Many Sri Lankan political leaders have been assassinated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) in the past. Several of these LTTE victims were known to me in my professional capacity as a journalist. Some of them had over the years become personal friends. I remember them all with sadness and feel their loss keenly even now.
One such person was former Jaffna MP Vettivelu Yogeswaran who was elected to Parliament in July 1977 from the Tamil United Liberation Front(TULF). He was killed along with former Opposition leader Appapillai Amirthalingam by the LTTE in Colombo on 13 July 1989. Yogeswaran born on 5 February 1934 would have celebrated his 89th birth anniversary last month if he was living now.
The affable Yogeswaran possessing a pleasant demeanour and cheerful countenance represented the Northern electorate of Jaffna from July 1977 to July 1983.He was the son of a respected Medical practitioner in Jaffna, Dr. Shanmugam Appakkutti Vettivelu and Mrs.Parasakthi Vettivelu.
Yogeswaran known popularly as “Yoges” was one of six children comprising four girls and two boys. He married Sarojini a school teacher who was later elected as the first woman mayor of Jaffna city. She too was shot dead by the tigers in 1998.
I came to know Yogeswaran personally after I became a journalist at the Tamil daily ”Virakesari’ in 1977 the same year that he was elected an MP. He was pleasantly amiable and had a healthy sense of humour always able to laugh at himself and also at the foibles of the high and mighty. He had moved with Fleet street scribes freely during his days of political activism in London. As such he liked journalists in general and cultivated contacts with them.
Though I was in touch with Yogeswaran in my journalist capacity since 1977 it was four years later that we became good friends. I interacted with Yogeswaran and wife Sarojini quite closely during my lengthy stay in Jaffna as the “Virakesari” staff correspondent in 1981.The “Virakesari”s regular Jaffna Correspondent Mr. Sellathurai was seriously ill and hospitalised. Replacing Sellathurai was a formidable challenge as the veteran scribe had served for 32 years in Jaffna and was regarded as a living legend among Tamil members of the fourth estate in Sri Lanka.
My task was made easier by Yogeswaran who took a great liking to me.He kept me informed of current developments in Jaffna and also provided tips for me to explore and enhance further as news stories. Some of these tips turned out into sensational scoops. Yogeswaran also personally introduced me to a number of influential administrators, respected professionals and key politicians in Jaffna. This helped me greatly in coping with the challenge of reporting from Jaffna.
Miraculous Escape From Cops
My assignment in Jaffna was in the aftermath of the May 31 – June 1 1981 violence in Jaffna where indisciplined Policemen provoked by the cold blooded murder of two cops at a TULF election meeting had gone on the rampage. Among buildings destroyed or damaged extensively in the spree of arson were the prestigious Jaffna public library, the “Eezha Nadu” newspaper premises, the TULF headquarters on Main Street and the residence and vehicle of Jaffna MP Yogeswaran. Both Yoges and wife Sarojini had a miraculous escape on the night of 31 May 1981.They fled from their home and moved from place to place to elude the belligerent mob of cops.
Addressing Parliament on June 8th 1981 Yogeswaran said “Mr. Deputy Speaker, on the fateful 31st night I never expected to survive. I never expected my poor wife to survive. This must be a unique instance of a parliamentary representative living in the electorate with his people, having had to hide, to hide from house to house. From whom? The custodians of law and order!
Those incidents resulted in Jaffna getting global attention. Journalists from many different countries and media institutions started visiting Jaffna regularly. Almost all of them made a beeline towards the MP for Jaffna to interview the man who himself had been victimised. Yogeswaran in turn would entertain the scribe concerned to lunch or dinner. Lunch usually was at the Jaffna Guest house and Dinner at the Palm Court Hotel.
Yogeswaran made it a point to invite his Parliamentary colleague the MP for Kopay M. Aalaalasundaram and myself for those luncheon or dinner meetings.I had much exposure to foreign journalists due to this.
Yogeswaran would introduce me to them. He would impishly refer to me as the “Northern bureau Chief of Express Newspapers Ceylon Ltd” instead of saying “Jaffna correspondent of the “Virakesari”. I would feel slightly awkward but nevertheless relished the revised job description and resultant sense of importance. I met several reputed “by lines” from Mark Tully to S.Venkatnarayan in person during that time.
Saturday “Thosai” Breakfast
I also used to drop in at his residence in Thirunelveli or Thinnavely frequently during those days in Jaffna. Since his residence on Point Pedro road in the heart of town had been burnt, Yogeswaran had moved to a house in the interior of Thinnavely then.Breakfast with the couple on Saturday mornings was the norm when Yogeswaran was in Jaffna. Sarojini Yogeswaran would make “Thosai” or “Dosas” with Gingelly oil or Ghee. She also made a hot sambol after grinding chillies and a spicy potato salad.
I was poignantly reminded of those meals many years later when Sarojini Yogeswaran was killed by the LTTE. When Sarojini was contesting the Jaffna municipal elections in 1998 I cautioned her on the telephone from Toronto. Thanking me for my concern she told me confidently that Tiger supremo Veluppillai Prabhakaran would not harm her.
Naive and innocent, Sarojini Yogeswaran told me that Prabhakaran would not harm her because he had eaten meals cooked by her on several occasions. ”Do you remember how I used to make Thosai for you at my house those days? Like that I have made Thosai’s for “Thamby”(Prabhakaran) also” she said in Tamil.
Sarojini also dispensed with armed guards saying that would anger and provoke the LTTE. This inoffensive approach by her only made it easier for the assassins to kill the first Mayoress of Jaffna.
After my five month stint in Jaffna, I returned to Colombo in November 1981 and joined “The Island”. Both Yoges and Sarojini were elated by my entry into English journalism. Yoges continued to be a friend and news source. I would meet him in person in Parliament or at “Sravasti” the Hostel for MP’s. We would often share a meal.
He would also telephone me frequently from Jaffna. Yogeswaran was in the habit of taking a nightcap before going to sleep. He used to talk to me while imbibing brandy and then go to sleep. I would be working late at the Island Editorial in those days.
I kept in touch with Yogeswaran when he relocated to India after July 1983. The TULF parliamentarians forfeited their seats by refusing to take oaths under the sixth Constitutional amendment disavowing separatism. I have met him in Chennai at his residence in Kilpauk and enjoyed the hospitality of Yoges and Sarojini. I also met him frequently in 1987 and 88 when he was staying in Colombo at Kotelawela terrace, Bambalapitiya.
I used to telephone him after I left Sri Lanka for the USA in 1989 but was unable to contact him after I moved to Canada in June 1989. He was killed a few weeks later in July.
“Bonhomie” and “Joie de vivre”
Yogeswaran was light skinned by Sri Lankan standards. He was a very smart man and extremely handsome. Though he was balding Yogeswaran retained his cherubic good looks and had an attractive smile. He was essentially good-natured and genial with a very pleasant disposition. He had an ebullient personality and enjoyed life and the joy of living. The French word “bonhomie” and phrase “joie de vivre’’ describe the man aptly. Yogeswaran was immensely popular with youths and members of the fairer sex. This popularity was a great asset to him in democratic politics.
“Yoges” as Vettivelu Yogeswaran was generally known studied at the Anglican St.John’s College, Jaffna , Catholic St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna and the Buddhist Ananda College, Colombo. He entered the Law College in Colombo after secondary schooling. After a while he went to London where he enrolled at an Inn of court and pursued legal studies aiming to be a Barrister –at –law. Some years later he returned to Sri Lanka and resumed studies at the Law College.
He passed out as an Advocate and relocated to Jaffna where he established a lucrative practice. Very soon he turned to full-time politics in Jaffna as a member of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) and later the Tamil United Liberation front (TULF)
Political Activity in UK
Even as a law student in England “Yoges” was involved in political activity. He worked closely with eminent British nobleman, philosopher and champion of political causes, Lord Bertrand Russell. Nuclear disarmament and opposition to the Vietnam war were two spheres where Yogeswaran was associated with Bertrand Russell.
Yogeswaran also fraternised with South African black activists in London. He was involved with the “Boycott Movement” which later became known as the “Anti-Apartheid Movement”. Yogeswaran also worked as a volunteer with the African National Congress in London and was personally known to Oliver Tambo.
Though active in promoting greater humanitarian causes Yoges was also involved with Tamil nationalism.He helped organize several demonstrations.An important event in this regard was the black flag demonstration held at Heathrow Airport when the world’s first woman prime minister Sirima Bandaranaike visited Britain.
Yogeswaran began immersing himself in politics as an ITAK or Federal party member while practising as an attorney at law in Jaffna. His wife Sarojini a teacher at Vembady girls high school assisted and helped him in this though she herself did not engage directly in political work.As a resident of Jaffna ,Yogeswaran focussed mainly on what was then the Jaffna electorate comprising the greater part of the Jaffna municipality and its outskirts.
In those days the Jaffna electorate was multi-ethnic with Tamils, Muslims, Sinhalese and Burghers. It was also multi –religious with a slight Christian Majority (43%). Hindus (41%) came next. Those following the Islamic faith including Borahs and Memons were 13%. Buddhists were 3%. Jaffna was a very prestigious electorate as it was both the Provincial and District capital.
The Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi ( ITAK) won Jaffna for the first time in 1970. CX Martyn was elected with a very low majority of 56 votes CX Martyn however broke ranks with the party and began acting independently according to what he described as his “manasaatchi” (Conscience) . He became known as “Manasaatchi Martyn”thereafter. With the defection of Martyn there arose a vacancy in the party for Jaffna electorate candidacy. Yogeswaran started eying Jaffna and began working actively to gain nomination at the next election.
Meanwhile the premier Sri Lankan Tamil parties came together as a loose coalition in 1972 and formed the Tamil United Front(TUF). In May 1976 this union was structurally concretised as the Tamil United Liberation Front(TULF). The TULF declared it was for secession and demanded Tamil Eelam.
Yogeswaran was appointed to what was called the TULF action committee. He was placed in charge of youth activities for the party. Weekly political discussions open to the public were held at Yogeswaran’s residence.
Yogeswaran had to face some challenges to gain party nomination. Many including GG Ponnambalam (jnr) or Kumar Ponnambalam the son of GG Ponnambalam(snr) staked their claims.The solid backing of Amirthalingam and his wife Mangaiyatkarasi helped Yogeswaran win TULF nomination.
Kumar Ponnambalam however was in a defiant mood. He contested Jaffna as an independent in 1977. So too did ex-MP Martyn.There were six candidates in the fray for Jaffna in July 1977. Yogeswaran riding the crest of a pro-TULF was victorious.The TULF contesting on a platform of “Tamil Eelam”won all 14 seats of the Northern province.
Yogeswaran contesting under the TULF symbol of Sun came first in Jaffna with a majority of 9291 votes. This was the largest majority gained by any MP winning the Jaffna constituency in the past seven parliamentary elections. The results were as follows –
1.V. Yogeswaran- sun-16,251
3.AL Abraham-pair of scales – 4,349.
4.CX Martyn –umbrella-900
5. AG Rajasooriyar-chair -164.
6.A.Tharmalingam – ship-77.
Yogeswaran had won handsomely. The Jaffna muslims who had traditionally been supportive of former Mayor and EX-MP Akfred Durayappah had thrown in their lot with Yogeswaran this time. Durayappah had been assassinated by the LTTE in July 1975. Pre-dominantly Catholic Karaiyoor or Gurunagar had also voted heavily for Yogeswaran despite Martyn contesting.Yogeswaran would chortle with glee and relate a tale about this triumph over Martyn.
Apparently CX Martyn had organized a grand dinner for the people of Gurunagar on election day eve.Thousands of men and women had feasted to their heart’s and stomach’s content on mutton,chicken,fish cuttle fish,prawns and crabs. Spirits too flowed freely.Despite the lavish feast the banquet had not translated into votes for Martyn at the polls.
”Jeyaraj” Yoges would say “Iravu Martyn Kudutha Saappaattuk Karikkulambu Viraliley Manakkamanakka , Pahalil Yogeswaranukku Vote Pottaangal”(Even as their fingers smelled of curry gravy ,those who ate the food given by Martyn in the night cast their votes for Yogeswaran in the day)
Darling of the Youths
Yogeswaran won with votes from all areas of Jaffna. His popularity was high among women and youths.Yoges was the darling of the youths. When he addressed a meeting, youths would clap and cheer loudly.
It was as a darling of the youths and an ardent advocate of separatism that Yogeswaran entered Parliament. However the mandate for Tamil Eelam did not prevent Yogeswaran from establishing cordial,friendly relations with Parliamentary colleagues representing Sinhala electorates.He was equally at ease with both cabinet ministers and backbenchers and enjoyed interacting with them.
Yoges had a particularly good relationship with the late Lalith Athulathmudali whom he had known personally when living in the UK. His friendship with Lalith created a problem for Yoges in 1977. Athulathmudali the minister of Trade and Shipping was to visit Jaffna to formally declare open an Insurance corporation branch. He wanted Yogeswaran to be present for the ceremony and the Jaffna MP agreed.
Tamil youths fired up with visions of Tamil Eelam by Yogeswaran and other TULF politicians were opposed to the Jaffna MP participating at a ceremony with a Govt minister. They converged outside his house demanding that he should not go. Yogeswaran said that he had promised Athulathmudali that he would attend and so had to honour his word. Youths refused to accept this and lay down on the ground between Yogeswaran’s verandah and vehicle in a bid to deter him.A highly emotional Yogeswaran with tears streaming down his face gingerly stepped over the prostrate youths and got into the vehicle shouting “Naan Vaakku Koduthittaen” (I have given my word). He participated in the function in a highly distraught state.
It was this affinity with Tamil youths that caused doubts amidst Police and security circles about Yogeswaran. It was this suspicion that led to the attacks on his house and vehicle in 1981.
After relocating to Chennai in 1983, Yogeswaran was actively engaged with Tamil groups particularly the LTTE and TELO. Even after returning to Sri Lanka in 1987, Yogeswaran was trying hard to bring about an understanding between the LTTE and his party the TULF. But the LTTE killed him in 1989 and later his wife Sarojini in 1998.
Discussion with the LTTE
The self-exiled TULF leaders had returned to Sri Lanka in 1989. Amirthalingam, Sivasithamparam and Yogeswaran were living in a house in Bullers Lane. The TULF faced a threat from the tigers because they had contested polls in 1989.Yogeswaran was trying hard to bring about rapprochement between both sides. The LTTE had some preliminary talks with Yoges. Thereafter a “unity”discussion with Amir,Siva and Yoges was arranged on 13th July 1989.
Three LTTE members led by Rasiah Aravintharajah alias “visu” arrived in the evening. They engaged in cordial conversation. After awhile the tigers whipped out their pistols and opened fire on the TULF leaders. Subsequently all three tigers were killed by the Police bodyguards.
Amirthalingam and Yogeswaran were killed in cold blood. The injured Sivasithamparam survived. The last words uttered by Yogeswaran as he lay in a pool of blood with wife Sarojini kneeling beside him was “bastards,bastards”.
Sadly Sarojini herself was killed by the LTTE some years later. She contested the Jaffna municipal elections in 1998 on the TULF ticket and was elected as the first woman mayor .On May 17th 1998 the newly elected Mayoress of Jaffna was shot at close quarters by a pistol toting gunman in her residence near the Pillaiyaar temple in Jaffna. The time was around 10.30 am. The assassin fired the pistol five times aiming at her chest. A profusely bleeding Sarojini died while being taken to the hospital. An LTTE front organization “Sankiliyan Padai” (Sankiliyan Force) claimed responsibility for the killing.
Terrible Act of Betrayal
Vettivelu Yogeswaran was a jovial exuberant person firmly dedicated to the Tamil cause. Unlike several of his TULF colleagues Yogeswaran firmly believed in a separate state for Tamils. It was indeed a cruel irony that such a man should have been “traitorised” and gunned down at point blank range by the LTTE in what was a terrible act of betrayal.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This Article appears in the “Political Pulse”Column of “Daily FT” dated Mar 8, 2023: