Sleepwalking into an Inferno

Revisiting Tamil Self Determination Part V


By Rajan Hoole

The 1970s saw progressive alienation for the Tamils under the Left coalition led by Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Media-wise standardisation that restricted university places for Tamils was followed by the humiliating 1972 Constitution.

Seeing no way forward in Parliament, the Federal Party fanned the youthful mood articulating Tamil pride, defiance and heroism, which were gaining ground among school, university and technical college students, where even girls came out forcefully. The young, moved by speeches of political leaders to take matters into their own hands began to lean on the leaders’ fragile shoulders. The leaders were left with little choice but to try and manage them. The Sinhalese who have not forgotten the 1980s JVP insurgency would understand this.

Events like the birth of Bangladesh gave Tamil leaders a cover for their bankruptcy. They charged the youth with hatred for ‘traitors’ from Tamil ranks and to anticipate dramatic developments. Blood pottus – drawing blood on one’s finger and smearing it on the foreheads of Federal Party leaders – became a ritual at public gatherings. Hartals– stoppages enforced by fear of reprisal – became pretexts for rowdyism. The Federal Party’s irresponsible attempts to make political capital out of the 1974 International Association of Tamil Research (IATR) Conference in Jaffna, the Government’s ill-conceived use of force, the Duraiappah killing, and the lying and deceit around these, found the country sleepwalking into an inferno.

The 1974 Tamil Research Conference

Under pressure from Tamil nationalists the organisers of the 1974 IATR conference, broke the precedent of inviting the prime minister of the hosting country to open the event,as did Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahuman the 1966 Kuala Lumpur conference. The failure to invite Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike to open the Jaffna conference, made the government nervous about its political fall-out.

The reconstruction of the events around the 1974 IATR conference in my book Arrogance of Power relied on the reports of the Citizens’ Commission of Inquiry and the Sansoni Commission. The former was headed by Justice O. L. de Kretzer with Justice V. Manickavasagar and Bishop Kulendran. The Sansoni Commission drew from the Magistrate’s inquest for its conclusions.The evidence suggests that the Government was initially very careful to avoid any untoward incident.

The Police had sought and received assurances from the organisers that the Tamil Nadu politician Janarthanan, then in Jaffna, would not be given a platform. The Police were otherwise extremely cooperative. The conference in Veerasingam Hall from 3rdto 9thJanuary went off well. Owing to the huge interest, the conference was extended to the 10th for the public to hear the renowned guests. In order to accommodate the crowd the venue was shifted to the open air theatre opposite Veerasingam Hall. Permission was granted by Mayor Alfred Duraiappah and the Police, on their part, extended permission to use loudspeakers. However owing to heavy rains on the 9th, the venue was shifted back to Veerasingam Hall.

De Kretzer notes that on the 10th,‘people pressed their way into [Veerasingam] hall already filled to capacity’. Unable to go back to the open air theatre because both the Mayor and the Municipal Commissioner could not be located at short notice, the organisers improvised a platform in front of Veerasingam Hall to enable the crowd to sit on the wide esplanade. The Police cooperated and redirected the traffic to free the road in front of the hall. The meeting began at 8.00 PM.

The Citizens’ Commission report observes that "When the meeting was about to commence, Janarthanan with a number of admirers came amidst applause and was hoisted on to the platform and was garlanded by Amirthalingam, [ex-MP and FP’s leader in waiting]. Sansoni states that Janarthanan threatened trouble when Dr. Vidyananthan and Thurairajah asked him to get down whileAmirthalingam stood by evasively. Dr. Mahadeva, one of the organisers,went to phone ASP Chandrasekera to avoid misunderstanding,but failed. This suggests the likelihood that the authorities did get some report of Janarthanan’s initial intransigence. By the time Mahadeva returned Janarthanan had got down without speaking.

Subsequently "Headquarters Inspector Nanayakkara handed Janarthanan a document …; Nanayakkara then left the place and was not seen thereafter (de Kretzer)."It was clear toHQI Nanayakkarathat the organisers had Janarthanan under control and the Police had access to him.

What happened next is inexplicable. ASP Chandrasekera with armed policemen in a truck, tried to mow their way through the crowd to arrest Janarthanan, causing a stampede and the electrocution of seven civilians when police firing into the air brought down an overhead power line. A small force of armed Sinhalese policemen amidst a panicking crowd of Tamils, unless very well trained, could easily perceive themselves in hostile surroundings.They went berserk around the city joined by colleagues over two days; without any justification whatsoever.

Police Superintendent Mitra Ariyasinghe, when contacted on the phone by Kathiravelpillai MP to stop the assault, had replied that Janarthanan had spoken at the


meeting, although in fact he was only garlanded.

The de Kretzer report concluded, "The irresistible conclusion we come to is that the police on this night was guilty of a violent and quite an unnecessary attack on unarmed citizens. We are gravely concerned that they lacked the judgment which we expect of policemen in a civilian police force whose duties call for tactful handling even in the most difficult situation."

New norms under the 1972 Constitution, may throw some light on the event. Previously ministers issued ‘general directions of policy’ to independent services governed by professional ethics. The 1972 Constitution turned ‘general directions’ into ‘directions’. Had the police command in Jaffna been under ‘general directions’ to maintain order during the Conference, they had no reason to play rough to arrest Janarthanan and create disorder. As de Kretzer said, the wise course was quieta nonmovere – leave well alone.

The Government was already reacting to the exclusion of the Prime Minister by blacking out the conference in the state media. Relations between the Government and the Federal Party were at a nadir. A minister who thought it his place to give ‘directions’, if told of Amirthalingam leading Janarthanan to the stage, was bound to think differently from a police officer on the spot whose priority was to keep the peace. That is a more fruitful line of inquiry than the assertion by V.T. Pasupati and V.Yogeswaran in the Foreword to the de Kretzer Report, of a ‘cowardly but well-planned assault’, for which the commissioners found no evidence. But after forty years, Chief Minister Justice Wigneswaran in his Genocide Resolution (10 Feb.2015) has listed the same unfounded charge (‘wanton’) under ‘Historical Genocide’.

The death of seven persons is bad enough, but the way the truth was twisted and used was a catastrophe for the Tamils. Quoting Sivakumaran’s contemporaries, T. Sabaratnam records that Sivakumaran swore revenge against ASP Chandrasekara and Alfred Duraiappah for the deaths at the Conference. SP Ariyasinghe told the Sansoni Commission that speaking to a crowd at Muniappar Kovil on 9th February 1974, the day of the hartal called by the Federal Party to protest against the Conference deaths, Mrs. Amirthalingam accused ASP Chandrasekera of causing the deaths and branded Alfred Duraiappah, the ‘traitor’ behind the incident – the same two touted about as Sivakumaran’s targets.Instances of instigation by FP leaders were not isolated and they need to answer for instigating the youth to take the law into their own hands.

Responsible leaders of a vulnerable minority should not indulge in provocations that could only make matters worse, likeAmirthalingam’s antics withJanarthanan.But that has been the nature of Tamil nationalism from the fifty-fifty days. Provocations that calculatedly placed civilians at risk from retaliation were in time systematically incorporated into strategy that governed the Tigers’ dizzying rise and precipitous fall.

Jaffna Mayor Alfred Duraiappah’s assassination by the incipient LTTE was a turning point in the Tamil struggle. There were no standards left to give the Tamils a moral defence. The massive electoral mandate the Federal Party (TULF) received in 1977 was an empty victory as seen by the Tamils’ helplessness when followed immediately by communal violence unleashedwith the new Jayewardene government’s instigation and complicity (Arrogance of Power). Jayewardene was prepared to abandon all standards to face the Tamil challenge and, in 1987, a second JVP insurgency confronted him in the same moral environment that he had fashioned.

Bradman Weerakoon, who was Secretary to Prime Minister Bandaranaike, told me that when he related poignant scenes from the 1958 communal violence to Bandaranaike, the latter suddenly gestured him to stop. Bandaranaike could take no more. He then stood back and allowed Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke to take command of the armed forces and bring a speedy end to the violence. For a man who founded the Sinhala Maha Sabha and seized the premiership through communal rhetoric and saffron power, the guilt for the communal violence appears to have weighed heavily upon him. That was a time the Tamil leadership occupied the moral high ground,from which it retreated in the 1970s.

Liberation that failed its victims

A man from the oppressed castes with whom I had occasionally exchanged greetings, stopped me recently. An accomplished playwright, he told me that along about a 500 yards stretch of the same road, twenty-three youths had joined the LTTE and perished, among whom were two sisters. He felt for them deeply. In 1996, he arranged refreshments for some of the girls who visited their area. They received urgent summons by radio and left without refreshment. They are now dead. This was when President Chandrika Kumaratunge was trying hard to push forward a quasi-federal settlement on the lines of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957. The LTTE was deeply worried and my interlocutor’s brief was to attack the Bandaranaikes from its platforms as the villains who did immeasurable damage to the Tamil people. Others wrote the speeches for him.

About 2007, the Army arrested him upon recovery from a house in Potpathy Rd. of a tape with his speech. After interrogation the army officer told him, "I can understand you as you feel for your people as intensely as I do for mine." He released him and advised him to leave Jaffna, for were he taken in again, he might not be so lucky.

In relation to the final agony in the No-Fire-Zone, he observed plaintively, ‘They (the LTTE) did not let the people go’. For him, holding out for political self-determination is futile and unrealistic. To start modestly, rebuild what we have lost and arrest the hopeless drift, he observed, is the way forward. That brings us to the question of quality education and timely access to justice, in both of which our politics has failed abysmally.

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