17 November, 2018

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State & Media Repression Against Tamil Political Activists

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

…Strange forebodings of ill, unseen and that cannot be compassed. As, at the tramp of a horse’s hoof on the turf of prairies,
Far in advance are closed the leaves of the shrinking mimosa, So, at the hoof-beats of fate, with sad foreboding of evil, Shrinks & closes the heart, ere the stroke of doom has attained it.” ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, from Evangeline

Over the five years leading up to July 1983, as indicated in the last chapter, the Judi- ciary had been browbeaten and a clear message had gone down to judges who valued career advancement. After the Referendum, it meant waiting a further six years for a possible change of government. We now go into a few cases of how Tamil detainees under the PTA were faring at the hands of this combination of the Judiciary and the Attorney General’s depart- ment. This has a significant bearing on the gory fate that overtook 53 of the detainees.

The Marx Centenary Detainees

About 12 young persons including Mr. Varatharajaperumal, a member of the academic staff of the University of Jaffna, were produced before the Colombo Fort Magistrate S.I. Imam on 21st June 1983. They had been detained in the neighbourhood of Batticaloa on 1st April. On that occasion Varatharajaperumal who was not attached to any group then, had conducted classes on Marxist theory on the outskirts of Batticaloa for young members of the EPRLF as part of the Marx centenary observances. The exercise books on which the youth took notes were sent by the Police for translation as possible evidence of terrorist activity.

Also produced in Court was a calendar for 1983 bearing the slogan ‘Victory to the Struggle for Eelam.’ State Counsel Sarath Jayasinghe told the Court that some were caught while selling the book ‘Lanka Rani’, adding that the book and calendar had been sent for translation. More time was asked to prepare charges. The counsel representing the detainees demanded their release as no charges were forthcoming after 81 days. But order was reserved by the Magistrate for a further 7 days.

There is absolutely no doubt that the AG’s department knew that there could be no valid charges. ‘Lanka Rani’, a book published by Arular in 1978 had enjoyed a wide circulation. The story is based on Tamil refugees from the 1977 violence sailing to Jaffna from Colombo aboard the Lanka Rani and explores the theme of how the Tamils were led to the demand for separation. Even under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution which was not yet in existence, it is hard to see how promoting the book could have been an offence.

Evidently, it seemed the State had become so alien to the Tamil speaking people (25% of the populace), that it had no trusted officials in the AG’s department or the Police to assess what was being written in Tamil. To the State Counsel, mentioning the title of a Tamil book seemed the equivalent of proffering a criminal charge. One is reminded of how the university authorities at Peradeniya jumped to the conclusion that Balasooriyan was a Tiger (Sect. 4.7).

On 29th June, again the CID told the Court that they were unable to conclude investigations since the Department of Official Languages had not sent a translation of the printed matter. Magistrate S.I. Imam again refused bail for the detainees and put off hearings to 13th July. On 13th July the Magistrate put off hearings to 27th July for the same reason. This turned out to be the day of the 2nd Welikade prison massacre.

The game here was clear: use the PTA to detain indefinitely; whether there were valid charges or no did not matter.

Government Blitz against Gandhiyam in the ‘Independent’ Media

We mentioned in Chapter 6 that Ghandiam had already been targeted through the Press at the height of the McCarthyite frenzy. Then the Sunday Island of 28th November 1982 had as its lead item, “Red Barna, Gandhiyam Movement to be Probed”, by Peter Balasuriya. It said:

“Informed sources said that President J.R. Jayewardene will personally look into the activities of Red Barna, now involved in community work in the Batticaloa District. The investigation follows a request from Minister K.W. Devanayagam. The Minister, it is understood, referred to the work of Red Barna in the Batticaloa District and Ghandiam in the Jaffna District and wanted them investigated…Regarding Ghandiam, the Minister of Social Services has been asked to make inquiries and submit a report to the Government…”

This was pure innuendo, but nothing specific.

On the same day the Weekend carried a report titled “Probe on two foreign social groups here” by Ranil Weerasinghe and Jennifer Henricus, full of wild allegations very much in keeping with the spirit of the times. Some extracts from it follow:

“The Weekend reliably understands that the probe was ordered by President J.R. Jayewardene after K.W. Devanayagam raised the matter at a high level meeting. The organisation which is Scandinavian-based is being probed by the Ministry of Plan Implementation under President Jayewardene and the other operating in the North by the Ministry of Social Services.

“One of the groups involved primarily in rehabilitation work had very close links with the terrorist movement it has been found. This organisation which is believed to be funded in part by church organisations and from overseas is also believed to have benefited a great deal from funds channelled to it by terrorists themselves.

“Several of its farms were under surveil- lance and searched on several occasions by the

Army after it had been revealed that they provided hideouts, supplies and assistance to terrorists being hunted down by the security forces.

“Members of this group were also found to have brought down groups of foreign organisations to the North for what were virtually ‘indoctrination’ classes on the alleged suppression of minority groups in Sri Lanka.

“The Scandinavian organisation in the East carries out subtle sabotage against government development projects.

“The organisation directly backed by militant separatist groups is alleged to be recruit- ing youth only from Jaffna for its projects.”

Rather than a news report, the tone and contents of this item have the character of a poison pen letter. The trial by media of Gandhiyam leaders had begun in November ’82, and in retrospect, after the prison massacre, even a sentence of death had been passed with Press complicity. This campaign was undoubtedly articulated by Jayewardene himself on the advice of someone close to him. K.W. Devanayagam had little reason to be excited about Gandhiyam’s work in the North, and in 1975, when the UNP was in the opposition, had even co-operated with groups close to the Gandhiyam in settling displaced Hill-Country Tamils around Batticaloa. Jayewardene had Devanayagam’s undated resignation letter in his pocket, from 28th October 1982, leaving Devanayagam with an unenviable choice if he were to contradict the boss. It may also be noted that Devanayagam subsequently accompanied Gamini Dissanayake in the meeting with government agents just before the July ’83 violence where threatening noises were made against refugees looked after by Gandhiyam in the Trincomalee District.

We may also note how the private and ‘independent’ media were more effectively playing the role of the UNP government’s hatchet men than the Government controlled media themselves. This was particularly true of the Sun Group.

*To be continued..

*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder” published in Jan. 2001. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here

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Latest comments

  • 0
    0

    ““Informed sources said that President J.R. Jayewardene will personally look into the activities of Red Barna, now involved in community work in the Batticaloa District. The investigation follows a request from Minister K.W. Devanayagam. The Minister, it is understood, referred to the work of Red Barna….”
    “K.W. Devanayagam had little reason to be excited about Gandhiyam’s work in the North, and in 1975, when the UNP was in the opposition, had even co-operated with groups close to the Gandhiyam in settling displaced Hill-Country Tamils around Batticaloa. Jayewardene had Devanayagam’s undated resignation letter in his pocket, from 28th October 1982, leaving Devanayagam with an unenviable choice if he were to contradict the boss.”

    All along, politically, JRJ needed KWD more than KWD needed JRJ, and there was really no need for KWD to sign the ‘letter’. So KWD made his choice the day he signed the ‘letter’.

    If it said that it was KWD who asked for the inquiry, he had a an option: put the record straight if it was false and see if JRJ would dare use the letter in his pocket.
    If KWD was playing ball with JRJ anyway, what did it matter to him or does even less us?

    I cannot see anything “unenviable” in this context!

  • 0
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    Dr Rajan Hoole,

    Thank you for this reminder of our not so distant past.

  • 1
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    sekera.

    You are right.On the other hand, KWD HAD TENDERED HIS RESIGNATION over the sudden settlement of people from the southern part of the country in the border of the electorate Kalkudah; An exercise undertaken by Gamini Dissanayake in 1983.The resignation was not accepted and those settled were cleared from the area much to the chagrin of GD.

    So all along politically JRJ needed KWD more than KWD needed JRJ…

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