By Siva Thiagarajah –
Three months ago, Mr Vairamuttu Varadakumar, Executive Director of the Tamil Information Centre, U.K., based at Kingston, gave me the assignment to write a short account of the History and Culture of the Tamils of Lanka from the earliest times until the debacle at Mullivaikkal ten years ago, to be completed in just three months. When I objected that the time is short, he said: ‘you can do it’.
His long-time dream was to build an ‘Ilankai Tamilar Heritage Museum’ in England exhibiting the long history and heritage of the Tamils of Lanka for the benefit of the younger generation of the Tamil Diaspora. As a first step he wanted to organise a two-day exhibition on the 18th and 19th of May 2019, coinciding with the tenth anniversary of the end of the Civil War on 19th May 2009 in the island. This was a period of immense trauma and violence; tens of thousands of civilians were killed. Many more were injured, displaced and detained in camps in the final months of the war and for years afterwards. He wanted a small book about the Cultural Heritage and History of the Tamils of Lanka to be presented to coincide with this exhibition.
Unfortunately, Mr Varadakumar passed away on the 13th of May. The Tamil Community Centre, determined to carry on the work he has commenced, is arranging a two-day exhibition on the 18th and 19th of May in Kingston as planned. This will be a day of collective mourning, reflection and education. The name of this book, ‘The Tamils of Lanka – A Timeless Heritage’, intended to be launched at the exhibition, is the name given to the exhibition as well.
Mr Varadakumar hails from a well-known family from Manipay in Jaffna. His father, the Late Vairamuttu, has worked as a secretary to the Late Sir Oliver Goonatileka, a Governor of Ceylon. Mr Varadakumar, after his secondary schooling went to Madras for his higher education and graduated from the Madras Christian College at Thambaram.
Mr Varadakumar has been a legend in his own lifetime. Since his arrival in the United Kingdom in the early 1980s from Lanka, he has been continuously fighting the cause of the dispossessed, the poor and the refugee Tamils who sought asylum in the UK and in Europe. In 1981, along with the Late K. Kandasamy and Father Pathinathar he founded the Tamil Information Centre (TIC), which functioned from an office at number 11 Beulah road, Thornton Heath and later at Clapham with little or no funding and scarce personnel. This is an independent, non-profit organisation established to empower the Tamil speaking people of Sri Lanka to improve the quality of their lives. The aim is to create a society where equality, diversity and respect for each other are maintained. A great emphasis is placed on human rights and self-determination for the Tamil speaking people of Sri Lanka. In 1984, the TIC had offices in Chennai and Madurai as well. In 1987 the TIC was closed for a while with the intent of moving its head office to Lanka.
In 1987 he joined the Tamil Refugee Action Group, London, and was its first Coordinator of this organisation for a decade. This is a charity working with hundreds of refugees, fighting for lost causes in the UK High Court and lobbying Parliament members not only for refugees but for human rights and Women’s rights as well. In later years this became part of the functions of the TIC.
In 1991, after the death of his colleagues, he moved the TIC offices to East Ham, where there was a substantial Tamil population from Lanka. He was adept in bringing together all the various Tamil Diaspora groups in the UK, volunteers, as well as militant and non-militant service workers, in search of an equitable resolution to the Tamil struggle. He also had the knack of getting people together, collecting volunteers and organising funds. The TIC became a ‘Resource Centre’ for researching and collecting authentic documents which is now a ‘revered repository’.
The TIC offices moved to Kingston Upon Thames in 2003 and in 2005 underwent massive reorganisation under the guidance of Mr Varadakumar. The original organisation branched into (A). TIC Ltd., as a shareholding company and (B). Centre for Community Development, a registered Charity. The TIC continued to work for: 1. Human rights advocacy, 2. Liaison and Collaboration with other relevant organizations, 3. Human rights education, 4. Resource centre. 5. Information, Research, Publication and Policy work, and 6. Conflict resolution and peace-building.
On 19th November 2009, six months after the end of the civil war, Mr Varadakumar organised a conference in Switzerland, inviting all the Tamil organisations in Sri Lanka: Federal Party, TULF, PLOT, TELO, EPRLF, Pathmanabha EPRLF, EPDP, Up-Country Tamils and the Muslims, as well as political activists – to discuss frankly and freely and reach an amicable settlement to the Tamil Issue following the civil war.
The Centre for Community Development (CCD) was initiated with a constitution adopted on 22 August 2004, as amended on 23 February 2005, the governing document for the charity. The objectives of the charity as set out in the constitution are: 1. Advancement of Education, 2. Relief of sickness, suffering and distress, 3. Relief of Poverty, 4. To preserve and protect good health, 5. Promotion of peace and conflict resolution through non-violent means, 6. To provide or assist in the provision of recreation or leisure time activities with the object of improving the conditions of life for the beneficiaries, and 7. Promotion of equality of opportunity and good race relations among people of different racial groups. The CCD also works closely with the National Association for Humanitarian Rehabilitation (NAHRO) in Kilinochchi District; ‘Kaviya’ in the Batticaloa District empowering women, supporting war widows, disabled people and destitute children; as well as other organisations in Lanka.
The Elders Empowerment Programme (EEP) began in April 2006 for the benefit of the ‘Tamil Speaking Elders’ living in Kingston and the adjacent areas. Conducted as a drop-in-centre it provides a place where the elder adults came together to advance their mutual interests and find services and activities designed to enhance their activities. This organisation continues to provide support to vulnerable older people in the Batticaloa District in Lanka.
The Tamil Women Development Forum (TWDF) empowers women of Lankan origin to achieve equality in in global policy as they support their families and communities. The Healthy Mind Programme initiated in 2016, continues to function at an ‘Activity Centre’ promoting mental health amongst those who are suffering from Anxiety, Stress and Depression. In 2015, as another branch of the TIC, he instituted the History and Heritage Unit. For the past three years there have been lectures and discussions during the summer on historical subjects.
The above are some of the community organisations in the UK pioneered and instituted by Mr Varadakumar. The wide range of activities are a testimony to his expansive vision. For almost forty years he has tirelessly worked for the welfare of his fellow men and society without expecting any rewards. Such men are a rare breed. He was indeed a legend living before our eyes.
A Tribute by Tamil Information Centre:
Mr Vairamuttu Varadakumar of the London-based Tamil Information Centre (TIC) died on 12 March 2019 in the Kingston, UK. His sudden exit from our midst has come as a shock to people who knew him and those who depended on his work.
Varadakumar – A man committed to the welfare of the people
Varadakumar was born on 11 May 1949 in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, a year after the end of British rule. The middle of three brothers, he grew up in the Tamil north of the island at Manipai in Jaffna and went to school at Jaffna Hindu College. He later studied at Madras Christian College in Chennai, south India, before moving to London. There, he found his calling as a community organiser and human rights researcher, constantly putting a mischievous spanner in the engine of oppression. In London, he embodied international solidarity, working closely with groups like Campaign Against Arms Trade and Liberation (formerly the Movement for Colonial Freedom), sharing office space with activists from other countries involved in promotion of rights.
When the civil war finally ignited between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese ethnic majority and the Tamil minority in July 1983, Varadakumar was already a key part of the nascent Tamil Information Centre (TIC). He was an important member of the team that established the TIC in London in 1981, with the aim of empowering the Tamil speaking people of Sri Lanka to improve the quality of life through access to knowledge, information and a range of services, programmes and projects, with the object of creating a united, cohesive society without persecution, where the individual is respected, cared for and loved, and where human rights are respected, fostered and promoted. The TIC liaised with a wide variety of organizations and individuals to achieve its objectives both within Sri Lanka and outside involved the promotion and protection of human rights at the local level to international organizations involved in promoting peace, human rights, refugee protection, relief, rehabilitation and development. Varadakumar played a primary, enthusiastic and committed role in the TIC for more than 35 years which led to its success in the promotion of human rights and assisting people affected by the war in Sri Lanka.
Varadar’s commitment, the incredible amount of hours he put into his work, the tremendous stresses he underwent, the sacrifices he made of his life, would have had its toll on him. Yet, he went on relentlessly not caring for himself – all for the cause of the emancipation of the Tamil-speaking people of Sri Lanka so that they could live in peace, harmony, and most of all, with dignity and without political, social, cultural or economic subjugation. Varadakumar’s undaunted commitment, devotion and consistency to the cause of the Tamil-speaking people in particular, and Sri Lankan people in general were such that he would neither shed any of his heavy volume of work nor slow down his hectic speed; but continue to perform what he thought was right and proper, without any concern for his health. Whenever his health is mentioned by colleagues and friend he would just laugh it off.
Varadakumar’s commitment to work was such that he neglected his personal life. He lived a very frugal life with just the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. He spent most of the time of the day attending to the work of the TIC. He would be either be working in the premises of the TIC or attending meetings related to the people of Sri Lanka – Tamils of the North-East region, Tamils of the hill-country, Muslims or the Sinhalese. His vision, aspirations, and commitment were to a wider society. Shunning any possibilities of a lucrative professional life, he chose to work for the rights and liberation of the Tamil-speaking people from his early life, associating himself with the TIC. Deftly avoiding political pressures and other constraints, he stuck to his conviction and commitment that ‘human rights’ and ‘humanism’ is the impregnable rock – the foundation – on which any society, community or a nation should be built.
Varadar was also of the view that political, social, cultural and economic subjugation and lack of progress of Sri Lanka as a country, is mainly due to ‘majoritarianism’ and chauvinism trampling on the aspirations of the minorities in one form or another and should be best confronted not only as one against the Tamils but also as against all the minority communities and sections of Sri Lanka. He believed that only when all communities in Sri Lanka are genuinely granted their due rights can there be a durable peace, progress and prosperity in the country. He tried to bring about a consensus and constructive link not only among the various Diaspora Tamil organisations and those in them but also those in the political and social structures in Sri Lanka. He saw the inevitable need of the civil societies in Sri Lanka to bring about the transformation for the good of all the communities of Sri Lanka and forged contacts with many of them.
During discussions and meetings, he had expressed his frustration at the intransigence of the Sri Lankan governments, the disunity amongst the Tamil community both in Sri Lanka and in the shores that they have chosen to settle, their short-sightedness, and lack of proper perspectives. He was concerned of the different and conflicting directions that the Tamil Diaspora organisations and the Tamil leadership in Sri Lanka are taking either because of personal prestige and self-aggrandisement, and often not based on clear and objective analysis and evaluation of the reality but according to their whims and fancies –all eventually to the detriment of the long-term interest of the Tamils. His frustration was also that despite the fact that there are many qualified, able and well- to-do among the Sri Lankan community in the UK, except from a very few, there has been a lack of involvement and support. He undertook many projects that would help and accelerate the achievements and the aspirations of the Tamil speaking people of Sri Lanka.
The TIC continued uninterrupted since its formation in the early 1980s because of Varadar’s unabated and undaunted personal commitment and dedication despite set-backs. He organised the volunteers, encouraged them, guided them and maintained regular contact with the activists of all other Tamil organisations, not only in the UK but also in other countries. Varadakumar was also instrumental in the formation of Centre for Community Development (CCD) and ably guided it to function successfully meeting its social objectives. He would be at the TIC at all hours greeting the volunteers of both TIC and CCD and giving them guidance.
We will very much miss you in our midst. Fare thee well Varadar; when comes such another as you, Varadar?
The details of his last rites and funeral are as follows:
Sunday 24 March 2019 between 7.00 am and 10.00 am at,
Richard Challoner School Manor Drive North
New Malden KT3 5PE
Sunday 24 March 2019 from 10.45 am at,
Putney Vale Cemetery and Crematorium Stag Lane
London SW15 3DZ