Twenty years after the assassination of human-rights activist Rajani Thiranagama, her prophetic words could inspire a new generation of activists in Sri Lanka.
In September, many will remember Rajani Thiranagama, the feminist, activist, Marxist, scholar, doctor and teacher who was assassinated 20 years ago, on 21 September 1989. Among the reasons for her assassination was the publication of The Broken Palmyrah, which she had co-authored with three other academics from Jaffna University. While Southasians commemorate the life and work of Rajani at a time when the war in Sri Lanka has come to an end, in many ways the metaphorical palmyrah is still broken. It is in this context that we can return to that inspiring work, carrying as it does a message of hope, an analysis of possible ways forward, and faith in the resilience of ordinary people in the face of the cruelties of war.
Co-authored with Rajan Hoole, K Sritharan and Daya Somasundaram (two mathematicians and a psychiatrist, respectively), The Broken Palmyrah was written during and following the months of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force’s (IPKF) offensive against the LTTE beginning in October 1987. It is a work that brought out the horrors of war through the voices of ordinary people, rich in analysis and, even two decades after it was published, prophetic on the issues facing the Tamil community and Sri Lanka at large. It is the kind of work that can only come out of an uncompromising commitment to one’s people. This commitment has, over the last two decades, also been exemplified by the three co-authors – two of Rajani’s colleagues in the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) who continued the work underground, and the third who chose to remain in Jaffna for most of the wartime period, providing invaluable trauma counselling and psycho-social care to the victims of violence.
The book makes a particularly important contribution to an understanding of trauma and psychological devastation of different communities by the war. Today, the psychosomatic consequences and social repression can be seen as having broken society as much if not more than the physical devastation brought by gunfire and bombings. It is to those individuals and communities that have remained resilient and kept society going despite the great losses that the Tamil community owes it future.
By 1988, the authors of The Broken Palmyrah were despairing about the changing nature of Tamil militancy. “It was now the end of an era,” they wrote.
A struggle that had, in its dawn, been fired by several noble ideals, and called forth courage and much sacrifice from young persons irrespective of group, had now reached a point where the community was powerless and voiceless. How long could a military force that claimed to represent them retain any degree of real autonomy with such a weak base?
The tragedy is that the armed struggle led by the LTTE had by then already consolidated its fascist political culture, one that would continue for another two decades. In the face of the escalation of violence by the LTTE, the Sri Lankan state, which was after all at the root of the conflict due to its discrimination against minorities and state-sponsored violence, responded even more brutally. Inevitably, the people bore the brunt.
Like Rajani, there were hundreds of other dissenters and writers who were assassinated, disappeared, tortured and otherwise destroyed by the violence unleashed from within the Tamil community. C E Anandarajan, this writer’s uncle and the principal of St John’s College, where I attended school, was assassinated by the LTTE in 1985. Thus, for all of us, there existed experiences and journalistic writings alerting us to the disastrous turn in Tamil politics. But it was perhaps only The Broken Palmyrah that fully grasped the malaise that had eclipsed the Tamil community and the country. Its prophetic potential is that many of the themes it highlighted – the importance of democratisation, the critique of narrow nationalism, the dangers of militarisation, the national question and class struggle, the concerns of the Muslims and Up-country Tamils, the cruel use of children in war, the need for alliances with Sinhalese progressives – seem as relevant today.
For Rajani, the fate of the LTTE was clear twenty years ago:
The Tigers’ history, their theoretical vacuum, lack of political creativity, intolerance and fanatical dedication will be the ultimate cause of their own break up. The legendary Tigers will go to their demise with their legends smeared with the blood and tears of victims of their own misdoings. A new Tiger will not emerge from their ashes. Only by breaking with this whole history and its dominant ideology, can a new liberating outlook be born.
Indeed, over the years, one has been deeply troubled by the help extended to the LTTE by sections of the Tamil community, particularly those affluent sections of the Tamil diaspora who were so fanatic in their support. The ignorance of those who are still thinking in terms of reviving the LTTE and its political project is more worry that has been added.
The perceptive analysis of the LTTE also came out of the authors’ experiences during the height of devastation of two military actions. The first was the Sri Lankan Army’s offensive in May and June 1987 called Operation Liberation; the second was the Indian Army’s offensive of October and November 1987. The authors also did not miss the cynicism of the LTTE, which was all-too-ready to put non-combatants at risk by firing from civilian areas, including hospitals and other places of refuge. The LTTE’s approach was retuned in kind, as both the Sri Lankan and Indian armies unleashed untold suffering and violence with their shellings, rape and torture. The Broken Palmyrah is thus a diary of war and a reminder of the very nature of the brutality of conflict.
Rajani’s chapter on the experiences of women during the war of October 1987, titled “No More Tears Sister”, is a profound analysis of how women’s survival in war and their resistance is intertwined with class and caste. She questions the simplistic idea that that the ‘liberation struggle’ was also a process about the liberation of women. She offers a strong political critique of not only the armed movements and narrow nationalism, but also brings to light the limitations of the social movements of the time. Rajani is perceptive in her attempts both to soothe those who suffered from the war, and to find out the consequences of the war, in order to distinguish between the different forms of resistance of middle-class and marginalised women against the armed actors. Finally, Rajani questions the short-sightedness of women in the Tamil militancy:
It is tragic that these women’s sections themselves did not make any attempt to grasp their reality… They confessed to much confusion within the movement regarding the women’s question. But they ultimately ended the argument with an expression of faith in their leader’s ability to solve all problems.
It is important to note that after the initial IPKF offensive, there was space for dissent in the Tamil fold. However, this freedom quickly disappeared. Rajani herself was assassinated the day after the IPKF’s announcement that it would leave, and began another, more systematic round of elimination of dissent within the Tamil community. The Broken Palmyrah does not fail to pay tribute to the many individuals and community leaders that toiled hard with a sense of commitment to the people. That was all the more important at a time when the LTTE’s perspective was that “the propaganda thrust of the struggle must hinge around the two words ‘Traitor’ and ‘Martyr’”.
The list of those labelled traitors and killed is long and longer still when we look back from 20 years on. The despicable label of traitor was a sign most of all of the deterioration of Tamil politics. In looking for an inclusive vision of Sri Lanka beyond the myopic politics within the Tamil community, the book also importantly pays tribute to the many visionary leaders of the south who took up the Tamil question with sincerity.
Like most boys, I romanticised the armed struggle, which had its early rumbling during my childhood in Jaffna. But I was fortunate to read this book in my late teens, which had a lasting impact in addressing critical questions about Tamil militancy. The Broken Palmyrah and the assassination of Rajani, whose home was next door to our own in Jaffna, had a tremendous impact on me. In re-reading the book, I am struck by its relevance for the debates in Sri Lanka today. Two decades ago, the authors saw how the Tamil community, in placing its faith on deliverance by an external actor such as India rather than on its own politics, was going to lose grasp of its aspirations. They saw clearly the dangers of narrow Tamil nationalism and Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism as destructive ideologies that reinforced each other. They captured the arrogance and the hegemonic power of the Tamil elite over the oppressed castes, the Muslim community, the Up-country Tamils and the Eastern Tamils.
The authors understood how fractured the idea of the Tamil ‘nation’ already was, even in its attempted construction. The Broken Palmyrah saw the dilemmas facing the Eastern Tamil youth in their relationship with the Tamil armed movements, and questioned even the viability of the merger of the North and East. It analysed not only totalitarian and fascist tendencies within the Tamil armed movements, but was conscious of the play of class, caste and patriarchy within these movements.
Most of all, this clairvoyant work saw clearly the problem of the Sri Lankan state and the Sinhalese elite that controlled it, using state power and attendant violence towards the destruction of the entire society. It attempted to analyse Sri Lanka in the context of the global political economy; of colonial, capitalist and imperialist expansion. It saw how the politics of the minority communities – be it their historical grievances relating to language policies, issues of land and access to employment and education, or aspirations for devolution of power – were inextricably tied to the democratisation of the entire country. Finally, it clearly saw the need to challenge the authoritarian tendencies of successive ruling regimes.
At the moment, the major challenges facing the Tamil community, other minorities and even sections of the south is how to bring class and democratisation into the devolution debate. This clearly calls for a third force – a democratic force for justice, equality and reconciliation in the post-war era. The Broken Palmyrah goes beyond narrow legalistic views of devolution, and took on the challenges of democratising society:
[W]hat is more important than laws to Tamils and to everyone else in this country, is a public conscience that is willing to fight continually to ensure justice for everyone. We need a more active form of democracy than the public merely electing governments and then going to sleep and leaving the rest to politicians and lawyers. The laws that ensure fair play may come if trust is established between the several communities that people this island and democracy is re-established.
Twenty years ago, The Broken Palmyrah reported on the war in the island like no other work in the country before or since. One could go as far as to say that this book is one of the most insightful chronicles of war in modern times. It set out an analysis of the causes and consequences of the brutality, which generations of Lankans are now condemned to endure. It captured the voices that must be remembered as we mourn those who were decimated by the war. Importantly, written two decades ago, The Broken Palmyrah has defined the tasks for the younger generations, and set out the kind of politics that can lead the country out of violence under the mantle of justice and democratisation. Such politics should challenge the continuing repression and authoritarian politics that pervades Sri Lanka in its post-war moments.