Veteran Sri Lankan Tamil Political leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan passes away in Colombo at the age of 91. He dedicated his political life to pursuing a just solution to Sri Lanka’s Tamil question

Meera Srinivasan

Veteran Sri Lankan Tamil leader Rajavarothiam Sampanthan, who dedicated his political life to pursuing a just solution to the island nation’s Tamil question, passed away in Colombo late on Sunday. He was 91.

Mr. Sampanthan, of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), was a sitting MP from the eastern Trincomalee district, and led the Tamil National Alliance, the main grouping representing Tamils of Sri Lanka’s war-hit north and east. He was Leader of the Opposition between 2015 and 2018.

A parliamentarian for nearly half a century, Mr. Sampanthan was a bold and relentless voice in the House. Since the end of the civil war in 2009, he tirelessly demanded equal rights for Tamils, within a ‘united, undivided, indivisible’ country. Trained as a lawyer, he based his arguments for a political solution on Sri Lanka’s constitutional history and the many promises that the southern Sinhalese establishment made in the past but failed to keep.

Long-time witness to Sri Lankan Tamils’ plight

Mr. Sampanthan’s political career coincides with the history of Sri Lanka’s structural discrimination against the Tamils of the north and east. While in his early twenties, he joined the ITAK in 1956, the same year that Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s government passed the Sinhala Only Act, a violent legislative attack on ethnic Tamils of the country.

He witnessed the long arc of injustice facing Tamils, and the many acts of resistance to it, including the armed struggle that spanned nearly three decades. While much of the southern Sinhalese leadership and its backers viewed him as a sympathiser of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), hardline sections within the Tamil community labelled him a “traitor”, fiercely criticising his politics of engagement that shaped Tamils’ post-war political strategy.

Mr. Sampanthan’s parliamentary interventions, often an astute mix of reason and restraint, drew many fans within Sri Lanka and elsewhere. He made one such memorable intervention in July 2019, while moving an adjournment motion for a new Constitution. His rich, comprehensive account of Tamils’ long struggle to secure equal rights was a valuable lesson in history.

In his characteristic style marked by clear delivery — its effect only enhanced by his modulation and apparently intentional pauses — Mr. Sampanthan traced the constitutional journey of Sri Lanka, through the British Colonial government-framed 1947 Soulbury Constitution, the first Republican Constitution of 1972 framed by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party-led government, and the second Republic Constitution of 1978, drafted by the United National Party, pointing to the absence of national consensus in all three instances.

“The situation of conflict that has prevailed in Sri Lanka from Independence in 1947 including an armed conflict that lasted for 25-30 years is attributable to the absence of a Constitution based on such maximum possible national consensus to suit the needs of a diverse and pluralist society,” he argued. Delving deep into the origins of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, an outcome of the Indo-Lanka Accord, he outlined the many, but until now futile, attempts to strengthen it to maximise power sharing with the provinces, including Tamil-inhabited areas in the island’s north and east.

He went over every Sri Lankan leader’s assurances in the past and Indian leaders’ responses, meticulously quoting from their original statements. His elaborate take was aimed at giving the Sri Lankan leadership one simple message, which he saved for the end. “So, please remember this and the earlier you do it [find a just political solution], the better. If you do not do it and abstain from doing the right thing, I do not think the Tamil people will take it lying down for too long.”

Key interlocutor in Indo-Lanka Accord talks

As a member of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), Mr. Sampanthan was involved in many crucial discussions in the run up to the signing of the historic Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. Sharing an anecdote from the time some years ago, he recalled learning that President J. R. Jayawardene had convinced Romesh Bhandari – special envoy of then PM Rajiv Gandhi – that there was no linguistic contiguity between Sri Lanka’s north and east.

Along with TULF stalwarts A. Amirthalingam and M. Sivasithamparam, Mr. Sampanthan was in Madras then and sought a meeting with PM Gandhi. The PMO told him Mr. Gandhi was coming to Tiruchi and the only way to secure a possible meeting was to fly back with him to New Delhi, in the PM’s chartered flight. The TULF trio took an overnight train from Chennai to Tiruchi, and managed to be put on the flight. After takeoff, the trio was escorted to the PM’s suite on the flight. Mr. Sampanthan, with a map in hand, showed how there was linguistic contiguity between Sri Lanka’s north and east. When it was time to disembark Mr. Sampanthan, shaking hands and bidding goodbye to the Indian PM, told him: “What I have told you is the absolute truth”.

Months later, the historic Indo-Lanka accord would include the merger of the north and east among its salient points, Mr. Sampanthan is said to have remarked later: “The merger was sealed in air,” referring to that crucial flight. To date, the idea of the merger remains contentious in the Sinhala-majority south. In their ongoing agitation against land grabs in the Tamil areas, residents accuse state agencies, such as the military, archeological and forest departments of targeting villages located around the border where the Northern and Eastern Provinces meet, and settling Sinhalese families to break this continuity.

Leadership and succession

While Mr. Sampanthan is rightly credited for some political decisions, such as the fielding of former Supreme Court judge C.V. Wigneswaran in the 2013 provincial council elections — he won handsomely — critics blamed him for taking little action or responsibility when the Northern Provincial Council failed to make an impact. In the last decade of his political career, Mr. Sampanthan faced growing criticism for his absence from his electorate, owing to poor health, and for his failure to draw up a succession plan within the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). In a 2018 interview, The Hindu asked him about his leadership succession plan. Admitting that he had not planned it, he said: “I cannot be there forever, we need to have someone take over. It is not easy — you have to be cautious, you have to be patient and you need not be answering everybody, that is not possible.”

Today, he leaves behind a highly fragmented Alliance with no obvious leader. Its chief constituent ITAK is unable to resolve its own leadership crisis after an internal election led to court cases challenging its outcome. With little consensus among members on election strategy or political course, the Tamil polity faces a whole new challenge going ahead.

It is not as if Mr. Sampanthan’s own political journey was devoid of risks and hurdles. But he was an incurable optimist who believed in pushing, both domestically and internationally, the case for a just political settlement in every opportunity that came his way. His clarity of purpose and reasoning, his unwavering resolve and his willingness to come to the negotiating table earned him enormous respect from many.

Despite the country’s leadership habitually letting him down through many decades, he did not let the pessimism of the intellect diminish the optimism of his will even a little. In the Tamil people’s long, ongoing struggle for justice, dignity and equality, he will be remembered as a prominent crusader.

Courtesy:The Hindu