By Rajan Hoole –
25th Anniversary of the Assassination of Dr. Rajani Thiranagama
We are living through an era where the powers that be have become very cynical about life. In their very nature it suits them to dismiss any attempt to remember one life lost or to seek justice for one killed as wasting time over a single speck among tens of thousands who suffered a similar fate. They know that to go deep into any one death, to expose culpability and explain the irreparable harm it does to all of us, is to place the edifice of power on trial. That is why the memory of Rajani is so important; she was just such a person who insisted that the memory of every person who was a victim of organised, institutional violence was sacred, and that the whole truth should be placed on record for the people to judge. The public values she espoused, worked, and died for, are an important part of our heritage, particularly of left activism, that are an inspiration to those who come after her.
Left activism was always important in mobilising the marginalised and giving them a voice – in particular the oppressed castes throughout the country and the Hill Country Tamils. Today, when the need for such activism is even more keenly felt, people have no stomach for it. Former left activists in the South see a hopefully reformed UNP as the only hope against a Rajapakse-led SLFP. Among Tamil leftists there is the despondency that makes one feel that one cannot make any impact in politics without an alliance with the nationalist TNA to alleviate the tragic plight of the Tamils, even as it is eminently answerable for this plight.
At the time of Independence, the Left had in its ranks some of the greatest intellects this country had nurtured, and their parliamentary speeches at that time stand testimony to it. The internationalism of Dr. N.M Perera, Dr. Colin R. De Silva, and Harry Abeygoonewardena came through strongly in the citizenship debates, as opposed to the ethnic parochialism of the rulers, and reflected accurately the future fate of the country. Yet when debating the Motion of Independence from 1st to 3rd December 1947 (the prelude to the Ceylon Independence Act in Britain), none of them seemed wise to what it was that the Government was really trying to hide. They seemed unduly distracted by the Defence Agreement with Britain and failed to see the true extent of the Government’s deceit. That came in the form of the classic double-cross eight months later – the Citizenship Bill.The Left’s failure to move beyond words of censure to check this enormity against the working classes spelt the beginning of its slow decay.
From its early dawn in the 1930s, indignation against social oppression and the need for an organised effort to relieve it motivated sensitive youth to take to left activism. Rajani, as a medical doctor, would readily have empathised with Dr. S.A. Wickremasinghe, who speaking in 1935 for the abolition of “social and economic inequality and oppression arising from differences of class, caste, race, creed and sex” that were consequences of political subjection, described the savage conditions in a village, Talahena, not far from Colombo. He had seen a mother who had given birth to a child lying on a dirty mat. The body was laid on a “kolapotha” with no clothes on. The mother was suffering from malaria. There was no help in the house save a boy at the door, presumably to drive the devil out. He contrasted this with the wealth and waste indulged in by the upper classes and the political elite.
The early idealism of the Left made a strong impression on students into the 1970s, and the leaders were giants in their time. At that time they truly represented the racial equality to which the so-called liberal democracy in this country only paid lip service. Regi Siriwardene reflects as a young insider in the 1940s how the killing of the worker Govindan in the Mooloya Estate strike of 1940 became a political issue that exemplified the preponderance class politics then over ethnic politics: “No demagogue or careerist in the South today would try to make political capital out of the killing of a Tamil estate worker. Nor would any Southern-based political party mount a national agitation as the LSSP did, for the prosecution for murder of a Sinhalese sergeant who had shot the Tamil worker. For that matter the national conscience would hardly be agitated today by the question of whether the killing of one man was justified or not.” Today’s indifference to a plethora of crimes by the State, frequently with an ethnic colouring, that are denied or covered up, shows where we stand. Even the token attempts in the 1990s to address crimes during the suppression of the 1987 – 1990 JVP insurgency, are now missing (see Arrogance of Power). The result is the hopeless degeneration of national life into crime, violence, communalism and corruption.
The fall of the Left in 1964 into compromise with communalism and narrow nationalism was truly a great fall, like that of the proverbial Knights of the Round Table:
“For now I see the true old times are dead,
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.” 
The Left failed to discern at the time of independence that the departing British and their local surrogates had connived to undermine them by the simple expedient of decitizenising a large segment of the working class. Siriwardene mentions in particular the Left being caught on the wrong foot over the language issue, its failure to come to terms with the JVP uprising in 1971 which also claimed left inspiration, its patronising inability to comprehend the gravity of Tamil nationalism, the statism inherent in its 1972 constitution that further exacerbated the minorities question, and its failure to see in federalism a solution to the latter.
The fall of the Left meant that there was no one, no grouping, that the country or the the youth, could look up to in the hope that wrongs would be righted. To Regi Siriwardene (ibid), the fall did not ‘accentuate any feelings of nostalgia’: “I am too conscious of the roads not taken, the possibilities left unfulfilled, for that. Unlike those who look back to those years as a political Eden before the fall of 1964, I see the decline as inherent in the limitations and partialities of the vision of the earlier period…the vanguard party had no viability once the LSSP moved into the period of open mass politics…The vanguard model was born under conditions of Russian autocracy; the assumption it implied, that one party had the monopoly of programmatic wisdom, was incompatible with a competitive political system. In the contemporary world, in societies possessing such a system, the motor of social change has not been a single party but a combination of many forces, including not only political parties but also social action groups of various kinds, and Sri Lanka hasn’t proved an exception.”
Rajani came into left politics conscious of the developments sketched above. She did not look to building a party, but rather a plural social movement in her locality, which would gain strength through small victories, and by forming ties of solidarity across Lanka, South Asia and the wider world.
For Rajani life could find meaning only in partaking of the spirit and tribulations of her own people for whose destiny she felt responsible. Unlike some for which such tribulations could narrow their humanity, it broadened Ranjani’s scope. She was disciplined to think as an internationalist, and one could hardly identify with the suffering in the wider world, if one chose to distance oneself from the sufferings of the people one was born among, who formed the most meaningful sphere of one’s action. Thus even amidst the trauma of the Indian Army’s takeover, she felt deep sympathy for the peasant soldiers from Punjab, Bihar, and Bengal who were dying in Jaffna without any clue about why they were sent and what they were meant to accomplish.
Her actions were about integrity in the commitments she had undertaken rather than popularity or fame. She sought to work among the outcasts of society, whose sufferings were good for nationalist propaganda, but not to identify with and find common cause. She worked with women who had been abused and traumatised. Once politically motivated and able to stand up for themselves, they could become a bastion of strength within society to change people’s outlook and attitudes. As part of their education they were encouraged to learn from experiences and struggles in other societies. She felt a deep sense of solidarity for struggles everywhere, particularly the plight of hill country Tamils and the Sinhalese rural folk caught up in terror and counter-terror during her last years. It stands testimony to her character and sense of mission that she returned from England with her two little daughters into the web of the very organisation whose inhumanity she had come to detest. Former Tanzanian foreign minister and subsequent political prisoner and exile, Mr. Mohamed Abdul Rahuman Babu, testified to Rajani’s internationalism and her faith in the triumph of justice at the commemoration for her at the University of Jaffna, 22nd November 1989:
“I first met her at a meeting organised by the African students in London in support of the Eritrean people to self determination. You’ll be surprised that Rajani, coming from Jaffna, getting herself involved in an issue that does not concern Tamils,…but concerns a remote people, three million people, in a corner of Africa, which Africa itself has ignored. You hear of liberation struggles, of Angola, of Mozambique, of South Africa. It’s fashionable to talk about these struggles, but you don’t hear about the struggle of the Eritrean people, because it has been embargoed, because it is a black colonial power against a black people. So to find somebody like Rajani conscious of this says a lot about the kind of person she was.
“Rajani lived and died at a great moment in history when we are seeing significant changes taking place in the Third World. The Third World went through the first phase of struggling for independence, and we were all involved in the national liberation struggles in one way or another. We got our independence only to discover that that independence has been hijacked. It had not served the people, but served a handful of people. It has left the poor people of Africa and Asia in a most poverty stricken state of affairs ever experienced in history…
“It is no longer a struggle against a distant oppressor…But it is a struggle within ourselves, and it needs a lot of determination and sacrifice because in this struggle it is easy to be isolated, it is easy to be called the enemy of the people, an enemy of the state. So the cost is very high and Rajani sacrificed her life for that, to side with the people.”
A strong element in Rajani’s passion for justice was her insistence on human relationships untrammeled by artificial barriers thrown up by institutions and discriminatory policies and customs. She detested any idea of greatness that required making others small through human barriers, institutional power, enforced poverty, and deprivation. Her main criticism of the LTTE was related to this. An unjust order, however distressing, was irrational, a transient will-o’-the-wisp, that leaves in a discerning observer a great sense of foreboding of an ephemeral order that is extremely destructive while it lasts. Time and again, our attention was drawn to what the South African struggle, one that Rajani closely identified with, shared with our own.
Most militant groups had a core that could appreciate persons with ability, people who could steer organisations in a healthy direction, joining other groups. It brought closer cooperation for the common public good. The LTTE on the other hand looked only at its narrow interests and targeted talented persons in other groups for elimination. A consequence was that any criticism of it became anathema. The cost of Prabhakaran’s greatness was a society paralysed by terror. It was such a leadership that led the people into the killing fields of Mullivaykkal in 2009, with hardly a voice from the senior Tamil political leadership raised in protest, except that of Mr. Anandasangari.
Rajani was keenly conscious of the inevitable attraction of movements such as the LTTE to the young who felt powerless against an arrogant and brutal state. She believed that every life was precious and opposed individual killings for political ends. While she had no doubt that Prabhakaran was the immediate obstacle to the Tamils being allowed breathing space, any anger she felt against him was muted by what she felt for the callous and thoughtless opportunism of her own class – the good middle class TULF supporters.
With the understanding and sympathy Rajani felt for youth who took to violence against the State, she tried to engage with them frankly. Her constant message to them was, “I agree with you that the actions of the State are without excuse and we care no less about liberation than you do. Liberation must begin with questioning ourselves. But the way you are getting about it, wounding our society grievously by your actions, would weaken and humiliate us and render us servile before the State and larger powers.”
Through the 1980s, seeing what she conceived as a people’s struggle being utterly debauched, with nothing left except the ambitions of a few who did not baulk at mass murder, Rajani was moved to write these damning words:
“The Tigers’ history, their theoretical vacuum, lack of political creativity, intolerance and fanatical dedication will be the ultimate cause of their own break up. The legendary Tigers will go to their demise with their legends smeared with the blood and tears of victims of their own misdoings. A new Tiger will not emerge from their ashes. Only by breaking with this whole history and its dominant ideology, can a new liberating outlook be born.” (The Broken Palmyra Vol. II, 6.3.4)
Rajani’s activism was motivated by the understanding that ordinary people who want to get on with life without being weighed down by antagonisms, have a natural propensity for reconciliation. A senior lady from a leading traditional Left family observed that when Tamils from the Vanni were driven to IDP camps after the last round of war, many ordinary Sinhalese went with food and other necessities for them. The Army stopped them and took their donations saying they would deal with the matter. The lady observed, “That is the point where reconciliation should have begun, with people to people contact. The opportunity was lost.”
We are writing this book, not only as a tribute to Rajani, but also to remind the people and leaders of our country of the need at this time to uphold the ideals of justice and reconciliation that Rajani stood for.
*25th Anniversary of the Assassination of Dr. Rajani Thiranagama – 21st September 2014
Documents on Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy 1947 – 1965, esp. speeches by Pieter Kenuman and Dr. N.M. Perera, p. 67 ff, Amal Jayawardane Ed., Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, Colombo. While the Defence Agreement with Britain of 11th November 1947 may have emboldened Senanayake to aggressive posturing against India during the passage of the Citizenship Acts, the military assistance from Britain was conditional ‘as it may be in their mutual interest to provide’.
 As late as 1947, D.S. Senanayake told the House during the debate on the White Paper, “We have no such [snobbish ideas that Indians are not wanted here]…We love the Indians…There is hardly any difference with regard to the view of my learned friend Diwan Bahadur I.X. Perera himself…My friend says, ‘We want full citizenship’. I tell you, ‘If you live here, we will embrace you’.”
 Inaugural meeting of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, 21 Dec.1935, Ceylon Daily News, 23 Dec. 1935
 Working Underground, The LSSP in Wartime: A Memoir of Happenings and Personalities, ICES, 1999
 Alfred Tennyson, Morte d’Arthur