Memories of Leonine Tamil Leader Murugesu Sivasithamaparam

By
D.B.S.Jeyaraj

Very little is known or remembered by the younger generation of Sri Lankans about the nature of the non – violent Tamil political struggle for equal rights that preceded the violent armed struggle. Indeed for many the history of Tamil political resistance to what was perceived as majoritarian hegemony commences only from “Black July” 1983. To many youths on either side of the ethnic divide , Veluppillai Prabhakaran personifies the beginning, middle and end of the Tamil struggle. The course and content of Tamil politics prior to the advent of the birth and growth of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is conveniently forgotten or not taken into account at all. Yet the fact remains that the Tamil quest to achieve equality in the Island was basically non – violent prior to 1983.

Murugesu Sivasithamparam (20 July 1923 – 5 June 2002)

A prominent Tamil political leader of this period of non-violent politics was Murugesu Sivasithamparam whose 98th birth anniversary fell on 20 July. He is the focus of this column this week. I have written about M. Sivasithamparam in the past. This article however will be a modified version based on some of those writings, with pride of place being given to personal recollections.

Lion of Uduppiddy

Former Parliamentarian, Deputy Speaker and President of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), Murugesu Sivasithamparam hailed from Karaveddy in the Vadamaraatchy division of Jaffna peninsula. He was born on 20 July 1923. M. Sivasithamparam as he was generally known passed away in June 2002.

He was at the time of his death the senior-most Tamil parliamentarian, having been nominated in 2001 on the National List by the newly-formed Tamil National Alliance (TNA). He was a legislator in Sri Lanka for nearly 17 years and represented the Uduppiddy electorate that included his own place Karaveddy among other areas.

Sivasithamparam was Uduppiddy MP for a decade from 1960 to 1970.This identification led to the description “Uduppiddy Singam” (Lion of Uduppiddy) in Tamil. He later contested the Nallur electorate in 1977 and remained MP till 1983. Despite his moving to the Nallur constituency as its MP in later years and in spite of his absence in Parliament from 1983 to 2001, Sivasithamparam was continuously called Uduppiddy Singam. His stentorian voice too is leonine in tone and another descriptive name for him is “Simmakkuralon Sivasithamparam” (lion-voiced Sivasithamparam).

Known affectionately as “Our Siva” or “Em Siva” in Tamil on account of his initial “M,” Sivasithamparam was a towering personality in the political landscape of the island. A well-built six-footer with a boomingly vibrant voice, M. Siva was for more than four decades an accredited leader of his people. The brilliant lawyer was a powerful orator and ebullient debater who cut a flamboyant figure at the height of his career.

Interactions with Sivasithamparam

Murugesu Sivasithamparam was a politician with whom I interacted closely as a reporter on the Tamil daily Virakesari, the English daily The Island and as Colombo Correspondent of the Indian newspaper The Hindu. My mother’s village, Thunnaalai, was adjacent to his Karaveddy. In fact, our postal address was Thunnaalai South, Karaveddy. It was part of the Udupiddy electorate that Sivasithamparam represented for many years.

Most of my relatives, however, were either Federalists or Communists in the pre-TULF years and therefore opposed him. My father and he were colleagues at the Bar as fellow advocates. Although my parents were acquainted with him, my relationship with Sivasithamparam was developed over the years in my capacity as a journalist.

As is usual in any professional interaction between politicians and the press, it had its twists and turns. In my early years as a reporter on the Tamil daily Virakesari, I once wrote a news story that was quite adverse to the Tamil Congress quartet of MPs in the TULF. Their response was not published in the paper due to matters beyond my control. When I ran into some TULF MPs, including Sivasithamparam at Sravasti, he began accusing me unfairly. I defended myself as far as possible but was constrained by the fact that I could not reveal to an outsider what had gone ‘wrong’ inside the editorial department of the paper.

Fortunately, former Vaddukkoddai MP, Thirunaavukkarasu, who had found out through his sources about what had exactly happened at Virakesari, came to my rescue and explained the truth to him. At that point, Sivasithamparam’s namesake, T. Sivasithamparam, the MP for Vavuniya, interjected and said, “Siva, you have hurt this young man’s feelings badly.”

Realising that I was not at fault, Sivasithamparam acted in a manner that I can never ever forget! He stood up in the presence of his fellow parliamentarians and to my embarrassment brought his palms together in the traditional fashion and apologised profusely.He sought my pardon saying, “Thamby, thayavu seidhu ennai manniyungo” (younger brother, please forgive me). Such was the greatness of the man!

Later on our relationship improved greatly. He once made a glowing reference in Parliament to my column in The Sunday Island, ‘Behind the Cadjan Curtain’ and said: “Read D.B.S. Jeyaraj’s graphic account to know the truth.” This was in reference to the burning of Kandarmadam in Jaffna by some soldiers of the ‘Rajarata Rifles’ in May 1983. Divaina colleague Dhrmarana Wijesundara and I had gone to Jaffna to cover the Local Authority Elections. When the Tigers killed a soldier on duty at a polling booth, some other soldiers went on the rampage. The incident in question is mentioned by Gen. Kamal Gunaratne in his book ‘Road to Nandikadal’.

Unlike many politicians, Siva was not a gregarious personality and was quite reserved. As time progressed I reached the stage of exchanging remarks in lighter vein with him. He also began trusting me greatly and revealed ‘off the record’ much of what was going on and what he felt about men and matters to me.

I last saw him in person in September 1988 when he was staying at the Taprobane (Grand Oriental Hotel) in Colombo. He was very unhappy over the IPKF-LTTE conflict and quite gloomy about the future. He was reading a book of collected writings by former Indian Governor General and Swatantra Party Leader, C. Rajagopalacharyar, known generally as Rajaji. That image remains poignantly etched in memory because there were many aspects in common between Sivasithamparam and Rajaji once described as his “conscience keeper” by Mahatma Gandhi himself.

After I relocated to Canada, our contact was minimal and restricted to infrequent telephone calls. When I spoke to him the last time and inquired about his health, he replied dejectedly in Tamil, “Kaadu vaa. Vaa ennuthu” (the cemetery is beckoning me come, come). I responded, “Don’t say that. Our people and country need you.”

An Incorruptible Man

Sivasithamparam was incorruptible and a paragon of virtue in every sense of the phrase with not a whiff of scandal about him ever. Focussing on politics at the expense of law and the post-1983 developments had impoverished him considerably. His house at Norris Canal Road and two vehicles (car and jeep) were burnt in 1983. His family members escaped death miraculously. Siva himself was at Mannar for the TULF convention then.

M.Sivasithamparam with M.H.M. Ashraf

After more than a decade, then Rehabilitation Minister M.H.M. Ashraff tried to compensate him partially for the losses. A Tamil politician with an axe to grind manipulated some Tamil newspapers into publishing negative comments about this. Sivasithamparam promptly declined to accept his rightly-deserved compensation.

In his later years he underwent tremendous financial strain. Yet he would not accept anything for his personal use from outsiders. Though he had property in Karaveddy, he could not sell or earn an income from them due to the war. It may be hard to believe that a man who was born wealthy and acquired much wealth as a successful professional could be reduced to such deprivation. This is in stark contrast to some of our present Tamil ‘leaders’ whose sole concern has been to make money through questionable means.

Siva however was very careful about getting material ‘help’ from extraneous elements in any form. He was equally careful about the TULF too. Though the party was hard strapped for cash and lacked resources to do politics, Sivasithamparam refused to resort to shady means to get finances. The TULF then relied mostly on contributions by supporters and well-wishers rather than depending on other vested interests. When the envoy of a country deeply involved in Sri Lankan affairs donated money for a vehicle for the party, Sivasithamparam accepted it reluctantly due to pressure from party members. However after much agonising Siva returned the money in full without utilising it.

Siva was a devout Saivaite and lifelong vegetarian. Worship for him was a long ritual and took up much of his time. In the old days when one rang him at home and was told that he was doing “Pooja,” there was nothing else to do but replace the receiver, because one knew Sivasithamparam was not going to be free in a hurry.

Law and Politics

M. Sivasithamparam was born to patrician wealth as the scion of a ‘maniagar’ or hereditary chieftain in charge of a revenue division. The family owned a lot of property. He also acquired much prosperity as a successful lawyer.

M. Sivasithamparam

There was a time when Sivasithamparam was the uncrowned king of the magistrate’s courts. He had an extensive and lucrative practice with a very large number of Sinhala clients. Yet, he sacrificed almost all his wealth in politics. More importantly, he denied himself enhanced material prospects by engaging in full time politics and appearing free of charge for Tamil youths.

Siva appeared in landmark cases concerning the Tamil armed struggle like the Thuraiappah murder, Neervely robbery, Puloly bank robbery, Kuttimani and Thangathurai cases, etc. Later, scheming persons concerned about his growing popularity manipulated matters and side-lined him from cases of that type.

Sivasithamparam in his youth was enamoured of marxism and a card-carrying communist party member in his undergraduate days. He dropped out of university and took to law becoming an advocate. He also abandoned communism and took up the cause of Tamil nationalism by joining the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress.

Siva contested the Point Pedro electorate in the Jaffna peninsula as an independent candidate in 1956 and lost. He was returned to Parliament for the first time in March 1960, winning the newly-created Udup[iddy seat on the Tamil Congress ticket and repeated his performance in 1960 July too. He was then the sole representative of the party in a Parliament of 157 MPs.

The tall, well-built Sivasithamparam with his unique voice made a tremendous impression and the lobby correspondents of the day referred to him as the most promising new face from the north in Parliament. Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike was his equivalent from the south.

Bold Act of Resistance

In 1961, Sivasithamparam shed party differences and participated in the massive satyagraha campaign launched by the Ilnkai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK).When the “illegal” Tamil Postal Service was organised as part of civil disobedience, separate stamps and envelopes were printed. Sivasithamparam was one of the ‘postmen’ and delivered by motorcycle an ‘official’ letter informing the Jaffna Police Superintendent of the postal service.

M. Sivasithamparam

The then Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike deployed the armed forces in large numbers to bring the campaign to an end. Soldiers cracked down on the unarmed peaceful protesters comprising men and women of all ages in the darkness of night. Siva was assaulted severely by the Army when trying to protect women satyagrahis and was hospitalised for days.

The Tamil lawyer, S. Ponniah, writing in his book ‘Satyagraha,’ observes thus: “As the soldiers were rushing at the women satyagrahis who were sitting at the main entrance, a group of young satyagrahis intervened between the women and the soldiers to prevent assault on them. One of these satyagrahis was M. Sivasithamparam, MP for Udupiddy. A strapper himself, he stood in the way of the soldiers with both his hands stretched out horizontally. He was attacked by a number of them and lost his balance and fell on the ground. He sustained injuries on his face, shoulders and arms. He was unable to use his arms for days thereafter.”

This bold act of resistance by Murugesu Sivasithamparam was perhaps the finest hour in the political career of the Tamil political leader and increased his political stature among the Tamil people.

Deputy Speaker of Parliament

Siva won again in 1965 March and the Tamil Congress with three seats joined the National Government of Dudley Senanayake. Sivasithamparam was elected Deputy Chairman of Committees. In 1967, the then Speaker, Sir Albert Peries of Nattandiya, died and was succeeded by his Deputy, Shirley Corea of Chilaw. The Deputy Speaker’s Office was filled by Sivasithamparam. He served as Deputy Speaker of Parliament from 1967 to 1970.

TULF meeting in 1977 – Mr Amirthalingam speaking, seated – Mr Sivasithamparam, Mr Rajalingam and Mr Soosaithasan

Sivasithampram was proficient in all three languages and presided over the House in a creditable mode. Once when T. B. M. Herath of Walapane was troublesome, Sivasithamparam spoke to him in chaste Sinhalese and tactfully persuaded the overwhelmed Herath to yield. On another occasion Siva admonished his own leader G. G. Ponnambalam – much to Ponna’s chagrin – for unfairly criticising Amirthalingam when the latter was not present in the House.

In spite of the prestige he acquired as Deputy Speaker, Sivasithamparam lost his seat in 1970 to K. Jeyakkody of the Federal Party in what was widely regarded as an electoral upset because the ‘Uduppiddy Lion,’ regarded as unbeatable, was beaten in his own den.

Tamil United Liberation Front

The turbulent ’70s saw the Tamil parties forming together the Tamil United Front in 1972 which went on to become the Tamil United Liberation Front in 1976. The TULF contested the 1977 elections on a separatist platform. The Uduppiddy electorate had a substantial concentration of “dalits” or so-called low caste Tamils. It was felt a member of that minority case group could be elected if fielded as the Uduppiddy candidate.

TULF

Sivasithamparam voluntarily moved out of the constituency to Nallur at the polls to enable a minority Tamil candidate to be fielded. Former educationist T. Rasalingam contested and won in Uduppiddy. Sivasithamparam, though contesting the unfamiliar semi-urban terrain of Nallur, rode the crest of a TULF wave. He swept the seat with 29, 858 votes and created history by recording the largest majority of 28, 137 votes in the entire country in that election.

The TULF with 18 seats was the largest opposition party in 1977. Appapillai Amirthalingam and Murugesu Sivasithamparam became Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition respectively. Sivasithamparam became President and Amirthalingam, Secretary-General of the TULF in 1978. Thereafter, Amir was referred to as “Thamizh Inathin thalaiver” (the Tamil nation’s leader) and Siva as “Thamizh Iyakkathin thalaiver” (the Tamil movement’s leader).

Relocating to Tamil Nadu

The 1983 July violence resulted in a tragic upheaval for the Tamil people. Thousands of families were affected and uprooted. Sivasithamparam’s house, car and jeep too were burnt in Colombo and his family members escaped death miraculously. They, along with many others, relocated to Tamil Nadu. The TULF President thereafter remained a resident of Chennai although interspersed with long periods of absence for political work in Sri Lanka leaving his family behind.

Many years ago in 1987 I wrote an article in the Sunday Times about the current state of the former TULF MPs elected in 1977 (“Where have all the TULFers gone?”). In that I remarked in lighter vein that Siva, living with his Indian son-in-law in Chennai, had transplanted the ‘thesawalamai’ to India. The custom in Jaffna is for the groom to live in the bride’s house. In Tamil Nadu, the wife moves to the husband’s home after marriage. However Sivasithamparam’s son in law was staying at his wife’s residence with his in-laws in “jaffna fashion”. I had referred to this in the article. When I met Siva some time later in Colombo, he referred to the article and said: “I know you were making a jocular observation. But it hurt my son-in-law. To tell you the truth Thambi, we are actually experiencing his generosity.” I was very sad to hear it then.

Tamil and TULF Leadership

The TULF forfeited its Parliamentary seats in 1983 by refusing to take the mandatory oath of allegiance to a unitary state as provided for by the hastily passed Sixth Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution

Sivasithamparam survived with injuries an assassination attempt by the LTTE in 1989. TULF Leaders Amirthalingam and Yogeswaran were killed in the incident. Siva was shot in the chest and underwent a long stint in hospital. Thereafter the mantle of Tamil leadership as well as TULF leadership was Sivasithamparam’s. He shuttled between India and Sri Lanka while facing considerable hardship.

M. Sivasithamparam

The TULF was actively involved in the peace-making efforts of President Chandrika Kumaratunga from 1994 to 1997 and Sivasithamparam himself played a commendable role in it. Ill health and growing disillusionment with Kumaratunga compelled him in 1998 to return and stay continuously in Chennai till early 2002. By this time he was virtually “retired” from political life. He did not contest the elections of 2000 and 2001.

Return to Lankan Politics

The 2001 poll however saw four parties including the TULF forming the Tamil National Alliance and contesting. It won 14 seats and on the basis of votes received entitled to one nominated seat on a national basis. Sivasithamparam was the unanimous choice for the seat.

Any other being nominated, would have shattered fragile TNA unity because of infighting. But there was no vetoing Siva. Besides, the alliance needed a well known leader respected by all shades of opinion. Also there were prospects of peace again with the 2001 victory of Wickremesinghe.Sivasithamparam himself was enamoured of the prospects for peace heralded by Ranil Wickremesinghe’s ascendancy. Despite his failing health the old war-horse returned to Colombo in a wheelchair to become an MP again and play once again a role in the island’s politics, albeit under changed circumstances.

When I saw pictures of Sivasithamparam’s return in the newspapers the change in him was very visible. His once impressive physical appearance had deteriorated badly. Age, sickness, and above all worry, had taken its toll. Still, the old lion had the guts and gumption to return. He was persuaded by the TULF old guard to do so as the stamp of his leadership was sorely needed. A friend who saw the gentle giant sleeping on a narrow bed in a small room in Colombo told me it was like “seeing a lion chained in a dog’s kennel”.

A Matter of Duty

Tamil leaders like Sivasithamparam remained active in politics and were even prepared to play second fiddle to the LTTE not because of power hunger, ambition, cowardice or opportunism but because of a deep sense of commitment. Siva felt that he and others of the TULF old guard owed it to the Tamil people because it was the TULF that brought separatism into the political discourse. Therefore, he felt that he was duty bound to see the thing through until a satisfactory settlement was reached.

This explains certain types of action that may seem blatant compromises to many. The intention however was clear and pure

The thing that mattered most to him however was the restoration of Tamil rights and the achievement of political equality on the island. It was that goal which drove him on, despite his ailing state of health.

The TULF president was taken ill in Colombo and was admitted to the Colombo National hospital on June 1st.He was pronounced out of danger two days later. There was however a turn for the worse abd Sivasithamparam passed away peacefully in Hospital at 1:50 a.m. on 5 June 2002.

The Tamil leader was one who had been deeply troubled by deteriorating relations between the Tamil and Muslim communities.Greatly affected by the mass expulsion of Muslims from Jaffna by the Tigers in 1990, an anguished Sivasithamparam declared that he would set foot in Jaffna only after the Muslims of Jaffna returned to their homeland. He remained faithful to his pledge until his demise. It was only Sivasithamparam’s body that was brought to Jaffna to be cremated at the traditional “Sonappu” cemetery in Karaveddy.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

This is an updated version of an Article appearing in the “Political Pulse” Column of the “Daily FT” dated July 21st 2021.It can be accessed here:

https://www.ft.lk/opinion/Memories-of-leonine-Tamil-leader-Murugesu-Sivasithamparam/14-720690