Tamil nationalist who dubbed himself as the “King of Eelam”

Friday, 3 May 2024 00:26 –      – 98

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M.K. Eelaventhan


The protracted struggle by Sri Lankan Tamils to achieve justice and equality in the island has brought into prominence several colourful and controversial personalities. Among such persons was a Tamil nationalist political activist who adopted the nom de plume “Eelaventhan” meaning King of Eelam. Eelaventhan whose real name was M.K. Kanakenthran was active in Tamil politics for over seven decades. He served as a Member of Parliament in Sri Lanka from 2004 to 2007. The nonagenarian Eelaventhan passed away in Toronto, Canada on 28 April 2024. His death was widely reported in Sri Lankan Tamil newspapers with even editorials being written about him.

Eelaventhan whose full name was Manickavasagam Kanagasabapathy Kanakenthiran was born on 14 September, 1932 in Jaffna. The father Kanagasabapathy was a station master in the Railway Department. His mother Sivayogam was a housewife. Though hailing from Colombothurai in Jaffna, the family resided in Nallur. M.K. Kanakenthiran studied at St. Johns College, Jaffna and Wesley College, Colombo. Equally fluent in Tamil and English, he joined the Central Bank as a Translator and retired as head of the Tamil translation division in 1980.

Kanakenthiran got enamoured of politics in his late teens and joined the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK) known in English as the Federal Party in 1952. He became a devout Tamil nationalist and ardent political activist in 1956 after Sinhala was made the official language of Ceylon as Sri Lanka was known then. He began writing articles for the ITAK’s newspaper “Suthanthiran” under the pseudonym “Eelaventhan” meaning King of Eelam. He also began addressing political meetings as Eelaventhan.

Eelam is the ancient name for the Island in Tamil. Classical Tamil literature has several references to the Island as Eelam. In the years before and the early years after independence, the term “Eelam” had no separatist connotations. It was simply another quaint name for the country.

It was in later years that Eelam entered political discourse as the name for an independent Tamil state. The more Tamil nationalistic militant organisations called it Tamil Eelam and the more left inclined organisations Eelam. The envisaged Tamil separate state comprised the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka.

So when Kanakenthiran adopted the nom de plume Eelaventhan, he was not a separatist wanting Eelam or Tamil Eelam. However people began wrongly assuming that he became Eelaventhan because he was an Eelamist. That was not so at least then.

I once asked him why he chose the name Eelaventhan. He replied that while exploring potential pseudonyms, he opted for Eelam as it was the classical Tamil name. The Venthan or king was derived from the Tamil poet Bharathidasan who was called “Paaventhan” or King of poetry.

Eelaventhan eclipsed Kanakenthiran

As the years progressed the name Eelaventhan eclipsed Kanakenthiran. He was now being called MK Eelaventhan though it was not officially changed. Eelaventhan evolved gradually into a popular figure in Tamil politics. He was an eloquent speaker who could rattle off quotes from a variety of sources. He was a treasure trove of historic facts. Furthermore he had a great deal of statistical information at his fingertips.

His speeches were very interesting to listen to. The great Tamil scholar and Catholic priest Rev. Fr Xavier Thaninayakam would begin his speeches in Tamil with a quote from the sage Thirumoolar’s “Thirumanthiram”. The lines “Ennai Nandraai Iraivan Padaithanan, Thannai Nandraai Thamizh Seyyumaaru” (God created me perfectly to glorify him in Tamil). Eelaventhan too followed this practice and began his speeches with the quotation. In fact it was like an Eelaventhan trade mark. In later years he would end his speeches with a quote of his own “Eezham Vellum, Adhai Kaalam Sollum” (Eelam will triumph, Time will tell this).

TULF Colombo branch

I interacted with Eelaventhan closely in the mid and late seventies of the 20th century in Colombo. He was then the president of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) Colombo branch of which I was a member. The secretary was the surveyor K. Umamaheswaran who later became the head of the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE).

In those days the ITAK/TULF Colombo branch had weekly meetings on Wednesday evenings at the residence of ITAK leader S.J.V. Chelvanayakam at 14 Alfred House Gardens, Kollupitiya. Later on they were conducted in a house belonging to former Vaddukkoddai MP T. Thirunavukkarasu at 51 Lauries Rd, Bambalapitiya. I have also met him on several occasions in Chennai, India.

However we did not meet each other in Canada even though he had been living here since 2009. When Eelaventhan first came to Canada on a visit in 2007 he spoke glowingly of me in a Tamil radio interview and referred to an article on Thoppigala/Kudumbimalai by “Our Jeyaraj” (Engadai Jeyaraj). He also telephoned me and said we must meet and made arrangements. After a while he called me and said he had been advised not to meet me. Obviously some person or persons had prejudiced his mind. I replied “I understand”. That was all!

Radical maverick

Eelaventhan was a radical of the maverick type in politics. Even though he changed political colours occasionally, the constant thing about him was his genuine belief and dedication to the Tamil cause. From being a federalist in his younger days, Eelaventhan transformed into a secessionist in later life. Eelaventhan became a proponent of Tamil Eelam years before the TULF raised the demand in 1976.

The essence of Eelaventhan’s political ideology was encapsuled in the small book he wrote titled “Thamil Mann Kaappoam, Thaayagam Meetpoam” (Let’s protect Tamil Soil, Let’s liberate Motherland). This was about how the Tamil areas of historic habitation in Sri Lanka were being systematically “Sinhalised” and the urgent necessity to prevent it through the establishment of a separate Tamil state comprising the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. This book with a lot of irrefutable statistical details was avidly devoured and digested by Tamil youths in those days.

Eelaventhan was among a group of “young Turks” within the ITAK when the party joined the national Government of Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake in 1965. These dissidents formed an organisation called “Thamizh Thaai Mandram” (Tamil Mother Society) which acted as a pressure group on the party leadership.

Tamil self-rule party

There was a split in the ITAK in 1968 when the then Kayts MP V. Navaratnam was expelled from the ITAK. Navaratnam described earlier as the ITAK’s golden brain (Thanga Moolai) went on to form the “Thamilar Suyaatchik Kazhagam” or Tamil self-rule party. The party wanted a separate Tamil state. Eelaventhan quit the ITAK and joined the new party. He contributed regularly to the party organ “Viduthalai” (Liberation/Freedom).

Eelaventhan immersed himself fully in the new Party’s election campaign. He became a fierce critic of ITAK Leader Chelvanayakam and his deputies like Amirthalingam. It was Eelventhan who first referred to Chelvanayakam derisively as “Kaatsattai Gandhi” (trousered Gandhi). Chelvanayakam used to be venerated by his disciples as “Eezhathu Gandhi” or the Gandhi of Eelam then. This was because Chelvanayakam followed the “Ahimsa” policies of India’s Mahatma Gandhi.

The Navaratnam led Tamil Self Rule Party contested several seats in the North in 1970. The party failed to win a single seat. Even Navaratnal lost in Kayts his stronghold. The new Sirimavo Bandaranaike-led United Front Government with its two-thirds majority ushered in a new Constitution that failed to address the legitimate aspirations of Tamils or redress valid Tamil grievances.

This resulted in moves for greater political unity among Tamils. The main Tamil parties like the ITAK and Tamil Congress came together in 1972 and formed the Tamil United Front (TUF). The TUF became the TULF in 1976 and passed a resolution demanding Tamil Eelam. V. Navaratnam refused to join the TUF or TULF. This was not to the liking of people like Eelaventhan who felt Tamil unity was the need of the hour. Eelaventhan re-joined the ITAK and later the TULF.

The TULF swept the polls in the 1977 elections winning 18 of the 19 Tamil majority seats in the North and East. The TULF had contested on a platform of separation and interpreted the victory as a mandate for Tamil Eelam. Eelaventhan who had actively participated in the election campaign was elated.

August 1977 violence

Soon came the anti-Tamil violence of August 1977. Eelaventhan was affected badly. He was set upon by some minor employees and assaulted at his workplace the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. He was rescued by other senior colleagues. Eelaventhan’s residence at Nugegoda too was attacked by a mob. The family escaped miraculously but most of their belongings including Eelaventhan’s books, newspaper cuttings and important political documents were burnt. Eelaventhan and family were refugees at the Saraswathy hall camp.

The TULF with 18 seats was the second largest party in Parliament. Appapillai Amirthalingam became Leader of the Opposition. The TULF leader said the party was willing to consider a viable alternative to Tamil Eelam. Then president J.R. Jayewardene appointed a Commission on Devolution in 1979. The commission issued a report with the TULF nominee Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam submitting a dissenting report.

Tamil Eelam Liberation Front

District Development Councils were set up as units of devolution in 1980. Amirthalingam was willing to go along with the scheme and try it out as a viable alternative to Tamil Eelam. However a strong segment within the TULF opposed the DDC scheme as a sell-out. Chief among these was Eelaventhan. These dissidents broke away and formed the Tamil Eelam Liberation Front (TELF) in opposition to the TULF. Former TULF Jaffna MO Yogeswaran’s paternal uncle Dr. S.A. Tharmalingam was the TELF President and Eelaventhan its Secretary. The TELF was backed by Chelvanayakam’s son S.C. Chandrahasan.

The TELF adopted an uncompromising critical approach towards the DDC scheme and was a thorn in the flesh as far as the TULF was concerned. The TELF was supported by the Chandrahasan owned “Suthanthiran” newspaper then edited by Kovai Mahesan.

Meanwhile Eelaventhan got into trouble over his zealous pro-Tamil activism. In 1979 Eelaventhan addressed the World Hindu Conference at Allahabad in India and presented a paper which focused on the problems faced by Tamil Hindus in Sri Lanka. Upon arrival in Colombo, Eelaventhan was interdicted by the Central Bank for failing to obtain prior permission to participate in an international conclave.

Thereafter Eelaventhan was arrested and detained at the Jaffna Fort under the newly passed Prevention of Terrorism Act. Then TULF President M. Sivasithamparam represented Eelaventhan when he was charged in courts. Thanks to Sivasithamparam’s legal skills, Eelaventhan was acquitted. Though he was re-instated, Eelaventhan opted to retire from the Central Bank in 1980.

The indefatigable Eelaventhan now a free bird went to India and kept propagating the Tamil Eelam cause. Eelaventhan incurred the displeasure of then Tamil Nadu chief minister M.G. Ramachandran at the International Tamil Research Conference held at Madurai in Jan 1981. MGR was annoyed with Eelaventhan distributing pro-Eelam literature to delegates and had him removed from the venue. Eelaventhan also attended the Tamil Eelam conference held in New York in 1982.

Eelaventhan re-located permanently with his family to Tamil Nadu after the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom and sought political asylum. While working at a refugee organisation headed by S.C. Chandrahasan, Eelaventhan also kept the TELF flag flying. He would meet with influential people and propagate the Tamil Eelam cause.

The short, diminutive man with a cloth bag hung on his shoulder was a familiar sight in the editorial offices of newspapers and journals in Tamil Nadu. He was a hit with Indian scribes who consulted him frequently to find out more of happenings related to Tamils in Sri Lanka. He would also be asked about historical events. The news editor of a Tamil newspaper in Chennai once described Eelaventhan to me as a “walking encyclopaedia on Sri Lankan Tamil affairs”.

The TELF also enjoyed much exposure on par with the TULF in Tamil Nadu media at that time. Media releases by the TELF received equal coverage as the press releases of the TULF. Amirthalingam was not happy about the break-away TELF being treated equally with the TULF by the media.

I once asked the Editor of a prominent Indian newspaper about this. He replied with a chuckle. “I say this chap Eelaventhan will come and sit in my office with his press releases for hours and hours. The only way to make him go away is by agreeing to publish the TELF statements.”

Things changed in India after war erupted in Sri Lanka between the Indian army and the LTTE. The situation worsened for Lankan Tamils after the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. The LTTE was banned. Eelaventhan began adopting a low profile but kept on interacting with the Tamil Nadu media, disseminating information.

Eelaventhan was not a supporter of the LTTE earlier. But as the years progressed he became an LTTE sympathiser. Eelaventhan began moving closely with well-known LTTE supporters in Tamil Nadu such as Nedumaran and Gopalsamy (Vaiko).

Arrested in Tamil Nadu

Eelaventhan along with four others was arrested by the Tamil Nadu Police in February 1997 on charges of conspiring to procure and supply medicines to the LTTE in Sri Lanka. After a period of incarceration they were set free on bail. However after protracted trial, courts acquitted all in August 1999.

Deported to Lanka

After the BJP Government under Prime Minister Vajpayee was formed in 1998 and after his acquittal, Eelaventhan became bolder in supporting the LTTE in Tamil Nadu. In December 2000 Eelaventhan was arrested at Arumbakkam, Chennai and deported to Sri Lanka. There was widespread criticism but Indian authorities did not relent. Thereafter Eelaventhan resided in Sri Lanka.

He began aligning with the LTTE openly during the ceasefire and peace process facilitated by Norway in 2002. Eelaventhan issued statements supportive of the LTTE and often visited the Wanni meeting with Tiger leaders including Tiger supremo Prabhakaran.

National List MP

This resulted in Eelaventhan being rewarded with a Tamil National Alliance (TNA) national list MP appointment in 2004. The LTTE Controlled TNA won 20 elected and 2 appointed seats in that election. Despite having 22 MPs the TNA regarded as LTTE puppets had no credibility and were ineffective in Parliament. The TNA often engaged in political stunts in the house. On one occasion the TNA staged a mock funeral in Parliament. Eelaventhan played the corpse and lay seemingly “lifeless” on a stretcher carried by fellow MPs.

Despite becoming an MP, New Delhi continued to treat him as inadmissible. Since SAARC country MPs do not require a visa to enter India, Eelaventhan used his diplomatic passport to fly to Meenambakkam airport in Chennai. But he was refused entry and put back on a flight to Colombo.

However Eelaventhan’s parliamentary career did not last long. In 2007 Eelaventhan came to Canada on a lengthy visit. The LTTE wanted him to return but Eelaventhan delayed his departure. LTTE intelligence chief Pottu Ammaan was angry and hatched a conspiracy to oust Eelaventhan as MP. The leave of absence obtained from Parliament was not renewed by his fellow MPs from TNA. Eelaventhan did not know about this. When he reached Colombo in November 2007, the national list MP was shocked to discover that he was no longer an MP because he had been absent from Parliament for more than three months without leave. Eelaventhan went to the Wanni and appealed but to no avail. A Muslim lawyer Imam was appointed in his place.

South Africa death fast

The LTTE which treated Eelaventhan shabbily in 2007 turned to him in January 2009 when the army was advancing rapidly in the Wanni. Eelaventhan was asked to go abroad and do what he could to bring about a ceasefire. Eelaventhan went to South Africa. He undertook a fast unto death calling for a ceasefire but ended it after nine days. The LTTE was militarily defeated in May 2009. Eelaventhan went to the USA and from there to Canada.

In Canada from 2009

He sought political asylum in Canada in August 2009. He was refused asylum despite numerous appeals. Though not granted asylum, Eelaventhan continued to reside in Canada due to the Ottawa Government not deporting him to Sri Lanka on humanitarian grounds.

Eelaventhan participated in a lot of political and cultural activity in Canada. In May 2010 he was elected as an MP of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of which New York based Lawyer Visuvanathan Ruthirakumaran is the “Prime Minister”. This alienated Eelaventhan from other pro-LTTE factions in Canada opposed to the TGTE.

90th birthday

A grand celebration was organised to felicitate Eelaventhan on his 90th birthday in September 2022. The Nonagenarian’s health began declining in recent times. He was hospitalised some weeks ago in Toronto.

Eelaventhan the King of Eelam breathed his last on a hospital bed in Toronto on 28 April. The funeral is scheduled for 4 May. My deepest sympathies to his wife Arulaambikai and two daughters Yaarlini and Ezhilini and family members.

(The writer can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com.)

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