Reviews

Peace and justice: a timely reminder

Palmyra Fallen.  



In September 2014 a group of academicians and activists in Sri Lanka came together to remember their colleague Rajani Thiranagama who had been killed in Jaffna in 1989 by the LTTE.

The simple and straightforward commemorative event — to mark 25 years since the killing of the human rights activist — saw considerable resistance from both the University of Jaffna and from the Sri Lankan state, with intelligence officials turning up at the venue to question organisers.

In April this year, when Rajani’s colleague Rajan Hoole was about to launch his book ‘Palmyra Fallen: From Rajani to war’s end’ and tried holding a discussion around it, a similar response came from the University of Jaffna, where Rajani was heading the Anatomy department until she was gunned down, yet again bringing to focus the concern many share about the lack of space in the University.

The launch of ‘Palmyra Fallen’ has to be seen in this context.  Prof. Hoole’s intervention through this book is crucial for two reasons.

One, just like ‘Broken Palmyra’ (1990) — in which he, along with Rajani Thiranagama and two other members of the University Teachers for Human Rights, Jaffna (UTHR-J) documented atrocities committed by the LTTE, the Sri Lankan state and the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990 — this book probes many events leading to and occurring during the conflict, focusing more on the period after 1989. Coming from an insider in Jaffna Society and a Tamil intellectual the account poses, from within, a credible challenge to the Tamil nationalist narrative popular among large sections in northern Sri Lanka and their sympathetic counterparts in Tamil Nadu that remain unquestioning of the LTTE.

Two, it highlights the resistance at the University of Jaffna even today, six years after the war ended, to any critical introspection on the political course of the Tamils. 

In what appears to be a striking contrast, ‘Palmyrah Fallen’ speaks of a time when the University was a site of intense political thought, debate and activism in the 1980s. While Rajani brought with her deep insights by constantly engaging with ordinary people and students, the UTHR-J as a collective transcended narrow disciplinary requirements of academia, and sought to reflect on the wide-ranging views among ordinary citizens and victims. 

Rajani, who was initially with the rebel Tigers, later turned critical of their movement, questioning the lack of democracy within the LTTE and the politics of an armed struggle itself. Unable to reconcile her beliefs with the LTTE’s political choices, she left the movement and soon became a target, like many others who dared to challenge the militant outfit.

In a sense, Rajan Hoole’s book tells us the story of four young academics in Jaffna, who were troubled by what their society was going through and were provoked to act. More broadly, in his wide-ranging references to political movements in other parts of the world, including Apartheid South Africa and the conflict in Nazi Germany, he speaks of how Rajani and her colleagues believed in connecting with issues across borders, building wide networks of support and solidarity, all this shaping and strengthening their local political interventions simultaneously.

The book tries to cover a whole lot of ground — from the role of other Tamil militant groups to important developments in Sri Lanka’s broader political history, the rise and fall of the Left, at times evoking western philosophers as he reflects on such developments. 

Some portions like the one where Rajan Hoole — a mathematician — gives a detailed formula explaining the rise and fall in the population of Indian origin Tamils employed in tea estates in Sri Lanka’s Central Province are a bit tedious to process immediately, but overall, ‘Palmyrah Fallen’ is brilliant resource material for anyone researching Sri Lanka’s past or present.

In telling all those stories, with painstaking detail and evident sympathy, Rajan Hoole has effectively foregrounded the need be sensitive to ordinary people irrespective of who they are, where they come from — something that Rajani too believed strongly in.  “Rajani’s activism was motivated by the understanding that ordinary people who want to get on with life without being weighed down by antagonisms have a natural propensity for reconciliation,” says the author, hoping that the books serves as an urgent reminder for people and leaders of the country that the need of the hour was to uphold the ideals of justice and reconciliation.

As Sri Lanka grapples with the aftermath of a brutal war, which it is still struggling to put behind, it could certainly do with such a reminder.  

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2021 9:28:49 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/palmyra-fallen-book-review/article7361710.ece

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