Life and times of dynamic Tamil leader Appapillai Amirthalingam

Wednesday, 26 August 2020 00:30 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Amirthalingam and Mangaiyarkkarasi


Today (26 August) is the 93rd birth anniversary of well-known Sri Lankan Tamil political leader Appapillai Amirthalingam, known affectionately as Amir and Amuthar. 

Amirthalingam served as a Parliamentarian for 20 years in an illustrious political career spanning four decades. He was a stalwart of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) known as the Federal Party and also the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). He was the ITAK MP for Vaddukkoddai from 1956 to 1970 and TULF MP for Kankesanthurai from 1977 to 1983. Amirthalingam, who was the Sri Lankan Leader of the Opposition in 1977-’83, was a TULF National List MP when he was brutally assassinated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on 13 July 1989.

Amirthalingam and Mangaiyarkkarasi 

Amirthalingam and his spouse Mangaiyarkkarasi were an inseparable duo in personal and public life. Mangaiyarkkarasi’s life was inextricably intertwined with that of her husband’s political career. One cannot write about him without mentioning her. Like Lord Shiva and his divine consort Paarvathy, Amirthalingam was “Shivam” and Mangaiyarkkarasi his “Shakthi”. 

There was a time when the political couple enjoyed the adulation and support of thousands of idealistic Tamil youths. Amirthalingam was “Amir Anna” (elder brother Amir) and Mangaiyarkkarasi “Mangai Akka” (elder sister Mangai) to them. It must be noted that Mangaiyarkkarasi Amirthalingam was a Tamil leader in her own right, being a popular speaker and singer. Her renditions of Tamil nationalist songs on political stages were well received by the crowds. She used to accompany her husband everywhere.

One recalls an incident in Paris when Amirthalingam and Mangaiyarkkarasi visited France in 1983. At a meeting held in the Tamil-infested area of La Chapelle in Paris, Amirthalingam was asked by a youth in Tamil, “Why do you go around everywhere with your wife? Why has she accompanied you to Paris?” Unperturbed, Amirthalingam responded smilingly, “What is wrong in going around with my own wife? It would be wrong only if I go everywhere with a woman other than my wife. Besides, my wife has accompanied me not only to places like Paris but also to the Panagoda Army Camp where we were both detained together.”

Amirthalingam’s reply brought the house down and the questioner was effectively silenced. Amirthalingam was referring to the time in 1961 when 74 ITAK Satyagrahis were detained at the Panagoda Army cantonment for six months by the Sirima Bandaranaike Government. Mangaiyarkkarasi was the solitary woman among the detenues then.

The names Amirthalingam and Mangaiyarkkarasi have been familiar to me from childhood. Amirthalingam was a contemporary of my father at Law College. There would be references to the Amirthalingams whenever Tamil politics was discussed at home. My personal interaction with the Amirthalingams began when I studied for my GCE Advanced Levels at Jaffna College (JC), Vaddukkoddai. I was then boarded at Howland Hostel in JC. Amirthalingam was not an MP then, having been defeated by A. Thiyagarajah of the Tamil Congress at the 1970 polls.

If and when Amirthalingam saw Jaffna College students at the Vaddukkoddai junction bus stand, he would always give them a lift or ride if there was room in the vehicle. Both his sons Kandeepan and Baheerathan were students at Jaffna College then. Some Jaffna College students also used to visit their home at Moolai frequently for impromptu meetings and discussions of a political nature.

Mrs. Amirthalingam would act as a gracious hostess in those days. She was particularly kind and generous to hostellers like myself who were looked upon compassionately as children deprived of food cooked by a mother. I was quite friendly with their sons Kandeepan and Baheerathan, though both were junior to me in school. In later years I began interacting with Amirthalingam in a professional capacity after I entered journalism. 

Amirthalingam was an important political contact and source I cultivated as a journalist working for newspapers like ‘Virakesari,’ ‘The Island’ and ‘The Hindu’. I used to meet Amirthalingam in Parliament and at his official residence near ‘Sravasti’. I also visited him at Moolai whenever I was in Jaffna. I have also met with him and interviewed him at the Tamil Nadu State guest house in Chepauk, Chennai where the Amirthalingams were accommodated after relocating to India post-July 1983. I also used to meet Amirthalingam at Empress Hotel and at the old Taprobane Hotel (Grand Oriental Hotel) when he came down to Colombo for talks with the Government. I left Sri Lanka in 1988 and was in Canada when Amirthalingam was killed in 1989. It is against this backdrop that I write about Amirthalingam, relying on input from some of my earlier articles.

Appapillai Amirthalingam


Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi

Amirthalingam was the son of Appapillai who worked in Malaysia as a station master in the British Railway. Amirthalingam, born on 26 August 1927, was a brilliant student and the first alumnus of Victoria College in Chulipuram to enter university. After completing his BA, Amirthalingam got admitted to Law College and passed out as an advocate. He was in his younger days an ardent disciple of the veteran Trotskyite Dr. N.M. Perera and was a staunch believer in the principle of ‘Scientific Socialism’ as the panacea for the nation’s ills.

Amirthalingam caught Tamil political leader S.J.V. Chelvanayagam’s eye when he wrote articles during his undergraduate days espousing federalism in the ‘Suthanthiran’ newspaper owned by Chelva. The dominant Tamil political party of the time, the All Ceylon Tamil Congress led by G.G. Ponnambalam split and in December 1949 a group of dissidents led by Chelvanayagam launched the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) known as Federal Party in English. Chelvanayagam wrote to Amirthalingam personally and invited him to join the new party. Amirthalingam did so and became a founder member of the ITAK. 

Amirthalingam plunged into FP politics with gusto and zeal. He was a powerful speaker in English and Tamil and earned the sobriquet “navalar” (orator) on account of that. Former ‘Daily Mirror’ Editor Reggie Michael once wrote of Appapillai Amirthalingam half jestingly as “a man who could both move crowds as well as be moved by crowds”. Amir was also an able deputy to his leader Chelvanayagam, who was of the Gandhian mould. 

Chelvanayagam suffering from Parkinson’s disease found himself becoming increasingly inactive physically and it was left to the younger Amirthalingam to labour incessantly for the party. He was dubbed “Thalapathy” or General because of this. The passage of time saw the old guard passing away and Amirthalingam was soon the political heir apparent to Chelvanayagam and donned the leadership mantle in due course. Amirthalingam held several party posts in the FP, being at different times its Secretary and President. In 1978, he became Secretary-General of the TULF and remained so, till the time of his death in 1989.

A fearless activist 

Amir was a fearless activist from his early political days, participating and leading many a non-violent form of protest. He was dubbed “Anjanenjan” (fearless hearted) Amirthalingam. Many were the black flag demonstrations, protest processions, satyagraha campaigns, fasts, civil disobedience activities, etc. that he was involved in. He was placed under house arrest on several occasions, the most notable being the 1961 incarceration at the Panagoda Army Camp with his wife Mangaiyarkkarasi. This was after the massive satyagraha campaign that paralysed all Government activity in the north-east. 

An interesting aspect of that campaign was Amirthalingam along with Tamil Congress MP Murugesu Sivasithamparam functioning as postmen for the ‘illegal’ postal service set up as part of a civil disobedience campaign.

Sinhala was enshrined as the sole Official Language of the country in 1956. The FP launched a protest Satyagraha campaign at Galle Face Green opposite the Parliament of old. Mobs of anti-social elements were unleashed on the peaceful satyagrahis while the police were ‘instructed’ not to interfere. Hundreds of Tamils including Amirthalingam were stoned, manhandled and assaulted. A bleeding and bandaged Amirthalingam entered and addressed Parliament in dramatic fashion on that day (5 June). S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike mocked Amir saying, “Wounds of war”. The irrepressible C. Suntharalingam retorted, “Honourable wounds of war.”

Amirthalingam first contested Parliament Elections from the Vaddukkoddai constituency in 1952. There were few takers for federalism then and Amirthalingam lost. The rising tide of Sinhala nationalism in the south saw the Tamil areas too responding on similar lines. The ITAK/FP became the dominant Tamil party in 1956 and remained so till 1976 when the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) was born. The ITAK was the chief constituent of the TULF then. Amirthalingam won the Vaddukkoddai seat in 1956, 1960 (March and July) and 1965. In 1970, he was defeated by A. Thiyagarajah of the ACTC in an upset result.

This defeat was greatly beneficial to Tamil nationalism. With M. Sivasithamparam of the Tamil Congress – who also lost his pocket borough of Udupiddy – Amirthalingam worked hard for Tamil unity during this 1970-’77 period. The Tamil United Front was formed in 1972. It became the Tamil United Liberation Front in 1976. The Tamil political demand changed from federalism to secession. Shortly after espousing separatism, Amirthalingam and three other Tamil leaders were arrested. They were charged under trial at bar proceedings without a jury before a three-judge bench.

Amirthalingam was the first accused and the trial was a milestone in political and legal history; 67 lawyers including six Queen’s Counsels marked their appearance for Amirthalingam while the Attorney General Shiva Pasupathy conducted the case for the State. The brilliant lawyer G.G. Ponnambalam (snr) obtained a landmark judgement that the provisions under which Amirthalingam was charged was ultra vires the Constitution. Another distinguished lawyer, Murugeysen Tiruchelvam, utilised the trial to present profound arguments emphasising Tamil sovereignty and right of self-determination.

First Tamil Leader of the Opposition

The TULF contested the 1977 elections on a separatist platform, seeking a mandate for setting up through non-violent means a sovereign, secular, socialist state of Tamil Eelam, comprising the Northern and Eastern Provinces of the island. It swept the polls in the north and to a lesser extent in the east. It won 18 of the 19 Tamil majority electorates but failed to win any Muslim majority seats. Chelvanayagam had passed away and Amirthalingam contested in his mentor’s stronghold Kankesanthurai instead of his own, Vaddukkoddai. He won in a landslide, polling 31,000 plus votes with a 26,000 plus majority.

The United National Party (UNP) with 141 out of 168 Parliamentary seats routed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) that won only eight seats. The TULF with 18 seats was the largest Opposition party and Amirthalingam became the first Tamil Leader of the Opposition. This was a unique phenomenon because the Leader of a party wanting to secede was now Opposition Leader who under normal circumstances would have been the head of a government in waiting or alternate government. Amirthalingam however used the Opposition Leader post to promote and internationalise the Tamil cause.

This led to much controversy and in 1981 the ruling UNP Parliamentarians presented and debated a no-confidence motion against the Leader of the Opposition. On another occasion the notorious Tamil baiter Cyril Mathew achieved an all-time low in Parliamentary conduct by making a critical speech of Amirthalingam of a personal nature violating all forms of decency. 

Amir however made his mark in that Parliament. His critique of the 1978 Constitution saw the then speaker Anandatissa de Alwis sending a note saying he was privileged to listen to such a great speech. On another occasion it was left to Amirthalingam and Sivasithamparam to gallantly escort Sirima Bandaranaike out of the chamber amid a frenzied outburst by the Treasury benches against the former Premier who had been deprived of her civic rights by the Legislature on that day.

A friend of India

Amirthalingam, like most Sri Lankan Tamil moderates, was a firm friend of India. Many of them yearned for Indian help in resolving the Tamil national question on the island. In 1972, Amirthalingam and spouse Mangaiyarkkarasi accompanied the septuagenarian Chelvanayagam on an Indian tour. That tour elicited sympathy but not support for the Tamil cause from Indian leaders.

Amirthalingam maintained cordial relations with Indian leaders at both national and Tamil Nadu State level. This did not deter him in speaking his mind out when the occasion required it. In 1978, visiting Prime Minister Morarji Desai was dismissive of the Tamil cause. Amir did not take it lying down and responded emotionally but coherently, thereby moderating Desai’s subsequent stance considerably. 

In 1981, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran spoke disparagingly of the Sri Lankan Tamil problem at the international Tamil research conference in Madurai. Amirthalingam contradicted him respectfully and de-constructed most of MGR’s arguments. Amir also appreciated geopolitical realities and went on record on more than one occasion that the Tamils would not allow Trincomalee to fall into any hands posing a threat to India.

The 1983 July anti-Tamil pogrom and the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution disavowing separatism saw the TULF boycotting Parliament and thereby forfeiting their seats. The J.R. Jayewardene regime refused to talk directly to the TULF and so India offered its good offices to mediate a settlement. Several TULF leaders including Amirthalingam relocated to India. Amirthalingam won heaps of praise from then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for his statesmanlike approach.

An anecdote Amirthalingam was fond of recalling was about his being invited by Indira Gandhi for an Independence Day reception at New Delhi on 15 August. She had requested Amirthalingam to come 20 minutes late for it. The usually punctual Amir obliged. When Amir entered, Indira Gandhi created a spectacle by walking across the hall to greet him. Thereafter, she personally introduced him to the galaxy of distinguished guests present. Later Indira was to tell Amir that she stage-managed his entrance so that maximum attention could be focussed on the Tamil predicament.

The years 1983 to 1989 saw Amirthalingam enjoying Tamil Nadu State hospitality by staying at the Chepauk State guest house. He utilised his stay in India to cultivate political leaders representing various shades of opinion, Government officials and opinion makers. A leading Indian Editor once opined to this writer that his opinion of Tamil nationalism altered because of his interaction with Amirthalingam. The Editor had been disillusioned by the votaries of Tamil Nadu Dravidian ideology and had a negative image of those professing Tamil nationalism. “It was only after meeting Amirthalingam that I realised Tamil nationalists could be reasonable and sensible,” he said.

Amirthalingam and the TULF were very cooperative with Indian efforts to resolve the Sri Lankan ethnic crisis. This was nothing new as the Tamil moderates in Sri Lanka had never spurned an opportunity to negotiate a political settlement. Although the political demands and consequent agitation were maximalist, the democratic Tamil leaders were never reluctant to accept compromises that were far short of their original demands. The regional councils under S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, district councils under Dudley Senanayake and the district development councils under J.R. Jayewardene being worthy examples. An important Tamil grievance in the past (and even now) has been that successive Sinhala governments failed to honour such agreements and arrangements.

With India willing to mediate and guarantee a settlement, TULF leaders like Amirthalingam were elated and saw a way out of the morass. So the TULF under Amirthalingam participated in discussions with both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi and also their various representatives like G. Parthasarathy, Romesh Bhandari, P. Chidambaram, K. Natwar Singh, J.N. Dixit, etc. They also undertook various trips to Sri Lanka to attend all party conferences as well as direct talks with the Government. The TULF also took up a common position with five other Tamil militant groups at the Thimpu talks in 1985. In 1987, the TULF welcomed the Indo-Lanka Accord albeit with some reservations.

The TULF however decided to cooperate fully with India to make the accord a success. The party along with other militant groups contested the 1989 elections under the TULF symbol of the sun. Amirthalingam left Jaffna and contested in the eastern Batticaloa District but lost under the Proportionate Representation system. The TULF, however, was entitled to an additional seat under the National List on the basis of votes polled. Amirthalingam became a nominated National List MP and entered Parliament again after a six-year absence.


His resurgent Parliamentary career was short-lived. Three LTTE cadres; Visu, Aloysius and Anbu came to meet Amirthalingam, Sivasithamparam and former Jaffna MP Yogeswaran at their Colombo residence in Bullers Lane. The ostensible purpose was to discuss Tamil unity.

They were not checked by the security personnel on instructions by Yogeswaran as the LTTE members had said they felt humiliated when being checked. After partaking of biscuits and tea, the Tigers whipped out pistols and shot Amirthalingam and Yogeswaran at point blank range. Sivasithamparam survived miraculously with a shoulder wound. All three assassins were shot dead by the security men.

Thus ended the saga of a man who fought relentlessly through democratic means for the upliftment of his people. Sadly, he was killed not by Sinhala racist fanatics who hated his guts but by his own people belonging to a movement claiming to represent the Tamil people. The reaction of Sirima Bandaranaike upon hearing of the circumstances leading to Amirthalingam’s death summed up the tragic pathos. “Thank God no Sinhala person did it,” she reportedly stated to former ‘The Sunday Leader’ Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge when he informed her about Amir’s murder.

More than three decades have passed since Amirthalingam died. The force of his personality and the importance of the constructive role he played remain etched in the collective memory of those privileged to have known and interacted with him. Such was his stature that the void caused by his murder is yet to be filled. This writer on the occasion of Appapillai Amirthalingam’s 93rd birth anniversary pays appreciative tribute to the memory of a man whose only fault was that he loved his people and hazarded all types of risks to serve them.

(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at [email protected])


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