By Rajan Hoole –
1979 – 83: The Mounting Repression – Part V
The feeling among Tamils that they needed a separate state reached a peak during the years following the 1977 violence.
Securing the border areas of the North and East from state sponsored colonisation had been a burning Tamil concern from the 1950s. The nationalisation of British owned estates in the early 1970s by the SLFP-led government led to disruption. This in turn resulted in starvation. There was also eviction of estate families by organised mob attacks. Many of the victims, Tamils of recent Indian origin, drifted to the North-East in search of a new livelihood. The drift became a flood following the 1977 communal violence.
From the time these displacements began, several politically backed Tamil groups sprang up to help these people to settle in the North-East, often along border areas and to provide them with means to a livelihood. There was a race as it were between these Tamil groups on the one hand and state-backed Sinhalese groups on the other, to match Tamil settlement with Sinhalese settlement. Settlements of displaced Hill Country Tamils came up in the interior of Batticaloa District in 1975 when Bradman Weerakoon was GA, Batticaloa, and Nihal Jayawickrema was Secretary, Ministry of Justice, in the SLFP-led government. The Police were sent in. Settlers were beaten and jailed. Telegrams were sent to Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, on their behalf. Thondaman and Devanayagam (both later ministers in the 1977 government) too were helping the settlers. Shanmuganathan who was then District Judge, Batticaloa, ruled the police action unlawful. The settlers dispersed by police action came back and prospered in areas such as Punanai and other interior areas until the violence of the 80s, when they had to flee once more.
Dr. Rajasundaram who was a medical practitioner, was involved in settlement work from early in the 70s. Following the violence of 1977 he and his wife, Dr. Shanthy nee’ Karalasingham who graduated from University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, in 1967, returned from England and started the Gandhiyam in Vavuniya. The object of Gandhiyam was to rehabilitate victims of the 1977 violence in the North-East. Its resettlement activities ranged through Trincomalee, Amparai, and Batticaloa districts as well. From the beginning, these activities had the support of all levels of Tamil society ranging through the universities, government services and professional classes.
Posterity may find the passions of the times centred around land and borders truly remarkable. Without them, Tamil separatism and militancy would have lacked their cutting edge. It seemed a game of wits of the Tamil intelligentsia pitted against the wits of the Sinhalese intelligentsia. On the one side it was a passion for the preservation of what goes with a sense of community, and the desire for a homeland, secure from violence. On the other it was a passion to preserve what was deemed a Sinhalese unitary state from ancient times and to prevent what was perceived as the traditional Tamil menace from acquiring space for further expansion. This ideological position, as we shall see, was not unmixed with pedestrian economic and political motives for the ruling class.
What the Tamil side lacked in state power, man power and gun power, it tried to compensate with an articulate world-wide diaspora with no love for the Sri Lankan State, who could now and then pull off a propaganda coup highly irritating to the latter. The full potential of the Tamil diaspora did not come to be felt until after July ’83, and too often then, not to the best advantage of Tamils here.
The majority of those in and around groups like the Gandhiyam harboured separatist sentiments. Sometimes rural TULF supporters who worked with the Gandhiyam found Dr. Rajasundaram’s criticism of Amirthalingam too strong to stomach.
Depending on how one looked at it, Gandhiyam could have been viewed as causing a problem. But that problem also had an easy solution. For one the Government would have had to demonstrate in the clearest terms that it had no ethnic agenda, and no intention of pursuing demographic changes through colonisation of the border areas so as to bring insecurity to the minorities. The other was to address the many genuine grievances of Tamils in the Hill Country. This meant a political settlement in the broader sense. The Government showed few signs of decisive movement in this direction. That led to problems of a more serious nature.
It was about noon during the Christmas season of 1978. Dr. Rajasundaram was showing Gandhiyam’s settlements around Vavuniya to a visitor from overseas sent to him by K. Kanthasamy of the TRRO (Tamil Refugees Rehabilitation Organisation). His wife ran Vavuniya Clinic in the town, which also treated a number of Sinhalese patients, including service personnel. Their home had all the charm of a traditional home where the couple lived with their children, their parents and with others coming, going and staying.
It was about a year since the refugees from the 1977 violence who came with next to nothing had settled down. The main rains were over and the jungle surroundings were lush green. The refugees were going to have an excellent crop of ulunthu from their first sowing on cleared land. Having walked around Rajasundaram paused under a tree and opened a delicate subject. He said that there was a good deal of annoyance in the South over the work of Gandhiyam. It was quite conceivable, he said, that a politically inspired mob might be dispatched from Madawachiya or Anuradhapura to attack the refugees and drive them away. He then added that if each settlement had two persons trained in the use of firearms for self-defence, such mob attacks would cease after one or two attempts.
As long as there was no political settlement, and communal violence, as in 1956,58 and 77, was perceived by the Tamils as the main tool of government control, Rajasundaram’s logic had a certain validity. His contacts with the emerging militants too had minimally a purely defensive rationale. He has been criticised for having contacts with the PLOTE and so compromisingthe interests of his refugees. But anyone in his position would have been driven to such contacts as long as the State was seen to be unlawful and unrestrained in its violence. The answer was certainly not to arrest Rajasundaram under the PTA and disperse the settlements as happened.
One of Dr. Rajasundaram’s last public actions was to participate in a multi-ethnic public protest in Vavuniya on 18th December 1982. This protest against the PTA and recent detentions under it came in for a Police attack where even schoolgirls were baton charged, kicked and dragged by their hair. In the meantime, there was a build-up against Gandhiyam with scurrilous articles appearing in the Press. Gandhiyam was hated for its Tamil nationalist connotations. But despite the hate writing no one was sure what to pin on it.
On 6th April 1983 Dr. S. Rajasundaram, Gandhiyam secretary, was arrested by the Police in Vavuniya and the organisation’s offices in Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Batticaloa were sealed. About the same time, the organisation’s president, S.A. David, was arrested at the YMCA, Colombo, where he was a lodger. He was an architect by profession and a bachelor. Both men were idealists.
Subsequent developments showed that there was no case against them. This, the Police and the Government tried to make up for by creating impressions in the public mind. Cyril Mathew, minister for science and industries circulated some pornographic literature in Parliament claiming that they were recovered by the Police from David’s room at the YMCA. Mr. Yogeswaran, MP, asked by what authority the Minister for Science and Industries obtained materials supposedly removed by the Police for investigation.
After 50 days of investigation, the Police had no more than gossip. The Island of 25th May ’83 quoting apparently AG’s department sources said that there was to be a non-jury trial for the Gandhiyam leaders shortly. The CID report is said to have alleged that Rajasundaram had made overtures to make peace between the warring militant groups, the LTTE and the PLOTE.
For another, it was claimed that at a meeting in Paris, Rajasundaram had requested the French authorities to provide training for some youths from Sri Lanka. The AG’s department was to ponder this for a further two months to produce nothing of substance.
Rajasundaram and David were considered so dangerous that they were held at the Panagoda army camp. In mid-May the JMO, Dr. M.S.L. Salgado, who examined Rajasundaram reported that he had sustained non-grievous injuries due to assault and asked for him to be examined by an ENT surgeon. Following this their lawyers applied for them to be transferred to fiscal custody for their safety.
The TRRO (Tamil Refugees Rehabilitation Organisation) run by K. Kandasamy was one of the supporters of the Gandhiyam. An Island report on 25th June 1983 said that the Police were to probe the TRRO after Rs.115,000 had come into its account from abroad. This was again creating impressions among those with no sense of arithmetic. Compared to what government bigwigs and their cronies had made on Air Lanka’s Tri-Star aircraft deal, this was a sum that even a beggar would scoff at. Kanthasamy left for London about this time.
Rajasundaram’s arrest had clearly created a vacuum in Vavuniya. On 1st June, PLOTE militants killed two air force men coming to the market. Two of the attackers too were apparently killed. The security forces went on a rampage burning several premises in Vavuniya town. A house where Gandhiyam cared for 32 refugee children was also burnt down. This preluded a dress rehearsal for the July violence.
*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