The Times of Senthan: Little known Liberator and Silent Giant – II
by Rajan Hoole
Senthan’s Exceptional Perceptiveness
Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed, in his Letters and Papers from Prison, that there were two groups who successfully resisted the Nazi propaganda onslaught: they were the strong Christians and the Marxists. Their perceptions were rooted in their understanding of History. Senthan was a critical reader of Marxist literature, whose mind and literary style were enriched from school days by the late classics of English and Continental authors such as Chekov and Joseph Conrad. His defiance of what was inimical to society was total and unwavering. In July 1983, communal violence was unleashed with high level connivance following a bomb attack on an army vehicle in which 13 soldiers were killed. Senthan who was living on Brown Road, not far from the incident, held his son and daughter, each by a hand, and stood still for a long time.
He told his assistant, “They [the LTTE] have started a war without any preparation among the people. This will lead to total destruction.” Unlike most of us, who were to a varying extent guided by emotions and public feeling in the rage and fear of the moment, Senthan was quite firmly guided by his intellect.
He viewed the communal violence unleashed on the Tamils in 1958 and 1977 as unpardonable crimes to assuage Sinhalese nationalist compulsions. Sinhalese politics carried on without the slightest expression of remorse, and wanted the Tamils to forget that they ever happened, without any visible change of attitude. He regarded a Tamil liberation struggle to be fully justified, but after preparation and taking the people into confidence.
Senthan had his ear close to the ground and what he had observed in the TULF and the LTTE was their political bankruptcy. With their rhetoric they created unrealistic expectations and when they found themselves at a dead end, they drew sympathy by provoking the State into some reckless or barbaric action where the people bore the brunt of reprisals.
An early example was the police charge into the crowd on the final day of the International Tamil Research Conference in Jaffna on 9th January 1974, with the intention of arresting the Tamil Nadu politician Janarthanan. Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government was sensitive about an outpouring of nationalist fervour, and the organisers had given the Police word that Janarthanan would not speak from the platform. However Mr. Amirthalingam had invited Janarthanan on to the platform for a ceremony of garlands and expressions of mutual esteem. Although Janarthanan got down at the organisers’ request, intelligence of the event resulted in armed policemen charging in. Nine civilians died of electrocution by a live line being brought down by police firing into the air.
The political version of the event that received wide circulation, is that the tragedy was a result of instigation by the Jaffna mayor, ‘the traitor’ Alfred Duraiappa (Arrogance of Power). Of this allegation there was not the slightest hint in the highly commended unofficial De Kretser committee of inquiry report. The rumour, which was given traction from political platforms, set the course for the execution of Duraiappa; his purported killer Prabhakaran earned his spurs as the supremo.
The 1983 July bomb blast was triggered by a crisis within the LTTE. If their militant network lacking political roots among the people was checked by intelligence operations, they would have been in a pickle. Seelan, after his injury that was treated by Rajani was taken to India for advanced treatment. There he fell in love with a Malayali nurse and the Leader ordered him back to Jaffna. In Jaffna Seelan isolated himself, refused to see the Leader and confided remorsefully to his friends, his regret for having on Prabhakaran’s order murdered his fellow freedom fighter, Sundaram. He stayed on in a camp after being warned of its discovery and was ambushed and killed. A former Chief of Staff told me that Brigadier Balthazer had worked hard and had cracked several militant hideouts. This work was thrown to waste by the political insanity of the July 1983 violence as an answer to a routine setback.
Most Tamils reacted to the 1983 violence without any hope of justice for the victims, which the appointment of the Sansoni Commission had given in 1977. Some concentrated on exposing the Government internationally or lobbying India or other foreign powers. A choice that seemed to many the only option available was to collect money for the armed groups.
Senthan at this crucial time stood among the exceptions on the ground, totally disillusioned with the fatal direction in which the LTTE was bound to drive the militant struggle. For him the politics of the TULF and LTTE had the same rhetorical roots. Both for him were products of the unimaginative Tamil middle class. As an example of its actual and potential criminality, he saw the elite clinging on to the hideous institution of caste that made a mockery of liberation. The new caste elite represented a marriage of convenience between powerful sections of the Vellala elite and the Valvettithurai elite. The latter lost its importance after the war, while the former became vicarious carriers of LTTE’s heroic ideology and rhetoric, purely as a source of power.
As for the nature of Tamil politics, Senthan said that while the educated classes seldom understood, low level officials like village headmen (GS officers) who dealt with the ordinary people knew it from the start. When the report of the 1976 meeting between Amirthalingam and Prabhakaran hit the local grapevine, Senthan told me, a village headman swore in colourful language that knowing the essence of these two, it is a miserable fate that awaited the Tamils.
A healthy liberation struggle, Senthan said, should have no truck with crime, and any occurrence of it should be rooted out; individual killings like that of Alfred Duraiappah for their political leanings were costly crimes. The Irish Easter Uprising of 1916 through the occupation of Dublin Post Office by members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who surrendered and were executed by the British State, was described by the poet Yeats as a ‘Terrible Beauty.’ It reflected the sacrifice by the surrendered men that their execution would lay the seeds for the birth of a new, free, Ireland.
Contrarily, there was no beauty terrible or otherwise in murdering defenceless individuals and the killers parading themselves as heroes and patriots. A public that gives credit to such claims degrades itself by rejecting the first principle of a free people, which is justice.
Senthan explained further on the theme of criminality. Valvettithurai which played an important role in the militant struggle had a legitimate trade with India which was stopped early in the Second World War. Its legitimate activity gave way to a smuggling industry, which also harboured a criminal element that is not good for any society. This element, he said, was in evidence at local sports matches between schools, where strong arm methods were in evidence when their side was losing. The talks between Amirthalingam and the killers of Duraiappah symbolised a liberation struggle drawing on this criminal element. The dangers were sensed by several ordinary people, like the village headman cited earlier.
The first phase of the war
After July 1983, several militant groups confronted the Sri Lankan security forces, with the leading groups patronised by India, whose role is still the subject of speculation. The killing in 1985 of two MPs, Dharmalingam and Alalasundaram by elements from TELO, the group seen as most favoured by India, could not but induce an element of menace into the prevailing ceasefire brought about by India. With the Army confined to its bases, it had given the civilians relief; and there was relative freedom of expression. Dissenting publications came out with the aid of militant sponsors, notably the Theepori group’s book on PLOTE’s torture camps on Indian soil. The book’s leading author Nobert, was last seen in an LTTE prison camp about 1992.
A particular menace was the shelling from Jaffna Fort, which surrounded by militant emplacements, was supplied by helicopter. It was very unlikely that the Army would have started shelling in January 1986 unless it had felt threatened and found it necessary to hold on. The two parties had to settle, or status quo could not hold. At that time the Air Force had also started aerial bombing apparently targeting militant camps, but frequently hitting civilian targets as seen on inspection.
Apparently to test the strength of the militant resistance a commando force was landed by helicopter in early 1986 to take an LTTE camp in Suthumalai. But the TELO joining forces compelled the commandos to withdraw and the LTTE publicly thanked TELO.
Not heeding the lesson, the LTTE largely wiped out the TELO at the end of April 1986. Prabhakaran was then in India and the Indian government could have exerted itself to prevent the annihilation of its protégé. But it did not lift a finger. One wonders if Indian intelligence felt that giving the LTTE a long rope to hang itself would enable India to intervene as saviours of the Tamil people, as happened.
Meanwhile, constant shelling and bombing by the Government had become a hazard that kept everyone on the edge. The militants had no counter at that time. EPRLF leaders Pathmanabha and Douglas Devananda approached Senthan. Senthan, far from being a text book engineer, had a brilliant practical mind. He picked up his skills during working sojourns in Iran, France and Canada before deciding to set up a company in Jaffna. He agreed to manufacture cannon. An assistant told me that tests were carried out with payloads of 25 and 40 kg comprising sea sand. One test was carried out by firing from the railway goods shed to Ariyakulam, a tank. Despite the success the project was stopped when the LTTE after finishing off the TELO banned the other groups, including EPRLF in December 1986.
The Tamil liberation struggle as prospectively a democratic exercise was killed. For Senthan, this particular use of his skill was an act of civil defence. It suggested that if the Tamil militant struggle had been rooted in the wishes of the people and consideration for their safety, he would have supported it more fully. The coup, where the LTTE using their superior communication equipment for surprise, took sole control of what might have been a liberation struggle, had reduced Senthan along with the people to bystanders. A model Senthan spoke of repeatedly was Che Guevara, of total commitment with concern for the people. While all the groups were active, the Army might have been immobilised as had already happened in several areas; and it had opened up the prospect of a negotiated settlement. Instead, the field was now wide open for the Government forces to break out. The Jaffna Fort from having been a vulnerable defensive position had become a prospective launching pad.
It was a question of time before the Sri Lankan Army advanced and the people were resigned to it or even secretly welcomed it as an alternative to the LTTE’s vindictive regime. Meanwhile in late 1986, as shells continued to boom from Jaffna Fort, many among the elite hailed the self-isolated LTTE, an organic growth of elite nationalism, as the sole saviour of the Tamil people. Their commitment did not go beyond words. The rise in repression was signalled by the LTTE’s abduction for non-political reasons of the University student Arunagirinathan Vijitharan, who subsequently disappeared. University students undertook a protest fast and large numbers of civilians joined in support. It was to be Jaffna’s last spontaneous mass uprising.
Religious and civil society leaders attempted to negotiate a settlement at the University and LTTE Jaffna leader Kittu, with whose personal vendetta the student’s disappearance was associated, came at their request. One of the arguments put to the student protestors by some of the negotiators and academic staff was that the LTTE were doing yeoman service keeping the Army at bay, a hugely important task, they said, compared to the issue of one missing student.
Prabhakaran returned to Jaffna from Tamil Nadu in early January 1987. Senthan and a colleague walking along Stanley Road, near the Railway Goods Shed, saw a car stop on seeing them and the lights were switched off. The two found that Prabhakaran had been in the car surrounded by persons protecting him. It struck them that no Tamil group under attack by the LTTE tried to kill Prabhakaran, which would have been relatively easy at that time. Instead they had each separately tried to talk to the LTTE knowing that their end was inevitable.
Once the LTTE cleared the way by eliminating other groups the Sri Lankan forces made rapid advances in the East taking back areas previously controlled by the militants; notable being the Kokkadichcholai Prawn Farm massacre on 27th January 1987. As was expected, the Army launched its operation to take Vadamaratchi in Jaffna’s northern sector on 26th May 1987 and there was a large exodus of civilians through Varani to Thenmaratchy. Prabhakaran’s home of Valvettithurai was among the first to be taken. It was the talk among evacuees that several cadres protecting Prabhakaran had narrowly got him to safety. I heard it spoken among university staff that when Prof. Sivathamby made the crossing, he had whispered to another, “Did you see who that was?” The reference was evidently to Prabhakaran wearing a sari carried on a bicycle.
The operation was halted by Indian pressure as preparation to its direct entry to much relief among the civilians. Around this time Senthan left with his family to India and returned in 1988. This was the time my regular contact with him commenced.