26 May, 2024


The Times Of Senthan: Little Known Liberator & Silent Giant – A Deeply Professional Engineer With A Strong Left Commitment

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Senthan’s Testament

The following from notes made by Senthan was published in the Arrogance of Power in 2001: “Fear of fascists seems to be a dominant emotion going far beyond even parental or fraternal love. Friendship has become ephemeral. Friend forgets a friend who is murdered. I have seen fathers being forgotten by children and even two wives becoming mistresses of the same killer of their husbands. Lack of devotion even to the inner family makes me wonder what happened to Tamil society which once boasted of its strong family unit. Is it that their earlier devotion to family was no more than manifestly egoistic? How could someone who loves his family at the least not be kind to another man or, in the extreme, not be unkind to him? This is a riddle for me that does not get sorted out easily. Yet I could safely say something – the Tamils have themselves become more rotten inside than being eroded from outside. The Sinhalese, for their original sin, have become the scapegoats for every wickedness committed under the guise of liberation.”


“The only way the community can redeem itself is by developing a social detestation of murder – any murder. I hate this man who has hijacked our destiny not because of something he did to my father, sister or my son. But I hate him with all my heart for the crimes he committed on ordinary people, ordinary boys and girls. If I start by saying that I am concerned only if a calamity overtakes members of my family, I will in time lose even that sympathy for my own family as has happened to the majority, particularly to educated members of this community.”

More Rotten Inside

Not long after in 2002 came the Norway-brokered peace process based on foreign expertise on what ails us. This expertise in turn was fed by local scholars estranged from ground realities affiliated to these foreign institutions. It was a peace process in which the only voice that counted as representatives of the Tamil people was that of the LTTE. The conscription of Tamil children into LTTE ranks was tolerated in the name of peace rather than being seen as a warlike action. 

Not to probe this phenomenon’s oppressive and criminal dimension, and to fantasise on its political superstructure, enabled a genre of academic research that legitimised the LTTE. It did so by romanticising Tamils under the LTTE as a primitive society, where crime had lost its meaning and any inhumanity was overlooked as justification of a fight for survival. What was painful was to see Tamil expatriate academics either contributing to this portrayal of denying the people agency, or succumbing to silence and shaming. A sizeable local elite component was carried along and its effect on the Western-backed peace initiative was a reversal. One of the Norwegian mediators’ lowest points was turning a blind eye to LTTE’s massacre of children recruited by the Karuna faction in April 2004 as an ‘internal matter for the Northeast’ (UTHR Bulletin 36).’

The way organised scholarship functions, where mediocrity is protected by institutional and career interests, a voice like that of Senthan coming from a deeply analytical mind and finger firmly on the native pulse, has little chance of reaching decision makers. In 2003, defying the LTTE threat T. Subathiran had worked closely with Mayor Sellan Kandian to reopen the renovated Jaffna Public Library that had been closed after it was wantonly burnt down in 1981.

Not long afterwards Subathiran was shot dead by an LTTE gun man. Although in the EPRLF, Subathiran was widely trusted in the community and militants in other groups have acknowledged the unstinting help he gave them when left abandoned by the march of events. Although the LTTE was wiped out in 2009, its ideology prevails and dissident voices are systematically muffled. The stone in the Public Library with Subathiran’s and Sellan Kandian’s names on it commemorating its reopening was recently removed on the order of the Mayor. Another name on the stone was that of Councillor Iruthayaraj, who was also killed by the LTTE. It may not even be Mayor Arnold’s personal wish. Tamil politics as Senthan said ‘is more rotten inside than being eroded from outside.’

An illustration of fear of fascists that leads people to suppress the truth, and therefore the memory of near ones murdered by the LTTE is illustrated in the case of Principal Sivakadatcham. It was also an instance of elected representatives being used as willing or unwilling minions to doctor history and multiply the grief of a bereaved family forced to sit through a charade of lies.

Kopay Christian College Principal Sivakadatcham was murdered on 11th October 2005 by a lone gunman who called him out of his home and shot him dead. Being zealous for the welfare of the school, he had canvassed funds for the expansion of facilities, including from the EPDP. On 10th October he had addressed the commemoration for Malathy, LTTE’s first woman ‘martyr’, which created the context for blaming the killing on the State’s agents.

The body of the victim was covered by a Tiger flag and the funeral was presided over by three MPs from the LTTE-set-up Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Gajendran, Eelaventhan and Sivanesan, against the wishes of the eldest daughter who was crying. The State was blamed and some students who demonstrated were later killed by state forces. Although in a current UTHR (J) bulletin, based on local information we pointed to the LTTE, I referred to the matter again in my book Palmyra Fallen of 2015. Having talked to the victim’s wife and others who knew him, I gave testimonies which left open the possibility or likelihood of the State being responsible.

A colleague at Jaffna University, who read the book, corrected me and introduced me to a teacher, an old boy of the school who knew Sivakadatcham’s family and was in the midst of the events. He knew the killer and his testimony matched the first accounts that reached us in 2005. A member of the family had recognised the killer on the fatal night. The Principal had ignored instructions from the LTTE not to get help from the EPDP for the school. The killer who had been calling on the Principal had persuaded him to speak at Malathy’s commemoration, as insurance for his safety. The killer, Jeyakanthan (26) was weeks later detained by the Army at Inuvil on a tip off and his was among five bodies of persons shot dead and dumped near Jaffna town on 24th December 2005.

For Sivakadatcham’s family, and his brother, a businessman in Toronto, the need to blame the killing on the Government is an indication of the compulsions of a Tamil society where victims of the LTTE were stigmatised. The family we learn had been divided on the cover-up.

Unlike most crimes of fascism where the victims earned public esteem for their courage and defiance, among Tamils families have to live in dread of the stigma attaching to the departed. It represents vividly the corrupting effect of lies protected by power, which Senthan pointed at.

The LTTE as a force died 12 years ago, but Tamil public life goes on as though its ghostly wishes dictate how people should think and speak. It was easy to commemorate Rajani in Jaffna while there was confusion about who killed her. Once the truth became known, the main obstacles to remembering her came from the University where she taught. Several of those from whom a better standard was expected, turned zombies at the mention of her name.

What ails us?

Senthan observed that although we had an educated class in this country our politics has been narrow. Academic life in our small country is governed by unwritten rules of censorship. But it is also smaller countries that have led the way in greater intellectual openness. Two examples Ponnambalam Arunachalam chose as worthy of emulation are Switzerland and Denmark. Senthan felt that we who are lacking in achievement and discipline to negotiate the challenges of the real world, fail to address it objectively. Having had working experience in France and Canada, he felt that we, who run down the West as part of our boasting about ancient achievements, would not catch up with it for a long time. Those in the West, he said were better adjusted, better read and have a broader approach to the world.

He was impressed with a French engineer he worked with, at whose home he discussed an engineering problem after working hours. His young daughter came with a sheet of music. He interrupted the discussion by playing a few bars for her on the piano and explaining them to her. In Canada too he stayed with a hostel run by a priest, where too he was impressed with the attitude to work.

We have a long way to go to learn intellectual independence and intellectual freedom, without which we would fail our people, particularly in the challenge of education. And we fail to see the obvious. Senthan lived the life of a lover of freedom and of humanity. It is significant that as a Marxist he admired Che Guevara as an individual and an exemplar of freedom, but would have resented the regimentation under communist regimes. He admired the West for its relative freedom.

We, Senthan said, have wasted too much time and fought a war over a political settlement, when settlement is very simple. Federalism proposed by Chelvanayakam, he felt is the right settlement, which the Sinhalese leaders have talked around ever since without doing anything about it. This attitude is a manifestation of our backwardness. When our people emigrate to the West, he observed, they take the rights available to them for granted almost immediately. But their warlike attitude springs up emotionally, the moment they confront the situation at home. What was done to the Plantation Tamils, without parallel in the civilized world, was an instance of our pettiness, he explained.

About the Sinhalese, he said, their strengths are in cricket and humour. But as regards political accommodation, he described them in the subtle irony characteristic of him, as ‘kashtamana aakkal’ – ‘a difficult people’.

As regards life as an engineering student at Peradeniya from 1968 to 1972, he is full of praise for the staff and students as generally decent folk and the students in particular, as friendly and fun-loving. Senthan had a good grasp of literature written in several languages and was a reliable judge of the quality of writings and had earned respect for his poetry and writing in Tamil. He said that to reach the world, you should also write in English. He liked to write books in English. That was one aim the circumstances of his life had denied him.

On education at Hartley College Pt. Pedro, Senthan said that under Principal K. Pooranampillai school discipline had a military flavor to it, but the students were taught perfect English which helped them in life. But the high point of his school days was old fashioned teachers like R.M. Gunaratnam, who took a keen personal interest in the students, trying to bring out the best in them.

Senthan was the founder of Skylark Engineering, which concentrated on the design, development and maintenance of machinery for local industries based on produce of the Palmyra palm and other needs. In a region where the only major industry was the government-built cement factory, Senthan’s mechanical engineering skill and innovativeness had great potential and he was confident of being able to expand the scale. But circumstances forced him to restrict himself. Senthan was surprised at the priority given by young engineering graduates to seek work outside the region or abroad. He felt there is so much local scope for creativity, to earn a decent living and pay the employees well.

Related posts:

Part I – The Times Of Senthan: Little Known Liberator & Silent Giant

Part II – The Times Of Senthan: Little Known Liberator & Silent Giant – The End Of The Liberation Struggle

Part III: The Times Of Senthan: Little Known Liberator & Silent Giant – Murder Of Rajani & Arrest & Release Of Senthan

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Latest comments

  • 11

    Thank you for this series on a remarkably unusual individual
    I am not sure if I had dealings with Senthan in 1970-72 as the senior years were taught by Prof Chinnappa and Lakshman Jayatillake at the time. But Sarath Seneviratne remembers him well.
    I know Mathavan as one among the most brilliant of students whom I was fortunate to teach in all four years.
    He used to talk about his father’s interests.

  • 5

    I hadn’t heard about Senthan. I couldn’t spot any mention in RH’s writings that he passed away last year. I found an article in The Hindu by Meera Srinivasan about it by googling. It provides some additional perspective. But RH is providing a valuable public service by chronicling the history and personalities of the era of Tamil militancy.

  • 2

    I read this article a day or two ago, perhaps on my smartphone, and noted the two comments.
    Let me now express my appreciation of the tireless work put in by Dr Rajan Hoole in chronicling, as objectively as possible, the events of those difficult times. I don’t fully understand what I, myself, am writing. How can I, when Agnos who is from the North says that he hadn’t heard of Senthan himself?
    “sivasegaram” is possibly the Professor who writes as SJ. It is re-assurng to hear Prof. Lakshman Jayatilleke being referred to since there can be no doubt as to his identity. Who is Sarath Seneviratne? I haven’t someone by that name once; as close a relative as second-cousin to me, as far as ican remember. But he is a medical doctor who was in Colombo University, who captained the cricket team there and even was a capable batsman who played in the National Team.
    Let me submit this now, hoping that it will be possible for me to return here, whilst it is still possible.
    Panini Edirisinhe

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