By Rajan Hoole –
The Murder of Rajani Thiranagama
India had been overconfident about its ability to control the LTTE and very soon an ugly war commenced in which civilians were the chief victims, leaving the community more despondent than before. Against the callousness of the Indian Army, as part of the civilian community, we witnessed how the LTTE deliberately placed civilians in jeopardy and used their suffering for propaganda gain. As our non-violent response, four of us including Rajani Thiranagama, K. Sritharan and Daya Somasundaram talked to civilians widely and compiled their experiences in our book, The Broken Palmyra. It was intended to represent the predicament of civilians denied any voice, whose lives became prey to the armed parties.
In a move to intimidate dissent, the LTTE timed its murder of Rajani Thiranagama on 21st September 1989, to just after India announced its troop pull-out. The Sri Lankan Government which had armed the LTTE had also come to an arrangement to allow them a free run in the North-East while maintaining services and nominal sovereignty. The compromise deal with the Premadasa government could neither however, contain the LTTE’s ideological pretensions to total power, nor allow it to justify the fragile prize it got in return for all the sufferings it inflicted on the Tamil people.
The day after Rajani was killed; her body was brought to the University. While we were waiting in front of the Common Room, Senthan came up to me. He told me that Sritharan who was badly shaken by the event, appeared to be giving the impression that it was the Indian Army or their allies who had committed the murder. He told me emphatically that this would be to play into the hands of those who sought to exonerate the LTTE. I soon found that such a fear was unfounded. A well-known LTTE spy asked Sritharan, who committed the crime? Sritharan pointed to a group of LTTE supporters and asked him to go and inquire from them.
I was out of Jaffna when the LTTE returned to war with the Sri Lankan Government in June 1990. Meanwhile, the LTTE had begun its assault on dissidents. Sritharan wanted me to stay in Colombo and publish the reports he sent me. In September 1990 Sritharan had to go into hiding in the face of LTTE attempts to arrest him. Senthan was among those who gave him shelter and helped him to escape to Colombo in the disguise of a lorry cleaner. Subsequently LTTE intelligence traced nearly all those who had aided the escape and imprisoned them for several months but had not subjected them to the grievous torture experienced by other prisoners.
Several prisoners held with them were killed. Among them were Manoharan and Chelvi, two students who helped the work of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) of which Rajani was co-founder. As the Indian Army was departing in late 1989, the LTTE had moved in with the Sri Lankan Government’s blessing and recruited many children from the age of ten upwards, besides making political arrests. Once it resumed the war in June 1990, the child recruits were used in highly wasteful military operations. An account of the plight of the injured children was sent to us in Colombo by Chelvi and Manoharan, which appeared in UTHR (J) Report 6 of 4th February 1991.
Kalpana Isaac, who was a journalist at Lake House was reading our report, when the editor H.L.D. Mahindapala became curious. Evidently he showed it to President Premadasa and parts of it were published in the Sunday Observer. I then had no abode in Colombo and sometime stayed with Acca, a cousin who had moved to Colombo with her family. Her daughter worked in a communication centre that was frequented by Varathan, a businessman who had come to know her brother Ravi in the transport business. I met Varathan a few times in Acca’s home, but we exchanged no words. By the time our report appeared in the Observer I was staying with Sritharan and Senthan’s sister Vasantha, who had just married. My wife had gone to Jaffna to be with her ailing mother.
Acca was one who would have no truck with violence in any guise, and she never encouraged Varathan, whose coming there in itself probably had no sinister ring. After the Observer feature made its appearance, he took Acca by surprise, speaking to her angrily about me and the UTHR(J). That was the first time Acca took alarm that Varathan may be more than a businessman. She made the only threat within the power of a helpless, but defiant, Vadamaratchi matron. She told him that if anything happened to me, he would not see her alive again.
As it turned out Varathan had far bigger fish in mind. On 21st June 1991, a suicide car bomb blew up at the Joint Operations Command in Colombo. Varathan later committed suicide to evade arrest. Acca’s daughter, who worked at the communications centre which Varathan visited, was detained and released after several months. Her son Ravi, a harmless and obliging youth, who lived with a cousin in Jaffna, disappeared after the Army took over in 1995.
The Observer feature above became an issue at a meeting of the University of Jaffna Council which, out of the blue, gave vacation of post notices to me and Sritharn in early May 1991. On 15th April 1992 the LTTE had arrested Senthan. They had been cautious about arresting him because of his fame as an engineer, besides being among the exceptional few that could contribute to an expansion of Jaffna’s industrial base.
Senthan’s prison term
Senthan was placed under the top level intelligence leader Kapil Amman, who did not torture him but kept tapping him with a stick to make him feel small and at his mercy. In the course of interrogation, Senthan had told him candidly that he had given shelter to Sritharan and helped him to escape. He explained that his intention in doing so was to save life, and if he, Kapil Amman, were in a similar plight he would have done the same for him, as he would for any human being. I knew generally about the imprisonment from Senthan. His assistant, who had been close to him for many years, told me that after the conversation mentioned, Kapil Amman was touched and sought to release Senthan. He must also have been conscious of internal splits within the LTTE as had led to Mahattaya’s arrest. He asked Senthan to write directly to the Leader. Senthan was dropped off at home during the Nallur festival in August.
Getting over isolation
Those of us who formed the UTHR(J) in 1988 had chosen it to be a non-violent witness that spoke the truth impartially in defence of the community. But living in a violent environment we could not afford isolation. Soon after the University reopened in 1988 after the Indian Army offensive, on the initiative of Rajani and Sritharan we sought a meeting between members of the staff and the Indian Army, where Rajani placed the civilian case forcefully. We had moved beyond the earlier phase where the University was a passive spectator. The LTTE was alarmed. It only wanted university academics as cheerleaders, to which it returned after it killed Rajani and the students she had inspired.
It was our turn to feel isolated and uncertain after her murder. At this point we received important moral support and help from Senthan and several former leftist militants who had been associated with Visvanandadevan, the engineer I mentioned earlier, whom Sritharan and I both knew at the University of Ceylon. They formed a small group, the NLFT. I came to know Vivekanandan (Anton) at Senthan’s office. Anton, who was arrested by the LTTE in September 1990, later escaped with a member of the PLOTE and disappeared after being caught. The LTTE considered them a political threat and was responsible for several disappearances among them even though they had settled down to normal civilian life. Anton had just married.
Some of them concluded that rather than trying to lead a normal life and get picked off one by one, as happened to Anton, the only option for them was to kill Prabhakaran. Such a decision was not our choice, but it was an honourable choice when peaceful resistance was closed. They did not want to approach the Sri Lankan forces for help. Some had talks with the EPDP and other Tamil groups, and having reached a dead end went abroad.
It was ridiculous to profess non-violence when offering no resistance. We owed respect to those who took up arms to defend a life of freedom. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Letters and Papers from Prison, which was gifted to me by our Dutch friend Ben Bavinck, made a strong impression on me. Although Bonhoeffer’s actions were non-violent, he was charged and executed for links to Admiral Wilhelm Canaris’ group that made a failed attempt on Hitler’s life. Professing Gandhian non-violence had become a form of escape from responsibility in our context.
Senthan’s and Sritharan’s influence and contacts, something that Rajani would have fully approved, led to our having individual links and friendships with several former militants from the NLFT and EPRLF (Padmanabha) on the basis of shared political and social objectives, as a means of furthering our human rights work. Among those from the EPRLF were T. Subathiran, T. Sritharan, Thurairatnam and Kirupa.
Hypocrisy the greatest evil
My wife and I made personal contact with Senthan when we spent about three weeks in Jaffna in 1997 and had several long conversations with him. Subathiran was among those we met. One of the main themes Senthan raised then and subsequently is the enormous evil that stems not from sins of the flesh, but from hypocrisy.
In the vast world of knowledge and exploration, a good university degree is just a token of learning, a foundation to be built upon lifelong. However, Senthan pointed out, many waste their energy extrapolating on ancestry and origins on a very weak factual basis, leading to an arid intellectual climate of chauvinism and intolerance.
Our politics, Senthan explained, takes over from here. The hypocritical notion of Tamil purity taken over from parliamentary politics was imposed at gunpoint by the LTTE. Ideological impurity is in particular the mark of a traitor.
One area where Senthan saw hypocrisy institutionalising itself in the name of purity pertained to marriage, something that is natural, but the LTTE’s earlier rules enforced formal celibacy, even as deviations of the leaders were known inside and frequently outside the organisation, in some instances to the point of notoriety. When the Leader married a girl kidnapped from a protest fast in 1984, some who questioned his breach of his own rule left the organisation in fear for their life. An instance of hypocrisy combined with inhumanity that Senthan found characteristic was: The only daughter of a retired post-master from Valvettithurai, and her boy-friend, both LTTEers, were sentenced to death and executed for a love affair in a sentry bunker. This was long after the Leader’s marriage, by when the ban on marriage had been lifted.
Senthan knew at first hand the perils that confronted people in the North-East. Travelling by bus in the mid-1980s to meet his brother who was a medical officer in Pottuvil, the atmosphere was menacing when a soldier put him down from the bus. He is convinced he escaped with his life only because he paid humble obeisance to the soldier. The following, both pithy and ironical, on the plight of the people was published in my Arrogance of Power (Ch.22) in 2001:
[Senthan] was cycling to Jaffna through the Ooriyan passage, east of Elephant Pass, in the early 1990s. It was past mid-night when he passed an LTTE sentry. A child in uniform was sharing a gun with an older boy. Apart from the gun, the one mark of adulthood in the child was his wrist-watch. The man asked the child the time. After a pause, the child replied, “Seven-five”. The man knew instantly that the time was one-thirty five AM! Such innocents were the first to be killed whenever the Army made a foray.
That was part of the terrible price exacted from the weak whose true plight was distorted to uphold the purity of an elite segment.
*To be continued..