A talk delivered by Rajan Hoole on behalf of the University Teachers for Human Rights at the Rajani Thiranagama Commemoration meeting on 2 October, 1989, at the Kailasapathy Auditorium, University of Jaffna.
III.1 Dr. Rajani Thiranagama: Her contribution to the University Teachers for Human Rights (U.T.H.R.)
In the course of a brief talk, we are faced with the task of doing justice to the breadth of vision that governed Rajani's contribution to human rights work. If one were to pick a brief quotation from her writings that may give us an indication of her perspective, the following would do well: Objectivity, the pursuit of truth and the propagation of critical and honest positions, were not only crucial for the community, but could also cost many of us our lives. They were only undertaken as a survival task. This is taken from a postscript that Rajani wrote for the Broken Palmyrah during the weeks preceding her murder. Prophetic as these words may seem, it was not like her to be prophetic. I shall try to make clear what she meant.
III.2 The Degeneration of Politics and Implications for Human Rights Work
Up to the early 1980s, there was amongst a sizable section of Tamil youth, a healthy interest in political issues, accompanied by idealism. The issues were often those of social injustice and their national and international dimensions. And, quite surprisingly, there was a remarkable absence of communalism which was poisoning the air in the country. But the 1983 riots and the involvement of foreign resources in the militarisation of our youth, ensured that the tendency which gained ground was that of extreme nationalism that worshipped military success, and, by its very nature, became intolerant. Every other political tendency felt impelled to imitate this, even at the cost of coming out second or third best. Politics died as homicidal divisions increased. We know well our recent history which led to a remarkable indifference to any kind of social or political effort on the part of todays university students. Guns seemed to determine everything. In this atmosphere of disillusionment, militant groups were finding themselves obliged to strengthen themselves against each other by taking in very young persons through a variety of questionable methods. The role of the Indian and Sri Lankan states in this episode is a shameful one. Rajani was very concerned about the fate of these young men. She had a deep compassion for these young men who could not understand their actions, viewed death as a welcome certainty and hated the community which has done nothing while they were consigned to this degrading form of slavery.
What then became of the young idealists of the 1970s and early 1980s mentioned earlier? You find them apart from those who went abroad, in farms, factories and shops. With their trained intelligence they have a sure grasp of what is happening around. In the absence of any political force they could align with, some have lapsed into cynicism. Others feel that no effort is worth while and have chosen silence. In general, the community has become polarised into sections which believe in aligning themselves to one military force or the other, purely for the purpose of wiping out the other side. This was believed to be a necessary first step to all further plans.
It was an atmosphere in which any attempt at objectivity or impartiality was bound to be viewed as, at best, an academic exercise, and, at worst, a futile nuisance and a bar to more important things - such as wiping out the other side by pitting our boys against each other, with the Indian and Sri Lankan states playing the role of the erratic gods in Homers Illiad.
Rajani and the others in the U.T.H.R. believed that these options were destructive, unjust, superficial and cowardly. She believed that an alternative had to be found. This was closely tied to her vision for the University of Jaffna after the October 1987 war. She believed that it was not merely shameful negligence for a university to be indifferent under such circumstances, but also that a university could not survive as a university if it is to be indifferent.
Thus in Rajani's view, the task of expressing the truth of what is going on around us impartially, and making people feel for the tragedy, became a survival task. This is what the U.T.H.R. (Jaffna) tried to do in its first two reports. Rajani used the expression "Creating a Space" to describe this work. She hoped that it will lead to some discussion, at least within the university, of what was happening around. She believed that sound values and anger against hypocrisy and injustice were major assets in the task of survival. Rajani admired the women from our coastal villages who possessed some of these qualities. She believed that courage was of the essence. She had often said that to make an impact on destructive tendencies which commanded respect by treating their own lives lightly, one had to be prepared to give ones own life for ones beliefs. She did not flinch from this ideal.
III.3 Human Rights and Politics
Rajani was very much concerned with politics and would have been the last person to view human rights work in isolation. In describing the work of the U.T.H.R., I have heard her tell others, A life is a life. Whoever takes life must be exposed independently of party feeling. We wanted to show, that in the first place, we valued life. She held that a human rights organisation cannot be affiliated to a political party, because of the independent nature of its work. But it can have as members persons from political parties with a firm commitment to human rights. A human rights organisation should also welcome a commitment to human rights by a political organisation.
In our context, there is no political force with a commitment to respect and defend human rights. Nor is there any question of a human rights organisation spending its time giving advice to political forces. We are dealing with what are, in fact, military organisations with their own leaders and advisors with respectable scholarly credentials from an assortment of Western capitals. Any local functionary who listens to you with sympathy is, at the drop of a pin, bound by orders from the top. Thus in our context, a human rights organisation has to put itself out on a limb depending on moral pressure and public concern for its defence. This was a minimum Rajani had expected from the university community.
III.4 Rajani's work amongst Students
As a human rights activist living in this community, Rajani's work had many facets to it. These included work in womens concerns, her role as both doctor and counsellor, and help rendered to individuals from the depressed sections of society that were driven to the edge of despair. Some of these are being dealt with by more appropriate speakers. The foregoing will sound like abstract theory, unless it is seen that there was a workable practical side to it. I shall confine myself to examples from university life.
Rajani recognised that given the chronic social climate, there were bound to be many students having problems connected with past associations and queer ways of thinking. She believed that they had to be weaned away into creative channels through frank discussion, together with a relationship of trust and personal concern. To start with, she defended a students right to have his or her own opinions - even ones she strongly disagreed with. On her return from England, she was angry that the university had not lodged a protest over a medical student who was shot and injured on 31 August, 1989, while returning from clinical work. She was indignant that the I.P.K.F., while declaring on the one hand that people were free to support any political opinion provided they did not carry arms, were, on the other, citing alleged subversive involvement as an excuse after a person was shot without any questioning or examination. She felt that the university had sacrificed an important principle and was urging even a belated protest over the shooting of the medical student.
She would sometimes spend hours discussing the problems of a student who had political involvements. While helping the student, she would firmly tell the student that his political opinions were destructive and her hope was that he would re-examine his course and grow out of it. In one instance she was approached by a student who was asked to report for questioning. She held that no one who tortured had a moral right to interrogate others. She told the student not to go, and if asked, to say that she, as his student counsellor, had ordered him not to go. The matter ended there.
She valued life and felt sorry when anyone was killed - be it a militant from any one of the groups or an Indian soldier. She was saddened that they all died without knowing for what cause they gave their lives.
III.5 Rajani and the reopening of the University following October 1987
The crisis facing the community following the Indian offensive of October 1987 was one which brought out her energy and strength of character. She was so appalled after seeing the conditions of refugees at Nallur Kandasamy Kovil, that she sat down to write a leaflet. She felt that the reopening of the university was the best chance of having some means for the defence of the community. She said that we cannot sit around waiting for the Indians to ask us to come in and conduct lectures. She urged her friends to go and make arrangements for the staff to enter the university immediately. Attempts to have the university reopened were made from about 10 November, entry was gained on 15 November and arrangements were made for the staff to meet on 18 November.. The Indian Army was in control of the premises at that time. A section of the staff felt so numbed by the damage that they advocated not doing anything until outsiders came and the damage was publicised. Rajani held that we had existed long enough as a community displaying our sores and eliciting pity. She felt that,. to prevent the recurrence of such a catastrophe, we must show a will of our own to make our own future. Thereafter work commenced on securing what had survived the war. Rajani was the first member of the staff to enter the medical faculty, which was in a more isolated area. Those were days when people were scared of soldiers. With curfew commencing at 4:00 p.m, roads were deserted by 12:00 p.m.; but Rajani, a single woman, would sometimes stay on with a carpenter and one or two others, fixing locks to doors in the medical faculty until 1:30 p.m.. I recall shifting typewriters and other equipment in the company of labourers to secured rooms, under her supervision. Soldiers who were about the medical faculty came to refer to her as "The Principal".
On one occasion, a Sikh soldier rushed into her room while she was arranging it. On discovering that she was a doctor, he sat down and explained a personal medical problem to her. He had received a head injury during the 1971 war which gave birth to Bangladesh. He had been warded in Chandigarh, and still suffered recurrent pains. Rajani listened sympathetically. Rajani's courage and example were such that many men, particularly non-academic staff, came to depend on her for motivation and direction.
It was then common for Indian officers to attack the militants and blame them for everything. Tamils commonly responded by saying that they did not know the militants and were innocent. But Rajani took the officers head on and would say forth-rightly: We as a community must take responsibility for our catastrophe. The militants are part of our history, and a part of our community. I cannot artificially distance myself from the militants and condemn them. She felt that all the risks she took at that time had to be taken because the young men who took many risks and had brought the community to this state, were likely to respect only those who themselves took risks.
III.6 Jaffna Hospital
Rajani was busy with many things during the weeks succeeding the war of October 1987. She would cycle to far away places with other women, collecting experiences of what mothers, young girls and elderly women had been through during the war. Roads were then dotted with sentry points and people were still scared. Much of what she recorded appeared in the "Broken Palmyrah". She also spent a good deal of time counselling and helping women who were affected by rape, and deaths or disappearances of near ones. Many came to her when the word spread that Rajani would do what she could.
One incident which concerned her greatly was the massacre at Jaffna Hospital on 21 October, 1987, during the Indian assault, that left about 70 dead. Rajani felt that the callousness of the Indian entry was inexcuseable. Many of the doctors felt that it was too dangerous to bring out the truth. Some felt that they should wait for an appropriate time.There was even a fear of issuing public appreciations for the medical staff killed.Rajani felt that the truth should be brought out at the earliest and set about interviewing staff at the hospital where she had once worked. The following extracts are from the "Broken Palmyrah," written in her inimitable prose:
So we lay down quietly, under one of the dead bodies, throughout the night. One of the overseers had a cough and he groaned and coughed once in a way in the night. One Indian soldier threw a grenade at this man, killing some more persons. I know the ambulance driver died. In another spot, one man got up with his hand up and cried out: We are innocent. We are supporters of Indira Gandhi. A grenade was thrown at him. He and his brother next to him died.
......The blasting grenades made tremendous noises as if bombs were exploding. Then the debris and dust would settle on us and cake in the fresh blood of those dead and injured.
III.7 Challenge to the University
What Rajani believed in was not an abstract philosophy,but something that evolved to the demands of a social conscience and insisted on both compassion and consistency. Her courage was tied to a sense of responsibility. There is no doubt that she was practically effective. She died because the rest of the community valued her services, but was too cowardly and cautious to emulate her sense of responsibility. For many, the accepted wisdom is not to take any risk, but to rely on the risks taken by others. If we have for the present, the uncertain present, the option of clinging to positions while shirking moral responsibility or of slinking away with degrees without caring to secure the future well being of the student community, it is because there were fools like Rajani.
At this time of crisis and tragedy, many students have shown courage and responsibility. A number of persons in the university have displayed commendable qualities of leadership. All this may appear to be in vain unless these become part of the character of the university as a whole. It is in the nature of the powers around us to have us silent and indifferent. We cannot remain a university if only a small minority feel for its mission. It is only human to become tired when driven to isolation.[Top]
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