With Jeevan named as political heir it’s too early to say Arumugan represented an end of an era
Thondaman was the name that had impacted the Sri Lankan politics for the longest period of time after the Independence until Tuesday.
It is not clear it will have any influence or at least any significance any longer, following the untimely death of Arumugan Thondaman on May 26 at the age of 56.
Arumugan, apart from his concern towards the wellbeing of his community, the plantation sector workers, shone mainly due to two factors - Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), the trade union he led until his death since 1999 and the late Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman, his grandfather and the iconic leader of the CWC from 1945 to 1999.
In fact, the senior Thondaman and the CWC had not been two entities but one, before his death at the age of 86 in 1999. As the leader of the CWC which had later been registered as a political party as well with the then Elections Department, Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman was the only political leader, who could guide his community without any significant challenge from within or outside of that community, during his lifetime. He was the (leader) General Secretary of the CWC since 1945.
Despite several trade unions having emerged in the plantation areas during the later years with or without affiliations to various political parties, especially the ruling parties, their clout among the plantation areas and the people of Indian origin was far below than that of the CWC. Hence, it was an easy ride for Arumugan when he took over the leadership of the CWC.
"Arumugan, apart from his concern towards the wellbeing of his community, the plantation sector workers, shone mainly due to two factors - Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), the trade union he led until his death since 1999 and the late Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman, his grandfather and the iconic leader of the CWC from 1945 to 1999"
Despite many members of the Indian origin community, which Thondamans also belong to, now living outside the plantation areas and another segment working in fields not related to the plantation industry, the impact of the CWC and the senior Thondaman among them is still very much alive.
The plantation community, mainly the People of Indian Origin was the only organised ethnic community in Sri Lanka a few decades ago and the CWC was the manifestation of it.
This helped the CWC not only to bargain with the administrations of tea, rubber and coconut estates which were the main revenue sources of the country until 1978 but also to influence the national politics as well. It was with the support of the plantation workers of Indian descent that the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) emerged as the main Opposition with 10 seats in Parliament at the 1947 Parliamentary election.
This later prompted the United National Party (UNP) to disenfranchise them using the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 and the Parliamentary Elections Amendment Act of 1949.
Again after regaining the citizenship for around 168,000 Indian origin Tamils in 1988, the CWC under the leadership of senior Thondaman managed to win all eight seats allocated to Nuwara Eliya District at the second Parliamentary election under the PR system in 1989 while contesting under the elephant symbol of the United National Party (UNP).
"The plantation community, mainly the People of Indian Origin was the only organised ethnic community in Sri Lanka a few decades ago and the CWC was the manifestation of it"
They did so by assigning different preferential numbers of their candidates to the estates in the district.
In a way, the CWC was an offshoot of the great recession that was experienced by the world between 1929 and 1939. The plantations were the least affected sector by that recession and that had resulted in a campaign against estate workers which was later mixed with racial hate. Using their contacts the community leaders of the plantation areas sought the assistance of the Indian National Congress to face the situation. Accordingly, during his visit to Sri Lanka in 1939 Jawaharlal Nehru advised them to be organised and thus the Ceylon Indian Congress (CIC) was formed, in the same year.
Being one of the founder leaders of the CIC, Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman was appointed the General Secretary of the CWC, the Trade Union functioned under the CIC, in 1945 and he led the union for the next 54 years. The CWC under its young and able leadership had been a headache to the British rulers in the country then known as Ceylon from the very inception. The famous Urulavalli Struggle was on such early incident in which the CWC humiliated the British rulers in a legal battle that went up to the Privy Council of the United Kingdom.
Workers of the Urulavalli Estate in Bulathkohupitiya had encroached about 400 acres of nearby forestland and the government imposed a fine of Rs. 1,000 on each of the 363 of them in 1936. At a time when a measure (kilo) of rice was sold at two cents, one could imagine the enormity of the punishment.
This ruling had been a topic even among the members of the House of Lords in London, while around 121,000 estate workers across the hill country (Upcountry) struck work against the verdict.
Shaken by the trade union action the government agreed to revoke the decision provided workers apologised.
The CWC advised the workers except for one to do so and took the case of that single worker to the court, which was ultimately brought before the Privy Council.
Thondaman foot the bill himself. The Council, the highest appellate entity under the British Raj ruled that petitioner cannot be deprived of his cultivated land. And this ruling was later applied to the other workers as well.
The CWC, as in the case of the SLMC, was accused by racist elements some twenty years ago that it was planning to carve out a separate state which they called Malayanadu a seeming derivation of the Tamil term Malai Nadu (hill country), in the upcountry. When the writer once sought the response to the allegation during an interview, the witty senior Thondaman quipped that Malai Nadu has been existing since the day the earth formed billions of years ago.
However, when he died on October 30, 1999, many Sinhalese leaders stated in their condolence messages that it was Thondaman who prevented the up-country Tamils from joining the separatist struggle by the Northern and Eastern Tamil organisations. It is interesting to note that even some extremist politicians expressing the same sentiments after the death of Arumugan Thondaman as well on Tuesday.
"the CWC was an offshoot of the great recession that was experienced by the world between 1929 and 1939. The plantations were the least affected sector by that recession and that had resulted in a campaign against estate workers which was later mixed with racial hate"
CWC has never supported the separatist politics of some other Tamil parties and organisations. It was a constituent party of the Tamil United Front (TUF) which was formed in 1972 along with the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) and the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC). The TUF changed its name as Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and passed the famous resolution at its Vattukkottai convention which demanded a separate State for Tamils in Sri Lanka, on May 16, 1976. Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman who was in Geneva at the time of the adoption of the resolution sent a letter to the leaders of the TULF on May 22, rejecting the Tamil Eelam demand.
The CWC was so influential in both Sri Lankan and Indian diplomatic circles that it was senior Thondaman who helped resolve a serious diplomatic crisis between India and Sri Lanka over the withdrawal of Indian forces from Sri Lanka.
President Ranasinghe Premadasa on June 1, 1989, announced at a public rally that the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) must leave the country before July 31, 1989.
India did not agree with this unilateral decision and towards the end of July, it was evident that a diplomatic crisis was imminent. Thondaman met the then Indian High Commissioner Lakhan Lal Mehrotra and arranged a meeting between the latter and Foreign Secretary Bernard Thilakaratne which saved the day for both the countries.
The CWC was the first political party to contest under another political party, with the right to secede at any time, without losing the Parliamentary membership. It happened in 1977 and many small political parties followed suit later in coalescing with two main parties at the time.
However, later the party seemed to have somewhat eroded its vote base and considerably lost influence, thus leaving room for parties from the plantation area such as the National Union of Workers (NUW) led by former Minister P. Digambaram to challenge it and lay claim for equal status. It is against this background that Arumugan Thondaman passed away.
His son Jeevan has been named to be fielded in his place at the forthcoming Parliamentary election while the party leadership remains vacant. Hence, it is early to say that Arumugan Thondaman represented the end of an era.