Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) stalwart Provincial Minister Senthil Thondaman, in an interview, shares insights on the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the upcountry. Mr. Thondaman, a nephew of MP Arumugam Thondaman, says it is a positive move. The excerpts of the interview:
QAfter a long time, the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) is in the government without any ministerial responsibilities. How do you see the current political situation?
We are in alliance with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). It is good that there is a national government in place. It is appreciated. But, both the main parties have different policies. From the day one, they have come out with different policies. Only people will decide at the next election whether it is acceptable to have such a form of governance or not. The two main parties have set a good example by coming together in ruling the country. It is an example for the other countries as well.
QFor the first time, the CWC, formed by your forefathers, has been overtaken by another political front representing the upcountry Tamils. How do you feel?
We cannot hoodwink people and canvass their votes. We have to deliver at the end of the day. For example, everybody has problems. Only God can solve all. We have addressed some. Then, the other person comes and says he will address all the problems. Then, people get carried away and vote for him. Finally, when it is unable to be delivered in the practical context, people will realize that the CWC is much better. That is the logic. I give five promises and another ten promises. People may think the person who gave ten is better.
QHowever, the government says there is a lot of development work being done in the plantation sector. What are your views?
That is actually recurrent work. We also built, at that time, housing units each with a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, two toilets and two bed rooms. Now, they also do the same. That is not a different plan. It is a recurrent programme happening in the estate sector right throughout. It has happened under every ruler of this country. Building schools and construction of roads are recurrent work. If you build a school today, you will have to repair it after five years.
QThey say there is much work done in the estate education sector. What is your response?
The CWC also had a deputy minister for the estate sector a long time back. That is not a new phenomenon. All the Tamil schools are run at provincial level. We have only a few national Tamil schools.
QYour uncle Arumugam Thondaman, as the CWC leader, held a key Cabinet post in the last government. But, estate people voted against that government overwhelmingly. Why is it?
That is what I said. When we promise five things, somebody else will promise ten things. Naturally, what would you prefer as a common man? You would prefer ten things.
QIs that the whole reason?
It all happens on the overall economic situation, wages for our people etc.
QHow concerned are your people about their political rights as a minority community?
They have political rights. They have been given Cabinet posts. That is the highest a Tamil of Indian origin can reach. They have been given posts in the Foreign Service. Our issues are different to those of Sri Lankan Tamils. We have got the maximum we can. We have no issue about that.
QDo you push for power devolution?
We are not for a separate unit of administration. From our late leader Saumyamurthi Thondaman to present leader Arumugam Thondaman, we are interested in having peace in this country. We like to work hand in hand with the majority community. Only difference between you and me is the language. We are same otherwise.
QOtherwise, you will not stake a claim for a separate administrative unit?
No. We do not see it as a viable option. I think it is something that would create discontent between the communities in the future. We must try to work hand in hand with each other. We are like brothers. We are separated by the language only. I do not believe in it.
QWhat are the main issues confronting your community?
Illicit liquor is a main problem. People face problems when pawning their gold jewellery. They are compelled to pay interests even more than the price of the item concerned. They have no money to redeem them on time. So, they keep paying interests. They keep paying interests sometimes for five years. On these two matters, people waste their money. Their salaries are also not enough. We have to be concerned about the plantation companies as well. It is a win-win situation. The companies rely on the world market. If tea prices are high in the world market, the companies will be ready to increase wages. If prices drop, they will not be in a position to give more. The companies also make profits or losses. We have to take care of salaries of plantation workers.
QHow do you look at politics in future?
Sri Lanka is a good country to do politics. We have friendly politicians from all sides here. Sri Lanka has exemplary politics. Majority of Sri Lankans work for the country. There are a few bad eggs. They work for everyone casting aside their political differences.
Some become politicians through their practical experience. There are educated people joining politics as another category. Though I am educated, I started my politics from grassroots level.
QDo you like your people to be called those of Indian origin?
Yes we do. Even the Buddha came from India. He did not come from Japan or China. India is our neighbouring country. It is our identity. We are Sri Lankans of Indian origin.
QHow do you analyse the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Sri Lanka?
It is a good move. On the invitation of the President and the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, the Indian premier visited Sri Lanka. He visited the upcountry as well. CWC Leader ArumugamThondaman got a gathering of 35,000 people to the ground. Mr. Modi mentioned the name of my great grandfather. When the Sri Lankan President mentioned about Mr. Arumugam Thondaman, there was a major applause from people. People are fully with us. The Indian leader promised to give 10,000 houses. We are very happy about it. It means the lives of 50,000 people can be uplifted as there can be five persons living in one house. We like to thank the Indian government, the Sri Lankan President and the Prime Minister for bringing him to Hatton.
QSome Sri Lankans say Mr. Modi’s approach will only alienate your people from Sri Lanka. They say it will prevent your people from being absorbed into the Sri Lankan culture. What are your views?
I cannot go and ask people down south to eat Dosai and Idly. I cannot tell them to dress like us. There is a cultural difference. We can be friends. Otherwise, we cannot seek absorption into each other’s cultures. We can live in Sri Lanka in harmony with others. But, our culture is different. In fact, ours is different from those even in Jaffna. We are Tamils. Yet, there are differences. They maintain the 14th century Tamil culture. We maintain the 18th century culture. Even in India, Tamil Nadu does not get absorbed into North India. Tamils in Tamil Nadu do not get absorbed into the Hindi culture.
QWhat is the kind of political relationship you maintain with Tamil Nadu politicians?
I am good with everybody there. I am good with the Chief Minister and the Opposition Leader. Our party was in fact started by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru when they visited here. We are connected with national politics in India.
QI learnt that the CWC sought some Cabinet posts. But, there were some others in the government opposing it. What is the actual position?
It is a joint government. In it, the UNP and the SLFP are together. The CWC is part of SLFP. We supported Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa because we were in alliance with the SLFP. The CWC cannot get the post of President or Prime Minister. We always like to go along with the ruling side. We had an alliance with the former President. Now, we have an alliance with the present President. Whatever we want, we can get done through the President. The Cabinet posts are, of course, matters for the President and our leader to discuss. We can deliver to people. We can access our people through the well-established network of the party in the estate sector.
QDid CWC submit proposals to be considered in the Constitution making process?
Yes, we did. If the number of our representatives is going to be cut down, we will not be able to the process.
QWhat are your proposals?
It is a huge book.
QDid you submit any proposal seeking power devolution?
No. We are concerned about the number of slots for our representatives.
QIs there any claim for a separate district?
There is already a district. That is the Nuwara-Eliya district. Practically, it is not possible to ask a district to be carved out specifically for Tamils. That is creating separatism.
QIt means it will lead to separatism?
Yes, that will lead to separatism. We want to live with you all together. A separate administrative district amalgamating all the areas with Tamils is not practically possible. There are grassroot politicians. There are other politicians with an educated background. There are some jokers who come. They are seasonal politicians. They do not understand any politics. They do not know A to Z about politics.
This is what is asked in the north and the east. If it is only Tamil areas, we can consider. There are ten houses for example. Seven belong to Tamils and the rest to the Sinhalese. How can you attach these three houses to a separate Grama Seva Division?