Thursday, Jun 06, 2002
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By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
The veteran Sri Lankan Tamil political moderate, Murugesu Sivasithamparam, died peacefully after a brief illness in the Colombo National Hospital at 1-50 a.m. on June 5. The ailing leader had been admitted to hospital four days ago and had been pronounced out of danger two days later. Born in 1923, the 79-year-old lawyer would have reached 80 on July 20.
Known affectionately as "our Siva" or "Em Siva" in Tamil on account of his initial "M", he was president of Sri Lanka' s largest democratic Tamil party, the Tamil United Liberation Front. A legislator for about 18 years, Sivasithamparam was also a former Deputy Speaker of Parliament. He was the senior most Tamil parliamentarian, having been nominated last year on the national list.
Sivasithamparam was a towering personality in the political landscape of the island. A well-built six footer with a stentorian voice, the mercurial M. Siva was for more than four decades an accredited leader of his people. The brilliant lawyer was a powerful orator and ebullient debater who cut a flamboyant figure at the height of his career.
He was of aristocratic lineage being the scion of a "maniagar" or hereditary chieftain in charge of a revenue division during the colonial days. The younger Sivasithamparam, however, was enamoured of marxism and a card-carrying communist party member in his undergraduate days. He dropped out of university and took to law becoming an advocate. He also abandoned communism and took up the cause of Tamil nationalism by joining the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress.
Siva contested the Point Pedro electorate in the Jaffna peninsula as an independent candidate in 1956 and lost. He was returned to Parliament for the first time in March 1960 winning the Udupiddy seat on the Tamil Congress ticket and repeated his performance in 1960 July too. He was then the sole representative of the party in a Parliament of 157 MPs.
Sivasithamparam won again in 1965 March and the Tamil Congress with three seats joined the national government of Dudley Senanayake. He served as Deputy Speaker of Parliament from 1967 to 1970 but lost his seat in 1970 to the Federal Party. It was an electoral upset as Sivasithamparam, known as "Udupiddy singham" or lion of Udupiddy, was regarded as unbeatable in his stronghold.
The turbulent Seventies saw the Tamil parties forming together the TULF in 1976 and contesting the 1977 elections on a separatist platform. The Udupiddy electorate had a substantial concentration of Dalits. Sivasithamparam moved out of the constituency to Nallur at the polls to enable a Dalit candidate to be fielded. He created history by recording the largest majority of 28,137 votes in the entire country in that election.
The TULF with 18 seats was the largest Opposition party in 1977.
Appapillai Amirthalingam and Murugesu Sivasithamparam became Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition respectively. Sivasithamparam became president and Amirthalingam secretary-general of the TULF in 1978.
The 1983 July violence resulted in a tragic upheaval for the Tamil minority. Thousands of families were affected and uprooted. Sivasithamparam's house and vehicle in Colombo too were burnt and his family members escaped death miraculously. They, along with many others, relocated to Tamil Nadu.
The former Chief Minister, M.G. Ramachandran, allocated a flat to the family. The TULF president had since remained a resident of Chennai although interspersed with long periods of absence for political work in Sri Lanka.
The TULF forfeited its Parliamentary seats by refusing to take the mandatory oath of allegiance to a unitary state as provided for by the hastily passed Sixth Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. It, however, welcomed the good offices of India and cooperated fully in the mediatory efforts undertaken by New Delhi. Sivasithamparam, along with his TULF colleagues, participated in all forms of India-sponsored negotiations, including the aborted talks in Bhutan in 1985. In 1987, the TULF accepted the Indo-Lanka accord and re-entered the political mainstream of the island.
Sivasithamparam contested the Jaffna and Wanni electoral districts in 1989 and 1994. He failed to gain representation in the polls conducted under the proportionate representation system. The TULF was actively involved in the peacemaking efforts of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Sivasithamparam himself played a commendable role in it. Ill-health in 1998 compelled him to return and stay continuously in Chennai till early this year. He did not contest the elections of 2000 and 2001.
The 2001 poll, however, saw four parties, including the TULF, forming the Tamil National Alliance and contesting. It won 14 seats and, on the basis of the votes received, was entitled to one nominated seat on a national basis. Sivasithamparam was the unanimous choice for the seat. Despite his failing health, the old warhorse returned to Colombo to become an MP again and played once again a role in the island's politics, albeit under changed circumstances.
In 1961, he participated in the massive satyagraha campaign launched by the Tamils in Jaffna and, along with Amirthalingam, functioned as postmen on bicycles in the dramatic attempt of conducting an independent postal service as part of the civil disobedience movement.
He was also lathicharged by police and hospitalised. Later, he was placed under house arrest at the Panagoda detention camp.
Sivasithamparam survived with injuries an assassination attempt by the LTTE in 1989. Amirthalingam and Yogeswaran, TULF leaders, were killed in the incident. He was shot in the chest and underwent a long stint in hospital. Despite the incident and a number of other LTTE attacks, the TULF established cordial political relations with the Tigers and accepted their overall leadership.
He was born to patrician wealth and acquired much prosperity as a successful lawyer. Yet, he sacrificed almost everything in politics and at the time of death, he was reduced to much deprivation. What mattered most to him was the restoration of Tamil rights and the achievement of political equality. It was that goal which drove him on despite his ailing health.
Sivasithamparam was a devout Saivaite and lifelong vegan. He was incorruptible and a paragon of virtue in every sense of the phrase with not a whiff of scandal about him ever. Few of his ilk are in Sri Lankan politics today and his loss would be sorely felt.
Like many Tamil politicians of his vintage, Sivasithamparam believed in the creed of Gandhian non-violence and participated in many protest demonstrations over the years. It could be truly said that with his demise an exemplary manifestation of Tamil politics is no more. He leaves his wife, son and daughter and their families. His son-in-law is an Indian national.
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