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Jeevan Thondaman, Ceylon Workers Congress and The Tamils of Nuwara- Eliya District

By
D.B.S.Jeyaraj

The hills of Nuwara – Eliya are vibrantly alive with the hectic sounds of Parliamentary electioneering! Nuwara – Eliya district with its picturesque landscape and salubrious climate elects eight members in the 225 member Parliament of Sri Lanka. 577,717 registered voters in the district are eligible to cast their ballots at the forthcoming elections scheduled for August 5th.

Jeevan Thondaman

The Nuwara-Eliya electoral district has a unique place in the electoral map of Sri Lanka. It is the only district outside the Northern and Eastern provinces to have a Tamil speaking majority comprising Tamils of recent Indian origin, Sri Lankan Tamils and Sri Lankan Moors. According to the 2012 Census the total population of Nuwara -Eliya was 711,644. Of these Tamils both Indian and Sri Lankan were 410, 200 (57.6%), while the Sinhalese numbered 282,053(39.6%). Sri Lankan Moors totalled 17,652 while other groups numbered 1,730.

There are four electoral divisions in the Nuwara -Eliya electoral district. They are Nuwara -Eliya – Maskeliya, Kotmale, Hanguranketa and Walapane. The Nuwara -Eliya -Maskelia electoral division is a merger of the old Nuwara – Eliya and Maskeliya constituencies under the first -past-the-post election system. About 75% are Tamils in this electoral division, The other three electoral divisions Kotmale, Walapane and Hanguranketa have 53%, 26% and 21% Tamils respectively.

The scheduled Parliamentary election for August 5th in Nuwara-Eliya district will have 275 candidates in the fray.Of these 132 are from 12 registered political parties and 143 are from 13 independent groups. Out for grabs are eight MP seats. The 2015 and 2010 elections have seen five Tamil MP’s being elected in each poll. In that context a sizeable number of candidates from several political parties and independent groups are Tamils. Six independent groups have fielded an all – Tamil candidate list.

This quest for Tamil votes with the goal of electing Tamils is a far cry from the not so distant past. When Sri Lanka known then as Ceylon held its first Parliamentary election shortly before Independence from Britain, eight MP’s representing Up Country constituencies were elected. Of these seven were from the Ceylon Indian Congress as the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) was known then. The Parliament then had ninety-five elected and six appointed MP’s.

As is well known the citizenship and voting rights of Indian Tamils were taken away in the early post-Independence years by the UNP Govt of D. S. Senanayake. The de-citizenised, disenfranchised community was not able to have any elected MP’s for many many years after that great injustice. It was in the 1977 Parliamentary poll – three decades after 1947- that the hill country Tamils were able to elect an MP directly.

Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman

The Nuwara – Eliya and Maskeliya constituencies were merged and re-demarcated into a three member multi-member constituency in terms of the report presented by the De-limitation Commission headed by Noel Tittawela. Gamini Dissanayake of the UNP and Anura Bandaranaike of the SLFP were elected as first and second MP’s with 65,903 and 48,776 votes respectively. The legendary leader of the Ceylon Workers Congress, Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman contesting under the cockerel symbol was elected third MP with 35,743 votes from the CWC political wing. The Up country Tamils had come in from the cold after 30 years.

Arumugan Thondaman and Jeevan Kumaravel Thondaman

The new Constitution ushered in by President Junius Richard Jayewardene in 1978 in changed the system of elections of directly elected MP’s from electorates into a system of proportionate representation based on districts. In the first elections held under the new scheme in 1989 no Indian Tamil was elected from Nuwara-Eliya district. The tide began turning in 1994.

From 1994, the Tamils of Indian origin began to be elected regularly to Parliament from the CWC in Nuwara-Eliya , Some were appointed MP”s on the national list also. Meanwhile the plantation patriarch Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman passed away in 1999. The mantle of leadership was donned by his grandson Arumugan Thondaman who proved to be a fiery leader. Arumugan known as “Thamby” has been elected to Parliament from Nuwara – Eliya at every election from 1994 onwards.

Since 1994, the lion’s share of elected MP’s were from Nuwara -Eliya district the Tamil enclave in the seven Southern Sinhala majority provinces. At least three or four Tamil MP’s were elected from the district in the 1994,2000, 2001 and 2004 elections. In 2010 and 2015 it went up to five in each year. The CWC got the most number of MP”s from the Nuwara – Eliya district until 2015 where it was overtaken by the new kid on the block the Tamil Progressive Alliance(TPA).

Ceylon Workers Congress

What had happened was that in 2010 the Ceylon Workers Congress had contested on the UPFA ticket as it was part of the Mahinda Rajapaksa Govt. The CWC’s Arumugan Thondaman, V. Radhakrishnan and Perumal Rajadurai were elected MP’s while Muthu Sivalingam was made national list MP. Subsequently Radhakrishnan and Rajadurai defected from the CWC. P. Digambaran elected on the UNP ticket joined the Rajapaksa Govt. When Maithripala Sirisena broke away in 2014 and became the common opposition candidate, Rajadurai crossed over to the opposition. He was followed by Digambaran and Radhakrishnan. Arumugan Thondaman and the CWC stayed put with Mahinda.

Maithripala defeated Mahinda and became President in January 2015. Parliament elections were scheduled for August 2015. In a significant development the Democratic Peoples Front(DPF) headed by Mano Ganesan, National Union of Workers (NUW) led by Digambaran and the Up Country Peoples Front(UCPF) of Radhakrishnan came together and formed the TPA to face the Parliamentary hustings. Radhakrishnan who split from the CWC had assumed leadership of the UCPF whose founder-leader Chandrasekaran had died. The CWC continued to be with the SLFP led UPFA at the polls while the TPA contested as part of the UNP- led UNFGG. Three MP’s from the TPA (Digambaran, Radhakrishnan and Thilakarajah) were elected from Nuwara – Eliya district. Another three TPA MP’s were also elected. They were Mano Ganesan (Colombo), M.Velu Kumar(Kandy) and A. Aravind Kumar(Badulla). The CWC had only two MP’s. Arumuan Thondaman and Muthu Sivalingam were elected from Nuwara =Eliya district.

It would appear from the 2015 Parliament election results that the TPA had got the better of the CWC in Nuwara – Eliya. Digambaran and Ganesan became cabinet ministers and Radhakrishnan a state minister. For the first time in many years CWC leader Arumugan Thondaman was without a ministerial portfolio. The CWC though down was not out.

Portrait of Saumiamoorthy Thondaman is unveiled at the Sri Lanka Parliamentary complex to mark 100th birth anniversary-news.lk-pic: Photo by: Chandana Perera

When the local authority elections were held in February 2018, the CWC got a chance to demonstrate that it was not a spent force as propagated by its rivals. Under Arumugan Thondaman’s astutely devised electoral strategy of contesting separately as CWC in certain local authorities and as part of alliances in others, paid huge dividends.The CWC polled over 100,000 votes and obtained positions in several councils in the district including a few chairperson posts.

When the 2019 Presidential elections was to be held, the CWC weighed its options and prepared a document with 32 concerns and related demands. After submitting it to both parties and appraising their responses, Arumugan Thondaman opted to support Gotabaya Rajapaksa while the TPA threw its lot in with Sajith Premadasa. Tamil majority Nuwara -Eliya district as in the case of districts in the North and East voted in large numbers for Sajith who polled 277,913 to Gota’s 175,823.

Arumugan Thondaman

The 2019 electoral verdict showed that Arumugan Thondaman could not convert the political strength of the CWC in Nuwara -Eliya into support for the Rajapaksas at a presidential election. In the case of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it appeared that “Gotaphobia”had taken firm root among the minority communities in general and Tamils in particular. Despite the inability to deliver votes, the Rajapaksas were appreciative of the support extended by Arumugan and the CWC. When the triumphant new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa formed his cabinet, Arumugan Thondaman was sworn in as Minister of Community Empowerment and Estate Infra-structure Development.

When Parliament was dissolved on March 2nd and fresh elections were announced for April 25th 2020, the CWC under Arumugan Thondaman hitched its wagon to the Sri Lanka Podujana Party star and opted to contest under the Lotus bud symbol. Five CWC candidates namely Arumugan Thondaman,Palani Sakthivel, Maruthupandy Rameshwaran, Arulanandam Philipkumar and Kanapathy Kanagaraj filed nomination papers. Arumugan headed the SLPP list. The CWC also fielded Senthil Thondaman in Badulla and Bharath Arulsamy in Kandy on the Lotus bud ticket. The CWC also backed an Independent roup in the Wanni district where more than one-fifth of the population are Indian Tamils.

The unexpected spread of the COVID-19 threat made all election plans go awry. Elections were postponed and the country suffered a drastic disruption of everyday life. And then a disastrous tragedy befell Sri Lanka, the Up Country Tamil people, the CWC and the Thondaman family. On May 26th Soumiyamoorthy Arumugan Ramanathan Thondaman had a massive heart attack and passed away. Arumugan Thondaman born in 1964 would have celebrated his 56th birthday on May 29th had he been alive. Arumugan was cremated at Nowood with State Honours on May 31st. Before that large crowds paid their respects despite the on going curfews. The life and times of dynamic political leader Arumugan Thondaman needs to be written about in greater detail on another occasion.

Arumugan’s sudden demise created a void in the CWC. It also raised the question of who would succeed him as CWC President and leader. There was also the urgent matter of appointing a replacement for him on the SLPP candidate list for Nuwara-Eliya.The CWC Political committee resolved unanimously that Arumugan’s only son Jeevan Kumaravel Thondaman sould be the replacement for Arumugan Thondaman on the Nuwara -Eliya SLPP candidate list. SLPP leader and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was duly informed. This was done within three days of Arumugan’s death in accordance with election laws.

General Secretary

There was a remarkable turn of events in mid-June. A meeting was held on June 17th at the Congress Labour Foundation (CLF) in Kotagala. The CWC’s national council consisting of Union representatives along with the Party’s executive council convened at the CLF and unanimously elected Jeevan Thondaman as General Secretary of the CWC. Earlier Anushiya Sivarajah was functioning as General Secretary under Arumugan Thondaman’s presidency. With Jeevan taking over as General Secretary, Anushia was elected CWC Vice-president. The post of CWC president held by Arumugan Thondaman remains vacant. No one in the CWC seems to be in a hurry to fill that vacancy.

The nomination of Jeevan Thondaman in place of Arumugan Thondaman on the Nuwara- Eliya candidate list coupled with his elevation as CWC general secretary has given rise to speculation that the son would be the political successor to his father as CWC leader. Arumugan himself was the CWC general-secretary when his grandfather Souniyamoorthy Thondaman passed away in 1999. Thereafter Arumugan succeeded him as CWC President and leader a few years later.It appears that Jeevan too will opt to be Gen- Secy and serve the party and people in the days to come.

“Appah” Arumugan with Children Nachi, Viji &J eevan

Jeevan’s entry into the hurly-burly of electoral politics has raised many eye-brows as he is rather young being in his mid-twenties. What many don’t seem to realise is that both Jeevan’s father Arumugan and great-grandfather Souniyamoorthy also entered trade union oriented politics in their twenties. In the case of Jeevan, politics was not his first love at least initially. Fate however has decreed otherwise and today he is in the midst of an election campaign that revolves around the memory of his father and himself.

The motivating factors that pushed and pulled Jeevan Thondaman into politics can be explained in the context of family obligations and filial duty. Rajalakshmi and Arumugan Thondaman have three children.The eldest two daughters Kothai Nachiar and Vijayalakshmi are medical doctors. Both are married with children.

”Young”Jeevan was born on November 9th 1994.After kindergarten and grade one at Gateway primary school in Colombo, Jeevan joined the Lady Andal Venkata Subba Rao school in Chennai, Tamil Nadu in grade two. After studying up to grade 12 in the Chennai school, Jeevan went to the Chinmaya International school in Coimbatore for a year. Thereafter he enrolled for an LLB degree at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK. He graduated with a law degree in 2017 and interned in a lawyer’s office in London with the intention of sitting for his bar at law exams later. Jeevan’s ambition was to become a lawyer.

Returned To Sri Lanka

Jeevan returned to Sri Lanka for what he thought would be a brief holiday then. “Appa” Arumugan had different ideas. He wanted Jeevan to help him with the party and trade union. Arumugan wanted the son to enter Law College later on and become an attorney at law in Sri Lanka. Jeevan who had missed growing up with his father, due to years of schooling and learning abroad, grasped the opportunity in order to interact with Arumugan more closely.

Arumugan tried to groom the son politically. Jeevan accompanied his father everywhere and was at Arumugan’s side through the thick of all things political.Arumugan wanted Jeevan to contest provincial council elections from Nuwara -Eliya when elections were held. Jeevan’s dream was to be a lawyer but he adhered to Arumugan’s wishes. Meanwhile Arumugan also got his son elected as CWC deputy general secretary. Jeevan however preferred to work with those of the younger generation like him and became CWC youth affairs secretary.

Jeevan also interacted very well with ordinary CWC members and their families. He was unpretentious, friendly, simple and accessible. He enjoyed excellent rapport with the youths and women. As a youngster himself, Jeevan related to other youths easily. He understood their problems and empathized with their aspirations. The youth wing was re-vamped. More and more youths were attracted into CWC folds. The 5’9 tall Jeevan with features resembling South Indian actor Siddharth became hugely popular with a massive fan following. All things however changed utterly with Arumugan Thondaman’s sudden death

A tremendous responsibility has been cast overnight upon Jeevan’s young shoulders . He may not be the De Jure leader of te CWC but there is little doubt that Jeevan is the De Facto leader for now. His immediate task is to ensure that the CWC performs well at the elections in Nuwara – Eliya and also in Badulla and Kandy. Even as he engages in electioneering for the CWC, there is also the need to reap a bountiful harvest of preferential votes for himself. If he fails to do so, the knives may be out soon. Politics is a cut-throat, backstabbing “profession”if one may call it that.

Chief Magnet For Votes

At present Jeevan is the chief CWC magnet for votes. He makes speeches in conversational mode which is rather appealing.The Nuwara -Eliya campaign is being conducted in two segments targeting two geographical sectors. It has been a CWC strategy since 1994 to project a trio of candidates and seek votes for all three. So Jeevan Thondaman is grouped with Rameshwaran and Kanagaraj in one campaign and with Sakthivel and Philipkumar in the other. Though Jeevan is the chief draw, the campaign also focuses intensively on the image of Arumugan Thondaman. It is imperative from the CWC perspective to win more seats than the TPA and retrieve lost political ground. Jeevan has to redeem his father’s prestige in this regard.

Apart from the immediate task of faring well at the imminent elections there are three more important long term or lifetime projects facing Jeevan. The first is to re-structure and re-furbish the party and union and let the fresh winds of change blow in the musty corridors of the CWC called “Ilangai Thozhilaalar Kaangiras” in Tamil. The second is to work in tandem with the Rajapaksa Govt and fulfill the pledges made by his father including the 1000 rupee daily wage for plantation workers, a University for hill country Tamils and various housing schemes. The third is the lengthy process of improving and transforming the life and lives of the community.

The younger generation in plantation worker families does not want to confine their lives to the estates. They want a new life in the urban towns,cities and in Metropolitan Colombo. They want an end to unemployment and under employment. The women want alcoholism in men and drug abuse among youths to end. Furthermore the community has spread out in so many directions and just cannot be viewed through the plantation prism alone. Policies should be formulated where the estate worker would become small holding owners instead of agitating perpetually for a living wage. The schools in the up country need to be developed and quality of education improved. Housing schemes enabling community settlements should be set up on a wider scale.

Jeevan Brings New “Life”

All these require a grand vision, the ability to concretise it via projects and the stamina to stay on course until the mission is accomplished.My assessment of Jeevan through observing his media interviews and public speeches along with information gathered from multiple sources familiar with him. makes me feel that Jeevan has it in him to make change happen. Besides he is young and has many more years ahead to realise his visionary ideals. Being young, he has the time to both plant trees as well as taste the fruits of his labour. The name Jeevan means life. It is to be hoped that Jeevan Thondaman brings new “life”to the CWC, people of Nuwara -Eliya and the Indian Tamil community in Sri Lanks.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

This is an Article written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of July 18, 2020. It can be accessed here:

http://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/CWC-Jeevan-Thondaman-and-Nuwara-Eliya-Tamils/172-192186