Northern Voters will be casting their votes on September 21st 2013 at the historic first election to the Northern Provincial Council. Although population figures indicate that women are more in number than men in the North, the lists of candidates fielded by the major political parties do not reflect this gender balance. However among the few women contesting polls two candidates from rival configurations in the Jaffna district have aroused much interest and received related publicity.
Gnanasakthy Sritharan in Koovil (former High Security Zone), Jaffna District-picture by Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai
One is Gnanasakthi Sritharan who is contesting under the betel symbol of the ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA). The other is Ananthi Sasitharan contesting on behalf of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) under the house symbol.
The senior among these two is Gnanasakthi who has a long,colourful track record of political activism and service.It is however the junior Ananthi Sasitharan who is currently better known and receives massive media attention.
It is indeed sad to see a senior woman activist of substance such as Gnanasakthi Sritharan being overlooked as far as media focus is concerned. Since she is contesting on the UPFA list which certainly is not tipped to top polls, it is doubtful as to whether she would get elected. Even if she loses that result would certainly not reflect her true worth and capacity.
This writer who has a perpetual tendency of supporting the perceived underdog wishes to focus on this remarkable Tamil woman candidate contesting from Jaffna district even as polling for the Northern provincial council gets underway on Saturday.
Gnanasakthi is married to Thirunavukkarasu Sritharan alias “Sugu”who is the secretary of the Pathmanabha Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front.Her current political role is not due to him.She is in her own right a former militant and activist and does not bask in the reflected glory of her husband.Spouse Sugu plays a supportive role and actively backs her in political campaigning thereby demonstrating that there is always a man behind every successful woman.
Gnanasakthi was born on the traditional new year day of April 14th in 1956. She hails from Murugan veethi or street in Urunpirai east. Urumpirai is basically an agrarian village in the Valigaamam zone of Jaffna peninsula. Her maiden name is Gnanasakthi Nadarajah.She had her primary education in Urumpirai and secondary education at the Hindu Ladies College in Jaffna.
Urumpirai is the native place of Ponnuthurai Sivakumaran one of the pioneering Tamil youths engaging in Tamil militancy.Sivakumaran was about to be arrested after an aborted robbery and to avoid capture consumed cyanide.He was hospitalised and died on June 5th 1974 and paved the way for the cyanide capsule cultism ushered in by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)later. Sivakumaran however was not a member of the Tamil New Tigers the forerunner of the LTTE which was formed on May 5th 1976.
After her son’s death Sivakumaran’s mother Annaletchumi Ponnuthurai began playing a prominent political role.She was associated with Mangaiyarkkarasi, the spouse of former opposition and TULF leader Appapillai Amirthalingam, in establishing a woman’s wing known as the “Thamizh Mahalir Peravai” or Tamil Women’s Front. Since she was from Urumpirai herself Gnanasakthi knew Mrs.Ponnuthurai personally and got involved with her work. Gnanasakthi actively worked for the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in the 1977 election campaign. This was her baptism in politics.
Gnana as she was known then began engaging in social work concentrating on downtrodden women discriminated against on grounds of gender,class ad caste. This led to her moving away from TULF politics and getting involved with the radical student organization known as General Union of Eelam Students(GUES). She became a socialist and feminist.Subsequently the GUES and other like minded organizations in other sectors formed together the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) in 1981. Gnana too joined the EPRLF and was involved in organizational work
It was as an activist in the EPRLF that she met her future husband Thirunavukkarasu Sritharan alias Sugu whose parents are from the Islands Nainatheevu and Analai Theevu. Sugu too was a tireless political activist with a theoretical flair. Both moved closely together and a romance blossomed.He was later arrested and detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act(PTA).
Climbed to Paste: A woman supporter of Gnanasakthy Sritharan pasting posters in Koovil, Jaffna District ~ Picture by Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai ~ via flickr/PassionParade
When the EPRLF abducted the American couple Allen in 1984 they demanded that some Tamil detenues be released. Foremost among them was Sugu.The Allen episode ended in failure and Sugu remained in custody. Finally he was released in 1987 under the general amnesty provided by the India –Sri Lanka accord of 1987.They married the same year and Gnanasakthi Nadarajah became Gnanasakthi Sritharan.They have a daughter born in 1991 who is studying in India now.
The women’s organization of the EPRLF was the Eelam Womens Liberation Front. Gnanasakthi or Gnana was one of the pioneers who founded it.Later she became its head. She also undertook much organizational work moving from village to village setting up branches and politicising the women.
During the early eighties of the previous century the EPRLF women front maintained contact with progressive women’s organizations in the south. Gnana herself came down to the South and participated in meetings and seminars.
An important meeting held in Colombo then was to protest the assault on veteran Trotskyite Vivienne Goonewardena by the Kollupitiya police in 1982. Gnanasakthi addressed that meeting on behalf of Northern Women.Her speech in Tamil was interpreted into Sinhala by comrade P. Muthulingam.
The anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983 altered the Tamil political landscape. Tamil youths took up militancy and were armed and trained by India. Gnanasakthi also obtained arms training and was given the nom de guerre Rajee. She became known as Rajee or Rajee Thozhar (comrade Rajee) but many juniors addressed her as “Akka Thozhar” (Comrade elder sister).
The Tamil militant movement was soon fractured and there was internecine warfare. Comrade Rajee was in the forefront of a demonstration protesting the LTTE attack on the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization(TELO) in April- May 1986. After seven months the LTTE attacked the EPRLF in December 1986. Comrade Rajee went underground to escape the LTTE.
Fresh political space opened up after the Indo – Lanka accord. The EPRLF formed the North –Eastern administration. Gnanasakthi worked as the Public relations coordinator of the chief minister Varadarajapperumal. She was also appointed later as the solitary woman member of the council. She was a North –Eastern provincial councillor during the tail end of the council.Gnanasakthi Sritharan is perhaps the sole member of the former North –Eastern Provincial council to be contesting the current Northern poll.
The North –Eastern Provincial council comprising the Northern and Eastern provinces came into force in 1988 with Annamalai Varatharajapperumal as chief minister.It was dissolved in 1990 by President Ranasinghe after the council passed a resolution stating its intent to declare “Tamil Eelam” if 21 conditions were not adhered to within a years time.Though the North-Eastern council was backed by New Delhi,President Premadasa supported by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) went ahead with dissolution then.
Most members of the EPRLF fled to India after the N-E provincial council was dissolved and the Indian army withdrew from Sri Lanka. Rajee and Sugu too were among these. They lived amidst much hardship in refugee camps and in low income dwellings in India.
The advent of Chandrika Kumaratunga as President in 1994 saw a political change. The family returned to Sri Lanka and helped with EPRLF political work in Colombo. Gnana used this time to revive contacts and participate in mass meetings and protests.
The peace interlude of 2002 – 2004 brought about fresh danger for Tamil activists opposed to the LTTE. Gnana now a mother of a child led a cautious low-key life during this time. Things changed again after 2004 when Chandrika Kumaratunga took hold of the reins from Ranil Wickremesinghe.
With the daughter grown up and studying in India, Gnanasakthi kept shuttling between both countries after 2004. After the LTTE was defeated in May 2009 the climate changed.Gnana opted to stay put in Sri Lanka and engage in political work and feminist activism again.She focused on women’s rights extensively and set up a forum in the North to revive and foster consciousness and concern for equal rights among women.
It was in this situation that the Northern Provincial council elections were announced. This impelled her to contest on a platform for peace,development and women’s rights.What was the motivating factor in contesting and what does she hope to achieve by it?The question was answered by Gnanasakthi herself in an interview given to a Sri Lankan Tamil woman scribe Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai this week. Here are relevant excerpts from what she said in the interview –
“Patriarchy plays a major role in politics. Fellow male candidates feel threatened when there are women candidates. They don’t encourage women to embrace politics. More women should enter politics, and become decision makers. But, the adequate space is not given to the women who have the courage to become politicians.’’
‘‘I will work hard to protect every woman’s basic rights, including all women ex combatants, irrespective of their political views, and which armed organisation they were involved with. Tamil women have been used by all the parities, which were involved in armed struggle. The women became the permanent victims of war – killed, disabled, raped, made as single mothers, and so on. Tamil women who have either contributed to the war or been victimised due to war are left in the lurch, nobody comes forward to empower them in post war Sri Lanka. They continue to suffer in silence. There are no sustainable livelihood programs for these women in need”
‘‘Male candidates have a lot of financial and personnel support, whereas I struggle to continue my election campaign. On the other hand, I don’t want to waste money in printing different posters, cut outs and paraphernalia. I would like to dedicate my services to the people (especially women) who need a lot of support to rebuild their shattered lives. Women have been pushed to bear multiple burdens, most of them are living under poverty line, and are malnourished. I neither want to beautify myself nor want to give false promises to people. But, I want to serve my people, because I feel their pain”
An intriguing aspect of Gnanasakthi’s candidacy is that she is contesting on the UPFA symbol Betel. Though contesting as a EPDP nominee she is not of that party.As stated earlier Gnanasakthi is married to Thirunavukkarasu Sritharan alias “Sugu”who is the secretary of the Pathmanabha Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front.It is registered as a political party and allotted the candle symbol.
Yet, Gnanasakthi Sritharan is contesting the current poll on the UPFA list as a nominee of the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party(EPDP) led by Cabinet minister of Traditional Industries and Small Enterprises Douglas Devananda. How and why this situation came to pass is a sorry indictment of the much talked about concept of Tamil unity.
The original Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front(EPRLF)led by its lovable Secretary-General Padmanabha alias Ranjan a.k.a.Nabha is now fragmented into three.The parent body is led by Premachandran alias Suresh who is the party secretary. The EPRLF is registered as a political party and given the flower as its symbol. The EPRLF however is now a constituent member of the Tamil National Alliance and is contesting the current Northern poll under the House symbol.
Another breakaway faction from the EPRLF is now re-configured as the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party(EPDP)and is a member of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government. EPDP secretary and leader Devananda alias Douglas is cabinet minister of Traditional Industries and small enterprises.The EPDP has the veena as its symbol.The EPRLF and EPDP are strongly opposed to each other.
The third and relatively small faction came into being after the demise of Padmanabha who was killed by the LTTE in June 1990. When Suresh Premachandran took over leadership after Padmanabha a group of dissidents functioned separately but kept using the EPRLF name.This faction was given overall direction and leadership by former North –Eastern chief minister Varadarajapperumal alias Varathan living in North India.Providing joint leadership to it in Sri Lanka were Subathiran alias Robert and Sritharan alias Sugu. After Robert was assassinated in 2002 by the LTTE, Sugu took over sole leadership here.
The two EPRLF factions were known as EPRLF (Suresh) and EPRLF(Varathan)respectively. There was bitter acrimony and strife between both. When Suresh’s faction joined the TNA and subsequently accepted LTTE hegemony, the EPRLF Varathan faction kept out of that grouping.With Varatharajapperumal based in India taking a back seat the EPRLF faction reconstituted itself as the Pathmanaba Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front with Sritharan as Secretary General.
The Pathmanabha EPRLF chartered an independent course and kept out of both the Govt and LTTE blocs. It formed the Tamil Democratic National Alliance together with the Tamil United Liberation Front(TULF)led by Veerasingham Anandasangaree and Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam(PLOTE)led by Dharmalingam Siddharthan. It was later changed to Democratic Tamil National Alliance.
The Triad failed to make much headway at various hustings and consequently decided to join the TNA in the interests of greater Tamil “unity’’.The hitch however was that Suresh Premachandran was not prepared to extend the concept of Tamil unity to the rival EPRLF faction.So the TULF and the political party of the PLOTE known as Democratic Peoples Liberation Front (DPLF) abandoned the third member of their alliance and joined another alliance.
When elections to the Eastern Provincial council were held last year, provincial councillor Thurairatnam was in a quandary.He had contested as a senior member of the Pathmanaba Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front in 2008 and won. But now with the Tamil nationalist tide flowing in favour of the TNA, he too wanted to ride its crest.Suresh insisted that Thurairatnam leave his party and contest as part of the EPRLF under TNA. This Thurairatnam did and won with the highest number of preferences in the district. This was due to his personal popularity and not due to any other factor.
When the Northern provincial poll came up there was a slot for a woman candidate contesting in Jaffna from the TNA. Both the TULF and PLOTE promised to allocate that slot to Gnanasakthi. Again Suresh refused to let that happen. Both Anandasangaree and Siddharthan were prepared to even accommodate her on their quota but Suresh adamantly refused to let her contest.Reluctantly those in the TNA supportive of Gnanasakthi’s candidacy backed out. Subsequently the woman candidate slot was filled by Ananthi Sasitharan.
It was under these circumstances that Gnanasakthi Sritharan opted to contest as a EPDP nominee on the UPFA list.While one erstwhile comrade Suresh refused to let her be nominated another former comrade Douglas was willing to accommodate her.Apart from the EPDP she is backed strongly by the leftists, socialists, Trotskyites and Communists within UPFA folds.
Gnansakthi Sritharan’s campaign is people oriented . Her reliance is not on mass meetings, media advertisements or poster campaigns but on reaching out on a people to people level.She goes directly to the people by visiting as many villages as possible.Almost every village in Jaffna has a woman’s organization known as “Maathar” or “Mahalir” sangam. Gnanasakthi as an ardent feminist maintains links with these organizations. She also retains her contacts with women representatives cultivated during her days as an EPRLF activist. She meets them all and explains what she wants to achieve.
The task is tough and almost insurmountable.The road is thorny and stony but the journey continues regardless of whether victory is achieved or not. It is her vision and mission. As Gnanasakthi Sritharan herself stated she is in the fray against overwhelming odds due to an inspiring goal ‘‘I want to serve my people, because I feel their pain”.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at ~ firstname.lastname@example.org