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Extracts from Chapter 5:

Breaking with the Authoritarian Ideologies of Straw Men

5.1 After Rajani: Turning Jaffna into a Sepulchre of Hearts and Minds


The spirit of open defiance represented by Rajani was extinguished with the arrest of students Chelvi Thiagarajah and George Manoharan. In May 1991, Chelvi had an open confrontation with a leading accredited dramatist, soon after the staging of the latter’s play at Chundikuli Girls’ College. The play, directed towards recruitment, was about the victims of the Indian Army rising from the ashes like a phoenix to give birth to a new nation under the LTTE leader’s guidance. Chelvi was furious about its totalitarian intent, which devalued victims of the LTTE at a time when it was detaining and exterminating dissidents by the hundreds. Those present at the confrontation felt anxious for Chelvi.

Chelvi then spoke of a counter-play to be staged by her circle, which was under preparation at the University. Chelvi was arrested in August 1991 along with Manoharan and Thillai, who were part of Chelvi’s drama circle. A contemporary student leader at the University who had earlier belonged to EROS told us that a month before Manoharan and Chelvi were arrested, the LTTE had arrested three university students,  Srinivasan, Govindaraj and Dharshini, for connection with dissident activity. This was about late June 1991. The student leader said EROS leader Balakumar had them released. According to this leader, Balakumar was trapped and had nowhere to go, and so remained in the LTTE’s civil administration arguing that he could use his influence for the good. [1] Balakumar, this student leader said, was very sympathetic to Manoharan and Chelvi, adding that he confessed to being in agreement with all that Manoharan said, but felt that Manoharan had been unwise to articulate these sentiments strongly in public. The leader told us that Chelvi and Manoharan were arrested through the instrumentality of Arunothayan, a student spy, who had their whereabouts noted. [2]  He also said that the LTTE’s deputy intelligence chief Newton [3] came to the University and told the Vice Chancellor Prof. Thurairajah that the two were arrested on suspicion of having contact with the UTHR(J). Manoharan was seen at the Anaikkoddai torture camp in December 1991. Chelvi, according to this leader, was sent to a punishment camp in Vadamaratchy East where the LTTE reported her as having been killed during aerial bombing by the Air Force. Many were skeptical about this. Chelvi had smuggled out a message in 1992, hopeful of her release, which was consonant with her being sent to a punishment camp (see Ch 6). [4]

Chelvi, Manoharan and Thillai were all highly critical of a leading accredited dramatist for having sold out to the LTTE. The LTTE aborted their play. In November, for Great Heroes Week, the same accredited dramatist staged the Sandalwood Jungle (Santhanakkadu). Its theme was that LTTE cadres acquired their true worth when ground to paste, like sandalwood, so that in their new manifestation, their bodies exuded a scented odour for the benefit of all. This time there was no Chelvi to deliver a critique. She and her two friends had disappeared. The dramatist she had censured too acquired new recognition, to become an academic at the University in Fine Arts.

After May 1991, when the LTTE detained several students from the University of Jaffna, we mentioned that a senior academic who warned the students in a meeting summoned by the LTTE at the main auditorium, “There are… weeds left in the University [who]… will be plucked up and cast away.” This was communicated to us in what was perhaps the last letter from Manoharan before his fatal arrest. The University is committed to historical amnesia and is the last place for any record of this ugly phase. Admission is part of necessary self-appraisal that should follow. The University, willingly and unwillingly, by its silences and articulations, was co-opted as a partner in crime.

The disappearances coincided with the time hundreds of children recruited by the LTTE were literally ground to paste in its failed attempt to capture Elephant Pass camp. Whispered public criticism drove it to further tighten the screws against dissent. At that time many had concluded that the LTTE’s repression was going to be total. As is usual in totalitarian societies there was a group of artistes who had official patronage and received sanctioned flattery and reward; some even managed to portray themselves to the outside world as independent spirits and their work as authentic expressions of the people. They became ideal material for peace groups to sponsor and parade around the world as voices of the oppressed and an index of their success in peace making. At the same time a dwindling group of dissident artistes was struggling to keep the tiny flame of freedom alive against hopeless odds. To give them any praise or solidarity courted disaster for peace-making – and they were best left to suffer the consequences of their folly.

The flame that Rajani carried was that of a movement. For a time it proved that people with diverse beliefs, backgrounds and commitments, both within the University and outside, could work together and support each other for the common good. We all carry the burden and responsibility for those whose lives are cut short, to do our utmost to ensure that they did not die in vain. We must repudiate the conventional wisdom of peacemakers yesterday and today, which dictates surrender, appeasement and the denial of our humanity. To them, steadfastness, honour and loyalty are dispensable like cast off clothes given to beggars.

This chapter is about the LTTE’s moves soon after murdering Rajani, to snuff out the remaining embers of dissent at Jaffna University and beyond it. Having terrorised individuals from the elite to submit to the ‘law of the mob’ in conforming to their dictates, it destroyed them as persons owning any moral or civic responsibility toward their fellows. The LTTE then paraded these persons before visitors to Jaffna as its civil society. This elite society was slowly being moulded into partners who would watch and do nothing, justify or be passive partners in the chilling and unacceptable recruitment of children into the ranks of the LTTE(see end of the section below)…

 5.2 The Undercurrent of Terror at the University

Soon after murdering Rajani, LTTE intelligence was busy sowing terror and arm- twisting the more malleable persons at the University, while keeping those who seemed to dissent under surveillance. Some student leaders such as Chelvi and Manoharan showed an admirable spirit of resistance. Rajani had been instrumental in creating a team spirit to enable the University to respond collectively whenever an individual was threatened. The LTTE moved quickly to annul any development, which allowed people space to engage with issues and respond collectively. A well-tried strategy was to let a marked individual know that he was on the hit list. Inevitably, the individual approached the LTTE through a broker. The outcome was, normal appearances notwithstanding, the individual had been reduced to a walking sepulchre. No one could depend on the trust or loyalty of an erstwhile friend under such circumstances. 

The smothering of dissent and shifting alliances of those in positions of authority is well illustrated by a story told to us by Winsles.

Winsles, formerly the secretary of the Science Students Union, succeeded Gnanam as president of the University Students Union (USU). Just before he became president of the USU, Winsles, with several others, was summoned to Mallavi to meet Mahattaya. The time was late 1989, after Rajani’s assassination, when the Indian Army was beginning its pull out. The meeting was arranged by Arunothayan, the spy who was only nominally a student. Arunothayan was closely monitoring the University after the assassination and intimidating students who wanted to commemorate Rajani. Although Arunothayan worked in the shadows, he was known and feared. Once reported by examiners for cheating, the Senate-appointed inquiry committee exonerated Arunothayan without calling evidence from the examiners. Arunothayan was then very central to the stifling of dissent at the university. The group bound for Mallavi included persons picked by Arunothayan and included a teacher from St. John’s College , Jaffna . 

The group taken to meet Mahattaya first went to Dinesh Camp in Vavuniya. (Dinesh was then Tamilchelvan’s nom de guerre.) From there they were by night driven to Mahattaya’s HQ in Mallavi. When ushered into Mahattaya’s presence, Winsles told him, “The opinion among the students is that the LTTE killed Rajani Thiranagama. What do you have to say?” Mahattaya flatly denied that they killed Rajani, but then went on to give reasons justifying the killing: that she had written The Broken Palmyra and her work had done them much damage. In the catalogue of her faults he recited without conviction, was her wearing Western dress. Rajani in fact usually wore sari to work.  

Winsles continued to have antagonistic meetings with Mahattya around the LTTE’s interference in student matters. One such issue was the Marumalarchi Kalaham (MMK) office. The MMK had been a cultural and literary organisation at Jaffna University . Once the LTTE began eliminating other groups in 1986, it virtually took over the MMK with its office. The office remained locked up after the Indian Army arrived in October 1987. When university employees opened it after two months, during which it rained, they found much of the documents damaged or destroyed by white ants. The university authorities asked the labourers to shift the surviving documents to another place and to destroy the documents badly affected. They handed the office over to the University Students Union.

In the first meeting at Mallavi in 1989, Mahattaya claimed that a valuable document of theirs from the MMK office had gone into the possession of Prof. N. Balakrishnan, Dean of Arts (Dean Bala). Subsequently in 1990 after the pullout of the Indian Army, Mahattaya made his first visit to Jaffna as the head of the PFLT (Political Front of the Liberation Tigers). He asked Winsles and other student leaders to meet him at the Kanthan Karunai office in Nallur.  Just prior to this meeting, Arunothayan had demanded that Winsles hand over the keys of the former MMK office to him. Winsles told him that he should ask the university authorities who must be the ones to decide. The next day, Winsles discovered that the MMK had taken over the office and put up their board and had moved the Students Union documents elsewhere. Thoroughly upset, Winsles told Mahattaya that it was not the way to take over an office. Mahattaya had not expected this defiance and went to some pains to explain that they did things according to the rules and Dean Bala had given them the key. The spare key indeed was kept with the Dean. Arunothayan had gone to the hapless man’s home in the night and removed the office key from him and moved the MMK intothe office.  

Mahattaya returned then to the mysterious missing document he had first mentioned at Mallavi, and claimed that Dean Bala had taken the document, while the Dean claimed to the contrary that it was destroyed when the Indian Army moved in. Mahattaya also asked about the Students Union leader Gnanam whom Winsles succeeded. Evidently, the LTTE suspected that Gnanam had removed the document and given it to Dean Bala whom Gnanam was close to.

Mahattaya then dropped a bombshell. He told Winsles that Dean Bala was on the LTTE’shit list, but the decision had been put on hold temporarily. Alarmed by this turn of events, Winsles told the Vice Chancellor, Prof. A. Thurairajah, about the threat to Dean Bala, as soon as he returned to the University. Prof. Thurairajah was shocked and asked Winsles whether he had heard correctly. When Winsles affirmed that he undoubtedly had, Thurairajah confessed that he too was afraid for himself.

Thurairajah then gave Winsles some very remarkable advice: “If you see one person running, you must look carefully before following. But when all are running, you must simply follow with no further ado. That is the way to survive.” Thurairajah was the figurehead of education in Jaffna and the vision and civic responsibility that goes with it.   Thurairajah must have found his dilemma severe  enough to unburden himself to a student in this fashion. To many in such positions surrender would have appeared wise and necessary

Dean Bala, who probably received the chilling tidings from Thurairajah, asked Winsles if the report of his predicament was correct. Winsles confirmed it. Other students told Winsles that the LTTE suspected Dean Bala of having close contact with his erstwhile student in Economics and colleague on the staff; as well as their opponent, Chief Minister Varadarajaperumal of the North-East Provincial Council.

Equally revealing is the case of Gnanam, the former Students Union president, whom the LTTE suspected had removed the mysterious missing document. Gnanam was not considered a bad guy, nor was he particularly political. Many of the apolitical student leaders wanted to participate in the march through the city and make the commemoration, in protest against killing Rajani, a success; but found Gnanam sitting on the fence, while Arunothayan was using his weight to try to sabotage any protest. Students later noticed that Gnanam was hanging about closely with Arunothayan. In September 1990, the LTTE sent teams to abduct Dr. Sritharan of the UTHR(J). Tipped off, he went underground. Meanwhile, owing to shelling around Jaffna , Rajani’s sister Vasuki and her parents had moved to the house near the University where Rajani had formerly lived. An LTTE team had searched the house the day after Sritharan visited it. Gnanam had also called there on three separate occasions asking after Sritharan and trying to make conversation with Vasuki, who hardly knew him. Vasuki found it rather disconcerting. It was Arunothayan’s style to intimidate or arm-twist students and send them on missions to gather information about others.

The death sentence on Dean Bala was in time rescinded, but not before he was taken to the dreaded LTTE office in Neervely and some senior dons amenable to the LTTE had pleaded for his release. This was the LTTE’s style. Make a threat, scare a person out of his wits, and make him accede to their terms. The killing of Rajani, followed days later by that of two campus security officers Felix Anthony and Thevathas, were in themselves a chilling message to the University to come to terms with its wishes. We also learnt from employees that as a sequel to the intimidation of Dean Bala, one person was recruited to the Faculty of Humanities on the LTTE’s recommendation. Another senior colleague added that Dean Bala agreed to make the appointment after pistol packing Arunothayan personally threatened the Dean. In time the abuse worked both ways as part of the perks of surrender. A dismissed physics teacher from the Faculty of Science appealed for reinstatement through the courts administered by the LTTE. The Professor of Mathematics who supported the appeal discovered to his consternation that the files had disappeared from the courts following, as he learnt from senior justice officials whom he confronted, a request from the Vice Chancellor to the LTTE leader. 

We may recall that Mahattaya, knowing full well her opposition to the LTTE, had wanted to meet Rajani after her return from England in early 1987, and she had refused. While Rajani was active, the norm observed whenever a member of the university community was threatened or intimidated, was, to deal with it collectively. No one should meet the Indian Army or an armed group alone. By killing Rajani the LTTE broke that resolve by targeting individuals. It turned the University into a place of seething distrust The situations  in which Thurairajah, Dean Bala and Gnanam operated represent just a few among a host of instances on how the LTTE handled the University, and turned the place into one of dread and deceit. The killing of the campus security officers was hardly talked about.

The weaker ones succumbed fast; the stronger ones were kept under observation until an opportune moment came to silence, detain or worse. Winsles had kept his independence and quietly defied the LTTE. In September 1990, Mahattaya told Winsles that as the Students Union they should issue a statement of support for the LTTE and hinted that their failure to do so marked them out as traitors. Winsles asked him for time. In early October the LTTE briefly lifted the exit pass requirement. Winsles quickly fled Jaffna . During this short period of ‘respite’, Sritharan also escaped. Several students, including Manoharan and Chelvi were arrested and they disappeared in LTTE prisons. The University disowned them.

In the wider society too the LTTE line was observed. The late John Merritt of the London Observer was in Jaffna around New Year 1990 to do a story on Rajani (London Observer Magazine, 20th April 1990). [5] Merritt, who was a Roman Catholic, asked Bishop Deogupillai of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Jaffna, “Who killed Rajani?” Merritt later told us that the Bishop replied that the people had told him it was the Indian Army or its allies. Merritt then asked, “Whom do you say killed Rajani?” The Bishop answered, “I must believe what the people tell me!” [6] Merritt gave a very dreary picture of what was happening to Jaffna :

Recruiting posters appealing to 14-year-olds assert ‘Tigers Don’t Cry’. LTTE officials maintain that there is a 13 or 14-year-old age limit for political and military training, but one section commander, faithfully recording his troops manoeuvres in a ‘Monitor’s Exercise Book’ with school, date, name and subject spaces on the cover, was happy to show off the 12-year-old cubs who can strip down a Kalashnikov faster than most children can turn a Biro into a pea-shooter.

A shopkeeper tells how he is doing a good trade in some dubious balm for the boys’ feet, blistered by their new boots. He starts to talk with bitterness of his own 13-year-old who has recently joined the ranks, but falls silent as a Tiger pack passes. They are 40 yards away, out of earshot, but he shakes hands and says, ‘Sorry’

When night falls only the children venture on to the streets, in big, awkward boots and army fatigues. With grenades threaded at their waists and assault rifles in their skinny arms they follow a pied piper called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. It is a liberation that chains every boy with a regulation cyanide capsule on a string around his neck, a freedom fight that has made an enemy of the young woman in the picture on the wall.”

The last reference was to posters of Rajani pasted on the walls of Jaffna City for the November commemoration by students and sympathisers. For the LTTE to pull them down would have been a virtual admission of guilt.

Child soldiers was an issue highlighted by us which placed Rajani and UTHR(J) on a collision course with the LTTE. The harrowing fate of these children, a mere few months later in August 1990, described below, is a severe indictment on the society’s elite. The LTTE then tried to overrun the army position in Jaffna Fort, in which many of these children thrown in recklessly, were traumatised, killed or maimed. The following is taken from UTHR(J) Report No.6 of early 1991, following whose publication the University Council, out of anger or to curry favour, moved against members of the UTHR(J) with unprecedented harshness:

A large number of girls and children were recruited and flung into battle in reckless fashion with little understanding of the purpose and lack of maturity to come to terms with blown limbs and permanent physical disability. Once the original boyish sense of adventure evaporated with injury, children often bitterly cursed the movement and even attempted suicide. Others talk about the experience in a dazed matter of fact manner. The two attacks on the Fort and the attack on Mankulam resulted in a large number of such casualties… 

The ward in Manipay hospital just after the attack on Jaffna Fort on 5th August, was full of injured girls. A woman major in military uniform with her hands on her hips walked from bed to bed, mechanically repeating, “Do not be sad. We will liberate our soil.”…Some [injured] had even hesitantly tried to commit suicide with cyanide capsules. One girl with a leg blown off and a slit mouth nonchalantly related her experience: “We surrounded the Fort and announced that unless they surrendered, we would attack in 10 minutes. The planes arrived and we were getting missiles from the air as well as from the Fort. We ran. There was an explosion and I fell down. I tried to move my leg to get up. But nothing happened. I then noticed that my trouser leg was hanging, and my foot was somewhere behind. Then an ‘anna’ (elder brother) carried me. After he went a few paces, there was another explosion. The ‘anna’ who carried me collapsed dead. As I fell, I saw Mathangi. She too was dead. I lay on the ground for 20 minutes while shells flew over me. One exploding shell split my mouth...

Another girl with a head injury was at Manthikal hospital. The place reeked with blood. The tractor in which her party had been travelling in Karainagar had caught a shell when they tried to attack the naval base. After being injured, the girl held on to her gun as instructed until someone collected it. Asked how she felt before the attack, she said that it was the most exhilarating experience. They were simply thrilled as they had a cup of tea before setting off. Then she became anxious. She asked the lady close by, “Akka (elder sister) will you stay with me tonight?” Later in her sleep she cried, “Amma (mother), amma, come and stay close to me!” Then: “Drive the tractor slowly, my head hurts.... I asked the akka to stay with me, I don't know if she is here.....”

If our memory serves us correctly, it was Manoharan who sent us this report. It was in the very nature of the emerging regime that Manoharan, Rajani and Chelvi, who would have wept with these children, had to be taken away.

When the report above received wide publicity, the University Council moved to punish two academics associated with it, arbitrarily reversing an earlier decision to treat their absence from Jaffna as a special case, by serving them with vacation of post. Thurairajah and Dean Bala quietly went along. Following representations made by the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations the University Grants Commission appointed a one-man committee headed by Prof. Karl Gunawardena to examine the matter. Prof. Gunawardena’s report of June 2000 held that the University’s action in dismissing the academics was ‘unjustified’ and appears to have been guided by an element of ‘pique, anger and even bad faith’. To this day the University has not responded.

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[1] Balakumar gave himself over to the Sri Lankan Army on 17th May 2009 near Mullivaykkal, and is since missing (Special Report 34 Part IV).

[2] Arunothayan was thrown out of the LTTE, perhaps owing to his close ties with Mahattaya, and was driving a tractor in Killinochchi. Sometime later, he joined the government administration.

[3] Newton disappeared after he left Colombo in a hired car in 2005, at the start of the tit for tat killings shifting from lower to higher levels in a doomed peace process.

[4] As to possibilities, the following incident that happened elsewhere was narrated in our Report No.10: “The LTTE prison camp at Kachchai was bombed by the air force in August 1990. One bomb hit a bunker where prisoners were kept. The camp leader Kanthi came out from his hiding place once the bombers left, sprayed the inside of the damaged bunker with his submachine gun. The bunker was then covered up. The camp was then moved to Koilakandy.Kanthi was also active in 2009 (Special Report No.34, VIII).

[5] John Merritt was the Sunday Observer’s leading investigative journalist who in his journalism fought for fair play in all parts of the world and for asylum seekers in Britain who were turned back to persecution at home. On 10th September 1989 , eleven days before Rajani was killed, Merritt revealed in Europe’s Guilty Secret the “hidden scandal” of the Greek island of Leros which, only an hour’s flight from Athens , was used “as a dumping ground for those the world wishes to forget”. It was about the horrific psychiatric colony which was also used as a political prison by the Greek Junta and forced the European Community to act. It was Liz Phillipson who attended Rajani’s commemoration in November who suggested to Merritt that he do a story on Rajani. A few months later in 1990 Merritt was admitted to Hammersmith Hospital with leukemia. He continued to write: Scud firm’s cash to bolster the Tory cause (14 Apr.1991) and Bomb victims [of Lockerbie] accuse Pan Am of dirty tricks (26 Apr.1992). He decided to stop chemotherapy and died suddenly in August 1992, like Rajani, at the age of 35.

[6] The Roman Catholic Church seemed to take the view that the Church could coexist with a state, however delinquent, if they do not interfere in each other’s agreed prerogatives. According to a report at that time the LTTE wanted all churches and temples to ring their bells on Martyrs’ Day in the LTTE calendar. Bishop Deogupillai, according to the report, ordered the priests not to ring their bells. The LTTE’s Yogi, approached the Bishop to get him reverse his decision. The Bishop, the report said, showed Yogi the portion on the Canon Law regulating the ringing of bells. The LTTE did not press the matter further.

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