25 October, 2021

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The Times Of Senthan: Little Known Liberator & Silent Giant

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Part I: From Political disillusionment towards armed struggle

Sharing with Senthan birth at the time when Gandhi was assassinated and Ceylon received independence, political controversies and liberation struggles of the era have chequered our lives. Reflecting on the 1971 JVP rebellion, Lionel Bopage has written, “… all alternative left groups strongly believed in the seizure of power through armed struggle for social transformation.”

Coevally, there were two other related upheavals whose roots were constitutional. Both the Government and the Opposition clamoured for the absolute supremacy of Parliament.  This was reflected in the debate in August 1968, where Dr. Colvin R. de Silva assailed the 1964 Privy Council ruling by Lord Pearce that Article 29 of the Soulbury Constitution, dealt with ‘further entrenched religious and racial matters, which shall not be the subject of legislation.’

The 1972 Constitution presided over by Colvin R. de Silva made parliamentary supremacy absolute and removed judicial checks on legislation, not only the Privy Council’s, but more importantly, Justice O.L. de Kretser’s voiding of Sinhala Only. To the Tamil minority, it was uprooting of the already much abused protections under Article 29 – which, in the words of Lord Pearce, represented the ‘solemn balance of rights,’ ‘the fundamental conditions on which [the citizens of Ceylon] inter se accepted the Constitution.’ The caution voiced by Sarath Muttetuwegama MP, went unheeded. Another upheaval was brewing.

Senthan and Rajan

From the time the supremacy of Parliament came into vogue after the English revolution of 1688, many wondered if the parliamentary cure for monarchical absolutism could be as dangerous as the disease. In 1701 Chief Justice Holt said intriguingly in City of London v. Wood, “[An Act of Parliament] may discharge one from his allegiance to the Government he lives under.” He clarified, ‘if Parliament violated the limitations implied by natural law, it would be dissolved, and individuals living under it would be returned to the state of nature.’ One may wonder if a state of nature, as opposed to a state of law, is the one we now live under.

By the 1980s our children had become exposed to assassinations, aerial bombing, canon fire and sudden death as their early experiences. Palestine, Vietnam and Algeria we read about as boys had become part of our adult lives. Although Senthan and I were engineering students at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, from the late 1960s, I came to know him intimately much later. His sister Vasantha with whom I used to have tea in the University of Jaffna Common Room in the mid-1980s told me that Senthan was coming home; then began our close friendship that lasted until Senthan died, on 14th June 2020. Despite common sympathies and regular conversations as good friends, it was in death that it struck me in a flow of memories and awakening of gratitude, that he had been, by far, both a rare genius and an eminent giant among dwarfs. The two cannot be separated.

Education, long and hard hours of work to earn our prestigious degrees, the laurels we lie upon and pronounce on every other subject in semi-ignorance, breeds in us harmful arrogance. What we do not acquire is humility, that there is an enormous treasure of the workings of the universe that we can never comprehend. Senthan’s father Pandit Veeragatthy, who influenced Senthan’s deep appreciation of the Tamil classics and his keen ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, is frequently remembered by my wife for his pithy saying, “Read selectively; what you must do, is to think!”

Pandit avoided increasingly dangerous political controversy. Once, a group of militant youth showed Pandit their map of Lanka, dominated by Tamil Eelam. Pandit responded in his acid irony, “Thambi, where are the others going to live?” Senthan was by contrast a committed person, but the former might explain his sardonic humour that helped him to survive in Jaffna’s hostile political environment. Those who knew the family well attribute the gentle side of Senthan to his mother, Nahamma, much admired in Vadamaratchy as a dedicated teacher.

Senthan paid little regard to people commending themselves by an array of impressive degrees, he was sceptical. Far from envy it was because his standard of intellectual excellence was highly exacting. It must show itself in the field of human relations, how a person regards questions of justice, how he treats others and applies his mind to these. He valued his mathematical training and what it taught him about analysing problems, social as well as engineering. While taking his degree studies at Peradeniya on the stride, he also spent a good deal of his time at the Jaffna Public Library reading the Times Literary Supplement among other writings. From Marxist authors he acquired a deep interest in liberation struggles around the world.

Life did not permit Senthan to carry a huge array of books from which he could quote chapter and verse. He followed the dictum ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest;’ and above all, think! He was a Marxist and a great admirer of Marx as a thinker. Che Guevara was for him a model of humanity and profound intellect, without diminishing the regard he had for the great Indian humanists Bharathy and Tagore, besides Gandhi. For him worthwhile achievement requires unremitting dedication combined with hard work and thorough research.

The Left in this country, he decried as the lazy Left that had let down the Plantation Tamils. He saw the Tamil intelligentsia as a lot who despite their educational attainments had intellectually gone to sleep. Otherwise it was hard for him to understand how a large segment of the Tamil elite sporting impressive qualifications, prostrated themselves before the LTTE supremo because of their anger in the face of state instigated communal violence, without any foresight or concern over where it was carrying the Tamil people. 

Dilemmas of Armed Struggle

The communal violence of 1958, where Tamils leading ordinary lives were punished with mayhem and murder by persons close to the centre of power, was notice given that any crime against them could be ignored at will. Discriminatory laws simply enacted would have been one matter; Senthan observed that what hurt the minorities most was the humiliation.  After the communal violence of 1977, where there was strong evidence of the Police having instigated it with the complicity of the political authority, few among the younger Tamils said that an armed liberation struggle was out of order and many Sinhalese agreed, particularly the new generation of left inclined students in the universities and younger activists, some of whom had been involved in the 1971 JVP insurgency. The 1970s was the era of liberation struggles, of Vietnam, El Salvador and nearer home, the birth of Bangladesh.

Many of the young were deeply affected with a need for revolutionary transformation of the state in Lanka. Some names of students who were together in the Social Study Circle at Peradeniya University give us an idea: Gamini Samaranayake, Mahinda Deshapriya, Dayan Jayatilleke, K. Sritharan, Visvanandadevan, Raja Wijetunge, Karunatilake and Sunil Ratnapriya. Some who had been in the JVP rejected what they saw as its adventurism and political ideology that was superficial and eclectic. Links across communal barriers were also formed at the Marxist study circle of the veteran Marxist N. Shanmugathasan, one of whose erstwhile disciples was Rohana Wijeweera, the leader of the 1971 youth insurgency. It was at Shanmugathasan’s study circle that Rajani Rajasingham met Dayapala Thiranagama, whom she married.

Their aim was broadly a socialist Lanka with equality. Not all of them were ready for an armed struggle. But the pace among Tamils was forced by two events. One was the murder of Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiappa in July 1975 and the formation of the LTTE by a group around V. Prabhakaran, which had committed the murder. In 1976, this group met A. Amirthalingam, leader in waiting of the parliamentary Tamil nationalist TULF that made no pretence of condemning Duraiappa’s murder. The TULF had played a leading role in branding as traitors its parliamentary opponents, of whom Alfred Duraiappa was one.

This shadowy alliance with little substance between the TULF and the LTTE created the right amount of intimidation or approval that buttressed the TULF’s parliamentary monopoly in the North. The state instigated violence against Tamils soon after the 1977 elections changed the political situation drastically.

Even though the LTTE was relatively unknown and there was hope that the TULF would obtain justice for victims of the violence through the Sansoni commission of inquiry, arguments supporting a militant response grew in private conversation, especially among the Tamil expatriates, and drew increasing support. By the time of the PTA in 1979, there were movements that interested people could actually support. That these young men were placing their lives on the line for the public good provoked the question ‘what are you doing for the cause?’ It placed most people on the back foot. The existence of the cause was not disputed though few dared to take the next step that involved risk.

Even the young activists, many of them socialists, who opposed the LTTE’s intolerant nationalism and militarism, felt their credibility to be at stake unless they formed their own military wings. Visvanandadevan was a Marxist political activist who went against his temperament to form a military wing to his NLFT following July 1983. The result was the multiplication of groups, which additions the LTTE was quick to brand as criminal outfits. The militancy entered a new phase when the LTTE leader on 2nd January 1982 used Seelan, a confidant of his, to murder Sundaram, a capable leader of the PLOTE that had split off from the LTTE. By this time the militancy had assumed a degree of legitimacy, where many others were ready to make excuses for such murders and preserve their complacency, ignoring the fatal effects of the malaise.

Once the people following the TULF’s cue had failed to condemn Duraiappah’s murder in 1975; through fear, confusion or complicity, Sundaram’s was dismissed as vendetta between armed groups and the disease festered. For those already associated with the LTTE condemnation would have been fatal. 

For those of us who professed non-violence, our position seemed to have become merely ritual and even hypocritical; not least because in time taking on Sinhalese civilian targets had among many assumed a degree of legitimacy comparable to the destruction of German cities by Allied bombing during the Second World War. Even though Tamil civilians killed by the government forces’ atrocities formed the bulk of the dead, the massacres of unarmed Sinhalese civilians, particularly by the LTTE, failed to arouse the measure of moral indignation it deserved. Some social leaders applauded or bypassed these crimes as a legitimate means of defence. The best among us had to constantly check ourselves not to fall prey to the inhuman within.

Amidst this moral anarchy of civilian killings on both sides, the view of militant groups, in spite of their crimes, as defenders of the Tamil people and ‘our boys’, gained strength. For Rajani, whose heart was moved by the sacrificial ardour of some militants, particularly Seelan, whose accidental injury in 1982 no other doctor in Jaffna would treat, guided her first steps into the LTTE. However, Seelan’s fate within the LTTE, his self-isolation and death in an army ambush, was one of the eye openers which convinced Rajani of its utter inhumanity, a conviction for which she paid with her life. Her husband Dayapala who made his observations from his vantage in the Rajasingham household had warned her, having read the signs when Sundaram was killed.

After her disillusionment, Rajani’s motherly ardour was extended to the young whom she saw were by circumstances absorbed into the LTTE; which in turn threw them on the scrap heap as human wrecks after having squeezed out their dedication and humanity like sucked lemon. It took me until April 1986 when the LTTE wiped out its fellow militant group TELO to completely rule them out as capable of any good. Senthan’s grasp of political reality matched by his humanity was far in advance of the rest of his generation. There was no confusion in his grasp of what was criminal.

To be continued.. 

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Latest comments

  • 6
    0

    A fine narrative, waiting for the next installments

  • 5
    0

    Thank you, Rajan, for a lot of information that should be better known. What do you suggest that a person like or me should do in the present situation. I have withdrawn completely from public life, given my age (80 years), but there must still be something that we can do. I am surprised that there are not many comments.

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