There has been a lot of political excitement in the Tamil speaking areas of the Eastern Province for the past two days (Feb 3rd and 4th) due to the launching of a protest demonstration named “Pottuvil to Poligandy” or “P2P”. This was to be a long march on foot and in vehicles from the Eastern town of Pottuvil in the Amparai district to the Northern town of Poligandy in Jaffna district. The four – day journey was to be along the roads of the Eastern and Northern Provinces. Beginning on February 3rd in Pottuvil, it was scheduled to end in Poligandy on February 6th. However it has now been extended by another day to Feb 7th. The objective is to protest the various acts of alleged oppression and discrimination being perpetrated against the Tamil and Muslim people of Sri Lanka and draw the attention of the world to those.
The protest march or demonstration was initially organized by committed Tamil civil society activists in tandem with Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi(ITAK) parliamentarians Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran and Shanakkiyan Rajaputhiran Rasamanickam. The campaign was officially supported by the Tamil National Alliance(TNA). Soon other Tamil organizations as well as political parties like the TamilNational Peoples Front (TNPF) also lent support. As the protest got underway there was a spontaneous upsurge of support by Tamils as well as the Tamil speaking Muslims of the East.
Despite concerted efforts by the Sri Lankan Police to prevent the protest, large scale participation by the people and the determination of the organizers has ensured its success so far. At the time this article is being written (on Feb 4th night) the participants had covered a distance more than 250km in two days.On the first day a distance of nearly a 100 km was covered from Pottuvil to Thaalankudaa in Batticaloa district. On the second day a distance over 150 km was covered from Thaalankudaa to Trincomalee town. A distance of about 235 KM from Trincomalee to Poliigandy via Mullaitheevu and Kilinochchi was to be travelled in the next two days (Feb 5th and 6th). Subsequently plans were changed. The trek from Trincomalee to Poligandy will now be compleed in three days with detours to Vavuniya and Mannar.
The choice of name for the protest is intriguing and interesting. Usually the geographical length of Tamil speaking regions in the Northern and Eastern provinces are described as between northernmost Point Pedro to Southernmost (in the East)Panamai. But in this instance the two places selected are Poligandy close to Point Pedro/Valvettithurai and Pottuvil close to Panamai. The first Tamil letter “PO” of both Pottuvil and Poligandy are the same . Apart from the alliterative aspect there was another “poetic “reason for the phrase Pottuvil to Poligandy.
Classical Tamil Landscapes
The landscape in regions inhabited by Tamils are of five categories in classical Tamil. According to the ancient “Sangham”literature the five categories are “Kurinchi”(hill country),”Marutham”(Agrarian lands and settlements), ”Mullai”(forests and grasslands), “Neidhal”(coasts and adjoining lands) and “Paalai” (deserts and sandy areas). The coastal areas of the Northern and Eastern provinces can be categorized as “Neidhal” according to classical Tamil definition.In a popular song glorifying the “Neidhal”or littoral regions of the North and East there is a line “ Pottuvil Thodakkam Poligandy Varaikkum, Pongum Kadal Valangal Polihindranavae” (marine resources proliferate abundantly from Pottuvil to Poligandy). This then was the reason for choice of name.
The Pottuvil to Poligandy protest had its genesis in the prevailing political situation. The advent of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his Government has amounted to a watershed moment for the Country in general and Tamils in particular. Many Tamils feel discriminated against under the Gotabaya Rajapaksa dispensation. After assuming office President Rajapaksa has demonstrated clearly that the Government would cater primarily to the perceived needs of the majority community. He has even explicitly stated that he is the leader of the Sinhala Buddhists in his recent Independence day address. There are many acts of omission and commission affecting Tamils .In the prevailing situation, Tamils feel utterly helpless politically.
This mood of despondency and feeling of helplessness has led to a closing of ranks and escalation of demands by Tamil political parties.A significant indicator of this “change” occurred on 15 January this year when three Tamil political parties namely the TNA,TNPF and TMTK unitedly sent a joint letter to the 47 member states of the United Nations Human Rights Council. Apart from the three party leaders eight other civil society representatives and religious leaders also signed the letter.The letter demonstrated clearly that Tamil political parties and civil society organisations were closing ranks and forging greater intra-ethnic unity. It also indicated that Tamil political demands were escalating as far as the UNHRC was concerned.
In what appeared to be a follow -up of the joint letter being sent, a conference of several Tamil political parties and Tamil civil society organizations was held in Jaffna a few weeks ago. Many Tamil activists from the East attended it. In spite of large numbers of Batticaloa and Amparai district Tamils having voted for candidates of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna(SLPP) and parties aligned to it, recent happenings like the Presidential Task Force on protecting Archaeology , arbitrary seizure of traditional pastures of dairy farmers and moves to relocate Sinhala settlers in lands belonging to Tamils haas made Tamils feel greatly threatened and insecure. So Eastern Tamils expected much from the Jaffna conclave. The results however were disappointing. After much “jaw-jaw” the conference ended inconclusively without any meaningful decision.
Some of the disappointed Eastern civil society representatives turned to TNA Batticaloa district MP Shanakkiyan Rajaputhiran Rasamanickam. Shanalliyan is the grandson of former Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi(ITAK)president and ex -Paddiruppu MP S.M. Rasamanickam. They held discussions with Shanakkiyan about conducting a comprehensive protest demonstration involving Eastern and Northern Tamils. When Shanakkiyan endorsed the idea in principle, the civil society activists wanted a guarantee that the TNA which is the premier political configuration of the Sri Lankan Tamils would throw its weight behind the protest. They also wanted to consult TNA spokesman and Jaffna district MP MA Sumanthiran.
This was followed up with a meeting of Sumanthiran and Shanakkiyan along with civil society activists. Sumanthiran concurred with the proposal mooted by civil society activists and agreed to do the spadework with TNA leaders.Sumanthiran contacted TNA leader R.Sampanthan and leaders of the three Constituent parties of the alliance and obtained their approval. The green light was given to the Civil society activists.
Thereafter Sumanthiran, Shanakkiyan and the Civic society leaders decided to launch a protest march named “Pottuvil to Poligandy” from the east to the northCivil society representatives went ahead with the knitty-gritties of planning. Specific duties were assigned and overall coordinators were appointed. Mr.Sabharathinam Sivayohanathan was appointed as the Eastern Province Coordinator while Mr. S.C.C. Elangovan was apointed as Northern Province Coordinator. Elangovan is the son of Nirmala and SC Chandrahasan. His paternal grandfather is Mr. S.J. V. Chelvanayagan and Maternal grandfather Dr. E.M. V. Naganathan. Both were founder leaders of the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi and ex-Parliamentarians.
“Kavana Eerppu Poaraattam”
On January 28th a joint appeal for a “Kavana Eerppu Poaraattam” (Attention drawing protest) was made on behalf of Tamil civil society organizations, Student unions, groups representing victimized Tamis and religious institutions. The 4-day protest titled “Pothuvil Thodangi Poligandy Varai”(From Pottuvil to Poligandy) was to be held from February 3rd to 6th. The signatories were – North- East Civil Society Forum, Association of Relatives of Enforced Disappearances.Network of NGO’s Kilinochchi,Student Union of Eastern University Arts and Cultural Faculties,Student Union of Jaffna University, National Movement for Release of Politicl Prisoners,Sivaguru Aadheenam -Jaffna, National Fishermen’s Cooperative Movement -Batticaloa,Renaissance Women’s Organization -Batticaloa,Batticaloa District Multi-Religious Union,Batticaloa District Association of Senior Citizens Organizations,Tamil Consciousness Organization -Batticaloa,White Peacok Association Batticaloa,The American Ceylon Mission Batticaloa,Mother Land Foundation -Jaffna,Kurundoor Hill Aadhi Siva Aiyanaar Temple Mullaitheevu,Vedukkunaari hill Aadhi Lingeswarar Temple -Vavuniya North,Association of Community Level Organizations -Kilinochchi,Sri Siddhi Vinayagar Temple in Vellaveli -Batticaloa,Tenkalai Aadheenam .Kanniy -Trincomalee andTamil Heritage Council -Mullaitheevu.
The protest aimed to draw attention to the rights of the Tamil speaking people that were denied by the Govt.Although the protest cited issues mainly relevant to Sri Lankan Tamils , there were two relating to up Country Tamils and Muslims. One endorsed the demand for a 1000 rupee daily wage for plantation workers. The other condemned the forcible cremation of those adhering to the Islamic faith and urged the Govt to allow burial of Muslims.
As soon as the joint appeal for the “Pottuvil to Poligandy”protest was issued by civil society groups on Jan 28th, TNA spokesperson MA Sumanthiran also issued a press release the same day. The TNA press release expressed full support for the protest. After outlinng the anti -Tamil measures enacted by the Govt, the TNA stated that the protest would draw the attention of the Sri Lankan people and the international community to those. The TNA called upon all the Tamil speaking people to participate in the democratic protest demonstration.
On Feb 2nd TNA leader and Trincomalee MP Rajavarothayam Sampanthan issued a press release calling upon the Tamil people to support the “Pottuvil to Poligandy”Protest. In a surprise move on the same day, ACMC leader and Wanni district MP Rishad Bathiudeen also issued a statement asking Muslims to support the Tamil protest.
In a pre-emptive bid to stifle the protest, the Sri Lankan Police sought and obtained court orders prohibiting specified individuals from participating in the “Pottuvil to Poligandy”protest. Officers from different Police stations got court orders applicable to their areas of jurisdiction from the Batticaloa,Kaluvaanchikudi, Vellaveli, Kalmunai, Thirukkovil and Akkarapippatru courts. A total of 32 persons consisting of sitting MP’s, ex-MP’s, local authority members and political activists were debarred from engaging in the protest in specific areas.
Protest Begins in Pottuvil
When D-day dawned on Feb 3rd there was little sign of protest activity in Pottuvil. Besides there was heavy rain. Police however turned up in large numbers at Pottuvil. The Police Riot squad was also deployed. Since it was raining heavily most Policemen remained in their vehicles while others stood inside cafes or outside buildings.
Meanwhile groups of Tamils in different vehicles slipped into Pottuvil at different times. The vehicles were parked strategically at different places. TNA parliamentarians MA Sumanthiran and Shanakkiyan Rasamanickam avoided the main road and reached Pottuvil through the Sagamam road. Messages were conveyed through telephone and soon the protesters in waiting converged at a specific point on the main road at zero hour. The protesters led by Sumanthiran numbering a little less than a hundred began marching and shouting slogans in the midst of pouring rain .
Among those at the forefront of the Protest at Pottuvil were TNA Jaffna district Parliamentarian MA Sumanthran, Batticaloa MP Shanakkiyan Rasamanickam and TNA National list MP Thavarasah Kalaiarasan who has been assigned the responsibility of representing Amparai district Tamils in Parliament. In addition there were two TNA ex-MP’s from Batticaloa Ariyanendran and Sreenesan and the Eastern coordinator of the protest Sivayohanathan alias Seelan. There was also a youth contingent from the North including former Northern Provincial Councillors K. Sajanthan and S. Sugirthan
Taken by surprise ,the Police caught up with the demonstrators.
Barricades were set in place hastily.When the court order was produced it was found that neither Sumanthiran nor anyone else mentioned in the order were present. So the protesters attempted to proceed along the road. Some cops however blocked them and there was a tug of war to seize the banners. At one stage Shanakkiyan Rasamanickam pushed the barricades aside and walked through followed by the others.joined in. Later at Thirukkovil also Shanalliyan pushed the barricade aside and proceeded saying there was no warrant against him..Others followed.TNA B’caloa district MP Govindhan Karunakaram joined the protest at Kaaraitheevu.When they reached Kalmunai the border town of Amparai district the original contingent of around 100 protesters had doubled to more than 200.
Modus Operandi of Protest
The modus operandi adopted by the protesters was not to march the entire distance on foot. That was totally impossible. What they did was to travel in vehicles in small groups along the long stretches of roads and alight at key towns and villages. After dismounting from vehicles, they would rapidly stride through the main roads bearing banners and chanting slogans at the top of their voices. After awhile they would climb aboard their vehicles and proceed onwards in the same way.
While the core group of protesters adopted this method, they were joined in each village or town by people of the area. While some marched along, many watched appreciatively from the sidelines cheering and applauding. Prominent personalities of the area roo would identify with the protest. All this was done spontaneously without pre-arrangement. While a fixed number of protesters in their hundreds were marching at all times, the crowds participating in the protest topped thousand at different venues. Altogether several thousands joined the protest at different places.
Since certain individuals had been banned from participation in specified areas of Police jurisdiction through court orders, the protest organizers saw to it that the prohibited persons did not participate in the areas concerned. They would “skip” the protest in those areas and re-join it elsewhere while those who were not banned continued without proble. The protesters were stopped and checked by Police in many places but could not take any action as there were no “offenders” violating court orders. Even MP’s who were subject to court orders adopted this strategy. For instance Shanakkiyan avoided Kaluvaanchikkudi while Sumanthiran gave Barricaloa town a miss.. While those whom against there were no court orders in the Eastern province could proceed without any major problem, those who had court orders “missed” certain problematic segments of the long journey and participated in other non -problematic segments.
There were many minor incidents of friction with the Police. Although court orders had been procured they were too few to be of any use. The Police had wrongly calculated that if the accredited community leaders were named and sanctioned the envisaged protest would fizzle out. What they did not bargain for was the phenomenon of relatively unknown youths and middle-aged volunteers coming to the fore. These people were not restricted by any court order. As the protest progressed the number of participants began to swell. Soon it became difficult for the Police to restrain the protesters. Although rhere was much friction in the early stages ,the situation changed later. From Kalmunai onwards po the Police merely controlled traffic as the protest demonstration moved forward.
Proceeding on Foot and in Vehicles
It was in this mode of proceeding on foot and in vehicles that the first leg of the long journey was completed on Wednesday Feb 3rd. The protesters who commenced the long march in Pottuvil went along the roads through Thaandiadi, Komaari,Thirukkoovil. Thambiluvil, Akkaraippatru,Aalaiadi Vaembu,Attalaichenai,Paalamunai, Ninthaavoor, Kaaraitheevu,Saainthamaruthu, Kalmunai, Paandiruppu, Periya Kallaaru, Kaluvanchikudi to finally reach Thaalankudah in Batticaloa district.A distance of about 100 km had been covered this way.
After resting for the night, the second leg of the protest began in the morning of Feb 4th which incidently was Sri Lanka’s 73rd independence day. Several participants including Sumanthiran were dressed in black to mark it as a black day. It was only a few years ago that Sumanthiran accompanied by his wife attended the Independence day official event where the national anthem was sung in Tamil also. He was criticized by Tamil hardliners for that. Sadly the Gotabaya Govt has dealt a dirty blow to all Tamils desirous of living as equal citizens in an undivided Sri Lanka by banning the singing of the national anthem in Tamil.
The second leg of the protest march commenced at a Catholic Church in Thaalankudaah. Thereafter the protesters went through Aaraiyampathy, Kattankudi, Batticaloa town, Eraavoor, Chenkalladi, Vaalaichenai, Oddamavaddy and Vaaharai. Thereafter the Verugal river was crossed and the protesters entered Trincomalee district. The trek continued through Kiliveddy,Mutur and Kinniya until Trincomalee town was reached at 8.20 PM on Thursday Feb 4. At the time this article is being written on Thursday night, the plan was for the third leg of the journey to commence on Friday Feb 5th from the Trincomalee Sivan Temple premises.
The distance from Thaalankudaah to Trincomalee is estimated to be around 150 km. But the actual distance covered was much more than that due to detours to meet assembled crowds at off-route locations. Since the first day of protest was launched suddenly without any fanfare the people at large were unaware of it and were unable to join in. But once it became known that the protest was on, there was a spontaneous upsurge of enthusiasm on the second day.
Large crowds hailed the protesters and participted in the march in their areas along the way. A negative aspect of these receptions was that envisaged time-tables could not be kept. Apart from Shanakkiyan, Sumanthiran, Kalai Arasan and Karunakaram, three other MP’s from the North too participated in the protest on the 4th. They were TNA Jaffna district MP Sivagnanam S hritharan and the two TNPF Parliamentarians Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam and Selvarajah Kajendran. Three former TNA Batticaloa district MP’s Sreenesan, Thurairajasingham and Ariyanendran also engaged in the protest on the 2nd day with several local authority members.
Significant Involvement of Muslims
The most significant feature of the “Pottuvil to Poligandy”protest was the involvement of Eastern province Muslims. Tamil speaking Muslims gathered in large numbers in the Muslim towns of Attalaichenai, Paalamunai, Ninthavoor, Saainthamaruthu, Kalmunai, Kattankudi, Eravoor, Oddamavaddy, Mutur and Kinniya to welcome and hail the protesters. Many shouted slogans. Several Muslims accompanied the protesters when the march went through their areas. On Feb 4th, the first day, former Muslim Congress MP’s Nazeer and Hassen Ali joined the protest when it went through Attalaichenai and Ninthaavoor.Some local autjority members too joined in.
On the second day Feb 4th, the Muslim residents of Kattankudi and Eravoor turned up in very large numbers to welcome the protest. There were some local authority members. A pocket meeting too was held. In Eravoor too there were huge, enthusiastic Muslim crowds. In Oddamaavadi a massive crowd assembled under former ACMC parliamentarian and state minister Ameer Ali. A pocket meeting was held there. Amer Ali hailed the protest as the “Pillaiyaar Suli” of a new Tamil-Muslim relationship. Pillaiyaar Suli is the mark of Lord Ganesh or Pillaiyaar written by Hindus before they begin to write something new.
In Trincomalee the welcome afforded by Muslims surpassed that of Batticaloa district. In Mutur the maassive Muslim crowd was disappointed because the protesters hard -pressed for time could not participate in theplanned reception . Kinniya too saw a huge crowd of Muslims welcoming the protest. A meeting was held where the SJB Trincomalee district MP Imran Maharoof and ex-Trinco MP Abdullah Maharoof of the ACMC spoke. Imran Maharoof pointed out in his speech that he was the only sitting Muslim Prliamentarian from the East to participte in the protest. Despite the support extended by ordinary Muslims, ex-MP’s and local authority members, it is noteworthy that no Muslim MP from the Amparai, Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts showed up at the protest. It may be recalled that four of the five MP’s voted for the 20th Constitutional amendment.
“Sampanthan Aiya”s Birthday
As the Eastern Province segment of the “P2P” protest drew to an end,it became crystal clear that the roles played by Jaffna MP Sumanthiran and Batticaloa MP Shanakkiyan had been of pivotal importance in the execution of the protest. Sumanthiran was the lynch-pin while Shanakkiyan was the livewire. Shanakkiyan in particular was the “hero” of the event. Sporting a beard and donning a bandana the youthful MP cut a flamboyant figure and was literally mobbed by the people wherever he went. At one point in Mutur Shanakkiyan was submerged in a sea of Muslim youths. People lined up to take “selfies”.
Shanakkiyan and Sumanthiran are very popular with the Muslim people as noth have forcefully spoken out against the Rajapaksa regime for its blatant discrimination against Muslims.Both were garlanded in several Muslim areas and invited to say a few words. This was not to the liking of TNPF National list MP Selvarajah Kajendran and some of his political fellow travellers.
When the Protest wound up at Trincomalee, the arrangement was to meet with TNA leader and veteran Trincomalee MP Rajavarothayam Sampanthan and be greeted by him. Birthday wishes were also to be extended to the Octogenarian “Sampanthan Aiya” who was to celebrate his 88th Birthday on Feb 5. While the majority of the protesters did as planned and met with Sampanthan,a minority led by TNPF’s Kajendran went elsewhere and held a media conference where Velam Swamigal a Hindu hermit and Fr. Ezhil a Catholic priest criticied “two Tamil MP’s” for allegedly hogging the limelight. Earlier during the protest , Kajendran and his comrades had struck a discordant note by shouting extremist slogans that flouted guidelines set out by the organizers.
Protest in Northern Province
This then is the tale of the Eastern component of the “Pottuvil to Poligandy”protest. The Northern component will be unfolding in the coming days of February 5,6 and 7.
On Friday Feb 5th the Protest will take off from Trincomalee and reach Mullaitheevu town via Pulmoddai, Thiriyaai, Manal Aaru/Weli-Oya and Kokkilaai. From Mullaitheevu town the protesters will go to Mullivaaikkaal and pay their respects at the memorial monument dedicated to the people killed in the final phase of war. Thereafter they would go along he Paranthan rd to Puthukkudiyiruppu and then reach Oddusuddan through a de-tour and go to Nedunkerny. From Nedunkerny they will reach Vavuniya through Nainamadhu, Puliyanulam and Omanthai.
On Saturday Feb 6 the Protest would commence from Vavuniya and reach Madhu road Junction. From there it would go through Murungan to reach the Thallaadi bridge and proceed along it to Mannar town. From Mannar it would go along the Pooneryn road to Vellaankulam and then cut across to Mallaavi and reach Maankulam from there. From Maankulam it would proceed along the A-9 highway via Murigandy and reach Kilinochchi town for the night.
On Sunday Feb 7, the Protest was to proceed along the A- 9 and reach Elephant Pass in the Jaffna Peninsula via Paranthan. Thereafter it is scheduled to reach Chavakachcheri via Pallai and Kodikaamam and then Jaffna town via Kaithady,Navatkuli and Ariyalai.. From Jaffna it is planned to reach Nelloaddy via Nallur,Kopay, Neervely and Atchuvely. From Nelliaddy the “Pottuvil to Poligandy” protest that started in Pottuvil would wind up at the final destination – Poligandy!
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an Updated Version of an Article written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of Feb 6th, 2021. It can be accessed here: