A Sri Lanka Air Force helicopter scattered jasmine blossoms on the cortege of Savumyamoorthy Thondaman, the son of a humble plantation worker who made the long trek from South India to Sri Lanka’s hilly tea country in search of the crock of gold at the end of the eternal rainbow. Karuppiah “Head Kangany”, Thondaman’s father, did make his fortune, eventually buying the British-owned estate where he had once laboured. But never would he have dreamt that 76 years after he brought Thondaman to Ceylon, as the country was then known, his son’s remains would be cremated at the Independence Square in a state funeral.
It was amidst controversy (to which he was never a stranger) that Thondaman made his final journey to his pyre on 3 November. Sri Lanka’s armed forces were taking an unprecedented battering from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) in the northeastern Wanni region, and the use of a military helicopter to honour the departed leader at a time the army was under siege, infuriated many Sinhalese who did not mince their words. To them, Thondaman was a shrewdly-cunning politician who used his leverage on the estate (Indian) Tamil vote to make and break Sinhala-majority governments.
Shrewd he was, cunning he might have been. But it was all for the cause of emancipating a backward people who seemed doomed to pluck tea and tap rubber on the thottams (plots), generation after generation. For over 50 years, Thondaman was the leader of the Indian or estate community, most of whose members were workers in the tea and rubber plantations. As head of the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), the country’s numerically-strongest trade union (dominated by Indian Tamils), he had been able to deliver a dominant share of their votes to both the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which have alternated in office in Independent Sri Lanka. At various times, he served as a Member of Parliament, both elected and appointed, and in the last 22 years of his life, he held important cabinet office in the governments of J.R. Jayewardene, R. Premadasa, D.B. Wijetunge and Chandrika Kumaratunga.
Thondaman took the rail ferry across the Palk Strait from South India to Ceylon at age 11 and came by train to Gampola, a plantation town above Kandy, where his father proudly met him in his recently acquired Austin tourer. The boy who had never been in a car all his life, was promptly sick and threw up in the vehicle. As he told his biographer: “My father scolded me saying ‘I have just bought this car from the dorai (master) and see what you have done.’ The car was stopped and instantly washed.”
Karuppiah was as remarkable a man as Thondaman was to be. Coming to Sri Lanka as an ordinary labourer, he rose to be head kangany and labour contractor, providing workers for Wavendon Estate at Ramboda in the Nuwara Eliya district. Entrepreneurial and thrifty, he was able to amass a fortune and buy out the British owners. Efficiently managing the plantation with minimum overheads and branching out into other areas of business like supplies and transport for the estates, he was able to leave his son a wealthy man.
Thondaman learnt the ropes from his father the hard way. He went on to say later in life that he would never be permitted to go to sleep at night until the books were balanced with every cent properly accounted for. “Even if I was one cent out, either plus or minus, I had to reconcile it. No going to sleep before that was done.”
Wealthy he was, but most Indian Tamils in the pre-independence days had very little social position, being regarded as the coolie class. Thondaman entered Ceylon’s first Parliament in 1947 as an elected MP of the Ceylon Indian Congress. That was possible at that time because many of the estate workers of the day had the vote. But they were soon to be disenfranchised after that first election. The indigenous Kandyan Sinhalese vociferously urged that an alien people, settled as indentured labour in their ancestral lands by the early British planters, had now outnumbered them and prevented them from even electing their own representatives to parliament. The fact that those elected by the Plantation Tamils, as they were also known, backed the already-strong Left movement in the country sealed their fate. The Indian Tamils were quickly disenfranchised in 1948. (A small number of them who could prove long residence were granted citizenship the same year, but their numbers were not enough to elect one of their own.)
Two more general elections passed before Thondaman tried to re-enter Parliament. But he was, as always, courted by the two major Sinhala parties who wanted him to deliver the estate Tamil vote to them. He ran from Nuwara Eliya in March 1960 but failed to get elected. In July the same year, he was given one of the six nominated places to the House to represent an “unrepresented interest” by prime minister Sirima Bandaranaike, whose SLFP was backed by those of his people who had votes.
In October 1964, Bandaranaike entered into the historic Sirima-Shastri agreement with Indian prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. Under this agreement, India was to grant citizenship to 525,000 “stateless” people of Indian origin living in Sri Lanka and their natural increases, while Sri Lanka was to absorb 300,000 and their progeny. The fate of the balance 150,000 was to be decided later. But Thondaman was not consulted. He was not even permitted to go to New Delhi at the time to make his representations.
He did not forget that. In 1964, Bandaranaike was toppled in a parliamentary coup by a single vote when several of her ministers and MPs defected. Thondaman who was her nominated MP chose not to vote. Had he cast his vote in Bandaranaike’s favour, the voting would have ended in a tie and the government saved by the speaker’s casting vote. He then supported the UNP at the elections of 1965 and returned to Parliament as a nominated MP. His metier as a maker and breaker of governments was getting to be more visible than when he was just the deliveryman of the estate Tamil votes.
The UNP was routed by Bandaranaike in 1970 and Thondaman’s place as nominated MP representing the Indian Tamils went to his arch rival, Abdul Aziz. But seven years later, he was back, this time as an elected MP backing the UNP in an electoral wave that decimated Bandaranaike’s SLFP. He was made a cabinet minister in 1977 and remained a powerful minister till his death.
In those years he used his political and trade-union muscle to serve his people who had long been the most deprived; he secured Sri Lankan citizenship for tens of thousands of his community who had remained stateless even after the Sirima-Shastri Pact, and the subsequent Indira-Sirima Pact of 1974 when each country agreed to absorb 75,000 of them and their natural increases. His other achievements included equalising the wages of men and women working on the plantations. The women tea pluckers were being paid less than their menfolk, as the latter was perceived to be doing the “heavier” work like pruning and weeding.
The ebony-complexioned Thondaman, who usually wore white khaddar, succeeded in doing what he did from within government because he entered both the UNP and the SLFP cabinets on the strict understanding that he was entitled to an independent role in matters affecting his people. Thus he led crippling strikes countrywide while sitting as a cabinet minister with the same aplomb with which he played tennis in a planter’s club upcountry, where once while he was playing, thousands of his union members were out demanding the removal of the very superintendent who was his opponent on the court!