7 December, 2023


What Went Wrong With The Tamil Struggle?

By N. Sivapalan

Dr. N. Sivapalan

Dr. N. Sivapalan

A Reflection on Rajani’s Legacy: What Went Wrong With the Tamil Struggle?

Friends and Rajan, this book is a monumental work with history, politics, law and several other things. I have restricted my discussion to two things. The first is about the outlook of the book. As a person who has lived in Jaffna during most of the period of conflict, the second thing I am concerned about is what went wrong in our struggle. I will start on the first.

At the outset I have two questions. The book has Rajani’s name in the title. Palmyra Fallen: From Rajani to War’s End. Her photograph is on the first page; then it reminds us that this is the 25th Anniversary of the Assassination of Rajani. It is not dedicated to Rajani but Rajani appears throughout the book in addition to some chapters that talk about her only.

The first question I had was: Is Rajani important enough to be given this much space in our recent history? The second question about the outlook is what is the use of so much data and case histories that come again and again in the book?

Let me come to the first question? Is Rajan justified in giving this much importance to Rajani? I have known Rajani here in the University. I have seen her working in many spheres. I saw her murdered. I know something here and there about her contribution but I must admit that I started reading this book with a skeptical view: Does Rajani deserve this much space in our History?

1. Rajani PortraitRajani fought for her people. Several other persons have done it. She gave her life. But we have several examples of heroic martyrs.

Rajani stood for human rights. Not many have done it. But there are people in our country who stood for these rights.

Rajani identified with the poor and unfortunate. On a smaller or a larger scale many people have done it.

She didn’t seek popularity but worked with abused women not merely supporting them but helping them to stand on their own. Some others too did it.

Rajani wrote a book ‘Broken Palmyra’ in English. We may have not seen many such books in English here but several persons have written accounts of our struggle in Tamil.

So what makes Rajani special?

Rajani could have chosen to live abroad with her qualifications and contacts. But she didn’t do it.

She was managing alone in war-torn Jaffna with her two children. She could have easily avoided public life. She did not.

She cared for her students, for the University and even for those who regarded her their enemy. That was special.

But by reading Rajan’s account I found the uniqueness in Rajani which was and is very rare not just in our society but anywhere.

Rajani felt the pain felt by other people. She was murdered every time when an innocent life was forcibly taken.

For all of us at that time when a person was killed, it was either a traitor, a martyr or an enemy. For Rajani it was a precious life. For us our life is precious, special and sacred. For Rajani everyone’s life was precious, special and sacred. She had a universal love for humanity that moved her to identify fully with every person. In that sense, yes, she was unique; a rare species in our land.

There was another thing that was unique about Rajani. As Rajan points out, Rajani was possessed of an internationalist outlook, saw our struggle in the proper perspective, identified her place correctly and performed her duty without worrying about the consequences. That was unique in our society and I agree that she deserves a place in our history.

In my view, there is another person who is unique in a different way. He labours in silence. He reaches the affected people in all corners of this island. He carefully records their stories with words that can move mountains. Every incident that affects our people affects him. He is a friend who can always be trusted. His only vision is for a just society for us to live that will be progressive in every way. I am sure you know who it is. It is Rajan, the author of this book.

Rajan, you have created a monumental work with history (national and international), law (national and international), politics (national and international), Engineering, Philosophy, Mathematics, Economics and Literature. I can only marvel, admire and respect your labour.

The other question I had about the outlook of the book is: Is all this data important? What is the point in collecting information about the affected people?

Rajan answers this in page 176 through Rajani’s voice:

“It is not our intention to compile statistics of killings to compare violators quantitatively. Rather, it is our aim to take a cross-section of individual killings, place them in their context along with the motivations of the killers and their qualitative nature. By doing so we portray the role of the society in mutilating the truth and perpetuating conditions where ideologically motivated killings remain an expression of the political culture. We thus express the moral bankruptcy of the killers and urge upon society the need to question itself.”

There can be no better answer to my question. This applies to all political and military manoeuvres and other incidents that targeted the innocent citizens.

Before moving to my final question about what went wrong in our struggle, I think I have to answer a question raised by some of my colleagues. Their complaint is “Rajan is against Tamil nationalism”. This reminds me of the time when we faced a similar question. “Are you devoted to our national leader? If no, you are a traitor.”

There is no point in worshiping a person or a slogan. We must think in the interests of the poor, of the ordinary, and of the marginalized and underprivileged.

In page 229, Rajan says that,
“The cities of the north are filled with people having missing eyes, limbs and relatives. … The Government has succeeded in dispersing the human wreckage of its policy of zero civilian casualties. These people must beg or seek charity. Instead of supporting them, the state spends its money on victory and Buddhists monuments, as well as army camps. It has also privileged the military in land acquisitions, hindering the recovery of victims who are denied the use of their properties.”

Rajan tells in page 158:

“Forced to humour the army and pro-government groups, just to get on with life, many Tamils feel more convinced than ever before, that they need a country and land to call their own.”
One can find the answer if he or she reads the book.

A country or a land of ours is needed if it will alleviate the suffering of the people, if it will be a place where the future generations can live without fear of punishment for their language, religion or views. It is not needed for the mere purpose of catchy slogans.

Now I will come to my final question. What went wrong in our struggle? Does this book have an answer or a clue for it?

Rajan speaks about the Citizenship Act and the Franchise Act brought about by the first Prime Minister D. S Senanayake and points out the deterioration of the rule of law and consensus politics from that time.

He also speaks of the failed leftists. In page 155 he tells us that during the time when the 1972 constitution was being prepared:

“Communist party leader and minister Mr. Pieter Keuneman had arranged for Tamil party members to meet government leaders engaged in the new constitution. They found Mrs. Bandaranaike receptive but not so Dr. Colvin R de Silva.”

Then he informs us that:

“Finally Chelvanayagam announced that since the party’s presence (in the Constitutional Assembly) served no purpose, they were quitting.”
Similar incidents are repeated again and again in our history.

Then who is to be blamed?

I believe that in the Sri Lankan context where the Government and its machinery were bent on discriminating against the Tamils, the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the Tamil leaders. There is no point in pointing our fingers at the Sinhalese leaders on that account.

We can think of situations in three countries where people won their rights by non-violent action: India, South Africa and the Blacks of America. In all these three cases it was the leaders of the affected community, that is, Mahatma Gandhi for India, Nelson Mandela for South Africa and Martin Luther King for the blacks of America who led their people successfully to win their legitimate rights.

The leaders of the ruling interests or the purveyors of oppression never worked for the rights of the oppressed. The only exception that comes to my mind is Abraham Lincoln who abolished slavery and rescued the blacks of America from the worst misery they were subjected to.

So as a first step I look at the actions of the Tamil leaders. In my view the struggle of the Blacks of America has some common aspects with our struggle and I will quote from Martin Luther King where relevant.

Let’s see what Martin Luther King has to say about leaders,

“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a moulder of consensus.”

The role played by Tamil leaders may be summarized in Rajani’s observation that is given in page 160: “All minority parties were no more serious about politics than making promises and getting votes to bargain with the ruling Sinhalese.” The main concern of our political leaders was to compare their standing with Sinhalese leaders and they failed to identify with the problems faced by the Tamils.

Martin Luther King says:

“We must work with determination to create a society, not where black men are superior and other men are inferior and vice versa, but a society in which all men will live together as brothers and respect the dignity and worth of human personality.”

About the LTTE we see in page 2 that:

“LTTE was never able to achieve a broad humanitarian outlook that would invite others into the struggle for Tamil rights as human rights.” And that was one of the major drawbacks in LTTE’s outlook. Finally LTTE was able to deliver only a vacuum for all the sacrifices it imposed on its people.

Martin Luther King tells the white people of America:

“There is no separate white path to power and fulfillment, short of social disorder, that does not share that power with the black aspirations for freedom and human dignity.”

The Tamil elites were the people who could have told the same message to our Sinhalese brothers. What they did instead can be found in the following comment given in page 175:

“Leading lights of the Tamil society, both locally and abroad, did a terrible disservice to their people by loudly praising the Emperor’s new clothes, and connived to destroy those who spoke the plain truth; that the Emperor was, in fact, naked. This class is adept at switching allegiances when convenient, with no sense of social responsibility.”

We can see that our political leaders, militants and the elites did not live up to the expectations of Martin Luther King. But I am not discouraged. With their proud history, being a people who created their first literature two thousand years ago, that is the Sangam Literature, which was secular in spirit, I am sure that the Tamil people will one day rise to the demands of their time, not alone but with their Sinhala brothers standing beside them.

Then we will have the third sequel to the two books: Broken Palmyra and the Palmyra Fallen. That will be the Sprouting Palmyra (in Tamil Valarum Vadalikal).

*Dr. N. Sivapalan: Discussion on ‘Palmyra Fallen, -University of Jaffna Library Auditorium 24th April 2015

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Latest comments

  • 3

    I congratulate Dr Sivapalan on his thoughtful article. There is much in it to be discussed but I will confine myself to one small observation. The author writes: “We can think of situations in three countries where people won their rights by non-violent action: India, South Africa and the Blacks of America.”

    The struggle of the blacks in America is on-going. See, for example, the recent riots resulting from the shooting of Afro-Americans by white policemen. They may have, in legal terms, equal rights but, as Alice Walker and others have said, their lived, daily, experience is quite another matter.

    Secondly, in India and in South Africa, it was a majority, an overwhelming majority, that struggled for their rights – and won.
    This is a suggested minor qualification, and not a correction.

    To answer (comprehensively and in all its complexity) the question, ‘What went wrong?’ will take an entire book.

    Once again, I congratulate Dr Sivapalan.


    • 2

      Dr. N. Sivapalan

      RE: What Went Wrong With The Tamil Struggle?

      “The first question I had was: Is Rajani important enough to be given this much space in our recent history? The second question about the outlook is what is the use of so much data and case histories that come again and again in the book?”


      1. There were Para-Tamils with Common Sense and Para-Tamil Mootals.

      2. There were Para-Sinhala with Common Sense and Para-Sinhala Modayas.

      3. The Para-Sinhala Politicians fooled the Para-Sinhala Modayas.

      4. The Para-Tamil Politicians fooled the Para-Tamil Mootals.

      5. The Para Moootals and Modayas, went after each other’s throats, instead of getting back to the Para-Land India.

      Remember, the Average IQ of the Paras in the Land of Native Veddah Aethho is 79.

      6. Now it looks like the Paras, the Para-Sinhala and Para-Tamils are beginning to recognize the problem and attempting to come up with some Para-Solution, for the Para-Problems.

      The Veddah Aethho.


  • 11

    The oppressed, be they Tamil, Muslim or Sinhalese need to liberate the oppressor/s so that everybody is free from oppression. Tamil leadership have failed to impress their oppressors by focussing to heavily on “Tamil Grievences” and disregard grievences other communities. The witer has pointed out how Martin Luther king succeeded: he took to the streets and formed alliances with the White Community. No Tamil political leader went to the Sinhala masses (as did Bala Tampoe with success) to win their confidence. All they did was moan, groan, make demands and got nowhere!

    • 4

      lal loo

      “The oppressed, be they Tamil, Muslim or Sinhalese need to liberate the oppressor/s so that everybody is free from oppression.”

      Lets liberate Sinhalese and Buddhists from Sinhala/Buddhists oppressors first then the rest will follow suit.

      “All they did was moan, groan, make demands and got nowhere!”

      Were the Tamil leaders engaged in excessive sex?

  • 3

    Didn’t Abraham say he and his Vellala mates will be in Government after the Election?

  • 2


    believing poverty India was the first mistake ……

    Tamils should have collaborated with the enemies of poverty India ..a biggest blunder they have made….in diplomacy enemies enemy is my friend…if so …the equation would have different today….

    There was no India before British arrival …simply British made this patch of tribes under India for administration..STILL poverty India is unable to solve the water issue between states..

    India is our mother land is a joke ….

    indeed there were powerful Tamil Kingdoms in southern part of todays India

    Still expecting India after so many betrayals for helping S L Tamils will lead to another disaster ..Indian South Block is filled with Kerala Malayalies ( who will do anything to get a job or promotion ) who are anti Tamils

  • 6

    Thank You Dr Sivapalan for sharing your views on this important work.

    You draw comparisons with the Black struggle in the USA. However, one strong feature of the Black struggle in the USA was their determination to stand, and fight, and not run away to form a ‘diaspora’.

    The Tamil community fractured quite early in the struggle. The vicious internecine fights in the late 70’s, early 80’s, and the earliest abandonment of hope, catalysed by the events of Black July, led to an exodus that left a debilitated community, without hope, and forced to accept the brave but ultimately misguided leadership of men unsuited to lead an erudite and proud people. Arguably, many of the best departed, leaving an insufficient rump to fight the ultimately losing cause. Where was sane counsel to caution when it was clear, and easily foretold, that the finishing battle would come down to 20,000+??? against 250,000 in a watery playing field of some 500sq miles. Any schoolboy mathematics student would have given you the inevitable answer.

    But do not despair, there are good men and women coming forward to fight the cause; not only from the Tamil community but also from the other communities, including the Sinhalese, where many (and growing) see that Sri Lanka will be a strong and unitary state only when it is united and all its citizens have and equal stake in its future.

    Maybe it might sober everyone up to know that we lost far, far more lives when fighting amongst ourselves than we did opposing all the colonial invaders over 450 years.

    • 6

      Spring Koha

      I totally agree with your penultimate para.

      I am an optimist and cautious at that and believe in future generations.

      By the way people irrespective of their racial affiliation forget one very important aspect of life, that the fact that this land does not belong to the present inhabitants but belongs to the future generations.

      The present generation is merely the temporary custodians/trustees who not only have the right to enjoy the fruits of the land but responsibility to preserve it in its pristine condition and pass it to the next generation.

  • 2

    I too want to congratulate Dr Sivapalan, not for the methodology he chose to discuss the contents of the book, not the for the manner he ended his discussion, but for his intellectual intrepidity on how he still wants to be represented in the academic circle in Jaffna!

  • 3

    This is more than a review. It is an appetizer that has aroused a desire to read the book ASAP. I had thought that I am aware of all what unfolded and took it for granted that Prof. Hoole had only recorded the known.

    However, Prof.Sivapalan’s review has helped focus on various aspects and comparisons; Rajinis’ role as a victim and an example of many others unnamed and unknown who were bold,of help and sympathetic; the aspect of the emperor in new clothing (the naked Emperor); the sycophants, cheerleaders, politicians and financiers ; the role of the people as passive, long suffering and cowardly/cowed spectators; and the vacuum left behind,have been highlighted in this review quite perceptively and well. The big and possibly never answerable question of whether it could have been different has been posed quite subtly.

    I am a witness to the vacuum being filled by putrid air post-war and the multifaceted, possibly irredeemable damage inflicted on a community.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 4

    Quite heartening to read the review which gives a gist of the book. Quite disheartening to read about the underlying tragedy of the Tamil people in the North. Thanks to both Prof. Hoole and Dr. Sivapalan. I feel Rajani has a place in history both as a person and a symbol. This is the symbol that needs to be cultivated both in the North and in the South, with care for the poor, the needy and the victimized. This book is a must in Sinhalese for those who are willing to understand. I hope University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) will be reorganized in all universities of course respecting the specific situations in the North and the East.

    • 1

      Seeing that Dr.Laksiri Fernando had beaten me by saying all in a short para about Dr.Sivapalan’s brilliant review of ‘Palmyra Fallen’,I have nothing more to add other than to second him.

  • 2

    Dr Sivapalan’s article refers to non-violence. In this connection, I cite without comment lines from Sarvan’s essay, ‘Reign of Anomy, included in his Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2

    “Returning to history, with the Sinhala-Only bill, there began the plea, and the (peaceful) protests of the Tamils. As M. R. Narayan Swamy writes, the Tamil leadership, over the years, had virtually begged and cajoled for concessions, but successive Sinhalese governments turned them down (Tigers of Lanka, p. 14).
    The person most identified with this peaceful phase of the Tamil struggle is S. J. V. Chelvanayagam, a soft-spoken man; like Mahatma Gandhi, frail in figure but strong of soul. “SJV” based his struggle on satyagraha (the force, or strength, of truth) drawing inspiration from Gandhi’s non-violent campaign against the British. But in India, the weapon of Satyagraha had been deployed by a majority against a very small (occupying) minority. The parallel did not apply to Sri Lanka because, Island-wide, the Tamils are a small minority, and because of the ready willingness of the Sinhalese government and a section of the Sinhalese people to meet peaceful protest with brutal violence. In this respect, the genius of Gandhi (as I see it) is that he chose the right weapon for the specific conditions obtaining in India – spiritually elevated, ethically sound and politically effective. Gandhi, in his own words, was “overwhelmed” by Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You, a work he read in 1894, while in South Africa. However, his campaign of satyagraha on behalf of the Asian population there brought little result. Non-violent protest by the Jews against the Nazis would have been ludicrous and tragic. Nor would it have succeeded against a Pol Pot (Cambodia) or a Saddam Hussein (Iraq). Prayers, fasting and “sit-down protests” by the Tibetans against Chinese occupation have not succeeded. Gandhi himself commented that a mouse cannot be said to “refrain from hurting a cat”: see Tidrick, page 126. The mouse must first acquire the means of retaliation and then, voluntarily, refrain from violence. That is the true moral and spiritual nature of satyagraha.
    It seems the Sri Lankan government thought that if mob violence were unleashed on peaceful protestors, they would be cowed into an acceptance of a subordinate status. Those performing satyagraha on Colombo’s “Galle Face Green” were assaulted and spat upon. A senior, respected, member of the Federal Party was stripped. He ran into the nearby Galle Face Hotel for shelter, jeered and laughed at as he ran. There were anti-Tamil riots in 1956, 1958, 1961, 1977, 1979 and 1981 – I deal with 1983 separately. In short, peaceful protest brought only humiliation and suffering. I think it will be acknowledge that, until the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was no Tamil retaliation.”

  • 6

    Would be valuable if this book going to be translated into Sinhala/Tamil too if not already done.

    Pls also note that this was held in the University of Jaffna Library Auditorium after all !

  • 1

    The question is what went right

  • 3

    In a nutshell, what went wrong with the Tamil struggle was that the Tamil people of northern Sri Lanka thought that that could dispense with morality and replace it with an adherence to the belief that so profound was their cause that they were justified in doing anything, absolutely anything, in order to achieve their aims. The logic of that approach to political struggle is that the goal becomes more important than life itself and life is seen as a mere means to enable achievement of the imaginary goal. And the end result of that as a political philosophy is total defeat and self destruction. This is because those who love life and want to stay alive will ultimately prevail over those who believe that life has no value except as a means to some imaginary goal.

    But we should not despair for other people have made the same mistake in the past (e.g. Germans under Nazism, Japanese under the worship of militarism, Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge) but have learned from that to build a better society afterwards. But that stepping forward into the light again only happened after leaders in those societies came to acknowledge the terrible mistakes that were made when their predecessors put their trust in life-hating and morality-hating fanatics to lead them to a better future.

    The task of true Tamil leaders now is to bring the Northern Tamils back onto the right path and away from the wrong path that have followed for the last 30 years.

    • 1

      Dear Candidly
      “The task of true Tamil leaders now is to bring the Northern Tamils back onto the right path and away from the wrong path that have followed for the last 30 years”

      Sir, can you pen a few words on Wingeswaran’s “genocide” approach?

      The path the present leadership has chosen is to court International (Western ) community. Their weapon is “accountability” for one side of the conflict. What these great intellectuals(who once served as “political wing” of the “life haters and morality haters”) do not realise is any “solution” achieved through arm twisting of powers that be at a given moment against the will of the majority Sinhalese will be very very short lived and will quickly degenerate to unfathomable bloodshed.

  • 2

    I wish to thank Dr Rajan and others for the work they have done and continue doing. They have faced very high risks and I wonder from where their strength comes from.

    What worries me is that the younger generation in Jaffna apparently has nobody willing and/or capable to continue the work of Dr Rajan & Co. Hopefully I am wrong.

  • 0

    what went right?

  • 0

    what went right in Tamil struggle?
    The expression that “It is the form of the oppression that determines the nature of the struggle”
    I agree with Sivapalan about the Tamil political leadership within and in the diaspora. I also acknowledge the excesses committed through the armed struggle by LTTE as well as by the paramilitary. I also include the so called intellectual elites who misinterpreted the tamil struggle and misguided the global community into this list. To trivialise the tamil struggle to “emperor’s new clothes” lacks insight and sensitivity. Would the Tamil Nation have responded in the way it did it in the last parliamentary and provincial election with no effective leadership if it is not certain about its political aspirations? What made them to make use of the only weapon in their hand – The Vote- to collectively express their strongest desire to be free and to manage their own affairs without any oppression? Is it not a form of silent revolution that took place amidst armed occupation and threats? Are they so naive not to understand that the risk of a repeat of Mullivailal is a probability when the current president himself has stated openly that he and his family would have been six feet under if he had lost the election?
    Tamils have to resort to armed struggle as the Sinhala Nation with its majoritarian sentiment was hell bent in oppressing the tamil peoples political aspirations by all means.It is self evident through the Sinhala Nation’s triumphalism and the total denial to recognise the human catastrophe that the Tamil people endured during and after the massacre by categorically proclaiming “A humanitarian war” & “Zero Civilian Casualty” which was actively propagated by the political and the intellectual elites. It is the astronomical level of corruption and the impending UN scuritiny that brought about the change and the slogan of democracy and reconciliation. Nothing is being done in the name of reconciliation unless asked for! The pompous show of exhibitionism associated with the handing over of the forcibly acquired lands from the rightful tamil owners in the recent past is testimony for this. It should have been only a low key bureucaratic activity dispensed by the Northern Provincial Council with monetary compensation and a note of Thank YOU. I believe that Eelam Tamils are not in need of leaders and heroes. Their experience of the past will lead them in the right political direction if a conducive environment is created within SriLanka. They only need selfless interpreters who can put their aspirations across to the Sinhala Nation and to the wider world like the way Chief minister Vigneswaran is doing. Although I am not a political scientist and am not versatile with Marxism the following article aided me to reflect back on the question that Dr Sivapalan raised. I hope it will help my fellow tamils too to reflect upon on the question what went wrong with the Tamil Struggle?



  • 0

    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at these silly thoughts revolving only around Tamils, Tamils and Tamils. Are we in Tamilnadu?

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