The “Sunday Times” of March 13th 2022 reported that the death sentence imposed by the Colombo High Court on Johnson Colin Valentine alias Vasanthan who was found guilty of assassinating former minister and United National Party MP Thiyagarajah Maheswaran has been upheld by the Court of Appeal (CA).A bench comprising Judges Nissanka Bandula Karunaratne and R Gurusinghe rejected the appeal filed by Johnson Colin Valentine alias “Vasanthan,” upholding the death sentence imposed on the appellant by High Court Judge Sunil Rajapaksha on August 24, 2012.
The “Sunday Times” news report stated that the accused had been indicted in the high court on two murder counts. He was found guilty of the murder of Mr Maheswaran but was acquitted in the other murder.Nineteen witnesses testified for the prosecution during the trial held into the assassination.The accused had filed an appeal before the CA arguing that eye witnesses at the trial had given contradictory evidence and that he had been denied the opportunity to have a jury trial.
The report further stated that Senior Deputy Solicitor – General (SDSG) Dileepa Peiris dismissed the arguments and pointed out that the trial judge had clearly informed the accused that he was entitled to a trial by jury. He also stressed that there was no contradictory evidence whatsoever given by eyewitness Guruge Dharmasiri Perera, the security officer who identified the accused as the assassin. The evidence has also not come under suspicion and identification of the accused was also done properly, SDSG Peiris informed court.
Having considered the arguments, the CA accepted that the prosecution had proved charges against the accused beyond reasonable doubt and dismissed the appeal, upholding the death sentence imposed by the Colombo High Court.Attorney-at-Law Dr Ranjith Fernando with Champika Monarawila appeared for the accused appellant, said the news report.
The judicial decision revives memories of Maheswaran the person and the circumstances of his assassintion. The killing in broad daylight of United National Party (UNP)Colombo district parliamentarian Thyagaraja Maheswaran at a prominent Hindu temple in Colombo was a shocking incident that rocked the nation when it happened 14 years ago. 41 year old Maheswaran was shot dead at the Shree Ponnambalavaneswarar Sivan temple in Kotahena on January 1st 2008. He was to celebrate his 42nd birthday on Jan 10th.
The Government of President Mahinda Rajapksa was then in power. The UNP Tamil MP was one of those Parliamentarians whose official security had been drastically reduced after the budget vote on Dec 14th 2007. The vociferous Maheswaran had voted against the budget. The Colombo district MP’s bodyguards from the Ministerial Security division were cut down from eighteen to two. On Dec 19th 2007 Maheswaran had written to the then Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse saying that he faced danger and urged that his security be restored to earlier levels. No action was taken.
Shree Ponnambalavaneswarar Sivan temple
Maheswaran left his residence at B32, 36th lane, Wellawatte in the morning of New Years day on Jan 1st 2008 to worship at the Shree Ponnambalavaneswarar Sivan temple at Kotahena. The temple was constructed by Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan who was then representing the Educated Ceylonese Constituency of the Legislative Council. Maheswaran had inducted some trusted Tamil youths to be his unofficial bodyguards. These youths did not carry firearms but generally surrounded Maheswaran when he moved about. In actual terms they provided body cover. Only L. Dharmasiri, the 38 year old Policeman assigned as his official bodyguard carried a gun. Maheswaran’s 4 year old daughter also accompanied her father to the temple.
Thiagarajah Maheswaran was a pious Saivaite. At the Sivan temple he went through all rituals including the walk around the inner circle or “Ulveethi”. He also conducted a special “Archanai” or pooja. According to reports published in Tamil newspapers , former Up – Country Peoples Front Colombo municipal councillor VT Gurusamy had seen the MP within the temple precincts. Guruswamy said he saw Maheswaran standing engrossed with devotional fervour near the “moolasthanam” or sanctum sanctorum , oblivious to his surroundings or people around him.
The former minister of Hindu affairs was going out with his “kalanji” coconut in one hand and clasping his daughter with the other, at about 9. 30 am , when the assassin made his move. He was standing on the steps outside the main entrance to the temple. The killer moved closer as Mahewaran emerged and opened fire. Maheswaran fell with four bullet wounds to his chest and head. The coconut turned red with his blood.
The official bodyguard Dharmasiri fired back at the assassin. Sticking to procedure he fired at his legs first to bring him down rather than kill him. The assassin however fired back at the bodyguard injuring him. It was then that Dharmasiri aimed at the assassin’s head but the bullet only nicked him. The assassin then dropped down on all fours within the crowd and crawled into the temple. It was impossible to fire on a crawling man in a crowd without hitting other people. The assassin’s aim was to crawl through to the second side entrance to the left and escape. It was suspected that an accomplice with a vehicle was close by.
There were more than 600 devotees in and around the temple at the time of the shooting. There were uniformed Police personnel on duty at the temple. These cops acted fast and got the doors closed at both entrances. The bleeding assassin was trapped with other devotees inside the temple.Once the shooting began there was pandemonium with hundreds of devotees running here and there. One of the temple priests who was walking out with Maheswaran whisked away the MP’s daughter to safety. Apart from Maheswaran , Dharmasiri and a few of his unofficial bodyguards, some other people were also injured.
Some of Maheswaran’s uninjured guards rushed with the injured persons to the National hospital. Other injured persons including the assassin were also brought there. Twelve people were admitted. They were Maheswaran, Mahindan, Dharmasiri, Madhurani, Vaani, Sarala, Balachandran, Akilash, Pushpavathy, Videshwaran, Sivalingam and also the assassin. The assassin was initially admitted under the name of Vasanthan to bed number 13 in ward 72 of the National Hospital in Borella. Doctors at the hospital did surgery for six of the injured people.Chandrakumar Mahendran of Jaffna was pronounced dead shortly after admission. Doctors strove hard to save Maheswaran but the MP succumbed to injuries at 10. 35 am.
Record Wins in Jaffna and Colombo
Thus ended the colourful and controversial life of Thiyagarajah Maheswaran. To succeed in business one needs a certain amount of political skill. To succeed in politics one requires a certain degree of business sense. Thiagarajah Maheswaran was a rare blend of business acumen and political savvy.He was a shrewd businessman with a dubious background who achieved two stupendous records in politics.
Suppiahpillai Natesan, former principal of Parameshwara College and son in law of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan , won the Kankesanthurai electorate on the United National party (UNP) ticket in 1952. He was a minister in the Sir John Kotelawela cabinet.
After 1952 no Tamil was elected from the UNP in Jaffna for 48 years. Then came Maheswaran. On October 10th 2000 Thiagarajah Maheswaran was elected from Jaffna district on the UNP ticket. No one believed this was possible then. On Dec 5th 2001 he was re-elected from Jaffna again on the UNP ticket. He became minister of Hindu affairs.
This was not all.
Due to problems with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) Maheswaran switched from Jaffna to Colombo for the 2004 elections. No Tamil from Jaffna had been elected from Colombo since the time of the legislative and State Councils.
Sir Arunachalam Mahadeva won a seat in the legislative Council from Colombo in 1924. Sir Ratnajothy Saravanamuttu won the state council seat for Colombo North in 1931. After being unseated at an election petition his wife Neysum Saravanamuttu succeeded him by winning a by – election. She won again in 1936. Neysam Saravanamuttu was the first woman State Councillor. Her father Arunasalam was an engineer and lived in Passara for many years. Both her parents were from Vaddukkoddai. Incidently New Zealand MP of Sri Lankan origin Vanushi Walters is a great grand daughter of Ratnajothy and Neysum Sravanamuttu.
After Mahadeva and the two Saravanamuttus no Tamil of Jaffna origin had won any seat in Colombo. Though Colombo Central had three members and Colombo South two members to help Tamils get elected no Sri Lankan Tamil ever won. People like Bala Tampoe, N. Shanmugadasan, Kumar Ponnambalam etc failed to win in Colombo
It was MS Sellasamy of the Ceylon workers Congress who became the first Tamil to be elected from Colombo in the post – independence period. He won in 1989. Later Tamils like P. Devarajan, R. Yogarajan, Mano Ganesan, Praba Ganesan etc were elected to Parliament from Colombo. They are all of recent Indian origin.
When Thiagarajah Maheswaran won in the election of April 2nd 2004 he became the first Jaffna Tamil to be elected to Parliament from Colombo in the post – independence period.
Both these records – winning on the UNP ticket in Jaffna and being first Jaffna Tamil MP from Colombo – are remarkable feats by any standard. The man who achieved these was an unconventional politician. Maheswaran was essentially a businessman in politics and a self – made person at that.
From Thangodai Area in Karainagar.
He was born on Jan 10th 1966 in Karainagar. Maheswaran was from the Thangodai area in Karainagar. His ancestral home was near the place called Sinna Aaladi .Karainagar has spawned many people who have done well in trade and commerce. But Maheswaran’s father Thiagarajah was not one of those. The family was of lower middle class background. He was not born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth.In later years Maheswaran was to be a multi – millionaire who acquired wealth through his own efforts.
Maheswaran studied at Yarlton College in Karainagar and later at St. Johns College, Jaffna .He also studied at the St.Johns Academy tutorial college.The family underwent a financial crisis and Maheswaran dropped out from studies. He was compelled to work as a cleaner and later driver in a lorry. But he had a burning desire to succeed in business and be a rich man. He began engaging in transporting goods on a small scale between Colombo and Jaffna.Two things helped him succeed in commerce. One was his ability to ingratiate himself with former Jaffna district minister UB Wijekoon. The other was the war. Maheswaran was a profiteer from war.
Through UB Wijekoon’s help he gained some influence within the UNP. When the war escalated the transport of goods was restricted to Jaffna. Maheswaran struck deals with both the LTTE and some members of the UNP Government and began transporting essential items.He made rapacious profits and shared the spoils with both UNP bigwigs and the LTTE. It was the embargo on fuel that gave him a massive fillip. He smuggled in great amounts of fuel. One of his successful ruses was smuggling fuel in coco cola bottles.
“Mannennei” (Kerosene) Maheswaran
There was a time when selling kerosene in bottles at excessive prices became a lucrative business in Jaffna. People would be seen standing at roadsides and selling kerosene. Maheswaran was the “wholesale” supplier. It was then that he acquired the name “Mannennei” (Kerosene) Maheswaran. Thiyagarajah Maheswaran owned and ran “Mahaluckshmi Stores” in Jaffna. Originally it belonged to his wife’s grand uncle. Later Maheswaran acquired it and expanded it.He was also sales agent for a domestic airline.
Maheswaran developed his business further by transporting essential items by ships to Jaffna from Colombo. He teamed up with a cartel of Jaffna businessmen and transported on a large scale. This cartel had a virtual monopoly of this. The people had to pay high prices for these goods.
Maheswaran maintained good relations with both the UNP government and LTTE.The LTTE was paid massive amounts out of the profits. As long as their coffers were filled the self – imposed sole representatives of the Tamil people were content to let the people be exploited ruthlessly.
But there was trouble in the war profiteering paradise. The UNP was defeated in 1994 and Chandrika Kumaratunga came in. This reduced Maheswaran’s political influence which in turn affected his business interests.Maheswaran decided to enter politics actively and promote his business dealings. Maheswaran was a businessman who initially entered politics to safeguard his business interests . Since Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP) leader Douglas Devananda was close to Kumaratunga at that time and also because he himself had close links with the UNP , Maheswaran became active in the green elephant party. Maheswaran was counting Agent for Ranil Wickremasinghe in Jaffna at the 1999 Presidential poll.
Hindu Affairs Minister
Maheswaran contested Jaffna district in 2000 and created an upset by winning. Maheswaran won again in 2001 and became Hindu Affairs minister with control over the Palmyra Development board.Maheswaran “drained” out the Palmyra board. He also minted money through allocating money for temple renovations and distributing three – wheelers. The level of corruption was unbelievable.
There was a new development in 2004. Four Tamil parties came together as the Tamil National Alliance(TNA) and contested on a pro – tiger platform. The LTTE wanted Maheswaran to join the TNA or quit politics. Maheswaran refused to join the TNA. He also did not want to quit politics.There was also some “trouble” about the money he was paying regularly to the LTTE.
So Maheswaran went to the Wanni to try and sort out matters, He was treated shabbily and not permitted to meet any senior leaders. He was interrogated by woman cadres under demeaning conditions. Maheswaran returned a dejected man but the fighter in him did not surrender to the tigers.
Defying LTTE Diktat
Maheswaran then did a daring act. Defying LTTE diktat he contested elections again but this time it was not Jaffna but Colombo. No Jaffna Tamil had won in Colombo after Independence. Maheswaran was not intimidated. He jumped into the fray with zest and the money power at his disposal.Soon he was giving Colombo veterans a run for their money. Yet Maheswaran may have lost but for the tigers.
The LTTE angered by Maheswaran’s defiance wanted to silence him. They did not want him to win in Colombo. So the tigers cleverly “contracted” underworld elements to target Maheswaran. On the last day of canvassing, a lone gunman shot and wounded Maheswaran in Gintupitiya. Maheswaran was hospitalised. But the politically smart Maheswaran cashed in on his predicament. Newspaper advertisements showing a bed ridden Maheswaran appealing to voters were published. Leaflets were also distributed throughput Colombo city and suburbs.
This was like Tamil Nadu actor – politico MG Ramachandran getting shot by another actor MR Radha in 1967. Posters of a bed ridden MGR were displayed. He won by a record landslide in his Parangimalai constituency. Likewise Maheswaran rode the crest of a sympathy wave and won in Colombo. He was now in the opposition.
Maheswaran made his peace with the LTTE again by making a hefty donation. It is also believed that “taxes” for doing business was paid regularly. At the same time Maheswaran established good relations with the newly elected President Mahinda Rajapakse and his powerful brother Basil.This made many feel that Maheswaran had ensured his ” safety” by taking out a “political” insurance policy.He continued to transport goods to Jaffna by ship. There was also much speculation that Maheswaran would “cross” to Mahinda’s side but to his credit he never did so.
Maheswaran could speak Sinhala, Tamil and English and was a pleasant person to converse with. Maheswaran was immensely rich in later life but always retained the common touch. He was a great favourite with the minor staff in Parliament.Though he crossed swords with JHU and JVP Parliamentary colleagues ,he maintained cordial relations with them on a personal level. Ironically Maheswaran was persona non grata to most TNA members.
Flair for Dramatic Stunts
He had a flair for dramatic stunts. Maheswaran once drove a bullock cart in Jaffna to protest against rise in prices. When the Pomgu Thamil event was held he identified with it openly. Once he took coffins into the EPDP stronghold of Kayts in a demonstration of defiance.Maheswaran was a vibrant personality in Parliament too. It was he who once ran off with the speakers mace. On another occasion he removed his shirt and remained bare bodied in protest. When a wreath was brought in to insult the then opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, Maheswaran was one of those opposing the act pugnaciously.
He was somewhat of a maverick in the UNP. He defied party discipline often and spoke up on issues affecting Tamils without toeing a majoritarian line.Ranil Wickremasinghe allowed Maheswaran a free “voice” in those matters.Whatever the motives behind his entry into politics ,there is no denying that Maheswaran evolved into a “vox populi” for the Tamil people over the years.
Profiteering from the war through controversial commercial pursuit on the one hand and projecting an image of being a peoples representative speaking truth to power on the other, is an extremely acute contradiction.It was a dangerous game of tight rope walking that Maheswaran did trying to balance his act among hostile elements.
Extreme Political Brinkmanship
It was political brinkmanship of an extreme nature.It is a miracle that he survived as long as he did. Finally he was shot dead on the premises of a Sivan temple in Colombo by a tiger cadre – who had infiltrated the EPDP – whose conviction was upheld by the courts last week.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This Article Appears in the “Political Pulse “ Column of the “Daily FT” dated March 16th 2022. It cn be accessed here –