By Rajan Hoole –
Alfred Duraiappah who was Jaffna’s independent MP from 1960-65 and several times mayor was a popular figure. Although this is denied by many Tamil nationalists, the fact is that in all elections for the Jaffna seat, the votes were equally split between him, the Tamil Congress and the Federal Party. His appeal had nothing to do with his representing any great ideal or principle in politics. He knew his constituents individually and tried to make everyone feel that he was part of their family. He greeted people on the road and inquired about their studies and personal matters. He catered to the needs of people for the normal business of life to go on. He dealt in jobs, transfers, market buildings, public lavatories and streetlights. It suited him to have government patronage for his style of politics, and so he aligned himself with the SLFP.
He had no interest in projecting himself outside the Jaffna electorate, but in that prestigious electorate, he posed a potent challenge to the nationalist TUF (Federal Party). He had a vote bank in the significant business, Muslim and Sinhalese communities and the urban poor. This popularity of Duraiappah’s irked the nationalists. This nationalism sought to impose on the very materialistic society in Jaffna, a hypocritical facade that the people were ready to sacrifice all ordinary needs and desires in life for some vague purist idea of Nation. Duraiappah exposed that hypocrisy.
From 1972, the TUF (FP) launched vicious attacks on Duraiappah calling him a traitor worthy of death. At the beginning, it may have been a stunt to win the Jaffna seat. But the more they articulated it, the more they began to believe it to be only right and natural that his end should come. An important event in the vilification of Duraiappah was the International Tamil Research Conference of January 1974.
The research forum series was launched by Fr. X. Thaninayagam, who was an eminent Tamil scholar. The first conference was held in 1966 in Kuala Lumpur and opened by Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahuman. It had been supported generously by the Malaysian government. The 1974 conference was, initially, expected to be held in Colombo, but the organisers decided to shift it to Jaffna.
Once the conference was shifted to Jaffna, the TUF inevitably tried to make political capital out of it. (Note: The Federal Party (FP) joined a larger alliance, the Tamil United Front (TUF) which included the Tamil Congress and Ceylon Workers’ Congress on 14th May 1972. The TUF became the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) on 14th May 1976 after adopting the policy of separation from Sri Lanka. The CWC then dropped out saying that they cannot go along with separatism.) There were however good reasons for the shift of the conference to Jaffna and there is no reason to believe that the organisers connived with the TUF. But the Government was nervous and four delegates who came to Sri Lanka for the conference were sent back. But in Jaffna itself there was great public enthusiasm over the event. The scholarly conference was held in Veerasingham Hall from 3rd to 9th January. There was a popular demand to hear the foreign delegates and this public event was fixed for the evening of the 10th.
The police permit to have the meeting, which ended on the 9th, was extended to the 10th on a gentlemen’s understanding between ASP Chandrasekera and Dr. Mahadeva, the chief conference organiser. The latter undertook to ensure that Janarthanan, a politician from Tamil Nadu who was not a delegate, would not speak. Janarthanan was seen at the TUF (FP) office on 2nd Cross Street that evening, according to a witness, talking to Amirthalingam. But the question of the legality of his presence had been raised neither by the de Kretzer nor Sansoni commissions (see below) and ASP Chandrasekera, according to Sansoni, had encountered Janarthanan the previous day and warned him not to speak in public.
The organisers had earlier planned to hold the final meeting in the open-air theatre for which authorisation had been obtained from the Jaffna mayor, Mr. Duraiappah. But because there had been a shower on the 9th, the organisers decided to shift the final meeting to the Veerasingham Hall. But on the 10th the crowds started squeezing into the Hall and many had to be content listening from outside. Seeing there was no rain, the organisers at the last minute decided to go back to the open air theatre. They tried to contact the mayor (Duraiappah) and the municipal commissioner to gain access to the theatre, but were unsuccessful.
The organisers quickly prepared an ‘ad hoc’ stage outside the Hall, but within the premises, facing the KKS Road and the Jaffna esplanade. An estimated crowd of about 50,000 sat on the roads and on the esplanade, right up to the moat of Jaffna Fort. The Police were helpful in redirecting, the city traffic via Clock Tower Road towards Main Street, so that the crowds could listen without being disturbed. The meeting started late at 8.00 PM and the chairman, Dr. Vithyananthan, thanked the Police for their co- operation. The first speaker, Prof. Naina Mohamed from South India, held the audience spell-bound.
A little later, to everyone’s surprise a police party in riot gear started moving into the crowd westwards towards Veerasingham hall from the Clock Tower side, assaulting and roughly ordering the crowd to move aside. Pandemonium broke loose and seven civilians died of electrocution when a power line came down.
The crowd panicked and dispersed. There was not a shred of evidence that Alfred Duraiappah was in any way the cause of this tragedy. But the fact that he was with the Government made the city father a ready scapegoat. The SLFP office on the Main Street was that same night attacked by a mob led by a man identified as a TUF supporter.
Very quickly an effective propaganda campaign was unloosed accusing Duraiappah of responsibility for the tragedy and the deaths of the civilians. This was again a case of ‘corpse politics’. It was later carried to new heights by Prabhakaran, the LTTE supremo. If anyone, it is the TUF and Amirthalingam who should bear a large share of responsibility for the tragedy as will become evident in the sequel. Janarthanan went back to India and claimed that he had seen hundreds of corpses of those killed by the Police. The Veerakesari, the largest Tamil Daily, then editorially condemned Janarthanan’s irresponsible statements.
The government of the day could have cleared up the matter by appointing a commission to go into it. But the government of Mrs. Bandaranaike was so paranoid about it that it declined to do so. The matter was gone into by a three member unofficial commission headed by Justice O.L. de Kretzer. We will take this up in the next section.
The Sansoni Commission Report (p. 25, see below) quotes Mr. J.D.M. (Mitra) Ariyasinghe who was then SP, Jaffna, on a speech made by Mrs. Amirthalingam. She spoke to a gathering opposite Munniappar Kovil on the occasion of a hartal organised by the Tamil United Front on 9th February 1974 in protest against the police action above. She is said to have referred to ASP Chandresekera as the person responsible for the deaths on 10th January and to Mr. Duraiappah as being a traitor who was behind the incident on that day.
We will have more to say about Ariyasinghe in the next section, but what Mrs. Amirthalingam allegedly said is consistent with the politics of the TULF (i.e. TUF, FP) at that time. (E.g., on 24th May 1972 Kasi Anandan spoke at a meeting in protest against the new republican constitution. According to witnesses, Duraiappah was named by him as being among the traitors listed who should not die a natural death, but the nature of whose death should be determined by the younger generation. Chelvanayakam and Amirthalingam were then on the platform.) It may be noted that Duraiappah’s name did not crop up at the de Kretzer Commission hearings where the TUF had a role in producing witnesses, and Bishop Kulandran who was on the Commission was known for his leanings towards the Federal Party (TUF). Although Duraiappah as mayor may have preferred the organisers to have chosen the Jaffna Town Hall as the venue, there is no evidence to suggest that he was in any way hostile or uncooperative.
Such was the nature of the build-up of hate towards Alfred Duraiappah. Those with nationalist sympathies had little difficulty in swallowing this propaganda and failed to ask where this was leading to. Planted in the minds of youth who were on the threshold of militancy, it was an instigation to kill.
On 27th July 1975, Duraiappah was shot dead when he arrived by car at the Ponnalai Varadaraja Perumal Temple with two companions, as was his custom on Friday evenings. Prabhakaran was among the group of assassins who formed the incipient Tiger Movement. Testimony from one of Duraiappah’s companions is of interest.
The assassins who were waiting went towards the three passenger doors of the 4-door car as it halted. The intention was to kill Duraiappah and both his companions. One of the latter, as he alighted through a rear door, saw a short youth pointing a pistol towards him and shivering. This companion, Yoganathan, pushed the youth aside, toppling him flat on the ground and ran into a nearby kiosk selling soft drinks. Another companion, Rajaratnam, was injured but managed to run away.
The assassins, who were evidently nervous, took off in Duraiappah’s car with one Patkunam driving. No attempt was made to go for Yoganathan who was hiding in the kiosk. The woman who ran the kiosk called him out when the assassins were gone. He came out and found Duraiappah crying for water. Placing the dying man’s head on his lap, he poured some aerated water into his mouth. Duraiappah then breathed his last. Years later, upon seeing Prabhakaran’s picture, Yoganathan identified the youth, who had stood before him shivering, as Prabhakaran, and also became his admirer. Others have suggested that Kalapathy, another member of the group, had an appearance having some similarity to Prabhakaran’s.
Yoganathan’s identification, if correct, points to a Prabhakaran who, in July 1975, still retained a healthy inhibition against killing. But not long afterwards he was instrumental in the murder of Patkunam who drove the car. The direction of his movement was set.
As to the TULF (then TUF) directly instigating Duraiappah’s murder, there is no evidence. We may say that the TULF pointed a pistol at Duraiappah and looked the other side, knowing that someone would pull the trigger. We do know that some TULF leaders had contact with these militant youth – which, from inside testimony, became semi-formal in 1976 after a meeting between Amirthalingam and the central committee of the LTTE. The indications are that Prabhakaran remained loyal to Amirthalingam into the early 1980s. This does not mean that the TULF played any role in the LTTE’s decision making.
Mrs. Yogeswaran, the TULF Mayor of Jaffna, was assassinated by the LTTE in May 1998. A columnist in the Sanjeevi published in Jaffna, later wrote that Mrs. Yogeswaran had told him that Prabhakaran called on her husband in Jaffna soon after murdering Duraiappah and she had served him tea. Yogeswaran became the TULF’s Jaffna MP in 1977 and was known to have been consorting with militant youth.
The columnist’s claim must however be treated with some scepticism. This was not the kind of thing nervous assassins would do when there was a police net out for them. To escape to India, Prabhakaran would have made for the northern coast rather than to Jaffna town. On his own testimony to a schoolmate, this is what he had done. He climbed a banyan tree near a temple in Thondamanaru and hid there for three days until the naval alert was down. Moreover, Duraiappah’s car in which they escaped had been driven northwards and was abandoned near Senthankulam on the north coast.
However the hate campaign against those who disagreed with nationalist claims and the very act of usurping the right to Duraiappah’s life, set the direction of Tamil politics on the course of tragedy. Grief over Duraiappah’s death brought forth an outpouring of tears. Today there are no tears left.
*To be continued..
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here