University Teachers for Human Rights (
A Tribute and Reflections by the UTHR(J)
Upon the 20th Anniversary of the Passing of Dr. Rajani Thiranagama
Rajanis Vision for Lanka
(Issued on 18th September, 2009)
The very fact that Rajani who died
young at 35, twenty years ago, is remembered today with enthusiasm both near
and far signifies an immense void she left behind, one that remains unfilled
to this day. She held no high office. What she leaves behind is an undying model
of womanhood characterised by youthful energy and selfless idealism for an equitable
social order that transcended social and ethnic barriers. Nurtured in
She came to see the grinding poverty faced by masses in the
Its working was evident in the first parliament where in the game of farming out patronage the Sinhalese elite leadership secured the cooperation of its Tamil and Muslim counterparts to support the disfranchisement of the Plantation Labour. Violence along ethnic and class lines became endemic. Yet the minorities never got together in any meaningful manner. Tamil nationalism inherited the same intolerance Sinhalese nationalism showed towards the minorities, in its dealings with other subdivisions of the minorities. Its intolerance towards the Muslims ultimately reached notorious proportions.
In the following two passages from Vol.II, Chapter 6 of the Broken Palmyra, which was largely authored by Rajani, the first shows the inherent nature of Tamil nationalism that developed as a reactive phenomenon to the violence of the Sinhalese polity. Its fatal weakness lay in its dependence on rhetoric with no viable programme:
The failure of the Tamil national leadership to get anything from the Sinhalese ruling class through parliament was in contradiction with the rhetoric of anger and the slogans of valour they were feeding the electorate. As a consequence of this a sense of frustration and bitterness was created among the people. And as brutal mob violence was the reply to non-violence, Tamil nationalism no longer confined itself to a class but reached out to all sectors of the people across class, caste, and regional barriers.
The second shows its debilitating weakness and cause of ultimate failure, through its failure to reach out and accommodate:
development of the northern front occurred at the expense of many fundamental
tasks of nation building. The blind spot in the concept of the Tamil nation
was the question of two large sections of the Tamil speaking people - the Muslims
or the Islamic Tamils and the hill country (plantation) Tamils. Tamil nationalism
was the ideology of the Tamils of
What made Rajani an attractive personality who would not be extinguished by death was her idealism and urge to fight for justice, taking many risks in her life. She struggled within herself and tried to find meaning for her actions and had the courage to change the direction when she felt her participation was contributing to the subjugation of her own people. It was her belief that theories were not for conference readings and discussion papers, but to be used as guides to search the world we live in and discover paths to change the world and society for the better. Her avid interest in political theories and Marxist literature continuously energised her work, driving her towards identifying with the suffering of the people. It was this spontaneous sympathy with the vulnerable and downtrodden that led her into the LTTE. This brings us to the present.
The recently concluded war is being hailed as an astounding success by the ruling class, and sundry experts from countries that seem too ready to come to terms with impunity as a privilege of the State. The success of the war is being measured by the same yardstick with which Sinhalese youth rebellions were crushed in 1971 and 1990. The same ruling class had ironically been more than ready to appease the LTTE in 1989-90 and again in 2002-2005. They were both founded on cynical calculations that cauterizing the North-East and giving its people over to the whims of the LTTE, would buy the South an economic reprieve.
Today up to 300 000 IDPs are interned behind barbed wire without any sensitivity to their real needs, but rather exacerbating the terrible trauma they suffered for several months running from place to place under government bombardment, suffering injury and bereavement. Adding to this was the LTTEs conscription of their children, many of them now dead or maimed. Yesterday it was the LTTE removing their children, and now in IDP camps it is the fear of the Army abducting them, leaving behind no record. The Government promised the IDPs who came out a new spring, and that is the point where reconciliation should have begun. That opportunity was lost.
The recent story of peace and war reveals the sense of responsibility the ruling class shows towards the most helpless sections of the people who become victims of their fickle calculations, each in turn hailed as a brilliant stroke by the peace community worldwide. The LTTE was given the freedom to conscript children; and to forcibly transport young men and women from among the fisher folk and peasantry across the Muhamalai army checkpoint, make them to undergo military training in the Vanni and bring them back to their homes. When the war began in 2006, the States killer squads operating in and out of uniform ruthlessly targeted and killed these unarmed persons on the streets and in their homes before their families. And so the war was won by massacring thousands of innocents. That too is being hailed as a brilliant stroke by defence analysts while the peace community is silent.
The victory against the LTTE, as against the JVP earlier, would soon become hollow without political transformation that would end the legacy of conflict. Is it not a tragic irony that in 61 years of independence the State won several bloody victories against its own people, Tamils and Sinhalese, without doing any political work necessary for healing? Every time the fault lines of class and ethnicity crack, the ruling class has not sought any medicine other than the same brutal bloodletting and then with their media and experts to pat themselves on the back. In turn this class has sought relentless centralisation, indeed personalisation, of power, corrupting law enforcement and rendering the masses even more helpless against a heartless State. After decades of independence, we have a mere shadow of the working administrative and law enforcement systems left behind by the British after thoroughly subverting democracy and the accountability mechanisms that were in place at Independence.
With the LTTE decimated, in place of undertaking the task of nation building and a political settlement, the rulers are once more arming themselves to the teeth. It was as though the State is destined continually to war against some segment of its own people. Against this background we have another remarkable phenomenon. In 1983 Human Rights became a bad word, when the victims were Tamils, and Amnesty International hailed a terrorist outfit. Then came 1987 when the South saw bloodletting. Human rights became so popular that it enabled the current President to make his political fortune. What is it that is so terribly wrong with this country, is it that the people are cursed with an unstoppable potency for unruliness and rebellion? Or, is it the rulers who took increasingly to disporting like emperors in their proverbial new clothes, as the State takes on the appearance of the LTTEs twin?
Rajani, with her broader humanity that reached out across barriers of birth, would have found the recent war completely abhorrent. She understood the nature of the State and the causes of alienation in both the South and the North-East. She understood the provocations and emotional responses that drove the young into violence and how the politics of violence itself deeply divided societies. As much as a section of Tamils saw the LTTE as the only hope against a Sinhalese state that would yield nothing; there were many others who saw mainly its violence against its own people and nothing in its leaders except crass brutality and sadism, and yearned for its demise.
A state that long neglects its obligation to deal with the people politically and resorts to mindless violence and mass killing of the young and family men in suspect groups, marks a symptom of one unable to seek democratic solutions and so nervous and fearful as could base its authority, not on the people but principally on its killer machinery. Understanding the dilemma of the young, Rajani opposed killing in the name of national security or as the prerogative of sole representatives. To her the young under these adverse conditions are bound to make mistakes and they should be given every opportunity to see the consequences of their actions, argue matters out and correct themselves. That needed a collective effort at enlarging political space.
Rajanis activism in challenging the arrest and torture of students aroused considerable suspicion on the part of the Indian Army. Her challenging the views and actions of students supportive of the LTTE, invited the close and hostile scrutiny of the LTTE. It is a matter for satisfaction that at that time no university student was detained and killed. The LTTE ordered her assassination as soon as the Indian Army announced its departure an outcome of the opportunism of Sinhalese politics that did not care about consequences to the North-East.
Soon mass disappearances by the LTTE got under way, fully supported by the Sri Lankan state. Several university students lost their lives in these purges. Among them were students Manoharan and Chelvi who had been drawn by Rajanis activism and continued to support the exiled UTHR(J). It is the singular tragedy of the Tamils that many others of no less dedication and ability were murdered for patriotic reasons by a force that despoiled them of all that a civilised people holds dear, and left them utterly forlorn.
Brave in the face of adversity, Rajanis activism was based on mobilising the people to outflank all sources of oppression by building structures: Structures that would enable the people to stand up collectively for their dignity. The background given below is necessary to understand her singular legacy. It was both non-violent and political, through peoples movements and not political parties. The recent war and the detention of up to 300 000 IDPs exemplifies the void resulting from a perverted liberation struggle and a mindless and heartless state.
As a young medical doctor who had joined the staff of the
This happened years before the LTTE was in control of Tamil
society, when it became fashionable for elite and religious leaders to flatter
it with their sycophancy. This connection took Rajani into the inner circles
of the LTTE in
Rajanis commitment to the people was such that rather
than remain in
While the LTTE destroyed the personalities of the young whom it absorbed, Rajani also understood the attraction such an organisation could pose to idealistically minded youth who were alienated by the arrogance and violence of the State. In all human decisions, we are often carried away and turn a blind eye to some important aspect of the reality we confront. She understood the oppressive conditions that drive the young to make mistakes. She felt responsible to give the young the opportunity to come out of it. Knowing that it may cost her, her life, she did not let it cloud her enjoyment of it, nor made others conscious of the risk she ran.
She was gentle with the young. Her anger was reserved for the elite who abdicated their responsibility to engage with the Sinhalese forcefully and non-violently and instead demonised them as a granite block of obduracy, violence and intolerance. Their politics was intellectually lazy and morally irresponsible. They were simply transferring to different actors the phobias and prejudices of the dominant Sinhalese politics; and spurned overtures to large sections of the Sinhalese people whom the corruption and nationalist bravado of their leaders had left out in the cold.
It was the same apathy and lethargy of the Tamil elite that shifted the burden onto the fragile shoulders of the emerging militants. In the coming anarchy our society succumbed to internal terror, became callous towards individuals who differed in their opinion and allowed the name of liberation to be usurped by a fascistic formation, which in its flood of bloodletting carried the Tamils along a suicidal path with no end in sight. This created in Rajani a greater commitment to combat this trend rather than give in to general apathy and disillusionment.
The Marxist in her, also perhaps her Christian upbringing,
as with great men and women of other faiths, did not see death as the ineluctable
end that defeats all endeavour. An obsession with preserving life could be crippling,
and the value of a life is rather to be measured by how it was lived and the
legacy it leaves behind. She spurned individual heroism and tried to build a
legacy by the mobilisation of collective effort to build structures. The emergence
of UTHR(J) and it its activities in
An important experiment that owes much to Rajani was the creation of the University Staff, Students and Employees Consultative Committee, chaired by the vice chancellor.
It was meant to meet any threat to persons or the functioning of the university through collective effort. The University, as long as it was seen as the person of the vice chancellor and a few deans was a weak institution. This was seen during the LTTEs abduction and murder of the student Vijitharan in 1986 despite Vice Chancellor Prof. Vithyananthans concerned personal efforts to get the student freed. The LTTE easily manipulated the divided efforts of the university community and the larger society.
Rajanis other efforts such as creating a cooperative of women victims were meant to create structures that would outlive individuals and leave behind a legacy to benefit the poorer sections.
Eventually Rajani gave her life for her commitment to the people she loved so much. She strongly felt that teaching students is not simply giving lectures in theatres but harnessing their inherent potential to make them useful to the community. From this flowed her empathy towards each student in her class, with whom she spent time discussing a variety of issues. But the politics which dominated the society used some of the students on whom she lavished care as agents of her killers. Some of them have left the country and done well as healers. Rajani would not have grudged this, except to wish that they think back and reexamine their actions and the untold suffering they helped to unloose on the people through their services to a totalitarian organisation, one that inevitably destroyed itself taking thousands with them.
The writing of the Broken Palmyra, the formation of UTHR (J) and other endeavours where Rajani played a crucial and leading role, were an outcome of real life experiences through which we journeyed, sharing the dangers faced by the people, trying to understand the political and social dynamisms which entrapped the country in violent conflicts. We have seen how ordinary people were entrapped by all sides and how their insecurity and fears were used to justify and perpetuate war with unimaginable consequences.
In the tragic decades after independence President Kumaratunge was unique in showing a clear ability to understand the root causes of the ethnic conflict and acknowledge openly that the minorities needed political space. But too much effort was wasted in trying to get agreement from the LTTE, which wanted no settlement, and restarted the war to avoid one. Meanwhile what the minorities saw of the state was the same Sinhalese state using the war to further centralise its activities and keep the minorities out. What the Tamils especially experienced was the same brutal state covering up its violations and forcing them to stand with outstretched hands before the Sinhalese administrative and military zamindars for their basic needs. No effort was made to reactivate the North-East Provincial Council or to give the Tamils any real power over their own affairs.
Many Tamils willing to take risks and cooperate with Kumaratunge
finished up giving their lives for shoddy returns. Mayors of
Today the LTTE has been crushed, and in spite of the tragedy there was an opportunity for the leaders to open a new chapter. But once more they are failing the people. They are doing nothing to empower progressive Tamils to challenge the ideology of violent Tamil nationalism which thrived in the name of challenging the institutionalised Sinhalese chauvinism of the State. Instead, the rulers continue to use the state machinery for a narrow political agenda, further undermining democratic institutions. The ruling elite in the South have not learned any lessons and continue to give life to Tamil narrow nationalism.
War, though sometimes legitimate and inevitable carries its price. When it leads to pervasive suppression of truth as regards the manner in which humanitarian norms were transgressed, the weaponry used, all for the dogmatic aim of decapitating the LTTE leadership in the name of hostage rescue; the wounds easily become septic. It is now abundantly clear that the IDPs are being detained to suppress the true facts about the hostage rescue. It is again a fact that many injured were allowed to die and others starved because the Government refused permission for the ICRC to collect the injured and deliver supplies over the final nine days.
A government that accuses those who raise these questions as traitors, detaining some as an example to others, routinely extending detention on flimsy grounds, while it clutches at straws fishing for charges, before having judges plonk heavy sentences on them, degrades intelligence and everything a democracy holds sacred. When someone is deemed a criminal the charges must be precise and justifiable in law.
The Tissainayagam trial is one where the prosecution was fumbling with charges such as bringing disrepute to the government by collecting evidence of war crimes in the East, which were then found not to be an offence. The case was argued on the draconian provisions of the PTA which played a crucial role in driving many youths to join militant movements. After the crushing of the LTTE, at least, the President should have shown statesmanship and advised the AGs department to withdraw the case and signal a new beginning. Instead, he allowed the prosecution to continue its arguments based mainly on the prejudices and political presuppositions of the Sinhalese ruling class: Was for example shelling the Tamil people on the run all the way from Sampoor to Valaichchenai in 2006, and denying those especially from Sampoor the right of return, a war crime? Or, was it their liberation from terrorism and therefore a humanitarian action? The legal proceedings against Tissainayagam were political from start to finish.
It was the same with locking up the war zone doctors. Dr. Kohona, Sri Lankas newly appointed ambassador to the UN answering a question by Himal (August 2009), declared that Dr. Varathrajah had claimed irrationally that the Air Force was dropping cluster bombs. It was rather the UN spokesman who said in early February 2009 that artillery fired cluster munitions had been used near Puthukkudiyiruppu Hospital and played it down under government pressure. Locking up someone without any clear idea of his offence and then fumbling for charges is a practice of the worst regimes, bringing disrepute to the legal profession, especially when they fail to protest.
It leads to a culture of impunity when the Police and security forces are empowered to detain persons indefinitely on the most facile grounds, torture or even kill. The public knows beforehand which cases would be hushed up. In the case of the killing of five Tamil students in Trincomalee in 2006, the people know exactly what happened and the name of the senior police officer who orchestrated the incident. But the witnesses were threatened and the case was hushed up first in the local court and then at the much hyped Presidential Commission of Inquiry. The same fate befell the case of the 17 Action Contra la Faim aid workers killed.
This culture would soon come to haunt the Sinhalese as in
two publicised cases of police brutality in August 2009. One case of abduction
and grievous assault concerned SSP Vaas Gunawardene. The victim was a college
student, his sons rival. But all the horrors in the East where Gunawardene
was posted before being brought to
The Tamils lost confidence in the State and the security forces
a long time ago. It would not be long before the Sinhalese too feel the sting
as they did in the latter 1980s. A nation in which the people know the truth
and has healthy democratic structures that cannot easily be subverted, is far
more likely to make mature decisions. What obtains in
If the Government believes that the war was a great military
achievement, let the Sinhalese people know the truth and understand the consequences.
The suppression of truth also meant an attack on Sinhalese who were determined
to expose it. There was a steady build up of terror against journalists who
reported on the war culminating in the assassination of Sunday Leader
editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, when several other journalists too were intimidated
out of the country. This coincided with the final drive to end the war, just
after the fall of Killinochchi on
We have cross-checked reports of people from the war zone
that the LTTE did provoke the Army at times, such as by firing from behind
Both sides abused the people, but the final feeling among those who survived is that, even though individual soldiers showed concern towards the civilians once they escaped from the war zone, the Government did not treat them as human beings. The number of civilian deaths in 2009, which we earlier estimated at 13 000 (http://www.himalmag.com/Doctoring-the-evidence_nw3217.html ), must now be placed significantly higher. The civilians were driven from Viswamadu to Putumattalan by relentless shelling and aerial bombardment amidst Tiger shelling sometimes intended to provoke the Army. The Army was intent on making life so miserable for the civilians the LTTE held hostage that they would die or flee to government-controlled territory leaving them free to decapitate the LTTE leadership. It must be remembered that on 17th May just before the final push the Government announced that all civilians had left the No Fire Zone, when there were yet more than 30 000, and moved in dropping grenades into civilian bunkers. The casualty estimate above relied heavily on the numbers of injured taken for treatment by the ICRC and others treated at Vavuniya by MSF. That must now be taken as misleading as very many injured died for the lack or absence of timely medical aid. The number of young LTTE conscripts who died in the last five months may be around 6000.
It was under similar conditions after the LTTE provoked the Indian Army into war in 1987, although with deaths on a much smaller scale, when Rajani and some of her colleagues set about writing the Broken Palmyra with a view to placing in public how the civilians were victimised by all the armed parties. Rajani busied herself talking to hospital staff to write about how the LTTE firing at the advancing Indian Army column and running away resulted in scores of civilians and staff being killed by the latter. She talked to families where women had been raped. We recorded how an LTTE provocation of firing at a tank from Kokkuvil Hindu and escaping resulted in a tank firing a shell at a classroom killing 30 refugees.
Rajani had no illusions about the LTTE and was in greater danger as an ex-LTTEer challenging the outfit. One cannot fully explain the rationality or otherwise of decisions taken long ago. It was as an act of meaningful defiance that we decided that the book should be published with the names of all the authors. The preprint edition was well received by our Sinhalese colleagues in the South and was widely photocopied.
If Rajani were alive today she would have done the same for
the victims of the war now ended and challenged the ideologues on both sides
who boast of their military genius at the expense of the people. She would not
have stopped there. She believed that the people should be mobilised and structures
built to consolidate their gains. In 1987, the first act in which she played
a leading role was to talk to the Indian Army and reopen the
We may record here that when the Indian Army found out about the preprint edition of the Broken Palmyra they quickly acquired copies and we were told that three different intelligence teams were assessing them. They were annoyed, harassed us a little, sometimes on spurious intelligence, but generally took it up as well as one might expect. While fighting the LTTE and setting up the conscript Tamil National Army was dirty business, there was also at some level in the Indian Army sensitivity to democratic freedoms.
The recent killing and intimidation of journalists and the political prosecution against Tissainayagam and the detention of National Christian Council Secretary Shantha Fernando without any charge, besides shutting up the IDPs and silencing of the war zone doctors, have all the suggestion of preemptive steps against any criticism or investigative reporting of the recent war. A terrorised media has largely fallen into line. It is sad to see a number of journalists, barred from questioning the State, exercising their semantic talents in ungenerous, trivial ex-parte attacks on those like the war zone doctors, whom the Government loves to hate; but with no acknowledgement of the yeoman service they performed under inhuman conditions, losing some of their staff to shell fire. One accusation, revealing for its refusal to understand the harsh ground reality, is against a war zone doctor, for pronouncing death due to starvation of 13 people without performing autopsies!
This is how a nervous government, unable to acknowledge the war has ended and keeping up synthetically a mood of grave military threat from the decimated LTTE, wants the Sinhalese to view the problem. The oldest dissidents on record, the Prophets of Israel, made it uncompromisingly clear that warring against truth and denying justice makes a people small, and the state brittle. That is today the main challenge facing the Sinhalese, against a government that wants to make them a small people.
Patriotism has been narrowed to represent the interest of a section of a ruling clique. All criticism of how the war was waged is equated with treachery. Arrogance of Power is so open and naked, that the state is losing all inhibitions against undermining the rule of law. The Sinhalese would need to take courage and face up to what the war cost not only the Tamils, but also the Sinhalese. The Government has made a gross understatement with regard to the number of soldiers killed, claiming it was a small fraction of LTTE cadres killed. The casualty rate of soldiers: LTTE was about 1:1 in 2002. When the truth is patriotically suppressed, it also means the suffering and loss resulting from subaltern Sinhalese youth killed and maimed charging through mined ditches, is being hidden by elites gloating over a great victory. The tears of the bereaved become an embarrassment.
The problems of all communities who have suffered bereavement are similar. They are the most neglected sections of all ethnic groups. UTHR(J) does not believe that we could advance by simply forgetting the past. The past and the political sins of the fathers are too much and too long with us. There has been no accounting for the communal violence unleashed several times in one form or another since 1956. Denial of justice has been subconsciously assimilated into malefic assumptions by which the State functions that the minorities are undesirables to be kicked around as scapegoats for the failures of the rulers. Little wonder that the State must somehow resurrect its deceased offspring, the LTTE.
The need of the hour is to resist attempts to pervert our democratic legacy and to break with the past and to lay out a clear demarcation to reorganise our social and political institutions to manage the conflict and to focus on issues, which are important for poverty alleviation and economic development. All the development plans in the North and East are based on the illusionary belief that when a people is weak it is easy to consolidate political control by showing some tokens of economic development, without any concept of accountability or participation of the community.
If the rulers do not trust the people, especially the Tamils, and try to impose their control, not only will they fail, but will also keep divisionary politics alive. If the Government could initiate a broader process in which all communities could reevaluate their past and work out a political arrangement which would allow the different communities political and cultural space to participate as equals in decision making, then there would be hope. If the country is to become great, it must be ruled by a broad democratic consensus. A country represented by a royal president and his hangers on would remain conflict-prone, weak and a tragic laughing stock among nations.
At this point the Tamils who have been browbeaten by decades of war need political space to manage affairs of their reconstruction and to overcome or expiate the legacies of state violence and fascist control. It would only be then that they could work with other communities without fear. We end with quotations from the Post Script to the Broken Palmyra written by Rajani in 1989 (Vol.II, Ch.9) and Laying Aside Illusions (Appendix IV), a statement by 50 teachers of the University of Jaffna in 1988, where Rajanis contribution comes through clearly. These give insights into Rajanis thinking and, sadly, reveal the countrys propensity to forget the past and arrive back where we began twenty years ago, with everything in place for reenactment:
If our earlier account had appeared to be plugging a line, as some would want to put it, it was because it was important for us to arrive at a synthesis in analysis, seek an understanding, find spaces to organise, and revitalise a community that was sinking into a state of resignation. Objectivity was not solely an academic exercise for us. Objectivity, the pursuit of truth and the propagation of critical and honest positions, was crucial for the community. But they could also cost many of us our lives. Any involvement with them was undertaken only as a survival task
Within this tragic history there is still an attempt by concerned people to think coherently of the future. There are debates going on as to the correct path for survival, organisation and possible breakthroughs. There is, especially in the North, a limited attempt at organising at the grass-roots level, so as to handle the repressive situation and violence from all sides. These are very small beginnings indeed For the people, any solution to the brutal and intense violence has to come from within the communities and cannot be imposed from outside. The development of these internal structures is a long and arduous task, a process which is only just beginning to be comprehended.
Finally we quote from Laying aside Illusions, which emphasises democratic organisation and a collective response:
Our obeisance to terror within the community, and
our opportunism and lack of principles in the face of many internal killings,
have made it easy for external forces to use the same weapons to control us
if the people are to regain their lost self-will and dignity, they will have
to move towards a principled collective response. We have to assert universal
values to which we are both emotionally and intellectually committed.
It is the lack of such commitment that enabled us to come to terms with murder, when it concerned others sons, and then, watch helplessly in panic when the cancer, allowed to grow, threatened our own sons. We are now paying the price for our past indifference
As individuals or small groups in our neighbourhoods,
places of work, unions or associations, we must question our past, understand
where we went wrong, and rediscover our principles. We must be conscious of
the message of past experience, that in standing up for others we also stand
up for ourselves. This course requires courage; and, no other is open to us.
We have tried to play safe in the past. The result was mass murder from several
sources. Non-combatant civilians too became unarmed front-line troops facing
the wrath of advancing armies. The future looks even more bleak, with the rapid
growth and consolidation in southern
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