In the course of a brief talk, we are faced with the task of doing justice to the breadth of vision that governed Rajanis 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 follwing would do well: Objectivity, the pursuit of truth and the propagation of critical and honest positions, was not only crucial for the community but was a view that could cost many of us our lives. It was only undertaken as a survival task. This is taken from a postscript 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. What she meant will become clear as we proceed.
Up to the early 80s, there was amongst a sizeable section of Tamil youth, a healthy interest in political issues accompanied by idealism. The issues were often those of social injustice, 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 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 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 had done nothing while they were consigned to this degrading form of slavery.
What became of the young idealists of the 70s and early 80s 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 worthwhile and have chosen silence. In general the community had become polarised into sections which believed in aligning themselves to one military force or the other, purely for the purpose of wiping out the other side. this was believed 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 putting 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 UTHR 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.
Thus in Rajanis views, 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 UTHR (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 to survival. Rajani admired the women from our coastal villages who possessed some of those 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.
Rajini 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 UTHR, I have heard her tell others, A life is a life, Whoever takes a life must be exposed independent 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.
As a human rights activist living in this community, Rajanis 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 driven to the edge of despair. Some of these are being dealt with by 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 tht the university had not lodged a protest over a medical student who was shot and injured on 31st August while returning from clinicals. She was indignant that the IPKF while declaring on one hand that people were free to support any political opinion provided they did not carry arms; were in turn 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 uging for even a belated protest over the shooting of the medical student.
She would sometimes spend hours discussing the problems of a student with 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 tudent 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.
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 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 were made from about November 10th, entry was gained on November 15th and arrangements for the staff to meet on November 18th. 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 damage. 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. 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. Rajanis courage and example was 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. Others responded by saying that they did not know the militants and were innocent. But Rajani took them head on and would say forthrightly, 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.
Rajani was busy with many things at that time. She cycled to faraway 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 yet scared. Much of this 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 will do what she could.
One incident which concerned her greatly was the massacre at Jaffna Hospital on 21st October 1987, during the Indian assault, leaving 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 overseeres 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.
What Rajani believed in was not an abstract philosophy, but was one which evolved to the demands of a social conscience which 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 reply on the risks of 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 wellbeing 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.
Talk delivered on behalf of the UTHR, by Rajan Hoole
2nd October 1989.
On the 21st September 1989, Dr. Rajini Thiranagama, a live wire and leading member of the UTHR (Jaffna) was murdered while returning home, a few yards from the Faculty of Medicine where she worked. One may ask, in a community benumbed by hundreds of senseless killings and driven to protective indifference, what is the significance of this particular murder? To be sure, as many speakers had pointed out at commemoration meetings, the killing was a dastardly act against a lone, helpless and unarmed woman, and a mother of two little girls. Its phenomenal significance lay in what the killers were trying to destroy. This represented a whole spectrum of values which Rajini upheld both in practice and precept and deemed both by her and fellow members of the UTHR as being necessary for the life and freedom of the community. Her field of activities included, telling the truth about the unpleasant side and hypocrisy of this suicidally‑bent community, the practice of academic freedom, telling students that some of their views were simplistic and narrow, and practical involvement in the concerns of women who had suffered.
The killing was very different from what one might expect from an undisciplined military force in a state of anger. It was coldly premeditated and meticulously planned. Even the detail of minimum disruption, by scheduling the killing just after the last viva voce examinations in Anatomy had been looked into. The murder took place on the second day of the ceasefire. The killer had waited at a relatively lonely spot that she would have to pass while rushing home from work to care for her little ones. He had even found the time, after Rajini had fallen, to park his bicycle and pump a few more bullets into her head, before making his escape.
Even Rajinis death brought out from the society around many of the attributes of fascist regimentation ‑ the antithesis of a freedom struggle ‑ the very thing Rajini had stood against throughout her career. On hearing the assassins shots, with the exception of a few medical students and some ordinary people, the rest ran away or shut themselves inside their homes. It was difficult to find a vehicle to transport her to hospital. Those who volunteered to look after her children or visited them the night following the killing were neither neighbours nor colleagues. There was fear of association: Many close to the family admitted fear of attending the funeral and the meetings which followed. Far from showing a sense of solidarity and outrage, the local medical profession and her faculty colleagues were divided and confused as to how to respond to this killing. No doubt everyone knew that it was wrong and totally unjustified, not least the killers. The latter chose silence and anonymity. Rajinis friends and admirers were many, who had enjoyed her personal care and had benefited from the many risks she had personally undertaken. Her enemies were those who were against what she stood for, but would not say it openly, lest they expose before the people their emptiness, real motivations and intentions. Yet initially at least, the dominant reaction to her killing, as for other killings, was not anger, but a mixture of sadness and fear. This was the society, pliable and spiritless, that her killers were trying to build; and herein lies the chief significance of the event.
The UTHR (Jaffna) in its reports over the last year, concentrated on exposing the devaluation of human norms by all armed groups, relying only on the strength flowing from integrity. It also attempted to foster, from within the community, discussion of the social dimensions of its drift towards a fascist order. This was thought of as a necessary self‑purifying process. Rajini was amongst those most conscious of the truism that we cannot condemn the society as aliens outside it, but that we must examine ourselves as part of the problem and our conduct and attitudes as contributory to the growth of evils. Thus in many senses the men who held the guns were some of the most tragic victims of this society. Rajinis anger was never unmixed with compassion.
It was this realisation that impelled Rajini and several others to strengthen their efforts at tackling problems within the university as members of staff unions, as student counsellors and as members of Senate and Faculty Boards. Nearly all those who felt a need for reform, from professors to assistant lecturers, and became members of the UTHR student counsellors, of whom Rajini was one, had one of their busiest times dealing with problems faced by students in the way of arrest and security, together with specific problems of new entrants. Amongst the most important issues within the university was the exercise of administrative power in a system where the hierarchical differences had been strengthened while channels of accountability had fallen into disuse. An important event in the university during this period was the setting up of the co‑ordinating committee of staff, students, executives and employees unions, with the Vice Chancellor as chairman. It has stood up to several tests in dealing with crises involving the university.
Many saw this urge for reform as crucial for the raising of educational standards, as well as for the elimination of violence in the society in general.
A crucial element in the maintenance of educational standards is the return of those who go abroad for doctoral training. After the July 1983 riots it almost came to be taken for granted that such persons would not return. Administrators thought they would be lucky if only the bond obligations, which included travel and salary advances, could be collected. Meanwhile the exodus of trained persons continued. Rajinis example is a case in point. In this country which has five medical colleges there were four trained anatomists (three now), to run a proper Anatomy course. Each medical college requires a number of anatomists, Anatomy being the key pre‑ clinical subject. Rajini ran the department single handed, making many sacrifices to uphold standards. If not for Rajinis ability as an administrator in representing the problems of an assistant lecturer whose research program suffered because of war difficulties, the university would have lost an anatomist who is now under training in Britain. The training of doctors in Jaffna has now suffered an irreplaceable qualitative setback.
In spite of the disincentives, a number of trained academics returned in recent times. They did not come for the salaries or for the research facilities. They came because they felt an obligation to answer the challenge, and because they felt that the community had a need of people who would take a principled stand on issues. They did not think themselves extraordinary, but wished to be ordinary working people and a sobering presence. This is attested to by the fact that all four persons, including Rajini, who returned from Britain with doctoral degrees from early 1987, have been committed and active members of the UTHR. Thus the educational advancement of the Tamils is linked to the society demonstrating that it values and has room for commitment of this kind.
In Rajinis own case, she had with three other academics co‑authored The Broken Palmyrah in early 1988, which attempted to examine impartially the Tamil predicament. It spoke frankly about the actions of state powers and militant groups, and their ideologies. Rajini was conscious of the risk and had referred to her possible death a number of times. Personal letters in her possession and letters written by her, testify to a number of friends and those of influence putting pressure on her to remain in Britain while she was there for a three month research stint. But, Rajini came back on 3rd September. Two commitments uppermost on her mind were the Anatomy viva voce examinations for the 2nd MBBS and the teething problems of Poorani Illam, a womens rehabilitation centre she had helped to start. Her killers were cynical enough to wait for her to complete her examinations.
A letter addressed to the Vice Chancellor soon after her return from England, and read out by him at the first commemoration meeting on 2nd October, says much about Rajini. In it she informed the Vice Chancellor of her research sucesses and went on to say, There is no life for me apart from my people. so here I am. It is this kind of commitment and integrity that the killers find most unwelcome. The Tamil society they have in mid is one that is spiritless, uncaring, where every man fears his neighbour and which is moreover a cultural, educational and intellectual desert.
In every crisis, however numbing the initial shock, there are mysterious well‑springs from which strength flows. From grinding fear and a feeling that there was no option but flight, the move to protest, to express disgust and to preserve the integrity of Rajinis work and memory gained momentum. Students, staff and members of the public joined in. The impossible became possible as fear waned. Students went about putting up defiant posters all over Jaffna. Three well attended commemorations meetings were held ‑ University of Jaffna (2nd October), Jaffna College (4th October), Chundikuli Girls College (6th October). The last was very encouraging in view of the feeling and help forthcoming from staff members and senior girls. On the morning of 2nd October, the Vice Chancellor and the Dean of Arts led the largest demonstration in the history of the university. Up to almost the time the demonstration set off, the general opinion was that it would be lucky to have two hundred participants. The eventual figure ran into thousands. All this took place against a backdrop of terror and fear of the unknown.
It is one thing to discover strength and quite another to deploy effectively. If a university and its members forget that it is much more than a degree‑awarding institution, it surely dies. A university is a place where people are trained for positions of leadership as citizens of the modern world. Not only does the university implant in persons a respect and assertion of human rights, but it is also part of a process that helps the community to enjoy human rights such as obtaining control over their environment. Nothing is assured. Whether the university or the UTHR will stay alive are matters that cannot be determined by our resources alone. We are unsure of our next step. It is a reality that in a society where only mad men and gun men are deemed fit to take risks, the students who came forward to give the lead in protest activity are exposed and live in fear. We need all the help and understanding that we can get...........
A large number of persons living both in the South of the country and abroad, have over the years shown a sincere concern for the Tamil problem. But it is not widely recognised that it has moved far from the simple ethnic problem that it was seen to be in 1983. It is now one, where for the short term at least, the internal dimensions have by far overshadowed the external. We appeal to all, particularly Tamils abroad, to be sensitive to this new reality that faces us, and not to jeopardise those tendencies that work for greater accountability from within. What faces us now is a battle for basic humanity and civilised values. Its outcome will decide whether Rajini and many others died in vain.
(Statement by the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) mid‑October 1989)
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