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Thiagarajah Maheswaran: Blend of Business Acumen and Political Savvy

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By
D.B.S. Jeyaraj

T. Maheswaran

Fifth Death Anniversary was on January 1st 2013

Year 2008 dawned on a dreadful note for Tamils in Sri Lanka as one more democratically elected Parliamentarian was assassinated in broad daylight. United National Party (UNP) Colombo district MP Thiagarajah Maheswaran was shot dead at the Shree Ponnambalavaneswarar Sivan temple in Kotahena. 41 year old Maheswaran was to celebrate his 42nd birthday on Jan 10th.


In what was perhaps the first development of its kind, the assassin was shot and wounded by one of Maheswaran’s bodyguards. He was caught and hospitalised under heavy security. The assassin was initially admitted under the name of Vasanthan to bed number 13 in ward 72 of the National Hospital in Borella.

Maheswaran left his residence at B32, 36th lane, Wellawatte in the morning of New Years day to worship at the Shree Ponnambalavaneswarar Sivan temple at Kotahena. The temple was constructed by Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan who was then representing the Educated Ceylonese Constituency of the Legislative Council.

The UNP Tamil MP was one of those Parliamentarians whose official security had been drastically reduced after the budget vote on Dec 14th. The vociferous Maheswaran had voted against the budget. He had also been sharply critical of the Government about the anti – Tamil acts done in Colombo under the cover of combatting terrorism.

The Colombo district MP’s bodyguards from the Ministerial Security division were cut down from eighteen to two. On Dec 19th Maheswaran had written to Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse saying that he faced danger and urged that his security be restored to earlier levels. No action was taken.

Maheswaran had inducted some trusted Tamil youths to be his unofficial bodyguards. These youths did not carry firearms but generally surrounded Maheswaran when he moved about. In actual terms they provided body cover. Only L. Dharmasiri, the 38 year old Policeman assigned as his official bodyguard carried a gun. Maheswaran’s 4 year old daughter also accompanied her father to the temple.

Thiagarajah Maheswaran is a pious saivaite. At the Sivan temple he went through all rituals including the walk around the inner circle or “Ulveethi”. He also conducted a special “Archanai” or pooja. According to Up – Country Peoples Front Colombo municipal councillor VT Gurusamy he saw Maheswaran standing engrossed with devotional fervour near the “moolasthanam” or sanctum sanctorum , oblivious to his surroundings or people around him.

The former minister of Hindu affairs was going out with his “kalanji” coconut in one hand and clasping his daughter with the other, at about 9. 30 am , when the assassin made his move. He was standing on the steps outside the main entrance to the temple. The killer moved closer as Mahewaran emerged and opened fire. Maheswaran fell with four bullet wounds to his chest and head. The coconut turned red with his blood.

The official bodyguard Dharmasiri fired back at the assassin. Sticking to procedure he fired at his legs first to bring him down rather than kill him. The assassin however fired back at the bodyguard injuring him. It was then that Dharmasiri aimed at the assassin’s head but the bullet only nicked him.

Maheswaran family member at the funeral

The assassin then dropped down on all fours within the crowd and crawled into the temple. It was impossible to fire on a crawling man in a crowd without hitting other people. The assassin’s aim was to crawl through to the second side entrance to the left and escape. It is suspected that an accomplice with a vehicle was close by.

There were more than 600 devotees in and around the temple at the time of the shooting. There were uniformed Police personnel on duty at the temple. These cops acted fast and got the doors closed at both entrances. The bleeding assassin was trapped with other devotees inside the temple.

Once the shooting began there was pandemonium with hundreds of devotees running here and there. One of the temple priests who was walking out with Maheswaran whisked away the MP’s daughter to safety. Apart from Maheswaran , Dharmasiri and a few of his unofficial bodyguards, some other people were also injured.

Some of Maheswaran’s uninjured guards rushed with the injured persons to the National hospital. Other injured persons including the assassin were also brought there. Twelve people were admitted. They were Maheswaran, Mahindan, Dharmasiri, Madhurani, Vaani, Sarala, Balachandran, Akilash, Pushpavathy, Videshwaran,
Sivalingam and “Vasanthan” the assassin.

Chandrakumar Mahendran of Jaffna was pronounced dead shortly after admission. Doctors strove hard to save Maheswaran but the MP succumbed to injuries at 10. 35 am. Doctors at the hospital did surgery for six of the injured people. The condition of two is reportedly critical. Both Dharmasiri the bodyguard and Vasanthan the assassin are out of danger.

To succeed in business one needs a certain amount of political skill. To succeed in politics one requires a certain degree of business sense. Thiagarajah Maheswaran who was gunned down on New Years day was a rare blend of business acumen and political savvy.

He was a shrewd businessman with a dubious background who achieved two stupendous records in politics.

Suppiahpillai Nadesan, former principal of Parameshwara College and son in law of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan , won the Kankesanthurai electorate on the United National party (UNP) ticket in 1952. He was a minister in the John Kotelawela cabinet.

After 1952 no Tamil was elected from the UNP in Jaffna for 48 years. Then came Maheswaran. On October 10th 2000 Thiagarajah Maheswaran was elected from Jaffna district on the UNP ticket. No one believed this was possible then. On Dec 5th 2001 he was re-elected from Jaffna again on the UNP ticket. He became minister of Hindu affairs.

This was not all.

Due to problems with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) he switched from Jaffna to Colombo in 2004. No Tamil from Jaffna had been elected since the time of the legislative and State Councils.

Arunachalam Mahadeva won a seat in the legislative Council from Colombo in 1924. Ratnajothy Saravanamuttu won the state council seat for Colombo North in 1931. After being unseated at an election petition his wife Neysum Saravanamuttu succeeded him by winning a by – election. She won again in 1936.

Neysam Saravanamuttu was the first woman State Councillor. Her father Arunasalam was an engineer and lived in Passara for many years. Both her parents were from Vaddukkoddai.

After Mahadeva and the two Saravanamuttus no Tamil of Jaffna origin had won any seat in Colombo. Though Colombo Central had three members and Colombo South two members to help Tamils get elected no Sri Lankan Tamil ever won. People like Bala Tampoe, N. Shanmugadasan, Kumar Ponnambalam etc failed to win in Colombo

It was MS Sellasamy of the Ceylon workers Congress who became the first Tamil to be elected from Colombo in the post – independence period. He won in 1989. Later Tamils like P. Devarajan, R. Yogarajan, Mano Ganesan,Praba Ganesan etc were elected to Parliament from Colombo. They were all of Indian origin.

When Thiagarajah Maheswaran won in the election of April 2nd 2004 he became the first Jaffna Tamil to be elected to Parliament from Colombo in the post – independence period.

Both these records – winning on the UNP ticket in Jaffna and being first Jaffna Tamil MP from Colombo – are remarkable feats by any standard. The man who achieved these was an unconventional politician. Maheswaran was essentially a businessman in politics and a self – made person at that.

He was born on Jan 10th 1966 in Karainagar. Maheswaran was from the Thangodai area in Karainagar. His ancestral home was near the place called Sinna Aaladi .

Karainagar has spawned many people who have done well in trade and commerce. But Maheswaran’s father Thiagarajah was not one of those. The family was of lower middle class background.Maheswaran’s wife Vijayakala was also from a middle class background. After Maheswaran’s death she contested elections from the Jaffna district on the UNP ticket and was elected. She is the only Tamil woman MP in Parliament now.

In later years Maheswaran was to be a multi – millionaire who acquired wealth through his own efforts. He was not born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth.

Maheswaran studied at Yarlton College in Karainagar and later at St. Johns College, Jaffna .He also studied at the St.Johns Academy tutorial college.

The family underwent a financial crisis and Maheswaran dropped out from studies. He was compelled to work as a cleaner and later driver in a lorry. But he had a burning desire to succeed in business and be a rich man. He began engaging in transporting goods on a small scale between Colombo and Jaffna.

Sri Lanka’s most successful business tycoon Upali Wijewardena took bold risks often. Some of his moves were extremely unconventional. Upali once told a journalist that he strayed dangerously close to the edge of legality but never crossed it. In the case of Maheswaran he often crossed it.

Two things helped him. One was his ability to ingratiate himself with former Jaffna district minister UB Wijekoon. The other was the war. Maheswaran was a profiteer from war.

Through UB Wijekoon’s help he gained some influence within the UNP. When the war escalated the transport of goods was restricted to Jaffna. Maheswaran struck deals with both the LTTE and the UNP Government and began transporting essential items.

He made rapacious profits and shared the spoils with both UNP bigwigs and the LTTE. It was the embargo on fuel that gave him a massive fillip. He smuggled in great amounts of fuel. One of his successful ruses was smuggling fuel in coco cola bottles.

There was a time when selling kerosene in bottles at excessive prices became a lucrative business in Jaffna. People would be seen standing at roadsides and selling kerosene. Maheswaran was the “wholesale” supplier. It was then that he acquired the name “Mannennei” (Kerosene) Maheswaran

Maheswaran owned and ran “Mahaluckshmi Stores” in Jaffna. Originally it belonged to his wife’s grand uncle. Later Maheswaran acquired it and expanded it.

He was also sales agent for a domestic airline.

Maheswaran developed his business further by transporting essential items by ships to Jaffna from Colombo. He teamed up with a cartel of Jaffna businessmen and transported on a large scale. This cartel had a virtual monopoly of this. The people had to pay high prices for these goods.

He maintained good relations with both the UNP government and LTTE.

The LTTE was paid massive amounts out of the profits. As long as their coffers were filled the self – imposed sole representatives of the Tamil people were content to let the people be exploited ruthlessly

But there was trouble in the war profiteering paradise. The UNP was defeated and Chandrika Kumaratunga came in. This reduced Maheswaran’s political influence.

There was a new kid on the block. Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP) leader Douglas Devananda with his “DD Enterprises” was also musling in using his political clout.

Devananda had for many years been in control of the northern Islands. The EPDP had a monopoly of exporting sea produce from those areas.

Later Devananda began diversifying into other commercial activity also. Transporting essential items was a profitable venture. Soon there was a clash between the profiteers of war. With his political clout Devananda began gaining the upper hand.

The war profiteering “old” Jaffna trading cartel was upset at the usurper and his “front” businesses. . The LTTE now confined to the Wanni was also worried by Devananda’s rise.

Maheswaran decided to enter politics actively and counter the EPDP.

Since Devananda was close to Kumaratunga at that time and also because he himself had close links with the UNP , Maheswaran became active in the green elephant party. Maheswaran was counting Agent for Ranil Wickremasinghe in the 1999 Presidential poll.

Maheswaran contested Jaffna district in 2000 and created an upset by winning. Three factors helped him.One of these was Karainagar solidarity. The people are clannish and support a son of the soil above others. Karainagar is part of the Vaddukkoddai electoral division.

T. Maheswaran (left), accompanies then Energy Minister Karu Jayasuriya on a tour of Thondaimanaru-Sellasannithi Murugan Temple in Jaffna peninsula on March 2, 2003

In 1970 Appapillai Amirthalingam was defeated by A, Thiagarajah of Tamil Congress because the Karainagar people had voted virtually en masse for the “local” man. Thiagarajah was from Karainagar and a former Principal of Karainagar Hindu College,

This 1970 episode was replicated in 2000 with most of Karainagar people scattered in the peninsula voting for Maheswaran.

There was also the massive support of the trading class. Money power was at its highest. There was also indirect support from the LTTE.

Maheswaran won again in 2001 and became Hindu Affairs minister with control over the Palmyra Development board. Like the EPDP before him Maheswaran too “drained” out the Palmyra board. He also minted money through allocating money for temple renovations and distributing three – wheelers. The level of corruption was unbelievable.

There was a new development in 2004. Four Tamil parties came together as the Tamil National Alliance and contested on a pro – tiger platform. The LTTE wanted Maheswaran to join the TNA or quit politics. Maheswaran refused to join the TNA. He also did not want to quit politics.

There was also some ” trouble” about the money he was paying regularly to the LTTE
So Maheswaran went to the Wanni to try and sort out matters, He was treated shabbily and not permitted to meet any senior leaders. He was interrogated by woman cadres under demeaning conditions. Maheswaran returned a dejected man but the fighter in him did not surrender to the tigers.

Maheswaran then did a daring act. Defying LTTE diktat he contested elections again but this time it was not Jaffna but Colombo. No Jaffna Tamil had won in Colombo after Independence. Maheswaran was not intimidated. He jumped into the fray with zest and the money power at his disposal.

Soon he was giving Colombo veterans a run for their money. Relations between Mano Ganesan and Maheswaran became somewhat strained as both competed neck to neck for the votes of Tamils in Colombo. Yet Maheswaran may have lost but for the tigers.

The LTTE angered by Maheswaran’s defiance wanted to silence him. They did not want him to win in Colombo. So the tigers cleverly “contracted” underworld elements to target Maheswaran. By doing so , suspicion was expected to fall on Mano Ganesan.

On the last day of canvassing A lone gunman shot and wounded Maheswaran in Gintupitiya. Maheswaran was hospitalised. But the politically smart Maheswaran cashed in on his predicament. Newspaper advertisements showing a bed ridden Maheswaran appealing to voters were published.

This was like Tamil Nadu actor – politico MG Ramachandran getting shot by another actor MR Radha in 1967. Posters of a bed ridden MGR were displayed. He won by a record landslide in his Parangimalai constituency. Likewise Maheswaran rode the crest of a sympathy wave and won in Colombo

He was now in the opposition. Maheswaran made his peace with the LTTE again by making a hefty donation. It is also believed that “taxes” for doing business was paid regularly. At the same time Maheswaran enjoyed good relations with President Mahinda Rajapakse and his brother Basil.

This made many feel that Maheswaran had ensured his ” safety” by taking out a “political” insurance policy.

He continued to transport goods to Jaffna by ship. When Maheswaran made a critical speech in Parliament Jeyaraj Fernandopulle was to refer to his good relationship with the President and the favours extracted.. There was also much speculation that Maheswaran would “cross” to the Government side but to his credit he never did so.

Maheswaran was a businessman who entered politics to safeguard his business interests.

Devananda is a militant turned politician who uses his political clout to make money. Both of them can be called war profiteers.

Though Maheswaran made his money through questionable means he has been very helpful to people at a personal level.. Friends from Karainagar related many tales of how Maheswaran has helped relatives and friends. These acts were done quietly without seeking publicity.

He could speak Sinhala, Tamil and English and was a pleasant person to converse with. Maheswaran was immensely rich in later life but always retained the common touch. He was a great favourite with the minor staff in Parliament.

Though he crossed swords with JHU and JVP Parliamentary colleagues he maintained cordial relations with them on a personal level. Ironically Maheswaran was persona non grata to some TNA members.

Maheswaran was close to Mahinda Rajapakse and Karu Jayasuriya. It was he who made arrangements for their visits to Jaffna some time ago. President Rajapakse in his condolence message recalled with nostalgia the lavish welcome afforded to him in Jaffna by Maheswaran

He had a flair for dramatic stunts. Maheswaran once drove a bullock cart in Jaffna to protest against rise in prices. When the Pomgu Thamil event was held he identified with it openly. Once he took coffinns into the EPDP stronghold of Kayts in a demonstration of defiance.

Maheswaran was a vibrant personality in Parliament too. It was he who once ran off with the speakers mace. Recently he removed his shirt and remained bare bodied in protest. When a wreath was brought in to insult the opposition leader Maheswaran was one of those opposing the act pugnaciously.

He was somewhat of a maverick in the UNP. He defied party discipline and voted against the budget and emergency extension. He spoke up on issues affecting Tamils and did not toe a majoritarian line.

Ranil Wickremasinghe allowed Maheswaran a free “voice” in those matters.Maheswaran has taken up cudgels against Wickremasinghe on behalf of those wronged in the party.

Whatever the motives behind his entry into politics there is no denying that Maheswaran evolved into a “vox populi” over the years. Since he too was a Colombo resident Maheswaran empathised with the predicament of Tamils living in Colombo.

When Tamils were evicted , Maheswaran was seen distributing drinking water and cash to those unfortunate people in the buses. When young Tamils were rounded up like cattle Maheswaran led a march of the parents to President Rajapakse. Later he took relatives at his own expense to Boosa to see the detenues.

Maheswaran would shout and make emotional speeches in Parliament. Some dismissed it as theatrics. Others felt he was speaking from the heart.

Many overtures were made to him to cross over and become a minister. Yet he did not do so and confided to friends in the media that he could not join a Government that was treating the Tamil people so badly.

It was this regard for the people that transformed the shrewed businessman into a concerned politician. Instead of feathering his business nest alone , Maheswaran also took up the people’s causes. It was this resolve to speak out on behalf of the suffering Tamil civilians that endangered his life.

Profiteering from the war through controversial commercial pursuit on the one hand and projecting an image of being a peoples representative speaking truth to power on the others is an extremely acute contradiction

It was a dangerous game of tight rope walking that Maheswaran did trying to balance his act among hostile elements. It was political brinkmanship of an extreme nature.It is a miracle that he survived as long as he did. Finally he was shot dead on the premises of a Sivan temple in Colombo by a tiger cadre who had infiltrated the EPDP whom the courts found guilty recently.

(This article comprises excerpts from articles written earlier at the time of Thiyagarajah Maheswaran’s death on January 1st 2008 and is posted here to commemorate his fifth death anniversary)

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

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