Remembering Rajani and Re-Reading The Broken Palmyrah

I am posting below a much longer version of an article that is published in Himal SouthasianThe Broken Palmyrah is out of print, but the entire book is on the UTHR(J) website.

Remembering Rajani and Re-Reading The Broken Palmyrah

September this year many will remember Rajani Thiranagama, a feminist, an activist, a Marxist, a scholar, a doctor and a teacher assassinated twenty years ago on September 21st, 1989.  Among the reasons for her assassinations was the publication of that profoundly grounded work, The Broken Palmyrah, which she co-authored with three other academics from the Jaffna University.  While we commemorate the life and work of Rajani at a time when the war has come to an end, in many ways the Palmyrah is still broken.  It is in this context that I return to that inspiring work, which has much to teach us, in particular for those of us belonging to the younger generations of activists after Rajani.  Inspiring, for despite the worst cruelties of war, it carried a message of hope, an analysis of possible ways forward and faith in the resilience of ordinary people.

Co-authored with Rajan Hoole, K. Sritharan and Daya Somasundaram, two mathematicians and a psychiatrist respectively, The Broken Palmyrah was a book written during and following the months of the Indian Peace Keeping Force’s (IPKF) offensive to disarm the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) beginning in October 1987.  It is a work that brought out the horrors of war through the voices of ordinary people.  It is also rich in analysis, and reading it twenty years after it was published, prophetic in the issues facing the Tamil community and the country at large.  It is the kind of work that can only come out of an uncompromising commitment to the people.  A commitment which has over the last two decades been exemplified by Rajani’s two colleagues in the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) who continued the work underground, and the third colleague who chose to remain in Jaffna for the bulk of the warring years providing an invaluable service to Jaffna society in the field of trauma counselling and psycho-social care.  In describing their approach, Rajani, in a post-script written shortly before her assassination and published posthumously wrote:

“We have now been living under the long shadow of the gun for more than a decade and a half, holding hope against hope for the survival of our children who are dominated by violence from all directions without a purpose or meaning.  But, on the other hand, we also note the glazed faces of people accepting it all with a sense of resignation.  Under these circumstances, to be objective or analytical seems to be a major effort, like trying to do something physical in the midst of a debilitating illness.  Whenever we write we are dogged by this reality, fearing our losing the thread of sanity and the community submerging without resistance into this slime of terror and violence.  The community is bereft of all its human potential.  Every “sane” person is fleeing this burning country – its hospitals have no doctors, its universities no teachers, its crumbled war-torn buildings cannot be rebuilt because there are no engineers or masons or even a labour force, its families are headed by women, and the old, the sick, and the weary die without even the family to mourn or sons to bury the dead.  If our earlier account had to be “plugging a line,” as some would want to put it, it was because it was important for us to arrive at a synthesis in analysis, seek an understanding, find spaces to organise, and revitalise a community that was sinking into a state of resignation.  Objectivity was not solely an academic exercise for us.  Objectivity, the pursuit of truth and the propagation of critical and honest positions, was crucial for the community.  But they could also cost many of us our lives.  Any involvement with them was undertaken only as a survival task.” (Pg. 408)

In looking back at the twenty six years of this horrible war that came to an end in May this year, there are two works that early in this long war stand out as a testament to the tragic predicament that the Tamil community was going to face.  I much like most boys romanticised the armed struggle which had its early rumbling during my childhood in Jaffna.  Both works, which I was fortunate to read in my late teens, had a lasting impact in forming critical questions about Tamil militancy.  The Broken Palmyrah and Rajani’s assassination, a woman whose home neighboured our home in Jaffna, had a tremendous impact on me.  The other major influence was reading Kovinthan’s ‘Pudhiyathooru Ullagam’ (A New World) written on the run in one month in 1984 by dissidents from the Peoples Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eeelam (PLOTE).  This work very early on captured the internal killings, torture and undemocratic character of Tamil militancy, which had absorbed idealistic youth and cruelly spat them out into violence and death.  Kovinthan himself disappeared in the LTTE’s version of the Gulag in the early 1990s.  The authors of The Broken Palmyrah were by 1988 despairing about this turn in Tamil militancy:

“It was now the end of an era. 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?” (Pg. 184)

The tragedy is that the armed struggle led by the LTTE, which by then had clearly consolidated a fascist political culture would continue for another two decades with more and more opportunistic and brutal moves to compensate its weak base, ravaging and destroying the Tamil community.  The Sri Lankan State which was at the root of the conflict through discrimination against the minorities and State-sponsored violence, responded even more brutally in the face of the escalation of violence by the LTTE.  The people bore the brunt of such debilitating violence by the different armed actors.

Rajani and The Broken Palmyrah were part of the bedrock of people and writings that should have alerted the Tamil community to the disastrous direction of the “liberation struggle”.  Indeed, there were hundreds of similar dissenters and writers who were assassinated, disappeared, tortured and destroyed by the violence unleashed from within the Tamil community.  And on a personal but also political note, my uncle and principal of St. John’s College, my school in Jaffna, C. E. Anandarajan, who was an active member of the Citizens Committee, was assassinated by the LTTE in 1985.  Thus for all of us, there were experiences and journalistic writings which alerted us to the disastrous turn in the Tamil community. But it was The Broken Palmyrah that perhaps fully grasped through the voices of ordinary people and its analysis of the political problem, the malaise that had eclipsed the Tamil community and the country.  Its prophetic potential is that twenty years later many of the themes it highlighted from the importance of democratisation, the critique of narrow nationalism, the dangers of militarization, the national question and class struggle, to the concerns of the Muslims and Up-Country Tamils, the cruel use of children in war, to the need for alliances with Sinhala progressives, seem as relevant now as it was twenty years ago.

For those who wrote The Broken Palmyrah, the fate of the LTTE was clear twenty years ago. In Rajani’s words:

“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.” (Pg. 367)

Indeed with the demise earlier this year of the LTTE, one is deeply troubled by the support extended by sections of the Tamil community, particularly those affluent sections of the Tamil diaspora who so fanatically supported the LTTE throughout the last twenty years and shut out this wisdom.  The ignorance of those who are still thinking in terms of reviving the LTTE and its political project is even more worrying.

Such perceptive analysis of the LTTE also came out of the authors’ experiences during the heightened moments of devastation of the Sri Lankan Army’s offensive in May and June 1987 called “Operation Liberation” and the Indian Army’s offensive of October and November 1987.  Because of their commitment to the people, they did not miss the cynicism of the LTTE which was all too ready to put civilians at risk by firing from civilian areas including hospitals and other places of refuge, such as the Kokkuvil Hindu College where civilians sought shelter.  The LTTE’s approach was returned in kind, as both the Sri Lankan and Indian armies unleashed untold suffering and violence on the civilian population, by shelling, torturing, firing on and raping women.  Parts of the book read like a diary of the horrors of war sharing the voices of numerous ordinary women and men; the communities paralysed, crippling any healthy dialogue.  It is a diary of the IPKF offensive to disarm the LTTE.  It is a diary that narrates the IPKF debacle from the beginning and the brutality of the “peace keeping” army, which the Tamil community thought would be different in its approach to the people from that of the Sri Lankan army.  It spares no actor.  It is a strong critique of the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) which strayed from its progressive roots as it aligned with the IPKF in the war against the LTTE, including the forceful recruitment of youth into the ranks of the Tamil National Army during latter part of the IPKF years.  It is a reminder of the very nature of the brutality of war, regardless of which army fights the war and how every armed group standing up to the LTTE and seeing their members and families attacked disastrously adopted the LTTE’s methods.

Rajani’s chapter on the experiences of women during the war of October 1987 titled, “No More Tears Sister” brings the voices of women into a profound analysis of how women, their survival in war and their resistance is inter-twined with class and caste.  Rajani questions the simplistic idea that that the “liberation struggle” was also a process about the liberation of women.  Instead, by questioning and analysing the politics and structures of the armed movements, the broader society and the roles carved out for women it becomes a strong political critique of not only the armed movements and narrow nationalism, but also brings to light the limitations of social movements at that time including the Mothers’ Front.  Rajani is perceptive and grounded in her attempts to both soothe those who suffered from the war and to find out the consequences of the war to be able to distinguish between the different forms of resistance of the middle class and subaltern women against all the armed actors whether it be the Indian army, the Sri Lankan security forces or the Tamil armed groups.  The fear that overshadowed middle class women crippled them from offering any protest or resistance with the LTTE’s public massacre of TELO cadres in May 1986 – she pointed out that subaltern women did far better transforming their sympathy into spontaneous resistance.  Finally, Rajani questions the short-sightedness of the women in Tamil militancy:

“It is tragic that these women’s sections themselves did not make any attempt to grasp their reality; an analysis of the position of women, the crucial social issues confronting them in Tamil society and women’s history, would have enlightened them and cleared the way to laying down the fundamental tasks and priorities. … 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.” (Pg. 328)

The four authors were also academics at the Jaffna University at that time and had participated in mobilising both in Jaffna and the entire a country a university teachers’ human rights movement.  It was an exceptional time when the South too was marred by the internal violence of the second JVP rebellion, but the UTHR in the South became paralysed by the debate about whether human rights violations pertained only to the state or included non-state armed groups as well.  The UTHR(Jaffna) on the other hand was clear from the start that abuses by all armed parties must be challenged.  They saw the university as a space that should be open for honest and critical dialogue, as society around them was eclipsed by militarization and manoeuvrings of the armed actors.  Rajani was at the centre of those who spearheaded the opening of the university following the IPKF offensive.  Many of the narratives and voices about the war in the book begin with the university community and expand to the rest of society.  It is through such voices and observations that the book also makes an important contribution to an understanding of trauma and psychological devastation of the communities by the war.  The psychosomatic consequences and social repression have broken society as much if not more than the physical devastation brought by bombs, shells and guns.  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.

Their criticism of the IPKF or for that matter any of the other armed actors is not one of rejection but rather of engagement, continuously attempting to expand the democratic space by mobilizing larger and larger sections of the community.  An appendix in the book is a powerful statement by fifty teachers from the Jaffna University signed on October 31st, 1988 in the run up to the Provincial Council elections and as a response to the call of the Indian High Commissioner for all Tamils to participate in the elections.  Sections of that statement are worth quoting at length as it also speaks to the current moment in the North and East where elections are superficially conflated with democratisation:

“What is the reality today?  We know that neither individuals nor community organisations can effectively raise their voices against the many human rights violations that continually take place today.  People live in fear.  They live unsure of their destiny, in terrorised silence – thanks to the acts of omission and commission by the I.P.K.F. and the various armed militant groups.  The run-up to the nominations made the situation worse.  Almost daily, revenge killings are taking place; innocent middle-aged civilians – both men and women – have been amongst the victims.  In many instances the Indian Peace Keeping Force’s complicity is well known.  No one has the means or the courage to protest – mostly in fear of the I.P.K.F. and the dominant militant groups.  In view of such a situation, for India to exhort full participation in what is portrayed as free and fair elections is a parody; especially because India itself is partly responsible for creating such political conditions in the community over the past five years.” (Pg. 447)

It is important to note here that with the IPKF, after its initial offensive, there was space for dissent as with the above initiative of the university teachers, which very quickly disappeared following the IPKF withdrawal.  Rajani herself was assassinated the day after the IPKF’s announcement of withdrawal, and that began another more systematic round of elimination of dissent within the Tamil community by the LTTE.  The statement continues:

“We have to examine not only our relations with the Indian and Sri Lankan states, but also ourselves.  Our obeisance to terror within the community, and our opportunism and lack of principles in the face of many internal killings, have made it easy for external forces to use the same weapons to control us.  In the face of our acquiescence to anti-democratic tendencies within the community, our plea for democracy becomes a meaningless exercise.  Many individuals and young persons who voiced criticism of the political forces have been victimised, driven away, or killed while we looked on.” (Pg. 449)

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’”. (Pg. 419)  Among those they mourn are many committed Tamils whose lives were cut short.  Dr. Rajasundaram, the moving force behind Ghandiyam who was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and massacred during the second Welikade prison massacre in July 1983.  K. Kandaswamy the humanitarian worker and founder secretary of Tamil Refugees Rehabilitation Organisation (TRRO), who was disappeared by the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS).  St. Johns College Principal and Citizens Committee member C. E. Anandarajan and university student leader Vimaleswaran assassinated by the LTTE.  The list is long and the list is longer when we look back twenty years later.  The despicable label of “traitor” was a sign most of all of the deterioration of Tamil politics.  The book in looking for an inclusive vision of Lanka beyond the myopic politics within the Tamil community, also pays tribute to the many visionary leaders in the South who took up the Tamil question with sincerity.  Four names that are prominent in the book as it mourns their passing, either assassinated or broken by the tragic turn in Lankan politics, and leaving a vacuum in leadership; Vijaya Kumaratunga, Sarath Muttetuwegama, Bishop Lakshman Wickramasinghe and Bishop Leo Nanyakkara.  If there is hope for Lanka it has to be built on the commitment and principles of such leaders as well as less known thousands of individuals who struggled to maintain sanity in a society devastated by war.

In re-reading The Broken Palmyrah, I am struck by its relevance for the debates in Lanka today.  It very early on saw how the broader Tamil community in placing its faith on deliverance by an external actor such as India and not on its own politics was undermining its own aspirations.  It saw so clearly the dangers of narrow Tamil nationalism and Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism as destructive ideologies that reinforced each other.  It captured the arrogance and the hegemonic power of the Tamil elite over the oppressed castes, over the Muslim community, the Up-Country Tamils and the Eastern Tamils.  It saw how fractured the idea of the Tamil “nation” already was, even in its making; it saw the dilemma’s facing the Eastern Tamil youth in their relationship to the Tamil armed movements and questioned even the viability of the North-East merger.  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.  It saw most of all the problem of the Sri Lankan State and the Sinhala elite that controlled it and used State power and its attendant violence towards the destruction of the entire country.  It attempted to analyse Sri Lanka in the context of global political economy; of colonial, capitalist and imperialist expansion.  It saw how the politics of the minority communities whether it be their historical grievances relating to language policies, issues of land and access to employment and education, or for that matter aspirations for devolution of power, were very much tied to democratisation of the entire country and the need to challenge the authoritarian tendencies of successive ruling regimes.

A snippet of this Leftist analysis and the challenges for the way forward is clear from the following passage:

“Last but not least of our failings was the lack of a viable alternative to counter this narrow nationalism: a third force.  And that brings us to the Left. … The major extra-parliamentary left-wing party was the Communist Party (Peking Wing), which gathered together the most radical and militant elements of the Sri Lankan Left.  Unlike the parliamentary Left, it had a power base amongst certain sections of the oppressed castes in Jaffna where pitched battles against caste oppression had been waged in the mid – 1960s.  The majority of the left-leaning intellectuals amongst Tamils were also with the Communist Party (Peking).  It was also the first left party to build a solid base among the hill country plantation Tamils.  Despite all this, it was not totally immune to Sinhalese chauvinism.  It failed to comprehend the primacy of the national question in the politics of the island and left the fighting for the rights of the Tamils in the hands of the Tamil bourgeois parties.  It had no coherent line linking class struggle with the national question” (Pg. 354 – 356)

Thus even the sections of the Left which took on caste struggles could not adequately address class politics in relation to the national question.  Indeed one of the major challenges at the moment facing the Tamil community, the other minorities and even sections of the South is the process of bringing in class and democratisation into the devolution debate.  Their analysis also went beyond narrow legalistic views of devolution and took on the challenges of democratising society:

“One deeply ingrained habit amongst Tamils is to think that freedoms are best secured by being wrapped up in the law book.  Laws are important.  Good laws can over the years inspire a stabilising social consensus.  But without the restraining influence of a deeply felt social consensus, good laws can be broken with impunity by bad governments.  Thus what 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.”  (Pg. 406)

That is also the challenge now, which calls for a third force; a democratic force for justice, equality and reconciliation in the post-war era.

Twenty years ago, The Broken Palmyrah, reported on the war like perhaps no other work in Lanka and for that matter competes with some of the most insightful reporting on wars anywhere in the world.  It set out an analysis of the causes and consequences of this brutal war which generations of Lankans will be condemned to endure.  It captured the voices that must be remembered as we mourn those who were decimated by the war and those who are no longer with us.  It has set out the forms of politics for the younger generations that must carry forward the mantle of justice and democratisation, and challenge the continuing repression and authoritarian politics that pervades Lanka’s post-war moment.

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