The six face(t)s of CWC Chief Arumugan “Thamby” Thondaman

Wednesday, 29 May 2024 00:30 –      – 50

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Arumugan Thondaman


Former Cabinet Minister, Nuwara Eliya district Parliamentarian and Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) leader Arumugan Thondaman would have celebrated his 60th birthday on 29 May, if he were alive today. Thondaman passed away due to a cardiac arrest four days before his 56th birthday four years ago on 26 May 2020. He was serving as a Minister in the cabinet of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the time of his death. This week’s “Political Pulse” – with the aid of my previous writings – focuses on Arumugan Thondaman to denote his 60th birth anniversary.

Let me begin with two points about his name and pet name. Thondaman’s first name Arumugan is spelled with an N at the end. However it is frequently misspelled by the media as Arumugam with an M instead of N. I too have been guilty of this error at times. I remember his illustrious grandfather Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman gently admonishing me once “He is Arumugan not Arumugam”.

One reason for this mistake is due to both names having more or less the same meaning. They both refer to Lord Muruga the God with six faces in the Hindu Pantheon. “Arumugam” means six faces while “Arumugan” means six-faced.

The second point is about Arumugan’s pet name – he was called “Thamby” which means younger brother in Tamil. Thamby is used widely as a pet name for male kids in many Tamil households. In many instances the pet name Thamby remains in use even after the children mature into adults.

In Arumugan’s case, he was the fourth of five children. He was also the only boy among the children. Arumugan’s three elder sisters called him Thamby. The pet name stuck and extended beyond the family circle.

Arumugan himself encouraged people to call him Thamby. I can recall my first conversation with him via telephone more than 25 years ago. When I addressed him as “Mr. Thondaman” he simply said “Thambynnae Sollunga” (just say Thamby).

The Thondaman family has played and continues to play an important role in the political affairs of Sri Lanka in general and the up country regions in particular. “Plantation patriarch” Saumiyamoorthy (spelled as Savumimoorthy and Saumyamurthy also) Thondaman was for several decades the leader of the CWC which is the largest trade union cum political party representing the estate workers of Sri Lanka. He has been both an elected and appointed Member of Parliament and Cabinet minister for many years. His son Ramanathan Thondaman was elected to the Central Provincial Council and served as a provincial minister.

Saumiyamoorthy’s grandson and Ramanathan’s son Arumugan Thondaman was a prominent political leader for many years. He was elected to Parliament from the Nuwara Eliya district continuously from 1994 to 2015. He died a few months before the 2020 elections.

In addition to being the CWC leader, Arumugan served as a cabinet minister for many years. Arumugan’s only son Jeevan Thondaman who was elected an MP after his father’s demise is currently a cabinet minister in the Ranil Wickremesinghe Government. He is also the CWC General-Secretary. Arumugan’s nephew (sister’s son) Senthil Thondaman was a minister in the Uva provincial council. He is the president of the CWC and also the Governor of the Eastern Province.

Born in Munapudur

Saumiyamoorthy Arumugan Ramanathan Thondaman known generally as Arumugan Thondaman was born on 29 May 1964 in Munapudur in the Sivagangai district of Tamil Nadu state in India. He had three elder sisters. And a younger sister. All the girls were born in Sri Lanka.

His parents Ramanathan and Rajeshwari Thondaman wanting a “boy” had gone to the famous Rameshwaram temple in Tamil Nadu and conducted special poojas praying for a son. Lord Shiva the primary Deity worshipped as Ramanathaswamy at the temple answered their prayers.

According to Anuradha Shanthamohan the eldest sister of Arumugan, their mother Rajeshwari was in the northern side of the Thondaman family’s ancestral abode in Munapudur when she underwent labour contractions. Rajeshwari was immediately asked to walk across to the room at the southern side by her father-in-law Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman’s sister. This was because Saumiyamoorthy had been born in that southern room (thekkippatti) in 1913. And so the grandson was born in the same room as his famous grandfather.

Everything was not rosy. The new arrival was rather sickly. He suffered from diarrhoeal ailments during the first month and was constantly dehydrated. The new born child had to be hospitalised in the village hospital. The baby’s state was so critical that the doctors at one stage had said there was no hope.

However in what was perhaps the first display of the fighting spirit that characterised Arumugan, the infant fought back and recovered miraculously. Four months later Arumugan arrived in Sri Lanka via Thalaimannar.

“Akkas” called him “Thamby” 

With three “Akkaas” or elder sisters calling their sibling as Thamby, the name stuck. So much so that in his early years Arumugan thought his real name was Thamby. He was sent to Kandy for Kindergarten studies and boarded at that tender age in the boarding house run by Mrs. Gnanam.

Thereafter he began primary school studies at Royal College, Colombo. Arumugan left Royal in grade 4 and joined the Montfort Boys School at Yercaud in the Salem district of Tamil Nadu. The school run by the Montfort Brothers of St. Gabriel is regarded as an elitist institution. Montfort School is to South India what Doon School is to North India.

Schooling at Montfort 

According to Saba Singaram, Arumugan’s Montfort schoolmate and best friend from childhood, young Thondaman was rather mischievous and quite fond of playing pranks in school. He had a flair for “bunking” (cutting classes or truancy) despite the strict discipline maintained by the school authorities.

He was supposedly a master bunker who never got caught and many of his accomplices believed anyone collaborating with Arumugan in such exercises would not get caught. One of his favourite pastimes was to raid the school orchard clandestinely. He also had a never ending supply of “Kamarkat” (coconut jaggery sweet) and would be constantly munching them in class.

Apparently Arumugan did not like cricket or other team sports and shunned them. However he was an excellent swimmer and represented the school at state level competitions. Thamby was also a very good equestrian. He was also a member of the Cadet Corps.

Among Arumugan’s contemporaries at Montfort were former Indian Health Minister and Rajya Sabha MP Dr. Anbumani Ramadoss and well-known Tamil film actor Vikram whose real name is John Victor Kennedy. Both were junior to Arumugan at Montfort.

After secondary school in India, Arumugan went to the USA for tertiary education. He enrolled at Madison College in Wisconsin and obtained a Diploma in Business Management specialising in Agribusiness. He returned from the USA and embarked on a business career by running several enterprises including an airline ticketing agency in the Tamil Nadu capital of Chennai.

Married Rajalakshmi

Soon the family found a suitable bride Rajalakshmi for Arumugan from Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu. They were married on 13 July 1986. He was 22 and she 20. They lived in Chennai for five years but travelled frequently to Sri Lanka. Both their daughters Kothai Nachiar and Vijayalakshmi were born in 1987 and 1989 respectively.

At that point of time Arumugan Thondaman did not seem to have thoughts of entering politics in Sri Lanka. His grandfather Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman too did not have such an intention. Things changed. Arumugan relocated to Sri Lanka and gradually began involving himself in politics and trade unionism.

After some years he contested Parliamentary elections and was elected from Nuwara Eliya district. Eventually he became the CWC leader and cabinet minister after his grandfather’s demise. This has led to charges of nepotism on the basis that Thondaman Snr had paved the way for Thondaman Jnr to be his successor. The CWC suffered several splits due to Arumugan’s political entry and elevation.

Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman

Some CWC old timers who were closely associated with Saumiyamoorthy in the past and had a ring side view of what transpired then dispute this. According to these ex-CWC circles what had happened then was this. Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman had established total control of the CWC over the years through his sacrifices, hard work, dedication and political acumen. The CWC was virtually Thonda’s fiefdom and there was no one to challenge him.

However he had no intention of grooming a family member as his successor. Thonda Snr relied very greatly on his long time deputy MS Sellasamy the CWC General Secretary. Sellasamy had been Gen Secy for so long that he was known as GS and not by his initials MS.

Groom a successor

Thondaman himself had not thought of any successor for many years. It was only after he celebrated his “Pavala Vizha” (75th birth anniversary) in 1988 that he felt the need to groom a successor. Initially Thondaman had no qualms about Sellasamy succeeding him. But Sellasamy was only 13 years younger than Thondaman and could at best be a stopgap successor only.

Thondaman had been thinking of younger stalwarts Jaya Perisundram and Periyasamy Chandrasekaran as potential successors to CWC leadership in the long term. But Perisundaram’s house in Borella was torched in the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom and the family migrated to Australia. Perisundram himself was appointed Ambassador to Indonesia in 1988.

Meanwhile Chandrasekaran’s popularity within the CWC had surged after the 1986 violence in the Talawakelle and Lindula areas. Sellasamy allegedly feared Chandrasekaran’s rise and manipulated matters so as to make Chandrasekaran quit the CWC. This succeeded and Chandrasekaran broke away and formed the Up Country Peoples Front (UCPF).

The 1988 Provincial Council elections saw the CWC contesting on the UNP list. Thondaman’s son Ramanathan and MS Sellasamy won in the Central and Western Provinces respectively and became Provincial ministers. Ramanathan had for long been of great assistance to his father and functioned as a key aide.

Personal Secretary

Ramanathan’s appointment as provincial minister deprived Thonda Snr of his services at a personal level. Hence the grandfather brought down his grandson Arumugan permanently from Chennai and made him his personal secretary. There was no plan then for Arumugan to enter active politics.

Unfortunately for the CWC relations between Thondaman and Sellasamy began to sour. Meanwhile it had become clear that the affable, easy-going, gentlemanly Ramanathan was not cut out for the world of cut-throat politics. He wanted to “retire” and encourage his only son Arumugan to become a politician instead.

Arumugan Thondaman in his capacity as personal secretary to his grandfather had demonstrated an aptitude for hurly-burly politics. Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman himself was impressed by Arumugan’s potential. At another level there was much friction between Saumiramoorthy Thondaman and MS Sellasamy.

The sagacious Thondaman decided that a countervailing force was necessary to constrain Sellasamy in the future. The financial secretary of the CWC was K. Annamalai who had been an appointed MP from 1965 to 1970. Annamalai was not in the best of health and found it difficult to attend to his work. Very often cheques had to be taken to Annamalai’s residence in Gampola for his signature.

“Officiating Financial Secretary”

So in what was arguably a pre-emptive move to check Sellasamy, Arumugan Thondaman was appointed “Officiating Financial Secretary” without removing Annamalai and brought into the CWC formally in 1993. It seemed that a cold war had begun. This move did not result in dislodging Sellasamy. His downfall later was due to another reason.

Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated by the LTTE in May 1993. Prime Minister DB Wijetunga became President. The 1993 provincial council elections saw the UNP dissident group led by Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake form the Democratic United National Front (DUNF) and contest polls. In the Central Province the UNP contesting with the CWC won with a slender majority. The DUNF’s Gamini Dissanayake became leader of the opposition in the Central provincial council.

Although Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman had enjoyed a close rapport with former Presidents JR Jayewardene and R. Premadasa, he did not have the same relationship with DB Wijetunga. There was disagreement on several issues. Chief among them was the setting up of a vocational training centre for plantation Tamil youths in Dickoya. This was to be funded by Norway. Wijetunga refused to give the green signal for the project.

No confidence motion 

Meanwhile CPC Opposition leader Gamini Dissanayake was planning to move a vote of no confidence against the UNP controlled Central Provincial council administration. Thondaman enraged by President Wijetunga’s refusal to allow the Training Centre project wanted to support the no confidence motion (NCM) to drive home a point to the UNP.

The National Council of the CWC met and unanimously resolved to support the NCM. The NCM would have been passed with the DUNF, SLFP and CWC voting in favour. President Wijetunga struck back. He secretly conspired with Sellasamy to scuttle the NCM move.

Sellasamy somersault

The CWC Gen. Secy who had endorsed the CWC decision at the national council did a somersault. Sellasamy got some CWC Central Province Councillors to vote against the NCM. The motion was defeated. Thondaman was furious.

An emergency meeting of the CWC National Council was hastily convened. All provincial councillors who voted against the NCM were expelled from the party. Sellasamy was removed from the General Secretary post which he had held for 30 years.

General Secretary 

In a surprise move the Officiating Financial Secretary Arumugan Thondaman was unanimously elected as the new CWC General Secretary. As the CWC’s General-Secretary, Arumugan began consolidating himself politically.

The 1994 Parliamentary elections saw the CWC contesting along with the UNP. It was however the People’s Alliance led by Chandrika Kumaratunga that captured power. The CWC contesting within UNP folds did very well. It won three seats in Nuwara Eliya and a seat each in Kandy and Badulla.

Apart from these five elected MPs, the CWC also obtained two national list MPs. Furthermore when the LTTE killed several UNP MPs by setting off a bomb at Grandpass, the vacancies were filled by two more CWC MPs. The CWC had nine MPs in all in the 1994 Parliament.

Nuwara Eliya MP

Arumugan Thondaman himself entered Parliament for the first time by getting 75, 297 preference votes in the Nuwara Eliya District. Arumugan had arrived. There was no fairy tale ending. The advent of Arumugan Thondaman resulted in major upheavals within the CWC in particular and in hill country Tamil politics in general. M.S. Sellasamy took legal action against his removal as Gen. Secy and barred the CWC from using the party symbol, the cockerel.

CWC President

Arummugan’s grandfather Saumiyamoorthy passed away at the age of 86 on 30 October 1999. Several senior CWC Parliamentarians revolted against Arumugan after Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman’s death. Only two CWC parliamentarians Muthu Sivalingam and Ramiah Yogarajan stood by young Thondaman. Arumugan however fought back against overwhelming odds and gradually empowered himself politically and entrenched his position within the CWC. He became the CWC president.

Thereafter, Arumugan Thondaman reigned supreme as the undisputed leader of the CWC. There were defections and splits from time to time from the CWC. Likewise, there were realignments at times and some of the “prodigals” returned to CWC folds. The CWC contested different elections in tow with the Chandrika Kumaratunga led PA, the Ranil Wickremesinghe led UNF and the Mahinda Rajapaksa led UPFA at different times.

Nuwara Eliya MP

Arumugan Thondaman continued to be Cabinet minister under successive governments except for the “Yahapalanaya” Government of 2015-19. He was returned to Parliament from the Nuwara Eliya District in every election since 1994. Arumugan’s preference vote counts in the six Parliamentary elections were – 1994 – 75,297; 2000 – 61,779; 2001 – 121,542; 2004 – 99,783; 2010 – 60,997; 2015 – 61,897.

As far as the CWC was concerned, Arumugan Thondaman was its undisputed leader. He was both its President as well as General Secretary for many, many years. As CWC chief and as a Parliamentarian and cabinet minister, he accomplished many things for his people and party.

Politics of brinkmanship

Just like his grandfather, Arumugan too adopted the politics of brinkmanship at times to achieve his objectives. He was a crafty player in the game of political chess and possessed the knack of keeping his opponents guessing wrongly as to what his next move would be.

Strongman image

Arumugan Thondaman had a strongman image and adopted a tough posture in dealing with different estate managements or political adversaries. He would often walk the talk by descending on trouble spots personally to tackle difficult problems. Arumugan could also get things done through a few telephone calls.

Unlike his grandfather, Arumugan did not cultivate the fourth estate well. As such many of his positive achievements were never reported in the media extensively. However the plantation workers as well as the Up Country Tamils recognised him as a capable leader and appreciated his worth.

Arumugan passed away on 26 May 2020 due to a cardiac arrest. The unexpected demise of the CWC leader who was then serving as Cabinet Minister of Livestock and Rural Community Development sent shock waves throughout the country in general and the hill country in particular.

He was cremated at Norwood with State Honours on 31 May 2020. Large crowds converged spontaneously to pay their respects at various places and at the final farewell despite prevailing COVID threat restrictions.

Arunagirinathar’s “Aarumugangal”

I wish to conclude with a reference to a verse from the “Thiruppugazh” composed by Saint Arunagirinathar which glorified Lord Muruga the God with six faces or “Arumugam”. In this verse, “Aeru Mayileri Vilaiyaadum Mugamondru”, Arunagirinathar praises the six faces of Lord Muruga and links it up with six of the deity’s mighty deeds.

Likewise the different facets of Arumugan Thondaman too could be classified into six. The “aaru” (six) “Muhangal” (faces) of Arumugan Thondaman are:

1. Political party leader

2. Trade union chief

3. Parliamentarian

4. Cabinet minister

5. Loyal and supportive friend and comrade

6. Family man who was a loving husband to his wife Rajalakshmi and a devoted father to his children Kothai Nachiar, Vijayalalshmi and Jeevan.


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

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