Life and Times of Dynamic “Thamby” Arumugan Thondaman – 1
“Thamby”in Tamil means younger brother. It is also used widely as a pet name for male kids in many Tamil households.In many instances the pet name Thamby remains in use even after the children mature into adults. In recent times there have been four “Thambys” in Sri Lanka who have been prominent in political and public life. Two of them are no more among the living.
The four Thamby’s according to their ages are Veluppillai Prabhakaran – Ex – supremo of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE), Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu – Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), Arumugan Thondaman- Former Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC)leader, Cabinet Minister and MP and Gajendrakumar Gangaser Ponnambalam – Tamil National Peoples Front (TNPF)chief and Jaffna Dstrict MP.
Of these four, the Thamby on whom this column focuses this week is Arumugan Thondaman. I can recall my first converstion with him via telephone over twenty years ago. When I addressed him as “Mr. Thondaman” he simply said “Thambynnae Sollunga” (just say Thamby).
Arumugan Thondman passed way last year due to a cardiac arrest on May 26th. . The unexpected demise of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) leader who was then serving as Cabinet Minister of Livestock and Rural Community Development sent shock waves throughout the country in general and the Hill country in particular. He was cremated at Norwood with State Honours on May 31 2020. Before that large crowds paid their respects at various places despite the COVID threat restrictions.
This article is to commemorate both Arumugan’s first death anniversary as well as his 57th birth anniversary on May 29. In an article published on July 18th 2020 in the ”Daily Mirror” I had written “The life and times of dynamic political leader Arumugam Thondaman needs to be written about in greater detail on another occasion”. It is against this backdrop therefore that I write now in detail about the life and times of dynamic “Thamby” Arumugan Thondaman.
A point to be noted is that his name Arumugan with an N at the end is frequently misspelled as Arumugam with an M instead. I too have been guilty of this error at times. I remember his illustrious grandfather Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman gently admonishing me once “ He is Arumugan not Arumugam”. One reason for this mistake is due to both names having more or less the same meaning. They both refer to Lord Muruga the God with six faces in the Hindu Pantheon. “Arumugam” means six faces while “Arumugan” means six -faced.
The Thondman family has played and continues to play an important role in the political affairs of Sri Lanka in general and the up country regions in particular. “Plantation patriarch” Saumiyamoorthy (spelled as Savumimoorthy and Saumyamurthy also)Thondaman was for several decades the leader of the CWC which is the largest Trade Union cum political party representing the estate workers of Sri Lanka. He has been both an elected and appointed member of Parliament and Cabinet minister for many years. His son Ramanathan Thondaman was elected to the Central Provincial Council and served as a provincial minister.
Saumiyamoorthy’s grandson and Ramanathan’s son Arumugan Thondaman was also a prominent political leader. He was elected to Parliament from the Nuwara -Eliya district continuously from 1994 to 2020. In addition to being the CWC leader , Arumugan has been a cabinet minister for many years. Arumugan’s only son Jeevan Thondaman who was elected an MP after his father’s demise is currently the state minister of Estate Housing and Community Infra-structure in the Government. He is also the CWC General-Secretary. Arumugan’s nephew (sister’s son) Senthil Thondaman is also in politics and was for many years a minister in the Uva provincial council.
Saumiyamoorthy Arumugan Ramanathan Thondaman known generally as Arumugan Thondaman was born on May 29th 1964 in Munapudur in the Sivagangai district of Tamil Nadu state in India. He was the only son with three elder sisters and a younger sister.. All the girls were born in Sri Lanka. His parents Ramanathan and Rajeshwari Thondaman wanting a “boy” had gone to the famous Rameshwaram temple in Tamil Nadu and conducted special poojas praying for a son. Lord Shiva the primary Deity worshipped as Ramanathaswamy at the temple answered their prayers.
According to Anuradha Shanthamohan the eldest sister of Arumugan, their mother Rajeshwari was in the Northern side of the Thondaman family’s ancestral abode in Munapudur when she underwent labor contractions. Rajeshwari was immediately asked to walk across to the room at the southern side by her father -in -law Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman’s sister. This was because Saumiyamoorthy had been born in that southern room(thekkippatti) in 1913. And so the grandson was born 50 years later in the same room as his famous grandfather.
Everything was not rosy. The new arrival was rather sickly. He suffered from diarrhoeal ailments during the first month and was constantly dehydrated. The new born child had to be hospitalized in the village hospital. The baby’s state was so critical that the doctors at one stage had said there was no hope. However in what was perhaps the first display of the fighting spirit that characterized Arumugan, the infant fought back and recovered miraculously. Four months later Arumugan arrived in Sri Lanka via the Dhanushkodi -Thalaimannar ferry.
With three “Akkaas” or elder sisters calling their sibling as Thamby, the name stuck. So much so that in his early years Arumugan thought his real name was Thamby. He was sent to Kandy for Kindergarten studies and boarded at that tender age in the boarding house run by Mrs. Gnanam.
Royal – Montfort
Thereafter he began primary school studies at Royal College, Colombo. Arumugan left Royal after grade 4 and joined the Montfort Boys school at Yercaud in the Salem district of Tamil Nadu. The school run by the Montfort Brothers of St. Gabriel is regarded as an Elitist institution..Montfort school is to South India what Doon school is to North India.
According to Saba. Singaram, Arumugan’s Montfort schoolmate and best friend from childhood, young Thondaman was rather mischievous and quite fond of playing pranks in school . He had a flair for bunking (cutting classes or truancy) despite the strict discipline maintained by the school authorities. He was supposedly a master bunker who never got apprehended and many of his accomplices believed anyone collaborating with Arumugan in such exercises would also not get caught. One of his favourite pastimes was to raid the school orchard clandestinely. He also had a never ending supply of “Kamarkat”(Coconut jaggery sweet) and would be constantky munching them in cla.ss.
Apparently Arumugan did not like cricket or other team sports and shunned them. However he was an excellent swimmer and represented the school at state level competitions.Thamby was also a very good equestrian. He was also a member of the Cadet Corps. Among Arumugan’s contemporaries at Montfort were former Indian Health minister and Rajya Sabha MP Dr. Anbumani Ramadoss and well-known Tamil film actor Vikram whose real name is John Victor Kennedy. Both were junior to Arumugan at Montfort.
After secondary school in India, Arumugan went to the USA for tertiary education. He enrolled at Madison College in Wisconsin and obtained a Diploma in Business Management specializing in Agribusiness. He returned from the USA and embarked on a business career by running several enterprises including an airline ticketing agency in the Tamil Nadu capital of Chennai.
Soon the family found a suitable bride Rajalakshmi Natarajan for Arumugan from Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu. They were married on July 13th 1986. He was 22 while she was 20. They lived in Chennai for five years but travelled frequently to Sri Lanka. Both their daughters Kothai Nachiar and Vijayalakshmi were born in 1987 and 1989 respectively.
At that point of time Arumugan Thondaman did not have thoughts of entering politics in Sri Lanka. His grandfather Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman too did not have such intentions. Things changed. Arumugan relocated to Sri Lanka and gradually began involving himself in politics and trade unionism. After some years he contested Parliamentary elections and was elected from Nuwara – Eliya district. Eventually he became the CWC leader and cabinet minister after his grandfather’s demise.
This led to charges of nepotism on the basis that Thondaman snr had paved the way for Thondaman jnr to be his successor. Many accusations were levelled that Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman had deliberately groomed Arumugan as his successor. It has also been alleged that the long standing General Secretary of the CWC, Muthu Sangaralingam Sellasamy’s exit from the CWC was due to Arumugan Thondaman’s entry into the party.The CWC suffered several splits before and after Arumugan .joined its ranks.
Some CWC old timers who were closely associated with Saumiyamoorthy in the past and had a ring side view of what transpired then dispute this. They have a different take on these charges. I was able to communicate with some of them directly and indirectly. They opine that Arumugan’s entry and rise in the CWC had occurred as a matter of course without any pre-planned designs by Thonda snr. They say hat the grandfather was initially opposed to the idea of the grandson entering politics. But the course of events was such that Arumugan was compelled to play an active role in the CWC. Of course it must be said that these persons remain fiercely loyal to the memory of Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman. Rather touching in these times when political loyalty is so fickle and fluid.
According to these ex-CWC circles what had happened then was this. Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman had established total control of the CWC over the years through his sacrifices, hard work, dedication and political acumen. The CWC was virtually Thonda’s fiefdom and there was no one to challenge him. However he had no intention of grooming a family member as his successor. Thonda snr relied very greatly on his long time deputy MS Sellasamy the CWC General secretary. Sellasamy had been Gen Secy for so long that he was known as GS and not by his initials MS.
Thondaman himself had not thought of any successor for many years. It was only after he celebrated his “Pavala Vizha”(75th birth anniversary) in 1988 that he felt the need to groom a successor. Initially Thondaman had no qualms about Sellasamy succeeding him. But Sellasamy was only 13 years younger than Thondman and could at best be a stopgap successor only.
Thondaman had been thinking of younger stalwarts Jaya Perisundram and Periyasamy Chandrasekaran as potential successors to CWC leadership in the long term. But Perisundaram’s house in Borella was torched in the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom and the family migrated to Australia. Perisundram himself was appointed Ambassador to Indonesia in 1988. Meanwhile Chandrasekaran’s populariy within the CWC had surged after the 1986 violence in theTalawakelle and Lindula areas. Sellasamy allegedly feared Chandrasekaran’s rise and manipulated matters so as to make Chandrasekaran quit the CWC on his own. This succeeded and Chandrasekaran broke away and formed the Up Country Peoples Front(UCPF).
The 1988 Provincial Council elections saw the CWC contesting on the UNP list.Thondaman’s son Ramanathan and MS Sellasamy won in the Central and Western Provinces respectively and became Provincial ministers. Ramanathan had for long been of great assistance to his father and was functioned as a key aide. Ramanathan’s elevation as provincial minister deprived Thonda snr of his services at a personal level. Hence the Grandfather brought down his grandson Arumugan permanently from Chennai and made him his personal secretary. There was no plan then for Arumugan to enter active politics. The grandfather did not want that.
Unfortunately for the CWC relations between Thondaman and Sellasamy began to sour.Sellasamy’s wife who had been ill for many years had passed away. He had cared for her deeply and looked after her needs while she was alive. After her death Sellasamy married again. His second wife Velaammal Sellasamy took a keen interest in politics and other affairs connected to her husband. Sellsamy a Western Provincial minister had contested and won the 1989 Parliament polls. He was elected from Colombo district and made the State minister of Transport and Industries in the Ranasinghe Premadasa Government. . Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman was appointed MP on the national list and became a cabinrt ministerin 1989. Sellasamy wanted his wife Velammal to be appointed to fill the Provincial council vacancy caused by his shift to Parliament. Thondaman objected strongly but the adamant Sellasamy insisted and had his way in this.
There were also two grave allegations of corruption against Sellasamy. One was that he had taken four Tamil youths as bodyguards with him to Canada for his son’s wedding and returned without them. They sought political asylum in Canada.It was inferred that they had paid huge amounts of cash to procure the Canadian visas through Sellasamy. The Canadian High Commission had granted them visas on the strength of the State minister’s guarantee. Later the Canadian envoy in Colombo complained to Thondaman about the matter.
The second complaint was made by President Premadasa himself. The CWC had worked hard for Premadasa’s victory at the 1988 presidential elections. Sellasamy had asked for houses to be given as a reward to CWC activists who had laboured diligently in the elections. Apparently a grateful Premadasa had allocated 40 houses and flats to Sellasamy who had allegedly “sold” 30 of them for cash to outsiders. Thondaman was furious and had berated Sellasamy. Despite these incidents Sellasamy carried on as usual and Thondaman seemed helpless against his powerful deputy.
Meanwhile it had become clear that the affable, easy-going, gentlemanly Ramanathan was not cut out for the world of cut-throat politics. He wanted to “retire” and encourage his only son Arumugan to become a politician instead. Arumugan Thondaman in his capacity as personal secretary to his grandfather had demonstrated an aptitude for hurly-burly politics. Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman himself was impressed by Arumugan’s potential.
In a further development Sellasamy began demanding a separate office for Velammal Sellasamy within the CWC headquarters in Colombo. When this was conveyed to Thondaman, the CWC President lost his cool. He confronted Sellasamy openly and objected vehemently to the idea.
Officiating Financial Secretary
Thereafter the sagacious Thondaman decided that a countervailing force was necessary to constrain Sellasamy in the future.The financial secretary of the CWC was K. Annamalai who had been an appointed MP from 1965 to 1970. Annamalai was not in he best of health and found it difficult to attend to his work. Very often cheques had to be taken to Annamalai’s residence in Gampola for his signature.So in what was arguably a pre-empive move o check Sellasamy, Arumugan hondaman was appointed “Officiating Financial Secretary” without removing Annamalai as Financial Secretary. Thus Arumugan was brought into the CWC formally in 1993 and given an office within the Headquaters precincts.. It seemed that a cold war had begun.
However this move did not result in dislodging Sellasamy or cause his exit from the CWC. The CWC General secretary’s downfall later was due to another reason. Premadasa was assassinated by the LTTE in May 1993. Prime Minister DB Wijetunga became president. The 1993 provincial council elections saw the UNP dissident group led by Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake form the Democratic United National Front (DUNF) and contest polls. In the Central province the UNP contesting with the CWC won with a slender majority. The DUNF’s Gamini Dissanayake became leader of the opposition.
Alhough Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman had enjoyed a close rapport with former presidents JR Jayewardene and R. Premadasa, he did not have the same relationship with DB Wijetunga. There was disagreement on several issues. Chief among them was the setting up of a vocational training centre for plantation Tamil youths in Dickoya. This was to be funded by Norway. Wijetunga refused to give the green light for the project.
No Confidence Motion
Meanwhile Central Province Opposiion leader Gamini Dissanayake was planning to move a vote of no confidence against the UNP controlled Cenral Provincial council administration.Thondaman enraged by President Wijetunga’s refusal to allow the Training Centre project wanted to support the no confidence motion(NCM) to drive home a point to the UNP.
The National Council of the CWC met and unanimously resolved to support the NCM. The NCM would have been easily passed with the DUNF, SLFP and CWC voting in favour. President Wijetunga struck back, He secretly conspired with Sellasamy to scuttle the NCM move. The CWC Gen- Secy who had endorsed the CWC decision at the national council did a somersault. Sellasamy got some CWC Central Province Councillors to vote against the NCM. The motion was narrowly defeated. Thondaman was furious.
An emergency meeting of the CWC National Council was hastily convened. All provincial councillors who voted against the NCM were expelled from the party. Sellasamy was removed from the General – Secretary post which he had held for 30 years since 1993.
There arose a tricky issue. Sellasamy had been Gen-secy for 30 years and had been quite popular with CWC rank and file. Replacing him with another was problematic. It had to someone broadly acceptable to the CWC membership and support base. Furthermore the replacement had to be someone who was gutty enough to withstand the backlash that would inevitably arise if and when Sellasamy and his supporters fought back. There were some who thought the “misunderstanding” would be resolved soon and Sellasamy would bounce back as Gen Secy. A few even wanted the Gen -secy post to remain vacant until then. Therefore many of the senior CWC officials were reluctant to fill the Gen – secy vacancy at that juncture.
But Thondaman himself had been very hurt by what he perceived as Sellasamy’s betrayal. He wanted the Gen – Secy post to be filled immediately. In that context Thondaman snr required someone whom he could trust, be acceptable to the membership and had the strength to withstand a backlash. Thondaman conferred with senior CWC officials to decide o n a re[lacement for Sellasamy. The consensus among CWC officials was for Arumugan Thondaman to be appointed Gen Secy as only he was the most suitable at that point of time. “Thamby”had acumen, ability and acceptability they felt . More importantly the rank and file would only accept a person of his calibre to replace the popular Sellasamy without objecting.
Thonda snr was unwilling to accept the decision of his senior deputies as he felt Arumugan was too young. Also he did not want to be accused of driving out Sellasamy to promote his grandson. Yet under prevailing circumstances Thonda had no choice. So in a surprise move the Officiating Financial Secretary Arumugan Thondaman was unanimously elected as the new CWC General Secretary in 1993 . Even then Thondaman regarded the appointment as a temporary measure to tide over the crisis. However as the CWC’s new General-Secretary, Arumugan Thondaman started discharging his duties efficiently and began consolidating himself politically.
The 1994 Parliamentary elections saw the CWC contesting along with the UNP. It was however the Peoples Alliance led by Chandrika Kumaratunga that captured power. The CWC contesting within UNP folds did very well. It won three seats in Nuwara -Eliya and a seat each in Kandy and Badulla. Apart from these five elected MP’s the CWC also obtained two national list MP’s. Furthermore when the LTTE killed several UNP MP’s in the Grandpass explosion , the vacancies in Colombo district were filled by two more CWC MP’s. The CWC had nine MP’s in all in the 1994 Parliament. Moreover Arumugan Thondaman himself entered Parliament for the first time by getting 75, 297 preference votes in Nuwara -Eliya district. Arumugan had arrived.
There was no fairy tale ending. The political advent of Arumugan Thondaman resulted in major upheavals within the CWC in particular and in Hill country Tamil politics in general. MS Sellasamy took legal action against his removal as Gen Secy and even barred the CWC from using the party symbol the cockerel, Several senior CWC Parliamentarians revolted against Arumugan after Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman’s death. Arumugan however fought back against overwhelming odds and gradually entrenched his position within the CWC while empowering himself politically.
Undisputed CWC Leader
After Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman’s demise in 1999, his grandson became the CWC leader and was appointed cabinet minister. Thereafter Arumugan Thondaman reigned supreme as the undisputed leader of the CWC. Just like his grandfather Saumiyamoorthy, Arumugan too adopted the politics of brinkmanship at times to achieve his objectives. All these matters would be related in a forthcoming article.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an updated version of an article appearing in the “Daily Mirror” of June 12th 2021.It can be accessed here-