The heading of this article is inspired by the title of Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”. That novel was set in the eventful Prague spring period of the then undivided Czechoslovakia. This article is about an octogenarian Tamil political leader who tries to cling on to power selfishly without stepping down gracefully.
The party leader I am referring to is Somasundaram Senathirajah known popularly as “Maavai” Senathirajah and/or Maavai. Until 27 January 2024, Senathirajah was the President of the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK) known as the Federal Party (FP) in English. Senathirajah however continues to act as the party president in a business as usual fashion.
The ITAK was the chief constituent of the political configuration known as the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) till 2022. The ITAK/FP is the only Sri Lankan Tamil political party that has Parliamentary representatives from all five electoral districts in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. In spite of the “primus Inter Pares” (first among equals) position it enjoys, the party has in recent times become a laughing stock. Senathirajah’s selfish conduct has contributed greatly to this state of affairs.
Maavai Senathiraja has served as a national list aMP for a total of five years. Furthermore he has been an elected MP from Jaffna district for 20 years. Thus Maavai Senathirajah born on 27 October 1942 has been a Parliamentarian for 25 years. Senathirajah has also been ITAK Party President for nearly 10 years from 2014 to 2024. Prior to that he was ITAK General Secretary.
It has been a tradition for ITAK party presidents not to remain in office for more than two successive terms. When veteran Trincomalee MP Rajavarothayam Sampanthan became ITAK president in 2010, he served for two terms of two years each and relinquished office voluntarily in 2014. Maavai who was the ITAK General Secretary during Sampanthan’s tenure, succeeded him as President in 2014.
Although Senathirajah was expected to cease holding office as ITAK President in 2018 after serving two successive terms, he did not relinquish the presidency from 2014 to 2024. He is the only person to have been ITAK President continuously for 10 years. Even the party’s chief co-founder and venerated leader S.J.V. Chelvanayagam did not hold ITAK presidential office for that many years.
It was “by hook or by crook” methods that Maavai remained as ITAK President for nearly a decade. A new party president is elected by the ITAK’s General Council (Podhuch Chabhai) and Central Working Committee (Mathiya Seyal Kuzhu) at the party’s general convention. The convention is usually held biennially but Maavai after being elected president at the 2014 Convention, held the next one only in 2019. After being re-elected in 2019, Maavai again managed to keep postponing the Convention for another five years till 2024.
When the Convention was scheduled for January 2024, it became apparent that there would be an inner-party election for the ITAK presidency. This was a first for the party as it had always avoided intra-party elections by adopting the consensus method to elect a president. There was fear – much of it valid – in ITAK circles, that a keenly contested election may fragment the party.
Maavai exploited these fears by suggesting indirectly that the Convention could be postponed indefinitely while he remains as a protem party chief. There were few takers for this suggestion in the party as most members wanted an end to Senathirajah’s reign. Hence the ITAK Presidential election was held on 21 January as scheduled. Siagnanam Shritharan defeated his fellow Jaffna district MP Mathiaparanan Abraham Sumanthiran with a majority of 47 votes and was elected ITAK president.
Thereafter a new Central Working Committee and fresh party office-bearers were to be elected on 27 January. On 28 January, the new President was to take over from the old president ceremonially at a public meeting. The new office bearers including the general secretary were also to be introduced.
In terms of the ITAK party Constitution, the outgoing President ceases to hold office from the time the Central Working Committee is re-constituted. The President elect becomes the new President automatically. The formal handing over the following day was merely a symbolically ceremonial event.
However there was trouble within the ITAK on 27 January. Initially Shritharan reached out to Sumanthiran leading to both working together. The 50 member Central Working Committee was re-constituted. Thereafter the party’s new office bearers for 2024-26 were finalised.
These included the key post of General Secretary. The final list of 16 office bearers was endorsed by the Central Working Committee. Subsequently the list was presented as a resolution to the General Council. The new president Shritharan’s proposal was seconded by Committee member Peter Ilanchezhiyan. It was accepted unanimously. Consequently the General Council also endorsed it after some discussion.
A practice followed by the ITAK has been for the key party posts of President and Secretary to be shared by both the North and East. If the President was from the Northern Province the Secretary would be from the Eastern Province and vice versa. Since Shritharan was a northerner, the secretary had to be an easterner. One of Shritharan’s close supporters, former Batticaloa MP Gnanamuthu Srinesan had been eyeing the post. However Shritharan persuaded him to let the ITAK Trincomalee district chairman Shanmugam Kugathasan become Secretary. Srinesan agreed.
When the party session resumed after lunch, there appeared to be a change of heart. Srinesan said his well-wishers wanted him to be the secretary and therefore he could not accept Kugathasan as secretary. Since Kugathasan was incorrectly perceived as a Sumanthiran loyalist, several other Shritharan supporters also criticised Kugathasan and said they would not accept him as secy.
Since the entire list of office-bearers including the General Secretary had been endorsed earlier by both the Central Working Committee and General Council, it was decided to put it to the vote. Both the outgoing President Senathirajah and the new president Shritharan asked Sumanthiran to conduct the “election”.
Sumanthiran got the people to vote in favour or against by raising hands. The “ayes” and the “nays” were counted row by row. While Sumanthiran did the counting of hands, a strong Shritharan supporter Naavalan also did a count separately. The figures compiled by Sumanthiran and Navalan tallied.
The final result was 112 in favour of the list of office bearers including Secretary Shanmugam Kugathasan. 104 voted against. Thus it was confirmed that Kugathasan was the new ITAK General Secretary. Thereafter the meeting concluded. The ITAK Convention was to be held the next day. The new President, Secretary and other office bearers were to accept office ceremonially before the public.
As the ITAK members began dispersing a group of ITAK general council members accosted Senathirajah and said they cannot accept Kugathasan as secy. They demanded a new election and said the party convention should not take place as scheduled on 28 January.
Senathirajah then acted “strangely”. Without consulting the ITAK President Shritharan, the ex-president Maavai made an official announcement that the ITAK Convention scheduled for the next day was to be postponed indefinitely. He said that there was a dispute over the secretary post and a new election would be held soon. The Convention would be held only after that.
It appeared that “Maavai” was labouring under the illusion that he was yet the party president. He seemed to think that Shritharan would officially take over only at the convention. Hence by postponing the Convention, Senathirajah thought his term of office was being further extended.
Shritharan and Sumanthiran
Shritharan and Sumanthiran met Senathirajah on 28 January. At that meeting Sumanthiran who is a President’s Counsel informed Senathirajah of the real position in terms of the ITAK party constitution. Sumanthiran pointed out that Senathirajah had ceased to be president after the Central Working Committee meeting on 27 January. Shritharan was now the President regardless of whether the Convention was to be held or not. Hence the unilateral postponement of the Convention by Senathirajah was not valid.
Sumanthiran also emphasised that the election of Kugathasan as General Secretary was valid in fact and law. The Central Working Committee had endorsed it unanimously. The General Council had accepted it unanimously. Thereafter it had been put to the vote also and carried with 112 voting in favour and 104 against. Therefore it was not correct for Senathirajah to have postponed the convention on the pretext that a new Secretary had to be elected.
Senathirajah disagreed. Maavai took up the position that he was still the party president. He said that he was going to Singapore for his son’s wedding and would be back in Sri Lanka on 10 February. He would re-convene a general council meeting after his return and resolve the issue. Shritharan was amenable to Maavai’s suggestion. He was under pressure from his supporters backing Srinesan.
Sumanthiran then said that Senathirajah’s suggestion was contrary to the ITAK party constitution. Senathirajah then retorted “We don’t have to always work according to the party constitution”. Sumanthiran responded that violating the party constitution was unacceptable and could have legal consequences. Senathirajah with tacit support from Shritharan disregarded Sumanthiran’s advice and went off to Singapore.
Subsequently Sumanthiran wrote a detailed letter to Shritharan explaining the legal position about the ITAK party president and General Secretary. He emphasised that Shritharan was now the president and that he should take over ceremonially as soon as possible. The letter was released to the media. Sumanthiran also gave a TV interview to “Thamilan” newspaper editor R. Sivarajaj. In the interview telecast over the “Netrikkann” channel, Sumanthiran explained in great detail the legal position regarding disputed ITAK party matters.
Anyone with basic linguistic proficiency in Tamil and a modicum of common sense who read Sumanthiran’s letter and viewed his TV Interview would understand the current legal position regarding the election of ITAK’s president and secretary. But Maavai Senathirajah seems to have rushed into areas where angels fear to tread. He is under the delusion that the secretary dispute would enable him to continue as president for a longer period. Given Senathirajah’s burning desire to retain power as long as possible, his conduct though deplorable was understandable.
What Senathirajah does not seem to have grasped or realised is the potential legal consequences of his unilateral decision. Usurping the ITAK party president’s powers and duties when he is no longer the legitimate president is not a simple matter. Worse still is the attitude of being ready, able and willing to violate the ITAK party constitution.
One does not wish to speculate too much at this juncture, but if the matter goes to court, Senathirajah could be placed in an unenviable position. Already the party has suffered much financial loss due to the sudden postponement of the convention. There is every chance that Senathirajah may be held liable to make good the loss and damage caused by his unlawful postponement of the convention without authority. Furthermore the entire party election including that of the president may be declared null and void.
This again is mainly due to president Senathirajah. When the Presidential election was held on 21 January, Senathirajah was yet the party President. He misused his authority to appoint 18 more members to the Central Working Committee. This was against the party constitution but Senathirajah who does not believe in adhering to constitutional norms, simply bulldozed his way through.
Among those illegitimately appointed by Senathirajah were his own son Kalaiamudhan and his mother in law Sashikala Raviraj. Sahikala is the widow of slain Jaffna district MP Nadarajah Raviraj. Kalaiamudhan is married to their daughter Praviina.
This union between the son and daughter of two former Jaffna district MPs has led to accusations of nepotism against Senathirajah. His detractors have accused him of promoting his son in a bid to set up a new political dynasty. Kalaiamudhan was elected as member of the Valigamam North Divisional Council. Attempts to make him the council chairman were thwarted. Another bid to make Kalaiamudhan the head of the ITAK youth front was also foiled. Both Senathirajah and Sashikala contested the 2020 polls and failed to get elected. Interestingly Kalaiamudhan has a street named after him in Valigamam north.
There are numerous instances of Senathirajah’s selfishness in politics. One of them was ganging up with “Udhayan” newspaper Saravanabavan at the 2020 election and working against fellow candidates of the ITAK. Senathirajah has often betrayed his own party ITAK’s interests by collaborating with other Tamil parties. In a chequered political career Senathirajah has had no lasting friends or enemies but only lasting interests of a selfish nature.
Maavai’s track record
The track record of Maavai Senathirajah in the ITAK is of two parts. The first part corresponds to the early period of his life. Senathirajah the youth activist participated in many protests, underwent imprisonment for political reasons and made considerable sacrifices. His life especially while being self-exiled in India was a tremendous struggle in more ways than one. I have witnessed this first-hand.
The second part of his life is different. This Senathirajah is not the idealist of yore. This is a calculating, selfish politico who is determined to remain on top and is prepared to do anything for it. From demanding the national list MP position in the aftermath of Amirthalingam’s assassination to the disgusting attempt to become national list MP after his electoral defeat in 2020, Senathirajah has displayed a selfish greed for political office.
This gives rise to the question as to why the party and party members allow Maavai to get away with it? Why do they bear this unbearable selfishness? The answer is due to his past. Those who remember the younger Senathirajah whose life was a struggle full of sacrifices are reluctant to condemn or criticise him. They continue to be sympathetic to him, thinking of his past despite what he is at present. This writer too is one who has had a soft corner for “Senathi Annai” until it was unbearable.
Somasundaram Senathirajah hails from the northern village of Maaviddapuram falling under the Valigamam North Pradeshiya Sabha and/or the Thellippalai AGA division area. Under the earlier first pass the post winner electoral system, Maviddapuram formed part of the Kankesanthurai (KKS) constituency. The most famous landmark of Maaviddapuram is the historic temple dedicated to Lord Muruga known as the Maaviddapuram Kandaswamy temple.
There is a tendency in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka to shorten in common usage the names of Tamil places with comparatively longer names. In Tamil Nadu, Coimbatore is known as Koavai, Thanjavoor as Thanjai and Tirunelveli as Nellai, etc. In Jaffna, places like Karaveddy, Neervaeli and Oorkaavatthurai are referred to as “Karavai, Neervai and Kaavaloor” respectively. Likewise Maaviddapuram is referred in short as “Maavai”.
Senathirajah has the prefix “Maavai” attached to his name as he is from Maavai/Maviddapuram. Next to the Kandaswamy deity known as “Maavvaik Kanthan”, Senathirajah known as “Maavai” Senathirajah is perhaps the most well-known representative of Maviddapuram. Many address him simply as “Senathi”, “Maavai” or “Maavai Anna” (elder brother Maavai).
I have known “Maavai” Senathirajah for over 50 years. I first became familiar with him as a GCE (AL) student at Jaffna College, Vaddukkoddai in the early seventies of the previous century. I did not interact with him personally then. Senathirajah the six-footer strapper cut a dashing figure then. The long haired Senathi would tie a thin ribbon around his forehead then and stride with his chest thrust forward.
Tamil youth activist
Those were the days of much student and youth unrest in Jaffna during the United Front Government of Sirima Bandaranaike. There were many hartals, boycotts, protest marches, processions, black flag demonstrations, fasts, etc. in that period and Senathirajah was in the forefront as a prominent Tamil youth activist then.
Senathi was among the 42 youth leaders arrested and detained without trial for years in that period. The trio comprising Namasivayam Anandavinayagam alias “Vannai Ananthan”, Kathamuthu Sivananthan alias “Kasi Anandan” and Somasundaram Senathirajah alias “Maavai” Senathirajah detained for years as political prisoners were inspiring Tamil heroes to many politically conscious Tamil students and youths in those days. Maavai Senathirajah in the past has spent nearly seven years of his life in eight different prisons as a political prisoner.
In later years I became a journalist and came across Maavai Senathirajah the rising star of Tamil politics in a personal as well as professional capacity. I was first introduced to him in Colombo when I had joined the “Virakesari” as a cub reporter in 1977 by my close friend and one-time political activist “Mandoor” Mahendran who passed away a few years ago. Since then I have met him at different times in different places such as Jaffna, Mannar, Colombo, Batticaloa, Chennai and Toronto. I have watched Senathirajah’s evolution and growth as a Tamil political leader over the years. Besides like Senathirajah, my wife too is from Maaviddapuram.
It is against this backdrop therefore that I urge Maavai Senathirajah to do what is right and to do it fast. It is time to let go of the reins of the ITAK willingly. A new generation of potential leaders has emerged. Senior stalwarts like Senathirajah should take a backseat and keenly observe the course chartered by those at the helm, proffering advice if and when called upon to do so. Senathi Annai’s swansong should be sweet and not bitter!
(The writer can be reached at