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The Legacy of A Courageous Woman

by Shanie


"I have lost count of the days

I don’t know the day or the date

I know that it’s more than a month

You want events, numbers case histories?

Not now, my mind is strangled.

I know it’s strange, but that is what I feel

That is what we live

Pain, agony and fear – always fear.

That was how Rajani Thiranagama began a letter she wrote to some friends some months before her death in September 1989. A packed house gathered in the Committee Room A of the BMICH to remember and celebrate this courageous woman’s life which had been ended at the young age of 35 by an assassin’s bullet. It was not a gathering of the intellectuals and the elite who usually make up the audience at a Memorial Lecture. Here were people from all walks of life, listening through simultaneous interpreters, to enchanting lyrics in Tamil sung, among others, by Rajani’s own sisters, to a meaningful poem in Sinhala read by its author Liyanage Amarakeerthi, to the full text of the emotional letter to friends written by Rajani ten months before her death, and to the powerful Memorial Lecture by another courageous political activist from neighbouring India, Nandita Haksar.

Rajani Thiranagama was, by any yardstick, a remarkably courageous woman. As a young medical student, she had persuaded the Medical Students Union for the first time to join a student strike in the mid-seventies to protest the Police killing of student Weerasuriya at the Peradeniya campus. Not long after, she broke free from her middle class Tamil Christian upbringing to marry a Sinhala Buddhist with a peasant background. While serving as a junior medical officer, there were scores of instances when she went out of her way to tend the marginalized. Even after she took up an academic career at the University of Jaffna, she courageously treated the injured, civilians as well as militant cadres, not just because it was her duty under the Hippocratic Oath to which all medical practitioners subscribe but because it was just the right thing to do as a fellow human being. It was also about this time that Rajani’s sister Nirmala was detained under the dreaded, and still dreaded, Prevention of Terrorism Act. Rajani struggled for her sister’s release, a struggle she continued in London where she had gone for her post-graduate studies.

Her experience of state terror in Jaffna and her continuing agony at her sister’s detention under the PTA probably led to her joining the LTTE. But LTTE’s own terror apparatus, its lack of any adherence to democratic norms, the killing of dissidents and opponents and its general fascist nature, soon led to her disassociating herself from the LTTE. When she returned from London to the Jaffna University, she was conscious of the risks she faced. She helped found the University Teachers for Human Rights with two equally courageous fellow academics and also spearheaded the formation of a Co-ordinating Committee of staff, students and trade unionists at the Jaffna University, headed by the Vice-Chancellor himself, to tackle the various crises that arise in a politically charged academic environment. She also co-authored with her UTHR colleagues The Broken Palmyra, still a classic in dissident journalism. The book chronicled and commented on the acts of terror and violence unleashed on the civilian population of Jaffna by the various actors, the militant groups particularly the LTTE, the Indian Peace Keeping Forces and the state security forces. It is the credit of Rajani’s colleagues and co-authors, Rajan Hoole and Sritharan, that they have, despite being forced to working underground, continued the good work they began with Rajani.

Rajani’s Assassination

When Rajani returned from to the Jaffna University and co-authored The Broken Palmyra, she knew she was walking into a powder keg. In the words of the recent statement by the UTHR, "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 had been 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 University of Jaffna, as an available structure that could become a base for others. She was sometimes almost alone in the Medical Faculty with a few loyal labourers getting the Anatomy Department back into shape.

We may record here that when the Indian Army found out about the pre-print 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."

In June 1989, the Premadasa Government, with the knowledge and without opposition from the defence establishment, got the Sri Lankan army to deliver a consignment of fighting equipment to the LTTE and simultaneously ordered the IPKF to withdraw from Sri Lanka. Rajini was then in Britain on a three-month stint to complete her research thesis. She returned to Jaffna in early September and in the same month, the LTTE gunman pumped several bullets into this unarmed woman riding a bicycle to make sure that she was dead.

The legacy that Rajani left

A contribution by Indrawansa de Silva, a fellow-student activist during the Weerasuriya shooting, published in 29th September function booklet states: "Rajani and I had a communication problem. She was bilingual – Tamil and English – and I spoke neither. Yet we were on the same wavelength and somehow that universal tongue of shared ideals and camaraderie. What I saw in her that day standing atop that desk was not only a doctor in making but a passionate charismatic fighter for justice who, unbeknown to either one us, was writing her own epitaph. There are two images of Rajani preserved in my memory. The first is the one I just described – the feisty advocate of justice addressing the crowd with a wagging finger of her right hand while with her left hand holding on to her sari. The other image is Rajini by the side of my grandmother’s deathbed at Kalubowila Hospital trying to explain to me, with patience and caring, that my grandmother was unlikely to wake from her coma. Sadly the qualities she possessed in such are in very short supply today."

Dayapala Thiranagama, Rajani’s husband, spoke at the BMICH event and had this to say: "(The work of the UTHR and their) political ideas sent shockwaves through the professed monolithic structure of the Tamil Tigers. (They) understood the possible political danger from Rajani. The Tigers would not hesitate to stop a livewire of the organisation, Rajani’s life and death shows how long, arduous and painful is the road to victory is when human dignity and the right to dissent are violated by those who choose to use violence to resolve political issues. It is also necessary to reflect on the validity of Rajani’s ideas in relation to the current political situation. To use Rajani’s phrase still, we are walking through a dark valley, and inhumanity is everywhere. One of the fundamental issues today is the fear to speak out or the right to dissent."

All these truths about the life and death of Rajani and of her commitment to human dignity and justice came out very clearly at the BMICH event. It was therefore surprising to find a critic rushing to print complaining that the event was marked by ‘an absence of actuality’. Perhaps this critic wanted the event to focus only on flogging a dead horse, the killers of Rajani. That may have suited someone’s political agenda but the event was meant as a celebration of Rajani’s life. Hers was a courageous woman’s unwavering commitment to justice, for human dignity and to the empowerment of the marginalised, particularly women. She was an outspoken critic of injustice and violence against the unarmed, where most others chose to remain selectively silent when civilians were massacred by the militants as well as by the state security forces. Most chose to remain silent when the Premadasa Government armed the LTTE shortly before Rajani’s assassination. Most continue to remain silent in the face of the unlawful detention of civilians in IDP camps. As Dayapala Thiranagama has stated, "Those who follow Rajani’s path will make our world a better place."

A Collective Conscience Needed

We end with two quotes from the UTHR’s tribute to their former colleague which captures the vision of Rajani: "A nervous government, unable to acknowledge the war has ended, keeping up synthetically a mood of grave military threat from the decimated LTTE, wants the Sinhalese to view the problem (that way). 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 other quote is a statement signed by 50 academics of the Jaffna University and released by the UTHR in 1988. The draft statement was reportedly prepared by Rajani. Written over 20 years ago, it is more than valid even today: "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…Thus 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 Sri Lanka of forces of narrow political vision. This opens the door for further involvement by external forces. Let us not remain forever unprepared and continue trapped in the logic of passivity - hoping against hope that someone else will bring us deliverance."

Courtesy: The Island

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