By Rajan Hoole –
Dr. Rajani Thiranagama was killed 25 years ago on 21st September 1989
Every death, as Rajani said, is a monumental tragedy that needs to be accounted for and the moment we lose that human empathy and become apathetic or indifferent, we are, as a people, doomed. While death and loss was not confined to one community, we Tamils believed in the liberation struggle, lost a great deal, sheltered behind apathy while many of our best were killed as traitors and children of the vulnerable sections dragooned off to fight a doomed war. We are now the living dead, corrupt and subservient, unable to run the institutions we have for the public good, appeasing the new order by pretending that the liberation struggle was something we had no part in, and those who died for it as completely alien to us. With her keen understanding of society and the dangerous shallowness of narrow elite nationalism, Rajani foresaw this betrayal as her writings in the Broken Palmyra show. She saw it was the poor and downtrodden who were at the receiving end. Her ears and heart were open to all; she pleaded that to avert our common dismal fate, our politics should become more open, and we should reach out to the wider world as a people deserving sympathy.
While being an internationalist from her university days, Rajani joined the LTTE as a reaction to the hypocrisy of Tamil nationalist politics, upon seeing, first as a doctor, the sacrificial earnestness of some LTTE cadres. She left in disgust upon being exposed to the trauma of young persons, whose sacrifice was being cynically betrayed. As with Tamil nationalist parliamentary politics, she saw that the LTTE was a prisoner of its rhetoric of Tamil valour and its heroic destiny and could only impose greater sacrifices on an unwilling people and severe repression against those who questioned it, while being drawn into new and malign forms of dependence. Nationalism when admired for its military feats has been a source of dangerous delusions.
The stunning victory of the Japanese against the Russian Navy, then a major European Imperial Power, in the Tsushima Strait in 1905, charged up nationalist movements from China and Vietnam to India, Turkey and the Islamic World with fresh fervour for throwing off European Imperial dominance and asseting national independence. But they lost sight of the fact that Nationalism was already an outmoded and gangrenous sore. Japan’s was not an agenda for the liberation of Asia, but an imperial agenda for posession, particularly Manchuria and Korea. Its victory was not made in Japan but in current imperial rivalies, and the Japanese Navy was armed largely by Britain. Japan’s hubris eventually led to the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
We failed to appreciate that nationalism was ultimately predatory in character. Once the beast of nationalism is awakened, its depredations as we have seen may be more insidious and incurable when exercised by groups within the whimsical boundaries of modern states. The predatory spirit of nationalism inspired by Japan’s victory, marred the independence of nations from colonial rule. Take education.
After 65 years of independence, why do we still hold degrees and doctorates from western nations in high regard and treat ours with increasing skepticism? Did we not have the potential for our universities to equal Oxford and Cambridge? The failure has much to do with our partisanship and violence that are an aspect of nationalism, which made impunity tolerable when the victim was not in our group. For us, the disenfranchisement of Plantation Labour of recent Indian origin in 1948 using tenuous arguments founded on Legal Positivism, then the vogue in English Law, brought us to Sinhalese majoritarianism and frequently, total eclipse of the rule of law. In India it begun with the trauma of Partition that owed to the refusal of Hindu Nationalists to treat the Muslims as equals. In both instances the predatory aspect of nationalism stunted us and our institutions. As an internationalist and a keen participant in solidarity movements across national boundaries, and an early supporter of the African National Congress, Rajani understood this and in the development of her thinking distinguished between narrow nationalism and the kind of nationalism dictated by the defence of a community and struggled to maintain that distinction against the noxious rhetorical legacy of a bankrupt parliamentary nationalism, which had legitimised the murder of so-called traitors. Some left militant groups too tried and failed.
As one whose perceptions were moulded by state-complicity in communal violence, Rajani accepted the Tamil Nation as forced upon us by events, but whose materialisation was conditional upon the Tamils’ success in nation-building, to include Muslims and Hill-Country Tamils in a concrete, rather than superficial, working relationship with mechanisms to address mutual grievances. It meant building people’s institutions to mitigate harmful dependencies, both locally and internationally. Part of her advocacy was her leading role in forging in Jaffna University, the Staff, Students and Employees Consultative Committee, chaired by the Vice Chancellor, where members talked as equals to resolve problems. It challenged the LTTE’s attempt to control the University, and foundered once Rajani was assassinated.
Rajani’s worst fears of the narrow Tamil nationalism forged by the elite in response to Sinhalese supremacism, found its searing denouement in the bloodied sands of Mattalan and Mullivaykkal in 2009, and the continuing paralysis of Tamil society. What is Rajani’s message to this society today? Maria Remarque, a young German soldier who fought in the ruinous First World War, in his masterpiece ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, left us a powerful critique of his country’s nationalist excess and the young’s total disillusionment with the older generation and the service of the State they preached: “[they were] convinced that they were acting for the best, in the way that was most comfortable for themselves…[to us] that was the very root of their moral bankruptcy…we saw there was nothing left of their world. Suddenly we found ourselves horribly alone.”
We see it today in the intellectual barrenness that characterises her University, and the near absence of discussion and engagement between the academic staff and the students. The generation responsible for this plight hides its bankruptcy by not allowing the young to think. They are being exhorted to more tradition and more religion and are rendering our political future hopeless by dismantling secularism – the only basis for a united Tamil Nation – that even the militant movements paid lip-service to. The Tamils’ internal destructivess, combined with the Sinhalese establishment’s quest for complete victory over truth about the recent war in particular, and history in general, renders the situation more volatile.
Could one pronounce judgment on the character of the recently ended war without a fair estimate of the casualties? Could one make such an estimate after throwing away primary data about the number of civilians in the war zone given by the leading government official in charge of those civilians, and not gainsaid by the LLRC, as simply cooked up? Was shelling civilians on the run all the way from Sampoor to Batticaloa in August 2006, then going back on the promise of allowing civilians to return, and turning over Sampoor to a crony capitalist as a zone for heavy industry, a benign and professional military operation, or primarily an ideological operation?
Particular versions imposed with state-backing leads to anger among the victims silenced by pervasive fear, and is reflected in the fertility of sentiments that gave birth to the LTTE in Tamil politics. The resulting Dialogue of the Deaf augurs ill for a united Lanka.
How do we respond? In writing the Broken Palmyra in late 1987 and early 1988, the authors had different perspectives. One was the simple belief that the truth is greater than ourselves, and the truth in itself has curative power. Rajani and Sritharan went much further and wanted to make it a people’s narrative through which the people hold their oppressors of every hue to account and seek ways to build their collective strength. The book could not have been what it is without their constant engagement with victims left to their misery in villages and hovels.