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Mr. V. Panchalingam became GA Jaffna in late 1984 when the writ of the

January 1988 -May 1989




Under the system of government ‘administration prevailing just after

Independence, the civil administratio1J. in each province was headed by a

Government Agent (GA). He was usually a senior and experienced member of

the Ceylon Civil Service (CCS). “until that was replaced by the Ceylon

(later Sri Lanka) Administrative Service (CAS). Under GA’s of this calibre

the administrative functions and the pu1blic services in their charge were

carried out ‘independently’ of whichever political party was governing, the

main considerations bring honesty. efficiency and impartiality. Discriminatory treatment of the public servants or of subordinates on the grounds of

party affiliation, race or religion was regarded as wrong.

The growing importance in later years of political patronage rather than administrative ability and experience tended to erode this tradition of impartiality and efficiency. Given the rising trend of authoritarianism and interference by politicians in the public services and their function­ing, some senior administrators in the country, it happened, were ‘rewar­ded’, and suddenly got promoted, while others were ‘punished’, and suddenly got precipitously demoted or shunted into ‘the pool’. Nevertheless, there continued to be some GA’s who won high public esteem by the way in which they did their work. Interestingly, some of the GA’s in Jaffna who thus distinguished themselves and are warmly remembered were Sinhalese, for example, Vernon Abeysekera, Neville Jayaweera and Lionel Fernando.

With the rise of the insurgency, Jaffna had become a sensitive posting

by the early 1980’s, and it became very difficult for Sinhalese to serve.

Mr. V. Panchalingam became GA Jaffna in late 1984 when the writ of the

Sri Lankan state was in rapid decline with the rising tempo of the insurgency accompanied by increasing destruction and death to civilians. Several parts of Jaffna became no-man’s land. Velvettithurai was shelled from sea and both Hartley College and Methodist Girls’ Schools were taken over by the Sri Lankan army after the library of the former was burnt down. It was in keeping with Mr. Panchalingam’s cautious style that few knew when he ceased to be acting GA and became GA. In a position that was becoming increasingly hot and messy, he stopped recording and sending public complaints as was done earlier by his predecessor. During the year of LTTE control from May 1986, such arrangements were more or less regularised, without serious objections from Colombo. Hardly any difference was felt locally. Many civil administrators became involved in matters where the LTTE sought advice on administrative and economic matters, carefully respecting the sensibilities of the former. In this, the LTTE displayed considerable political acumen and a deep understanding of Jaffna society. Civil administrators who participated in such fora, justified it on the grounds that it was for the good of the community, and such fora having no political function. it was consistant with their assigned role. Indeed some of

them voiced disagreement with the LTTE on key matters.

However the loss of independence and self assertion amongst civil administrators over the past three decades was very real. This loss of image made them particularly more vulnerable in the political climate that followed. In dealing with the militant groups, particularly with the LTTE, they had displayed a tactical flexibility, a willingness to compromise, and an indulgence sometimes amounting to flattery. These are accepted traits in Jaffna society, with which some would credit its tenuous survival. The LTTE mistook this conduct for loyalty.

When the Indian Red Cross arrived in late June 1987 on the shores of Jaffna with relief supplies, the LTTE was first to welcome them with garlands. This it did tactically while weighing its options. When the civil administrators and the medical services followed suit, fraternised and cooperated with’ the Indian Red Crass in relief work, they thought they were doing no more than what was required in the line of duty. The LTTE which was beginning to feel marginalized was hurt and angry. This found expression in a hint dropped in the Jaffna hospital during Thileepan’s fast in September 1987 that a dreadful fate awaited those officials who garlanded the Indian Red Cross, setting off panic waves and rumours of a hit list. Nothing more happened then.

During the aftermath of the October 1987 operation, the Indian government wanted to restore the civil administration in Jaffna expeditiously as a means of re-establishing its battered credibility. A number of civil administrators from India were brought in. Local employees of the administration were asked to report by early November 1987. The LTTE on the other hand responded by calling for a boycott of the civil administration, calling upon people not to become sheep, and slaves to Indian hegemony.

Many civilians held the opposite point of view but were afraid to express it. They held that if we were unwilling or unable to run our institutions, we would be surrendering the last vestiges of our independence, besides depriving people of the breathing space and the little control over their affairs they badly needed. This was expressed in a statement issued by the Jaffna University Science Teachers’ Association in December 1987, entitled “A Plea to the Nation”, an excerpt which is given here:

“We are now faced with an additional and needless crisis as the result of the campaign to boycott the civil administration. We are being told by notices ‘do not surrender to Indian hegemony’, ‘do not beg for rice’, ‘do not be like sheep’. Those who do not comply with the campaign are threatened with death. The campaign is also confused.  In Jaffna town where schools have been running with fair success, word seems to have come from the militants calling upon students to attend schools in order to preserve our educational heritage. But in villages such as Manipay and Kaithady, teachers and students are being haras-sed.”

“We sympathise with the slogans given. But we are being treated like sheep. Instead of allowing us to decide our own good as a community, we are being ordered to boycott our institutions at the point of a gun. We were all sorry when our administration was disrupted, our shops were looted and we had to stand in rice queues -call it begging if you like. We are spared that indignity now because our administration and banks are functioning and we are getting our salaries. If our administration and banks are closed, we will have to stand in queues begging for rice and dhall from the Indian army or starve as the alternative.

”We wish to take over our institutions and run them, not for the Indians, but for our community as well as to avoid the risk of Indian domination of all aspects of our lives. If our bank staff, administrative staff, medical staff and school principals refuse to report for work, even simply to save face, the IPKF will be forced to bring in bankers, medical, administrative and teaching staff from India. Our institutions will be headed by Indians. Indian hegemony will be enforced here even that was not the Indians’ intention. We must demonstrate to the Indians a clear will to look after ourselves and to co-operate only as equals with self-respect.

“At present we face a disturbing phenomenon of many civilians being killed by young armed men for obscure reasons. Many of those killed recently were respected community leaders involved in social activities. Many of them performed essential functions as members of citizens’ committees. Whatever the reasons the result of such killings will be to sow fear and confusion amongst the ordinary people. They will become sheep, bending towards whoever can bring to bear the stronger threat.

“We urge the people to take control of their institutions and run them for the benefit of their own people, in order that we will be master of our own destiny and will not depend on the patronage of any other force. Let us work towards alleviating past differences and creating those conditions of democratic polity where the Indian government will not be able to justify a prolonged presence in this country.”

January 1988 -May 1989

Caught in a vice between the LTTE’s demands on the one hand and the IPKF’s on the other, the “civil administration appeared to lack a sense of purpose and leadership to formulate a policy on the principled basis that their first loyalty was to the welfare of those whom they were meant to serve -the people. Even within the administration, people were afraid to speak out. There was fear of informers.

The tendency was to act as individuals, playing it by ear. People would go to work and wait at the gate to see what the next person did. When heads of the banking and administrative sectors did not report, the IPKF sometimes took to going to their homes and bringing them in. At times they were made to stay overnight. After a tug-o-war which did nothing to enhance the dignity of the community, the LTTE permitted public institutions to, function 3 days  a week. The IPKF too settled for this.

The coming months were very painful for the conscientious public servant. A number of them carried their work home and got their subordinates to join them on off days -working sometimes even through week-ends.

Some departments, such as those issuing birth, marriage and death certificates, and vehicle licenses became lumbered with enormous backlogs. Faced with inconveniences, members of the public began to talk of public servants as shirkers who were using the LTTE to get full pay for half the work.

These insults were borne in silence by those dedicated officers who did the best they could and yet had little control over affairs. Corruption increased as private consultants, of the same nature as travel agents, sprang up in the area around the Kachcheri, who would for a fee do the impossible, producing certificates and licences. Even driving licences could be obtained without tests. These consultants looked upon themselves as performing a service. “Just look at someone coming from Pt. Pedro five times for a marriage certificate and going back empty handed. Imagine the distress, the lost days and the bus fare,” they would say,”For less than the sum of these we would guarantee the goods”. They would even take disappointed and tired applicant,s to the YMCA, listen to their woes and comfort them over tea. There is little doubt that cuts were paid to outside parties. Ironically, some of the popular slogans during the early days of the insurgency were to do with the fight against social corruption.

With the coming of the North-East provincial administration in November, in its fight for credibility, a new effort was under way to restore normal functioning. The stakes had now become high and deadly. These were the conditions under which two of the most senior administrators, K.Ramanathan and V. Panchalingam met their deaths.


Karthigesu Ramanathan (51) was Additional GA, Jaffna. Within the service he was known as a very able administrator of exceptional integrity.

His colleagues describe him as a scholarly person whose speech was blunt and direct. Some may call it a weakness. Not uncharacteristically, he had been a boxer at school. In the context of Jaffna, several friends and colleagues described him as innocent and having no political leanings.

Soon after the new EPRLF-led administration took over in November 1988, Ramanathan was put in charge of the section issuing certificates of births, marriages and deaths. Unbelievably, these augean stables were soon cleaned up, personnel were transferred, and people discovered that it was now possible to obtain certificates honestly and fairly quickly. This would no doubt have created some resentment in quarters where loss of face and loss of extra imcome was involved. Having made the running of the administration a political issue, the LTTE would have been understandably suspicious of anyone making improvements in the quality of service. Ramanathan, true to his character, had right along quietly defied the demand to work only 3 days a week. Although he reported on all working days, he could not have done much work when there was no supporting staff. On the 9th November 1988, there had been a car bomb explosion 50 yards from the Kachcheri (see Report No.1). Several members of the administrative staff had gone onto the road to peep at what had happened. True to form, Ramanathan had told the onlookers that this had nothing to do with them, and had advised them to get back to their desks. It is known that some of these stories were talked about with additions and twists that would have resulted in Tiger hostility towards Ramanathan.

As the weeks wore on, the new provincial administration  was pushing harder for normal working and the three-day week was being slowly over-stepped. The LTTE sent a series of threatening letters to the GA, Mr. Panchalingam. Although there were rumours of such letters, Mr. Panchalingam dealt with these in his own way and did not discuss matters with his colleagues.

On the morning of the 7th of April, two young men called at Mr. Ramanathan’s residence at Tellipalai and said that they wished to see him in connection with some help on a personal matter. Ramanathan was then preparing to set off for a meeting at the UNHCR office in Jaffna. His wife, suspecting something amiss tried to turn them away. But Ramanathan came out on his own, and was shot dead while reading a document that was handed over to him.

The following morning’s papers reported that the LTTE had claimed responsibility. The Kachcheri (administration of the area) was shocked into silence. Everyone now feared his neighbour. People now began to take seriously the prospect of informers within. They now recalled persons, seldom noticed earlier, who would, soon after a visitor left, come to inquire who the person was and what was his business.

No one or group of persons even dared to fly a black flag at the Kachcheri. What the LTTE desired had come to pass. They knew that the people were as sheep. V  Panchalingam who had been GA Jaffna, for over 4 years was admired for having done a difficult job amidst wide-ranging contrary pressures.

There is no doubt that he was honest and felt for the plight of his people. His excessive caution and secretiveness may have hindered his being well loved amongst his colleagues. Senior civil servants formed a small group that knew each other inside out. Their strengths, weaknesses and bags of tricks were known within the circle. There were plenty of jokes about Panchalingam’s secretiveness. It made him prone to manage problems by expediency rather than work at a principled response.

Because Panchalingam had close dealings with the LTTE he was taken for an LTTE man. It is reliably understood that the Indian High Commission had on a number of occasions applied pressure on the government in Colombo to get Panchalingam transferred. This was resisted. The Indians accepted this, and perhaps came to realise that they could work with Panchalingam. It is remarkable how Panchalingam retained the confidence of the Sri Lankan government while ostensibly maintaining good relations with the LTTE. It is

also likely that the former understood him while the latter did not. Evidently   Panchalingam too had come to be attached to his position as GA, Jaffna, having turned down several offers of transfer~ This contrasted with the extreme caution that had marked his assumption of duties. According to accepted civil service wisdom, 3 years is a long time in a hot seat, where you are bound to have displeased many. You are well advised to apply for your next posting and request a transfer in good time, before being precipitously vacated at short notice. However, Panchalingam had made arrangements to leave his post in July for a period of study in the USA on scholarship.

As mentioned earlier, Panchalingam had received a number of threatening letters accusing him of breaches of dictates set by the LTTE. Some of these letters named certain officers in the administration with his immediate colleagues. He did take these threats seriously and took up the matter with old contacts who had access to the LTTE. One particular man used to call at his office regularly and have discussions with him behind closed doors. He was probably assured that things were, under control.

The period of parliamentary general elections (February 15th) was an anxious time for Panchalingam. The LTTE had issued a death threat to anyone participating in them but the GA had no choice but to co-operate in the arrangements. An apocryphal story about his caution, was that his car had several mirrors so that he could check if he was being followed. When the elections were over, he breathed a sigh of relief.

The know facts pertaining to Panchalingam’s murder on lst May are given below:

A final threatening letter, with the LTTE mark, arrived in the Kachcheri in mid -April, a week after Ramanathan was killed. Though addressed to the GA, it was opened by another officer who had treated it as routine mail. Fourteen persons were named in the letter, including one minor employee. When the officer took the letter to the GA, he asked him to call those named individually and inform them of the threat. This was done.

One matter of some concern to the LTTE, was the project mooted by the new provincial government to refashion the city of Jaffna, which had suffered from military activity. It fell to the civil adminstration to plan this project. A meeting of the town planning committee was fixed for -Wednesday 26th April. On the day before the meeting, one of the AGA’s told another officer in an alarmed tone, to tell the GA not to attend the

meeting the following day. He had then added after some reflection, “He must be knowing about it.” Evidently, a threatening message had been passed on.

On the 2Oth morning, the senior officials were at the Kachcheri with their supporting staff. To their surprise, the GA turned up and wanted to proceed with plans to convene the town planning meeting. Though afraid, his subordinates were too loyal and duty conscious to demur. Perhaps, they thought that the GA had sorted out matters with the LTTE. Shortly after the meeting began, a telephone call came inquiring whether the GA was present, which was cut off after receiving a reply. Later a second call came inquiring whether the Chief Clerk dealing with town planning was present. After learning that he was busy, the caller said that a friend had inquired and then cut off. On being told about this the Chief Clerk became alarmed, as there was no one who would inquire about his movement in this manner. The meeting was stopped abruptly and everyone dispersed. It was reported that’ two unknown young men had been observing what was going on.

On the lst May, the GA had driven with his wife from Anaikkottai, to his brother’s residence off Temple Road, north of Nallur Kandasamy temple. Only his brother’s wife was at home. Subsequently two young men arrived. Panchalingam took them to be members of the LTTE. They were invited in and there was a chat over drinks. The GA denied that he was unduly leaning towards the provincial government in the disbursement of rehabilitation funds, and said that accounts had been kept by his AGA’s and could be examined by any one. He further requested that someone known to his officers be sent, to avoid unnecesessary alarm. Panchalingam also asked them why Ramanathan,-who was a very good officer had been killed, adding that though he reported for work everyday, he did little on the forbidden days. The young men replied that there were a number of charges against Ramanathan.

Panchalingam then asked if he had any personal problems, to which they replied ‘none whatsoever’ and departed. Somewhat relieved, Panchalingam chatted a little longer, came to the steps and continued talking as he put on his slippers. A shot was fired from the gate, which missed Panchalingam and shattered some glass. A piece of glass struck his hand causing blood to flow. Panchalingam ran through the house into the back, climbed over the wall and got into the next house. This was seen by his wife. Some young –men with arms rushed into the house and banging doors as they searched for him room by room. ,Mrs. Panchalingam waited awhile, came through the lane onto the main road and slowly made her way to the next house. She saw Panchalingam’s foot projecting from the kitchen door. Just then a young man entered and pumped the bullets from his automatic weapon into Panchalingam and went away, leaving him in a pool of blood. His wife surmised that her husband had entered the kitchen tired and frightened, had slipped on some vegetable peel and had lain there like a hunted animal, until the final shots ended his life.

Mrs Panchalingam noticed that no one seemed to be present in the surrounding houses. The press reported the following morning that the LTTE had claimed responsibility for the assassination.

It would appear from the foregoing that following the aborted meeting of the town planning committee, Panchalingam would have gone to a contact and requested a clarification from the LTTE. In response the meeting of the lst May would have been arranged. Otherwise there would have been no reason for Panchalingam to go to his brother’s place that morning. At what point the decision to kill was taken is unclear. The brutality of the action also suggests deep-seated anger.

Panchalingam was not well understood. Apart from those who maintained that everything the LTTE did was right, there are others who do not mind beating a man when he is down. Some ascribed to him things that he had never been guilty of. But the larger reaction was that of shock and sorrow. Ironically, for a number of days after the killing, many persons who were close to Panchalingam could not believe that the LTTE could have done the killing. Such persons even believed that Panchalingam was on good terms with them.

The Sri Lankan government which was by then holding talks with the TTE played down the matter. Many government servants would have been perturbed by the government’s apparent lack of commitment to its officials. Those who worked closely with Panchalingam testified to his genuine concern for the people he served. His funeral was well attended despite the fear. What such developments as these would cost the Tamils may be summarised in the words of a senior medical man to a young colleague recently returned after study in Britain: “I would advise you to pack your bags and go back to Britain. You cannot do what you believe to be right anymore.”[Top]


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