“Perunthalaiver” Rajavarothayam Sampanthan’s Political Journey

Former Opposition Leader and Tamil National Alliance  (TNA) leader R. Sampanthan greets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India

  • Rajavarothayam Sampanthan a lawyer by profession served as MP for the Trincomalee electorate from 1977 to 1983.
  • A large number of people including political leaders and diplomats paid their respects in Colombo when Sampanthan’s body was kept for viewing at the Raymonds funeral parlour.
  • Sampanthan had diligently built up a lucrative legal practice in Trincomalee. His clients ranged from the high and mighty to the poor and low.

Veteran Tamil political leader and senior Trincomalee district MP, Rajavarothayam Sampanthan passed away peacefully in Colombo on 30 June 2024. The nonagenarian Sampanthan who had been ailing for some time was listening after dinner  to an audio tape of “Kanthasashti Kavasam” verses sung by  the Soolaman Sisters Rajalakshmi and Jeyalakshmi when he collapsed  with a groan. Sampanthan was immediately taken to Lanka Hospital where he  breathed his last around 11 PM. 
The Kanthasashti Kavasam composed by Balan Devaraya Swamigal consists of devotional verses praising Lord Murugan or Skandha.  Muruga the second son of Lord Shiva and Parvathy is  regarded as the  “Thamizhkkadavul”  or God of Tamils. Passing away peacefully while listening to Kandha Sashti Kavasam verses is indeed a blessed death for devout Hindus. Sampanthan was a deeply religious person whose family deity is  the Pathrakali Amman of Trincomalee. 
Born on February 5, 1933, 91-year-old Sampanthan was the senior most  Parliamentarian in terms of age among  current MPs. He was also the Parliamentary group leader of the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK) known as the Federal Party (FP) in English. Earlier Sampanthan was the Parliamentary group leader of the configuration known as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) of which the ITAK was the chief constituent.
Rajavarothayam Sampanthan a lawyer by profession served as MP for the Trincomalee electorate from 1977 to 1983. Later on he was Trincomalee district MP from 1997 to 2000 and from 2001 to date. Altogether the veteran leader was an MP for 32 years. He was also the leader of the Opposition in Parliament from 2015 to 2019. 
Sampanthan was in full control of his mental faculties until the last. His physical condition however had deteriorated due to age and infirmity. His mobility was restricted  being confined to a wheel chair. His parliamentary attendance was rather low. He had been unable to visit his constituency Trincomalee for quite a while. Some weeks ago, Sampanthan obtained three months leave from Parliament citing ill-health. He sustained  breathing difficulties a few weeks ago and was admitted to Lanka Hospital. Sampanthan’s  condition improved and was discharged. His death occurred a few days after he returned home.  

Funeral Arrangements

The veteran leader’s mortal remains were kept at the AF Raymonds Funeral Parlour at Borella for viewing on July 2nd and 3rd. Thereafter the senior MP’s body lay in state in Parliament in the afternoon of 3rd. Sampanthan’s body was taken to Jaffna by air on July 4th where it was  honoured by ITAK  members and supporters at the Party headquarters on Martin Street, Jaffna. Sunsequeqntly the coffin was taken in a procession  and kept at  the “SJV Chelvanayagam memorial auditorium” for the public in Jaffna to pay their respects. 
Sampanthan’s mortal remains were taken by air from Jaffna to Trincomalee on July 5th. According to funeral arrangements, the Trincomalee veteran’s body was to be kept on July 5th and 6th at his residence on Post Office road, Trinco for the people of Trincomalee to pay their respects. The observance  of last rites and the funeral has been scheduled for tomorrow (Sunday July 7). 
A large number of people including political leaders and diplomats paid their respects in Colombo when Sampanthan’s body was kept for viewing at the Raymonds funeral parlour. Among these were President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadaa and US ambassador Julie Chung. Among those who issued condolence messages were Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin, Indian Foreign Affairs Minister S.Jaishankar and former Indian Cabinet Minister P. Chidamparam. 
President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Rajavarothayam Sampanthan entered Parliament together for the first time in July 1977. In a commendable gesture, President Wickremesinghe wanted a state funeral with full military honours to be conducted for Sampanthan. While Sampanthan’s family members and sections of his party were amenable, an influential group in the ITAK were not in favour. 
However the Govt has been very cooperative with the funeral arrangements. Sampanthan’s body was taken  by air from Colombo to Jaffna and from Jaffna to Trinco  by the Sri Lanka Air Force. It is learnt that the dynamic Eastern province Governor Senthil Thondaman’s officials will coordinate and oversee funeral arrangements in Trinco in tandem with Sampanthan’s family members and party stalwarts.  

Tamil United Liberation Front

As mentioned earlier Sampanthan entered  Parliament in 1977. He  contested Trinco and won as a member of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). The TULF  formed on 14 May 1976 contested the 21 July 1977 Parliamentary Elections adopting a secessionist platform. The TULF scored a resounding victory in the Tamil-dominated Northern Province by winning all 14 electorates in the North. In the Tamil majority Eastern Province, the TULF won in four out of the five constituencies where a Tamil MP could be elected.
 Thus the TULF won 18 of the 19 “Tamil” electorates it contested and became the second largest party in the 1977 Parliament. The TULF with 18 MPs became the chief Opposition party and its Secretary-General Appapillai Amirthalingam made history as the first Tamil Leader of the Opposition.
 Of the 18 TULF MPs originally elected in 1977 only three were  among the living in 2024. They were  nonagenarians  Chelliah Rajadurai (Batticaloa), Rajavarothayam Sampanthan (Trincomalee) and Veerasingham Anandasangaree (Kilinochchi). 
 Rajadurai now lives in blissful retirement shuttling between Malaysia, India and Sri Lanka.  Sampanthan serving as an MP is no more now. Anandasangaree is yet in active politics but is not  an MP. Moreover it is only Anandasangaree who still remains loyal to the TULF and gives leadership as Secretary-General  to the party which is now a shadow of its former self. Incidentally Sangaree who turned 91 last June was hospitalised some days ago due to a  bad fall. He is now pronounced out of danger but will miss the funeral of his personal friend turned political foe Sampanthan. 

Influential Tamil Leaders

An illustrative aspect of Sri Lankan Tamil political history is the phenomena of influential leaders emerging and dominating  at different times and different phases. The Ponnambalam brothers Ramanathan and Arunachalam, A.Mahadeva, GG Ponnambalam, SJV Chelvanayagam and Appaipillai Amirthalingam are democratic leaders who held sway at different periods of time. The rise of armed Tamil militancy  and the “specter” of Veluppillai Prabhakaran’s enforced leadership is a different kettle of fish. 
By the yardstick mentioned above, the post-war years from 2010 to 2024 could be regarded as the period of Rajavarothayam Sampanthan’s leadership. Even though his grip had slackened in the last few years, Sampanthan remained the undisputed Sri Lankan Tamil leaders in stature as well as in symbolic terms. He was leader of the ITAK until 2014 and the leader of the Tamil National Alliance parliamentary group for many years. 
Even though Sampanthan held no official party position in recent times and was greatly dysfunctional due to ill-health, his leadership status was always acknowledged and recognised. Diplomats representing powerful countries as well as Sinhala political leaders would visit him at home. Moreover Tamil  media and politicians would refer to him as “Perunthalaiver” or great leader. 

“Perunthalaiver” Kamaraj

Interestingly enough the epithet “Perunthalaiver” (Great leader) came into prominence in Tamil political discourse due to renowned Indian political leader and former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister K. Kamaraj. He was at one time a very powerful president of the Congress party and played the role of Kingmaker in 1964 and Queenmaker in 1966. Lalbahadur Shastri succeeded Jawarhalal Nehru  as Prime Minister in 1964 and Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi succeeded Shastri in 1966 as premier. Kamaraj as Congress president played a pivotal role in these appointments. 
Despite his all India stature and pre-eminence, Kamaraj and his party the Congress lost elections in Tamil Nadu in 1967. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) came into power. Meanwhile the Congress party itself split. Indira Gandhi gained the upper hand while those opposing her like Kamaraj were on the wane. In the 1971 elections the Congress faction led by Kamaraj and others were defeated  all over India  including  Tamil Nadu though Kamaraj won his  MP seat. 
The years that followed were a lean period for Kamaraj politically. Nevertheless he retained considerable respect as a great leader. The ‘out of office” Kamaraj was then called Perunthalaiver out of respect. He was perceived as a great leader despite not having any official post. In Indian political discourse the epithet “Perunthalaiver” can only refer to Kamaraj just as “Mahathma” can only refer to MK Gandhi and Netaji to Subhash Chandra Bose. 

“Perunthalaiver” Sampanthan

What is interesting  and significant  here is Kamaraj’s epithet “Perunthalaiver” being attached to Sampanthan in  Sri Lankan Tamil political discourse. Like Kamaraj, Sampanthan held no official position except being an MP but like Kamaraj, Sampanthan  could not  pale into insignificance or be sidelined. Hence the recognition and acknowledgement of the description Perunthalaiver”. It is against this backdrop that this column focuses on the political journey of “Perunthalaiver” Sampanthan in this two-part article.
 Rajavarothayam Sampanthan was born in Trincomalee as the eldest of seven children on February 5th 1933. His father A.Rajavarothayam was in Government service during British colonial rule. He retired  after independence as Superintendent of stores at the Gal Oya Dam and Reservoir Construction scheme. 
 Sampanthan was educated at four Christian institutions. They were St. Joseph’s College Trincomalee,  St.Patrick’s College, Jaffna, St. Anne’s College, Kurunegala and St. Sebastian’s College, Moratuwa. Sampanthan was to say in a media interview later that he had to study in several schools because of his father being transferred from place to place. 


After completing his secondary education at St. Sebastians, Moratuwa Sampanthan known as “Sam” to his friends entered the  then Ceylon Law College.  In those  pre-Attorney-at-law days, Sampanthan passed out as a proctor in 1958. After a period of apprenticeship at the reputed FJ and G de Saram law firm in Colombo , Sampanthan returned to his hometown Trincomalee to practise law. 

NR  Rajavarothayam

The young lawyer  devoted his time and energy to build up a solid legal practice. He resisted the lure of politics to a great extent though two of his close relatives were politicians. S. Sivapalan elected from  the All Ceylon Tamil  Congress(ACTC) as Trincomalee MP in 1947 was an uncle. The then sitting MP for Trincomalee N.R. Rajavarothayam was a cousin.NRR as he was generally known served as the ITAK/FP Trincomalee MP from 1952 to 1963.
Though Sampanthan was somewhat lukewarm about politics, he was compelled to engage in political propaganda for his cousin the ITAK candidate Rajavarothayam at the March and July 1960 elections. He also became an ITAK party member and was active in the youth front. In 1961  February, the ITAK/FP launched a massive civil disobedience campaign to protest the imposition of Sinhala as the sole official language in administration. Thousands of volunteers observed “Satysgraha” in front of all the Kachcheris in the Northern and Eastern provinces thereby paralysing day to day administration. 


Sampanthan too participated in the Trinco Satyagraha campaign led by NR Rajavarothayam. The Government led by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike cracked down hard after the April new year. The Police and Armed forces used brute force to disperse the unarmed peaceful Satyagrahis. People suspected of giving leadership to the Satyagraha movement were arrested under emergency regulations and detained without trial at the Panagoda Army cantonment. 
Among those placed under house arrest from Trincomalee was Sampanthan. The young lawyer had a problem. He was due to sit for the UK solicitors exam. Sampanthan sought the advice of ITAK Leader Chelvanayagam who was a leading lawyer and eminent Queen’s counsel (QC). Chelvanayakam gave Sampanthan the green light to sit for the exam. So Sampanthan submitted an apology of sorts and exited the Panagoda cantonment. 

Declined Candidacy Offers

 NR Rajavarothayam  died at the age of 55 in 1963. There was a by-election. Chelvanayagam who encouraged young persons to come forward in politics asked Sampanthan to be the ITAK candidate at the by election. Sampanthan declined the offer. SM Manickarajah contested as ITAK candidate and won. 
In 1970 Manickrajah retired from politics. Chelvanayagam again invited Sampanthan to be the ITAK Trinco candidate at the 1970 elections. Again Sampanthan  respectfully turned down the offer. B. Neminathan contested polls as the Trincomalee ITAK candidate and won in 1970. Neminathan’s lacklustre performance as MP disappointed Trincomalee residents. As a result there was much pressure on the ITAK leadership to replace Neminathan.
 The seventies of the 20th century was a period of crucial importance  in the history of Sri Lankan Tamil politics. In a significant turn of events, the chief Tamil political parties closed ranks and formed the Tamil United Front (TUF) in 1972 . It was re-structured in 1976 as the Tamil  United Liberation Front (TULF). Elections were scheduled for 1977. Chelvanayagam  resolved that Sampanthan should be the TULF candidate  to contest Trincomalee.

“Periyavar” Chelvanayagam

Meanwhile Sampanthan had diligently built up a lucrative legal practice in Trincomalee. His clients ranged from the high and mighty to the poor and low. Sampanthan was to admit candidly to  me in a conversation many years ago  at his apartment in Manthaively, Chennai that he tried to evade “Periyavar” (Chelvanayakam) as much as possible. “The situation facing Tamils in Trinco was dire and I could not say no to him” he said (I write from memory). 
Chelvanayagam who was to die in April 1977 due to a fall in the bathroom may have had a premonition of his death. Some months before his demise, Chelvanayagam had a meeting with  his political heir apparent Appapillai Amirthalingam and his nominee for Trincomalee candidacy Rajavarothayam Sampanthan. 
On the one hand Chelva got Sampanthan to re-affirm his commitment to contest in Trincomalee. On the other hand Chelvanayagam wanted Amirthalingam’s commitment to field Sampanthan as the TULF Trincomalee candidate. After Amirthalingam agreed, Chelva told Amir, whatever happens and whatever the problems you must ensure that Sampanthan contests as TULF candidate. 

Two Problems

The sentiments expressed by Chelvanayagam at that point of time were prophetic indeed. When elections were announced and  the time for nomination drew near,  two problems arose.  One was external and the other internal.  Internally there was strong opposition from a segment within the TULF to Sampanthan being the party candidate. They wanted another ex-MP to be the TULF candidate. Externally a very strong Tamil nationalist candidate also wanted to contest separately  in Trinco. If that happened and the Tamil nationalist vote got fragmented the UNP or SLFP candidate may have won.
 It was a dicey situation.  Yet Sampanthan contested in Trincomalee as TULF candidate in 1977 despite the obstacles. What happened then  as well as further details of Sampanthan’s political journey would be narrated  in the second part of this article.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at [email protected] 

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