Tamil nationalist politics and the process of “traitorization” in Sri Lanka

25 March 2017 12:01 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



By D.B.S.Jeyaraj

Octogenarian leader of the Opposition Rajavarothayam Sampanthan in a hard-hitting Parliamentary speech made four weeks ago drew attention to the prevailing practice of persons being condemned as Traitors (Thurogi) within the sphere of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalist Politics. The Trincomalee District MP who is also the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentary group leader made specific reference to the recent attacks on TNA Jaffna District MP M.A.Sumanthiran by defeated political rivals. Here are a few excerpts from Sampanthan’s speech during the adjournment motion debate on February 22, 2017:  

“My Friend Mr.Sumanthiran has been accused of being traitorous by some Tamil Leaders who have been resoundingly rejected at the last Parliamentary Elections, some persons whose party polled around 15,000 votes. Mr. Sumanthiran got four times that number of votes in Jaffna. I have got the particulars with me. That whole party did not poll 15,000 votes. Mr. Sumanthiran polled four times that vote by himself – preference votes. Today, he is being called a “traitor” because he is working with the Government. We look upon Mr. Sumanthiran as a very useful Member of Parliament performing valuable services on behalf of the people, and we want that to be recognized. But, he is being attacked. He is being attacked because these persons who were resoundingly rejected by the people in 2015 are using your failure to do what you must do by the people as the ground for attacking people like him, me and others too, even Mr. Maavai Senathirajah”.  

“There has been a report filed by the police in the Kilinochchi Magistrate’s Court where they have definitely stated that there was an attempt at assassination of Sumanthiran MP. That is a matter of record, nobody can deny that. Some people are calling him “Thurogi”. It is a very unbecoming word. It is a word that is inciting violence. Why are you calling him as such? Is it because he is working on our Constitutional Proposals along with me and others?”  

“Tamil people are not protesting in support of you? They are protesting on account of wrongs being done to them by the Sri Lankan Government. They want that to stop. These jokers who could not even win one seat, could not come even close to winning one seat. They came long after us, we polled 200,000 votes, they polled only 15,000 votes. They came after the EPDP; they came after the UNP and they came after the UPFA. They were totally rejected by the Tamil masses.”  

The Tamil political party being targeted in Sampanthan’s speech as “jokers who could not even win one seat or even come close to winning one” was the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) contesting under the ‘cycle’ symbol. Despite being resoundingly rejected at the August 2015 elections, the party leader Gangaesar Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam has been leading the verbal attacks against the TNA, notably Sampanthan and Sumanthiran. Gajendrakumar as he is generally known, has been particularly vicious against fellow lawyer Sumanthiran, accusing the TNA spokesperson of being a traitor to the Tamils.  


Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam
When details of a plot to assassinate Sumanthiran MP were uncovered by the Police Terrorism Investigation Department (TID) Gajendrakumar ridiculed it as a drama orchestrated by the former. The latter was left with a lot of “Muttai” (egg) on his face when Police produced five former members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as suspects in courts and filed an exhaustive report about the assassination conspiracy targeting the TNA Parliamentarian. Security too was intensified for Sumanthiran and Sampanthan.The Special Task Force (STF) was placed in charge of their personal security.  

Gajendrakumar then started saying that the abortive assassination attempt was a drama enacted by “military intelligence” to provide valid grounds to enhance Sumanthiran’s personal security. He alleged that the “traitorous” Sumanthiran was unable to face the Tamil masses due to his treachery. It appears that Gajendrakumar’s persistent efforts to “traitorize” the TNA in general and Sumanthiran in particular, had impelled Sampanthan to lash out at the ACTC.   

Sampanthan’s concern and indignation over the unfair usage of the “Thurogi” or Traitor label is quite understandable. Past Tamil politics is replete with instances of persons being character assassinated as traitors and then being physically assassinated. There was, however, a lull after the Tigers were militarily defeated in May 2009. Thereafter killings ceased but the practice of ‘traitorizing’ continued. The TNA has been cooperating with the Maithri-Ranil Govt to a great extent in the exercise of drafting a new Constitution. It is being attacked as traitors for that. The plot to assassinate Sumanthiran coupled with Gajendrakumar’s consistent cry of “traitor” should be viewed seriously. It must be remembered that his father Gasinather Gangaesar Ponnambalam known as Kumar Ponnambalam used to attack Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam as traitor before the reputed Constitutional lawyer cum MP was blown up by the LTTE in 1999.   

The process of ‘traitorization’ in Tamil nationalist politics is a phenomenon which I have written about earlier. “Traitorization” has usually been a prelude to assassination in the Tamil nationalist political sphere. With the military defeat of the LTTE,”traitorization” lost much of its lethal venom. The assassination plot against Sumanthiran MP indicates that traitorization of a lethal nature is trying to raise its ugly head again. It is in this context therefore, that I focus again on the recurrent phenomenon of traitorization relying to some extent on my earlier writings.  


Traitors or “Thurogigal”
“Traitorization” is a terrible “Goebbelsian” process by which political rivals are falsely portrayed or depicted as traitors. I use the word traitorization instead of treachery or treason in order to differentiate between those who are actually treacherous or are really committing treason as opposed to those being accused unfairly or being labelled wrongly as “traitorous” or traitors. The reality is that most persons dubbed as traitors or “thurogigal” by their political opponents are not “guilty” as charged and do not deserve such a description.   

 The “Traitor” label in contemporary Tamil political discourse refers generally to Tamils accused of working against what is depicted as the “true” Tamil cause and/or collaborating with the enemy.

Concrete proof of such conduct is not necessary. What is required is a massive propaganda effort by which the cry, “traitor”, is repeated incessantly at multiple levels as advocated by Herr Goebbels in Nazi Germany. It was Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister Paul Joseph Goebbels who stated “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it”. Repeating the charge traitor continuously is the modus operandi of traitorization in Tamil National politics. “Cry Traitor” and let slip the dogs of propaganda war!   


 “Traitorization” has usually been a prelude to assassination in the Tamil nationalist political sphere. With the military defeat of the LTTE,”traitorization” lost much of its lethal venom


 Tamil nationalist politics made use of the Goebbels technique liberally in dubbing those perceived political rivals as traitors. Merely holding a different political view was sufficient to be called traitors to the cause or collaborators with the enemy. The “problematic” was that both the cause and enemy were difficult to define clearly. Moreover, the nature of the cause as well as the identity of enemy underwent changes periodically. Despite these fluctuations, what remained constant was the practice of traitorization. Success in its process was not determined by the substance of truth but by the ability to propagate what was supposed to be the truth. It was not the absolute truth or superior idea that prevailed in the hurly-burly of Tamil nationalist politics. What succeeded ultimately was the powerful propaganda of one side to paint the other as traitor.  

 The absurd logic followed in this traitorization exercise could even be viewed as farcical but for the fact that the process gradually assumed a drastic form . When people got killed as traitors, it was no longer a comical exercise. It became tragic. The tragedy in Tamil politics is that this process of traitorization has led to large scale killings of politicians, govt. officials, Police and defence personnel, media personalities etc, as traitors by contending political groups.   


Killed without killing
 Also countless persons, though not killed physically have been “killed without killing”(Nomaraa maru / Kollaamal Kondru) by character assassination as traitors. Almost all Tamil political groups and organizations have engaged in traitorization, but the lion’s share in physically exterminating people as traitors goes to the Tigers. It is a sad fact that the cream of Tamil society was destroyed extensively as traitors by the LTTE. Members of the Tamil political elite killed by the Tigers outnumber those killed by the Sri Lankan or Indian armed forces.   

In contemporary times, the evolution and growth of representative democracy in Sri Lanka saw the term ‘thurogi’ or traitor being bandied about liberally and rather loosely. Politicians of all communities have at times accused their rivals of being traitors to the people or towards their “just” causes. This tendency however, has been more pronounced and deeply embedded amidst the local Tamil polity.   
Ever since universal franchise and territorial representation shattered the Tamil self-perception of being equal to the Sinhala ‘numerical’ majority, the nature of Tamil politics underwent transformation. The underlying thread of Tamil politics became political emancipation. Be it balanced representation, responsive co-operation, federalism, regional autonomy or separatism - it was the discourse of Tamil liberation that dominated the polity.  


Politicians of all communities have at times accused their rivals of being traitors to the people or towards their “just” causes. This tendency however, has been more pronounced and deeply embedded amidst the local Tamil polity


 The growing community consciousness and the high premium placed on ethnic solidarity created a situation where the people at large were expected to strike common course on political issues. ‘Ottrumai’ or unity became the dominant cry.  

 It was seen as the most convenient mode of mobilizing votes for a particular party on an ethnic basis. It was also easy to label any Tamil involved with Sinhala dominated parties - be they nationalist or leftist - as being collaborationist with negative connotations.  

 Thus, anyone differing or seen as deviating from whatever dominant political opinion within the Tamils was depicted as betraying the cause and community. They were described as weeds that had to be ‘weeded out’ (kalai eduppu). In the early days, this weeding-out of political rivals depicted as traitors was strictly electoral. They had to be defeated at the polls and nothing more. It was also easier to undermine those in power through this type of propaganda.  


Tamil unity emphasised
Another aspect of traitorization was the emphasis on Tamil unity. It was argued that Tamils should unite and rally around a single political formation or party. In short, everyone should vote for “THE”party. Other parties cutting into these Tamil votes were engaging in traitorous activity it was alleged. Only candidates from “THE” party should be supported and elected. If not “traitors” from other parties would be elected was the rationale.  

 When democratic politics gave way to armed militancy, this emphasis on Tamil unity continued. “Katchi” (party) gave way to “Iyakkam” (movement). Only “THE”movement should be supported to demonstrate Tamil unity. Other movements were traitorous. This attitude soon led to skirmishes and then to fratricidal warfare. Youths who thought they were sacrificing their lives at the altar of Tamil Eelam found themselves being butchered as alleged traitors. The same Tamil society which exalted one group of militants as great heroes allowed other groups of militants to be massacred as traitors.  
Apart from the moral question as to what right anyone has to dub someone a traitor and kill him/her, there is also the terrible fact that most of those killed as traitors did not fit that description at all. They were mostly people holding different political views from those opposing them. In many instances those projected as traitors were seen as impediments to the progress of others in political terms. Politicians would promise the moon and get votes. They would then give excuses for their inability to deliver by blaming opponents as traitors. It is because of these traitors that we are unable to reach the promised land was the lament.  


The spate of political killings within the Tamil community that began with the Duraiyappah assassination continued for years and then decades. So many eminent Tamil leaders like Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam and Lakshman Kadirgamar have been killed as traitors


 Arguably the Tamil politician who first promoted the practice of traitorizing political rivals or opponents was Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam’s grandfather Ganapathipillai Gangaesar Ponnambalam or GG Ponnambalam (Snr). At the tail end of the British rule, G.G. Ponnambalam and his party, the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) demanded a scheme of balanced representation popularly known as “50-50”. This was unacceptable to the Soulbury Commission which granted a Dominion Constitution. When elections were held in 1947, G.G. Ponnambalam and the Tamil Congress got the better of Sir. Arunachalam Mahadeva and the UNP Tamil candidates by calling those Tamils who supported the Soulbury Constitution traitors.  

 After Independence dawned, the pragmatic Ponnambalam changed his stance to “responsive cooperation”. He joined the Government and became Industries and Fisheries Minister. Then it became GG’s turn to be called traitor by S.J.V. Chelvanayagam and the federalists after the former became a Minister in the DS Senanayake Cabinet. The Federal Party (FP) used the traitor label liberally to undermine their rivals. However, when Chelvanayagam and the FP became ensconced in Dudley Senanayake’s national government in 1965, former Kayts MP V. Navaratnam broke ranks and formed the ‘Tamil Self-Rule Party’. His criticism of the FP as traitors did not carry much conviction at that time because of the high esteem in which SJV was held. But Navaratnam was called traitor for breaking Tamil unity and forming his own party and suffered the consequences.  


“Dudleyge bade masala vadae”
 Earlier it was difficult to brand the Samasamajists and Communists as traitors by the Tamil nationalist parties because of the very progressive stance taken by the left on the national question and language issue. After the left changed course and joined forces with the SLFP and adopted the “Dudleyge bade masala vadae” line, it became easier to ‘traitorise’ them too.  

The practice of demonizing political adversaries as traitors took a qualitative turn in the 1970-77 period. The fiery Tamil poet Kaasi Anandan thundered in 1972 that none of the traitorous six Tamil MPs who supported the Republican Constitution of 1972 should die of natural causes.  

It also became clear that some Tamil politicians like the popular Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiyappah would be difficult to defeat politically because of widespread people support. Duraiyappah was continually described as traitor in the TULF organ ‘Suthanthiran’. He was portrayed as the cause for all problems affecting Tamils and it was argued that his elimination would usher in a new dawn for the Tamils. Impressionable young Tamil minds got the message. Duraiyappah was gunned down in July 1975. Later Prabhakaran was to call the assassination his first “military” operation. None of the TULF leaders condemned Duraiyappah’s assassination then.  

 By the mid 70s of the last century, the dominant mood in Tamil politics was separatism. This led to armed struggle as the only way to achieve Tamil Eelam. As the years progressed the scenes and actors changed from time to time but the drama of traitorization went on.  

 Another aspect of this traitorization phenomenon was that nothing was constant. Everything was variable. In the 1940s of the 20th century, any Tamil not subscribing to “50-50” was a traitor. After Independence, any Tamil rejecting Federalism was a traitor. Later on, any Tamil opposing a separate Tamil State became a traitor. Then any Tamil protesting against armed struggle became a traitor. Thereafter all organizations, other than the LTTE were called traitors. After the LTTE was defeated and the Tamil Eelam demand lost its vigour, the concepts of “Thaayagam” (homeland), “Suyanirnayam” (self-determination) and “Theasiyam”(nationhood) became the new mantras of contemporary Tamil nationalism. Anyone opposing these three concepts was a traitor. 


UNHRC resolution
 When the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution on Sri Lanka, the Tamil extremists said it lacked sting and opposed it. The UN resolution was an eyewash it was alleged. Tamils supportive of the resolution were called traitors. Now the very same lunatic fringe is opposed to the UNHRC giving an extension of two years’ time for implementing the resolution. Any Tamil in favour of Sri Lanka being given time is a traitor. In the aftermath of CV Wigneswaran’s genocide resolution all Tamils were expected to chorus “Genocide, Genocide”. Anyone failing to chant the “G-word” were dubbed traitors. Traitors will be created and traitors will be decimated but, Traitorization like Tennyson’s brook “will go on for ever”.  

 As noted earlier, the political violence that destroyed hundreds of alleged traitors in the past was explicitly and implicitly justified by the perpetrators as being necessary to ensure Tamil unity and take forward the struggle for Tamil equality. The tendency was to view all those holding or perceived to be holding different political opinions to that of the dominant one in vogue as being traitors. Dissidence was equated with treachery.  


Later on, any Tamil opposing a separate Tamil State became a traitor. Then any Tamil protesting against armed struggle became a traitor. Thereafter all organizations, other than the LTTE were called traitors

 The spate of political killings within the Tamil community that began with the Duraiyappah assassination continued for years and then decades. So many eminent Tamil leaders like Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam and Lakshman Kadirgamar have been killed as traitors. 

During the time of Sirimavo Bandaranaike from 1970 to 77, Tamil policemen, suspected informants, Tamil activists of the SLFP etc. were wiped out as traitors. In July 1977, JR Jayewardene and the UNP target shifted. After 1977, it became the turn of Tamils affiliated to the UNP to be killed as traitors. This killing spree continued throughout the Premadasa, Wijetunga, Kumaratunga and Rajapaksa periods until 2009.  

 Intra-Tamil killings of alleged traitors took on new forms and content. The TULF which called Tamil political opponents traitors found themselves traitorized with the passage of time. Tiger guns turned on the TULF and ex-Kopay MP Aalalasundaram was shot and injured in 1982. It was only then that Appapillai Amirthalingam issued a hard-hitting statement saying “after biting the goat and the cow, the animal had now bitten a human.” As the Tamil liberation struggle ‘progressed’ the militants began calling the TULF leaders traitors. Soon many were killed. Amirthalingam who had described many a political opponent as being traitor was killed and unfairly accused as traitor himself.  

 The guns also began turning sideways and inwards. Soon there was fratricidal warfare among the Tamil groups. Organizations were dubbed wholesale as traitors by the LTTE and were prohibited from the Tamil areas. Massive killings of rival groups followed.  

 When the Indian Army (IPKF) was here and war with the LTTE erupted, several Tigers were killed by groups toeing the Indian line like EPRLF, ENDLF and TELO. After the Indian Army left, the Tigers massacred wholesale those members of the pro-India Tamil National Army. Both sides described each other as traitors of the Tamil cause. This practice continued.  


Branded as traitors
 The LTTE killed more than 60 members of organizations like the EPDP, PLOTE, TELO and EPRLF after the ceasefire in 2002. They were all branded as traitors. Later the roles reversed and Tamil “paramilitary” groups aligned with the State killed many Tamils suspected of LTTE links as “Enemies of the State”. They were traitors to Mother Lanka from the Sri Lankan State’s point of view.

 After President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas in November 1963, the Black American leader Malcolm X spoke at a “Nation of Islam” meeting in December 1963. When asked about Kennedy’s killing, Malcolm X in his reply seemingly justified it. He said “President Kennedy never foresaw that the chickens would come home to roost so soon...Being an old farm boy myself, chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they always made me glad.” Malcolm X himself was shot dead two months later in February 1965.  

 It was a case of the chickens coming home to roost as far as Sri Lankan armed militancy was concerned. The Greek myth about “Titan Cronus” or Saturn feared that he would be overthrown by one of his children. So he devoured the children one by one as they were born. Like Saturn devouring his own children, the Tamil liberation struggle too devoured its own children. The internecine violence was sought to be justified by the real or imagined existence of traitors. The victims of violence were all traitorized. Later some of the perpetrators themselves were victimized by the violence. The pendulum now swung the other way and those who traitorised others were in return traitorised.



The LTTE killed more than 60 members of organizations like the EPDP, PLOTE, TELO and EPRLF after the ceasefire in 2002. They were all branded as traitors


What is of importance here is to note that Tamil nationalist politics has not succeeded so far in achieving any of their objectives independently. Be it the Tamil Congress, the ITAK, the TULF or the TNA, on the one hand and the Tamil militant groups including the LTTE on the other; they have all failed so far. The solitary gain has been the 13th Constitutional Amendment brought about by the Indo-Lanka agreement. Despite this failure on the political front, Tamil nationalist parties and organizations have continued to reign supreme. A key device in this near monopolistic control of the Tamil polity by Tamil nationalist politics has been the usage of the traitorization practice. The failure to deliver has been explained away by the excuse of traitorization. The political stupidity of setting unrealistic unachievable goals is not accepted, instead, the fault is attributed to traitors in our midst. Tamils are told that the fault lies not in ourselves but in our traitors!  


Mythology and history
There has been a tendency to view mythology and history in a convoluted form. Signs of real or imaginary betrayals were portrayed as the causes for the downfall of those depicted as ‘heroes’ in mythology and history. Ravana, the demon king of Lanka who abducted Sita was defeated by her husband Rama, an avatar of Lord Vishnu. The Dravidian ideologues however attribute treachery as the cause because Ravana’s brother Vibheeshana crossed over to Rama’s side.

The feudal “Paanchaalankurichi” chieftain (Polygar) Veera Paandiya Kattabomman defied the British and was vanquished by superior firepower. In popular parlance, Kattabomman lost only because another Polygar Ettappa Nayakkar of Ettayapuram joined forces with the British. Perceived betrayals by traitors is assumed as cause of defeat. Thus Ravanan had his Vibeeshanan and Kattabomman his Ettappan in mythology and history.  

 Against this backdrop, any Tamil proposing conciliatory politics or supportive of co-operation with the Government will have the Damoclean sword of Traitorization hanging over him. This is why in the present situation, comparatively moderate TNA leaders such as R. Sampanthan and M.A. Sumanthiran are also being labelled as traitors.   

 This traitorization mania affecting Tamils has resulted in countless people being killed as traitors in the past. It has reared its ugly head again in the present and has the potential to become a serious issue in the future.The recurring phenomenon of traitorization is a Tamil tragedy for which others cannot be blamed. There is an urgent need for serious introspection. The Tamil people must address this issue that has destroyed the community in the past and could do so in the future too.

D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

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