Appapillai Amirthalingam : 'Died for Tamil people's cause'
The 75th Birth anniversary of the late Appapillai Amirthalingam, MP, former Leader of the Opposition in Parliament and Leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) falls tomorrow, 26 August.
My mind is a flood of memories of the late Appapillai Amirthalingam, affectionately referred to by me as Amir Annan, as I commence to write this appreciation in his memory.
I met Amir Annan for the first time in 1950 when I joined the Ceylon Law College. I was a first year student, Amir Annan was in the final year. He had earned for himself a niche at the Ceylon Law College as a skilled debater. The Tamil Society was formed at the Ceylon Law College for the first time in 1950. Amir Annan was elected President and I was a committee member. My association with him continued from then, becoming even more close, particularly after I entered Parliament in 1977, until his untimely and tragic demise in 1989.
Those of us who accepted Thanthai Chelva as our leader and followed the policies he enunciated, were bound together by a strong sense of political kindredship. We felt in our veins that we were one large family united together in a sublime cause which was the emancipation of the Tamil people from the status of inferior citizenship in Sri Lanka, to which they were being progressively diminished.
Amir Annan was Thanthai Chelva's ablest and msot trusted Lieutenant. He was a livewire of the Federal party - the "Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi" which Thanthai Chelva formed in 1949. It was primarily he who expounded the policies that Thanthai Chelva enunciated for the benefit of the Tamil speaking people in the North East. Once the Tamil people realised that the only manner in which they could avoid being assimilated and\or annihilated and preserve their distinct identity, was by bringing about the restructuring of the powers of governance in Sri Lanka so as to ensure very substantial self rule in the North East and by preserving the territorial and cultural integrity of the North East, which was their traditional and historical habitation and which were at the core of the policies enunciated by Thanthai Chelva, the Tamil people very substantially reposed their faith in Thanthai Chelva. No Tamil leader before Thanthai Chelva had enunciated such pollices.
No Tamil political leader other than perhaps, Thanthai Chelva, had traversed the length and breadth of the North east as Amir Annan had done. It was he who explained to the Tamil people the relevance and validity of the policies which Thanthai Chelva enunciated, in Tamil. Amir Annan was an orator par excellence. His knowledge of Tamil literature and command of the Tamil langauge was phenomenal. He had the capacity to keep the Tamil people spellbound with his powerful oratory in Tamil and thousands and tens of thousands of Thamil people would assemble to listen to him with rapt attention wherever and whenever he spoke in the North East. He was peerless in the exploitation to the utmost of the poetic flavour of the Tamil language. The Tamil people were enthraled by his speeches and were solidly behind the policies which Thanthai Chelva enunciated.
Thanthai Chelva and Amir Annan opposed separatism. They strongly advocated constitutional arrangements that would ensure a federal form of governance and could adequately meet the demands of a heterogeneous society.
The Tamil people demonstrated through several electoral verdicts that they were prepared to overwhelmingly support such a solution. Successive Sinhala Governments for reasons of chauvinism or shortsightedness, missed this golden opportunity to bring about harmony and stability in the country. They sought to suppress the Tamil people by brute force; the Tamil people were subjected to several racial pogroms.
Amir Annan was a livewire in the "Sathyagraha" campaign organised by the Federal party in 1961. For several weeks every Government Agent's office (the Kachcheri) in every district in the North East was compelled to remain shut, but thousands of Tamil speaking people squatted in front of the entrances, singing religious hyms and reciting prayers. They peacefully barricaded the entrances thereby bringing government activity to a complete standstill. The Tamil people were demanding justice in the msot peaceful manner.
In the face of implacable Sinhala intransigence, Thanthai Chelva and Amir Annan were eventually compelled, in 1976, to demand the total sovereignty of the Tamil people' "Thamil Eelam". Thanthai Chelva's demise in early 1977 placed Amir Annan at the helm of Tamil affairs. Leading the Tamil Untied Liberation Front to a resounding victory at the General Elections in 1977 on a platform of "Thamil Eelam", Amir Annan wore a crown of thorns when he assumed the leadership of the Tamil people. After the death of both Thanthai Chelva and G.G. Ponnampalam, M. Sivasithamparam was elected president and Amir Annan Secretary General of the Tamil United Liberation Front, a position he held until his demise.
The electoral verdict in 1977 also resulted in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party being routed and winning even a lesser number of seats in parliament, than the Tamil Untied Liberation Front. Consequently, Amir Annan as the leader of the party with the second largest number of seats assumed the role of the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament. The parliamentary Group unanimously endorsed this decision. Whether this was a right decision or not, has always remained a debatable point.
Amir Annan effectively used his position as Leader of the Opposition to make international contacts and explain to the international community, the denial of equality and justice to the Tamil people. Ambassadors and High Commissioners of several countries and visiting dignitaries frequently called on him. In the course of his visits abroad, he met with several foreign leaders. He met with all the Indian leaders and developed a particularly close rapport with Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India. These contacts and Amir Annan's analytical articulation of the Tamil position enabled the justification of the Tamil struggle for equality and justice to be better understood, and thus strengthened the Tamil cause.
Amir Annan played a significant role in internationalising the Tamil questioning Sri Lanka. It also became clear to Amir Annan that while the International Community would strongly support a restructuring of the powers of governance in Sri Lanka, so as to give the Tamil people their legitimate share in governance, particularly in the North-East, there was no support for the creation of a separate state. This compelled Amir Annan and the Tamil political leadership to state that they were prepared to consider and take before the Tamil people, a viable alternative to a separate state.
The other side of the coin was that Amir Annan who was looked upon as a leader of mass struggles, was now being increasingly seen as a leader in the constitutional mode. His task was made even more difficult by the obduracy of Sinhala Governments. Though the J. R. Jayewardene Government enjoyed a 5/6ths majority in Parliament, and though Tamil political leadership was prepared to consider a viable alternative to "Thamil Eelam," there was no worthwhile offer from the Sri Lankan State.
Tamil youth in particular, who realised the lack of will on the part of the Sri Lankan State to restructure the powers of governance, and who were convinced that moderate Tamil political leadership had adopted the Vaddukoddai resolution in 1976 for "Thamil Eaalam" because all other options had been exhausted, and who were too emotionally charged, to repose their faith in the prospect of any viable alternative, were becoming increasingly impatient and the incipient signs of the commencement of an armed struggle were all too evident. The anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983 blew the lid, and Tamil Militancy could no longer be contained. The extent to which it has grown today is legendary. It has proved its capacity to challenge and overcome the military might of the Sri Lankan State.
Amir Annan had, perhaps, assumed the leadership of the Tamil people at the most difficult and critical time in recent history. He was sympathetic to the irrepressible upsurge in militancy that was rapidly developing among Tamil Youth. He was also deeply conscious that eventually the final solution would have to be found at the negotiating table; he was in a political quandary.
Amir Annan was a superb debater in Parliament. I often walked up to him when he finished his delivery and said to him that he made me feel proud. At the negotiating table too, he had the capacity to articulate an argument succinctly and lucidly. It was my privilege to be associated with him and M. Sivasithamparam in all the negotiations that took place in Colombo, Tamil Nadu, New Delhi and Thimphu after 1983. He was brilliant in the exposition of the Tamil cause.
Amir Annan was strongly of the view that India had a crucial role to play in the resolution of the Tamil question in Sri Lanka. Amir Annan met Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at New Delhi in August 1983 after the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983.
After the acceptance of India's good offices, Shri G. Parthasarathy the distinguished veteran diplomat paid his first visit to Sri Lanka as the personal envoy of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in late August 1983. Amir Annan along with several of us met him at Colombo. In September 1983 Amir Annan and I had a long meeting with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at the Prime Minister's Office in New Delhi. Others who attended the meeting were G. Parthasarathy and Dr. Alexander, then Secretary to the Indian Prime Minister.
Indira Gandhi discussed similar situations in several other parts of the world and also the options available for the resolution of the Tamil Question in Sri Lanka.
Though she clearly lacked faith in the will of the Sri Lankan political leadership to address the Tamil Question fairly and justly, she was also clearly of the view that every effort needed to be made to evolve a just, negotiated solution. Amir Annan realised that if ever Indian support for the achievement of "Thamil Eaalam" was to become possible, it could only be in the context of the Sri Lankan State having scuttled an Indian sponsored settlement of the Tamil Question. In such a situation it was extremely likely that the rest of the International Community would have been supporting of India's position.
Throughout his political career, following in the footsteps of Thanthai Chelva, Amir Annan strove to achieve genuine Regional Autonomy for the Tamil-speaking people in the North-East, even if it had to be attained in incremental stages. Both Thanthai Chelva and Amir Annan had the capacity before the armed struggle assumed ascendancy to take the Tamil people along with their thinking. Sinhala political leadership, however, lacked the character to address the Tamil Question with honesty.
They thought that the Tamil people could be suppressed and subjugated by brute force. Successive anti-Tamil programs, particularly that of July 1983, were the clearest demonstration of such thinking on the part of the Sri Lankan State. After July 1983, the military might of the Sri Lankan State was used to massacre the Tamil people, destroy their economy and devastate Tamil villages and towns. These actions of the Sri Lankan State had the effect of weakening a moderate political leader such as Amir Annan. Tamil youth who were convinced that the Tamil people had been deceived and cheated by the Sri Lankan State were justifiably exasperated and determined to demonstrate that Tamil tolerance should not be mistaken for Tamil weakness and that the Tamil people would not be subjugated or surrendered. Armed struggle against the Sri Lankan State was their weapon, and it is this weapon, which has today made the Sri Lankan State realise that the Tamil question needs to be addressed honestly and a just and durable solution evolved.
Amir Annan had much affection for the Tamil people and the Tamil people too liberally showered their affection on him. He was also concerned about the legitimate rights of both the Muslim and Tamil people of the plantation sector. He strongly believed that all Tamil speaking people in the North-East should be treated as equals.
The greatness of Amir Annan and his immense contribution towards the emancipation of the Tamil people cannot be diminished by the failures of the Sri Lankan State, nor by the fact that he was a victim of an assassin's bullet. If the lapses of the Sri Lankan state had not made an armed struggle inevitable, and if the Sri Lankan State had addressed the Tamil question in a just and rational manner, Amir Annan would have continued to occupy a position of pre-eminence on the Tamil political scene.
I once asked Thanthai Chelva in 1976, who would lead the Tamil people after his demise. He unhesitatingly told me that I should repose my faith in Amirthalingam who would be his successor.
Amir Annan and I did not always agree on all matters but his lifetime selfless contribution to the cause of the Tamil people must be acknowledged. I have always had the highest regard for him and truly looked upon him as an elder brother. On the occasion of the commemoration of his 75th birthday may we all join together in extolling the virtues of one who lived and died for the cause of the Tamil people.
R. Sampanthan, Secretary General, Tamil United Liberation Front, Member of Parliament Trincomalee District, Parliamentary Group Leader ,Alliance of Tamil Parties.
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