation when violence by the security forces got out of hand. This was to be done by remaining in constant communication with the GA, the police and the armed forces and documenting such incidents where necessary and sending them to higher authorities in Colombo. Given the deteriorating situation this was a delicate task. The understanding among the members was that this should be done without taking partisan political positions such as adopting the political program of any political party or group. At the same time it was to be done without diluting the struggle of the Tamil people in the pursuit of their legitimate political, social and economic rights. The primary task was to prevent indiscriminate violence, defuse the situation and restore normalcy, while defending the democratic and human rights of the citizens of Jaffna.


Chattopadhyaya Kamaladevi Srimathi. 1931. Presidential Address. The Students’ Congress, Jaffna, Seventh Annual Sessions. The Saiva Prakasa Press. Jaffna.

de Silva G.P.S.H. 1979. A Statistical Survey of Elections to the Legislatures of Sri Lanka 1911-1977,  Marga Institute, Colombo.

Jensen, Rev.Hermen 1982. A Classified Collection of Tamil Proverbs. Asian Educational Services, Madras. (Reprint London, 1897)

Kadirgamar, Santasilan 1980. The Jaffna Youth Congress. In Handy Perinbanayagam - A Memorial Volume, Thirumakal Press, Chunnakam, Sri Lanka.

Karalasingham.V. 1978. The Way Out for the Tamil-Speaking People, International Publishers, Colombo.

Shanmugathasan.N. 1983. Tamil Communalism Gone Mad, in Sri Lanka News, 15 December 1983.

Shanmugathasan.N. 1984.  Sri Lanka: The Story of the Holocaust, in Sri Lanka: Racism and the Authoritarian State, Race & Class, Vol. XXVI, Summer 1984, No.1.

Satchithananthan.V. 1978. Introduction. In The Way Out for the Tamil-Speaking People, Karalasingham.V. 1978. International Publishers, Colombo.

Sivathamby.K 1999. Fifty Years of Sri Lankan Tamil Literature. Web pages of Tamil Electronic Library. K.Kalyanasundaram

This above paper was published in:

Proceedings of the Hector Abhayavardhana Felicitation Symposium

Edited by Rajan Philips

Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue & Social Scientist’s Association, Colombo 2001
Symposium was held 27 and 28 December 1999, at the Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue, 490/5, HavelockRoad, Colombo 6, Sri Lanka.

(2) Sunday Observer carried the first draft beginning 16 January 2000 to 20 February in six instalments.
Thanks to Ajit Samaranayake who was editor at that time.

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