By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
The nomination of Retired Supreme Court Judge Canagasabapathy Viswalingam Wigneswaran as Chief Ministerial candidate for the Northern Provincial Council Polls by the Tamil National Alliance(TNA) was widely hailed when announced in July. This writer while outlining the process by which the “unanimous” selection was made had this to say in his weekly column published by “Daily Mirror” on July 27th 2013. “A veritable Pandora’s box of the “Eelam” variety seems to have been opened and one does feel that the Sitar strumming Wigneswaran may not be able to play the melody of his choice in the days to come. He may even find the strings on his instrument snapping if the current trend continues. All these developments and more will be scrutinised in greater detail in a forthcoming article”.
Delivered and To Be Delivered? Justice C. V. Wigneswaran delivering “Whither Sri Lankan Tamils” at Thanthai Chelvanayagam Memorial Lecture at New Kathiresan hall in Bambalapitty, Sri Lanka ~Apr 26, 2013~ Picture by Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai – via PassionParade
Against that backdrop the time does seem opportune to focus on the political progress made by CV Wigneswaran in his new avatar as a politician. If the success of a politician prior to polls is judged by the media glare he receives then the former Judge has certainly arrived. The past few weeks have seen the media spotlight being turned on him extensively and excessively. Like fish needing water to survive, Politicians need publicity whether positive or negative. If denied publicity their fate would be akin to fish deprived of water.
Wigneswaran is also being singled out for verbal attacks by leading luminaries of the United Peoples Freedom Alliance(UPFA) whose primary if not the solitary target seems to be the TNA chief ministerial aspirant.Given the fact that the choice of Wigneswaran by TNA Parliamentary group leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan was praised as a masterstroke then,it is quite understandable that the big guns are booming at the ex-judge now. The proverbial Tamil saying “Kaaitha maram thaan kalladi padum” (Only trees bearing fruits are stoned) illustrates vividly the reasons for Wigneswaran being targeted disproportionately.
When Wigneswaran was nominated by the TNA the decision was viewed positively by progressive sections of society on either side of the Elephant pass isthmus and even beyond the borders of the pearl of the Indian ocean. The induction of a respected retired supreme court judge was expected to bring about a qualitative change and elevate the nature of politics in the country. The stature of provincial chief ministers now treated as captains of second elevens would immensely increase it was felt. Much was expected of a future provincial administration headed by Wigneswaran.
He was also perceived as a powerful magnet attracting the bulk of votes in Jaffna which values scholarship, educational qualifications and professional eminence at a high premium. Wigneswaran was also regarded as possessing the calibre to be on par with the Provincial governor and military authorities in the North during inevitable interactions. He was also seen as someone who could negotiate with the President and Government on issues affecting the council. Moreover the ex-judge was expected to impress foreign diplomats and international media personnel during meetings thereby creating a positive image for the Northern province.
More importantly the selection of Wigneswaran was welcomed to a very great extent by those desiring a just and fair resolution of the long festering Tamil national question. Wigneswaran though of Jaffna origin was born and bred in multi-ethnic Colombo and was educated at Royal College. He had served as a magistrate and judge in many different parts of multi-ethnic Sri Lanka and earned the respect of litigants and lawyers. After retirement, Wigneswaran made courageous pronouncements on issues affecting the country in general and Tamils in particular.
Besides his two children were married to Sinhalese. This was also viewed as a complimentary feature transcending the ethnic divide. One son is married to the daughter of Vasudeva Nanayakkara, minister of National languages and Social Integration. The other son is married to former Parliamentarian and current Dehiwela-Mt.Lavinia deputy –mayor Kesaralal Gunasekara’s brother’s daughter. The cosmopolitan Wigneswaran himself continues to live in Colombo feeling more at home here in ‘Kozhumbu’ perhaps than in Palmyra land .
This personal and professional background of Wigneswaran was seen as being ideal to build bridges between the estranged communities.In an unhealthy environment where devolution was depicted as a dirty word and the Provincial council portrayed as a potential stepping stone to separation, Wigneswaran seemed to be an effective counterpoint. It was felt that antipathy to greater devolution could be reduced or contained greatly by Wigneswaran becoming chief minister. It appeared that the spectre of Tamil Eelam via the Northern PC even if raised y some would fail to make an impact in a situation where Wigneswaran was chief minister. Also it was thought that the respected ex-judge would be able to enhance powers of the province through adroit negotiations with the President and Govt.
These salutary perceptions and positive expectations seemed perfectly valid at the time of Wigneswaran’s nomination and it’s early aftermath. Alas! As time progressed and the election campaign got underway, a process of disillusionment began setting in gradually. The political conduct of Wigneswaran after entering the hurly burly of electioneering has been disappointing to say the least. Instead of raising the standards of political campaigning by exemplary conduct he is now lowering himself into the cesspit of cheap politicking. The politicization of Wigneswaran seems to have transformed the eminent jurist into a third-grade politico who is simply playing to the gallery to garner more votes.
Tamil nationalist politics in Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu and within the global Tamil Diaspora continues to be under the shadow of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) notwithstanding the fact that the tigers are no more in Sri Lanka. Despite the LTTE being a non-entity in the Island, many Sri Lankan Tamil politicians of the Tamil National Alliance refuse to be liberated from the residual hold of the liberation tigers.
This reminds one of an oft related tale in Jaffna about the carter and the old woman. The carter saw an old woman walking on the road carrying a heavy basket on her head. Feeling sorry he asked her to sit behind in the cart. After a while he looked behind and found the old woman sitting at the back with her heavy basket yet on her head. Likewise many Tamil politicians still refuse to let go of the LTTE baggage.
This tendency has come to the fore after provincial polls were announced. The election campaign has opened up new vistas for freedom of expression and freedom of speech in the hitherto constricted political atmosphere. The newly created political space is being used, misused and abused by vested interests to revive secessionist notions in different forms and restore the lost image and reputation of the LTTE. As predicted by this writer in July and reiterated in the preliminary paragraph of this article “A veritable Pandora’s box of the ‘Eelam’ variety seems to have been opened”.
Open advocacy of separatism is disallowed by the sixth Constitutional amendment and all candidates contesting the provincial poll have submitted letters along with their nomination papers swearing allegiance to the Constitution. Thus there is no open articulation of “Tamil Eelam” by frontline contestants. Substitute codewords for a separate state however are in use. Terms such as ‘Thamizh Thesiyam’ (Tamil Nationalism) ‘Thaayagam’ (homeland) ‘Suyanirnayam’ (self-determination) ‘Thannaatchi’ (self –rule) and phrases like “Emakkendru oru Thaayagam” (a homeland for us) “Nammai Naame Aaluvoam” (we will rule ourselves) proliferate on platforms.All these terms and phrases are outwardly innocuous and can be explained away as being within the ambit of elections to a provincial unit. Yet the context of such usages on electoral platforms evoke a secessionist mood and fervour very much alike the 1977 campaign of the Tamil United Libertion front(TULF) that sought a mandate for Tamil Eelam.
Front and Flanked: President’s Counsel K.Kanag-Iswaran, Justice C. V. Wigneswaran and Tamil National Alliance Leader Rajavarothiyam Sampanthan at Thanthai Chelvanayagam Memorial Lecture at New Kathiresan hall in Bambalapitty, Sri Lanka ~ Picture by Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai – via PassionParade
After reading news reports ,listening to audio interviews and viewing video clips of the TNA electoral campaign from Toronto, I began getting the feel of that historic 1977 election campaign by the TULF where youths of my generation got caught up in the emotional frenzy of achieving a country of our own. In order to test whether this was simply my long distance impression or not, I contacted more than one friend of my age group now living in the North of Sri Lanka. All of them confirmed that my impression was correct.
The words in Tamil of one friend who was 22 years old in 1977 and is now working in a Northern NGO summed up the situation thus. “Thani Naadu, Thamizh Eezham, Pirivinai poale sotkal illai. Aanal matrumpadi Pechukkal ellam 1977 madhiri Unarchi koppulikkuthu.Paattukkalum appadithaan.Marupadiyum oru Azhivo endru payaai irukkuthu” (No words like separate state, Tamil Eelam, secession are being used but otherwise the speeches are all bubbling with emotion like 1977. Even the songs are like that.I am fearful that we are heading for another destruction again).
More troubling than the subtle and not so subtle endeavours to create a secessionist mood is the brazen attempt to boost the tiger image. The idea at present is not to return to arms or resurrect the LTTE but is aimed at bringing about an emotional renaissance in favour of the tigers through platform rhetoric. Utilising the political space of the election campaign the LTTE is being praised and the current situation deplored. Prabhakaran’s reign is being projected as the ‘golden phase of the Eelam Tamils’.
An important method of such mobilisation is the use of songs. Propaganda efforts for the Tamil armed struggle has led to the usage of a number of popular songs. These range from the borrowing of appropriate songs from mainstream Tamil films to songs specifically written, composed, sung and recorded by the LTTE or its front organizations. Most of these songs were not heard of publicly after the LTTE military defeat of May 2009. But now these songs were being heard again and heard loudly, under the auspices of the TNA election campaign. Even a new audio CD of former pro-tiger singer ‘Thenisai’ Chellappah has been specially commissioned for the elections.
The concerted efforts to revive the LTTE image is done consciously by an extremist segment of the TNA that is at heart hawkish and fiercely loyal to the LTTE. Another large and largely opportunistic segment goes along with this in a bid to garner votes and consolidate their position within the TNA. There is a third moderate element that is unhappy at this trend but is either unwilling or unable to challenge or prevent this blatant pro-LTTE shift. The pro –LTTE moves and activities are being fuelled by funds from the tigerish elements in the Diaspora.This material support from LTTE and pro-LTTE sections of the Diaspora is an added incentive to those promoting the tiger image through the election campaign.
Canagasabapathy Viswalingam Wigneswaran is caught up in this explosive situation and is struggling to cope with it. Although he was the unanimous choice of the TNA and was endorsed as a common candidate by all five constituent parties the reality is that of the potential chief minister being treated as an outsider and as a loner.Each constituent party of the TNA is canvassing actively for candidates belonging to the party concerned. Wigneswaran the common candidate in theory has no party working for him in practice. He derives his support from Sampanthan who has very little clout in matters concerning the North.
Jaffna district MP Somasuntharam Senathirajah alias “Maavai” Senathirajah who also aspired to be the TNA chief ministerial candidate later stepped down ‘magnanimously’ in favour of Wigneswaran. His magnanimity however was for cosmetic purposes. Senathirajah though deprived of candidacy has struck back decisively by controlling the candidate nomination process. A gang of four comprising Senathirajah, ex-Jaffna university Professor Sittambalam, former Jaffna municipal commissioner Sivagnanam and TNA youth front leader Sivakaran have been the decision makers in finalising candidates. The man projected as future chief minister was left out in the cold in this exercise.
Furthermore there are underhand attempts to undermine Wigneswaran further by reducing the number of preferential votes he could get. The design is to bolster the campaign of a few preferred candidates on the TNA list and make them get more preference votes than Wigneswaran himself.If that happens and Wigneswaran fails to gain the most number of preference votes another move to replace him as chief minister could be initiated by vested interests hostile to him.
It may also be recalled that Wigneswaran was targeted viciously by sections of the Tamil media in Sri Lanka and abroad at the time of nomination. TNA Jaffna district MP E.Saravanabavan who owns the Tamil dailies ‘Uthayan’ and ‘Sudar Oli’ was opposed to Wigneswaran and orchestrated a media campaign against him. Media organs abroad also condemned Wigneswaran for being Colombo based, for having Sinhala politicians as relatives (Vasudeva and Kesaralal) and also for being critical of the LTTE and Tamil armed struggle.
All these matters placed Wigneswaran in a precarious position. If he was to continue along the political course he had chartered for himself and succeed it was obvious that the prevailing situation had to be rectified. For this certain compromises and adjustments had to be made. Wigeswaran cannot alter his Colombo background; Wigneswaran cannot change his Sinhala relatives. But the one thing he could change was the perception of him being anti –LTTE. This he did by re-inventing himself in a pro-LTTE mould acceptable to the Tamil hardliners in Sri Lanka and abroad.Of course there is a price to pay in these matters but Wigneswaran is not the first and certainly wont be the last to make such Faustian bargains.
It is in this context that I wrote in July that “the Sitar strumming Wigneswaran may not be able to play the melody of his choice in the days to come” and that “He may even find the strings on his instrument snapping if the current trend continues”. What has happened is that Wigneswaran has willingly opted to play the tiger melody now. He plays the tune so lustily now that the danger to his sitar strings has diminished.
Thus the past weeks have seen Wigneswaran mounting the steed of ultra-Tamil nationalism. He began with a trot then broke into a canter and is now galloping away. The goal is attaining the coveted chief minister position along with a record preference vote majority. As a result of this changed approach by Wigneswaran the Tamil media organs hostile to him are now on the same wavelength with him. His provocatively controversial utterances are given wide publicity.
What is happening in the on going process is that Wigneswaran who at one time heard and ruled on cases where alleged members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE)were charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) is now giving a clean bill of health to the tigers. “The Liberation Tigers are not terrorists but freedom fighters” he tells gatherings in Jaffna. One does not know whether Wigneswaran is sincere in asserting this but if he genuinely believes that the LTTE is not a terrorist outfit then one cannot but help wonder as to why he sat on the bench hearing cases listed under the PTA. The honourable thing for an honourable judge to do would have been to refuse to hear cases charging persons as terrorists under the PTA when he personally did not regard them as terrorists. If Wigneswaran was drastically honourable he should have discharged those charged under the PTA and faced consequences with the courage of his convictions.
He did not do so then and none can blame him for it. But what is irksome now is this belated acknowledgement that the tigers were no terrorists. Of course it could be argued that Wigneswaran was of a different view then and that it had changed now. If so the relevant issue is the date of this enlightenment and the reasons for it.
All of us are somewhat inconsistent in our thoughts, words and deeds at times. The difference is in the degree and in the underlying causes of such inconsistency. In politics however consistency is not necessarily a virtue. If Wigneswaran’s inconsistency is due to lofty motives then it is indeed praiseworthy. If not, one can only lament.
The Tamil media particularly those controlled or influenced by tiger and pro-tiger elements are replete with reports of radical speeches made by Wigneswaran. These speeches are rousing in nature and appeal to people’s emotions. It must be said that Wigneswaran is not the only Tamil politician playing to the gallery. There are many which is hardly surprising or unexpected. But it is Wigneswaran as the premier TNA candidate who has the most profound impact. Naturally the Tamil media relishes this transfiguration and provides much publicity to the words of Wigneswaran.
What saddens this writer is the sight of an eminent ex-judge demeaning himself by pandering to the whims and fancies of hawkish Tamil elements in the Island and the Diaspora. Last week saw Wigneswaran in Valvettithurai (VVT) the native village of LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran and the cradle of armed Tamil militancy. Wigneswaran delivered a thundering speech to an audience consisting mainly of people from VVT and neighbouring areas.
Wigneswaran stated there that Prabhakaran the son of VVT soil was a great hero and not a terrorist. “Pirapakaran oru payangaravathiyalla. Avar Thamil Inathin Viduthalikkaaha Poaradiya oru Maha Veeran” (Prabhakaran is not a terrorist. He is a great hero who fought for the freedom of the Tamil people) re-iterated Wigneswaran on Valvettithurai soil.
This assertion by Wigneswaran will certainly be disputed by many in the south and even by a few in the north.The perennial debate about freedom fighters and terrorists is one that shows no signs of ceasing. But what is important here is to note that Wigneswaran’s claim amounted to a slap in the face for UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Navaneetham ‘Navi’ Pillay. Addressing a press conference in Colombo at the end of her visit to Sri Lanka Ms. Navi Pillay made the following observation –
“The LTTE was a murderous organization that committed numerous crimes and destroyed many lives. In fact, my only previous visit to Sri Lanka was to attend a commemoration of the celebrated legislator, peacemaker and scholar, Neelan Tiruchelvam, who was killed by an LTTE suicide bomb in July 1999. Those in the diaspora who continue to revere the memory of the LTTE must recognize that there should be no place for the glorification of such a ruthless organization”.
Navi Pillay did not mince her words in referring to the LTTE.She did not call it explicitly as terrorist but implicit in her statement was the message to those revering the memory of tigers that a ruthless organization such as the LTTE must not be glorified.But what the former Supreme court judge of Sri Lanka has done is to convey an indirect reply to the former International Criminal court Judge by paying tribute to Prabhakaran and by extension glorifying and revering the memory of the LTTE.
Wigneswaran’s conduct as a candidate eyeing the chief minister post can be rationalised and justified by some as a necessary evil brought about by political considerations. In a situation where powerful sections in the TNA configuration and within the Diaspora were undermining him. the retired Judge had no option other than to be more hawkish than the hawks and overcome opposition is an argument that is not entirely without merit. Moreover it could also be said that Wigneswaran after victory would discard this hardliner posture and toe a more moderate line.
The flaw in these arguments is that attempts in the past by many to adopt extreme positions to win elections and then revert to a course of moderation have often boomeranged and failed miserably. In 1956 the great liberal Oxonian SWRD Bandaranake who ate stringhoppers with fork and knife promised “Sinhala Only” and swept the polls. But when he tried later to address legitimate Tamil grievances the chauvinist forces unleashed by him would not allow him to do so. Likewise the TULF leadership adopted the extremist goal of secession to win elections. But when the TULF leaders tried to moderate the separate state demand and accept some form of devolution the militant elements galvanised by the dream of Tamil Eelam would not accept it.
In similiar vein the retired Judge is treading on dangerous ground in singing paeans of praise to Prabhakaran and indirectly glorifying the LTTE. After resorting to such rhetoric and winning, Wigneswaran would be regarded by hardliners in the TNA and Diaspora as a LTTE fellow traveler. The avowed purpose of Tamil hardliners is not to gain power in the Provincial council and use it constructively to better the lives and economy of the Tamil people in the North.Their objective is to capture power and then ruin the council thereby demonstrating that no scheme of devolution could satisfy the political thirst of the Tamils.
Music and Politics: Parton of Colombo Kamban Kazhagam retired Supreme Court Judge C.V.Wigneswaran is delivering the key note address – Apr 2011-Picture by Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai – via passionParade
So the assumption that CV Wigneswaran can indulge in pro-tiger rhetoric, whip up emotions, win elections with a thumping majority and then transform into a moderate seeking reasonable accommodation with Colombo is a calculation that can go terribly awry. The genie let out of the bottle simply wont go back in. Wigneswaran would then find himself being targeted vehemently by forces claiming that they brought him into power (not entirely without justification) and therefore should adhere to their wishes. In such a situation Wigneswaran can either obey their diktat or be thrown out of office.
The greater danger of Wigneswaran’s perceived volte face is the potential damage it could do Sri Lanka’s fragile state of ethnic relations. It has been the practice of Sinhala hardliners to label any Tamil articulating demands for justice and equality as tiger or pro-tiger. When Wigneswaran was nominated, there were many who thought that such branding would not be possible in his case because of his eminent stature and background. Indeed at the start when such accusations were made those making the charges were laughed at reduced to silence. But now with Wigneswaran speaking out stridently in praise of Prabhakaran, the charges of ‘kotiya’ gather fresh momentum. The defenders of Wigneswaran are silenced.Trust and Confidence the essentials for inter-ethnic reconciliation and amity have been seriously eroded and de-valued.
CV Wigneswaran may win with a huge majority and become chief minister of the Northern Province after September 21st. It is however doubtful whether he could function effectively against the backdrop of the election campaign. Given the covert expression of secessionist sentiments and overt expressions of pro-LTTE rhetoric during the campaign, the sword of Damocles hangs above the future Northern provincial administration. The Commonwealth summit of November 2013 and UNHRC sessions of March 2014 may provide respites but the fate of the Northern Provincial administration to be formed by the TNA under chief minister CV Wigneswaran seems firmly sealed.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at ~ firstname.lastname@example.org