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S. Ganesalingan: Marxist to the core

Print edition : December 31, 2021

S. Ganesalingan , with his book ‘Kumaran Thoguppu’, in Chennai in 2007. Photo: N. Sridharan

Festschrift brought out on the occasion of Ganesalingan’s 75th birthday.

S. Ganesalingan (1928-2021), the Sri Lankan Tamil writer whose works largely had as the setting the years of the Eelam struggle, looked at developments in a Marxist perspective.

In the 1990s, it was common for leading Sri Lankan political leaders to meet with senior journalists of The Hindu Group of Publications while in or transiting Chennai. Political parties in Tamil Nadu were yet to pronounce a ban on Sinhala political leaders moving about in the city, and many used the opportunity to understand the Sri Lankan Tamil nationalist question from a Tamil Nadu perspective.

Journalists watching Sri Lanka were also part of such conversations and exchanges. On one occasion, after a seasoned and genteel Sri Lankan politician spoke at length about the situation in Sri Lanka and how complicated the question of granting Federal powers to the Tamils in the Northern Province was, S. Ganesalingan, the Chennai-based Sri Lankan Tamil writer who wrote his fiction and non-fiction largely from a Marxian perspective, wanted to know if the Sinhala majority would, at any point of time, meet the Sri Lankan Tamils’ demands and solve the long-festering ethnic crisis in the island nation.

The reply was cryptic: “Which Tamils’ rights are you talking about? Vellala Tamils?” [It was fashionable for Sinhala politicians to point to the Vellalar–non-Vellalar divide among the northern Tamils. Vellalars were better educated, socio-economically advanced, and held all important positions in the community. The Vellalar-dominated Tamil political parties rarely took up non-Vellalar issues.]

This correspondent, who was present during the conversation, noted that Ganesalingan merely smiled and looked away. He did not want to say anything further. Later, he explained to this correspondent that he was simply trying to figure out from an erudite and reasonable Sinhala politician as to where he stood on the question of granting political rights to ethnic Tamils. “He is as clear as every other Sinhala politician is,” Ganesalingan said. “No [Sri Lankan Sinhala] politician will be in a position to concede this demand.”

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Ganesalingan, whose works were largely based on the tumultuous years of the Eelam struggle and the political factors leading up to the crisis and who was instrumental in ushering in a new wave of Tamil writing in the 1950s, died in Chennai on December 4. He was 93. N. Ram, his long-time friend and The Hindu Group’s former Editor in Chief, notes in a tribute to Ganesalingan when he turned 75: “He became ‘our man’ at The Hindu on Sri Lankan Tamil affairs, an impressive resource of experience, knowledge and contacts in a fast-developing situation. We consulted him on the various Tamil groups, militants as well as moderates…. He took the broad and long view and looked at events, trends and developments in a Marxist perspective.”

Ganesalingan was able to judge events and issues on their merits because he had friends across class and ethnic divides in Sri Lanka, and was an influential member of the civil society. The main reason behind his ability to see the big picture of Sri Lankan politics and the direction in which the country was headed was his understanding of issues as a Marxist, not as a chauvinist. Said Ram, now Director, The Hindu Group of Publications: “He was pulled in by two things—the sufferings of the Tamils and his virtual certainty that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [LTTE] would never settle for a solution within the structure of a united Sri Lanka.” Ganesalingan’s writings reflected these dilemmas and the problems that they threw up.

Ganesalingan’s hopes, like those of much of Tamil civil society, rose and fell as he lived through the 1983 pogrom, the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, which was supposed to usher in peace and stability in northern Sri Lanka, the 2002 peace process, and the rout of the Liberation Tigers in 2009. Asked if Ganesalingan was ever hopeful of a solution through these periods, Ram said: “His feelings went up and down about this. On the one hand, he had no sympathy for Tamil extremists, especially the violent group.... While he had no sympathy with them, no connection with them or anything like that, he knew Uma Maheswaran [of the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam, or PLOTE] well. There was a time when Uma Maheswaran appeared to be promising; and more reasonable.”

It was the 1990s, which was “a sort of yo-yo period of ups and downs—he would find something, some update, some of it was optimistic, even over-optimistic, so we would have differences on how to interpret whatever information and inputs were received. That was much of the conversation,” Ram said. But the end result was always the same: an extinguishing of hope.

Understanding LTTE’s goal

It was also a time when militant groups tried to obfuscate their true strengths. In fact, a lot of Sinhala politicians, diplomats and others in Colombo thought that Uma Maheswaran’s PLOTE was the main group. Said Ram: “They were broadcasting a radio from a boat or so, so there was an overestimation of PLOTE. I don’t think Ganesalingan overestimated it, but he had hoped that they would come to reasonable agreement, and Tamils would get a good deal. I don’t think he ever believed in Tamil Eelam. I noticed that when the war was going on at that time his hopes rose and fell. But one thing that Ganesalingan and I knew—in fact Ganesalingan knew earlier than I did—was that the LTTE would never settle for anything within a united Sri Lanka. Even on the basis of high grade autonomy. Even if the Tamils got high grade autonomy within the framework of Sri Lanka on Federal lines, Ganesalingan would say that [Velupillai] Prabakaran would never settle for this. He knew some of the LTTE cadres very well.”

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Unlike other militant groups, the LTTE was uncompromising in its violent pursuit of Tamil Eelam. Ganesalingan was clear that the LTTE would settle for nothing less than an independent country. Ram said he too agreed with this view after he met LTTE supremo Prabakaran in August 1987. Asked why this understanding (of a writer who had close contacts with various sections of people, and of a seasoned observer of Sri Lankan politics) did not matter at the time, Ram said: “I remember, after that a number of Indian High Commissioners in Sri Lanka and a number of high officials used to pass through Chennai and come and meet me, and they continued to nurse the hope or the illusion that the LTTE would settle. I think the LTTE played a very clever game at that time. They would send some emissary—some low-level LTTE representatives—to keep in touch with senior politicians, and these people were very proud of these contacts. [Sri Lankan President] Chandrika Kumaratunga’s constitutional proposals were much better and provided the best chance for people and dignity. Ganesalingan, I think, understood that. But then it was shot down by both the Sinhalese political system and the LTTE.”

The knowledge that the LTTE would settle for no compromise solution was in the back of Ganesalingan’s mind when he wrote some of his fiction and non-fiction. He had seen first-hand the suffering of Tamils and the atrocities perpetrated against them. There was no middle path to choose. He was critical of the Sri Lankan Sinhalese chauvinism and the state’s militaristic ways, and, on the other hand, the LTTE’s violent attacks on other civilians.

After 2009, did he share the despondency of the Tamil society that all was lost? According to Ram, Ganesalingan “did not continue to feel dejected or depressed. He was realistic. I think he accepted it with some equanimity the new situation. I think the whole scenario changed for him as for everybody else, because in the new situation what you could get was quite different [than what was on the table earlier].”

Even with a provincial council election, there was no scope for a Federal set-up because the powers of provinces are limited. “So, I think the expectations were scaled down. He did not continue to be dejected because he had so many other interests, ideological and political. He moved on and kept writing. He had the gift of moving on,” Ram added.

One of the early influences on Ganesalingan’s life—like hundreds of youth of his time—was Mahatma Gandhi. Soon after Gandhi’s assassination on January 30, 1948, Ganesalingan organised a meeting to condole the death and to condemn the assassination. “The Mahatma’s body is being consigned to flames along the banks of the Yamuna as I speak here,” he said at the meeting, according to Vareeda A. Haq and Vijita Sivabalan, who wrote a piece in a festschrift brought out on the occasion of his 75th birthday. On the very same day that he delivered this speech, Ganesalingan formed the ‘Mahatma Congress’ in Jaffna. Using this forum, he fought for the principles Gandhi had espoused. Despite his many problems, he organised several public meetings to take forward Gandhi’s vision.

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Ganesalingan even organised a mass protest in front of a temple to prevent velvi (a fire ritual) in which animals were sacrificed. “Even though this protest ended in failure, it was clear that Ganesalingan would fight social evils, regardless of the outcome,” the article notes.

Student of Marxism

Though it was usual for people to travel from revolutionary ideas of class struggle and equity to those of universal brotherhood and peace (Gandhi), in Ganesalingan’s case the trajectory was just the reverse—from Gandhi to Marx. It was his friendship with ‘Communist Karthikeyan’ in Jaffna that made him a student of Marxism. Of particular interest for him were Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, Louis Althusser’s ideological state apparatuses—thinkers who connected Marx’s theories to later-day capitalism—and Theodor W. Adorno’s social theory .

He kept himself abreast of critical Marxian theory by subscribing to periodicals such as New Left Review, and interpreted this for an audience in Tamil. More importantly, he made dialectical materialism and historical materialism accessible to the lay reader. He wrote this in the form of letters to his son and two daughters—in the manner of Jawaharlal Nehru’s letters to his daughter, Indira Gandhi.

There was a stream of opinion among Tamil writers that his literary works were propagandistic. He would say that the main purpose of his writing was to convey his ideas on topics ranging from globalisation to politics to the readers. It was his practice to introduce and discuss these ideas in his elaborate introduction to his novels, setting the tone of the story to come. A case in point is his novel Thamarai–Arivum Muranpadum (Knowledge and Contradiction). In the introduction he quotes Mao Zedong’s thought on two types of contradictons: antagonistic and non-antagonistic.

Another of Ganesalingan’s passion was publishing. Apart from being a novelist and writer, he made efforts to make sure that Tamil works of eminent persons such as Kailasapathy and Sivathambi were published to a large audience. In fact, Kailasapathy, with whom he shared a deep bond, wrote the introduction to his 1966 work Sevvaanam, which was considered a revolutionary novel at the time. His two other novels, Porkkolam and Mannum Makkalum, were banned from publication in Sri Lanka. “For us, it seems like his rich descriptive language and content of the books created fear [in the minds of rulers] not just in Jaffna, but also in Tamil Nadu,” one of the writers said.

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Ganesalingan was a prolific writer and took off for a fortnight every year to Kodaikanal to write a book. In all, he wrote 71 novels, brought out seven short story anthologies, eight children’s books and published 22 collected essays. Among the essays was a comparative study of Thirukkural and Arthasastra, and of the Bhagavad Gita and Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Ganesalingan shifted to Chennai following threats to his life in 1983, when the ethnic cleansing of Tamils was taking place. In Colombo, where he was living in 1983, a highly educated Sinhalese family gave him sanctuary. His family stayed on in that house for several days until the danger passed. After this harrowing incident e decided to shift to Chennai. Until a little before the COVID-induced lockdown, he worked out of Frontline’s office in The Hindu’s headquarters in Chennai.

Ganesalingan was born on March 9, 1928, in Urumparai in north Jaffna. He went to Parameshwara College (which later became the Jaffna University), was given a double promotion for his dedication to studies, and entered the government service in 1949. According to his contemporary and friend N. Bhavan, they were “two of only a handful selected by the all-island examination held every May”. For a person like Ganesalingan, who came from an impoverished family and had an indifferent education in a village school, winning the coveted prize of a job in government service was a major achievement.” Ganesalingan served in Colombo and Trincomallee before retiring from the Treasury in 1981.

He is survived by his son, Kumaran, and daughters, Kundhavi and Manvizhi.

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