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An absence of actuality at Rajini memorial meeting at BMICH

by Dayan Jayatilleka

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”.


Did anyone mention ..... Lasantha W.?? for which this DJ got 'well done' from 28 nations!!!

Posted by: aratai | September 26, 2009 04:29 PM

From what comes out now - again - one cannot be certain Rajini was done in by the LTTE. I am no fan of the fascistic LTTE who have no compunction to indulge in the most gruesome murders - such as that of that great intellectual treasure Neelan. Whether the killing was done by the LTTE or EPRLF now has little consequence.

Yet another brilliant young and educated Lankan was done away in the name of "liberation" by faceless, mindless assassins - the dregs of what was once a decent and caring society. But then Dayan, I am sorry to say, has an axe to grind as well.


Posted by: Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan | September 26, 2009 09:22 PM

Richard de Zoysa's 20th death anniversary is coming up next year. May be you can write it as it was. Was he another one "who made political mistakes and died as a consequence of them".
Why do you have to end your article like this? What is the difference between you and the LTTE sympathisers who blame Rajani's murder on herself.
Yes she supported the LTTE in the early 80's and broke away from LTTE in mid 80's because she found out that with LTTE at helm Tamil people are doomed to fail not only against the state but as a community as well.
People who don't make mistake are the ones who do nothing. People who realize their mistake and make corrective action are the ones who can lead the socity in the right direction.

There is no doubt who killed Rajani, it is none other than LTTE.
I think in early 1989, the famous Econimics teacher Krishnanantharaja was murdered in Jaffna and there was so much conjecture on who killed him EPRLF, LTTE, IPKF etc but in the end it became clear it was EPRLF who murdered him. Dayan may know about this much more than me.
So ISS, Rajani was mudered by LTTE and Krishnanantharaja was murdered by EPRLF you don't need to springle some doubt when you talk about these murders.

Posted by: Keliyan | September 26, 2009 11:04 PM

Rajini ideals can not be silenced, her voice will continue to fight for oppressed, less fortune and women's rights. She will inspire many progressive people in Sri lanka. But it is a bad taste when a tribute come from a man whose hands are stained with innocent blood.

Posted by: Fran | September 26, 2009 11:04 PM

It was tragic that a practical, educated human-being was taken away from the tamil society. I finally came to hear the true Rajini Thirangama from the speech from Dayapala Thiranagama. I hope the people who admire (what Rajini Thiranagama stood for) will actually believe in it and pave the way so that the sinhalese and the tamils can live with dignity and peace. Please avoid justifying murder (20,000 tamil civilians were murdered in cold blood in few weeks) and torture (290,000 "liberated" tamils are still detained in camps subject to "interrogation"), in her name or something else.

Posted by: PFA | September 26, 2009 11:54 PM

ISS is trying to cover up the truth. He's a LTTE apologist

Posted by: Sirisena | September 27, 2009 12:21 AM

//“she was a great revolutionary who made political mistakes and died as a consequence of them”//

Dont you think this describes VP too ?

Posted by: Madayan | September 27, 2009 02:46 AM

Journalists Taraki and Tissainayagam made the same mistake that Rajini made. The former believed that, despite the proven chauvinism of the State, one dominated by the Sinhalese polity, living in Colombo and having so many Sinhalese friends would 'save' them from death (for Taraki) or incarceration and hard labor (for Tissa) by the State. That was their political mistake and they paid for it. The same way Rajini made the mistake of believing the LTTE would not come for her in Jaffna.

Mr. Jayatilleka talks about the missing 'actuality' of the latter, while conveniently ignoring the former, in which he has been complicit in some way as well by his staunch defense of the State.

"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."

This is baloney. The Indian hands were not clean. It was not a clean decision between a fascistic LTTE vs Indian State. By then the LTTE was only mildly fascistic and the potential for transformation of the LTTE was still there. And the LTTE's opponents were not just a clean Indian State, but its allied murderous paramilitaries as well, including the, EPDP, EPRLF and PLOTE, which were equally fascistic. At that point, the LTTE's nascent fascism was overshadowed by its status as the only organization that was not a quisling, not a sellout, not a puppet. Anyone who thinks that the EPDP, PLOTE etc would have been different, given their own killing spree in later years, needs to have his/her head examined.

The Tamil predicament was caused by India and GoSL and the militant groups each pursuing their own selfish agendas without any concern for the people. There was no choice among these multiple entities. Of course, one can blame sections of the Tamil Diaspora and some of the local people to continue to support the LTTE in later years despite the LTTE having shown itself to be incorrigibly fascistic, and transformation of the leadership had become impossible.

But that is not what Mr. Jayatilleka argues. He wants Tamils to support the paramilitary gangs like EPDP, EPRLF and PLOTE. He needs to see a shrink for his affinity to the equally fascistic thugs in such groups, face his own war crimes charges, and stop this false pontification.

Posted by: Expatriate | September 27, 2009 10:30 AM

I would have imagined that his recent chastening experience would have taught Dayan something about truth and objectivity, and being released from his ambassadorial duties and back in Colombo he would have found time to reflect over it.
Fascistic LTTE must be condemned for killing Rajan, Neelan and many others. But one would have thought the demands of truth would justify equal condemnation of all the unaccounted killings carried out by the "other" Tamil groups as well as the killings of hundreds of innocent civilians by the Sri Lankan security forces. Or,does Dayan-- like his former employer, President Rajapakse-- continue to be in denial.

Posted by: jamal ahmed | September 27, 2009 01:14 PM

Dear Aratai,

29 not 28. Almost 2/3rds of the membership.

Posted by: Dayan Jayatilleka | September 27, 2009 01:26 PM


One can say that Rajini was murdered by LTTE based on guesswork and with circumstantial evidence. DBS in on one of his write up recently said that two doctors currently living in london indirectly lead to her death in the hand of ltte.

Its time for those to come clean and apologise to her family and tamil community at large.

I have a bone to pick with you though Dayan. imagined community of “Eelam Tamils”. what do you mean. You killed the tamils chased them away from theirm land and now call them imagined community.

Well done leftist.

Posted by: selvan | September 27, 2009 05:57 PM

Re. Sirisena's comments. In addition to various comments elsehwere, even in these blogs one saw indications of who may have been behind Rajini's killings. I need to have both
my LTTE and PNM annual membership card extended. Will Sirisena tell me where to go for this - now that the team
perished in Nandikadal May 17-19. I can go to get this done
with the UN, Canadian, British, French E/U, NGO and other
card-carrying members.


Posted by: Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan | September 28, 2009 05:40 AM


Don't exhibit your illiteracy in the social sciences, man. Imagined Communities is the title of Benedict Anderson's famous book on nationalism. And shame on you for saying that naming the Tigers as Rajani's killers is guesswork. Listen to Nirmala in the award winning documentary No More Tears Sister and read Rajani's husband Dayapala's several writings.


I have condemned in print, the killing of Taraki and the sentencing of Tissainayagam, but let's not get cute or carried away. Taraki was buried under the Tiger flag and the poet of genius, Ezra Pound, was jailed by the Allies for pro-fascist propaganda.


If you think VP wasn't a great revolutionary, he was greatly revolting.

Posted by: Dayan Jayatilleka | September 28, 2009 07:21 AM

dear dayan,
i have been following your views thru interviews and articles which you write.there is no doubt that rajani thiranagam was an intellectual who fought for truth and her killing was totally unjustified.unfortunately she was killed by tigers.while sinhala intellectuals heart beats for rajanis,neelam thiruchelvams it never beats for tharaki,parliamentarian joseph parajasingam or an innocent jaffna girl krishanthy kumaraswamy who were killed by powers that be.i have seen one similarity in all these leftist intellectuals like you we have in india also quite a few like you who condemn the injustice against cuba,bolivia or a coup in honduras but just pay lipservice to what is happening in their own countrys backyard.i think sinhala government used you to see that human rights resolution is defeated becoz you had the persuasive skills and many countries which voted in favour of srilanka had leftist connection and then you were no longer useful for it so u were sent back to way for sinhala society to contrite is to apologise to tamils in srilanka for what it did for the past five the roads after great tamil leaders who were killed mercilessly by powers that be and pass the 13th amendment so that concept of tamil homeland does not remain just in paper but in reality need not be apprehensive about this homeland concept in our country jammu and kashmir state enjoys sufficient autonomy and its chief minister always hails from majority kashmiri community in similar fashion tamil chief minister can be head the north east and it can have muslim as well as sinhala deputy chief minister.

Posted by: j.sriram | September 28, 2009 08:08 AM

Hello Prof.Dayan,
We do agree with you that Rajini, Neelan and Kethish were assassinated by the LTTE.
Whom do you think assassinated Richard,Taraki,Lasantha and Raviraj?Can you name the names please?Some of us think that you are privy to inside scoop!

Posted by: Siva | September 28, 2009 11:08 PM

Dear Sriram,

Far more "great Tamil leaders" were killed by the Tigers than by any Sinhalese: Sri Sabaratnam, Amirthalingam, Yogeswaran, Mrs Yogeswaran, K Pathmanabha, Neelan Tiruchelvam, Lakshman Kadirgamar, Kethesh Loganathan. many great sinhyala leaders were also killed by the Tigers: Premadasa, Ranjan Wijeratne, Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamani Dissanaike, Ossie Abeygoonesekara. Another was almost killed but remains blinded in one eye: Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. One great indian leader was killed by the Tigers: Rajiv Gandhi. So, who should apologise to whom for what?

Dear Siva,

Ask me that when i am commenting on a commemorative event for one of them. Here I was writing about rajani. When taraki and Lasantha were murdered I denounced the killlings in writing, under my name. By the way the pro-Tiger agitators stopped talking about Taraki's killing after it was known that it was, in all likelihood, perpetrated by his former comrades!

Posted by: Dayan Jayatilleka | October 2, 2009 11:11 PM

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