1960 – 1974
It is virtually impossible to set a date for the genesis of Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka…
The failure of the 1961 “satyagraha” set several (Federal Party) leading lights thinking. Mahatma Gandhi, they argued, succeeded in India with his concept of non-violence and non-cooperation because he was leading a majority against a minority, however powerful; whereas in Sri Lanka, the Tamils were a minority seeking rights from a majority. And the majority was not willing to give concessions.
Some of 20 men associated with the Federal Party thought Gandhism had no place in such a scenario. They decided after the prolonged deliberations to form an underground group to fight for a separate state. Most of them were civil servants and had been influenced by Leon Uris Exodus. At a meeting in Colombo, they christened their group Pulip Padai ( Army of Tigers).
On August 12, 1961, the Pulip Padai members converged at the historic Koneswaran Temple in the eastern port town of Trincomalee and, standing in its holy precincts facing the sea took a solemn oath to fight for a Tamil homeland.
Pulip Padai immediately got into the act, putting out leaflets and pamphlets printed clandestinely, advocating militancy. A student wing called the Manavar Manram ( students council) was set up in 1963. Two Federal Party leaders the Pulip Padai strongly backed were Amirthalingam and V.Navaratnam ( Chavakachcheri MP).
The 1965 decision of the Federal Party to support the UNP government broke up the Pulip Padai and it eventually withered away. But many of its activists remained strongly committed to the concept of an independent nation.
Two of them were A.Rajaratnam and K.Sivagnanasundaram. Rajaratnam died in 1975 in Madras of asthma.( Rajaratnam was awarded a gold medal posthumously by Pirabaharan at a Jaffna public meeting after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Indian investigators believe that Dhanu, the woman who acted as the human bomb to kill Gandhi was Rajaratnam’s daughter). Sivagnanasundaram became the staunch supporter of the LTTE. He was killed in Jaffna in 1988 by the EPRLF.
In 1969, Thangathurai and Kuttimuni and a few friends gathered in Jaffna to form an informal group that the former wanted to name the Tamil Liberation Organisation (TLO).
A college Prof’s house at Point Pedro, in Jaffna, was a regular meeting point for the group. It included among others Periya (big) Sothi, Chinna (small) Sothi, Chetti, Kannadi ( a radio mechanic), Sri Sabaratnam (TELO leader) and V.Pirabaharan (LTTE supremo). One man who drifted by but broke away to chart an independent course was Ponnudorai Sivakumaran, who was to become one of the first martyrs to the Tamil cause.
In April, 1971, Thangathurai, known as mama ( uncle) and some 15 others were making explosives at the Thondamanar high school when a bomb went off, seriously injuring Chinna Sothi. The next year, a similar blast occurred, causing burn injuries to Thangathurai, Chinna Sothi, Pirabaharan and V.Nadesuthasan.
Earlier, in 1970, Ponnudorai Satyaseelan founded the Tamil Manavar Peravai ( Tamil Students League), which was joined by Sivakumaran. Bandaranaike had in the meanwhile begun to take a hard line towards Tamils, cutting off foreign exchange for Tamil students going to India for higher studies, banning the import of Tamil films, books and Magazines from Tamil Nadu, and proscribing the small Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party in Jaffna.
Sivakumaran attempted to assassinate Sri Lankan deputy minister for Cultural Affairs Somaweera Chandrasiri in Sept 1970 and Alfred Duraiyappah, the Jaffna Mayor, in Feb 1971.
The formation of TUF in 1972 led to the Tamil Elaingyar Peravai (TYL, Tamil Youth League) in January 1973. It was founded by some 40 youths, many of whom subsequently were in the forefront militant movement. The TYL drew support from Thangathurai, the TLO leader.
Satyaseelan’s arrest in Feb 1973 set off the second round of mass arrests in Jaffna and virtually crippled the TYL as well as the older Tamil Students League.
Several young men languished in prison until 1977, although some gained amnesty on the eve of the Kankesanthurai by-election in 1975.
By then two developments had occurred in the Indian subcontinent which had a bearing on the Tamils. One was the JVP insurrection which was stamped out. The second was the India Pakistan war which led to the birth of Bangladesh. Both events took place in 1971. The JVP was NEVER popular among Tamils, although it did have marginal support in Jaffna.
In 1973, the Sri Lankan navy seized a boat belonging to Kuttimuni filled with dynamite. Kuttimuni fled to India, but was arrested and deported from Tamil Nadu to face a Sri Lankan prison sentence. Tamil Nadu was then governed by M.Karunanithi’s DMK party.
Jaffna witnessed its first case of death by cyanide poisoning the next year. Sivakumaran had been lying low for a while, but took an active interest in the 1974 International Tamil Conference in Jaffna. He had been influenced by his parents’ pro-Federal Party views. He studied at Urumpirai Hindu College- which was to several recruits to the Eealm campaign- up to the advanced level, majoring in Chemistry. He is the ONLY one among the Tamils of that era who is remembered fondly even today by everyone.
He was a very sensitive person. He believed that despite the need for militancy, the Federal Party was important and often compared Chelvanayagam with Mahatma Gandhi and the boys with Subash Chandra Bose. He was a restless character. He would discuss all night, emphasising the need for an armed struggle.
Since breaking off from Thangathurai, Sivakumaran had set up his group, which came to be known as the Sivakumaran’s group. The 1972 and 1973 mass arrests had slowed down his pace. His contemporaries say he was a shattered man after the Tamil Conference fiasco. He had worked for its success, and it pained him that nine people died for no fault of theirs. Since then he had passionately advocated vengeance against Duraiyappah, the Mayor, and a Sinhalese police officer he held responsible for the deaths.
On June 5, 1974, Sivakumaran was trapped by the police while attempting a bank robbery in Jaffna’s Kopai town. He was 17 yrs of age and knowing about police torture if he were caught, housed to carry a cyanide pill. On that day he swallowed it without so much as an afterthought and died almost instantly. Thus was born Sri Lanka’s cyanide culture.
Hundreds thronged Sivakumaran’s funeral. All shops in Jaffna downed their shutters in mourning and hundreds of pamphlets were distributed in the town and its outskirts, eulogising the martyr as Eelam’s Bhagat Singh. At the funeral, several TYL members slashed their fingers and with the blood that dripped placed dots on their foreheads, pledging collectively to continue the fight for an independent state. Tamils later put up a bronze statue outside Jaffna in the memory of the young man-it showed a defiant youth, his clinched fist outstretched and dangling a broken chain.