When Sri Lanka known then as Ceylon obtained full freedom from British rule on February 4th 1948, the second largest ethnic community in the island were the Tamils of recent Indian origin and not the Sri Lankan Tamil community. The 1ast official census before Ceylon got Dominion Status and then Independence from the United Kingdom was taken in 1946.According to the 1946 census, the island nation had a total population of 6 , 637, 300 people. Of this the breakdown for the Sinhala, Sri Lankan Tamil, Sri Lankan Moor, Indian Tamil, Malay, Burgher and Indian Moor ethnicities was as follows: Sinhalese – 4,620,500(69.41%); Sri Lankan Tamils – 733,700(11.02%); Sri Lankan Muslims – 373,600 (5.61%); Indian Tamils -780,600 (11.73%); Malays – 22,500(0.34%); Burghers – 41,900 (0.63%) and Indian Muslims – 35,600(0.53%).
According to the latest 2011 census, the Indian Tamils numbering 839,504 (4.12%) are the fourth-largest ethnicity in Sri Lanka. However the figures from the 1946 census reveal that the Indian Tamil community then living mainly in the Uva, Sabaragamuwa, Central and Western Provinces was the second-largest ethnicity when the country was free of colonial bondage. The community consisting of people who had lived in the island for a few generations as well as recent arrivals were an integral component of the newly-independent nation then. The three main sources of income and foreign exchange for the country 70 years ago were tea, rubber and coconut. The bulk of workers on tea plantations and rubber estates were Indian Tamils. They were also engaged as labourers in the sanitary, construction, trade and transport sectors.
The community was also involved with manufacturing and commerce at multiple levels. They owned and ran mills, factories, shops, hotels, restaurants, jewellery establishments, textile stores and theatres. Many owned small boutiques, eating houses and market stalls. Some were pavement hawkers and street peddlers. Others were exporters and importers. Some were professionals. Some were artisans and craftsmen. There were teachers, accountants and clerks. Politically, the Indian Tamils were able to elect eight Tamils to Parliament in the general election of 1947. The Indian Tamil vote also helped sway elections in another 12-15 electorates.
In short, the Indian Tamils were a vibrant community contributing extensively to the welfare of the nation at the time of independence. Alas! The prevalent post-independence mood amidst dominant political circle differed from that perspective. They perceived the community as aliens who had no place in the country. It was argued that the newly-independent nation had to define and determine who was entitled to citizenship or not. And so, the hapless community which toiled from dawn to dusk under extremely-poor working conditions in the estates and plantations became political targets.
DE-CITIZENISED AND DISENFRANCHISED
They were first de-citizenized and then disenfranchised. After their citizenship and franchise were taken away, they became an extremely-powerless, vulnerable community. In the 1952 elections, they could not directly elect a single MP. India, under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, would not accept them. Hence, they were neither here nor there and were rendered “Stateless.” They were continually discriminated against. Any Indian Tamil could be picked up and detained as a “Kallathoni” or illegal immigrant. As time progressed, they along with their Sri Lankan Tamil counterparts were victims of communal violence. The community truly fitted Frantz Fanon’s description “Wretched of the Earth.”
Finally, their collective destinies were arbitrated by the heads of two States without any consultation with their leaders or representatives. The Sirimavo-Shastri Pact signed by Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1964 stipulated that 525,000 of the estimated 975,000 Stateless people should be relocated to India while 300,000 would be absorbed by Sri Lanka. The remaining 150,000 were divided up by India on a 50:50 basis — 75,000 each to both countries — in 1974 through another agreement inked by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
When the deadline for Indian citizenship application expired in 1981, only 507,000 out of the envisaged 600,000 had applied for Indian citizenship. This left a shortfall of 93,000. They with their natural increase amounted to another Stateless category. Finally, in the 1986-88 period, the J.R. Jayewardene led government granted full citizenship to the remainder. It was the United National Party (UNP) led government that created the problem of Statelessness by depriving the Indian Tamils of citizenship rights. Now the wheel had turned full-cycle and another UNP Government led by a President who had been a minister in the first UNP Government ended Statelessness once and for all.
The greater part of credit for this achievement must go to the man known widely as “Thonda.” Saumiamoorthy (spelled sometimes as Saumyamoorthy or Saumiyamoorthy) Thondaman was the undisputed “Thalaiver” (leader) of Sri Lanka’s predominantly Indian Tamil plantation proletariat for several decades. The co-founder and long-standing leader of Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), Sri Lanka’s largest trade union in the estate sector was a latter day Moses who led his people from oblivion and irrelevance to equality and self-respect.
Saumiamoorthy Thondaman was born in Munapudoor in what was then the Madras Presidency of India during British rule on August 30, 1913. He died of a myocardial infarction at the Sri Jayewardenepura Hospital in Colombo on October 30, 1999. This article is to commemorate his 105th birth centenary that was observed last Thursday, August 30.
TRADE UNIONIST AND POLITICAL LEADER
More than six decades of his eventful life of 86 years was devoted to serving his people as a trade unionist and political leader. As President of Sri Lanka’s largest and one of the oldest trade unions, the CWC, Thondaman played a prominent role in the country’s post-independence politics. His political life was intertwined with the vicissitudes of the Indian Tamil people of Sri Lanka, who still form the most deprived section of Sri Lankan society. His goal was to emancipate these people from the wretched plight they were in owing to historical injustice. Although he could not fully realise these aspirations, it cannot be denied that the pragmatic leadership of Thondaman helped the people he represented to better their circumstances from the dire position they were in at the dawn of Sri Lanka’s independence.
I had heard of Thondaman as a schoolboy in the early sixties of the 20th century. It was however in the late seventies that I began interacting with him as a staff reporter in the Tamil daily “Virakesari” covering the Plantations Industries Ministry and related trade union activities. I continued to be in contact with him and other leaders of the up-country Tamils during my Virakesari days and subsequent years as a journalist in “The Island” and as ColomboCorrespondent of the Indian daily “The Hindu” and news magazine “Frontline.” We were in touch infrequently after I relocated to Canada.
I was however able to associate with him quite closely in my years as a working journalist in Sri Lanka. He looked upon me with some kind of paternal benevolence. After a while he discarded the “Vaanga, Ponga” (Come, Go) form of respectfully addressing in Tamil and became more familiar with me saying “Vaappaa, Poppaa” to me in private. In public, he would talk to me in English.
Thonda was quite fond of my work as a journalist. I used to write articles on the politics of Indiain general and Tamil Nadu in particular while in Virakesari which he used to often read and talk of later. Politics in India during the Morarji Desai period was rather exciting and Thondaman relished discussing developments in Delhi and also about the Tamil Nadu “civil war” between M.G.
Ramachandran and “Kalainger” Karunanidhi. Later, when I moved to English journalism, he used to follow my progress and was happy that I did well. Thonda was rather excited when I became the ColomboCorrespondent of The Hindu offering words of encouragement. He helped me in my journalistic career by providing quite a few scoops or by passing on a few tips to follow up and get a good story.
Despite the tough exterior, he could be quite affectionate and concerned at times. I recall an incident where I was suffering from a terrible cold with my nose running. In a rare glimpse of “softness in a stone” Thondaman got down some Vicks ointment and made me apply it and also inhale. He also advised me in Tamil “Konjam Brandy Saappiduppaa” (take a little brandy). Later, I was totally surprised when Thonda’s affable Coordinating Secretary Thirunavukkarasu presented me a bottle of Cognac with the compliments of his boss saying “some medicine for you.”
While recalling these inter-personal aspects regarding Thondaman, I also wish to focus on him as a trade unionist cum political leader of a community long-discriminated against. It has been my good fortune to observe and admire the man and his mission from a vantage position as a journalist.
POLITICS IS THE ART OF THE POSSIBLE
In my opinion, Saumiamoorthy Thondaman was the shrewdest tactician among Tamil political leaders in recent times. He was a pragmatic realist who grasped in essence that politics is the art of the possible. Applying Chanakyan methods in a practical sense, this mercurial leader of Sri Lanka’s Tamils of recent Indian origin — known as “Indian Tamils” — helped usher in a period of political empowerment and renaissance. As President of Sri Lanka’s largest and one of the oldest trade unions, the CWC, the political veteran played a prominent role in the country’s post-independence politics. His political life was intertwined with the vicissitudes of the Indian Tamil people of Sri Lanka, who formed the most deprived section of Sri Lankan society. I have often wistfully compared and contrasted Thondaman with the leaders thrown up by the Sri Lankan Tamils and bemoaned the fact that there were and are no leaders of Thonda’s acumen, sagacity and experience amongst them.
Thondaman himself was critical of the confrontational tactics of Sri Lankan Tamils, both violent and non-violent. He has told me several times that the trouble with the Sri Lankan Tamil leaders was that they did not know how to negotiate. “The art in negotiations is to put up five demands and win one of them completely. We must gain partial compromises on two with one in our favour and one in their favour. Of the remaining two one must be put on hold for another day and the other abandoned entirely as a sop to the other party. Since we are trade unionists, we know that art. But TULF (precursor to the TNA) leaders are all lawyers who only know how to argue their brief eloquently but do not know how to extract meaningful concessions,” Thonda used to say. Incidentally the Tamil United Liberation Front acronym TULF was dubbed as Tamil United Lawyers Front then because half the number of TULF parliamentarians in 1977-83 were lawyers.
He was sympathetic to the problems of the Sri Lankan Tamil community but knew clearly that there was no uniform identity of interests. In 1961, he launched a plantation workers’ strike as a demonstration of sympathy for the Satyagraha campaign undertaken by Sri Lankan Tamils in the North and the East. However, against the Sri Lankan Tamil community’s expectations that he would prolong the strike, he called it off early after making his point.
The CWC leader cooperated with Sri Lankan Tamil political parties in forming the Tamil United Front in 1971. But when it metamorphosed into the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and opted for a separate state in 1976, Thondaman opted out despite being elected as one of the triumvirate of its leadership. Tamil Eelam will not help resolve the problems of plantation Tamils was his practical credo. He campaigned for the TULF in 1977 and enlisted TULF support for the CWC in elections, but contested separately under the cockerel symbol instead of the rising sun of the TULF. The slogan on TULF/CWC platforms then was that the sun would rise in the East and North contested by the TULF while the Cockerel would crow in Nuwara Eliya-Maskeliya and Colombo Central contested by CWC.
Thonda was not overtly critical of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or the armed struggle by Sri Lankan Tamils. His pragmatic proposal that power be handed over to LTTE leader V.
Prabhakaran for a stipulated period of time without being obligated to face elections was thoroughly misunderstood in the South. He was accused unfairly of collaborating with the LTTE to create a “Malaya Naadu” upcountry. But actually Thondaman strove hard to prevent violence entering the plantations. He knew that if the upcountry youth started emulating their northeastern counterparts, it would lead to tragedy. He also admonished the LTTE saying they should have less “Veham” (speed) and more “Viveham” (wisdom).
CONDONED VIOLENCE FOR SELF-DEFENCE ONLY
Despite his abhorrence of violence, Thonda condoned violence as necessary for self-defence only. In 1986, Indian Tamils were attacked in Talawakele.
The Tamils retaliated with counter-violence. Communal clashes began spreading throughout the region. The panic-stricken government of J.R.Jayewardene brought in the army. Fearing brutal repression by the army, the estate workers blocked roads by rolling down boulders and felling trees. They also placed obstacles on rail tracks. In a tense climate JR had to fly Thonda by helicopter to Lindula where the veteran leader appealed to his people to end the violence. They complied. It was truly a Gandhian moment! An emotional Thondaman broke down in tears. A few days later, interviewed him for the Indian news magazine “Frontline.” I still recall a memorable quote stated in his pithy English, “All this time, other people hitting, plantation worker running. Now, plantation worker hitting back, other people running.” Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman was instrumental in preventing violence from overwhelming the plantations during that troubled period.
An illuminating illustration of his political acumen and tactical shrewdness was revealed to me on the day before his appointment in 1978 as Minister of Rural Industrial Development in the J.R.Jayewardene Government. He showed me the list of departments, boards and corporations under the newly-created ministry. I found that the Milk Board, Livestock Development Board, Industrial Development Board and so forth had been allocated to him. I was aghast and pointed out that these were running at a loss. I told him that he was being tricked into accepting a white elephant ministry.
Thonda smiled and with a smirk replied: “That is where you are making a mistake. This is the first time after Independence that an up-country Tamil is becoming a Cabinet minister. There is lots of opposition in the Cabinet too. This ministry I am getting is a new one specially created for me. The President (JR) is taking from E.L. Senanayake’s Agriculture Ministry and Cyril Mathew’s Industries Ministry to give me powers. If these were money-making departments, they wouldn’t let go of them and would object strongly. But because they were deadweight they wouldn’t protest. If I can make these run at a profit through my administration, I will get praised and get credit. But if I fail, no one can blame me because everyone knows these are running at a loss now.”
Saumiamoorthy Thondaman was born in Munapudoor in what was then the Madras Presidency of India during British rule on August 30, 1913. He died of a myocardial infarction at the Sri Jayewardenepura Hospital in Colombo on October 30, 1999. This article is to commemorate his 105th birth centenary that was observed last Thursday, August 30
Thonda also enlightened me about his calculated vision in taking up this portfolio. He said that the Milk Board and Livestock Development Board, if handled correctly, could bring about a positive change in the lives of the plantation workers. He pointed out that the plantation worker in line-rooms had little living space but existed in an environment where there was ample “Pullu” (grass).
The veteran trade unionist said that if he could give each plantation worker family a cow they could tie it up outside during night and let it graze during day. He said that if he could set up more milk collection centres in estate areas, then each family would sell the milk and increase their income. This will boost their family economy and bring about a refreshing change in their lives, Thonda predicted then.
MINISTER OF RURAL INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT
How prophetic his words were! Within a few years, the plantation workers were becoming the proud owners of cattle. Thonda’s opponents in the up-country trade union sector described him derisively as “Maattu Manthiri” (Bullock Minister), but the estate economy received a tremendous boost. The lives of enterprising plantation worker families were uplifted. As Minister of Rural Industrial Development, Thondaman was able to foster dairy projects and small industries among the Indian Tamil people.
I also received fresh insight into his pragmatic approach on another instance. He started a scheme of setting up small industrial centres where employment was to be on a fifty-fifty basis for Villages and Estates. Villages and estates were euphemisms or codes for Sinhala and Tamil. 50% of jobs were for Sinhalese from villages and 50% for Tamils from estates. I then asked him the rationale for this 50/50 scheme.
The minister explained to me the existential reality of the central highlands where the villages were mostly populated by Sinhalese and estates by Tamils. He said that by the new scheme Tamils will get 50% of jobs in areas where they did not have any employment at present. Likewise, Sinhalese will get 50% jobs in estates where they have a negligible presence. So both sides have something to gain said Thonda pointing out further that if he stated Sinhala/Tamil 50% each, it would have raised communal resentment but by saying village/estate 50/50 he was eliminating unnecessary racist overtones for the project
His politics was that of brinkmanship at times. There was however deep subtlety to it. Thondaman was perhaps the only minister who launched a successful strike in his capacity as trade union leader while being a Cabinet ministers. Many of the leftist trade unionists turned against the working class when they became government ministers. But not Thonda. A major example is the plantation strike he launched while being a minister in the Jayewardene Government. “It was not a strike,” Thondaman said, “but a prayer campaign where every worker would attend a place of worship and be there praying the whole day for a wage increase instead of working.” To prevent personal pressure being exerted by Jayewardene, the wily Thondaman got himself admitted to Nawaloka Hospital and got a no-visitors rule implemented. Unable to contact him, the government caved in to Thondaman’s demand. Yet there was no triumphant boast by Thondaman. “Prayers can move mountains.” he told the media modestly. “Our prayers have been answered,” he said in a deadpan tone.
1987 “OPERATION POOMAALAI” – INDIAN AIR-DROP
A little-known tale is about the role of Thonda during “Operation Poomaalai” the air-drop of food supplies over Jaffna by India on June 4, 1987. It was a risky move violating Sri Lankan airspace and sovereignty intended to convey a powerful signal to the J.R.Jayewardene regime. Feelings were running high then in Sri Lanka vis a vis India and it was anticipated that there would be a tremendous backlash.
So the Indian envoy of that time Jyotindra Nath Dixit later to be dubbed as “Indian viceroy of Sri Lanka” called on Thondaman in private. It was a secret meeting. Dixit had told Thonda of the intended air-drop and was concerned about possible repercussions. New Delhi was worried about Indians and those of Indian descent being targeted in revenge after the air-drop. Contingency plans had been drawn up.
As a precaution important Indian nationals and their families in and around Colombo had been moved to two luxury hotels in Galle Face and Kollupitiya. The idea was to airlift them by helicopter at Galle Face Green if necessary. Indian warships were to sail in proximity to Colombo. Important documents at the IndianHigh Commission were destroyed and burnt in a pit dug up hastily at “IndiaHouse” premises. Dixit told Thonda then that there was a plan to land Indian paratroopers in the up-country areas if Tamils of Indian origin were attacked en masse in the plantation highlands. He was told that it may not be possible to protect those living dispersed as small communities but assured that those concentrated in particular places could be ensured safety.
Thondaman had replied that he believed there would not be a terrible backlash and that even if such a thing occurred steps could be taken to protect the estate workers. Thonda also informed JR in confidence about these matters and the government of the day prevented such a violent backlash being engineered by vested interests.
The delicate manner in which Thondaman handled the Indian air-drop issue demonstrates his ability to navigate between two contending interests or perspectives. He was fiercely loyal to Sri Lanka while being mindful of Indian interests. In the aftermath of the July 1983 anti-Tamil violence Thondaman went on TV and stated publicly that elements within the government or very close to the government were responsible. This was while being a minister of the same government. He also told the media “Sunday Sil, Monday Kill” referring to the Poya holiday on Sunday, July 24, that preceded the outbreak of violence on Monday, July 25. But when Thonda went to India he always flew the Sri Lankan national flag in his vehicle despite the hostility towards the lion flag in Tamil Nadu.
SEEMINGLY IRRECONCILABLE CONTRADICTIONS
Thondaman was a man who could reconcile seemingly-irreconcilable contradictions. An estate owner leading plantation workers, a minister leading a strike against his own government, an MP elected on the UNP ticket sitting with the P.A. as a minister – were some of these. When asked about these different aspects of his personality, Thondaman would say with a twinkle: “I am like the ideal woman. She can be a daughter to her parents, sister to her siblings, wife to her husband, and mother to her children, and remain the same woman.”
The story of his life is both interesting and inspirational. Saumiyamoorthy ‘s father Karuppiah Thondaman was connected by way of an extended family to the royal family of Pudukkottai. This branch of the family, however, underwent a decline in fortunes, and it was on the verge of impoverishment when Karuppiah migrated to Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was called by the British, to become a “Kankani”, or supervisor, of tea estate workers. Through hard work and shrewd business acumen he became the owner of a prosperous tea plantation, Wavendon estate, at Ramboda in the Nuwara Eliya District. Young Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman, born in Munappudoor, came over at the age of 11. He went to secondary school at St. Andrews, Gampola. He then took to planting as estate management was then known. In his late teens and early twenties Thondaman led the life of a brown sahib, as the son and heir of a prosperous plantation owner.
There was, however, an idealist streak in the son, who was not content to lead a luxurious life. Instead, he chose to espouse the cause of plantation workers, who were exploited ruthlessly. The bulk of these workers were Tamil people who were brought as indentured labourers from the then Madras Presidency. Thondaman and other like-minded idealists started organising plantation workers on the lines of trade union movements. The Indian freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi had a demonstration effect. The Indian community, guided by Jawaharlal Nehru, declared itself formally, in his presence and according to his advice, as the CeylonIndian Congress (CIC) on July 25, 1939. The war years saw trade unionism taking firm roots in the estates. Thondaman at times spent his own money to finance strikes. The CIC developed into a formidable organisation by the time of independence, with Thondaman as a leader.
WON NUWARA-ELIYA WITH 6,135 MAJORITY
In the elections to the first Parliament in 1947, eight persons representing plantation Tamil interests were returned. Of these, six were from the CIC. Thondaman himself won from Nuwara-Eliya with a majority of 6,135 votes. In addition to this, Tamil workers helped influence results in a further 12 constituencies. Parliament at that time had 95 elected and six appointed members.
The United National Party (UNP) Government under D.S. Senanayake felt threatened on class and ethnic lines by this “alien presence.” It introduced legislation in 1948 and 1949 to deprive the Indian Tamil community of citizenship and franchise. Thondaman and other Indian Tamil leaders, inspired by the Gandhian ethos, chose to combat these blatantly discriminatory measures by resorting to mass Satyagraha. After 18 months the struggle was called off.
Accepting the inevitable, the plantation workers began applying, under the new regulations, for citizenship afresh. The stringent requirements imposed and the strict application of those requirements during processing saw most workers being denied citizenship and, by extension, voting rights. Only 132,000 became eligible for citizenship by 1962.
In the meantime, lakhs of Indian returned to Indiavoluntarily. The 1958 communal riots accelerated this process. The CIC transformed itself into the CWC in 1950. With the deprival of voting rights it became more of a trade union with a political wing than a political party with a trade union. No member of the CWC was elected to Parliament in the 1950s.
In July 1960, Thondaman became an appointed Member of Parliament under Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s Government. He represented the hill country Tamil category known as “Stateless” people, that is, Tamils who were citizens of neither Ceylon nor India. The worst, however, was yet to come.
In October 1964, Prime Ministers Lal Bahadur Shastri and Bandaranaike signed an accord which arbitrarily determined the future of these so-called stateless persons. The Sirimavo-Shastri Pact, as it was popularly known, divided the Stateless people on a ratio of seven to four between India and Sri Lanka respectively. Out of the 975,000 Stateless persons, 525,000 were to be repatriated to India while 300,000 were to be granted Sri Lankan citizenship. The fate of another 150,000 people was kept in abeyance. In 1974, Prime Ministers Bandaranaike and Indira Gandhi signed another accord, which divided these people equally – 75,000 each between the two countries.
The tragic dimension to this exercise was that the CWC, which represented the stateless persons, was not consulted. Angered over these developments, Thondaman joined with dissident Sinhala MPs and brought about the downfall of the Bandaranaike Government in December 1964; Thondaman abstained during a crucial vote, and the government fell by a one-vote margin. The incident also brought under the spotlight the political animal that was Thondaman. Instead of striking out against the government in opposition to the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact and inviting political isolation, Thondaman chose to bide his time and team up with other Sinhala MPs on the question of press freedom at the opportune moment and help deliver the coup de grace.
APPOINTED MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT
In 1965, Thondaman became an appointed Member of Parliament at the time of the UNP Government of Dudley Senanayake. He used the opportunity to delay the repatriation while encouraging the process of re-enfranchisement. Thondaman reportedly told political scientist Prof. A.J. Wilson that he had single-handedly nullified an agreement entered into by two sovereign governments.
The return of Bandaranaike to power in 1970 saw a reversal of this state of affairs. The nationalisation of plantations saw Indian Tamil people being evicted from the estates and landless Sinhala people being settled in their place. A large number of Tamil people were relocated in the Sri Lankan Tamil districts of North and East. In spite of the dire economic circumstances, a silent revolution was on within the Indian Tamil community. Aided by CWC leaders, more and more Indian Tamils were regaining citizenship and consequently voting rights. As more and more children grew up and reached the voting age of 18, the community’s voting strength increased.
This empowerment became evident for the first time in the 1977 elections when, after 30 years, Thondaman was re-elected to the multi-member constituency of Nuwara Eliya-Maskeliya. He joined the UNP Government of J.R. Jayewardene in 1978. The new Constitution of 1978 removed the distinctions between citizens of descent and citizens by registration. This put an end to many problems faced by Indian Tamils. As minister for Rural Industrial Development, Thondaman was able to foster dairy projects and small industries among the Indian Tamil people.
When it was found that there was a shortfall of 93,000 in the number of applicants for Indian citizenship and a corresponding excess for Sri Lankan citizenship. Thondaman persuaded the Jayewardene Government in 1987 to grant citizenship unilaterally to this category and end for all time the “Thrishanku State” of the Stateless people. Concessions were also gained in the case of Tamil people who had obtained Indian citizenship but were staying on.
Thondaman was successful in these attempts because of five factors.
Firstly, the increase in votes within the community and the CWC’s ability to deliver them en bloc provided Thondaman considerable bargaining power.
Secondly, the rise of political violence in the northeastern region of the country saw Colombo awarding priority to the needs of the Indian Tamils.
Thirdly, India had begun to take greater interest in the affairs of Sri Lanka, thereby impelling governments in Colombo to remove possible irritants pertaining to the plantation Tamil community, which claimed an umbilical relationship with “mother India”.
Fourthly, the CWC illustrated through well-executed strikes its capability to paralyse tea and rubber production. This provided economic clout, which enhanced the CWC’s bargaining power.
Fifthly, Thondaman enjoyed close personal relations with the then UNP leaders such as J.R.Jayewardene, Ranasinghe Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali and Anandatissa de Alwis, and used them to the advantage of his people.
“KAWDA MAN? THONDAMAN”
As the undisputed leader of the Indian Tamil community, Thondaman enjoyed the reputation of being a king-maker in Sri Lankan politics. The power behind the throne role he played and the pragmatic approach he adopted to the dynamics of politics fuelled resentment against Thondaman in certain chauvinist quarters. The fact that an “Indian Tamil” was helping make and unmake Presidents and administrations strengthened these feelings. The opposition used to refer to the then UNP Government as the JR-Thonda regime. A popular slogan then was “Kawda Man? Thondaman” (Who is the man/Thondaman).
On the other hand, his role in resolving the problems of the Indian Tamil community was not fully appreciated by some sections of the community. Whatever the misgivings and misunderstandings, there is no doubt that Thondaman was a leader who helped his people with single-minded devotion for more than 60 years to realise their aspirations against overwhelming odds. The passing of the Plantation Tamil patriarch was an irreparable loss to his trade union, party, community and country.
D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org