By Rajan Hoole –
de Kretzer and Sansoni on the IATR Conference Incident
We now come to the IATR Conference incident of 10th January 1974. Sansoni saw a need to go into this incident because Amirthalingam had testified before Sansoni “that the refusal of the government to appoint a Presidential Commission to inquire into the seven deaths and the conduct of the Police which led to those deaths, was a prime cause of the demand for a separate state.” Sansoni was given a copy of the (unofficial) de Kretzer Commission Report. Both de Kretzer and Manicavasagar had been senior colleagues of Sansoni’s and one can have no doubt about the quality of the work that went into their Report. Although they had written to the Prime Minister, IGP and SP, Jaffna, calling for police witnesses, they were not obliged.
Sansoni said of the de Kretzer Report, “Having read their report, I feel that they have been deprived of the benefit of hearing an essential part of the incidents that took place. On the other hand, I have heard ASP Chandrasekera, who was a very necessary witness…” Sansoni relied on the report of the Magistrate (whom we understand was Mr. Palakidnar) whose findings and verdict he held were ‘unimpeachable’. Sansoni as we shall see inexplicably disregarded testimony painstakingly recorded by the de Kretzer Commission which clearly showed that there were conditions of fear which would have made it impossible for the Magistrate to hold an impartial inquiry. We go through de Kretzer’s and Sansoni’s versions step by step.
Permission to hold the meeting on 10th January
de Kretzer and Sansoni are both agreed that the organisers (represented by V.S. Thurairajah) applied to the Police for a fresh permit (the earlier one having expired on the 9th) for the use of loud speakers as intimated by ASP Chandrasekera with a list of speakers. Janarthanan was not on the list. The Police were concerned that the Tamil Nadu politician Janarthanan should not speak (on orders of DIG van Twest, according to Sansoni). But the two differ on an important point:
de Kretzer: “No permit in writing was issued by the Police; the evidence is that it was a case of gentlemen not finding it necessary to give or demand in writing what was agreed on.”
de Kretzer further says that while steps were being taken to move the proceedings outside Veerasingham Hall, inside the premises, HQI Nanayakkara inquired from Dr. Vithyananthan about the move. The latter explained the circumstances (see Sect. 2.3), and the Inspector told him that ‘it would be all right’.
Sansoni: Sansoni drew his conclusion from the letter applying for the permit signed by V.S. Thurairajah with an endorsement made by ASP Chandrasekera saying that he had issued a loud speaker permit subject to the three conditions mentioned. These were that the meeting would be held only inside Veerasingham Hall using the public address system therein, only those mentioned on the list will speak, and no political or controversial speeches will be made. Sansoni concludes that a permit was issued, whereas the testimony before de Kretzer implies that Chandrasekara’s endorsement was made subsequently, after the incident, to justify the police action.
Janarthanan and the meeting
de Kretzer and Sansoni are both agreed that before the commencement of the meeting outside the Hall, Janarthanan was hoisted onto the improvised platform by admirers to a loud applause. de Kretzer says that Amirthalingam garlanded Janarthanan, while Sansoni says they exchanged garlands. Some other differences between the two reports are similarly minor.
de Kretzer says: “Janarthanan’s stay on the platform was of the briefest duration, estimated at about two or three minutes, as Dr. Vithyananthan the chairman requested him to step down which he did. He was thereafter content to be behind the improvised platform signing autographs.”
Sansoni got his version from the Magistrate’s Report. According to this when Dr. Mahadeva asked Janarthanan to get down, the latter threatened him with trouble. He then says that in turn Dr. Vithyananthan and Mr. Thurairajah made the same request to Janarthanan. When Amirthalingam was asked to intervene, he is said to have replied evasively. Dr. Mahadeva is then said to have left the meeting to telephone ASP Chandrasekera to avoid any misunderstanding. Being unsuccessful, he returned to find Janarthanan ‘sitting close to the platform’. This is consistent with Janarthanan having been on the platform for no more than three minutes, although it gives the impression of a longer period. However both versions are agreed that Janarthanan did come down.
Then comes a crucial difference between the two versions. de Kretzer says that after Janarthanan came down, ‘Head Quarters Inspector Nanayakkara handed him a document and obtained a receipt from him; Nanayakkara then left the place and was not seen thereafter’.
Sansoni, who read de Kretzer’s Report, obscures the significance of this. He tells us in Para. 33A that Nanayakkara served a notice on Janarthanan on the 10th evening, requesting him to present himself to ASP, CID, in Colombo for questioning on the grounds of his being considered a ‘security risk’. Sansoni does not tell us when and where the notice was served.
Sansoni then tells us in Para. 38 that ASP Chandrasekera had been informed by HQI Nanayakkara, ‘that the crowd was blocking the road opposite the Hall and Janarthanan was on the platform.’ This makes it clear why Sansoni had to obscure the point given by de Kretzer. If Nanayakkara handed Janarthanan the notice after he had come down from the platform, what he allegedly reported to the ASP – that Janarthanan was on the platform – was false and irresponsible. Sansoni should have verified whether Nanayakkara did say that, since the Magistrate had reported that Janarthanan had come down.
Immediately afterwards, Sansoni says: “The ASP then decided to go to the venue of the meeting to ensure that order is maintained. As he failed to get near them owing to the crowd, he returned to the police station and came with a police party.”
This, we cannot accept. If strong action was thought necessary, the ASP would have cross- questioned Nanayakkara and ascertained that Janarthanan was not on the platform. Nanayakkara who was there would also have seen that the organisers, even as reported by Sansoni, had been firm with Janarthanan and made him get down. After that any apprehension that he would speak was unfounded. If ASP Chandrasekara felt a need to go to the platform, he could have gone the way Nanayakkara had come. Nanayakkara had not reported any unruly elements and there was no need to move in force.
So far, we have encountered enough doubts about the presentation of facts by the Police, and also Sansoni, to doubt their version at every point. This places the disputed endorsement of Thurairajah’s application by Chandrasekera in its correct perspective. We see the justification for the police action being built up – meeting in an unauthorised location, unauthorised public address system, crowds blocking the road, Janarthanan to speak on the platform and so on.
The Police intrusion
According to Sansoni the police party led by the ASP which approached the platform (from the Regal Theatre or the Clock Tower side, that is from the east) was greeted with bottles and stones thrown at them, resulting in injury to two policemen and damage to Chandrasekera’s jeep. Sansoni quotes the Magistrate as saying that the hostile attitude of the gathering towards the ASP’s party resulting in damage to the vehicle and injuries to policemen rendered the use of teargas to disperse the hostile elements a necessary step.
Sansoni then adds his own eloquent authority to the police version: “I do not consider the throwing of stones and bottles at Police officers by a crowd numbering thousands a peaceful demonstration.” Sansoni has painted a picture of 50,000 civilians throwing missiles at the Police. During the stampede resulting from the police action, 7 persons died of electrocution near the railings that separated the Veerasingham Hall premises from the road.
Sansoni could not have missed the careful reconstruction of this incident by the de Kretzer panel, which convincingly refutes the police version. We summarise the latter account:
The first speaker was Professor Dr. Naina Mohamed, a distinguished Tamil scholar from India. He spoke on the beauty of the Tamil language, its antiquity and the culture of the Tamil people.
His choice of words in chaste Tamil, and the subject, held the audience in rapt attention, except for occasional applause. While he was speaking there was some disturbance on the Regal Theatre side, and the people there stood up and began to move. Noticing the commotion, the speaker told them to be calm.
As it happened, the Police had been advancing slowly through the crowd in jeep and truck wearing steel helmets, ordering the crowd through a hailer to give way. For reasons to do with the density of the crowd, the crowd keenly attending to Prof. Mohamed’s speech, and the known fact that what is said on hailers is bound to be distorted beyond recognition, the Police could proceed no further. Then the policemen who were armed with rifles, tear-gas bombs, batons and wicker shields started attacking those who stood in their way. The result was a stampede to escape the police attack, as policemen fanned out in all directions assaulting all and sundry. Some even jumped into the moat beside the Fort to escape the attack.
All this was carefully reconstructed by the de Kretzer panel from eyewitness accounts. This account is internally consistent. If it is true in its essentials, the Police account, which is badly lacking in consistency, must be taken as wholly untrue.
To begin with, the Police had been co- operating with the meeting by directing traffic and supervising parking arrangements, and had been moving freely about the area. Prof. Mohamed’s address had been eagerly awaited, and any rowdy elements trying to create trouble during that address would have earned opprobrium from the public. There has not been a single testimony from the thousands of people present, whose attention was immediately drawn towards the commotion, of any hint of such troublemakers.
One also needs to assume that there was a group of rowdies, who had collected bottles and stones to throw at the approach of a police formation. No one had troubled individual unarmed policemen who were doing their job and were present all the time. The arrival of a large armed contingent of the Police was entirely unforeseen. Moreover, anyone throwing things at the Police who were armed would have kept a safe distance. Such an occurrence would not have gone unnoticed and uncondemned. The trouble clearly started after the vehicles started moving through the crowd. Then again, things thrown at the Police would have been as likely to hit the crowd. We may dismiss the Sansoni– Police version.
The Snapping of power lines and the electrocution of civilians
Sansoni holds with the Magistrate that the electric wires whose dislodgement resulted in seven persons dying of electrocution, happened under accidental circumstances. Sansoni accepted the testimony of J.D. Mitra Ariyasinghe, then SP, Jaffna, made both to himself and earlier to the Magistrate, that the police firing was not the cause of dislodgement. Ariyasinghe had said that although the police party had 4 rifles, not one of them had been fired nor any ammunition used.
Sansoni rejected the testimony of Mr. Amirthalingam who was on the scene, that police firing had been the cause of the wires coming down. He discredits Amirthalingam with Ariyasinghe’s testimony that at the Magistrate’s inquest, Amirthalingam had called Inspector Pathmanathan, a Tamil, who was leading the evidence, a ‘traitor’, and then apologised. This could well be because Amirthalingam was angry that the Police were using a Tamil officer to cover up, rather than that Amirthalingam was out to implicate the Police for political ends. Inspector Pathmanathan was killed by militants on the 6th May 1978 just after the Sansoni Commission finished sittings in Jaffna.
However, de Kretzer (i.e. the de Kretzer panel) is very clear on this point. Their report records the testimony of Mr. Rajaratnam, attorney-at-law, and Mr. Pathinathar, a public servant, who were at the railings and saw the overhead electric wire being brought down by gun-shots. Pathinathar had seen a policeman throwing a tear-gas bomb which did not explode, and then firing at the electric wire, resulting in a burning coil falling on him. We also learn that the foreign delegates had also confirmed that the Police had fired into the air. Sansoni avoided going into the issue beyond the official version.
Clearly, Sansoni was going along with suppressing the excesses of the police intervention, with a view to making it seem justifiable.
Reasons for police intervention
Sansoni simply holds that the Police were right in intervening, although Janarthanan never spoke on the platform, and cites the Magistrate that “it was this imminent possibility [of Janarthanan making a speech] that caused the Police intervention.” Sansoni argues that the Police had good reason to believe that the conditions for the issue of the permit were going to be violated, and had they waited for Janarthanan to begin, they could not have reached the platform in time to stop it.
de Kretzer quotes Mr. Kathiravelpillai, attorney-at-law and MP who soon after the disturbance had broken out, had telephoned the SP, Mitra Ariyasinghe, to stop it. The SP who was suffering from bronchitis had replied that the organisers had allowed Janarthanan to speak in breach of undertaking, and when the Police wentto stop the meeting, they had to use force because the people had obstructed them.
de Kretzer deemed this decision reckless, as the stampede and its consequences should have been foreseen, and that taking action then against a breach of the conditions of the permit, served no useful purpose. The ‘tactful’ course de Kretzer points out was quieta non movere (leave well alone) and prosecute the organisers later for a breach of the undertaking. de Kretzer wonders why it did not occur to the Police to send an officer or two to verify who the speaker was, and if there was no alternative, direct the organisers to close the meeting.
But Sansoni then tells us from the Magistrate’s record that HQI Nanayakkara who came from the platform, allegedly told ASP Chandrasekera that ‘Janarthanan was on the platform and a crowd was blocking the road’. The first we know was false, and the second the Police already knew and had allowed. This statement attributed to Nanayakkara, as we have pointed out, appears to be a police invention to justify the harsh action taken, retrospectively. The organisers had been firm in sending Janarthanan down the platform and there was no ‘imminent possibility’ of Janarthanan making a speech.
A key omission by Sansoni
Although contained in the de Kretzer Report, Sansoni, who was eager to justify the Police, paid no attention to the Police going berserk after the incident assaulting civilians on the streets and the Central Bus Stand, over a wide area of the city. This, the people remember vividly to this day. The ground situation from the early 1970s was that police–civilian relations were poor, and it was exceptionally that an arbitrary assault, of say a passing cyclist, was challenged in court. The common wisdom was not to tangle with the Police. The fact that the people had been terrorised after the incident above, places the Magistrate’s inquest in serious doubt, particularly when a police inspector under SP Ariyasinghe was leading the evidence.
A particular circumstance that was to become increasingly relevant in the coming years may be noted here. The Jaffna Police had been sent instructions through DIG van Twest that Janarthanan was a security risk who should not be allowed to speak. Normally the Police were expected to do no more than take prudent steps within the Law and then rely on the courts to deal with any breach. But in the situation above some unaccountably bad policing decisions were made.
One factor that was pronounced after the 1972 Constitution was that the politicians in power were leaning heavily on the Police. This was bound to make local police officials over- zealous in following instructions from politicians. This may be a factor in the events that took place.
It is interesting that when Amirthalingam charged that ASP Chandrasekera was promoted shortly after the IATR incident for his role in it, Sansoni refuted it by quoting Ariyasinghe. However, to one who knows how the system works, Ariyasinghe’s testimony supports Amirthalingam’s contention. According to the former, Chandrasekera’s promotion had already been due in September 1973 when he was in the Prime Minister’s security division!
There is little doubt that the Police after acting in an obnoxious manner commended themselves to the politicians as having averted a major catastrophe that would have been caused by Janarthanan, and to this end twisted the record. This tragedy that was caused on an occasion of immense emotional and cultural significance to the Tamils, was deeply offensive to them. The coalition government of the SLFP, LSSP and CP refused to give them a hearing. The Sansoni Commission rubbed salt into the wound.
The comparison between the de Kretzer and Sansoni reports gives us a fair assessment of the quality of analysis in the latter. The problem with the Sansoni Report becomes even more serious when it deals with the origins of the August 1977 violence.
*To be continued..
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here