Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Random Thoughts on K. Thurairatnam

The Point Pedro Federalist

by Sachi Sri Kantha

"Our vote is decided for Thuraiyar. You see, we stand for some principle. If the TULF places a broomstick and asks us to vote for it, we’ll cast our vote for that broomstick." Of course, Thurairatnam was a thousand-fold better than an inanimate broomstick.

February 1961 Satyagraha

February 1961 Satyagraha (picture from S.Ponniah's book, 'Satyagraha and the Freedom Movement of the Tamils in Ceylon')

This is a remembrance piece, albeit one year late. I had intended to contribute this last year to remember Kathiripillai Thurairatnam (1930-1995). August 10th is his birth date, and - had he lived - he would have been 75 last year. He died on September 23, 1995, and his death passed quietly. The assassination of then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar on August 12th last year diverted my attention at that time. Though one year late, I have felt a need to contribute these random thoughts on Thurairatnam, for one particular reason.

Kadirgamar has a higher profile in the electronic media and quite a number of his banal speeches have also been reproduced in some websites. I have read Kadirgamar’s speeches and these are insipid and mere ramblings of a pretentious gasbag. I’d note that Kadirgamar wouldn’t have been caught dead in delivering the short, folksy and pungent speeches of the kind Thurairatnam made in the Sri Lankan parliament between 1960 and 1983. I provide two examples at the end of this feature.

Among the TULF MPs who were elected in the July 1977 general election, A. Amirthalingam and V.Yogeswaran, who suffered tragic deaths later, have a higher profile in the electronic media, courtesy of websites and blog sheets maintained by the pro-Sinhala lobby, some Indian agencies and the ramblings of the likes of the wayward V.Anandasangaree. Two other TULF MPs, who also suffered tragic deaths (V. Dharmalingam and M. Alalasundaram) in 1985, do receive deliberately erroneous mention in some websites, as per the information about their assassins.

The names of TULF MPs who had natural deaths in the 1980s and 1990s now remain mostly obliterated. These include, S. Kathiravelupillai, T. Thirunavukarasu, P. Ganeshalingam, V.N. Navaratnam, K. Thurairatnam, T. Sivasithamparam, X.M. Sellathambu and T. Rasalingam. Should this be so? To counter this lopsidedness, I chose Thurairatnam for highlighting, since his was the first name that attracted my attention among the Eelam Tamil political leaders in 1960. I was then a seven year old boy, living in Point Pedro. Thurairatnam won twice in the general elections held in that year and became the long-term Federalist MP for Point Pedro until 1983.

Point Pedro Representatives

From 1931 to 1983, four individuals represented the Point Pedro constituency in the Sri Lankan legislature. These were, G.G. Ponnambalam (1934-1947), T. Ramalingam (1947-1956), P. Kandiah (1956-1960) and K. Thurairatnam (1960-1983). Ponnambalam and Ramalingam belonged to the Tamil Congress party, the former being the founder of this party. Both were attorneys. Kandiah was a representative of the Communist Party, and he was a librarian-educator. Thurairatnam, who became the elected Federalist MP for Point Pedro in March 1960 for the first time and retained this honor for four consecutive elections in July 1960, 1965, 1970 and 1977, was a middle school teacher until his entry into parliament. Thus, Thurairatnam had received the endearing suffix ‘Master’ behind his name. My grand uncle (father’s eldest brother, V.S.Pathmanathan Master, 1910-1973) was a 20 year-senior contemporary of Thurairatnam at the Puloly Hindu English School.

The biographical sketch of Thurairatnam, as it appeared in the ‘Parliament of Sri Lanka, 1977’, by H.B.W.Abeynaike, provides the bare essentials of his early life as follows:

“Katheripillai Thurairatnam was born on August 10, 1930 and was educated at the Jaffna College. At the age of 17, he joined the clerical service but remained only for a few months. He next graduated from the Ceylon University and joined the teaching profession and taught at the Puloly Hindu English School till 1960. Mr. Thurairatnam joined the Federal Party shortly after its inauguration and in 1956 he contested the Point Pedro seat as the FP nominee. He was defeated that time by the Communist candidate…Mr.Thurairatnam is a keen student of history and philosophy. During his days he was a keen supporter of the LSSP and CP.”

Thurairatnam first contested the Point Pedro constituency in the 1956 general election. It was a three-cornered contest, and as a 26 year old youth he was placed 3rd, behind P. Kandiah (the victor) and M. Sivasithamparam. That 1956 victory of P. Kandiah as a Communist Party candidate in Point Pedro was the one and only instance where a Communist Party nominee was able to win a parliamentary seat in Eelam. It was also well known among the Point Pedro folks then that the party label worn by P.Kandiah contributed only marginally for his victory. He was carried to victory on other factors such as, (1) his personal popularity as an librarian-educator, (2) the sympathy for him being a twice loser in the previous general elections in 1947 and 1952, and most significantly, (3) the personal begging appeal (thaali pitchai) to the voters made by Kandiah’s wife on behalf of her ‘thaali’(the sacred marriage knot for Hindus). To top this, Thurairatnam was only 26 year old then, representing the Federal Party which was contesting the election in Ceylon for the first time. The final tally for Point Pedro constituency in that 1956 election was as follows:

Total electorate 44,603; Total votes polled 28, 621; Percent polled 65.80; P.Kandiah (CP) 14,381 votes; M.Sivasithamparam (Independent) 8,064 votes; K.Thurairatnam (FP) 5,859 votes. Majority for Kandiah over Sivasithamparam was 6,317 votes.

Amirthalingam and Thurairatnam in 1961 (picture from Amirthalingam Photo Album book)

Following the 1959 Delimitation Commission report, the greater Point Pedro constituency was split into two; Point Pedro and Udupiddy. M.Sivasithamparam (representing the Tamil Congress party) moved over to the Udupiddy constituency, and Thurairatnam was the Federal Party nominee for the Point Pedro constituency. In the five consecutive elections in 1960 (March and July), 1965, 1970 and 1977, Thurairatnam’s chief rival was Point Pedro Urban Council’s chairman N.Nadarajah (representing the Tamil Congress party). In each of these five elections, Thurairatnam won, but his victory margins against Nadarajah were unspectacular: 3,158 votes in March 1960; 4,258 votes in July 1960; 950 votes in 1965; 315 votes in 1970; and 6,570 votes in 1977. Except in 1977, Thurairatnam was able to win the elections in Point Pedro only on plurality of votes for the Federal Party. Why?

Thurairatnam had two handicaps. First, by birth, he did not belong to the dominating Vellala caste among the Tamils. In the conservative Vadamarachchy region of those times, Thurairatnam was able to tackle this handicap because he was perceived by the voters as a guile-less politician (in a roster filled with lawyer-politicians), whose primary calling was teaching. Though he subsequently graduated as a lawyer, it took Thurairatnam an unduly long time – as a part time student – to graduate from the Law College. This rather enhanced his image as a politician lacking in guile! Secondly, Point Pedro region had strong pockets of influence for the Tamil Congress party, since this party’s leader G.G.Ponnambalam represented the greater Point Pedro constituency for 13 years from 1934 to 1947.

Nevertheless, Thurairatnam received his highest majority of 6,570 votes against his rivals in the 1977 general election. For the first time, he received 12,989 votes among the 23,366 votes polled in Point Pedro constituency. His long-term chief rival N.Nadarajah polled 6,419 votes.

It is not out of place to mention an anecdote here. My wayward kin, K.T.Rajasingham, also threw his hat into the ring as an Independent candidate in that election, after promoting himself as the SLFP organizer for Point Pedro in the first half of the 1970s. Rajasingham was on his campaign trail with a few of his minions and visited a relative’s house. The our elderly aunt welcomed him with the following words. “Thamby Rajasingham, why – you look so tired after campaigning. Here, come sit down and have a cup of tea. Boy, hope you don’t misunderstand us. We can do only this much for you. Our vote is decided for Thuraiyar. You see, we stand for some principle. If the TULF places a broomstick and ask us to vote for it, we’ll caste our vote for that broomstick.” Of course, Thurairatnam was a thousand-fold better than an inanimate broomstick. Even a majority of our kin never warmed up to K.T.Rajasingham’s unprincipled, opportunistic candidacy. And he could garner only 614 votes in that election.

In the Federal Party’s (and later TULF’s) non-violent agitations, Thurairatnam took a leading part. One of the endearing photo images in the 1961 non-violent agitation was the camera shot of Ceylonese police manhandling him in public. In 1976, he was also one of the four TULF leaders (the other three being, A. Amirthalingam, V.N. Navaratnam and K.P. Ratnam) on whom the Trial-at-Bar case was hoisted by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime.

Thurairatnam in the Sri Lankan Parliament

When Thurairatnam was a regular in the Sri Lankan parliament of 1960s and 1970s, the Federal Party and the Tamil Congress had other leading orators in English and Tamil. Thus, quite often, Thurairatnam was not in the starting line-up of debates for Tamils. To use basketball lingo, he was a player coming off from the bench, but would score nevertheless. He was not in the habit of making long-winded speeches with ornamentation and flowery lingo. His speciality was to score with point blank precision using pungent, folksy humor. This, I guess, was derived from his practical experience as a classroom teacher. As good teachers know, no instrument would top a short speech mixed with humor, to charge the young brains. For a taste, I provide below two of Thurairatnam’s speeches in the Sri Lankan parliament in 1979.

When the then UNP heckler from Ratnapura, G.V. Punchinilame, interrupted Thurairatnam’s description of a sadistic army harassment technique used on Tamil youth in the late 1970s (male organs inserted into a drawer and dashed for half an hour!!) with a silly question ‘What happened?’, Thurairatnam retorted with a stinging rebuke “If something like that happens to you, you ask your wife after that.” Again when he was taunted by two UNPers with the Roman Catholic names Harindra Corea and Neville Fernando, our Point Pedro Federalist was quick on his repartee, “Their very names and their social group depict from what origin they are. They are really like the foxes who have lost their tails.”

Thurairatnam’s Speech on the Extension of Emergency Regulations in 1979

[Courtesy: ‘Sri Lanka Parliamentary Debates’, Nov.6,1979, vol.6, no.10, columns 1202-1206]

K.Thurairatnam: Mr.Deputy Speaker, why do we have the Emergency? That is a question that will have to be answered because this Emergency has not become emergency, but now it has become a permanent feature. The Army, as the Member of Nallur [M.Sivasithamparam] said is running amok. The officers individually may be good or bad. But when you let loose the Army, they will behave in the way that they normally behave. Excesses are committed, and people are humiliated. There had been a case where a young man had been hung head down, chilli powder put and smoked, as if they were smoking herrings. One of the young lads is a boy of Kerudavil, the ancestral village of the Hon.Minister of Justice [K.W.Devanayagam] and a good relation of his. He had been hung and had been burnt with a cigarette lighter on both sides of his face. This is happening every day and what have they achieved? They have not achieved the goodwill of the people. You as hon.Members must come to that part of the country and see what is happening there, because you have good relatives there too.

The two young boys who had come from Mannar were stopped at Sangupiddy. They were taken and thrashed. That was not all. Their male organs were put into a drawer and just dashed for half an hour.

G.V.Punchinilame: What happened?

K.Thurairatnam: We will try it on you. You are asking that silly question. If something like that happens to you, you ask your wife after that.

G.V.Punchinilame: It would have pained a lot.

K.Thurairatnam: I thought you were a responsible Member of Parliament. I am sure if you talk in this strain, you will not be here next time.

G.V.Punchinilame: Why are you so excited?

K.Thurairatnam: I am excited; you are inciting. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. We are bound to get excited sometimes when we see hon.Members of Parliament not understanding a problem and treating the whole thing as a joke.

This is happening every day. Once my son was going on a bicycle, and his tyre was deflated. I can bear testimony to that; I can vouch for the truth of it. Of course, when I brought that matter to the notice of the officers, they said: ‘We are sorry about it, some mistake must have happened.’ In spite of these good officers, every day more of them are roaming the streets in civils. These officers are not going to look after these men always. It is high time that the Government stopped this.

I had occasion to go to the Eastern  Province where there is no emergency. At Puleddiwatte a woman was throwing out blood. She had been assaulted. People in Kiran and Sandiveli areas had been assaulted by the army. Under what law, I know not. They are getting used to this. I do not know under what law of this land they are being let loose in those areas.

They are searching for a man called Kandapodi. In Chittandi a venerable old man was coming from his paddy field. He is a big paddy owner. Whether he was scantily clad or fully clad, I do not know. They asked him ‘Who are you’? He said, ‘I am Kandapodi’. They said, ‘So, you are Kandapodi’ and landed one or two shots with the butt of the rifle. Somebody said, ‘No, you are looking for some other Kandapodi. This old man’s name is also Kandapodi’. Yet they hit him with the butt of the rifle. This is happening in the area of the Hon.Minister of Justice. I will cite an example. In the Mandur Temple area they have run amok. When we let loose these men like this even in the Pasikuda area, we may not get tourists any more. Let us be alert.

I say these men of the armed forces are getting used to certain things they have not been used to before the 1970s. Let me warn hon.Members of this House. We are not going to be here very long. A Mustapha Kemal Pasha will come around one of these days and say: ‘My dear friends, look out. Vote like this, because the Army headquarters is here, Echelon barracks is here, the police headquarters is here; otherwise you go to Welikada [prison] or you will be taken to Galle Face and shot dead.’

Do not discount what is happening now in the African countries. We will have it if they get used to this. Do not be content that they are being let loose only in the Jaffna and Batticaloa districts. Why are they not respecting law and order? After the 1971 insurgency they have got used to certain things. They care a hang for civil authority.

Now, I find certain army officers are going to be given the powers of Assistant Government Agents. If that be true, that is very good. Like the blind boy, what is this being called freedom, I know not. Freedom does not mean anything to me as it does to you, Gentlemen, who enjoy more freedom than I do. But remember this; all these freedoms will be long lost. We will not, like the moving finger, having moved, ever reap. It will be another Pakistan, or Bangladesh or what not.

Let us be very clear in our own minds. What is being sown will be reaped (Interruption). I do not take him seriously. He has come with the wind and he will be swept along with the whirlwind. In the name of democracy, I am telling yo: Let us be very careful in the used of Armed Forces. As my hon.friend, the Member for Nallur (M.Sivasithamparam) said, political problems need political solutions. We have to solve these problems, but we cannot solve them with the use of the Armed Forces or the Police Force as such. Please do not get used to this. Let not the Sinhalese people suffer more than we do. I am requesting in the name of democracy that these things ought to stop. Please do not extend the Emergency, and see that law and order is restored.

Thurairatnam’s Speech for a Supplementary Allocation of Pali Text Society in 1979

[Courtesy: ‘Sri Lanka Parliamentary Debates’, Nov.8,1979, vol.6, no.12, columns 1600-1602]

K.Thurairatnam: Mr.Deputy Speaker, I do not know what the hon.Member for Mihintale (Dayaratne Walagambahu) was saying all this time.

R.P.Wijesiri: He said you are willing to become a priest.

K.Thurairatnam: It has often been misunderstood that Buddhist means Sinhalese and Sinhalese means Buddhist. It is not so. Actually the people who brought Buddhism to Ceylon were from Tamilnadu in the Nagapatanam area. That has been a transit area for the Buddhists. One of the five great epics is the Buddhist work called ‘Manimegalai’. There had been inscriptions in South India; ‘Eela Kudimahan Gopaalayan intha padukkai vedduvitthaan’ [in Tamil]. South India had been the cradle of Buddhism until it was brought to Sri Lanka. (Interruption). The whole of South India was Buddhist at one time.

It should not mean that whenever someone finds a Buddhist ruin, that there has been a Sinhala colony there; definitely not. The Tamils were the people who took Buddhism to Cambodia. In Indonesia, the famous Borobudur is really a Tamil name. The biggest Hindu temples are found in Cambodia and not in India. (Interruption) That man does not know.

G.V.Punchinilame: Sir, he must withdraw the word ‘man’.

K.Thurairatnam: I am sorry, Sir. I have been a teacher and I have sometimes to teach these people who do not know anything. Tamil inscriptions have been discovered even in South China. Another Tamil inscription of the 14th century has been discovered in New Zealand. We had expanded upto that point. We have spread Buddhism. (Interruption) Sir, they are the remnants of those whom we left down South. I know both of them. The hon.Member for Chilaw (Mr.Harindra Corea) and the hon.Member for Panadura (Dr.Neville Fernando); their very names and their social group depict from what origin they are. They are really like the foxes who have lost their tails.

I wish to say that we are never anti-Buddhist. Buddhism is a great religion. It is one of the greatest  teachings of the whole world. I once had occasion to be in Berlin with a team of people and they were very well-versed in Buddhism. I was shocked because they know more Buddhism than our Buddhists. They knew of the Hinayana, Mahayana and the Theravada sects. They were well-versed and they discussed many things – much to my surprise.

I did Buddhist history as a student about 30 years ago and my knowledge now is somewhat rusty; but I could say that they knew very much more than I did. One of our delegates said, ‘Perhaps you may be the people who will have to re-introduce Buddhism to Ceylon because it is not practised here.’ Let us follow the four Noble truths. They are sorrow, the cause of sorrow, the cessation of sorrow and the way to the cessation of sorrow. Let us preach it first to the Buddhists before we take it to Jaffna.