By Rajan Hoole –
Rains and early gloom harbinger the dying year. Fields are ploughed and sown in readiness for the earth’s renewal and the yield of her bounty. It was at such a time that Rajani Thiranagama was killed by the LTTE twenty-nine years ago. Her questions and aphorisms often challenged our assumptions at their core. The following Appeal authored by her in October 1988 appeared in Laying Aside Illusions signed by 50 academics in the common room of the University of Jaffna:
“We have to examine not only our relations with the Indian and Sri Lankan States, but also ourselves. Our obeisance to terror within the community, our opportunism and lack of principles in the face of many internal killings, have made it easy for external forces to use the same weapons to control us. In the face of our acquiescence to anti-democratic tendencies within the community, our plea for democracy becomes a meaningless exercise. Many individuals and young persons who voiced criticism of the political forces have been victimised, driven away, or killed while we looked on.”
Displayed in that very common room are photographs of our late academics since the inception of the University. The exclusion of Rajani’s picture has been commented upon by visitors for many years. The university authorities in 2014 (I think in retrospect it is wrong to single out the Vice Chancellor) blocked the observance of the 25th Anniversary of her murder while in harness. Her conducting examinations to a timetable made it easy for the killers to plan her murder.
A short stroll away from the common room, the 31st Anniversary of the LTTE’s Thileepan, whose ‘Gandhian’ fast to death under duress, to enable the Leader to snatch a political prize, was, this fall, celebrated as act of martyrdom in a grand ceremony; where the Vice Chancellor gave the lead. A few days later the installation of a monument to the LTTE-inaugurated ‘Tamils Arise’ (Pongu Thamil), was likewise graced by senior university officials.
The result is surreal. These proceedings take place under the tolerant eye of the Sri Lankan security forces, the same forces that in 2014 stopped the Medical Students Union’s commemoration of Rajani by issuing a threat to the Dean by phone.
The same university officials, who are prominent at current ceremonies glorifying the brutal extreme of Tamil Nationalism, put on a different face when dealing with the powers that be in Colombo, by whose tolerance the University continues its course of congenial decay. Its keeping out well qualified academics in order to reinforce a closed tradition of mediocrity, is in keeping with Pongu Thamil and its cult of heroism by which the most intimate and poignant aspects of our history have been reduced to gossip. That is one reason why Rajani is anathema.
As a medical doctor in 1982, when hardly anyone else was willing, Rajani readily went in the night to nurse and save the life of Seelan, a favourite of the LTTE leader, who suffered an accidental gunshot injury (see Palmyra Fallen). About two years later in England, she learnt of the internal brutality and intolerance of the movement, and how Seelan was driven to harbour a death-wish, bitterly regretting his actions: In particular his murder of PLOTE’s Sundaram (‘who was a freedom fighter like me’) at the Leader’s behest. Seelan had remained in a marked camp in Themaratchy despite urgent entreaties to vacate and was ambushed by the Army in July 1983.
The zeal Rajani showed in helping the LTTE was transformed into a determination to go back to Jaffna University in 1986, and to challenge it by her activism: How many of our young went to their deaths, after being broken from within by the Movement’s inhuman culture, only to be celebrated as martyrs by our cynical elite? Contempt, and fear, of Rajani’s legacy is again to do with the Tamil elites’ love for the mediocrity of decadence. Her life and experience militated against purveying cheap history of an era that played havoc with our lives and emotions.
On education, one of the priorities after the war should have been to improve the outlook for students and staff by strengthening secular traditions and encouraging a free flow of scholars from around the world. But today instead, religious and political sectarianism stares us in the face in several universities, with the deceptively benevolent connivance of the State.
A political settlement has waited seventy years and will perhaps wait another seventy. But the debasement of Jaffna University is fatal to the Tamils remaining a viable community. That in my judgment is the greatest failure of the TNA, which it could easily have corrected. That goes back to the origins of Tamil Nationalism and Rajani’s unanswered questions.
The same questions were raised in the young Tamil journalist Jude Ratnam’s internationally acclaimed documentary Demons in Paradise. The reactions to it from some well-heeled young Tamils provided by BBC are revealing. Jude cannot be accused of being blind to what the Tamils have suffered from the State, but the main criticism of his work presumes that it is necessary to focus on the brutality of the Sri Lankan Army before any attempt at exploring the brutalisation of Tamil culture and its entrapment in an abyss, not allowing us to open our minds and see what the world and its heritage have to offer.
The state of society may indeed be likened to demon possession. The University is not the hub of this phenomenon. It is supported by a worldwide network of pseudo-scholarship, closely aligned to elite Tamil society.
Rajani held that the brutality of the State is secondary in relation to our internal decay and, importantly, that Tiger brutality and intolerance are fruits of the bankruptcy of the Parliamentary politics of the Tamil elite. This was not something that came to her from discussions and browsing around in comfortable surroundings. It began with the huge sacrifices she made in helping the LTTE.
Tamil Nationalism: Loss of Direction and the Fatal Betrayal
We need not waste time today trying to separate Tamil Nationalist politics from the LTTE’s legacy and the glorification of Prabhakaran. After all, politicians of the TNA (Federal Party), TNPF (Tamil Congress), Chief Minister Wigneswaran, miscellaneous academics and the mainstream Tamil media compete for ownership of this legacy. A pseudo-logical argument currently in vogue is that Chelvanayakam who had lost faith in the Sinhalese leadership, blessed the incipient militancy by garlanding Sivakumaran’s statue in Urumpirai, and therefore Prabhakaran as saviour. Rajani trashed the basis of such claims in the Broken Palmyra.
Take Sinhalese Nationalism as a political force. Its main authors were Senanayake of the transformed Ceylon National Congress and Bandaranaike’s Sinhala Maha Sabha. From the 1930s they competed tooth and nail with one another, painting apocalyptic scenarios, to deny the vote to the Plantation Tamils. Having by the grace of Governor Caldecott been in power from 1941 without holding elections, by 1946, they rightly discerned that the electoral map had shifted after the slow advance of the Left since the early 1930s. The two rivals thus formed the UNP in order not to split the Sinhalese nationalist vote.
The 1947 Parliamentary elections brought in a minority UNP government which had won 42 of the 95 contested seats and might have not survived, but for divisions in the Left and British support behind the scenes – apart from the tame votes of the 5 appointed MPs, 4 Englishmen and a Burgher. With a view to consolidate its tenuous hold, the first two major Bills after independence in February 1948 were anti-labour, the Trade Unions (Amendment) Bill of June and the Citizenship Bill against the estate labour in August.
Senanayake discerned that the successful execution of these Bills involved getting the Tamil Congress (TC) with seven MPs to support the Government. G.G. Ponnambalam fell for the bait of a proffered cabinet portfolio. The Trade Unions Bill was to be the test run for the larger prize. What it sought to do was to weaken the unions by reversing the process in Britain. The British Act of 1927 placed several restrictions on affiliation and federation of unions of government servants. Ceylon’s Act of 1935 followed the British Act. In 1946, the Labour government repealed the 1927 British Act. The Ceylon Government in 1948 moved to tighten the screw further on affiliation and federation in a new Act.
G.G. Ponnambalam’s closing words in the debate were, “I shudder to think of the possibilities when, if collective political objectives are granted, they can become a willing or unwilling instrument of totalitarianism in this country.” It was an invocation of the Communist Bogey. The Tamil Congress, including Chelvanayakam, voted with the Government on the Trade Unions Bill. It was Chelvanayakam’s first and major political blunder. The two Tamils who actively opposed the Bill were Somasundaram Nadesan and E.M.V. Naganathan, in the Senate.
The cost to the Tamils was enormous, when the Tamil Congress pitted itself against the constellation of the most enlightened and sympathetic Sinhalese MPs of all time. Senanayake gave Ponnambalam his portfolio after testing his obedience in the Citizenship Bill.
The record suggests that in order to save his political skin over the Citizenship Bill (20 Aug.), Ponnambalam improperly secured censorship of the Hansard publishing the list of votes by name. One infers that the arrangement was for Tamil Congress MPs to stay in the sidelines away from the debating chamber. Chelvanayakam, for whom it was a question of the heart, broke ranks and spoke and voted against the Citizenship Bill. Although silent, Ponnambalam felt constrained to accompany Chelvanayakam and to also vote against the Bill. It passed 53 for and 35 against. There would have been 40 against, but for the absence of five Tamil Congress MPs. An enterprising journalist revealed how the MPs had voted in the Times of 21st August. In the Senate, Nadesan and Naganathan voted against the Bill. By 2nd September, Ponnambalam had been made Minister.
The Citizenship Act, the greatest blow to the minorities, could have been either stopped or made costly for the Government to proceed with, had the Tamil Congress shown determined resistance. Having pledged the Plantation Tamils that he would stand up for them, Ponnambalam with his powerful intellect did not utter a word. Had the message been carried loud and clear by the Tamil Congress that the future of the minorities was in jeopardy, the Tamils and Muslims who voted for the Bill, including Ministers Suntheralingam and Sittampalam, would have found it a costly exercise. It was, after all, a weak government selling favours to ensure support for the Bill. The appointed MPs could have been told firmly to keep off.
In this betrayal of the Plantation Tamils, and thereby the minorities, Ponnambalam was urged on by several of the big Tamil names of that time for whom joining the Government was seen as a means of protecting the position of Tamils in government service. Among them were Senators A.B. Rajendra and Chellappah Coomaraswamy. A.J. Wilson in his biography of Chelvanayakam gives several names of prominent Tamils who wanted the Tamil Congress to cooperate with the Government. Among these Tamils were Handy Perinpanayagam and K. Nesiah of the Youth Congress; which appears to have been largely silent on the plight of Plantation Tamils although it was a leading issue during the Donoughmore era.
The greatness of Chelvanayakam lies in his standing by the Plantation Tamils despite the taunts of his own circle of elite Tamils. He would have been terribly isolated if not for Naganathan and the scholarly backing of Nadesan. The relations between the three are an area that remains unexplored. In that phase where the Tamil leadership failed dismally, why Chelvanayakam failed to take the battle into his own hands and move forward, cries for explanation.
The Tamils were thus betrayed by their own elite with its overblown sense of importance. That is hard to swallow and the obsession with finding traitors to blame for our losses has left us with the likeness of demon possession and an ill-disguised satisfaction in the vicarious killing of dissent. The tremendous violations by the Sri Lankan forces, for the sake of the country, require a thorough and credible judicial inquiry; but remember that those who knowingly start a war must bear primary responsibility. All wars in this country from October 1987 were needlessly begun by the LTTE to get control, not over the Sinhalese, but over fellow Tamils, regardless of the accompanying losses in land, human and other assets. Among the poorest, the feeling of loss was compounded by the Government’s neglect of prompt resettlement.
By the beginning of 2009 it was clear to most Tamils which way the civilians wanted to escape in the face of the Army advance, and that the LTTE was killing Tamil escapees. Yet many leading Tamils and TNA leaders kept blaming the Army exclusively for the suffering of Tamils. How little things had changed over 20 years. Rajani described the Indian Army’s massacre at Jaffna Hospital on 21st October 1987:
“The Tigers were there: maybe it was a deliberate ploy on the part of the LTTE. They came in two lots. When the doctors had pleaded with them to leave, the Tigers went away only after firing some rounds widely and leaving some weapons inside. The Indian army came an hour or so later, at which time there was no retaliatory fire.”
To start a war is to play with chaos and murder. There is a limit to which you could blame a soldier on the frontline fighting a war not of his choosing. Those who sustain a war by lies and propaganda, and make the lot of their own people insufferable, are the ones most worthy of blame. That is why the accusations of partiality against Jude Ratnam’s Demons in Paradise have a sinister ring.
Natesa Iyer, one of the great men we were fortunate to have among us, after witnessing the hapless plight of the Plantation Tamils for nearly 20 years, became convinced of the pointlessness of relying on the British or the Indian Government to settle the issue. He averred that they could only resolve the issue by talking to the Sinhalese. Several Kandyan leaders, including Bernard Aluwihare and Senerat Gunawardana held him in high respect, and even after his death in 1947, his hopes were not disappointed. Several Sinhalese MPs who had the interests of the Kandyan peasantry at heart voted against the Citizenship Bill, which sought to deny citizenship to the Plantation Tamils. They included T.B. Subasinghe, T.B. Ilangaratne, H. Sri Nissanka, N.M. Perera, Robert Gunawardena, Kusuma Gunawardena, R.S. Pelpola and I.M.R.A. Iriyagolla. They had to overcome the legacy of hate spawned by Senanayake and Bandaranaike.
It was the Tamil Nationalists who spurned potential Sinhalese allies and isolated themselves by aligning with the Sinhalese Right over the 1948 Trade Unions Bill. We Tamils have gone to the West, to New Delhi and Geneva in search of a settlement that eludes us. Is it not time to look to the Sinhalese through different eyes? That would be something close to the heart of Rajani.