Dr.Rajani Thiranagama, a founder activist of the UTHR (Jaffna) fell victim to the assassin's bullet on 21st September l989. We assess here her lasting contribution and the relevance today of what she stood for, and for which she gave her life.
Having identified herself so closely with those thousands who were dying un -numbered in such degrading conditions, it would not have concerned Rajani if no memorial could be erected for her today among the people she served and loved. That those who killed her needed to go in for barbaric repression and lead an entire people into a twilight existence that could barely be termed human, is surely a sign that the memory of those like her is greatly feared by them. [Top]
This forms the key element in the vision bequeathed by Rajani. With her it was not a slogan or merely a sentiment. She recognised that the basis for any benign and lasting change must be rooted in the people. This change together with a realisation by the people their power to chart their destiny required political vision and a practical programme.
This is not so self evident as it might seem. In fact it is all too easily seen in Sri Lanka that even among the Left leaning elite there is widespread cynicism about the common people. The common people are seen as vile or volatile and moved mainly by manipulation. This picture emerges from a particular reading of Sri Lanka's post independence experience.
Thus whether it is the JVP crisis of l987
- 89 or the current civil war, leadingg intellectuals have viewed the
making of peace as a horse deal between leaders for whom people do not matter.
Ordinary people may be suffering abject indignities from the parties in conflict
and may be dying their thousands without denting the optimism of peace makers
and intellectuals.Even effective political leadership and statesmanship
are seen as the ability to present cosmetic remedies for past failures of character
and intellect while fooling the people. Thus in the Sri Lankan context
the ability to pander to Sinhalese chauvinist sentiment while devolving some
power to the Tamils, or to dismantle local checks on economic life to
Western dictates of liberalisation while pretending that Sri Lankan culture
is being preserved in its pristine glory, are considered virtues in a
political leader. But there is no attempt to question the legacy of the past
and the constraint this continues to impose on the countrys direction.
This cynicism about the people has reinforced the view that politics is a crude business to be undertaken by immoral individuals. In turn the people have become more powerless and further degraded, giving further confirmation to the dim view of them. The notion of addressing the people, giving them a sense of power and dignity through mobilising them on the basis of higher human values and accepting the risks of confrontation with the dominant interests is no longer in vogue among intellectuals. They have largely become analysts talking to foreign audiences and elite circles, hardly moved by the immense suffering below which they have come to see as inevitable. While intellectuals have succumbed to various degrees of opportunism and cowardice, the rot goes on apace below, with the progressive brutalization of culture. The chronic responses of a lost people benumbed by oppression and massive death, and the callousness of the authorities, go hand in hand. Bunkered intellectuals wringing their hands peer at the panorama through mental slits.
In time even the best minds lose their capacity to analyse. One symptom of this is the bizarre notion of peace making that has gained wide currency. Creating conditions of peace is seen as the appropriate sharing of power between those ready to torture and kill rather than empowering the people by creating conditions where they could democratically exercise it. We have thus failed to learn from repeated tragedies.
It is a sign of the depth of Rajani's commitment
to ordinary people, that she was never tempted by comfortable elitist notions.
Most of these elites did not see the tragedy of the war with the Indian Peace
keeping Force in late 1987 as one that had been in the making through the development
of our political culture. They rather saw the problem as one of talking to Indian
officials and LTTE leaders, and patching up relations between them. Rajani considered
this a waste of time.The issue has never been that both parties did not want
to talk to each other or simply that they only wanted to carry on with the war,
but rather that both wanted certain things achieved on their own terms. When
warring parties have a real contempt for people and do not directly represent
their interests,the people rarely come into the picture as factors determining
the course of events. She knew that the warring parties would take note only
when the people are organised to articulate healthy values and demand their
basic rights in no uncertain terms.
Rajani's response to the crisis of October l987 was to go to the ordinary people, not as a patronising outsider, but as one of them. She opened her home to distressed women and students who found both shelter and counsel. Whether it was the case of a disappeared person, a detained student, the university being importuned by the conflicting parties, or a woman subject of the trauma of rape, Rajani laid stress on a collective approach by students, women or people of the village who were to make a conscious decision to identify with the suffering of the victim. She saw these as small beginnings by which people would realise their power to change their world. She frowned upon individual or class opportunism, and protested vehemently whenever university dons approached their problems as a privileged class. With Rajani political action acquired a new intense meaning, very demanding intellectually and where both the intellect and action enhanced the quality of the other.
Although she attached little importance to talking to those with the guns with the capacity to kill and to manipulate, she took a great deal of time and trouble talking to the alienated young tempted by destructive violence. She was warned by colleagues in strong terms. But through her own past experience she understood the urges of the young and felt for them deeply. She pleaded with them, not to commit their courage and devotion to unscrupulous leaders who would readily destroy them and the community to realise totalitarian power. Rajani's ideas on collective action were making an impact. Several of her friends came to realise the potential of disciplined, self-effacing collective action as distinct from being heroic voices in the wilderness. Her presence was too much for the politics of destruction. [Top]
The growth of cynicism about ordinary people in Sri Lanka can be traced to the failure of the Left to understand that the mainstream in political life was largely independent of parliament. The development of this mainstream takes place by imperceptible changes in the minds of people - what they accept or reject and how they perceive their interests. Saddled with rigid ideologies taken from mentors abroad, a section of the Left viewed success largely as success at the parliamentary hustings. Their inability to secure the desired parliamentary success turned them to cynicism about the people, opportunism, communalism and compromise as means of gaining power in the early 7Os. This largely destroyed the Left and brought parliamentary politics to an all time low. In times when the Left was seen as standing for principles and ideals it had a strong base in the universities, among mature students and the workforce, and thus was very influential in large sections of the rising generation. On the other hand those who opposed parliamentary politics and talked of revolutionary politics had their own dogmatic models and sterile outlook which was neither creative nor meaningful to the vast majority. The suicide of the Left, far advanced in the 7Os, resulted in a dangerous vacuum, particularly because of increasing alienation of the among young.
In fairness to the very able leaders of the
old Left, the success of the Russian revolution of l917 in particular, turned
them away from the freshness and open-mindedness of Marx's thought and imposed
on them the identification of success with power. Rajani came into a generation
where old certainties had wilted and those with a sense of social responsibility
had to discover Marx's thought afresh.
Without the presuppositions of ideologies matured abroad, she set about the intellectual labour of seeking the causes of the chronic social and political malignancy in her country in material relations- the historical development of social and economic institutions. In keeping with Marx's maxim, her intellect was sharpened by its application to change the state of affairs. Her intellectual and emotional passion come through in her writings in " The Broken Palmyrah".
In contrast to those who equated success
with power, and in consequence became disillusioned and abandoned the people
to demagogues, Rajani had implicit trust in the people. She saw the close
connection between the low state of morality and the cynicism and distrust of
politics and leaders in general. She knew that if the people found leaders whom
they could trust, to demonstrate to them through collective responsible actions
that there was an alternative, where they could shed their mental and physical
chains in the process of realising dignity and fellowship with justice, they
would opt for this with enthusiasm. She understood that try as she may, she
was also a prisoner of the current dispensation. Her personal liberation would
follow the empowerment of the people. Indeed she was very keenly aware that
this had happened elsewhere. She valued the experiences of modern Marxist thinkers,
both from the West and from the Third World. Marxism which posed as state ideology
has been discredited. Despite notable successes for a time in some major areas
such as eliminating mass poverty and perhaps in containing divisive nationalisms,
it tended to become totalitarian in nature. But Marx is very much alive , though
Marxists do not make headlines. [Top]
This was an area which was close to Rajani's heart and where her blossoming as an intellectual and an activist were very evident. She was far from the popular caricatures imposed on the term. She felt deeply for the degradation of women, but also saw in the liberation of women, the liberation of the society as a whole. Here again personal attention and sympathy for victims went hand in hand with analysis.
She saw, as evident in her writings, a close link between the oppression of women and the rise of a politics with a leader - god, sending thousands of young men and women on a suicidal course in an apparent show of altruism.
The society in Jaffna is also one where there was a powerful drive pushing young men towards material success. In the past it meant joining the professions, and most recently it came to mean going abroad. It's value system is dictated by a very mobile and aspiring middle class which has very short sighted and narrow vision. The vision of possibilities in life was so narrow that failing the O Levels or failing at university entrance could appear to mean the end of the road. Thus the discriminatory move to restrict university places for Tamils in l970, though affecting a small minority, was one of the major turning points in Tamil politics.
Success for women was most often measured as marriage to a "successful" man. A woman who attained this success tended to be jealous of her privileges. A pernicious norm dealing with success was set in accordance with which most women drove their sons. For a young girl money and property bequeathed to her by her parents was the most likely means of advancement. Rich girls were taught to be respectable and the poor to be humble. A young woman bubbling with ideas and enthusiasm to go out onto the world and help others was often broken and consigned to the subservience of a `good' marriage. As everywhere a girl with extra- ordinary intelligence and no means tended to suffer much more than a male. It was a society which disposed women to be the natural enemies of women. The above factors may be common to every other society but the rise of the middle class and its specific nature of dependence for social mobility on a few avenues made the crisis more acute.It was also a society which understandably had one of the highest suicide rates, both men and women, before these troubles.
The material conditions of life affecting the nature of this society are evident. The current Tamil politics instead of liberating people from these constraints, deliberately, conspired with the adversary to tighten them, and draw from its destructive energy. The dormant urge for suicide was given a seemingly altruistic release by the interposition of a religion of sacrifice and a leader- god.
Rajani set about unlocking this prison in order to liberate women. This meant hard systematic effort. Women who had suffered and were rejected were the most likely candidates for this work. Every moment she spent consoling them and opening up new vistas for organised effort was well spent. The social breakdown which made old norms of success unattainable also created opportunities. Death and injury on a mass scale was pushing women into roles of leadership in families. Many of them saw that the whole thing was wrong. This made it important for the political leaders to repress and stamp out any collective effort by women not under their supervision.
It is clear that the degenerated Tamil politics
of today could not have survived liberated womanhood. To claim that mothers
consciously give their children to become cannon fodder for this politics is
an insult to human and animal motherhood.
Almost every time children were cajoled away by liberators or were taken by the army, mothers spent days trekking from one camp to the other and waiting hours in the sun. There have been recent instances where mothers had spontaneously got together in villages to resist implied demands that each household should give a child for the LTTE's struggle. Rajani has recorded several instances where women of the lower classes had spontaneously got together to stand up to gunmen of every colour.
Rajani has also exposed the true position of women cadre involved in the struggle. Their position is an extension of that of women in society. Women in uniform are often objects to boost the egos of men. Blank faced women in uniform putting on cyanide capsules and shouting their allegiance to, and willingness to die for a macho leader is more reminiscent of some bizarre and ancient temple ritual.
Rajani saw in the natural urges of women, particularly in their role of caring and bringers of life, and in the contradictions they face as a consequences of social breakdown, one of the most potent forces for the liberation of Third World peoples. As Rajani's death demonstrated, providing the necessary organisation is going to be a hazardous task.
Rajani felt that feminism as a theory gave her strength and allowed her to understand other forms of oppression in a more creative way. Her understanding of the difference between biological determinism and biological potential and its implications enabled her to understand human potential and evaluate human nature in a more dynamic manner. On the other hand she was appalled by the sectarianism in women's movements as well as Marxist movements and was always aware of the danger of becoming too important in an elite circle. She understooed the potential for an individual to degenerate as a mere careerist who spends all her or his time in attending conferences and seminars with little real contribution.[Top]
Rajani never diminished the importance of the spiritual. She did not reach any finality on the matter, but felt a sense of awe and wonder about life itself. It would be true to say that like Marx, she did not exalt the material realm with its dull routines. But did hold that the chains in this realm must be broken for the emergence of a humanity with higher aspirations. As such, she felt the task worth undertaking. She valued being lovingly human. She was vehemently against using people as tools. Though tactics were important, these were subject to principles and values she accepted as part of caring humanity and the pre - condition of trust. Trust between people was to be the vehicle for action and not manipulation.
During the years that have succeeded her death, the UTHR(Jaffna) and several of those around her have drawn inspiration from her ideals and vision. We have also come to realise the immense intellectual depth of her analysis, and that has continued to guide the work of UTHR(Jaffna). Even at this dark hour, there are ordinary men and women who shared her concern for the people, risking their lives to carry on her work. Thanks to the worldwide institutionalisation of human rights concerns, her family who most deeply feel her loss, have been sustained .
Rajani was in many ways a child of her time. The oppressiveness she found in social mores made her rebel against tradition. Yet she was also instinctively traditional in many ways - as a daughter , a wife and a mother. She was instinctively religious and longed for some of the certainties of faith without being an orthodox believer.In rebelling against a tradition that left much to be desired, she walked a tight-rope, a course that was often lonely, confusing and resulting in much private agony. It was a heavy price to pay, but had its rewards as well. Her marriage was unconventional. She married a Sinhalese intellectual from the deep South of peasant origin.This undoubtedly brought her close to the common people of the land as a whole. Her husband's interests shaped the direction of her political views and activism was a product of her marriage.The rewards of such a life are not unmixed with pain. We express our gratitude for the former. Only posterity can do justice to the latter. Rajani lives in having shown us the potential of womanhood for greatness. [Top]
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