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Rajini Commemoration: An absence of actuality

By Dayan Jayatilleka

(September 26, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The evening was good but perhaps Rajani deserved a bit better. She always told it like it was, named things by their name, confronted reality frontally. That quintessential spirit of Rajani, her courageous, critical, ‘concreteness’, was by and large absent in the 20th anniversary commemoration held at the BMICH on September 25th. It was only in the keynote speaker from India, our old friend Nandita Haksar, that one recognized a spiritual sister of Rajani Thiranagama.

Even if a trifle protracted, the cultural component of the evening was beautiful, strong and poignant, with the singing voices of Rajani’s sisters (especially Nirmala’s opening dirge), Liyanage Amarakeerthi’s poetry reading and Rajani’s own writings being the high points.

There was something missing though, an absent presence: the absence of actuality; of the core truth about the tragic event that was being commemorated. This, talented, sensitive, vivacious, brave, and rights conscious woman with a toothy grin, Rajani Thiranagama, who left an indelible impression from our first long discussions in London in 1985 to our last friendly fight on federalism (she arguing for, arms flailing, Dayapala and I studiedly against, and for autonomy instead) in a safe house in the suburbs of a Sri Lankan township in 1986 or ’87, was murdered, not by the Indian Peace Keeping Force, not by the Sri Lankan state, not by the Sinhala chauvinists, but precisely by the LTTE, the Tigers led by Velupillai Prabhakaran. She was one of the many Tamil progressives to be murdered by them, Kethesh Loganathan and Neelan Tiruchelvam being other names that spring to mind.

The contribution to the meaningful souvenir by Indrawansa de Silva, whom I recall from the 1970s as a compelling student leader and orator from Vidyodaya University and now an academic in North America, says that “the assassination of Rajani then was the product of Sri Lanka’s political culture”. The truth which this obfuscates is that the assassination of Rajani was the product of the politics and ideology of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the political culture of the imagined community of “Eelam Tamils” which permitted and justified it. In contradistinction, the Sri Lankan political culture is one that, among its many failures, has sustained the rudiments of an electoral democracy while decisively defeating – irrespective of ethnicity--two armed totalitarian movements, the JVP and the LTTE. If the counter-argument is that the Tamils never had a state to lean on while the Sinhalese did, it is a specious one because the large presence of the Indian Peacekeeping Force in support of the accord and the Provincial Councils provided Tamil polity with the intervention of a neutral/friendly, democratic, secular state, a reform worth defending and an opportunity to break with the Tigers and the project of Tamil Eelam. That litmus test was failed and the test results require the appropriate conclusion to be drawn from them.

The one name I never heard throughout the long evening was that of Velupillai Prabhakaran, and I cannot imagine a commemorative event for Jean Moulin which did not mention Hitler or for Tania which forgot to mention the Bolivian junta, the CIA and US imperialism. The most honest contribution to the commemorative souvenir was by Vijyakumary Murugaiah of the women’s centre Poorani, who has told it like it was and is, setting an example to the sophisticated cosmopolitan intelligentsia that monopolized the BMICH event. It is a pity that her presence was invisible and her voice not heard.

The touching myth of prophecy and ruminations against “power and violence” notwithstanding, the LTTE (though it suffered a debilitating schism) did not self-destruct through internecine conflict nor was it overthrown by Tamil resistance. The LTTE was defeated and virtually destroyed and its leader slain by the Sri Lankan armed forces, the hard drive of the Sri Lankan state. The fascists who murdered Rajani were defeated not by Tamil dissenters but by (male) Sinhala soldiers. The new “space’ that has been opened up and within which the 20th anniversary commemoration took place, was not prised open by non-violent dissent but blasted and carved open by the “power and violence” of the Sri Lankan state. The 20th anniversary of Rajani’s death was aptly commemorated in the year of the defeat of the Tigers and the death of its Hitlerian leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.

No one who dropped in for the commemoration and did not know the historical facts would have learned any – leave alone all-- of these truths at the BMICH event, not from her Uncle Seelan Kadirgamar’s opening speech, not from Nishan de Mel’s erudite and passionately declaimed closing remarks, and not from anything that was said or sung in between.

While it is true that an old struggle for Tamil rights remains and new ones (on media freedom, the IDP issue etc) will doubtless commence – and indeed must—it does not give anyone the right to ignore, evade and obscure these massive historical truths. The fact that old struggles remain and new ones must be waged does not mean that the titanic struggle of decades against the fascism of the Tigers, and the denouement of that struggle, can be effaced. History certainly will not. Rajani never countenanced lies in politics and public life. She embraced the Truth as she saw it; wrote it and sang it as a lover. She was never evasive, which is also why she didn’t evade Death. There was however a central truth which Rajani was blind to and it killed her. She thought that because she had saved the life of Seelan at the request of Mahattaya, she would not be killed by the LTTE as long as Mahattaya was in charge of the Jaffna command. She forgot that the deadly rays of Sun God to be, Prabhakaran, could bypass Mahattaya and reach her (or that Mahattaya would not risk dissent and would pretend not to see what was being done).

In my mind I contrasted this with my boyhood visit to Lidice in former Czechoslovakia, the inhabitants of which were slaughtered by the Nazis in revenge for the execution of Heinrich Heydrich by the resistance, and which was systematically turned to rubble, with even the streams being dammed up. These victims of fascism are commemorated in a manner that never lets the visitor forget the identity and ideology of the perpetrators of the atrocity. This is true of course, of Yad Vashem. However, many Tamil victims of Tiger fascism – Rajani, Kethesh, Neelan, are commemorated by the survivors in a manner that obfuscates the circumstances of their murders, the identity of the murderers and lacks the drive to bring the murderers to justice. “Never forget” is the slogan among survivors of fascism the world over; “Always Celebrate but Never Really Remember, or Remember Selectively” is the Sri Lankan, and Sri Lankan Tamil equivalent.

The speech by Dayapala, Rajani’s bereaved husband was moving and injected a welcome note of the political into the evening, though one doubted the accuracy of his appellation of Rajani as a New Revolutionary. It seems to me now, just as it did at the time, that Rajani at her best, in her courage and concern about democracy within the revolutionary movement and process, was a descendant of women revolutionaries of an old type- a combination of Emma Goldman and Rosa Luxemburg – rather than the new type represented by Celia Sanchez, Haydee Santamaria, Melba Hernandez, Vilma Espin, Aleida March and “Tania” (Tamara Bunke). Che’s typically laconic yet respectful epitaph for Red Rosa is, mutatis mutandis, probably the most valid for Rajani as well: “she was a great revolutionary who made political mistakes and died as a consequence of them”.
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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