By Kumar Rupesighe –
I had the privilege of having known Shanthi Sachithanandam since about the 1980s when she and her husband Mano would attend the many meetings and discussion circles which were going on about the crisis in the country as result of the pogroms unleashed by President Jayewardene after his massive election victory in 1977. JR. Jayewardene had won the elections with a four fifths majority and his first act as the President was to unleash a reign of terror on the SLFP and the left movement who had been defeated with only 8 seats in Parliament. True to form, he had given a promise that if he won he would give the police two weeks leave, so that revenge would be turned against the opposition.
Next in this sequel of events was when Jayewardene, turned on the leader of the Opposition, Mr. Amirthalingam, challenging him that “If you want war we will give you war and if you want peace we will give you peace! This clarion call by Jayewardene was an invitation to looters and thugs to create a reign of terror against the Tamil until 1983, when organized thugs in the guise of a curfew marked Tamil houses, the other set fire to them and the rest scavengers looted the property.
It was under these circumstances that I had the opportunity to meet Shanthi and Mano, both intellectuals in their own right and who were parts of the progressive intellectual class of the country. Their own house was attacked and their house desecrated and looted and who with their children had to flee to Jaffna in a ship. When they returned Shanthi and Mano were a familiar presence in seminars and gatherings. Shanthi was a vivacious lady who was a fighter for human rights and dignity for all. However she mingled with intellectuals easily and her wit and intellectual brilliance was a pleasure to watch and participate. Shanthi managed her life with quiet and dedicated purpose and was always engaged in working with the social movements in the North and the South. Viluthu was Shanthi’s creation, an organization dedication to service and to promote co-existence and the education of communities in the North and East. To quote from her statement in the prospectus of Viluthu “the lack of governance is at the core of the crisis facing Sri Lanka today. A highly centralized state which has spawned a civil war, widespread corruption at the highest political levels, stark human rights abuses and a dormant civil society count as some of the major reasons. No amount of development aid can put this country back on the road to recovery unless good governance is restored. In a country where war has been raging for over two and a half decades leading to high levels of militarization, civil society has not been able to speak out. In this context Viluthu finds it imperative to work with the civil society through the youth, through vulnerable women, through local government, the private sector and the media. Shanthi had a strong presence in Batticaloa where she also contested in the General Elections. She was in the forefront of the women’s movement and always fought for the rights of women. Some of her key involvements with her able team of colleagues can be summarized as follows.
Widow’s Charter – She brought the issues of War widows and Female Headed House Holds (FHHH) to the notice of the Government (nearly 85,000) and prepared the Draft Memorandum for a Widows Charter with the inputs of the affected women. The draft was submitted to the and Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Provincial Councils of the North and East and North Western Provinces, NOGOO and to the UN offices in Colombo and Batticaloa.
A Nutrition program (One dish meal) – Introduced a Nutrition program (One dish meal) in collaboration with Ms. Visakha Tillekeratne, Nutrition Consultant. This has led to the establishment of “Sanjeevi” organic Food stalls in Muthur, Puttalam and some other places. This program has accepted and recognized as a model meal in South Asian Countries and the World Bank brought a group of persons from Bangladesh, Bhutan and India to understand the process. (Visaka has written about this in the Colombo Telegraph 29th August 2015). Women’s voices on War were compiled and Exhibitions were held in Colombo, Galle, Jaffna, Vavuniya, Moneragala, UK, Afghanistan, USA and Canada.
Women Representations in the Mediation Boards – Introduced Mediation Board concept through the Study Circle / Readers and helped the Mediation Boards Commission to increase the percentage of women taking part in the Mediation Boards in the North and Eastern provinces and Puttalam District. The all island average in 2012 was only 5%.
A cartoon booklet on Local Government was designed by her in Tamil to be used in the Training Programs. This has enabled women to approach Local government organizations and fulfill their needs. Example Thirumalpuram Village in Trincomalee district obtained their electricity connection. In 2014 the women who were thus empowered has collected approximately Rs. 70 million on their own in Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Puttalam Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Mannar to meet their needs
Activating the appointment of Advisory Committees in LG System – Some of the local governments have included the people’s advisory committees into their systems with women’s participation. Voter Education – Documentary “Speak through your Vote” in Tamil. “Vaakkuhalal Pesuwom” was prepared. These efforts led to the increase on voter turnout in the areas where they conducted the programs.
Political Participation. Joining hands with several women organizations she attempted to increase the women representations in Politics. Coached women on propaganda, getting organized and advertising etc. The name lists of willing women were sent to all political parties to choose them.
“One Billion Rising” of women in 2012 – Joint hands on “One Billion Rising” of women in 2012, A song in Tamil sung by Selvy her sister and Shanti at the “One Billion Rising” Rally is in the You Tube.
Advocacy program “No Run Tell” on Child Abuse.
Over the years I remember with nostalgia the many dinners and conversations our family had with Shanthi. Shanthi would always have her point of view. She lived amongst the Sinhalese but throughout her years she remained a Tamil, a radical to the core. She had differences with the LTTE but also with the old guard Tamil National Movement. Over time her intellectual curiosity grew to explore many dimensions of Spirituality which she explored with commitment and vigor. Her spiritual journey and meditation stood her in good stead to weather the storm and anguish which confronted her in her last phase of her life.