The recently concluded Sri Lankan parliamentary election resulted in the defeat of several veteran politicians. Among these was well-known Northern Tamil leader Somasundaram”Maavai” Senathirajah who had been representing Jaffna district in Parliament for 20 successive years since 2000. Very often the electoral defeat of a long established political leader causes political convulsions in its wake. In the case of Senathirajah the way in which he faced the hustings as well as the manner in which he is reacting now indicates that the ex-Jaffna MP is not likely to accept defeat gracefully. What many well-wishers of the ITAK fear is that a thoroughly disappointed Senathirajah may be encouraged by vested interests to pursue a course of action that may in the long run be detrimental to the party.
Somasundaram Senathirajah known popularly as “Maavai” Senathirajah is the leader of the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi(ITAK) also known as the Federal Party(FP) in English. The ITAK is the chief constituent of the three party political configuration known as the Tamil National Alliance(TNA). The other two members are the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) and Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam(PLOTE).
Senathirajah is also the
deputy – leader of the TNA which contests polls under the House symbol of the ITAK. He has been both a national list MP for five years as well as an elected Parliamentarian from the Jaffna district for 20 years. The septugenarian six-footer born in 1942 will celebrate his 78th birthday on October 27th.
History is replete with instances of youthful political rebels blossoming into responsible political leaders . The rebellious youths who engaged in volatile protest demonstrations and campaigns, evolve in later life into stable, conventional pillars of the political establishment. Sri Lanka too has many such examples on either side of the ethnic divide. Senathirajah is a Sri Lankan Tamil politician who in the past spent nearly seven years of his life in eight different prisons as a political prisoner. The yesteryear political rebel is today the respected leader of the chief political party of the Sri Lankan Tamils. He has also been a Parliamentarian for 25 years.
Senathirajah hails from the Northern village of Maaviddapuram falling under the Valigamam North Pradeshiya Sabha and/or the Thellippalai AGA division area.Under the earlier first pass the post winner electoral system , Maviddapuram formed part of the Kankesanthurai(KKS) constituency. The most famous landmark of Maaviddapuram is the historic temple dedicated to Lord Muruga known as the Maaviddapuram Kandaswamy temple.
There is a tendency in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka to shorten in common usage the names of Tamil places with comparatively longer names. In Tamil Nadu Coimbatore is known as Koavai, Thanjavoor as Thanjai and Tirunelveli as Nellai etc. In Jaffna, places like Karaveddy, Neervaeli and Oorkaavatthurai are referred to as “Karavai,Neervai and Kaavaloor” respectively. Likewise Maaviddapuram is referred in short as “Maavai”. Senathirajah has the prefix “Maavai”attached to his name as he is from Maavai/Maviddapuram. Next to the Kandaswamy deity known as “Maavvaik Kanthan”, Senathirajah known as “Maavai” Senathirajah is perhaps the most well-known representative of Maviddapuram. Many address him simply as “Senathi”, “Maavai” or “Maavai Anna”(elder brother Maavai)
I have known “Maavai” Senathirajah for over 40 years. I first became familiar with him as a GCE (AL) student at Jaffna College, Vaddukkoddai in the early seventies of the previous century. I did not interact with him personally then.Those were the days of much student and youth unrest in Jaffna during the united front Govt of Sirima Bandaranaike. There were many Hartals, boycotts, protest marches, processions, black flag demonstrations, fasts etc in that period and Senathirajah was in the forefront as a prominent Tamil youth activist.
He was among the 42 youth leaders arrested and detained without trial in that period. The trio comprising Namasivayam Anandavinayagam alias “Vannai Ananthan”, Kathamuthu Sivananthan alias “Kasi Anandan” and Somasundaram Senathirajah alias “Maavai” Senathirajah detained for years as political prisoners were inspiring Tamil heroes to many politically conscious Tamil students and youths in those days.
In later years I became a journalist and came across Maavai Senathirajah the rising star of Tamil politics in a personal as well as professional capacity. I was first introduced to him in Colombo when I had joined the “Virakesari” as a cub reporter in 1977 by my close friend and one -time political activist “Mandoor”Mahendran who passed away this year. Since then I have met him at different times in different places such as Jaffna, Mannar, Colombo, Batticaloa, Chennai and Toronto. I have watched Senathirajah’s evolution and growth as a Tamil political leader over the years. Besides like Senathirajah, my wife too is from Maaviddapuram . It is against this backdrop therefore that I write about “Maavai”and his future course in the aftermath of the 2020 Parliamentary poll.
The advent of the 2020 Parliamentary elections saw the TNA in general and the ITAK in particular being plagued by intra-party strife.The internal conflict in the TNA was in the context of competition between candidates on the same party list to secure more preference votes. Jaffna electoral district comprising the administrative districts of Kilinochchi and Jaffna elects seven MPs. At the 2015 elections, five were elected from the TNA, one from the EPDP and one from the UNP.
Given the drop in TNA votes at the 2018 local authority polls as compared to the 2015 parliamentary election, political analysts opined that the TNA may win only four seats in 2020. This “prediction” if proven true would have resulted in one of the five Jaffna MPs elected in 2015 being knocked out of reckoning. The five TNA Jaffna District parliamentarians elected in 2015 in order of preference votes count were S. Shritharan, S. Senathirajah, M.A. Sumanthiran, D. Siddharthan and E. Saravanapavan. Of these, Siddharthan is from the PLOTE while the others are from the ITAK.
As the election campaign unfolded the four Jaffna MP’s from the ITAK got divided into two camps. ITAK leader Senathirajah and newspaper proprietor Saravanapavan aligned together while Shritharan and Sumanthiran drew closer. Saravanapavan’s newspapers had been conducting a vicious campaign against Sumanthiran despite the two being members of the same party. Shritharan was the only TNA parliamentarian from Jaffna to defend Sumanthiran and criticise the TNA spokesperson’s opponents when he was attacked by elements within the TNA/ITAK. Thereafter Shritharan too was attacked along with Sumanthiran by the newspapers owned by Saravanapavan.
The ITAK leader “Maavai” Senathirajah did not take any action when Sumanthiran and Shritharan complained. Senathirajah too was contesting in Jaffna and was being supported by Saravanapavan’s media. There was an alliance between both. On the other hand, Sumanthiran and Shritharan engaged in joint canvassing in certain areas. As this column observed last week, the situation was one where the TNA’s intra-party competition for preferential votes was chiefly between two “S- S” duos. Sumanthiran -Shritharan versus Senathirajah – Saravanabavan.
When the results were announced the TNA contesting as ITAK under the House symbol got three out of seven seats in Jaffna. Sivagnanam Shritharan (35,884), Madhiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran (27,834) and Dharmalingam Siddharthan (23,840) had been elected MP’s on the basis of their preference votes. Ms. Sashikala Raviraj came fourth with 23,098 votes. Saravanabavan and Senathirajah came fifth and sixth with 20,392 and 20,358 votes respectively. Later Sumanthiran was to reveal to the media that among the TNA candidates he had come first in three divisions, second in five divisions and third in three divisions.
The crux of the matter was that Sumanthiran and Shritharan had won while Senathirajah and Saravanapavan had lost. The TNA however had suffered a major setback. The TNA votes decreased more than one-thirds from its 2015 tally. From 515,963 (4.62%) in 2015 the TNA votes dropped to 327,168 (2,82%) votes. The MP tally declined from 16 in 2015 to 10. Of these nine were elected and one appointed on the national list. The TNA obtained six seats in the North and three in the East. The TNA had three MP’s each in Jaffna and Wanni districts. In Batticaloa the TNA got two MP’s and one in Trincomalee district. In Ampara/Amparai district no Tamil MP was elected. Seven sitting MP’s from TNA had lost. Chief among them was ITAK leader Senathirajah.
Shritharan and Sumanthiran paid a courtesy call to the defeated ITAK leader. They went to his residence in Maaviddapuram in their vehicles.Both sympathized with Senathirajah but rubbed it in that the ITAK leader had lost mainly due to his association with Saravanapavan. The two MP’s faulted the party leader for not checking Saravanapavan when his newspapers openly asked people to defeat Sumanthiran. Furthermore notices urging people not to vote for Shritharan and Sumanthiran were printed in huge quantities and distributed widely by suspected henchmen of Saravanapavan. The triumphant duo pointed out that when an influential ITAK candidate works against his fellow candidates and the party leader does not prevent it, the entire party would suffer the consequences.
While this conversation was going on Shritharan’s driver came in and said that Senathirajah’s son Senathirajah Kalaiamuthan and his friends had insisted that the vehicles of the two MP’s should not be parked inside the compound. Therefore both drivers had taken the vehicles outside into the lane.Upon hearing this, Senathirajah shouted out at his son and told him to allow the vehicles to be parked inside the premises. So Shritharan’s vehicle was brought in but Sumanthiran’s driver preferred not to come in. He also engaged in a verbal altercation with Kalaiamuthan and told him in Tamil “your father lost because of your cheap conduct”.
The incident involving Senathirajah’s son and the vehicle drivers of both MP’s was illustrative of the deteriorating relationship between the party leader and the two MP’s. Senathirajah’s son Kalaiamuthan was a qualified engineer who was working in Britain. He later returned home and entered politics by becoming a Valigamam North Pradeshiya Sabha member. Kalaiamuthan is also the General Secretary of the ITAK Jaffna District Youth Front. It was after the entry of Kalaiamuthan that the relationship between Senathirajah and Sumanthiran began to sour. It was Kalaiamuthan who aligned with Saravanapavan first and forged a “partnership” between his father and the media moghul. Interestingly Sumanthiran has disclosed publicly that he has audio-visual evidence of Kalaiamuthan and ITAK treasurer Kanagasabapathy telling Jaffna residents not to vote for him.
This column wrote in detail last week about the mob violence at the Chief counting centre located within the Jaffna Central College precincts. Kalaiamuthan too was involved in inciting the crowd but kept aloof from the mob trying to invade the premises. The Police riot squad and Special Task Force were brought in by the SSP in charge. The ring leaders were brought down by the STF while the rabble was dispersed through a baton charge by the anti -riot cops.
Senathirajah’s son was reportedly injured in the melee. A friend of Kalaiamuthan named Naavalan who is a local councillor has lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission (HRC) in Jaffna that he was assaulted by the STF. Kalaiamuthan has refrained from complaining directly but is believed to have instigated Naavalan.
Mischief -makers in the Tamil media also helped to drive further the wedge between the ITAK leader and the two MP’s. Shritharan was asked at a press conference whether the ITAK required a change of leadership. The MP replied it was not necessary. Then Shritharan was asked whether he would like to be the ITAK leader. The MP said that if the party unitedly offered him the post he would be amenable. This was reported in the Tamil newspapers wrongly.The papers said Shritharan wanted to become the new ITAK leader.
In a separate development MA Sumanthiran was asked at a media briefing whether a leadership change was necessary for the ITAK. Sumanthiran replied in the negative but observed that the party needs to analyse the election results and identify the reasons for the debacle. He pointed out that both the ITAK president Senathirajah and Secretary Thurairajasingham had lost badly in the Jaffna and Batticaloa districts. Thereafter Sumanthiran was asked whether he would support Shritharan being appointed as ITAK leader. The MP replied cautiously that if the party wanted Shritharan, then he too would go along with it. Again the Tamil media misreported it. The newspapers said Sumanthiran would support Shritharan being made ITAK leader.
The manner in which both these press conferences were reported by newspapers only helped to further widen the gulf between Senathirajah and the Sumanthiran-Shritharan duo. The electronic warriors on social media painted a picture where the two winner MP’s were portrayed as aiming for the loser Senathirajah’s jugular. Then came the national list MP affair.
The TNA had been elected to nine seats. The votes received enabled the alliance to appoint a national list MP. Earlier TNA parliamentary group leader Sampanthan had said that he did not want to contest an election and that he wanted to be nominated on the national list. The octogenarian MP from Trincomalee said he could not undergo the rigours and stress of electioneering. Others in the TNA were aghast. They felt none other than Sampanthan could win in the politically sensitive Trinco district.
Sampanthan then relented but imposed a condition. He wanted his deputy Kathiravelu Sanmugam Kuhadasan who was also a prospective candidate to be appointed on the national list. Kuhadasan a long time resident of Canada had returned to Sri Lanka permanently and renounced his Canadian citizenship. This native of Thiriyaai in Trinco had been a tower of strength to Sampanthan and had re-organized and galvanized party branches. The TNA nomination committee agreed to Kuhadasan being nominated as MP after elections.
So with the TNA getting only one National list seat, it was Kuhadasan who had to be nominated as MP. However there was a hitch. The Ampara/Amparai district had failed to return a Tamil MP. The district was one where the Tamils numbering 19% were the third largest ethnicity. Moreover most Tamil areas were under -developed. Thus an MP was necessary to look after Tamil interests in the district.
Moreover the Elections Commission had urged ITAK secretary K. Thurairajasingham to select the MP to be appointed as soon as possible. Hence an emergency meeting was held at Sampanthan’s residence with Thurairajasingham, Sumanthiran and Kuhadasan participating. Kuhadasan magnanimously agreed to forego the MP seat that should have been rightfully his. It was decided to appoint defeated candidate Thavarasa Kalaiarasan of the ITAK as national list MP. Kalaiarasan was an ardent ITAK activist and was the Naavithanveli Pradeshiya Sabha chairman. So Kalaiarasan was nominated to provide Amparai district a Tamil MP. Thurarajasingham did the paper work and Kalaiarasan was gazetted as MP.
ITAK leader Senathirajah however had other ideas. A meeting was convened hastily by the ITAK Jaffna branch where a resolution was passed urging that the defeated ITAK leader should be appointed as MP. Ex-NPC chairman CVK Sivagnanam and ITAK Jaffna branch head Kanagasabapathy -regarded as the right and left hands of the ITAK leader- went to Trinco with the proposal to appoint Senathirajah as MP. Senathirajah himself telephoned Sampanthan and Thurairajasingham insisting that he be made MP. Senathirajah pleaded that he did not want to be MP but had to bow down to the wishes of party members who wanted him to be the MP. Therefore he wanted the MP post. Senathirajah’s efforts were not fruitful.
Four Party Alliance
It is worth recalling that the TNA was a four -party alliance in 2015. At that time the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front(EPRLF) was also part of the TNA. The EPRLF leader Suresh Premachandran failed to get elected from the Jaffna district in the 2015 poll. Suresh reportedly requested that he be nominated to Parliament as one of the two national list MPs the TNA was entitled to then.This however was rejected by the ITAK, TELO and PLOTE leaders who opined that nominating defeated MP’s through the national list appoints was an undesirable practice. Moreover party leaders should set an example by not opting to be made an appointed MP. Premachandran was furious. Eventually the EPRLF pulled out of the TNA.
Under these circumstances the defeated ITAK leader could not have been appointed as MP. Besides with the TNA losing support in the East the act of depriving a deserving Easterner of an MP post in favour of a Northerner who had enjoyed the perks and privileges of being an MP for almost 25 years would have amounted to political suicide.
Hell Hath No Fury
Hell hath no fury as a Senathirajah denied an MP post! The ITAK leader raised the issue at Trincomalee when the nine-member Politbureau met at Sampanthan’s residence on August 15. However the ITAK president switched gears and began to berate the ITAK secretary K. Thurairajasingham for not adopting correct procedure in appointing the MP. He said the TNA Coordinating Committee should have decided on the matter. He also said that the TNA constituents TELO and PLOTE should have been consulted. The majority in the ITAK Politbureau were not supportive of Senathirajah. The ITAK leader however said that the National list appointment issue would be taken up at the “Mathiya Seyal Kuzhu”(Central Working Committee) meeting in Vavuniya on August 29.
The other TNA parties also jumped into the fray on behalf of Senathirajah. As if acting on cue the TELO and PLOTE leaders Adaikkalanathan and Siddharthan told the media that they would raise the MP appointment issue when the TNA coordinating committee met in Colombo on August 22nd. Media reports also said the PLOTE and TELO would demand the ouster of Sumanthiran as TNA spokesperson and removal of Sampanthan as TNA Parliamentary group leader. Senathirajah too will attend the meeting to be held today(22 Aug)
It appears therefore that defeated ITAK leader Senathirajah is determined to strike back at those he thinks are his “enemies” within the Party. He is very likely being egged on in this path by people like Saravanapavan and Sivagnanam and also his son Kalaiamuthan.
Meanwhile the Sumanthiran -Shritharan duo is also likely to persist with their efforts to get the ITAK leader to take disciplinary action against ex-MP Saravanapavan and other ITAK members who engaged in rowdyism at the Jaffna Central College precincts. Shritharan has given a CD with “evidence” about the mob violence to Senathirajah. He has also given a written complaint with details of Saravanapavan’s activities against himself and demanded that the newspaper owner be expelled from the ITAK. It is very likely that others like Sumanthiran and Dr. P. Sathiyalingam of the Wanni, who were also attacked by Saravanapavan’s papers would make similar complaints and demand his ouster.
Sparks Are Sure To Fly
It is expected that the ITAK leader would level charges against ITAK secretary Thurairajasingham and others at the 52 member executive committee meeting in Vavuniya on August 29th. In such a situation ITAK parliamentarians like Shritharan and Sumanthiranare will also present their side of the story with supportive evidence. If that happens the sparks are sure to fly and place the ITAK leader in an unenviable position.
As an old acquaintance of “Maavai” Senathirajah and having the interests of the Sri Lankan Tamil people at heart, this writer wishes fervently that the ITAK leader would act with mature responsibility and adopt an urgent course correction. Likewise it is to be hoped that others like Sumanthiran and Shritharan too conduct themselves with greater restraint and prudence to prevent a serious calamity befalling the chief political configuration representing the Tamils of Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka.
D.B.S.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 August 22, 2020. It can be accessed here: