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Extracts from Chapter 6:

Rajani’s Relevance for Post-War Reconciliation

6.2 The Left in Jaffna: A Missed Opportunity


Yet Jaffna was known as a conservative and backward place.

Many left intellectuals including Rajani lived in Jaffna in the mid-1980s. Yet Jaffna has been criticised for its conservative backwardness, particularly by the parliamentary Left exasperated by their later inability to win seats from Jaffna . This kind of harsh criticism, coupled with accusations of ingratitude, gave the Left of the South an excuse to jump on the bandwagon of the SLFP’s Sinhalese chauvinism. In this shift, they cast aside the Tamils and the Plantation Labour they had once championed. The bane of left politics in Lanka was its divisiveness, particularly the rift between the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and Communist Party (CP). Given the quirks of the parliamentary game, the prudent course would have been to bury their doctrinal differences and form a Social Democratic Party – something they attempted too late.

Left influence came to Jaffna initially through the Gandhian route of the Jaffna Youth Congress (JYC) in the 1920s. The JYC had been an advocate of egalitarian education, and the advent of free education in the 1940s extended its influence among the rising generation. It sowed the seed that was eventually harvested by the incipient Left.


Several leading left figures could be traced back to schools and principals connected to the JYC. N. Shanmugathasan was from Skandavarodhaya of the JYC veteran Orator Subramaniam. Another student of Orator’s Skandavarodhaya who made his mark on the Tamil struggle is P. Rajanayagam, founder editor of the London-based Tamil Times, which functioned through the crucial years starting from October 1981. Having started in left politics as an LSSP activist, he became an active trade unionist in the 1950s and 1960s. He stood for human rights without partisanship, defying the LTTE that always posed a threat to him.

Other leading JYC principals included Handy Perinpanayagam and N. Sabaratnam. M. Karthigesan, a founder member and leading intellectual of the Communist Party, succeeded Sabaratnam in 1971 as principal of Jaffna Hindu. By 1956, the Marxist Left made a showing in Jaffna that was astounding for newcomers. The 1940s generation was coming of age.

P. Kandiah of the CP won Pt Pedro in 1956 with 51% of the vote at a time when politics was becoming very nationalistic amidst mounting ethnic polarisation. The combined left vote was high in several rural Jaffna electorates – in Vadamaratchy, Uduvil, and Vaddukkottai. Had the Left been united in 1960, for example, it would have beaten Tamil Congress candidate M. Sivasithamparam in Uduppiddy by 47% to 35%.

Comparing the results of Pt Pedro electorate in 1956 with the two electorates, Pt Pedro and Udupiddy, into which it was divided in 1960, one sees immediately that Udupiddy, which includes Prabhakaran’s Valvettithurai, was a solid base of the Left. In the mid-1950s, then, the Left had the potential to become the leading party in Jaffna , which then had several school principals with progressive views.

As a divided entity, however, the Left failed to inspire confidence as a force for change. After the 1947 elections, it took the divided Left two years to decide on a leader of the opposition. Had the Left enkindled the necessary confidence, a number of persons in Jaffna who eventually made their marks in the nationalist camp might have opted for left politics – among them V. Dharmalingam, A. Thiagarajah, V. Anandasangari and arguably A. Amirthalingam.

One could moreover see in the electoral performance of the Left in Jaffna, the impress of caste. But to be a winner, the Left needed more. It had that opportunity while it was seen as a principled and doughty opponent of communalism. Thus the Left’s suicidal move to join the Sinhalese extremist camp in the 1960s was a tragedy not only for the Sinhalese, but also for the Tamils, and for the Left as a whole. The Left, though ill-used by President Jayewardene, honourably went to his aid in supporting the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987, which cast them into the JVP’s murderous sights. Several leading members of the Tamil Left were killed by the LTTE; a number of those who remained became mouthpieces for the LTTE’s demented nationalism to ensure their own continued survival. 

 6.6 The Tiger Gulag

Rajani’s assassination on 21st September 1989 came on the heels of the Indian government’s announcement that it was pulling the IPKF out of Lanka. That too was a fruit of the marriage of convenience between the LTTE and the UNP government of President Premadasa. Despite being a signatory to the Indo-Lanka Accord, the Government became very adventurist in working closely with the LTTE to attack the Indian Army; LTTE units were also involved in search parties in the South to hunt JVP rebels. Under its deal with the government, the LTTE was to be given virtual control of the North-East. Rajani’s killing was the first move to completely eliminate local dissent.

After her murder, I. Shanmugalingam was one of next dissidents to be abducted and slain. In early November 1989, an LTTE cadre known as Jawan took him from home. A few days later, his wife was asked to come to Neervely and collect his bicycle and chain. As a journalist at Eelanadu, Shanmugalingam had spoken critically at a meeting of journalists convened by the LTTE soon after their 1986 massacre of TELO cadres. He protested against attempts to control what journalists thought and wrote. The LTTE got the Eelanadu management to sack him. Thereafter he suffered financial hardship. (One suspects that if he had not  belonged  to an oppressed caste, Shanmugalingam would have been less vulnerable.) After working as a security guard at the Education Office, he joined the journal Viduthalai (Freedom), which was close to the EPRLF, as editor. In the journal, he denounced Rajani’s killing and also published some extracts from The Broken Palmyra, which people eagerly read.

But as the Indian Army relinquished control, the LTTE began to arrest Tamil dissidents.  And they did so with the active connivance of the Sri Lankan military. In fact, the LTTE arrested persons in Colombo and transported them in regular passenger coaches through army checkpoints, with the prisoners manacled to the buses.  The captives were offloaded in Killinochchi and taken to prisons. Others were driven south from Jaffna through Elephant Pass checkpoint, where their Tiger captors exchanged jokes with government soldiers. Anyone with moral sense observing this would have known that no good could result from this fake peace; it could only lead to an abominable tragedy.

The honeymoon ended with the resumption of war with the State in June 1990.  And it was a war fought with scant regard for human rights or humanitarian law.  Civilians were subjected to indiscriminate attacks, deployed as human shields and mine clearers forced to march ahead of troops, and massacred in large numbers. The fighting displaced over a million people; and all parties enjoyed impunity.  The conduct of war in 1990 set a tragic precedent for later phases of the conflict. Victories and defeats in this long and dirty war have no meaning other than shame and deceit – events to weep over rather than to celebrate. 

Owing to our association with people working on the ground, UTHR(J) was among the few to highlight (Sec. 4 of Briefing No.1, Reports 5, 6 & 8) the enormity of disappearances under the LTTE and was practically alone in saying that the number of detainees was of the order of 3,000 – 4,000 or more. Our findings in Report No.9 of 1992 and Bulletin No.4 were based on interviews with witnesses. The reports also included accounts of army atrocities, but the media in the South quoting our reports left these out, giving selective publicity to the LTTE’s prisoners.

With renewed efforts underway at making peace between the Government and the LTTE in the early 1990s, few locally or internationally were keen on pressing the prisoners’ issue. The LTTE countered us with arguments very similar to those used later by the Government to ridicule the UN panel report of the last few months of the war in 2009: they said (wrongly) that we lacked direct evidence from victims. The LTTE attacked our reports on the conduct of war in the 1990s by saying that we were not in the North and were reporting falsehoods. Rev. Dr. Chandrakanthan of Jaffna University offered a countering testimonial, saying that he had heard nothing to substantiate our claims of abominable treatment of prisoners, but that the LTTE, being obliged to maintain law and order, had prisons for police cases and from his own inquiries he learned of about 250 prisoners, who were well looked after in the manner stipulated by international norms.  

In fact, while we had numerous individual reports of persons being taken away by the LTTE, our figures were based on several reports by individuals we judged to be reliable witnesses. They corroborated one another. Around May 1990, the number of prisoners listed by the LTTE at an inquiry office was over 2,000. One escapee, Samaran, who was called upon by semi-educated LTTE guards to devise a system for keeping account of the prisoners while he himself was incarcerated, later reported more than 3,000 in the Thunukkai complex (Report No.9 and Samaran’s booklet Psychopaths). Samaran also reported another hundred in another part of the compound, who were held in deep pits. Those in the pits included prominent figures like Muruganesan (Muhunthan), People’s Bank Manager Ganeshasundaram, and TULF candidate Nadesu, as well as several Muslims taken for ransom.

Samaran reported about 1,500 prisoners in each of two paddy stores, each measuring 250 feet by 150 feet. We confirmed this several years later, from a restaurant owner in Jaffna town who told us that there were just under 1,500 detainees in the store where he had once been held. Each captive was assigned one of the small rectangles into which the floor space was divided. Periodically groups of prisoners were called out by their numbers, told they were being released, and taken out. The restaurant owner was among the last 400 or so prisoners held there. Eventually the LTTE released these people, whom they did not consider a significant threat to their order. As years went by, the restaurant owner realised that none of those taken out earlier, who had gone with great joy in anticipation of release, were alive. Many had been transported into the jungle and executed en masse (Arrogance of Power p.424).

Samaran’s is the single most important written report to give us an idea of the numbers. His sojourn in Thunukkai was around April or May 1990, at a time when the Thunukkai Complex functioned on money, materials, and logistics supplied generously by the Sri Lankan government. While Thunukkai had 3,000 detainees, mainly from Jaffna , it also had a large turnover of those coming in and going to their deaths, to further detention, or to release. Their fate depended on decisions taken higher up, and based on the reports of torturers and interrogators. Prison terms lasted from six months to a year. Of the 1,000 held at Charles Camp Chavakacheri, Samaran was among the 600 to be sent to Thunukkai in lorries despite being told that they would be released. There were two other big camps in Chavakacheri, Bosco Camp and the Women’s Camp (Bulletin No.4). These used harsh sentencing to make room for new prisoners. When war erupted again in June 1990 many of those sentenced to prison terms were sent to the front lines to dig bunkers, and were killed by army fire or air force bombing.

The LTTE continued to arrest hundreds in the months after the war began again in June. These spates of arrests intensified from time to time, when particular events leading to largely avoidable death on a large scale rendered the public prone to criticise the LTTE. One such occasion arose soon after the LTTE lost many child soldiers in a debacle at Elephant Pass in July 1991. At that point, the LTTE detained several university students, including Manoharan and Chelvi. By this time, most detainees in Jaffna were held in the peninsula itself, as our cases suggest, since the logistics of transport to Thunukkai had become more complicated. The costs of criticising them were swiftly and widely known: in September 1990, the LTTE read out the names of five hundred executed detainees to anxious relatives in Tinnevely. In October 1991, 30 to 40 persons were executed in public places in Jaffna after brief confessions. The practice of detaining dissenters and others the LTTE did not like continued until the group’s very end, although in somewhat greater secrecy after it attracted undesired international attention. As late as early 2009, the LTTE had over 1,000 detainees (Ch. VIII of Special Report 34). Thus we must take Samaran’s number 3,000 in one camp, Thunukkai in May 1990 as just the thin end of a much larger wedge, pointing to thousands more over two decades, a large number of whom were killed. [1]

 Muruganesan: The story of Muruganesan is one among many of committed, able and ethical persons destroyed by ideological intolerance, leaving the Tamils facing a vast emptiness today. Muruganesan joined the Agriculture Faculty in Peradeniya as assistant lecturer and is reputed to have invented a seed-planting machine. He joined the EPRLF out of a deep commitment to socialism, and his scientific curiosity, whether in government prison in Lanka or in camps in India, impelled him to read deeply to enhance knowledge and to constant empirical observation of his environment. When his group fell into bad times after the LTTE banned it in December 1986, Muruganesan worked hard to uphold morale. When indiscipline became rife in the group, while it functioned alongside the Indian Army, he tried hard to uphold discipline and a sense of purpose.

While in Vavuniya, his fiancée came to see him, and he told her with a heavy heart that owing to his responsibilities, he could not enter into conjugal life just yet. As the Indian Army pulled out in 1990, EPRLF cadres fled to India in boats with their families. With the Sri Lankan government colluding then with the LTTE and providing them intelligence, and the Indian government doing next-to-nothing for their erstwhile allies, the LTTE had a free run massacring the fugitives at sea. The Palk Strait became then, for a time, another Red Sea. Muruganesan was among the last to attempt the crossing, and was detained by the LTTE after a failed attempt to shoot himself.

One of the last scenes witnessed of Muruganesan was at Charles Camp, named after another tortured soul, Charles Anthony. Samaran records: Salim, one of the leading torturers, ordered Muruganesan to address a group of new detainees. He had visibly been tortured monstrously and his resolve had weakened. He made a banal speech, saying there are no other groups now and we have no choice but to cooperate with the Tigers. He was then ordered to identify prominent members of other groups among the prisoners. Muruganesan identified just a few. Salim, who was enraged, picked up a baton and thrashed the prisoner until the baton broke. His rage being unrequited, he picked up a chair and thrashed Muruganesan on the face and head and left him bleeding profusely.   

6.8 The Tamil Nationalist Record

The lies of Tamil nationalists spawned the LTTE. Prabhakaran’s career was set in motion in 1972, when youth leader Kasi Anandan delivered his infamous call for the youth to kill putative traitors from a Federal Party Platform with senior sexagenarian and septuagenarian leaders on the dais. It was rhetoric of which the purveyors themselves became prisoners. In the end no one was safe.  

By 2000, most of the nationalist survivors, with exceptions like V. Anandasangari, had walked tamely into the Tamil National Alliance, an LTTE brainchild, as penitent ‘traitors’. The parliamentary nationalists were also joined by ex-militants like Suresh Premachandran of the EPRLF and Adaikkalanathan of TELO, who betrayed their former comrades, killed or being killed by the LTTE, to fall at Prabhakaran’s feet and at the service of his intelligence chief Pottu Amman, for use against their more honourable erstwhile colleagues, who refused to have anything to do with the LTTE.

From then on LTTE lies became surreal. They denied or dissimulated about forced conscription of children in Batticaloa starting in September 2001, forced conscription in the Vanni starting in 2006, and finally, lied about holding hostage hundreds of thousands of Vanni civilians. Even though these lies were daily contradicted by the dire stories of escapees, they helped to confuse matters and delay any decisive action in early 2009 on behalf of the trapped people. Meanwhile, the LTTE lobby’s conflation of civilians with the LTTE provided an excuse for the Government to shell areas heavily populated by those whom they should have protected as ostensibly their own citizens.

Thoroughly alienated by the Government’s conduct, the people vote tactically for the TNA as the only means of showing meaningful opposition to the Government. However, the TNA is too compromised and divided to offer the people moral and political leadership. It appears to lack any ideas apart from reciting the same slogans that doomed the Tamils in the first place. The chauvinism of the South ensures the dominance of its mirror image in the North, paralysing political movement on both sides – movement that would allow peoples to see common humanity in one another. At the root of this is the refusal to face inconvenient truths on both sides.

6.9 An Ideology for Disunity

The years of LTTE dominance are not the whole story. During that period, vice chancellors and senior professors praised the LTTE and spoke on their platforms. At least one of these figures threatened those who opposed the LTTE. Correspondingly, there was a necessity to hide the true story of the University, of dissident students and staff who suffered varying degrees of persecution, even to the point of being killed. The University had harboured in its bosom, killers who spewed poisonous rhetoric, acted as agent provocateurs using the students as fodder for their political ambitions under covers such as ‘International Tamil Students Federation’, and still remain at large in our political life. The long rope the State has given these provocateurs, compared with its brutal treatment of the Frontline Socialist Party that wanted the Tamils and Sinhalese to work together, speaks volumes about the current role of extreme Tamil nationalists who thrive on the maggots of a discredited era. It reflects the damage being done to society by the absence of any honest soul-searching on the part of the University.

Rajani had come from Britain at the height of war in 1986 and was the only qualified academic in the Department of Anatomy, which had cadre positions for six. She was killed for her commitment to the society in which she lived by an organisation that wanted to make a political point. The University is the last place where one could usefully look for any historical memory of its lost members: Rajani Thiranagama, Manoharan, or Chelvi. What one finds of dissent in official records of council proceedings or in the articulations of the more vocal academics and administrators is frequently either distorted or of a belittling nature.

This brings us to the Tamil ruling class ideology that the University would inevitably be under pressure to project. The success of the LTTE in controlling Tamil society would be hard to explain without a form of mutual co-optation between the Vellala elite and the LTTE leadership, though this was a stormy marriage fraught with suspicion and recrimination. The LTTE leadership itself came from a non-Vellala caste base that had secured its status through economic advancement, but the co-optation helped to reinforce the fiction, thoughtlessly swallowed by many outsiders, that the Tamil people were single-minded in supporting the LTTE, barring a few ‘traitors’.

The alliances of these different groups left out many sections of the populace, including significant caste and sub-caste groups and the poorer Vellalas. Many of them experienced the harshness of the LTTE, which included the killing of some of their leaders – like the former Central College principal, Mr. Rajadurai, and Mr. Ramalingam who was briefly Acting GA in 1996 – who were among the relatively few from those groups to become top-rank professionals in their time. Talking to people in these communities, one can see that the anger against the LTTE is very close to the surface.

The LTTE collapsed like a house of cards, but the elite ideological base that sustained it did not. For the latter group, regardless of who was in control, it was a question of securing recognition of their dominance in certain spheres that also connoted social prestige. It was a tradeoff in which the LTTE, like the State in earlier times, provided institutional force and legal legitimacy to sustain this order. The LTTE was replaceable as a patron. Many among the elite who had earlier relied on the LTTE, sung its praises, and reviled its critics, deftly switched custom to the Government and Douglas Devananda’s EPDP. The latter moved to fill the LTTE’s vacant role of mutual co-opter, much to the consternation of its oppressed caste base.

The LTTE had wreaked such havoc on dissenters, leaving such a barren intellectual landscape, that in the wake of its defeat there were no people or movements to address the people and to work towards a more equitable and inclusive social consensus. Instead, today’s intelligentsia, in its attempt to reestablish itself in the vacuum left behind by the LTTE’s collapse, attempts to hide behind a sectarian blueprint of religious obscurantism where appeal to caste is no longer shameful. Besides, attitudes to Muslims are such that, while thrashing Muslims in the South, the Government seems to enjoy a free hand in its moves to divide the Muslims and Tamils.

From the start, the University had problems with the dominant ideology it either overtly projected or silently acquiesced in. In 1976, the year of the Vaddukkottai resolution, there was a notable incident during the high tide of Tamil nationalism. The University struck a discordant note, with the students electing a left candidate president for its Students’ Union, defeating the Tamil nationalist (TULF) candidate. The nationalists identified the Hill Country students as being instrumental in causing this defeat by canvassing the votes of the Sinhalese students for the left candidate.

A gang of nationalists, including the son of an MP, cornered four Hill Country students in a lane behind the University and beat them up, abusing them as ‘coolies from the plantation jungles’ and ‘sons of harlots.’ The assailants forced the four to walk on their knees along Palaly Road . No one from the public interfered. Later on, other students and staff protested so loudly and persistently that an embarrassed TULF had to plead with them to call off the protest.  






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[1] In 1990, the population of the North was of the order of 1.2 million, about 0.8 million in Jaffna. The LTTE had an experienced core of over 2000, but had been inducting in many very young recruits, a significant number of whom were posted to the prisons.

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