Midweek Review
For Rajini
23rd February 1954 – 21st September 1989

by Nalin Swaris
I met Rajini Rajasingham-Thiranagama only once, in the Netherlands, in the autumn of 1984. The Sri Lankan Workgroup, of which I was a founder, organised a Sri Lanka Day, in Utrecht, in the aftermath of the terrible events of the Black July of ‘83. We had invited the various Tamil political formations, including the militant groups, with offices in London, to send representatives to the Utrecht conference. Rajini came as a sympathiser of the LTTE. Not surprisingly, most of the participants evinced the greatest interest in the problems faced by the Tamil people.

Rajini was the most articulate and charismatic of the Tamil leaders from London. Another comrade and I were the only two Sinhalese present. We kept a polite, even reverent distance as Rajini spoke with earnest intensity about the decades of humiliation suffered by the Tamil people, the savagery of July’83 and the justness of the armed struggle for Tamil liberation. She knew to distinguish between the Sinhala people and the perfidy of Sinhala politicians in power.

Two young Dutch women of the Sri Lanka Workgroup and Rajini became instant friends. Rajini was a faithful correspondent and we of the Workgroup followed her activities after her return to Jaffna: Rajini’s indignation at the treatment meted out to the people by the IPKF, her growing disillusionment with the militant groups, her disassociation from the LTTE and the decision to found the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) with a band of brave colleagues. Then on the morning of September the 22nd 1989, one of Dutch women of the Workgroup called me and in a voice broken with sobs, said, "They have killed Rajini". I gritted my teeth, took a deep breath and cursed the political thugs who ordered the elimination of an extraordinary human being like Rajini, perhaps the noblest this nation has produced in the post-independence period.

The encounter with Rajini in Utrecht has been seared into my memory. A slight built woman in jeans and pullover, long dark tresses and large eyes burning like coals. What I remember is her passion and the pure quality of it. She dedicated herself to what she believed in with total commitment and integrity. Rajini was a pilgrim of the absolute. She not only had the courage of her convictions but more importantly also the courage to question her convictions, when they seemed misdirected.

An Extraordinary Life

Who was Rajini Rajasingham-Thiranagama? And why should we remember her with homage and gratitude? One of the most cherished tapes in my video collection is a registration of the talk given by Dr. Brian Seneviratne at an extraordinary meeting of the Queensland Tamil Association to commemorate the murder of Rajini Rajasingham-Thiranagama. Knowing how much I admired Rajini, a Tamil friend DHLed a copy to me in the Netherlands.

Brian Seneviratne had been reviled by Sinhala Nationalists as a ‘Tamil loving’ traitor. He was an outspoken supporter of the Tamil cause, but unlike some latter day advocates of ‘substantial internal autonomy’, he did not mince his words when the so-called liberators of the Tamil people became their worst oppressors. He was not a crypto-racist who believed that if the Tamil people are happy with tyrants, of what concern is it to us in the South, as long as we have peace? Brian Seneviratne was visibly outraged by Rajini’s murder and was fighting hard to contain his tears as he spoke. He knew Rajini from the time she was a medical student in Colombo and he was on the teaching staff of the Peradeniya Medical School. Rajini was a close friend of a niece of his and they used to frequently visit his home in Colombo.

A brilliant student, Rajini obtained grades in all her examinations and after passing out began her teaching career at the Anatomy Department of the Medical Faculty of the University of Jaffna. She was awarded a commonwealth scholarship to do her postgraduate studies at one of London’s most prestigious medical schools the Middlesex University Hospital. She then moved on to the University of Liverpool do research on Comparative Anatomy for her M.D. Brian Seneviratne pointed out that after obtaining her doctorate Rajini need not have returned to Sri Lanka: "With the research work she had done, her training and publications in international medical journals, Rajini had only to indicate that she wished to stay on in the West.

There is a dearth of qualified anatomists all over the world and people would have fallen over each other to offer her a job". Neither did Rajini on her return set up an NGO shop in Colombo. She had developed enough contacts in the West and Western money-bags would have rushed to fund her if she wanted to monitor human rights violations in Jaffna, from a villa in Colombo. But she went back to her beloved university and almost single-handedly opened up the Anatomy Department, cleaning up the rubble of the battle scarred rooms with her bare hands.

As her friend Amrit Wilson recalled after Rajini was killed, "She taught a colossal 48 hrs a week. But she found time to set up the university Teachers for Human Rights Group and in the last few months she also produced and acted in a play about rape and violence against women in the context of war". She and some of her colleagues saw with anguish how the fabric of Jaffna society was collapsing before their eyes.

The peace that the Indian army was keeping had become a reign of terror. The various liberators were meting out rough justice and instant death to dissenters and to those whom they decided were traitors to their particular recipe for achieving Eelam.

That is when the decision was made to found the UTHR(J). To Brian Seneviratne again: "I do not wish to speculate as to who killed Rajini Thiranagama. Everyone had a motive, the IPKF, the EPRLF and the LTTE. The more relevant question is: "Why was his extraordinary girl killed?" Then holding up the first and second UTHR reports and the pre-publication issue of the Broken Palmyrah, he said, "This is why she was killed." He then went on to cite atrocities committed by the Indian army, the TELO, the EPRLF and the LTTE, recorded in the Broken Palmyrah. He said that knowing the calibre of the authors, he could personally vouch for the authenticity of the events recorded and in any case, he said the writers have gone to the trouble of explaining the way they had gathered their facts individually, and as a group.

A New Standard for Human Rights Work

The UTHR set a new standard for human rights works and a new work style for gathering information about human rights violations. Rajini expressed the ideal which inspired them as follows: "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". For Rajini and the founder members of the UTHR (J) ‘human’ meant all the humans that inhabit this benighted Isle, and life meant all life, not just Tamil, Muslim or Sinhala lives. Their indignation against human rights violations was not selective - a tactic of partisan politics. Rajini was particularly concerned with the plight of Jaffna women.

Whenever reports reached her of atrocities committed against women she would get on to her bicycle and rushed to the spot to offer comfort and record the atrocity with meticulous care. Rajini’s reports and analysis of the physical and psychological damage suffered by Tamil women was titled, "I have no more tears sister". Every one of the founders were (are) highly qualified academics. But they did not work from comfortable city-offices, letting their field workers do ‘the dirty work’, after which they could sift the material and send it off together their learned comment, to interested present and potential donors.

They were there on the spot and did not shrink from letting their hands be stained by the blood of victims. They continued their work in Jaffna even after Rajini was killed and fled Jaffna because their lives were in imminent danger. These eminent scholars have lived clandestine lives in the South, and the people who gather information about human rights violations in the North and the East and smuggle them to the South do so at great peril to their lives.

The UTHR(J) members who work with meagre resources and who have resisted the temptation of becoming a respectable big NGO, remain an embarrassment to some ‘peace-process-championing’ NGO wallahs.

A Greek Tragedy

Like a heroine in a Greek tragedy, Rajini knew that the drama of her life was unfolding inexorably towards a deadly denouement. But it was a destiny she had freely determined and consciously taken into her own hands: "One day a gun will silence me. And it will not be held by an outsider, but by a son born in the womb of this very society - from a woman with whom my history is shared".

Her murder and that of outstanding Tamil humanitarians like Kanadasamy and Thiruchelvam exemplify the tragic course of the Tamil Liberation struggle; begun as valiant resistance to Sinhala-State oppression, it degenerated into hatred of the Sinhala people.

The hatred then turned inward into a frightening implosion of Tamil on Tamil violence, with the LTTE emerging, through rivers of blood, as the "sole representative of the Tamil-speaking people". What Rajini wrote in early 1989, is equally valid today: "There are no mass organisations which can effectively mobilise the people, or voice their needs and opinions ... there were all the externals of change: murals, Tiger courts, ribbon cutting by the Tigers! But the people have no role. They are spectators, bystanders, unable to determine the course of their struggle". Rajini did not spare our intellectuals either: "Our intellectuals should have been the catalysts to energise the benumbed community" (in the South today, we have, cricket, all night pop concerts and Sportoramas to distract a besotted community NS.) "In many instances they have sidestepped confrontational issues... their unprincipled conduct reflecting merely a desire to create niches for themselves in which they can survive with the trappings of respectability and nominal power".

Just and Enduring Peace and Rajini

Rajini’s voice has not been silenced. She continues to speak to us through her writings passionate, limped, lyrical. She was a not an ivory academic writing abstruse and arid pieces for a Colombo conference. Rajini did not try to feel with her head.

She thought with her heart. A passion for truth and justice, love for her wounded people and pain, exasperation with hypocrisy, are palpable in her writings. It as if she knew her time was running out and was writing with running feet. Rajini realised that whether in making war or in making peace what is at stake is our common humanity and the right that all of us, especially the least of us have, to live in freedom and with dignity: that neither national liberation nor national security justifies the trampling of basic human rights, especially the right to life.

The first round of talks have ended with both sides expressing satisfaction and the spectator-people expressing relief. The two negotiating parties, the LTTE and the Government(s) of Sri Lanka have a horrendous record of gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity. Torture is routinely practised in LTTE camps and in our police stations. Torture is endemic to our criminal investigation system.

There is no difference in the ferocity of Sinhala on Sinhala and Tamil on Tamil violence. If and when a peace is settled what sort of society will we have in ‘the autonomous region’ and in the rest of the country where corrupt and cynical politicians gave impetus to the will for separation? This is the question which Rajini asked during the ‘Indian peace’ and which the UTHR(J) continues to ask. As the negotiators whittle out their peace, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the spectre of Rajini haunts the battlements of Sattahip.

Any genuine peacemaker or intellectual worthy of his of her salt, including dottori and professori, must have the courage to "speak to it’.