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S. Thondaman’s Birth Anniversary falls tomorrow:

Remembering Thondaman

August 30 is the day when the people of Indian origin who migrated to Sri Lanka during the British colonial times and indeed many others touched by his friendship and courtesies - will once again remember and celebrate especially in the Plantation areas in Central Sri Lanka, the birthday of their Perum-thalaivar late Saumyamurthy Thondaman. This year remembering the late Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) supremo, trade union leader and one of Sri Lanka’s most memorable politicians assumes particular significance.

In the tumultuous mid 1970s, Tamil militancy was gathering momentum and Tamils in the island showed deep anguish as their plight was not being addressed objectively by successive governments. Sirimavo Bandaranaike who had an overwhelming Sinhala mandate was the then Prime Minister. Matters certainly were going out of control. India was going through tremendous political upheaval in the post-Nehru period where some Indian states were heading towards language-based politics.


Saumyamurthy Thondaman

The Madras State was leading the way with DK and DMK breakaways searching deep into history and bringing the glories of their past of the Sangam period into focus, which was the literary zenith of Avvaiyar, Thiruvalluvar and the Kural, the moving poetical magic of Subramaniya Bharathiar with strong inclinations towards political freedom. Memories of the martial-territorial gains of the Chera-Chola-Pandyan empires made their mark. Even accepted leaders G.G. Ponnambalam and SJV Chelvanayakam were unable to contain the nationalistic and language-based political romanticsm of their own young flock deeply wounded by divisive Sinhala Only legislation.

Further, salt was rubbed into the gaping opening of the already simmering discontent through the Standardization Policy device which Tamil youth saw as part of a calculated conspiracy to drastically reduce their scholarly advance by the Government - using Bad-ud-din Mahmud as a willing tool.

It was in these highly-charged times the Vaddukottai Conference was convened (1976) under the leadership triumvirate of GG Ponnambalam (TC), S.J.V. Chelvanayakam (FP) and Thondaman(CWC). That Thondaman was clubbed into the leadership role with GGP and SJVC - in a way, in a totally different planet as the other two successful lawyers was a clear acceptance of the arrival of an altogether different form of political reality in the troubled Island.

The caste-based Jaffna leadership invited Thondaman to sit with the Jaffna duo as one of three Tamil leaders was yet another significant and positive indication that the island. Tamil leadership was ready to jettison age-old prejudices to confront the full weight of the State in the language-based struggles ahead.

It was in these heated and complex times the seeds of the deeply divisive Separate State Resolution became part of the Vaddukottai Agenda. Assymetrically placed as he was against the two established and successful Queen Counsel, Thondaman was equal or even streets ahead in State craft from the urbane SJVC and GGP. More relevantly, he, was shrewder in foreseeing the political horizon. His considered view was the greater challenge for the Tamil political leadership to map out a strategy to live even in an uneasy peace with the Sinhalese or risk incalculable confusion and calamity irrespective of the legitimacy of the campaign. He concluded the Separate State move was doomed to fail and would bring hitherto unheard of disaster to all Tamils in the country.

He let it be known the realities of his people and their priorities were substantially different from their indigenous counterparts.

He also brought home the point that his people faced a further disadvantage in being arbitrarily removed from the national electoral register and remained stateless. It was well-known that the creative geniuses of the legal instruments that was to eventually de-nationalize his people some of the more prominent were seated in the Conference with him ironically seeking his own and his party accomadation.

Thondaman argued that while the problems of the Tamils of the North-East were largely based on language, his immediate concern was the very right of his people legally remaining in the country; their status as voters, the new Citizenship laws thrust down their throats - all in clear contravention of Section 29C of the Constitution. He, therefore, made it a point to insist while he went along with all the rest of the grievances of the Tamil people. It was the considered resolve of his colleagues in the CWC that they do not subscribe to the notion of a Separate State for Tamils in this country - as matters stood then. There was anger, bewilderment and the combined strength of legal and persuasive coercion brought to prevail on Thondaman in the Conference.

There was also much pressure brought on him by leading political leaders in Madras persuading him to fall in line. Madras was clearly kept informed hour-to-hour of developments of the historic Conference. But this man of steel and political savvy held off successfully maintaining that his people would be subject to tremendous difficulties if he was to be part of the Separatist demand.

And to the angst from the other Tamil leaders present as to what he proposed to do about the plight of his people - now neither Indian nor Lankan - his answer was that he will get this done through due Parliamentary passage although other less than peaceful options were available.

That Thondaman succeeded in this 40 years later is a tribute to his political depth and extraordinary vision.

He was a keen watcher and student of inter-play between political parties and strategies. He was of the firm view that one must be extra-careful that the lives, immediate interests and future of the people involved should be carefully considered. Though widely believed to be adequately unschooled, he quoted Benjamin Disraeli “No political cause is worth its name if even the limb of a child is hurt in its quest” and he reminded Gandhi structuring his political philosophy accordingly. The absence of years of learning in the scholarly ambience of famed universities had in no way denied Thondaman from acquiring empirical knowldge - an essential component in his wide repertoire of political sagacity.

I am sure he saw this coming to reality before he left us because no longer is the Indian plantation worker or his descendents the stereotype emaciated labourer. Today the community produces doctors, surgeons, engineers, architects, professors, ministers, provincial councillors, teachers, administrators and successful entreprenauers by the score. If you ask any of them the cause of the metamorphosis there will only be one answer - Thondaman.

Thondaman was considered, like Ananda Coomaraswamy before him, another illustrious son both of Sri Lanka and India the two countries and two people he loved so dearly.

The writer is former Secretary General, Sri Lanka-India Council

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