Colombo Telegraph

Why Do They Shoot?

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

25th Death Anniversary of Rajini Rajasingham Thiranagama

“Politics is not religion, or, if it is, then it is nothing but the Inquisition.” – Camus (The Rebel)

The first shot was not fatal. She was heard asking her assassin, “Why are you shooting me?”[i]

25 years after the murder of Rajini Rajasingham Thiranagama her final question remains unanswered at the most fundamental level. As Sri Lanka lurches towards another conflict, it is a question which needs to be pondered, at least by those who remember the past and fear its return, in an even more malevolent form.


The LTTE killed Rajini because the LTTE regarded dissent as the ultimate crime. But what made the LTTE so brutally intolerant? What enabled such an organisation to dominate the Tamil struggle and hegemonise Tamil society so completely that it could be defeated only by a non-Tamil entity adhering to some of the selfsame ethos, strategy and tactics?

Rajini’s final question has a national resonance. In the South the authoritarian Jayewardene regime spawned a response which was even more anti-democratic, intolerant and racist. Rajini’s final question could have been the final question of the JVP’s many leftist/anti-UNP victims, starting with Daya Pathirana[ii].

In a Lanka with Lankans, as opposed to Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, Rajini would have been celebrated for her academic achievements or her social work; she would have lived to see her daughters growing up to be the women they are. In a Tamil liberation struggle which did not enthrone unfreedom, Rajaini would have been hailed as a heroine. In a post-war Sri Lanka treading the path of consensual-peace and inclusive nation-building, the state would have commemorated Rajini.

Anyone of these three lives could have been Rajini’s. But none of them were. Rajini’s work as a fearless human rights activist brought her not honour but mistrust, hatred and, finally, death. And the very regime which defeated her killers impeded the efforts to honour her memory.

The last years of Rajini’s life were spent in a North-East which was the theatre of an unexpected, confusing war, between the LTTE and the Indian Army. As the IPKF murdered, raped and pillaged its way across the province, Rajini was one of the few who dared to speak out openly, not from the safety of some foreign land or even the Lankan South but from Jaffna.

There is no doubt that the Indians wished Rajini dead. But in the end, Rajini was killed not by a jawan or a Tamil proxy, but by the LTTE.

Why was Rajini killed not by the IPKF but by the LTTE? Why was the UNP government content with jailing Vijaya Kumaratunga while the JVP felt it had to eliminate him?

Was it the absence of a sense of humanity? The Lankan state and the IPKF were far from humane. Was it a dearth of enlightened self-interest? The Lankan state and the Indian army committed outrageous idiocies which boomeranged on them.

Did the difference rest in the fact that neither the Lankan state nor the IPKF enjoyed total impunity and knew that some day some accounts will have to be rendered? Did the difference also rest in the fact that neither the Lankan state nor the IPKF was armoured with a belief in its own moral-political infallibility?

The LTTE and the JVP (of the Second Insurgency) never doubted the correctness of what they did nor their right to do whatever they thought to be correct. Though both organisations were more or less secular, their animating spirit was quasi-religious. Born waving the banners of freedom and liberation, they were far more prone to fanaticism than their establishment opponents. Their world was a black and white one which did not admit any other shade.

Did that politico-moral mindset and the belief in impunity enable them undertake what even a repressive state and marauding foreign army hesitated to do?

Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’ began with an immortal line: “Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains”. But this great liberating work ended up advocating a politically-uniform republic (without ‘partial societies’) which practiced censorship, (‘to uphold morality’) and condemned ‘anti-social beings’ to death. That transformation was to be enacted in real life over the next two centuries. The JVP and the LTTE too opted for that path towards the ‘tyranny of virtue’. The malady of ungenerous rebellion and dishonourable revolution, which prefers “an abstract concept of man to a man of flesh and blood”, is “contaminated by resentment…denies life (and) dashes towards destruction”[iii] afflicted both Sinhalese and Tamils – and might infect the Muslims as well.

The Blindfolded Society

Post-war Sri Lanka is in transition, from an imperfect democracy to a patrimonial oligarchy. The twin myths of Humanitarian Operation-with-zero-civilian-casualties and Welfare Villages indicate the Rajapaksas’ spiritual affinity with the LTTE. Though hamstrung by international pressure and residual democratic trappings, they too believe themselves to be absolutely virtuous and absolutely infallible.

Today, the Rajapaksa regime and its Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist pawns are driving the Muslims into the same corner their politico-ideological predecessors drove the Tamils into, the corner from which the LTTE emerged, and killed the likes of Rajini.

The easy way out is to claim that the killers were a minority and that the majority of Sinhalese and Tamils remain good and decent. The killers were indeed a minority, but it was the silence and the inaction of the good and decent majority which enabled and emboldened that vicious minority. Understanding what turned most Sinhalese and most Tamils into bystanders is as important as understanding what made the LTTE and the JVP surpass the state in intolerant brutality.

Denis Diderot’s ‘A Sceptic’s Walk’ mentions a land with a princely supreme-ruler who insists on blindfolding his soldiers. The voluntarily-sightless soldiers believe that “the less you see, the better you can go straight ahead”. The story was an anti-religious tract but the allegory is applicable to politics. Leaders who blindfold their people and people who willingly blindfold themselves are a common occurrence not just in authoritarian lands but even in democratic ones.

And in a society of blindfolded citizens, the few who insist on seeing become undesirables and traitors. They are marginalised and condemned, often murdered, their memory impugned or denied.

Rajini refused to be a blind supporter of anyone. She had loyalties and adherences, but not mindless ones. She came back to her war-torn land to bear witness to the tragedy of her community, but she insisted on telling the truth as she saw it. Like many Tamils, Rajini was not unsympathetic to the LTTE. But unlike most Tamils she insisted on seeing the LTTE as it was. Thus she was able glimpse the tragedy awaiting her community at the end of the Tiger Way, 20 years before it happened.

Today there is no place for Rajini in the dominant/official Tamil memory. Perhaps the example of this single woman makes the many men who opted for blindfolds feel unbearably inadequate.

Tiger ethos dominates post-LTTE Sri Lanka. Blind obedience and unthinking support for the Rajapaksas is mandatory; dissent is equated with treachery; another community is being goaded into madness. In that perilous context, where past is overcoming and threatening the future, Rajini’s final question assumes an undeniable immediacy and urgency.


[ii] The leader of the Independent Student Union, University of Colombo

[iii] The Rebel – Camus

Back to Home page