On a September evening in 1989, Rajani Thiranagama decided to put in some extra hours of work at the University of Jaffna, where she taught anatomy. Around 6 p.m., she was cycling back when she was shot dead, right outside her home.
Her family heard the gunshots from their living room, and wondered who had been killed this time. The 35-year-old Tamil academic was a prominent human rights activist and mother of two girls.
Four academics and a conflict
Thiranagama’s university colleague Rajan Hoole remembers the period vividly. Sri Lanka’s ethnic strife had escalated and bloodshed had become commonplace. “Things were breaking down in front of our eyes,” he recalled.
Hoole was speaking to The Hindu along with his colleagues, Kopalasingham Sritharan and Daya Somasundaram. The three of them, and Thiranagama, were the public face of a local human rights organisation founded by academics of the university in 1988, almost five years after Sri Lanka’s civil war broke out. The group painstakingly documented, after arduous verification and cross-checking, the abuses perpetrated by the warring actors — be it the Sri Lankan armed forces, Tamil militants including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF).
Their reports from the conflict zone — when most other human rights monitoring was done from Colombo or abroad — and insistence on challenging the rebels’ intolerance of dissent within their own community, even as others shied away from doing so, marked them out and exposed them to grave danger.
The three surviving members of the University Teachers for Human Rights, Jaffna (UTHR-J), gathered on the verandah of Hoole’s home in Jaffna town. Sritharan, who lives in Canada, was visiting Jaffna after nearly 20 years.
A sighing breeze could be heard but barely felt, and the dry mid-morning heat enveloped us as they travelled back in time.
After finishing their doctorates abroad, the young academics could have easily found lucrative lectureships elsewhere. But they returned to the country in the 1980s to teach at the University of Jaffna. The university space then was intellectually congenial, with vibrant debates among students and the faculty on the ethnic tensions building up around them.
Hoole, an Oxford-educated mathematician, recalled the reason for becoming a full-time activist amid simmering unrest: “The LTTE was boasting that the larger the quantity of deaths, the greater the political capital for its project of a separate state.” People suddenly became more valuable as dead bodies, as numbers. “The option of being comfortable in our academic lives,” he said, “just did not exist.”
The trigger for documentation
The July 1983 anti-Tamil riots in Colombo — in which nearly 3,000 people were killed and over a lakh displaced — catalysed the then-nascent Tamil militancy into an uprising for self-determination. The several armed rebel groups, with varying ideologies and centred on different personalities, began mass recruitment, training, and arming of Tamil youth.
However, caught in the crossfire between the state and the rebels, the Indian military and the militants, and in the internecine struggle for supremacy among the different Tamil rebel groups were powerless civilians. Deeply troubled by the violence that had engulfed Tamil society and determined to record how it was corroding basic humanity, the four academics began to chronicle and analyse the many atrocities regardless of who committed them. As the LTTE displaced the other Tamil militias and became dominant, they boldly challenged its political choices, which, they felt, subordinated the well-being of the Tamil people to its ambition of a separate state.
What led the four young academics on an evidently perilous path? None of them began as opponents of the LTTE. In fact, Thiranagama had provided medical aid to injured cadre. As the Sri Lankan state turned savage, Tamil intellectuals like them could not but be sympathetic to movements against the oppression of Tamils. The ‘Tigers’, as the LTTE was also known, were projecting an ideology of Tamil identity and pride that spoke to the fear and insecurity in their community in a way that only nationalism does. As the LTTE became a de facto state in areas under its control and a parallel power to the state in other areas, its authoritarianism grew.
As did scepticism among those like Sritharan, also a mathematician. As a student engaged in Left politics, he had once romanticised the revolution and distant armed struggles. “But here, we were experiencing them in reality,” he said. It was not what he had thought it would be. “Everyone talks about it as a people’s struggle but in reality, those carrying the guns decided the fate of the struggle. They [LTTE] were not even keen that people participate in a real sense.”
During the Vadamarachchi Operation, a Sri Lankan military offensive to wrest control of Jaffna in the summer of 1987, Sritharan found that many people were no longer as indulgent towards the excesses of the LTTE as before. “They felt the Tigers were not really defending them, but just provoking the army and running away. That was the real feeling of the people at that time, but it never came out.” It couldn’t have. By then the Tigers’ intolerance to dissent was common knowledge. Everyone knew that silence was the price you paid for survival.
“An existential crisis” is how Somasundaram, a psychiatrist, refers to the time. “It was a full-blown war. People had to run for their lives,” he said. For him, it was a sudden confrontation with the reality of life and death, with people dying on the road, injuries, no food, a “complete breakdown” of everything. “That is what made me start thinking of a way to get back some sanity, some order,” he said, with a disclaimer that he was neither a political analyst nor a student of liberation struggles elsewhere. “There was a need for a voice that goes against leaders determining the dynamics, there was a need for counter voices from the margins.” The four of them, with the help of many others, including trusted students, set out to collect as much information as possible from ordinary people in the Tamil-majority north and east, from those who had witnessed the atrocities at close range.
Polarisation within the Tamils
In the academics’ reading, the escalating war and the armed struggle had shattered Tamil society. “Instead of bringing people together, it made the people powerless and atomised, and trapped them,” Sritharan said.
This, they found, was rapidly eating into the community, making people suspicious of each other. They felt that many pretended to support the LTTE only in order to survive. Other Tamils, who either endorsed or were sympathetic to the armed struggle, believing it to be unavoidable, well-intentioned and self-sacrificial, strongly disagreed with the UTHR-J and its co-thinkers, and continue to do so to this day. The polarisation within the Tamil community on this issue was, and remains, such that critics of the LTTE were labelled “traitors”, just as the university too would brand the academics later. Despite the epithets and evident risks, they persevered in telling stories from the war zone.
This also meant detailing the role and conduct of the Indian military deployed in northern and eastern Sri Lanka to “keep peace” after the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord.
It was clear to them that the LTTE was provoking the IPKF, dubbed by Jaffna society as ‘Innocent People Killing Force’, into wanton military reprisals against the civilian population. From what the activists could gather on the ground, the IPKF leadership lacked clarity in deciphering and sensibly responding to the LTTE’s strategy. These misjudgements spawned a string of horrors detailed in The Broken Palmyra , an insider’s account of this period that the four of them co-wrote. The Jaffna Hospital massacre of October 1987, in which Indian soldiers mowed down about 70 patients and staff, is only one instance.
Sritharan once asked an Indian army general why the IPKF was there. “In the list of priorities, maybe at the bottom was Tamil interests. Their real interests were political and strategic,” he recalled from the conversation he had about 30 years ago.
“They thought they could disarm the LTTE in 24 hours. There were a lot of misjudgments and misconceptions in understanding the LTTE. Not just the Indian army, a lot of intellectuals also failed to understand the LTTE,” Sritharan said, pointing to the heavy cost of this “naïve” perception.
Antagonising the LTTE
Around the same time, UTHR-J suffered its biggest blow, when Thiranagama was killed. Though there has never been an investigation into her death, her colleagues and family are certain that she was executed by the LTTE. Grimly aware of the depreciating value of life within Tamil society, Thiranagama had predicted her death at the hands of a fellow Tamil. Her untimely loss is something her surviving comrades are still unable to fully grasp. “If only we had driven more sense into her…,” said Somasundaram, his voice trailing off. “I am not sure Rajani would have acted any other way. She went too soon — we don’t have many people like that.” For many who were uncomfortable with the LTTE brand of politics and militancy, her killing signified the moral crisis that had gripped Tamil society, where any dissent or disagreement would be met only with death.
The LTTE did not spare several others who had helped the UTHR-J. Those identified and captured were subjected to torture. “They still suffer from that experience,” said Sritharan. The academics had at various points relied on individuals who helped them despite their families’ affiliation to the LTTE. “A postmaster once, a farmer, and many other such ordinary people… locals like them would not openly antagonise the LTTE. But they were very clear about right and wrong, they had a sense of justice.”
When Hoole spoke of the two Jaffna University students — Manoharan and Chelvi — who worked with them, he could barely suppress his outrage. In 1991, the LTTE caught and later executed them. “They killed many of the dissidents who were directly or indirectly associated with us,” he recounted. All the survivors are haunted by the memory of those who lost their lives to fellow Tamils, just for non-violent dissent.
The LTTE actively encouraged the Jaffna elite to migrate to the West and “milked them” for resources to continue the war, while others back home bore the brunt. “The struggle became very pathological. The university was destroyed as a place of scholarship, it became a dead institution,” Hoole said on what seemed to him the beginning of its degeneration.
Over the next decade and a half, the ethnic conflict took the exact route the academics had predicted — one of complete destruction, as the horrific 2009-end to the civil war proved. An estimated one lakh civilians lost their lives as the Sri Lankan army crushed the Tigers. Families of the several thousands who disappeared in those final stages are still waiting for news from the government about their missing kin. The victor-state’s “justice” that prevailed and still does has offered them little hope.
Shadow of a long war
Hoole and Somasundaram returned to the university after the war but found they were still “outcastes” in an institution that was still in thrall to the LTTE’s ideology. The academics’ activism had a professional cost, but that bothers them the least. They worry more about the university that, in their view, is still mired in narrow Tamil nationalism. In 2014, when Thiranagama’s associates and family tried organising an event at the university to mark the 25th anniversary of her death, the vicechancellor then revoked permission at the last minute, claiming that no prior approval was taken and that the organisers were “always trouble-makers”.
Reflecting on Jaffna society, the academics said over the years the elite have only made matters worse. “Our elite thought we could use India. I always felt we were being stupid about it. We can’t use India, it is a bigger power,” Sritharan said. Even now, the Jaffna elite was making the same mistake, they said. “We are not thinking about the political and economic realities here, or about relating to marginalised Sinhalese people — that is not our priority. Our priority is to use the international community and India to teach Sri Lanka a lesson. In the process, we don’t learn anything. And eventually, we are getting more and more weak,” he said.
Sritharan is convinced that their analysis in the 1980s and 1990s was spot on. They saw this coming. But “we failed in arresting death and destruction.” What could a few of them have done, he wondered. “At a personal level, I feel very guilty. I feel I should have come back and worked in a small way. But it was just not possible emotionally. I feel I have failed.” Sritharan went underground in the 1990s following death threats. He was in Colombo first, and then moved to India before taking up a UN job that took him to Afghanistan and Nepal. In 2008, he relocated with his family to Canada. Barring a brief visit to Colombo in 2006, he never brought his family back as he thought it was unfair to subject them to constant fear and risk.
Re-evaluating the past and present
Persistent death threats in Jaffna forced Hoole to live in India for a while, and Somasundaram spent a few years away in Australia. Both returned to Jaffna after the war ended.
All through the war years, they remained engaged from where they were, and kept writing about the excesses. In 2008, the UTHR-J released a detailed report naming the state security personnel responsible for the summary executions in August 2006 of 17 aid workers of a French NGO in Mutur, in the eastern district of Trincomalee. The report detailed the grisly killings, the alleged role of state security forces in the murders, and the failure of the government to investigate the crime.
This visit to his home town, after two decades, has not given Sritharan reason for optimism. From his travels in the north, he noticed that at one level life goes on for people, even as those who were severely affected during the last days of war continued to suffer. He is worried that their plight is used for political sloganeering rather than to find ways and means to support them. “There is no serious re-evaluation of the past or the present reality of our society. The politics is the same as earlier, where a victim mentality is used to avoid taking responsibility for our actions and our political miscalculations,” he said.