The Douglas Devananda phenomenon

By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

“Man, proud man, Drest in a little brief authority, Most ignorant of what he’s most assured, His glassy essence, like an angry ape, Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven, As make the angels weep”

 - William Shakespeare (Measure for Measure)


Kathiravel Nythiananda Douglas Devananda’s tryst with destiny came when the founder leader of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party met with Ranjan Wijeratne then deputy defence minister under President Ranasinghe Premadasa at a posh Cinnamon Gardens bungalow nearly twelve years ago for a confidential discussion that lasted for nearly three hours. The meeting had been arranged by Sri Lankan intelligence officials. Accompanied only by his former deputy Nadarajah Atputharaja alias Ramesh, the ‘down but not yet out’ Devananda made an offer that the unconventionally dynamic Wijeratne could not refuse. Devananda was prepared to place at the government’s command the full cooperation and unstinted support of his newly formed organization in return for protection and support.

Path-breaking offer

The offer was path-breaking at that time as no Tamil militant organization had until then come forward to help the main ‘enemy’ directly.

But Douglas like Barkis was willing!

The Indian Army’s phased out withdrawal was at its tail end; the Varadarajapperumal led Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front’s North-Eastern Provincial administration was tottering on its last legs; the honeymoon phase of talks between the Premadasa regime and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was growing stale; full scale war erupting between the government and LTTE or the government and EPRLF or among all three was a distinct possibility. An offer of assistance by a Tamil militant outfit could be beneficial in a war scenario. It was advantageous to Colombo then to procure the dubious services of Devananda.

Preliminary arrangements were made. Within months the EPRLF administration was dismissed and thereafter war broke out between the government and the Tigers. Douglas Devananda was in business. EPDP cadres scattered in several parts of India and Sri Lanka began to converge in Colombo. Devananda also went in for new recruits and dissidents from other groups. Soon he had more than three hundred cadres at his disposal. Apart from outright block grants of money by the state, arrangements were also made to pay monthly allowances of 3000 rupees per cadre. The EPDP also engaged in propaganda for the state in both the print and electronic media. As war progressed the LTTE abandoned the Islands off the northern peninsula because they were ‘militarily unimportant’ in the words of former Tiger political wing leader Yogi.

This was Devananda’s opportunity. Douglas and his boys arrived with food and provisions by sea and set foot after many years in the North. The Islands were entrusted to the EPDP’s care by the government. That stranglehold remains to date and the EPDP has not looked back since. The agreement arrived at with the government then was like manna from heaven to Devananda. It was only some weeks before that he had arrived in Colombo with two comrades from Chennai (then Madras).

He was wearing rubber slippers and had only a knapsack carrying some clothes and documents.

His political fortunes were at a low ebb. The offer to help the government was born through desperation. The bold gamble worked and then bloomed successfully after war broke out with the Tigers. Devananda was criticised severely then for betraying the Tamil cause and openly collaborating with the enemy.

Splinter groups

Yet, as time went on other groups like the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization, People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam and the Razeek faction of the EPRLF also began to cooperate militarily with the government. Some groups claim now that they are no longer engaged in military assistance and that only break away elements from their groups are with the government now. Some of these splinter groups like the Mohan faction in Batticaloa for example have been absorbed into the armed forces and hold rank. Unlike these groups who became totally subservient to the state and became part and parcel of the armed forces for remuneration Devananda maintained some form of independence from the start. In recent times his cadres do not engage in any joint exercises or military activities with the armed forces.

It has been to Devananda’s credit that he did not let the EPDP deteriorate into a stark mercenary outfit devoid of political content alone. He aimed high and sought to establish a financial empire by exploiting the off shore Island’s restricted economies first. Thereafter he went after political power and got the EPDP ensconced in Parliament utilising his grip on the Islands. The last Parliamentary elections gave him further leverage when he helped Kumaratunga form a government. In return he obtained a cabinet portfolio that catered mainly to Tamil needs and interests. He is perhaps the most powerful ‘official’ Tamil today. Devananda’s rise to power and office from obscure origins during the past decade provides a tragic insight into the fate of armed Tamil militancy. While one defiant and dominant strand in the form of the LTTE continues to struggle in a sacrificial and dedicated mode towards the goal of Tamil liberation, the likes of Devananda have become the very anti-thesis of this objective.

After discarding the ideology of secession for practical reasons Douglas Devananda did not let any inhibitions stand in his way as he pursued his objectives with single minded devotion. Devananda like Milton’s prince of darkness is a fallen angel. His family hailed originally from Chunnakam but later moved to Athiaddy in Jaffna town. The LTTE’s shadow cabinet minister for cultural affairs, the well known Tamil poet Puthuvai Rathinadurai was to refer derisively to Douglas later as the ‘Athiaddy Kuthiyan’ (The hunk of Athiaddy). Devananda’s father Kathiravel was a white-collar employee of the Petroleum Corporation. The family like many others of the clan (ex-senator Nagalingam) were ardent supporters of the Lanka Sama Samaaja Party.

Devananda’s paternal uncle was the well-known trade unionist and activist K C Nythiananda. Devananda spent most of his childhood years with Nythiananda at 17 Frances Road in Colombo 6. The bachelor Nythiananda virtually adopted Devananda who studied at Colombo Hindu College then. Devananda was no academic bright light but learned rudimentary politics from his uncle. Devananda went on to include both Nythiananda’s name as well as his nom-de-guerre in the movement Douglas as parts of his official name later.

Short-lived indulgence

The seventies was a period of political ferment for the Tamils. The old left lost its lustre because of its unashamed cohabitation with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Leftist stalwarts like Nythiananda metamorphosed into Tamil nationalists. The 1977 violence led to Nythiananda and the well-known human rights lawyer Kandasamy forming the Tamil refugee rehabilitation organization. The Tamil youth too were getting radicalised. Secession and armed struggle to achieve it was the credo of the youth. Devananda also was not immune to these currents. He joined the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students and thanks to his mentor, another erstwhile Trotskyite, Eliathamby Ratnasabapathy went to Lebanon and obtained military training with the Palestinians. After returning from the middle-east Devananda along with Pathmanabha and others broke away from the EROS and formed the General Union of Eelam Students (GUES) that was to be the forerunner of the EPRLF.

Devananda’s indulgence in pre-1983 militancy was short-lived. He led a not so successful robbery of the Thirukkovil bank in the Amparai district but was caught by a Muslim civilian when fleeing at Akkaraipattu. Jailed at Welikade, Devananda like Panagoda Maheswaran and others fought tooth and nail to escape death at the hands of Sinhala convicts in July 1983. Transferred to Batticaloa Devananda played a crucial role in engineering the break out from within. Escaping to India he underwent Indian training also and then formed the military wing of the EPRLF the People’s Liberation Army. Douglas was the first PLA commander.

The PLA’s military track record was not very impressive and its most ambitious project, the attack under Douglas’s command on the navy installation at Karainagar was a disaster. Douglas lost a cousin sister Shobha (the first woman cadre martyr in the struggle) as well as his second in command Sinnavan among other casualties in the abortive attempt. Soon sharp differences arose between Devananda the military chief and Pathmanabha the political commissar of the EPRLF. The movement in practical terms was split vertically. The EPRLF politbureau removed Douglas from his post and appointed Gaffoor as military commander. This resulted in Devananda travelling in late 1986 to Madras to meet Pathmanabha and resolve matters. While Douglas was staying at Choolaimedhu in Chennai there arose an unsavoury incident where a mob was instigated by interested parties into attacking the EPRLF backed office the Eelam People’s Information Centre.

Devananda fired at the mob and an Indian Tamil lawyer was killed. Douglas was arrested. Meanwhile the LTTE began asserting itself against other groups. Earlier Devananda had established a non-confrontational relationship in Jaffna with former Tiger Jaffna chief Kittu. But with Devananda’s departure from Jaffna the relationship soured and in December 1986 full-scale hostilities between the EPRLF and LTTE flared up. The EPRLF in Jaffna was virtually annihilated and its military commander Gaffoor killed. Devananda was blamed indirectly for this debacle. One charge was that he had depleted the strength of the EPRLF in Jaffna by sending home all the cadres from the Wanni and Eastern province prior to his departure to India. Another was that all the mortars and RPG’s in the EPRLF arsenal had been ‘dumped’ or hidden by Devananda and his supporters. The third was that Devananda’s loyalists had not fought back and simply slipped away into hiding when the onslaught began. All these made the EPRLF a sitting duck, it was charged.

Permanent split

Under these circumstances the EPRLF split became permanent. After his release on bail Devananda’s faction and a PLOTE dissident faction led by Thangarajah alias Paranthan Rajan came together and formed the Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front. The Indo-Lanka accord and its aftermath led to this front collapsing. To his credit Devananda took up a firm Tamil nationalist stance and condemned New Delhi for its ill-advised venture. Devananda’s position on the Indo-Lanka accord was very much akin to that of the LTTE then. This assertion of Independence cost Devananda greatly as the pro-Indian Paranthan Rajan ingratiated himself with New Delhi at Devananda’s expense. A friendless Devananda and cadres were left to fend for their own. This phase was perhaps the nadir of Devananda’s fortunes.

He formed the Eelam People’s Democratic Party in Madras but found himself pathetically short of funds. The EPRLF had never been a source of unlimited funds but the situation now was pitiful. A desperate Devananda was compelled to engage in extortion and kidnapping of Sri Lankan Tamils in Madras to extract money. He was arrested on a kidnapping charge and tasted prison life again. This episode earned him the negative sobriquet ‘pillaipidikaran’ (kidnapper) among Tamil circles. After securing a temporary release from Prison Devananda jumped bail and returned to Sri Lanka where he soon dialogued with intelligence officials and struck a deal with Ranjan Wijeratne. Life thereafter was on the ascendant for Douglas. Utilising the control he had over the off shore Islands Devananda began transporting seafood to Colombo. A lucrative trade in dried fish was established. The transport of goods to and from the Islands were another source of revenue. A system of taxation was also imposed. In addition, wealthy Tamils in Colombo were extorted into donating money too. All this earned Douglas a lot of money.

He next moved into the Parliamentary arena fielding an Independent list of EPDP and UNP candidates in 1994. The captive voters of the off shore Islands ‘cast’ their votes overwhelmingly for Douglas. Since the bulk of Jaffna voters were under LTTE control and therefore did not vote the EPDP list with about 10,000 votes went on to gain nine seats. Using this bloc as a political instrument Devananda began supporting Kumaratunga and extracting concessions in return. In 1998 the EPDP contested local authority elections in Jaffna and won 10 out of 17 including the three Pradeshiya Sabhas in the Islands. He was able to get quite close to Kumaratunga at the time of the presidential elections in 1999. While almost the entire Tamil community voted against Kumaratunga, Devananda and his minions supported her and what is more ‘managed’ to garner 50,000 plus votes for her in Jaffna under mysterious circumstances. Last year’s Parliamentary elections saw Devananda get 4 seats in Jaffna amid widespread charges of rigging.

Again he came to the rescue of Kumaratunga and along with Rauff Hakim became Queen maker. In return he obtained a powerful portfolio comprising Northern rehabilitation and reconstruction, Northeastern Tamil affairs and Hindu Religion and Culture. Unlike Hakeem, Devananda has remained and continues to be loyal to Kumaratunga. There are no illusions however about his loyalty being steadfast in the event that the UNP romps home to power. He and his lieutenants have been quite candid about the fact that they will switch loyalties if necessary. This has led to people ranging from the UNP’s Maheswaran to the TULF’s Anandasangari ranting and raving that they will not allow Devananda to join a UNP dispensation after the elections. But Devananda may have the last laugh here. Devananda in his capacity as cabinet minister has been endowed with quite a lot of finances supposedly for rehabilitation and development of the Tamil areas. He has distributed much of these financial allocation to many different causes against the backdrop of hitherto unproven charges of corruption. Schools, temples, libraries, community centres etc are largely the beneficiaries of Devananda’s doles.

De-centralised authority

One condition for these handouts is that the applicants or more appropriately supplicants must present themselves personally at the former Sridhar theatre on Stanley Road Jaffna where Devananda holds court. Incidentally, Devananda has transferred the power center of his ministry to Jaffna and is perhaps the first cabinet minister in Sri Lanka to effectively de-centralise functional authority. He stations himself in Jaffna for most of his time and has to a limited extent succeeded in being the first minister to go to the periphery instead of centralising everything. Persons who are not prepared to present themselves personally before Devananda do not get any favours or grants from him no matter how deserving their case is.

This for example was the plight of the St. Patrick’s College rector who wanted to retain his self-respect. Furthermore, all beneficiaries are required to place large advertisements in Jaffna newspapers praising the minister for his generosity in doling out government funds that are after all the taxpayer’s money. There have also been a lot of minor construction projects and as a result many contracts to be distributed also. Furthermore, there is the employment factor. Although direct government jobs are scarce Devananda has introduced many ‘volunteer’ employment schemes ranging from Samurdhi to Health volunteers. Devananda has also taken the changing social structure of Jaffna into account.

The Vellala community that was at the apex of the caste-class structure still remains the single largest caste but it is no longer as numerous as it was. The pre-1983 period saw the Vellalas comprise about 55% to 60 % of the total population. Migration to the South and abroad has resulted in this caste being reduced to around 35% to 40 % now. This has increased the percentage ratio of the other castes particularly the so-called socially inferior castes. Most of these castes did not go abroad or migrate to the South but remained in Jaffna. In earlier times this five caste bloc known as ‘panchamar’ comprised about 25% to 30 % of Jaffna. Individually these castes are still numerically lower than the Vellalas but taken together may be about 40% to 45 % now. Since very few of these castes have gone abroad these families do not receive any foreign money and are dependent on employment locally. The fishing community deprived of full employment through various restrictions are also facing difficulties.

Caste based vote

Reports from Jaffna indicate that while the TULF and Tamil Congress cater to the so called upper castes the EPDP under Devananda has focussed on these so called lower castes and worked for their upliftment. The Tamil national alliance can make inroads into this caste based vote bank through the TELO and EPRLF only. Historically these castes have been pro-LSSP or pro-Communist and very seldom voted for the Congress Federal Party or later the TULF in bulk although representatives of these groupings have been active on their platforms. The initial stages of Tamil militancy also saw casteism existing with much of the so-called lower castes going into the EPRLF, TELO and EROS as opposed to the LTTE or PLOTE. Subsequently, the LTTE developed into a giant organization that embraced all castes and now a large number of Tiger cadres are from these castes.

Thus the EPDP has been politically astute in focussing on this caste factor and has a vote bank here. In addition to this vote bank and the genuine support it hopes to garner through doling out money for development and jobs etc there is also the captive vote bank in the Islands. The Pradeshiya divisions of Kayts, Velanai and Delft are under total EPDP control. The last election saw the electoral division of Kayts that comprises all three Pradeshiya Sabhas register a very high rate of voting. The EPDP got a five-figure vote tally here. This was in stark contrast to other divisions where the party got only four figure amounts.

The other parties fear that the EPDP may utilise the ‘Kayts card’ to the maximum in this poll. Also the EPDP by virtue of Devananda’s portfolio enjoys the full support of state patronage from the armed forces, police and bureaucracy. All these factors could be harnessed to ensure its victory. Moreover, reports from the North indicate that many types of election incentives from cash to gifts are being offered. Government funds are freely available and the EPDP is exploiting the situation to the maximum.

Electoral malpractices

The presence therefore of a genuine vote bank along with the captive votes of Kayts and the possibility of large scale vote tampering suggests that the EPDP could get anything from 2 to 7 seats in the Peninsula. Devananda is also doling out jobs and cash for development in the other Tamil areas too though not to the extent as in Jaffna. Given its intensive campaigning in the Wanni and Amparai it may get another two. The incremental votes of Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Colombo may give it one national list seat too. The best case scenario for Devananda is that he may get up to ten depending of course on how free and fair the election is going to be particularly in the Peninsula. The only way that Devananda’s electoral efforts can be thwarted is for the Tamil voters to realise the gravity of the situation and act accordingly. The composition of the Tamil national alliance and its political approach leaves much to be desired but nevertheless it is the better alternative in the long run.

What Devananda has to offer at present is cash and gifts and jobs to tide over the immediate problems caused by the war. A lasting remedy and solution can only be the end of the war. For that, meaningful talks with the LTTE is necessary. Such a possibility is virtually impossible as long as the Kumaratunga-Wickremanayake-Kadirgamar trio is in power. The Tamil national alliance in the North-East offers the Tamil people an opportunity to press for a speedy resolution of the war. It seeks a mandate to facilitate government-LTTE talks. Given a situation where the power equation in official terms favours the EPDP and the vast opportunities available to rig elections the Tamil national alliance faces overwhelming odds despite the popular wave in its favour.

The only way that electoral gerrymandering can be overcome is for large numbers of Tamils to vote early and overwhelmingly for the party of their choice. It may be prudent on the part of the LTTE to reappraise its position and enable people living in areas under their control to exercise their franchise. The Tigers could perceive the election as a mini-referendum for the right of self-determination instead of as an extension of Sri Lankan Parliamentary politics. It may also help the Alliance to defeat the EPDP which from a Tiger viewpoint may be the greater danger. Whatever the outcome of the poll and whatever the electoral malpractices Devananda knows that in the final analysis only victory counts. The overall political culture of the country has deteriorated to such great depths that people of Devananda’s ilk are confident as ever. As long as he wins a sizeable bloc of seats and as long as parliamentary configurations are shaky, Douglas hopes to do business.

The man who claimed to be ‘Thamby’ to Premadasa and ‘Machang’ to Ranil moved on to the Blue saree pota. He is now in the PA camp of Chandrika’s but openly says he would shift allegiance to the UNP if necessary. The run up to 1994 polls saw Kumaratunga accuse the UNP of conspiring to assassinate her through the EPDP. Now Ranil Wickremasinghe is charging the PA of the same thing. One can only hope that history does not repeat itself as a tragical farce again.

Courtesy: Sunday Leader [22 November 2001]