We are comfortable living with the majority community

Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) General Secretary Arumugam Thondaman, in an interview with Daily Mirror, spoke about the current political environment and his plans to contest the elections. Following are excerpts of the interview done with Thondaman.

How do you view the current political environment as the head of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC)?
Everybody is getting ready for the local authorities’ election. There are different groups. There are alliances already formed or being formed. This is going to be a very interesting election.

Why do you say it is going to be very interesting?
The elections have been postponed over and over again. Finally, it has been declared. You will be able to see who is really popular in the country. That is why I said it is going to be an interesting election.

As far as the upcountry Tamil community is concerned, how did the postponement of elections affect its members?
The postponement of elections affected not only the plantion areas, but also other areas. There were no local bodies functioning. You noticed the aggravation of Dengue problems, garbage problems etc. If there were local bodies functioning, they could have handled these issues professionally.

How severe was it in your areas?
It was very severe. If you look at the Hatton-Dickoya Urban Council area, it couldn’t dispose of garbage. Ultimately, I had to collect garbage and dump it in a land belonging to my party.

For the first time, a new political front called the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) has emerged as an alternative to the CWC in the estate sector. It is with the Government whereas you are in the opposition. How challenging is this to you?
There is no challenge to the CWC. The political front, which you mentioned, campaigned for two weeks in support of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and two weeks for President Maithripala Sirisena. At that time, there was a wave of public support in favour of President Sirisena. This alliance rode over it.

You represented the previous Government. People of Indian origin voted overwhelmingly against it. In your view what created that wave of public support against Rajapaksa?
That is because of Indian channels repeatedly showed the last stages of the war. That affected the mindset of the people. Plantation people mostly watch Indian channels. What was aired there affected mindsets of the people here.
Tamil Nadu TV channels have attracted our people more and more.

The Government maintains it delivered a lot to the people in the plantation sector. What is your view?
The Government has said so many things. Actually, nothing has happened on the ground. There are certain things happening for the sake of publicity. They talk about housing. If you send a team up here, you can see the way the houses are built, and whether they are suited for living. They said they delivered the sun and the moon. That is what we hear in the media.

How do you plan to contest the elections this time?
I always tell the truth when campaigning. I don’t blow anything out of proportion.

You have always been in the Government led by whatever party. For the first time, you have been in the opposition for a long time. It is said that some Tamil Ministers serving the Government blocked you from becoming a Minister in the present Government. How true is it?
I have never asked for a post. I also thought that I should learn how people think. I have been in the opposition for the past three years. I got an opportunity to learn how things happen on the ground. Earlier, with our positions, we used to only give orders. None can match the amount of work I did at that time. I am out of power. It’s a good opportunity for me to know who is who. This is good. I have more time to spend with people. We have helped so many people. Now we know who is who.

How do you compare and contrast the present Government with the past Government?
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa gave me a free hand. Before that, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga also gave me a free hand. When I was in the Government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in the past, I had freedom to work.

Earlier, with our positions, we used to only give orders. None can match the amount of work I did at that time. I am out of power. It’s a good opportunity for me to know who is who

How will you contest the elections this time?
I will contest under the CWC’s cockerel symbol in certain areas. In some areas, I will join hands with President Sirisena to contest with the UPFA. In Colombo, Vavuniya, Mulaituvu and Kalutara, we have an understanding with Prabha Ganeshan’s party to contest the elections.

Did you receive any invitation from former President Rajapaksa to jointly contest the elections?
I am always in touch with him. I am also in touch with the present President.

Did Rajapaksa request you to contest under the Flower Bud symbol this time?
No. He told me, “Thonda you learned a lesson during these two years. Now you have to reestablish yourself. You do what is right for you”. Both the former President and the current President told this to me. As you know, the CWC always works with the Head of State. My grandfather Saumyamurthy Thondaman also did the same as the founder leader of the party. Even for one day, I haven’t mentioned a minister’s post to the President. We don’t want a minister post to serve people. We have a big trade union well entrenched in the estate sector.

What are the new political dimensions of the plantation community?
Today, youngsters have come to the urban areas. They get influenced by the urban setup. Senior people know the background –how the trade union commenced, how much it contributed etc. Youngsters have shifted to urban areas. The moment they shift to urban areas, they have a different outlook. They have forgotten how the trade union commenced among other things. They think you can maintain a trade union only if you have political power. That is the latest trend. The CWC can stand alone with or without political power. For others to survive, they need some form of political power.

How are you planning to attract young voters again?
You would see it at the end of the elections. We should never reveal plans. After the elections, I will grant you a similar interview.

There is a big demand by Government Ministers Mano Ganeshan and others to create a couple of more local authorities in the Nuwara-Eliya District. How do you see it?
This wasn’t created by them. This was started in 1989 by my grandfather, S.B. Dissanayake and Renuka Herath. Due to some reason or other, it was put off. There was some opposition to it. There were so many negotiations later on.
But, the present lot in the Government should be credited for pushing it faster this time. Today, they have the political strength to push for things. I appreciate it.

One former local Government member of the Ambagamuwa Pradeshiya Sabha challenged the creation of a new local body, citing the entrance to Sripada as an objection. How do you look at it?
Sripada falls under the Sabaragamuwa Province. Only the entry point to the peak is within our area. For so many years, we have received Sripada processions. Both the communities go on pilgrimage to Kataragama. Both go to Thirupathi together. What is wrong with us respecting Sripada?
Only shallow minded people create problems. It is good if both the communities can participate in it. I don’t know why they get so jittery about it. If you ask the Chief Incumbent of Sripada, he would tell you I organised the function to mark the arrival of Sripada procession grander. We respect it. We go there for blessings as well.

In making the new Constitution, what are your proposals to ensure the political rights of Tamils of Indian origin?
Our thinking is that we are Sri Lankans. All are equal. We are a minority in certain areas. Likewise, the Sinhalese are the minority in the Nuwara-Eliya District. All have to be treated equally. Whatever right you have, I must also have. That is our stand.

But, what are your proposals for a political administration?
Even for delimitation, it has not been done properly in certain areas. It has to be done in a manner that our representation is also ensured. In a political body, all the parties must be represented.

There is a demand for greater devolution of political power for the North and the East. What would you seek?
Right from the days of my grandfather, we never asked for a separate land. We live with the majority community. We have no problem with it. We are very comfortable living with the majority community. You and I go to the same place to worship. We do business together. There may be small, small issues here and there. It isn’t worth even to talk about. As far as the Sripada pilgrimage is concerned, it has been going on harmoniously for long.

How do you analyze the visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the estate sector this year?
We were very proud of it. He is the first Indian Prime Minister to visit us. We are people of Indian origin. Yet, we are Indians. The visit of the Head of State of India to our area is a great thing. I must thank the present Indian High Commissioner here. It was made possible because of him only. It shows how much India recognizes us.

Do you want to be referred to as people of Indian origin continuously?
I have to say what I am. You reveal your identity. Likewise, I have to reveal my identity. You are of Aryan origin. I am of Indian origin.

In terms of reconciliation, how do you view the performances of the Government?
It isn’t satisfactory. It isn’t up to the expectations. People brought this Government to power with huge expectations. They haven’t beenfulfilled.

How is the performance in the economic front?
There too, we find a lot of problems. The cost of living has affected our people very much. It is the main issue. (DM)

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