It was on a day in the first week of July in 1980. I boarded the early morning Jaffna bound train at Fort Railway Station, Colombo, reserved a seat for my friend Mr. H.N. Fernando, then President of Ceylon Teachers’ Union, the most powerful teachers’ union in the island at that time. He had promised to accompany me to Jaffna as it was my first ever visit to the North and my purpose of the visit was to meet with the teacher–trainees in the Palali Teacher Training College .
The days were turbulent. The country was witnessing protest campaigns of the employees of government sector as well as of the private sector against the JR government’s economic policies. Some railway employees had been sacked and a trade unionist named Somapala had been killed by some pro government goons in front of his office in Fort,Colombo while he was leading a protest campaign during the lunch hour. Anti –government trade unions were holding discussions to launch a General Strike.
I waited and waited for H.N. but he did not turn up leaving me with no any other alternative but to continue my journey. I was a little bit scared to travel to the North alone as there had been sporadic anti Sinhala violence in the North in the previous year which, no doubt, was tit for tat .
At that time the only person I knew in the whole Jaffna Peninsula was Mr. and comrade T. Devarajah, the Jaffna District Secretary of Ceylon Teachers’ Union. We had met each other a few times in Colombo when we visited the Union office to take part in the Central Committee meetings. I did not know where his house was but I knew the postal address of his school, Mallakam Hindu College, Mallakam. My plan was to visit his school and get his home address from somebody. Yet I did not know how to get to Mallakam.
I struck up a conversation with a Tamil gentleman seated in the front seat. He gave me the necessary guidelines to get to Mallakam which was an indescribable relief to me. It was past noon when I got off the train at Jaffna from where I got a bus to Jaffna town. At the Jaffna bus station I was guided to a Kankasanthuri bus by a Tamil who could speak a little English. A passenger promised me to show where I have to get down to get to Mallakam Hindu College.
After forty five minutes or so I reached Mallakam. In five minutes I was in front of the school. Alas! The school gate was locked with a big iron chain and a padlock .There was not a single soul in the school premises to be seen. It was only then I remembered that it was a Sunday.
Now I was completely stranded in an unknown territory. To make the situation worse I knew no Tamil language barring three Tamil words Vanga, Ponga and a filthy word. The only option I had to choose was to start the return journey.
Fortunately a chap came to me and said something in Tamil. I told him in English why I came to school. To make the long story short he took me to the house of school principal which was 200 or so metres away.
He gave me the directions to get to Devarajah’s house situated at Inuvil on KKS road. Now I had to travel for a few miles back to get to Inuvil. Within 45 minutes I was able get to his home but he was not home as he had gone to water his red onion cultivation.
His wife welcomed me warmly and served me with refreshments though it was the first time she saw me.
Half an hour or so later Deva returned home and immediately invited me for lunch which had been prepared for me and H.N. In the evening he took me on his bike round the village and invited me to have some Palmirah toddy which I declined as I was a dedicated JVPer at that time. Now I repent for not accepting his invitation.
Until the dinner time we discussed politics and trade union activities. Deva believed in socialism and was sympathetic to the JVP.
In the early morning on the following day H.N. Fernando arrived at Deva’s home having travelled to Jaffna in the Night Mail train. We all left for Palali Teacher training College soon after the breakfast.
The road to the Teacher Training College lay in front of the Palali Army camp. I very well remember that there was only one sentry in front of the camp. He was the only soldier I saw during the two days I spent in Jaffna. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that the Jaffna peninsula would become a battle field in a few years time.
We were welcomed by the principal of the training college who, according to H.N., had been a member of Ceylon Teachers’ Union. He immediately arranged a meeting of class leaders of the trainees where we made speeches on the issues related to teacher trainees, teachers and education. At the end of the speeches we held a discussion together .
We left the College after the lunch offered by the principal. Deva went home and we went to the Kankasanthurei Railway Station to get to Colombo by night train.
Our teachers’ union joined hands with hundreds of other trade unions and launched the July General Strike from 17th July to 21st July demanding 300 rupee monthly salary increase. Devarajah led the strike in schools in Jaffna. JR and his Cabinet of Ministers were not willing to meet the demands of the strikers .The government sacked all the strikers. The trade Union movement in the country was not strong enough to face JR’s iron rule. Yet they continued a campaign demanding to reinstate all the sacked workers .
Devarajah who lost his job was not able to feed his family as the income from his cultivation was inadequate. That was the fate of almost all the strikers. Some started farming. Some started small scale businesses. Devaraja and some others went to Middle East countries for various jobs. I know of one lady teacher who went to Saudi Arabia and worked as a house maid there.
As a result of various campaigns conducted by trade unions and INGOs, NGOs locally and internationally JR government finally decided to reinstate the majority of strikers . As far as I remember Prime Minister R. Premadasa did not reinstate any of the strikers of the departments that came under his Ministry. Over 50 strikers committed suicide. The Ministry of Education was under Mr. Ranil Wicramasinghe and he reinstated all the teachers who had struck work. Devarajah returned to Sri Lanka when he was informed by the Union that he was going to be reinstated. Soon after assuming duties he once again started trade union activities .
Deva, a dedicated teacher, taught English in a number of schools including Kilinochchi Ramanathapuram West Government Tamil Mixed School, J/ Punkudutivu Maha Vidyalayam, J/Mallakam Maha Vidyalayam and retired from government service after serving as the Deputy Principal of Kokuvil Hindu College.
After retirement he joined Palali Teacher Training College as a part time lecturer and served there for a considerable period until he was appointed as the principal of Aston International School in Inuvil where he served for a considerable period of time.
He was a cricketer and worked so enthusiastically to promote cricket in Jaffna peninsula that he was elected as the treasurer of the Jaffna District Cricket Association.
I am penning this account because our friend and comrade Devarajah left us for good on Januaray 16th, one month ago at the age of 81 after a brief illness. Indeed it is a great loss not only for his family but also for the people of Jaffna.
Devarajah was against the LTTE. Hence it is a miracle that he lived so long because many of those who were against the LTTE were not allowed to live. May be he was not harmed because many in the area respected him. When I visited Jaffna to address the Annual Meeting of the Jaffana District Branch of Ceylon Teachers’ Union in 2004 he was not scared to criticize the LTTE before a gathering for charging the passengers an exorbitant amount who travelled from Omanthei to Muhamalei in the LTTE buses, which was a monopoly of them. Indeed, it was more than a miracle not to get killed in a war theatre where the Sri Lankan Army, The IPKF and the LTTE fought bitter battles for nearly 30 years.
*Premalal Bertie Ranaweerage – Former president of Ceylon Teachers’ Union