By Michael Roberts –
As a young teenager in the Netherlands Benjamin Bavinck (1924-2011) lived through the occupation of his country by the Nazi Germans. As he traversed the various war zones in Sri Lanka between 1988 and 2004, therefore, and recorded his experiences (in Dutch) in his diaries, he brought an experiential background that few other foreigners would have possessed. This pillar of experience was girded by two other sturdy characteristics: (1) what one can present as “Dutch phlegm” and (2) a commitment to the service of mankind that is a trait of those devoted to the helping professions.
Bavinck had committed himself to teaching at Jaffna College in 1954 and learnt Tamil during the course of his eighteen-year stint career in the island. He returned in 1988 to serve the Protestant Churches in different parts of Sri Lanka. He was working in various capacities in the helping profession within the Jaffna Peninsula in the period encompassed by Volume Two of his diaries, initially in the space of Thamililam under the LTTE and then, after the SL Army captured the greater part of the Peninsula in mid/late-1995, under the Government of Sri Lanka and its military arm.
E. Valentine Daniel, a Malaiyaha Tamil and one of my friends from the hills who has risen to high academic status as an anthropologist in USA, was a student at Jaffna College from 1962 and knew Bavinck as teacher, while subsequently sustaining an adult friendship with the good man. The introduction which he has provided to all readers of this documentary source within Volume One is invaluable and becomes mandatory reading for all serious investigators.
Take note of one of his evaluations of Bavinck: “[n]ot only has Ben been a self-reliant man, he taught every student that came his way the art of being self-reliant, and along with this, his students took in lessons of self-control, industriousness, thrift, privacy, modesty and plainness which resonated with their own beliefs and practices in the making. Apart from not being a teacher in the conventional sense, he always was and still is a student; but not a student who studies us, but one who studies with us and among us — a participant-observer-student-teacher.”
Val’s assessment of Bavinck as “a fiercely independent person” is reinforced at every turn as one digests his diary entries. As he states,, Bavinck’s commentary provides one with “a balanced account” – one that is “reflective…fair …. deliberative” (Daniel). In brief one cannot ask for a better historical source –a resource that is. So one can anoint Daniel’s emphasis: “[Bavinck’s] diary is a gift, not only to the historian and research scholar, but to every Tamil and Sinhalese citizen, whatever be the state with which he or she chooses to identify himself/herself with.”
In early 1989 Bavinck’s diary records a discussion with Dr. Rajani Thiranagama nee Rajasingam (also spelt Rajasingham) and in subsequent months his interactions with Rajani’s father (a Christian Tamil and retired mathematics teacher) and Rajan Hoole, K. Sritharan and Daya Somasunderam deepened. This was the core group behind voices of protest within the domains commanded by the LTTE. These were quintessentially Tamil and humanist voices, directed against LTTE excesses in the Peninsula and elsewhere (while also pinpointing governmental atrocities). In consequence Rajani was murdered by the Tigers on the 21st September 1989.
This did not deter the sturdy personnel of the UTHR circle. Hoole and Sritharan were constantly in hiding and on the move thereafter. From that point on The Broken Palmyrah and the series of web publications under the rubric “University Teachers for Human Rights” have presented their sombre findings on killings and misdemeanours from all sides engaged in the conflict in Sri Lanka.
It is in the same spirit that Bavinck pens his diary entries, pursuing a middle path and advocating a modus vivendi between the Sinhalese government dispensation and a Tamil dispensation that was now dominated by the LTTE. Indeed, those reading his diaries will find several entries detailing conversations and sojourns with old Mr. Rajasingam as well as the younger activists of the UTHR circle.
In his public ruminations once Val Daniel made a passing suggestion that he considered Ben Bavinck to be a Tamil. Maybe. But Bavinck’s diaries demonstrate that he was also sturdy Dutch in his resoluteness, courage and engaged commentary as a moderate voice crunched in-between extreme forces. A nuanced study will probably discern moments when his “foreign-ness” enabled him to opt for hard choices between the devil (LTTE) and the deep blue see (GSL) in ways which went beyond his UTHR comrades. That is a puzzle I leave for serious students of his material.
Bavinck did not pen an entry every day. Sometimes an entry covered the short period which intervened between entries. Nor was he resident in Sri Lanka throughout the period embraced by Volume Two. There were occasions when he was on leave-either on furlough in Holland or on business in USA as a member of the Congregational Council overseeing Jaffna College and the American Mission’s activities in Sri Lanka. Thus in utilizing Volume two of his published diaries, one must note his absence from Sri Lanka in the following periods:
I will be presenting extracts from his diary entries arranged on thematic lines. In doing so readers and researchers should attend to two cautionary notes that I attached in my presentation of Volume One. (A) “His information … is a voice of his times and conveys invaluable information. It should not be dismissed as ‘gossip,’ though of course some of the reportage has to be treated cautiously as second-hand or third-hand reportage of events that Bavinck did not witness himself. These tales, clearly, must be sifted and evaluated in the light of other contemporaneous information.” (B) “This is down-to-earth testimony…the data brings out the immediacy of the moment as well as the complexities of the ground situation amidst daily life. This is truly riveting material. Absorb it carefully.”
With Volume Two I am planning to extract the following “Motifs” or “Tracks,” but it is possible that adjustments will be made to these intentions.
- Ben Bavinck’s Personal Stance
- The Tamil Intelligentsia for the LTTE
- Tamils In-between and Shifting Currents
- GSL Shelling, Excesses & Atrocities
- Tiger Atrocities and Controls
- Prabhākaran as Fascist
- The Cult of the Māvīrar among Tigers & Tamils
- Incidents: The Enforced “Exodus” mid-1995
- Incidents: The Puttur East Incident
- Insights on Tamil Lifeways and Culture
SELECT BIBILIOGRAPHY re PREVIOUS PRESENTATIONS OF THE BAVINCK DIARIES
“Val Daniel’s Introduction of Ben Bavinck and Ben’s Diary over the Years of Conflict in Lanka,” 11 September 2011, http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2011/09/11/val-daniels-introduction-of-ben-bavinck-and-bens-dairy-over-the-years-of-conflict-in-lanka/
“Ben Bavinck’s Jaffna Diaries: Extracts in Himal,” 9 April 2011, http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2011/04/09/2019/
Ahilan Kadirgamar: “A Life of Solidarity: Ben Bavinck, a Jaffna Man — 25 February 1924 to 11 August 2011,” http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2011/08/21/a-life-of-solidarity-ben-bavinck-a-jaffna-man-25-february-1924-to-11-august-2011/ and Sunday Island, 21 August 2011
Michael Roberts: “Shelling Suffering of the Tamil People, 1990-91 – Ben Bavinck,” 15 September 2011. http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2011/09/15/shelling-suffering-of-the-tamil-people-1990-91-%e2%80%93-ben-bavinck/
Michael Roberts: “Sandwiched in between: Tamil Dissidents and Others in the Furnace of War & its Killings, January 1989-late 1990 via Ben Bavinck’s Diary,” 29 September 2011, http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2011/09/29/sandwiched-in-between-tamil-dissidents-and-others-in-the-furnace-of-war-its-killings-january-1989-late-1990-via-ben-bavinck%e2%80%99s-diary/
Michael Roberts: “Pirapāharan as uncompromising killer prone to vengeance: testimonies from the Jaffna heartland, 1989-91,” 1 November 2011, http://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2011/11/01/pirapaharan-as-uncompromising-killer-prone-to-vengeance-testimonies-from-the-jaffna-heartland-1989-91/
 His diary entries in the mid-1990s reveal that Bavinck continued to study Tamil and seek mastery in expression.
 His diary entry runs thus: “Afterwards I also met Rajan Hoole, who explained that the leading thought behind the founding of the UTHR (J) was the feeling that there was nobody to oppose the principle “Might is right!”, not even the churches. The churches thought that the only possible approach was through silent diplomacy. Rajan thought that if the LTTE had had respect for the churches they would have listened.”
 Also see Rajan Hoole, The Arrogance of Power, 2000.
 Daniel indicates that this was at a Keynote Address on “Who is a Tamil?” before the International Centre for Ethnic Studies.