By Rajan Hoole –
After nightfall on 21st September 1989, Rajasingam Master called on his bicycle at my mother’s home quite unexpectedly and delivered his pithy message, “Rajini has been shot.” His voice showed no evident emotion. After a brief exchange of words, he turned back. That was the man; stoic, incorruptible, who lived by his strong sense of duty. Master, his wife Mahila Acca, and their daughters, Nirmala, Rajini, Sumathy and Vasuki were familiar to us from childhood days in the St. James’ Church choir. Had Master been more ambitious during his university days, he would have left his mark as an outstanding mathematician in our university. What he did as a school master at Hartley and Jaffna College was no less important. His zeal for catching hold of students who seemed to be in need of inspiration and getting them to work Mathematics problems remained a passion with him to the end of his life.
As a man called upon to manage church and school finances, he remained sharp and knew well the foibles of those he worked with. Having stuck on in Jaffna through times that saw the worst of moral and physical turpitude, he saw through people and their hypocrisy and opportunism, but kept things to himself. At best a wry smile might have escaped him. Whenever he undertook a commitment, he carried it through to the end and brooked no interference. As a trade union man, not only did he take up the cases of three teachers dismissed from St. John’s College in the late 1960s, against strong pressure from the Church, but did the impossible in ferreting out the money to meet the legal fees, using his knowledge of miscellaneous accounts.
Rajasingam Master’s personality would have been impoverished, but for Mahila, a superb classical pianist, singer and violinist in both the Western and Carnatic traditions. She trained choirs and during the war years, taught English Literature to Advanced Level students at Chundikuli Girls’ College. Despite these graces and accomplishments, she was not the withdrawn housewife. Her combative no-nonsense approach could be seen in her daughters. The word that one most readily associates with the Rajasingams, is Quality. Ben Bavink of Vaddukkottai and Amsterdam, a close friend of the Rajasingams, about a year after Rajini’s death presented to me his copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’, which has the words, “Nobility springs from and thrives on self-sacrifice and courage…it demands a recovery of a lost sense of quality and of a social order based upon quality. Quality is the bitterest enemy of conceit in all its forms.”
Bonhoeffer, a prisoner of the Nazi regime, was thinking of recovery of quality in a post fascist society, the kind of society we are in now. A dominant feature of loss of quality is puruda – a word close to chicanery and farce, whose meaning in Tamil has been enriched through association with Tamil life and society during especially the fascist period (1986 – 2010), particularly when reverence was demanded under threat for the horrific and ridiculous. The Rajasingams were sticklers for quality and the ability of a society to lift itself back to quality depends on the presence of families strongly rooted in it. Rajini was killed because she would not compromise with puruda in politics that claimed the divine right to purify the ‘nation’ through murder.
The war being over, farce has assumed the dominant role in puruda. Why do our leaders who had the best of education and held responsible public office, feel impelled to praise the LTTE leader as a great man of genius and commitment, who failed to liberate the Tamils only because of traitors in our midst? Why not tell the truth that the ‘genocide’ at Mullivaykkal owed as much to the missiles of the Sri Lankan forces as to senior Tamil leaders lying to the world that the people held hostage by the LTTE were staying with them of their own free will and devotion? Why do these bankrupts lie about Thileepan who, under the watchful eye of the Leader’s men, thirsted to an excruciating death, as showing most nobly the Gandhian way of Ahimsa; when many ordinary members of the public who witnessed the event spontaneously exclaimed, ‘They killed him’?
These lies, splashed over the media and given credit by rhetoric from the University, on anniversaries given meaning in monolithically staked out Tiger propaganda, are just the tip of the iceberg, barely masking the intolerance and rowdyism spreading through society. It is in this climate of bankruptcy, where no thought is given to how the Tamils would get out of the mess they are in, that Tamil nationalism is being further divisively transformed to Hindu nationalism.
The dead lose all meaning except as numbers bandied before the UN by Tamil nationalists to vilify the Sinhalese, while ignoring the pertinent context. The Tigers were truthful in that to them the death of civilians in large numbers was a religious sacrifice, where large numbers would hasten the birth of Tamil Eelam. Nothing is said about the thousands of unnamed children, mainly oppressed caste, conscripted and forced into battle with scant training.
It is this that adds greater poignancy to the dead whom it is sacrilegious to even name – these were the thousands abducted by the LTTE, tortured and killed in their dungeons or taken in trucks into deep jungle and shot en masse. These were dissidents whom the Tigers believed were a mortal threat to their death-dealing politics.
On the 11th of this month, for the first time in Jaffna, an observance for such a person was held and a memorial volume was launched in the Public Library canteen, for Vivekananthan, a political prisoner killed by the LTTE more than twenty years ago. A contributor recorded: On 23rd July 1983, the first day of our plague, the Leader and his fellows sent by fate to remove the thorn from our side, exploded a device, fired a few rounds, vanished with lightning speed and surfaced in Tamil Nadu. The writer, rudely woken up, came out with his year-old daughter clutching his sarong. The thought flashed in his mind, the long night of unbearable torment for the Tamil people has begun. The next day the Army came to a nearby area, called fifty men out of their homes, and shot them dead. The episode repeated itself serially countless times. The thorn remained.
The contributor, a Marxist, did a turn in an LTTE prison and remained in Jaffna without losing his sense of humour or his sense of reality. Like Rajasingam Master, he had a keen eye for puruda and laughed at the place hunting by leading elements of our society dazzled by the Emperor’s New Clothes, who, unfazed, repeated their act when emperors changed.
A number of us here are Christians. We were taught to respect the sacrifices of the missionaries who came here, the witness of our forebears in the faith and the words of the scripture that offer us healing and redemption. We are going to face challenging times and we are unprepared, while around us puruda is dominant, bringing ruin on our civic life and educational heritage. Too many of our church leaders lost themselves in the Emperor’s puruda and poured scorn on Tamil dissidents and did not utter a word of sympathy for the Emperor’s victims and pretended that he was Moses leading us to the promised land. What were they doing when they were commanded in St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, “Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; [and] them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body”?
We have a civic duty to stand up for the dead, especially those murdered in the call of duty doing what they felt was best for society. The thirtieth anniversary of the murder by the LTTE of St. John’s College Principal C.E. Anandarajan fell in 2015. The family was anxious to have a memorial event. St. John’s College should have been fully behind them. But the College merely gave Peto Hall. A few friends of the family had to take the burden of organisation, putting up posters and banners, print and distribute leaflets. Many more would have attended the event had the school put its weight behind it.
Rajini was a member of Jaffna’s Christian society killed by the LTTE for answering the call of her civic duty. The 25th anniversary of her murder fell in 2014. Twice Jaffna University tried to thwart the observance of her memory and I am now convinced would do all the institution could to suppress her memory. I expected a more sympathetic response from the mission schools, given that her parents are respected members of mission circles. I personally went to the offices of St. John’s, Chundikuli Girls’ College and Uduvil Girls’ College and left invitations for the event. Rajini and her mother were prominent old girls of Chudikuli and the mother had actively helped the school during the war years. Mrs. Jeyaveerasingam, the principal in 1989, had been forthcoming in holding a remembrance for Rajini, the month she was killed. Participation from these schools for the 25th anniversary event was scant.
It seems to me that the Christian community is overwhelmed by the puruda coming from the higher levels of society and function as though Big Brother is still watching them, or is it a hangover from times when leading churchmen flirted with the LTTE or became too big for their shoes harbouring large illusions of peacemaking?
The Christian mission is to contribute to the health of the entire community: A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump (Galatians 5). That is why the missionaries came here. They made Jaffna an educated society. The Tamils, nor the Christian community, any longer deserve the appellation ‘educated community’. Our standards are such that a person does not become educated by obtaining any number of certificates from our universities. The book collections of some of our older professors, like the late Professor Selvadurai Mahalingam, show the wide variety of interests of an exceptional person – the true cosmopolitan – who would have been repelled by any trace of fascism. It is a reminder that true education comes through our own endeavour, firstly by and reading widely, which takes the effort of mastery of English. Our contacts and company could only inspire us.
Jaffna College, which the missionaries founded as a tertiary institution, was the flagship of our education. Its present sorry state is not unconnected with the general trend to authoritarianism in mission institutions. Besides, the large migration of educated Christians has contributed much to it. It is not very productive to blame individuals. Alumni functioning from overseas and Colombo cannot make an appreciable impact. People need to come back, get involved, and overcome the resistance. They cannot come here as tourists (often to sell property). That would be a lie. They owe a great deal more to the land that made them and the people from among whom they sprang.
The truth brought home to me is that the people of my generation who left their home and settled abroad have died in an intimate aspect of their being. They are in societies to which they sold their services, were well rewarded materially, but to which they cannot belong except in a peripheral sense. In time they become living corpses marking time till the end overtakes. The full lives which Rajasingam Master and Mahila Acca lived exemplarily cannot be theirs.
Were Jaffna a society that looks for sources of excellence that could benefit the students, the University should have been in the lead setting standards of openness putting behind us closed and manipulated selection boards. But where mediocrity reigns, those in power look for reasons to run down and keep out persons with proven excellence. Quality demands responsibility and this is thrown to the winds when even university teachers, and others through them, are herded like cattle to support causes like Eluka (Rise) Tamil, a tired out rhetorical expression of Tamil grievances in the absence of any self-reflection. We seem to have learnt nothing. We seem set to repeat the politics of violence and intimidation that sent us down the slippery slope in the 1970s. In the name of the rights of the Tamil nation, the Tamil Peoples Council calls for the closure of businesses to ensure full participation in its Eluka mass rally. Those who don’t comply know what to expect. That was the road we took to justify terror. After all the community has been through, it becomes a cheap farce, a puruda in total irreverence of all the lives lost in vain.
Restoration of quality in our lives also means a revival of educational excellence in Jaffna. I see no prospect other than for Jaffna College and other mission institutions to play the role originally intended by the founders. This would involve an unprecedented shake-up. That could only be done by committed persons coming back home and fighting it out. Rajasingam Master stands before us as one who laughed at puruda without becoming cynical, ready to sypathise with and help those in need, always willing to aid a good cause and hope for better times.
Dr. Rajan Hoole’s speech at “Celebrating the Life of Alvapillai Rajasingam” on 22 Sept.2016, Trimmer Hall, Jaffna