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Amirthalingam in retrospect

Sunday essay by Ajith Samaranayake

Now that justifiably generous tributes have been paid to former TULF and Opposition Leader Appapillai Amirthalingam on his 75th birth anniversary (including one by this writer) it would only be correct to seek to look at him from the perspective of the present.

For the tributes during the last two weeks essentially focused on the course of his evolution as the principal Tamil leader of his times, tracing the trajectory of his life from the time that he was a supporter of the pacifist Chelvanayakam and an exponent of Federalism to his final apotheosis as Chelvanayakam's successor as TULF leader at a time when pacifist politics had been supplanted by an armed youth movement campaigning for a separate Tamil state. In that capacity then what could Amirthalingam have accomplished to change the tragic course of Tamil politics and indeed national politics for if each passing day makes one thing clear it is that Sri Lanka's whole destiny is bound up with the resolution of the Tamil National Question of which Amirthalingam's generation was the representative emblem and tragic victim.

Did Amirthalingam get a chance as the Leader of the Opposition? There is no doubt that the decimation of the SLFP at the 1977 General Election which for the first time in Sri Lanka's politics brought a minority national party to the helm of the Opposition came as a shock not least to the TULF itself. There were long deliberations within its inner councils about whether to take up the position at all as a party pledged to agitate for a separate state but it was finally decided that this opportunity to use Parliament as a platform to advance its case should not be missed. It was a measure of Amirathalingam's humility that his first task as Opposition Leader should have been to visit Dr. N.M. Perera (who had lost his Yatiyantota seat) and seek the advice of this first Leader of the Opposition on how he himself should conduct himself in this office.

But from the very beginning Amirathalingam was dogged by misfortune. A clash between some Army personnel and a faction of Tamils in Jaffna soon after the installation of the J.R. Jayewardene Government in July 1977 led to fairly widespread riots in Colombo, Kandy and other key cities. While the newly-installed Government suspected a hidden hand the TULF was caught in a contradiction. It was appalled and angered by these attacks on the Tamil community but when its leaders spoke in Parliament they were accused of inciting the Tamil people further. An ugly situation had developed and the TULF's incumbency of the Opposition had begun under unpropitious circumstances.

The situation was compounded by a personal dilemma for Amirthalingam. He had after all been the most radical of the Federal Party and TULF leaders, the fiery orator and crowd-puller of the Tamil platform, the idol of the young and here he was called upon to play the role of the staid and proper Leader of the Opposition and keep his own radical ranks in check. This was a contradiction at the heart of his character which Amirthalingam was to struggle with up to the end, a kind of tragic flaw of epic proportions which has haunted other leaders in other times and epochs.

From then on the UNP Government and the TULF seemed to get caught in a kind of tragic cosmic dance, a death embrace which was to drag the country to the abyss in which we find ourselves today. It was Karl Marx who said that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce and this is borne out if we look backwards to the 1977-83 period and bring our gaze back to the present. The UNP had promised to resolve the Tamil problem through a Roundtable Conference having identified specific Tamil grievances such as language, land alienation, educational opportunities etc: but in the aftermath of the 1977 riots, the TULF's ascendancy and the development of the youth movement the Government under pressure from its own hardliners such as Industries Minister and arch TULF baiter Cyril Mathew went in for strong retaliatory measures. Gen. Tissa Weeratunga was sent to Jaffna with orders to put the terrorists to rout but far from being defeated the nascent armed movement developed a multiplicity of heads until movements grouped under a variety of acronyms were confronting the State. With the rise of militant violence the parliamentary TULF leadership was increasingly driven to tactics of defence.

They could not let down the youth whom they saw as being their own children but neither could they justify their violence. I recall once Amirthalingam and Murugesu Sivasithamparam seemingly resolving this contradiction by comparing the LTTE and the other groups to a figure from the Indian freedom struggle Bhagat Singh who in his own time had been called a terrorist but who had supposedly been praised by Mahatma Gandhi for his courage.

First as tragedy then as farce. Today 25 wasteful years later the hawks and the war-mongers are still at its opposing the deproscription of the LTTE and asking for its head even as in an ironic reversal of roles. A UNP-led Government is preparing to negotiate with the LTTE conditions of normalcy which have never been achieved before during any ceasefire.

The rest is the stuff of our recent history, our collective death-wish. The District Development Councils (crafted by Prof. A.J. Wilson and Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam) was too little too late and anyway marred by another attack on Jaffna when the LTTE killed a UNP candidate. Things swiftly deteriorated until islandwide attacks against the Tamils broke out in July 1983 when the LTTE ambushed and killed 13 soldiers at Nilaveli and Amirthalngam and his fellow MPs were driven out of Parliament and into exile in Tamil Nadu when they refused to take and oath eschewing separatism.

This was perhaps Amirthalingam's finest hour. In exile he was recognised even more as the principal moderate Tamil leader. The Tamil Nadu State Government opened the doors of its guest house to him in Madras and he was sought after by both the South Block and the Indian Prime Minister's Office as India under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's leadership sought to evolve a solution short of separation.

However inherent in this scenario were the seeds of disaster too and the genesis of Amirthalingam's final fate at the hands of the LTTE. Mrs. Gandhi and her special envoy the veteran diplomat Gopalaswami Parthasarathy, who become the favourite bogeyman of the Sri Lanka Government and the mainstream press could share the moderate democratic aspirations of the TULF leadership but the armed groups were becoming increasingly suspicious of both the Indian Establishment as well as the TULF leadership. The last straw was the Indo-Lanka agreement and the arrival of the IPKF which proceeded to disarm the LTTE.

The LTTE saw this as the final betrayal by India (which had once funded and trained the armed groups) to rob them of the fruits of their struggle and bring back the old guard moderate leadership into a North-East administration.

My last meeting with him caught the paradox of the man, his politics and the situation. It was September 1987 and the IPKF had arrived in Jaffna. I met Amirthalingam at the Tamil Nadu State Government guest house opposite the Chepauk Cricket stadium and still remember the incongruous spectacle of a policeman on duty at the entrance to his apartment except that the policeman was fast asleep clutching his old-fashioned rifle. The situation was incongruous in other ways too. Although the IPKF had come the LTTE was refusing to surrender its weapons and Prabhakaran had done a fine tightrope walk in his famous Sudumalai speech.

Soon the LTTE and the IPKF were to clash openly and on my return to Colombo, I remember colleague D.B.S. Jeyaraj bringing horrenous news of the IPKF carnage. But here was Amirthalingam, the heir of the pacifist Chelvanayakam trapped in a Madras apartment waiting for news from Jaffna. He was also trapped between two worlds, the world of his own youthful moderate politics and the world of young Tamil militancy which incongruously enough Sinhala nationalists had fathered on him and blamed him for. Amirthalingam wanted to come home but was uncertain of the reception awaiting him. He could come if the IPKF's writ prevailed but at what cost to the pride of the Tamil people who had looked upon India as a saviour but now saw Indian gun barrels staring at them?

I remember little of that interview (he had anyway said it should be off the record) except that he was a sad man surrounded by his wife and daughter and trusted lieutenant Mavi Senathirajah. Eventually he did come home as the TULF's sole National List MP but events had overtaken him. An EPRLF administration had been installed in the North-East and the IPKF was locked in a bitter war with the LTTE. Moderate Tamil politics had been eclipsed but the new militancy was still not able to replace it.

Anyway leaders like Amirthalingam, Sivasithamparam and Yogeswaran believed to the last that moderate politics could be reconciled with the just rights of the Tamil people and this perhaps was their crime in the eyes of the youth. But now that over a decade after his death his party has accepted the primacy of the LTTE eventually and if the LTTE can still emerge as a democratic force in Tamil politics after the present negotiations Amirthalingam might still be vindicated.

HNB-Pathum Udanaya2002

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