Late leader Kumar Ponnambalam, also well known as G.G. Ponnambalam Junior (1938-2000), would have been 84 years old tomorrow (12 August 2022). This tribute to his memory is pivotal since he has played an substantially important role in the historically unresolved ethnic politics to be settled with respectable and acceptable, enhanced power sharing up to the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil speaking people of this country. Alas, that vociferous volcanic voice of Tamils from two decades back is no more. Yes, it has been twenty-two years since a life was snatched away at the dawn of 2000; the first martyr of this millennium. That was my great late leader Kumar Ponnambalam, the son of late statesman G.G. Ponnambalam, acknowledged leader of Tamils of the post-independence transitional era.
I admired Kumar’s stature, charisma and unique clarity of thinking. He addresses everyone with due respect and has a high sense of humour. He always behaved in a highly refined and civilised manner up to his education and wisdom. So much so he that had never been hesitant to express his apology; saying “I’m sorry” whenever he was wrong. That was Kumar, a leader I admired.
Two millennia of pride and independence the Tamils cherished was manifest in Kumar. His courage was indomitable. There were many situations that demanded his role. His wisdom and his skills as a lawyer were readily available to serve his community. He proved this in practice on various occasions. Among various PTA cases, voir-dire inquiries, the Kokkaddi Cholai murder, the Pungudutheevu murder, Krishanthi rape and murder and the exhuming of the Chemmani graves. These were few emotional cases that he handled as a counsel looking after the interest of the affected parties. Kumar stressed for a second autopsy report for an expert opinion from a Forensic Medical Expert which was granted to prove his point. I see a vacuum of such courage from the affected party in handling Nimalaruban’s murder at the hands of jailors a month back which received justification for another autopsy. Perhaps the poor parents wanted the body as priority.
1981 Development Councils Elections
In the 1981 Development Councils (DC) Elections we contested for a mandate from North-East Tamils to reject the DCs as it was not a viable political solution. Ultimately, the Jaffna Library was set ablaze by a handful of UNPers and Sinhalese Policemen in civvies. Late Cyril Mathew, Gamini Dissanayake and Ganeshalingam of the UNP high command were around Jaffna city on that fateful day.
1989 General Election
During the 1989 General Election, in spite of India’s insistence for all Tamil parties to contest under the “Rising sun” symbol of the TULF, Kumar as Leader and General Secretary of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) refused to follow the orders of then Indian envoy to Sri Lanka K.N. Dixit,and contested Jaffna District alone as a Registered Party. Vinayagamoorthy, Mohtilal Nehru PC and I too contested from the ACTC list.
Kumar’s dreams and his far-sighted political aspirations were taking shape during that time. But later, after the abrogation of the Ceasefire Agreement, the North-East crisis swinging into a full-scale war.
Good friends among Sinhala intellectuals
Kumar dedicated his life to the Tamil cause but his vision differed from others. He expected a transparent political scenario and did not believe in behind-the-scene deals. He did not believe in political gimmicks and mincing words for self-centred politics because he did not depend on political power for his bread and butter. Kumar had been a good friend of very many elite Sinhalese families, professionals and business classes. His every weekly articles in the English newspapers enlightened the Sinhalese intellectuals and moderates to understand the legitimate aspirations of the Tamils.
Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake, Anura Bandaranayake, the current President and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had been good friends although they had different opinions. It was with Kumar that I visited all these leaders. They understood and behaved with a sense of “unity in diversity”.Though they couldn’t comply with each other’s opinion all the time, they had their utmost priority to safeguard freedom of speech. That was the beauty of it.
Kumar always had a soft corner for “Ranil”as a good sincere friend who listened to his diverging political opinion beyond communal psyche. Perhaps Wickremesinghe demonstrated this by setting hands-on the Ceasefire Agreement. I had been with Kumar at various meetings with Athulathmudali, Dissanayake et al with President J.R. Jayewardene. We attended three All Party Conferences (APCs). Finally Kumar was so fed up, Nehru, myself and Vinayagamoorthy, who was not an MP at that time, started attending President Premadasa’s meetings. A.C.S. Hameed used to chair the APC meetings hence he opened odd topics like Second House Senate.
Kumar’s legacy for a political settlement
He had two primary concerns in furthering the Tamil cause. Firstly, he believed that a respectable solution could be worked on the basis of the Thimpu Principles: a four-point formula agreed upon by all Tamil parties inclusive of the LTTE. There was a strong reason behind this for the Tamil Congress and Kumar to reiterate and emphasise. Kumar believed that the insistence of the recognition of the Thimpu Principles would expose the true position of the Sinhala leadership whether they genuinely recognized the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people in principle. “If the basic principle is accepted by the Sinhala nation sincerely this will facilitate the subsequent stages of peace process,” he said. Secondly, he realised that other Tamil parties at the time were largely interested in achieving narrow political gains. But it was well known that Kumar was convinced that the LTTE was the only organisation that was dedicated towards fighting for the legitimate aspirations of the Tamils.
Kumar felt that if there was no such struggle, the South would never consider meaningful power devolution or a peace process to solve the Tamil question. It was no secret that Kumar as an individual openly supported the LTTE’s political ideology. However, Kumar hated violence but was convinced that historically, the South had failed to accept alternative solutions and had been deceiving Tamil leaders.
Yes, Kumar’s pragmatic visions are the writings we see on the wall now. It was because of this political belief and also because of the role he played as a human rights activist, in openly challenging the Government’s policies with regard to the Tamils, which he met with his tragic death. As an activist, he addressed the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva in 1997 and 1999, and the European Parliament in Brussels in 1998. His campaign reached the zenith and gave him international recognition. Canadian Tamils recognised him as a courageous Tamil leader. The Tamil world realised his world of popularity only after his assassination.
His involvement in the Krishanthi Kumarasamy rape and murder case and the Chemmani mass graves, to mention a few, brought to light the atrocities committed by some elements of the armed forces.
It was during President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s first term that Kumar had to appear for innocent Tamil youths who suffered at the hands of the security forces. I can remember that on one occasion Kumar made a midnight visit to stop the Police bulldozing a Tamil house in Wellawatte. If he was called to safeguard the Tamils’ rights even at midnight, he had the blessed extra courage of Lord Krishna.
It was with much dedication that Kumar worked with Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Anura Bandaranaike to bring out the Democratic People’s Alliance (DPA) manifesto, which called for greater devolution of power, at the 1988-89 elections and campaigned tirelessly for Bandaranaike. What is important to note is that back then an undergraduate named Patali Champika Ranawaka, the present Hela Urumaya Minister,got his hands on this document. Srimavo called Anura and Kumar as his ‘Sudu Puththa’ and ’Kalu Putha’ respectively. Kumar took Anura to meet the LTTE and always stood for a respectable political solution. With Bandaranaike’s defeat and the rejection of the DPA manifesto, he was convinced that the South would not offer an acceptable solution to the ethnic question.
I had attended several APCs with Kumar representing the ACTC – and now with Mano Ganesan representing the DPF we can see that history is repeating itself. As Kumar believed there would not be a southern consensus in bringing about an acceptable and legitimate solution to the ethnic turmoil. During APRC sessions, its Chairman Prof. Tissa Vitharana laboured hard to bring out something substantial. Prof Vitharana always assured us that, “this is not to hoodwink you all”. Ultimately, an acceptable solution to all parties at the APRC was formulated. As a sincere chairman we must congratulate Prof. Vitharana. At least we have put out a good document. The Government assured a resolution through APRC but did not utter even an iota of an idea about the report.
“Mr Ponnambalam was never afraid to speak out…”
Speaking in London, Member of the European Parliament Robert Evans said, “I considered Kumar Ponnambalam a friend of mine. I had met him several times and visited him only a few months ago in his house in Colombo. I am devastated that he should have died in this way. Mr Ponnambalam was never afraid to speak out and was always conscious of the safety of others. His personal courage was such that he knew he would always be a possible target but his concern was always for other people. This was especially so when I went to his home. Kumar was also a realist. He knew from years of personal experience that the freedom struggle of the Tamil people could not rely solely on the democratic process. He was also prepared to point a finger of blame for atrocities at the Sri Lankan military and the Sri Lankan Government. Above all he recognised, like me, that the only lasting solution to the war would come from discussion and dialogue between the two parties to the conflict with international mediation.”
My late leader, Kumar, had never been an MP or a local councillor, yet he was a mighty man who challenged the governments of the day. I have heard that the pen is mightier than sword. We witnessed this in Kumar’s pen. The power of his pen and the volleys of truth it fired were so devastating that they led to his death.
Kumar’s demise has created a real vacuum in Tamil politics. A sincere soul never sleeps in slumber, is the Almighty’s creation.
(The writer Dr. Kumaraguruparan had been the former General Secretary of ACTC after the assassination of Kumar Ponnambalam and one of the Four Signatories to form the TNA).