Last week this column saw paying tribute to the memory of Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) MP Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam on account of his 70th birth anniversary. This column focuses this week on another departed TULF parliamentarian whose 80th birth anniversary fell on February 5. Former Jaffna MP Vettivelu Yogeswaran was born on February 5, 1934. He too was killed along with former Opposition leader Appapillai Amirthalingam by the LTTE in Colombo on July 13 1989.
The affable Yogeswaran possessing a pleasant demeanour and cheerful countenance represented the Northern electorate of Jaffna from July 1977 to July 1983. He was the son of a respected medical practitioner in Jaffna, Dr. Shanmugam Appakkutti Vettivelu and Mrs.Parasakthi Vettivelu. Yogeswaran was one of six children comprising four girls and two boys. He married Sarojini a school teacher who was later elected as the first woman mayor of Jaffna city. She too was shot dead by the Tigers in 1998.
I came to know Yogeswaran personally after I became a journalist at the Tamil daily “Virakesari” in 1977 the same year that he was elected an MP. He was pleasantly amiable and had a healthy sense of humour always able to laugh at himself and also at the foibles of the high and mighty. He had moved with Fleet Street scribes freely during his days of political activism in London. As such he liked journalists in general and cultivated contacts with them.
Though I was in touch with Yogeswaran in my journalistic capacity since 1977 it was four years later that we became good friends. I interacted with Yogeswaran and wife Sarojini quite closely during my lengthy stay in Jaffna as the “Virakesari” staff correspondent in 1981. The Virakesari’s regular Jaffna Correspondent Mr. Sellathurai was seriously ill and hospitalised. Replacing Sellathurai was a formidable challenge as the veteran scribe had served for 32 years in Jaffna and was regarded as a living legend among Tamil members of the Fourth Estate in Sri Lanka.
"Yogeswaran was light skinned by Sri Lankan standards. He was a very smart man and extremely handsome. Though he was balding Yogeswaran retained his cherubic good looks and had an attractive smile. He was essentially good-natured and genial with a very pleasant disposition. He had an ebullient personality and enjoyed life and the joy of living. The French phrases “bonhomme”and “joie de vivre’’ describe the man fully."
My task was made easier by Yogeswaran who took a great liking to me. He kept me informed of current developments in Jaffna and also provided tips for me to explore and enhance further as news stories. Some of these tips turned out into sensational scoops. Yogeswaran also personally introduced me to a number of influential administrators, respected professionals and key politicians in Jaffna. All these helped me greatly in coping with the challenge of reporting from Jaffna.
My assignment in Jaffna was in the aftermath of the May – June violence in Jaffna where undisciplined policemen provoked by the cold blooded murder of two cops at a TULF election meeting went on the rampage. Among buildings destroyed or damaged extensively in the spree of arson were the prestigious Jaffna public library, the “Eezha Nadu” newspaper premises, the TULF headquarters on Main Street and the residence and vehicle of the then Jaffna MP Yogeswaran. Both Yoges and wife Sarojini had a miraculous escape.
These incidents resulted in Jaffna getting global attention. Journalists from many different countries and media institutions started visiting Jaffna regularly. Almost all of them made a beeline towards the MP for Jaffna to interview the man who himself had been victimised. Yogeswaran in turn would entertain the scribe concerned to lunch or dinner. Lunch usually was at the Jaffna Guest house and dinner at the Palm Court Hotel.
Yogeswaran made it a point to invite his Parliamentary colleague the MP for Kopay M. Aalaalasundaram and myself for the luncheon or dinner meetings. I had much exposure to foreign journalists due to this. Yogeswaran would introduce me to them. He would impishly refer to me as the “Northern Bureau Chief of Express Newspapers Ceylon Ltd” instead of saying “Jaffna correspondent of the “Virakesari”. I would feel slightly awkward but nevertheless relished the revised job description and resultant sense of importance. I met several reputed “by lines” in person during that time.
I also used to drop in at his residence in Thirunelveli or Thinnavely frequently during those days in Jaffna. Since his residence on Point Pedro Road in the heart of town had been burnt, Yogeswaran had moved to a house in the interior of Thinnavely then. Saturday morning breakfast with the couple was the norm when Yogeswaran was in Jaffna. Sarojini Yogeswaran would make “Thosai” or “Dosas”with Gingelly oil or Ghee. She also made a hot sambol after grinding chillies and also a spicy potato salad.
"I kept in touch with Yogeswaran after he relocated to India after July 1983. The TULF parliamentarians forfeited their seats by refusing to take oaths under the sixth Constitutional Amendment disavowing separatism. I have met him in Chennai at his residence in Kilpauk and enjoyed the company of Yoges and Sarojini. I also met him frequently in 1987 and 88 when he was staying in Colombo at Kotelawela terrace, Bambalapitiya."
I was poignantly reminded of those meals many years later when Sarojini Yogeswaran was killed by the LTTE. When Sarojini was contesting the Jaffna municipal elections in 1998 I cautioned her on the telephone from Toronto. Thanking me for my concern she told me confidently that Tiger supremo Veluppillai Prabhakaran would not harm her.
Naive and innocent, Sarojini Yogeswaran told me that Prabhakaran would not harm her because he had eaten meals cooked by her on several occasions. “Do you remember how I used to make Thosai for you at my house those days? Like that I have made Thosais for “Thamby”(Prabhakaran) also,” she said in Tamil. Sarojini also dispensed with armed guards saying that would anger and provoke the LTTE. This inoffensive approach by her only made it easier for the assassins to kill the first woman Mayor of Jaffna.
On May 17 1998 the newly elected Mayor of Jaffna was shot at close quarters by a pistol toting gunman at her residence near the Pillaiyaar temple in Jaffna. The time was around 10.30 am. The assassin fired the pistol five times aiming at her chest. A profusely bleeding Sarojini died while being taken to the hospital. An LTTE front organisation “Sankiliyan Padai” (Sankiliyan Force) claimed responsibility for the killing.
After my five-month long stint in Jaffna, I returned to Colombo in November 1981 and joined “The Island”. Both Yoges and Sarojini were elated by my entry into English journalism. Yoges continued to be a friend and news source. I would meet him in person in Parliament or at “Sravasti” the Hostel for MP’s. We
would often share a meal. He would also telephone me from Jaffna. Yogeswaran was in the habit of taking a nightcap before going to sleep. He used to talk to me while imbibing in it and then go to sleep. I would be working late at the Island Editorial.
I kept in touch with Yogeswaran after he relocated to India after July 1983. The TULF parliamentarians forfeited their seats by refusing to take oaths under the sixth Constitutional Amendment disavowing separatism. I have met him in Chennai at his residence in Kilpauk and enjoyed the company of Yoges and Sarojini. I also met him frequently in 1987 and 88 when he was staying in Colombo at Kotelawela terrace, Bambalapitiya.
I used to telephone him infrequently after I left Sri Lanka for the USA particularly during the election campaign of early 1989.I was unable to contact him after I moved to Canada in June 1989.He was killed the same year in July. He was a jovial exuberant person firmly dedicated to the Tamil cause. Unlike several of his TULF colleagues Vettivelu Yogeswaran firmly believed in a separate state for Tamils. It is indeed a tragic irony that such a man should have been “traitorised” and gunned down at point blank range by the LTTE in what was a terrible act of betrayal. I would like to remember him on the occasion of his 80th birth anniversary by tracing his political career briefly.
Yogeswaran was light skinned by Sri Lankan standards. He was a very smart man and extremely handsome. Though he was balding Yogeswaran retained his cherubic good looks and had an attractive smile. He was essentially good-natured and genial with a very pleasant disposition. He had an ebullient personality and enjoyed life and the joy of living. The French phrases “bonhomme”and “joie de vivre’’ describe the man fully. Yogeswaran was immensely popular with youth and members of the fairer sex. This popularity was a great asset to him in democratic politics.
“Yoges” as Vettivelu Yogeswaran was generally known to have studied at the Anglican St.John’s College, Jaffna, Catholic St. Patrick’s College ,Jaffna and the Buddhist Ananda College, Colombo. He entered the Law College in Colombo after secondary schooling and became a law student. After a while he went to London where he enrolled at an Inn of court and pursued legal studies aiming to be a Barrister –at –law. Some years later he returned to Sri Lanka and resumed studies at the Law College. He passed out as an Advocate and relocated to Jaffna where he established a lucrative practice. Very soon he turned to full-time politics in Jaffna as a member of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) and later the Tamil United Liberation front (TULF).
Even as a law student in England “Yoges” was involved in political activism. He worked closely with eminent British nobleman, philosopher and champion of political causes, Lord Bertrand Russell. Nuclear disarmament and opposition to the Vietnam War were two spheres where Yogeswaran was associated with Bertrand Russell and participated in the organisation of related campaigns.
Yogeswaran also fraternised with South African black activists in London. He was involved with the “Boycott Movement” which later became known as the “Anti-Apartheid Movement”. Yogeswaran also worked as a volunteer with the African National Congress in London and was personally known to Oliver Tambo.
Although active in promoting greater humanitarian causes Yogeswaran was also involved with Tamil nationalism. He helped organise and participated in several demonstrations. An important event in this regard was the black flag demonstration held at Heathrow Airport when the world’s first woman Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike visited Britain.
Yogeswaran began immersing himself in politics as an ITAK or Federal party member while practising as an attorney-at-law in Jaffna. His wife Sarojini a teacher at Vembady girls’ high school assisted and helped him in this though she herself did not engage directly in political work. As a resident of Jaffna, Yogeswaran focussed mainly on what was then the Jaffna electorate comprising the greater part of the Jaffna municipality and outskirts.
"Yogeswaran had won handsomely. The Jaffna Muslims who had traditionally been supportive of Duraiyappah had thrown in their lot with Yogeswaran this time. Catholic Karaiyoor or Gurunagar had also voted heavily for Yogeswaran despite Martyn contesting. Yogeswaran would chortle with glee and relate a tale about this triumph over Martyn."
In those days the Jaffna electorate was multi-ethnic with Tamils, Muslims, Sinhalese and Burghers. It was also multi –religious with a slight Christian Majority (43%). Hindus (41%) came next. Those following the Islamic faith including Borahs and Memons were 13%. Buddhists were 3%. Jaffna was a very prestigious electorate as it was both the Provincial and District capital. It had also been represented by Giants.
The Jaffna constituency of old had been represented in the State council during British rule by no less a person than Sir Arunachalam Mahadeva the son of Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam and nephew of Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan. After Independence the leader of the then dominant Tamil party the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) GG Ponnambalam (senior) contested in Jaffna and defeated Mahadeva in 1947. GG as he was known retained the seat in 1952 and 1956.
The Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi known as the Federal party in English which swept the polls in 1956 failed to dethrone the ACTC leader in Jaffna. The March and July elections of 1960 saw GG Ponnambalam the Goliath being electorally slain by a latter day David. The popular young mayor of Jaffna Alfred Duraiyappah contesting as an Independent defeated GG in both elections. Incidently Duraiyappah was a kinsman of GG through his marriage to Dr. Parameswari who was a niece of the famous lawyer.
In 1965 the ITAK changed its electoral strategy for Jaffna. The party had earlier fielded Dr. EMV Naganathan in 1956 and S. Kathiravetpillai in 1960 for Jaffna. In 1965 the FP had retired district judge CX Martyn as its candidate. The ITAK counted on the Catholic Martyn garnering more votes from the pre-dominantly Catholic Karaiyoor/Gurunagar, Paashaiyoor and Naavaanthurai areas within the electorate. These areas were vote banks of GG Ponnambalam and Alfred Duraiyappah.
This stratagem succeeded to the extent of making the sitting MP Duraiyappa lose but the ultimate winner was GG Ponnambalam who returned to Parliament as Jaffna MP after 5 years. The ITAK however persisted with this strategy in 1970 too. This time it proved successful and the party won Jaffna for the first time. CX Martyn won with a very low majority of 56 votes over Alfred Duraiyappa while GG was pushed into third place.
CX Martyn however broke ranks with the party and began acting independently according to what he described as his “manasaatchi” (Conscience). He became known as “Manasaatchi Martyn” thereafter. With the defection of Martyn there arose a vacancy in the party for the Jaffna electorate candidacy. Yogeswaran began eying Jaffna and began working actively to gain nomination at the next election.
Meanwhile the premier Sri Lankan Tamil parties came together as a loose coalition in 1972 and formed the Tamil United Front (TUF). In May 1976 this union was structurally concretised as the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). The TULF declared it was for secession and demanded Tamil Eelam. Yogeswaran was appointed to what was called the TULF action committee. He was placed in charge of youth activities for the party. Weekly political discussions open to the public were held at Yogeswaran’s residence.
Apart from the defection of Martyn, two other incidents had made it easier for Yogeswaran to progress in politics. The first was the assassination of Jaffna mayor Alfred Duraiyappah by the LTTE in July 1975. Prabhakaran was part of the four-man hit squad that killed Duraiyappah and the LTTE leader later was to proudly claim the killing as his first “Military operation”. The second was the passing away of GG Ponnambalam in February 1977.
"The affable Yogeswaran possessing a pleasant demeanour and cheerful countenance represented the Northern electorate of Jaffna from July 1977 to July 1983. He was the son of a respected medical practitioner in Jaffna, Dr. Shanmugam Appakkutti Vettivelu and Mrs.Parasakthi Vettivelu. Yogeswaran was one of six children comprising four girls and two boys. He married Sarojini a school teacher who was later elected as the first woman mayor of Jaffna city. She too was shot dead by the Tigers in 1998"
Despite the deaths of two mercurial Jaffna political leaders, Yogeswaran had to face more challenges to gain nomination. Former mayor S. Nagarajah and Tamil Congress stalwart Rasah Visuvanathan staked their claims. So too did GG Ponnambalam (junior) or Kumar Ponnambalam the son of GG. The solid backing of Amirthalingam and his wife Mangaiyatkarasi helped Yogeswaran win TULF nomination. Later in 1979 Visuvanathan was made Jaffna mayor. Nagarajah became deputy chairman of the Jaffna district development council in 1981.
Kumar Ponnambalam however was in a defiant mood. Disappointed in failing to get nominated for the Vaddukkoddai seat the younger GG contested Jaffna as an independent in 1977. So too did Martyn. There were six candidates in the fray for Jaffna in July 1977. When the results were announced Yogeswaran riding the crest of a pro-TULF wave had won. The TULF contesting on a platform of “Tamil Eelam” won all 14 seats of the Northern province.
Yogeswaran contesting under the TULF symbol of Sun, had come first in Jaffna with a majority of 9291 votes. This was the largest majority gained by any MP winning the Jaffna constituency in the past seven parliamentary elections. The results were as follows –
1. V. Yogeswaran- sun-16,251
2. GG Ponnambalam(jnr) - tree - 6,960
3. AL Abraham-pair of scales – 4,349
4. CX Martyn –umbrella-900
5. AG Rajasooriyar-chair -164
6. A.Tharmalingam – ship-77.
Yogeswaran had won handsomely. The Jaffna Muslims who had traditionally been supportive of Duraiyappah had thrown in their lot with Yogeswaran this time. Catholic Karaiyoor or Gurunagar had also voted heavily for Yogeswaran despite Martyn contesting. Yogeswaran would chortle with glee and relate a tale about this triumph over Martyn.
Apparently CX Martyn had organised a grand dinner for the people of Gurunagar on the eve of Election Day. Thousands of men and women had feasted to their heart’s and stomach’s content on mutton, chicken, fish, cuttle fish, prawns and crabs. Spirits too flowed freely. Despite the lavish feast the banquet had not translated into votes for Martyn at the polls. “Jeyaraj”Yoges would say “Iravu Martyn Kudutha Saappaattuk Karikkulambu Viraliley Manakkamanakka, Pahalil Yogeswaranukku Vote Pottaangal”(Even as their fingers smelled of curry gravy, those who ate the food given by Martyn in the night cast their votes for Yogeswaran during the day”.
"There were many youth like Pottu Ammaan who daubed their blood on Yogeswaran’s forehead as a pottu or thilak. It was as a darling of the youth and an ardent advocate of separatism that Yogeswaran entered Parliament"
Yogeswaran won with votes from all areas of Jaffna. His popularity was high among women and youth. Yoges was the darling of the youth. When he addressed a meeting, youth would clap and cheer loudly. Emotional youths would line up, cut or prick their fingers and then daub his forehead with blood. This was the pottu or thilak. The LTTE’s intelligence chief Pottu Ammaan himself earned his nickname through this exercise.
Pottu Ammaan whose real name was Shanmugalingam Shivasankar had cut his finger with a blade and smeared Yogeswaran’s forehead with blood at an election meeting. The blood had trickled down from the forehead all over Yogeswaran’s face. A towel was brought and the blood wiped off. This incident had amused the youngsters of Ariyaalai and Naayanmaarkattu who teased Shivashankar as “Pottu” after that. When Shivashankar joined the LTTE in 1981 the nom de plume Pottu became his nom de guerre also. Later as he rose up in the LTTE and became a senior leader the suffix “Ammaan” (uncle)was added after Pottu as a mark of respect.
There were many youth like Pottu Ammaan who daubed their blood on Yogeswaran’s forehead as a pottu or thilak. It was as a darling of the youths and an ardent advocate of separatism that Yogeswaran entered Parliament. The mandate for Tamil Eelam did not prevent Yogeswaran from establishing cordial, friendly relations with Parliamentary colleagues representing Sinhala electorates. He was equally at ease with both cabinet ministers and backbenchers and enjoyed interacting with them.
"It was this affinity with Tamil youth that caused doubts among the Police and security circles about Yogeswaran. It was this suspicion that led to the attacks on his house and vehicle in 1981"
He had a particularly good relationship with the late Lalith Athulathmudali whom Yogeswaran knew personally while being in Britain. His friendship with Lalith created a problem for Yoges in 1977. Athulathmudali the minister of Trade and Shipping was to visit Jaffna to formally declare open an Insurance corporation branch. He wanted Yogeswaran to be present at the ceremony and the Jaffna MP agreed.
Tamil youth fired up with visions of Tamil Eelam by Yogeswaran and other TULF politicians were opposed to the Jaffna MP participating in a ceremony with a Govt. minister. They converged outside his house demanding that he should not go. Yogeswaran said that he had promised Athulathmudali that he would attend and so had to honour his word. Youth refused to accept this and lay down on the ground between Yogeswaran’s verandah and vehicle in a bid to deter him. A highly emotional Yogeswaran with tears streaming down his face gingerly stepped over the prostrate youth and got into the vehicle shouting “Naan Vaakku Koduthittaen” (I have given my word). He participated at the function in a highly distraught state.
It was this affinity with Tamil youth that caused doubts among the Police and security circles about Yogeswaran. It was this suspicion that led to the attacks on his house and vehicle in 1981. After relocating to Chennai in 1983, Yogeswaran was actively engaged with Tamil groups particularly the LTTE and TELO. Even after returning to Sri Lanka in 1987, Yogeswaran was trying hard to bring about an understanding between the LTTE and his party the TULF. Yet the LTTE killed him in 1989 and later his wife Sarojini in 1998.
The circumstances which led to the tragic deaths of Vettivelu and Sarojini Yogeswaran require detailed description and discussion. These issues will be delved into in a forthcoming article.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org