Monday August 26th happens to be the 70th birth anniversary of one-time leader of the opposition Appapillai Amirthalingam. The enfant terrible of the Federal Party who metamorphosed into the elder statesman of the Tamil United Liberation Front strode across the Tamil political horizon for more than thirty years. A lifetime of toil and service to his community was cut short in 1989 July when he fell victim to bullets fired by LTTE operatives in Colombo.
Amir or "Amir Anna" as he was known to his younger followers was born in Pannagam, Vaddukkoddai in 1927. He was of middle class origin and received most of his schooling at Victoria College, Chulipuram. He later entered University and then the law college passing out as an advocate. He was attracted towards Trotskyite politics in his undergraduate days and was for a short time a devout disciple of Dr. N. M. Perera.. He was initially involved with the Tamil Congress but cut his teeth in politics as a member of the newly formed Federal Party. He accepted the ascetic S.J.V Chelvanayagam as his political leader and therefore folowed him as a trusted lieutenant.
He contested the Vaddukkoddai seat as a Federal Party candidate unsucessfully in 1952. In 1956 he won Vaddukkoddai and held the same seat continuously through the March 1960 July 1960, and March 1965 elections. In 1970 may he was toppled by former school principal A. Thiyagarajah of the Tamil Congress. After seven years Amirthalingam returned triumphantly to parliament with a thumping majority in 1977.Only this time he contested the Kankesanthurai constituency which had been represented earlier by S.J.V. Chelvanayagam.
The massive voter swing in favour of the UNP had reduced the SLFP to a mere 8 seats and the TULF with 18 seats became the largest opposition party. After S. Thondaman turned the offer down Amirthalingam became Leader of the Oppositioin. The July violence of 1983 and the sixth amendment to the constitution led to the TULF boycotting parliament thereby rendering their seats vacant.
After the Indo-Lanka accord of 1987 the TULF contested elections to parliament again in 1989. Amirthalingam himself contested in the Batticaloa electoral list. He lost. But he managed to enter parliament as the nominated national list MP in what was then considered a controversial move . He along with former TULF Jaffna MP. V. Yogeswaran were gunned down in cold blood a few months later. TULF president M. Sivasithamparam was wounded seriously in the incident.
Amir in the beginning was an artful advocate. He had the makings of a brilliant lawyer. Yet, politics soon became the center of his life. He neglected his professional career preferring to construct a mass base rather than build up a legal practice. After marriage to Mankaiatkarasi Amir found his newly - wed wife complaining about his obsession with politics. He found a way out. Soon, Mrs. Amirthalingam began accompanying her husband to political platforms. Being an accomplished divashe was given the duty of singing melodious songs in praise of the Tamil language. Later she began to make speeches and soon became a political figure in her own right.
This dynamic duo of husband and wife was a new phenomenon in Tamil Politics. Various remarks of a male chauvinist and sexist nature were cast at Mrs. Amirthalingam. Amirthalingam was referred to derogatorily as a hen - pecked husband. Yet the husband and wife combination battled on merrily. Their two sons Kandeepan and Bhageerathan too were involved in youth politics. Both were detained at different times in Madras. Today the Amirthalingam family lives away from the limelight in England.
Amirthalingam in his younger days was a fiery particle. He was the darling of the Tamil youth. He was an inflammatory orator given very much to rhetoric. He had a genuine zeal for his cause and a passion for his people. This sincerity of purpose sometimes manifested itself in the form of bombastic statements. The larger the crowd the greater his rhetoric. Former "Daily Mirror" editor Reggie Michael once referred to him in the following manner. "Amirthalingam is a man who is capable of moving crowds and crowds are capable of moving him As a reporter on the Tamil Daily "Virakesari" I was assigned the task of covering the TULF victory meeting at the Ramakrishna Hall, Wellawatte. The date was August 5th 1977. The TULF had swept the polls in the Tamil dominated areas of the North and East on the slogan of a separate state. The party considered it as a mandate for the sovereign state of Thamil Eelam. There was euphoria in the air as speaker after speaker emotionally re-iterated their commitment of Eelam. Finally Amir spoke. At one point he said in Tamil.
"Tunku Abdul Rahman had the statesmanship to allow Singapore to secede from Malaysia peacefully. But the Sri Lankan rulers do not have that wisdom. I stand on this stage without fear and state that Tamil Eelam will be born only through violent struggle and bloodshed. We are ready for the bloody struggle" As a journalist I highlighted these remarks sas he introductory passge in y report. I still remember my editor Mr. Sivaparagasam (now in Boston, USA). cutting these words out and asking me to rewrite the copy. He said "As a journalist you have done well in Highlighting these remarks. But as a responsible newpaper we an not publish these provocative and irresponsible statements. "These lines were never published. Yet what seemed highly irresponsible statements at that time certainly to be prophetic but at what cost!! The radicalisation of Tamil politics through the Eelam slogan and its consequent violence has engulfed the nation death, destruction, displacement and despair. Upon reflection I think that even Mr. Amirthalingam did not realise the gravity of his pronouncements at that time.
Nine years later in 1986 I was in Jaffna when Mr. Amirthalingam was interviewed by Rupavahini on the ethnic question. It was a much-mellowed Amirthalingam who answered in a statesmen - like manner. He eloquently argued the case out for a negotiated settlement. Amirthalingam's performance evoked an amusing response from one of Amirthalingam's old school mates an engineer by profession who was politically at loggerheads with Amir as he was a Tamil Congress supporter. The following morning he called Mr. Amirthalingam at Empress Hotel from Jaffna and said "For the past fifty years known you this is the first time I have heard you speak sense". From the tone of the conversation I could gather that Amirthalingam was highly pleased by his childhood friend's response.
To reach this point of understanding Amir had travelled down a long road. There were many stages in his political evolution. The young fire brand baton charged by the police for leading a black-flag demonstration against then Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawela visiting Jaffna; leaving Galle Face Green after Satyagraha and debeating in parliament with bloodied in bandages; leading a tar and brush, campaign against the "SRI" letter on CTB buses in Jaffna; travelling to Batticaloa by boat from Jaffna at the height of communal troubles in 1958.
The long spells of incarceration for political reasons; the heated debates and cross-talk in parliaments; the trial-at-bar case which has gone down in legal history as A.G. Vs Amirthalingam, the unprecedented no-confidence motion against the opposition leader in parliament; the various incidents of friction with members of the police and armed forces where guns were levelled at him at point blank range. Tamil youths disrupting his political meetings with gunplay. His long exile in India etc., are all but shifting scenes of a varied and fruitful life span.
Retrospectively one is able to discern the various phases of political changes in Amirthalingam the politician. These changes and experiences were very much reflective of the turbulent changes undergone by the Tamil community itself. Amirthlingam the defiant youth leader led many campaigns and demonstrations against the power structure. Later the popular MP became some what domineering and unpopular. The 1970 defeat was a watershed. Amirthalingam re-invented himself as a popular leader after the 1970 defect. He learnt to control his famous temper and curb his caustic tongue. He began to mix with people easily and assiduously cultivated the youth. All this paid dividends politically.
After the tumultuous period between 1977 - 1983. Amirthalingam again went into a period of self-exile to Madras. These years against marked a conspicuous change in his political make-up. He was able to perceive objectively the social fabric of the Tamil community being torn asunder by political violence. He could see the beginning of the scattering of the Tamil people which he felt would weaken the Tamil position in the Island. He was also aware that the death-knell had been rung for conventional representative democracy in Jaffna.
In Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi" there is a scene set in the early twenties where the Indian leaders are discussing possible courses of action. When terrorism is mooted as a possible strategy for freedom Nehru rules it our vehemently - Nehru says "terrorism would allow the British to justify the use of violence against us. Also it would throw up the wrong kind of leaders . "These are words of tremendous significance to Sri Lankan leaders in the currnet context.
In farirness to Mr. Amirthalingam and most leaders of the TULF they were not active promoters of political violence. None of the frontline leaders aided or abetted it. Some of them however had ambivalent attitudes and approaches. Also the party itself did not view these acts of violence as terrorism but as the acts of freedom fighters. Some of the youths allegedly involved in violence were members of the TULF youth wing. This resulted in TULF leaders involving themselves legally in these cases. But what must not be forgotten is that the overall Tamil political mood was sympathetic to the armed Tamil youths. The TULF too was caught up in this process.
Mr. Amirthalingam too realised this later and regretted a certain course of action followed earlier by the TULF. He felt that the Federal Party and the TULF could have possibly adopted other strategies and tactics. He was somewhat remorseful of the ambivalent relationship the TULF had with the Tamil armed movements at a certain stage of their development.
Mr. Amirthalingam's state of mind on thse matters was revealed to me during the course of three conversations in 1984, 1985 and 1988. The first was at Hotel Empress in Colombo; the second at the Tamil Nadu state guest house in Madras, the third was at Hotel Taprobane in Colombo. All thse conversations were strictly off the record and Mr. Amirthalingam was very frank and forthcoming.
The last conversation at Taprobane where he was staying in 1988 remains poignant in my memory. This was prior to my leaving Sri Lanka for the USA. I went to meet him at about 2.00 p.m. and went on talking till almost 9.00 pm. Both of us strongly disagreed on the role of India in Sri Lanka. During the argument he regaled me about what he felt in retrospect were political blunders committed by the Tamils. He did not excuse himself for some of his past actions. Many of the things he said then made an enlightened impact on one only. When relfecting afterwards. But he warned me of the plight that would befall the Tamils if Indian involvement ceased.
Today I can only say that most of what he said to have proved to be prophetic. When I took leave of him that day little did I realise that it was "adieu" and not "au revoir". I never spoke to him afterwards. He was killed within a year of that meeting.
The death of Amirthalingam to use a cliche marked the end of an era. It was symptomatic of the new political culture that had eaten into the body politic of the Tamils. The man who ws once the hero of the Tamil youth had been destroyed by sections of that youth. It was also the first assassination by the Tigers in Colombo.
Amirthalingam the mature statesman could have led his people not into the promised land of Eelam but into the realm of a viable political alternative that could have ushered in peace, stability and prosperity. But that was not to be and a voice that articulated the Tamil cause for nearly four decades was stilled for ever.
A Tribute to Mrs.Amirthalingam
A.Amirthalingam's 80th Birthday Anniversary
(26th Aug - 1927)
Copyright @ 2012 - Amirthalingam.com - All Rights Reserved
Web Design & SEO by