The return of the exile

Print edition : January 30, 1999

Varadaraja Perumal returns to Sri Lanka from India. Will he be able to bring about a qualitative change in Sri Lanka's Tamil Politics?

D. B. S. JEYARAJ

ANNAMALAI VARADARAJA PERUMAL, former Chief Minister of Sri Lanka's North-Eastern Province, is now in Colombo. According to sources in his political party, the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), Perumal has left his family behind in Ajmer, Rajasthan for the time being and is engaged in a "fact-finding mission" in Sri Lanka. Although the current election campaign in the North-Western Province is the central focus of the island's media, the return of Varadaraja Perumal has not failed to evoke speculation in political circles. Various theories are afloat regarding the motives behind his return at this juncture. Perumal, along with his wife Gowri, three daughters and sister-in-law, has been living in India in a state of self-exile since 1990.

Curiously enough, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was seemingly ignorant about Perumal. A news agency report states that Kadirgamar had queried from a group of Indian journalists: "Who is this Varadaraja Perumal?" Although Kadirgamar, a late entrant into active politics, was nowhere on the political scene when Perumal was in the limelight, it is indeed strange that a person of his stature could have been in the dark about the one-time Chief Minister of the North-Eastern Province. While there may be differences of opinion about Perumal's politics, there can be no denying that he played a crucial role during an important phase of Sri Lanka's political evolution.

Varadaraja Perumal, the son of an Indian Tamil father and a Jaffna Tamil mother, is another colourful personality thrown up by the political struggle of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. An ardent activist of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) from his student days, Perumal was one of the 42 Tamil youths who were detained for years without trial by the United Front Government led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike, President Chandrika Kumaratunga's mother. Perumal graduated from Jaffna University with distinction and went on to become a lecturer in economics there. He was arrested and imprisoned in the early 1980s for his connections with the EPRLF.

Escaping to India in the aftermath of the Batticaloa jail break of September 1983, Perumal became involved in EPRLF politics in Chennai and was at one stage its spokesperson. Perumal was also an EPRLF delegate at the Colombo Government's talks with Tamil groups in Thimphu, Bhutan, in 1985. Interestingly, he was at one point in the forefront of the EPRLF's anti-India wing; he subsequently revised his stance.

It is to his credit that Perumal took the bold step of accepting the office of Chief Minister in the newly set-up North-Eastern Council. The leadership qualities he displayed at the time, though controversial, were commendable. Had he not taken the plunge and become the pioneering Chief Minister under very difficult circumstances, all the positive gains of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord may not have accrued to Sri Lankan Tamils. Today the North-Eastern Council is defunct but the administrative structures put in place under that Council, particularly after the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, continue to exist.

Perumal's tenure as Chief Minister between December 1988 and March 1990 was quite unenviable. On the one hand, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) considered him a traitor to the Tamil cause and began targeting him. The Tigers also sabotaged all efforts by the North-Eastern Council to address the day-to-day problems of Tamils.

On the other hand, Sinhala hawks, including former President R. Premadasa, depicted Perumal as an Indian puppet. There was marked hostility towards Perumal and the North-Eastern Council on the part of the southern political establishment and bureaucracy. All attempts at meaningful devolution under the Provincial Council scheme were stymied.

Caught between the devil and the deep sea, Perumal found himself ineffective. Moreover, the conflict between the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) and the LTTE was continuing, causing hardship to the people of the North-Eastern Province. Matters came to a head when Premadasa struck a deal of sorts with the LTTE and demanded the withdrawal of the IPKF. In a last-ditch stand, Perumal raised the Civilian Volunteer Force, also known as the Tamil National Army, to resist the LTTE while the IPKF was de-inducting itself in stages. It was a futile effort.

Varadaraja Perumal, the former Chief Minister of Sri Lanka's North-Eastern Province. A 1990 photo.-

A beleaguered Perumal called it a day in March 1990 and left Trincomalee with the last of the Indian soldiers. Before doing so he dropped a bombshell by getting the North-Eastern Council to declare unilaterally an "intention" to promulgate Tamil Eelam if certain conditions were not met by Colombo. Premadasa used the "unilateral declaration" by the Council as an excuse for its dissolution.

Soon the truce between Premadasa and the LTTE broke and full-scale war erupted. Perumal sought refuge in India. After living for a while in Madhya Pradesh, Perumal relocated in Rajasthan where he has been living for several years under Indian protection and benevolence. He remains a prime target of the Tigers. Yet, whenever he had an opportunity to interact with the media, Perumal evinced a desire to return from self-exile and serve his people again. There were very few takers for this as most people did not believe that Perumal would return to Sri Lanka leaving behind the comforts in his new home.

Now he has proved the sceptics wrong. The important question, however, is whether Perumal has a meaningful role to play in the politics of the island nation at this stage. It is also important to ascertain what he himself perceives his role to be. Sources in the EPRLF in Colombo told this writer that Perumal had been systematically meeting several functionaries of the organisation in Sri Lanka. These include cadres from both the North and the East, in addition to those resident in Colombo. He is also meeting other politicians on both sides of the ethnic divide. Former Speaker of the North-Eastern Provincial Council Ram Rajakarier is in charge of his political itinerary. Cadres of the EPRLF from Batticaloa are in charge of his security.

According to informed circles, Perumal's primary purpose in returning is to strengthen the EPRLF politically. The party that ruled the North-Eastern Province and held more than 10 seats in Parliament at one time is now practically in the doldrums. It has no representation in Parliament. Its performance in the local authority elections in Jaffna was not impressive compared to that of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP), the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and the TULF. The leadership provided by its current secretary-general, Suresh Premachandran, has been found wanting and there are many dissatisfied elements. Rightly or wrongly, there is a widespread feeling among EPRLF members in Sri Lanka and abroad that Varadaraja Perumal has got what it takes to revitalise the party.

IN his meetings with EPRLF members Perumal has been stating that he has a three-pronged strategy. First, he would strive to persuade the Kumaratunga Government to establish an interim administration for the North-Eastern Province to oversee and coordinate rehabilitation and development activity. Secondly, he would help promote the devolution package of the Government as a political settlement after suitable modifications. Thirdly, he would pursue actively political activity against the LTTE and try to wean the Tamil people away from the Tigers. Perumal reportedly struck a responsive chord among EPRLF cadres when he said that he was confident that both the Sri Lankan and Indian governments would support his endeavours in this regard.

Independent political observers too see an opening for the EPRLF in general and Varadaraja Perumal in particular in the political sphere. The EPRLF is one Tamil party that maintained close links with the People's Alliance (P.A.) prior to and during the 1994 elections. It was unable to play a useful role in the P.A. Government because of the poor showing it had at the polls. But the P.A., however, has not found any Tamil party to support it to the hilt. In that respect the EPRLF seems to be the only one that would offer it support unreservedly. With parliamentary and presidential elections due in the near future, the EPRLF may be the most convenient vehicle to promote the interests of the P.A. in the Tamil areas. In that sense Perumal would be ideal for this.

The only hitch is that Suresh Premachandran is not likely to relinquish his position in favour of Perumal. Any attempt by Perumal to regain leadership would necessitate a power struggle that may split and further weaken the party. Yet, if Perumal succeeds in gaining control of the party without much collateral damage he may be able to refurbish the EPRLF's image. Given the various factions within other Tamil parties, he may even be able to forge a larger and more comprehensive Tamil front in the future by drawing in disgruntled elements from these organisations. Also, Perumal is likely to get a shot in the arm if and when a Sonia Gandhi-led Congress(I) gains power in India.

There are, however, misgivings about Perumal's capabilities too. While his political acumen is not doubted, there is pessimism about his ability to inspire and lead both his party and the people to a brave new world. Judging by his track record, his inter-personal skills are not adequate for a major task of this nature. It is often said that Perumal lacks the diplomatic tact necessary to weld Tamil unity and garner popular support.

Perumal's supporters say that his long period of exile has enabled him to reflect on and rectify such flaws. Moreover, the past 10 years have led to great disillusionment among the Tamil people about the LTTE. With the wisdom of hindsight, there is a strong feeling that the best possible deal for the Tamils was under the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. There is much regret over a lost opportunity. This in turn has created a certain amount of appreciation for what Perumal did in the late 1980s. As such, a window of opportunity has been created for Perumal. Also, given the relatively sterile conditions of Tamil politics, Perumal's entry is sure to cause a flutter of activity.

There are two other factors that may affect the political fortunes of Perumal. The Sinhala hawks continue to see him as an "Indian puppet" and would be hostile to him. There would be a clamour for his arrest in connection with his so-called unilateral declaration of Eelam. The other is the LTTE, which would view Perumal's return as a defiant challenge. Therefore, the Tigers will place his elimination on top of their agenda. Both these factors are likely to constrain Perumal in the future.

It is likely that Perumal himself would go public with his plans after he familiarises himself with the intricacies of the situation. This is most likely to happen after the provincial council elections. It remains to be seen whether he will bring about a qualitative change in Tamil politics in the future. The return of the exile will, however, add sparkle to the contemporary political situation of Sri Lanka.

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