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Extract from Ch.1

1.2 Rajani and the Rise and Fall of the Left

 

One of the most powerful messages to come from Helene Klodowsky’s film, No More Tears Sister, about Rajani’s life and work, dealt with her intellectual development, which always answered to the call of her heart. Her husband Dayapala’s testimony demonstrates that in the latter months of her life she firmly stood against taking life for political ends, even to kill those whose politics physically threatened others. It was a radical departure from the Marxist revolutionary tradition she had long espoused. Tokens of her development can be found in her response to events during her three final years in Jaffna.

Rajani grew up in a generation that came to maturity in the 1970s. A large number of the sensitive young of her time came to believe that revolutionary violence based on Marxist ideas and organisation was the way to liberation in Third World Societies under the neo-colonial yoke. They were inspired especially by the examples of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, Castro and Che Guevara in Latin America, the PLO, ANC and the Sandinista.

The new Jayewardene government’s complicity in the communal violence against Lanka’s Tamil citizens in 1977 set the stage for Tamil militant groups to enter the world’s arena as liberation movements having fraternal links with other liberation struggles. To complete the irony, the Sri Lankan government gravitated towards Apartheid South Africa and Israel….

These changes in global power relations and intellectual fashions had their repercussions on the conflicts in Lanka. Rajani’s assassination came at a time that was symbolic. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the dismantling of the Communist Bloc were seven weeks away. Soon the Soviet forces were to pull out of Afghanistan, signalling a Pyrrhic victory for the US and Britain in the proxy war they fought by fuelling Islamic extremism worldwide. The fact that at this time President Premadasa chose to get the Indian Army out of Sri Lanka by arming and appeasing the LTTE, with the tacit support of Western powers, fitted the general pattern of things. In the South of Lanka, the JVP rebellion was spluttering to a close with its key leaders hunted down and executed.

To many among the elites everywhere, the New Order of 1990 appeared to hold out the promise of peace and stability under Western tutelage. In Lanka the LTTE had been assigned its place and given a bonanza that included unchecked control of the North-Eastern population. That it would return to war was unthinkable. The times were characterised by a failure of intellect and imagination; by complacent presumption that the nameless multitudes had no higher longings such as justice and dignity, and could be managed by a show of brute power and a few crumbs. The continuing attempt to whitewash the denial of basic rights to Palestinians stands as the most eloquent testimony to the folly of the new order and its managers…

With her keen sense of social justice, Rajani had espoused left causes with a passion from her student days. Her medical studies in Colombo, her work with the Student Christian Movement, her medical practice in rural areas and marriage to Dayapala widened her horizons to embrace liberation struggles around the world, the helpless in varied nooks of oppression and the left movement in Lanka.

To Rajani, politics had always been about justice and hope for the people and not about power. As a medical student, she had independently become a Marxist, having regularly attended classes at the home of the Marxist leader N.  Shanmugathasan – the point of contact that opened the door to her future marriage to Dayapala. When she joined the LTTE under the influence of her elder sister and brother-in-law who were also Marxists, it appeared at least potentially to represent the goals that mattered to her. A belief in revolutionary violence was implicit, to the extent that its use was deemed socially justifiable. Dayapala had then opposed her getting involved with the LTTE. But what she saw later was a parody of the goals of liberation and the hopelessly tragic lot of the people. The world of leftwing idealism was collapsing around her, largely through self-inflicted wounds. Somewhere the people had gone out of its calculations. The new theories and programmes coming out of its ruins exalted power and wealth. New structures of power envisaged the adoption of pliable elites around the world who would control the people with or without the aid of formal democracy.

Rajani’s sister Nirmala left the LTTE at the end of 1984 along with many others including the Mannar leader Rajes. The LTTE may have had reservations about harming Nirmala because they had organised a press conference in Madras and made a huge publicity show of Nirmala’s jailbreak from Batticaloa. But Mahattaya, who was then widely acknowledged as the LTTE’s deputy leader, had come to her flat in Adayar, Madras, to abduct Rajes who had left the LTTE and was taking refuge there. Nirmala and Nithyanandan’s sisters kept a stubborn guard over the door and dared Mahattaya to take him out of the house.  He had to leave empty-handed. 

Rajani had some suspicions about the LTTE, but it was only when Rajes arrived in London in early 1985 and told her all about his experiences that her earlier thoughts were confirmed and she knew that she had to sever her links with this organisation.  When Rajani questioned the LTTE hierarchy in London, they dealt with her concerns summarily. Rajani realised they were hiding things from her and left the organisation

1.3 Return to Lanka

The democratic but fragmented left in the South known for its trade union activism and protest against globalisation measures by the Jayewardene government, was crushed by state repression, and some of its leaders were cynically blamed and jailed for the July 1983 communal violence. By closing the doors to the opposition with repressive laws, violence and vote fixing, in the early 1980s, the UNP government paved the way for a virulent Left group in the form of the JVP.

The same UNP government that derided and sported with the democratic left parties, calling them terrorists, was by the end of 1986 desperate to negotiate with the LTTE. In their embitterment, many of the democratic left, especially younger members, though strongly against the JVP and opposed to its fascist tendencies, romanticised the LTTE from a distance and dreamed of making common cause with them. They failed to see the common threads in the success of the LTTE and JVP. The JVP’s murderous drive against ostensible socialist allies made it their main bete noir. The JVP’s violent opposition to the left alliance drove many of them to make common cause with the State’s security forces.

Similarly in the North-East, the EPRLF was among the few militant groups that had initially tried to uphold democratic and egalitarian traditions of the region fostered by student activism in the 1920s and 1930s. Embittered by LTTE terror, it was driven to make common cause with the Indian Army.

Both Rajani and Sritharan were involved in left politics during their university days, and the latter especially had many contacts among left party activists at the grassroots whose experience of society was very different from what one would get from middle class circles or the University. In our discussions, they struck an optimistic note by pointing to the way our thinking was limited by mainstream parliamentary politics, through which flawed governments drove the different communities to think of one another as adversaries rather than as partners in mutual upliftment. We felt that we should link up with the smaller groups of left activists in the South, who had for many years been working among the Sinhalese people to counter official communalism. Both Rajani and Sri strongly felt that if there were to be hope, the Tamils would have to get through to the ordinary Sinhalese and Muslim people.

In later years, Sritharan addressed Sinhalese groups at meetings arranged by left contacts. It was not always easy. Soon after the Indo-Lanka Accord, in 1987, a group from the South that had been sympathetic on the Tamil issue visited Jaffna. Among them was Sunil Ratnapriya from the left NSSP, who as president of the Government Medical Officers Association had worked tirelessly to protect Jaffna Hospital during the round of hostilities preceding the Accord. Ratnapriya was part of Rajani’s left activist circle in the University of Colombo in the mid-1970s, and upon his transfer to the University of Peradeniya became a leading member of the Social Study Circle. Among the Circle’s members were Raja Wijetunge, Gamini Samaranayake, Mahinda Deshapriya and Dayan Jayatilleke. Its Tamil members were Viswanandadevan, Krishnamoorthy and Sritharan. Several of them made their mark in the country’s life. As an engineer, Viswanandadevan threw himself into left activism in the North and then formed the left political group, the NLFT. He went missing during a sea-crossing to India during 1985.[1] 

The JVP from late 1986, notably its murder of left student leader Daya Pathirana, had trained its weapons on the Sinhalese left. Ratnapriya suggested to Sritharan during the meeting in Jaffna in August 1987 that since the LTTE was doing something opposing the Government, we should get together and work with them. Sritharan responded sharply, “What would you feel if I say that the JVP is doing something opposing the Government and we must get together and work with them? It is not their doing something that matters, but what precisely they are doing and the social consequences of that.” They parted as friends.

 

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[1] The NLFT made its imprint as a left political group rather than as a militant group. It differed from the major groups in rejecting Indian patronage as a costly liability. It earned the ire of the major groups by becoming the first port of call for many who left those groups over political disagreements. Among the leading LTTE dissidents who joined the NLFT was Iyer. Santhathiar who had disagreements with PLOTE talked to the NLFT. He told them that he appreciated their policies and analysis, but he was too much of a heavyweight in Tamil politics for the group to bear. He wished them well. He was later killed by PLOTE. The LTTE was a suspect over Viswanandadevan’s disappearance. After much painful inquiry, the weight of opinion among his friends is that his boat was shot up by the Sri Lankan Navy. There were no survivors.


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