By Rajan Hoole –
In the normal course of events my long friendship and brotherly regard for Sritharan, or Sugu, as he is called, and to several of his colleagues, particularly Subathiran, or Robert, would have been unusual. Those of us whose training had a professional bias and had successful careers with domestic felicity mapped out for us, often ceased to think about things that really matter. That would normally have been perfectly all right. But when these persons also had a vicarious urge to be heroes of Tamil nationalism, they also gave their voice and tacit approval to maligning and killing as traitors, those who thought and felt for the utterly hapless plight of ordinary people, repeatedly forced into wars they never wanted.
For persons who took the road that Sugu took, life has been full of painful challenges that would have broken most of us. Sugu’s political career goes back to about the era of the 1980 general strike for very basic workers’ demands that was brutally broken up by JR’s government, using JSS thugs, whom President JR ordered to have a counter-demonstration on 24th May. They were used again in the 1983 communal violence. This was the last time perhaps when there was an organised workers’ movement, supported by leading figures as Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe. It was also a testing time for the Tamil nationalists. My colleague Sritharan, who was then a lecturer in Jaffna University, went with a delegation to ask the leadership of the TULF to express solidarity with the workers. They were evasive and Mr. Sivasithamparam suggested to them that it was a Sinhalese problem that did not concern the Tamils. Being the main opposition party this was irresponsible and insensitive. After what happened subsequently, I need not expatiate on the historic irony and stupidity of that position, waiting for JR to deliver.
Those like Sugu, who were early members of the EPRLF, struggled both intellectually and emotionally, to start a people’s movement that would be both internationalist and rigorously dedicated to the interests of the people, going against the high tide of Tamil nationalism that brought the LTTE to the fore. It is not hard to understand why several of those who were with him, from Balakumar’s section of the EROS to Premachandran, more recently, plunged into the Tamil nationalist tide that swept people along to the horrors of Mullivaykkal.
To give a flavour of the EPRLF in the 1980s, I will do well to quote N. Pathmanathan, one of our leading civil servants, who did a term in prison under the PTA from 1983 to 1987. He was helping other PTA detainees to prepare their cases. He was astounded upon reading the charges against an EPRLF prisoner caught putting up posters in Vavuniya, which called upon Tamil and Sinhalese workers to get together and launch a united struggle to establish a workers’ state that would guarantee equality to everyone. Pathmanathan was struck by the irony of detaining on a separatist charge, a man who should have been honoured for his dedication to national unity.
Sugu, whom we felicitate today on the launch of his book, we may say belongs to the remnants of the historic workers’ movement that took a last stand on their behalf in 1980. The crushing of that movement enabled the same methods to be used against Tamils while our leaders slept. Sugu is among the rare souls who have been through decades of fury and murder and have come out with their character unblemished. What helped him along was his sound intellect, constantly renewing itself through study, interaction with the world and compassion for the suffering. It is the kind of quality intellect that would be out of place in protected academic establishments where place-hunting is the norm. A scholarly mind as Sugu’s is rooted in a large universe spanning space and time, and derives confidence and reassurance from the wisdom of the ages.
The collection of his articles titled ‘To a new generation that consecrates Humanity’ is dedicated to ‘the dead and disappeared in the struggle for the dawn of humanity’ where he quotes Bharathy’s dedication to the freedom fighters of India – ‘[May their] dreams come true’. Both Bharathy and the lines from Tagore he quotes “Where the mind is without fear…Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way…Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake”, are an indicator of the man’s heart and his aspirations.
Like the two of his mentors, Sugu is an unswerving internationalist. This comes through in his article on the US – British led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and his joy at the Arab Spring and anxiety at its delicacy. Through his sense of reality and disappointments he has faced, he tries to see things in the light of reason and the way the world works, and his emotion is characteristically restrained. As a man who placed his life on the line in search of a liberated order, his words have a poignant ring, when he describes the culture of murder that struck parents and children at unseemly hours, and abducted children to fight wars that the elite were running away from, and remarks: “For us who have adopted such abominable practices to seek franchise and recognition in the civilised world is utterly unworthy.”
The contrast between nationalism and internationalism explicates how Tamil nationalist ritual has pushed the Tamils into a dead end. It is a ritual for power and position that ‘intellectuals’ and academics participate in. One hears professors say in public that the Tamil people gave their support for the wars fought against the Indian and Sri Lankan forces. It is a gross misrepresentation of a people misled and forced to suffer by the opportunism of their elite, for whom war has become a plaything. There is no heroism or romance in war.
Today we take it for granted that governments who fight wars are obliged to protect civilians on the opposing side and that a disarmed combatant is entitled to the rights of a civilian. But these are recent developments starting with President Lincoln’s Lieber Code of 1863 and internationally adopted by the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. What the rules of war were, until then, is given in a court judgment of 1774 by Lord Mansfield:
“It is left by the constitution to the king’s authority to grant or refuse a capitulation.” – Here he puts the instance of his acquiring a right over the lives of the conquered people. If the king refuses to grant the right of capitulation, which he may do, he may take the lives of those who are disposed to capitulate, and if he puts the inhabitants to the sword, all the lands belong to him. “If he receives the inhabitants under his protection, and grants them their property, he has the power to fix such terms and conditions as he thinks proper.”
Here the conquered people had no protection of the law. Typically they would be at the discretion of a governor or military commander. In Roman positive or arbitrary law (ius gentium), as a concession, a defeated people could be made slaves rather than be put to the sword.
Today we demand our lands back and investigations into misconduct by soldiers on the winning side. Nationalists have no moral right to make these demands and from them it would be sheer hypocrisy. Nationalism is fundamentally about blood and gore. Internationalists like Sugu are morally bound and have the right to make these demands; demands that were made law by dedicated internationalists. We should be thankful that the Sinhalese largely agree. Even today the old laws of war cast their shadow over the present, as instanced for example in the plight of civilians in Iraq, Syria and Palestine.
It could be said that in 1983 the Jayewardene government declared war on the Tamil civilians. Massacres followed. Then one cannot deny that the end to this phase with the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord, as Sugu points out, owed much to the combined effort of all the militant groups. The LTTE’s enforced monopoly of the militancy in mid-1986 led to only reverses, as in Vadamaratchi and Kokkadichcholai that were checked by India’s intervention. The LTTE could not accept that India saved the Tamils from ignominy and the settlement under the Accord owed much to all the groups combined. Its heroic image had been shattered. The next four wars were unwanted.
The Tamils having struggled and lost many lives for the devolution of power, when it came in 1988, there were no takers. The LTTE called the Accord a betrayal, then started a war with India and in three successive years, as Sugu points out, killed three leading contributers to it, Mr. A. Amirthalingam, EPRLF leader Padmanabha and Rajiv Gandhi. Sugu claims with justification that the EPRLF’s willingness to run the North-East provincial administration along with the SLMC and ENDLF saved it from being swept under the carpet. It was in 1990 dissolved by President Premadasa at the LTTE’s behest. Premadasa allowed the LTTE to run the North-East, while cooperating with its murder and prisons without a formal political arrangement – that would have been embarrassing to both.
Then having started the war on 8th June 1990 with the government of Premadasa, whom it eventually killed, the LTTE was never able to put anything in place of the North-East Provincial Council. That is why, Sugu says, although accepting office in the two provincial councils of the North and East, the Tamil nationalists find it irritable to talk about the history behind it. Prabhakaran has gone, leaving the Tamils trapped in his rhetorical legacy. Vigneswaran from Amirthalingam’s party is now Chief Minister of the North. He has called Prabhakaran a great man. Where then do we go from here? Amirthalingam’s party can neither own him who became LTTE’s traitor, nor disown him without looking ridiculous. They can never talk seriously about devolution, because a vocal group would belabour them as traitors unless the package includes the right to self-determination, read separation.
Thus the Tamils are forced to live in political limbo, perhaps just as well. We can today not put together a high quality team of administrators the North-East Provincial Council was able to draw together in 1989. The administrators today will have to come from Jaffna University whose rhetorical politics is of the Tiger, Pongu Tamil and Eluga Tamil variety and whose ideology and ritual is Hindu of the narrow, casteist and exclusivist kind, which is contemptuous of secularism. To serve the Tamils in the modern world and to release them from limbo, the University as well as Tamil politics need to be taken to the cleaners. Sugu describes the political culture articulated by our civil society and intellectuals as Puli-ism (Tigerism), under which he says the civilised world would never accept us as a civil or political entity having a say in the affairs of the world.
Sugu is by no means dismissive of the terrible role the state has played in this saga, nor the indefensible violations of his own party, the EPRLF, which included murder and abduction of youth for the ill-fated Tamil National Army, while they were part of the provincial government. Ironically, a group of the party that was reputed for notoriety at that time joined in 1999 the LTTE-sponsored Tamil National Alliance to become a leading voice of Puli-ism.
We are all scarred by the violence that Tamil nationalism and Sinhalese state ideology subjected us to. Some killed because they had a gun in hand and felt threatened, but the rest of us killed by our thoughts and words by supporting murder as a right of the Tigers or by branding others insensitively and insultingly. And the reality was that you could often speak your mind bluntly to an officer in the Indian or the Sri Lankan Army without feeling threatened, but hardly ever to someone infected with Puli-ism. Today’s nationalist leaders became very reliant on army and police protection, especially after the murders of Thangathurai and Neelan Thiruchelvam who were among our sanest leaders. We are no longer saints.
The pervasive threat of murder for their political views drove people to places where they did not want to go and do things they did not want to do and some of these are persons of the highest calibre whom we treated insensitively. One example is Muhunthan, an EPRLF man with a keen intellect who was trained to and wanted to protect and develop the resources of the North-East. He was imprisoned and barbarously killed by the LTTE. Sugu and Subathiran after they came out of Sri Lankan prison in 1987 faced a painful dilemma. The EPRLF leadership decided to cooperate with the Indian Army after it came under fire from the LTTE. Both of them from what I heard from a PLOTE member who was in prison with them, were opposed to it, fearful of where it might lead them. Sugu’s wife Gnana was among the earliest to take the leadership to task for its silence over Indian Army atrocities near her home in Urumpirai in October 1987.
But the question for them was not so simple. They were senior members responsible for many of the cadres being in the EPRLF. To leave them without guidance or protection and run away was also betrayal. Like many who were their comrades, they had the ability to go abroad, get qualified and disappear from the scene. Sugu and Subathiran remained out of a sense of responsibility. Even many who went abroad could not cut themselves off. Their conscience kept troubling them.
I was told by a government officer about the plight of LTTE conscripts, injured with limbs impaired, who are in a state of utter neglect in the Vanni. They are on wheelchairs and have no toilets to serve their needs and are forced to defecate in plastic bags. One day he was approached by a former EPRLF man who fled the country under the LTTE’s threat and has done well in Switzerland. He wanted to help these injured former cadres. The officer told him that he cannot get directly involved as he would come under army suspicion. But this former EPRLF man made his own contacts and now comes regularly to attend to the needs of these former conscripts.
After the Provincial Council fiasco, Sugu and Subathiran insisted that they would function as a political group and not as an armed group. Subathiran put his military training to good account and was a first rate human rights investigator. He quickly marshalled the necessary information to establish who was responsible for shooting down the Lionair flight in 1998. As a member of the Jaffna Municipal Council he provided the backbone for Mayor Sellan Kandian to defy the LTTE ban and reopen the Jaffna Public Library in early 2003. The LTTE killed him a few weeks later. Subathiran had demonstrated the power of democratic action against heavy odds.
As part of his routine, Subathiran had tapped telephone conversations between LTTE spokesmen and leading government officials during the 2002 peace process. One was a cosy conversation in English between Pulidevan and a government official with inquiries about family concerns, sightseeing and shopping. But the people in Jaffna were not allowed even a public library. The movement was cracking and yet could rest and offer its people peace. Unlike Pulidevan, Karuna saw the coming cataclysm and got out in time. One of the most indefensible actions of the Kumaratunga government was to, in 2004, stand by and lend complicity to the LTTE massacre of Karuna’s cadres and conscript children, and then use the survivors as the Army’s killers.
Sugu and Subathiran constantly had the people’s suffering at heart and did what they could to relieve it. Openings they could have had were blocked by the nationalist TNA, who used nationalist rhetoric to obtain perks of office, mainly to play dogs in the manger.
As with Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, whose activism was triggered by the human devastation she witnessed around Nallur Kandasamy Kovil in the wake of the Indian Army offensive, for Sugu and Robert the heart of their political activism inspired by Marx was rooted in mobilising the people who felt victimised, and powerless, to unite and realise their strength. This could be seen in the rise of social democracy in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century.
For a man whose youth was rooted in liberation struggles around the world he studied closely, Sugu’s recent articles evince disillusionment with violence even as a tactical or fall back measure. He speaks with admiration for Gandhi’s ahimsa and satyagraha as the way forward for the Tamils and counsel’s Communists in India who recently experienced electoral setbacks, to go back to their roots in Marx.
Since we have been on the subject of liberation, I proceed to leave you with a final thought. We lived in times when many of the brave and good who were with us are no more. That leaves a heavy burden to be borne by us who are alive, to ensure that they did not die in vain and their memories do not fade. As much as opportunity allowed, I have been making inquiries about the students of my time in the University who were consumed by terror. One of them is George Manoharan, who was not involved with any political party, but was a Christian pacifist concerned with human rights. I was recently told by his fellow student the kind of influence he exercised. There was a political slogan having the LTTE’s approval about the most important ‘dhanam’ or sacrifice. The approved answer was ‘irattha dhanam’ or the gift of one’s life. Manoharan used to tell his colleagues that it is rather ‘avadhanam’, namely ‘alertness’.
Taking into account the ambience of terror at that time and the fact that this youth suffered torture and death a few months later, that remark becomes a plaintive critique of Puli-ism. It is not about the past, but rather about the present and future. Instead of learning from the past to correct ourselves and move forward, we look for bogies to wallow in the same mire, without realising that the world and the old bogies, the Sinhalese and India are all the time changing and new opportunities and challenges are coming our way. Sugu is very sensitive to these changes and his writings, achievements and pitfalls provide a starting point for a new leadership.