Rajani Thiranagama’s Assassination
Before I introduce my research findings on the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, a theme which I have studied for over 10 years, I like to present my thoughts on the Rajani Thiranagama assassination of September 1989, which also has eluded clean findings.
Rajani Thiranagama was an acquaintance (not close enough to call a friend) of me during my undergraduate years at the University of Colombo during 1974-75. Then, she was Rajani Rajasingam, a medical student who actively took part in the cultural activities of the Colombo Campus Tamil Society, for which I served as the President in 1975. She was an year junior to me, though I was in the Faculty of Science and she was affiliated to the Faculty of Medicine. Then, the Colombo Campus Tamil Society incorporated all the Tamil undergraduates belonging to the Medical, Natural Science, Social Science and Law faculties. It had a nearly 550-member strength. Thus, her assassination was of personal interest to me, other than its political and social significance.
According to the literature generated by Rajan Hoole, ‘A leading anti-Pirabhakaran activist, Dr.Rajani Thiranagama’ was assassinated on September 21, 1989 by the LTTE. First I quote his belief, as presented in his 1997 feature entitled, ‘Suffocation of truth and its political implications’. Then, I present the more extensive details from a British correspondent, which Rajan Hoole himself has cited [but not included in his feature for reasons known only to him] for shedding light into this unsolved assassination of the Jaffna university academic. Not many Eelam Tamils would have read what this British correspondent wrote in 1990.
Rajan Hoole had written:
“Even on the very day she [Dr.Rajani Thiranagama] was murdered, bicycle mechanics and tea boutique keepers were saying that it was the LTTE who killed her…
The commemoration lasting three days was fixed to begin two months after the murder, on November 21, 1989. Once it clearly dawned on everyone that the LTTE were the killers and that the Indian Army was pulling out, it fell to UTHR(J) to organize under its aegis, while the staff unions lent their support. It was an ambitious plan, a long fling and as it turned out, a game of brinkmanship. But it worked…
The LTTE started showing an interest openly only when the delegates began arriving on November 20… The commemoration ran its course as planned while the LTTE had to be content filming the proceedings for use in future intelligence work. Its nervousness about the proceedings was reflected in its long statement of denial distributed on the occasion after a two months silence, leaving little doubt as to who the killers were…
In just under a year from the commemoration, the last active member of the UTHR(J) at home, narrowly evaded LTTE abduction squads trailing him and fled the North in riff-raff disguise.” [Sunday Observer, Colombo, Oct.26, 1997]
Now, to the description about a British acquaintance of Hoole, who came to cover the life of Rajani Thiranama.
“In January 1990, on the initiative of an English activist who came for the commemoration and was active in the British Labour Party, the late John Merit of the London Observer arrived in Jaffna to ‘do’ a story on Rajini against the current situation in Jaffna. He had been fully briefed of what we knew. Himself a Roman Catholic, he posed the question to Bishop Deogupillai of Jaffna. ‘We killed Rajani?’ [Note by Sachi: I believe that this is a printer’s devil replacing ‘Who’ with ‘We’.] The Bishop replied that the people say it is a party close to the Indian Army. Merit responded, ‘Whom do you say Killed Rajani?’ ‘I have to believe what the people say’, said the Bishop. We were taken aback as John Merit was.
It was the time the Indian Army had begun its pull-out from Jaffna. I say this not to fault the Bishop. He was among the more solid figures in Jaffna, had absolutely no sympathy for the LTTE and the bad press he had received in the South over the years was totally undeserved. It was simply based on the paranoia reserved for any Tamil who spoke up against the actions of the state…”[ibid]
By Hoole’s acknowledgement, Bishop Deogupillai “had absolutely no sympathy for the LTTE”. Even then, in his interview with John Merritt, the Bishop did not indulge in insinuation that LTTE was behind the assassination of Rajani Thiranagama, [probably since he wished to preserve his reputation]. But Hoole hasn’t been blessed with the restraint the then learned Bishop Deogupillai had, probably because they followed different agendas. Another point noted by Hoole also deserves attention. Even if a respected Tamil like archbishop Deogupillai (who doesn’t identify with LTTE) takes an independent stand of not demonizing LTTE in public, he or she will be smeared with ‘bad press in the [Sinhala] South’ of the island.
Now, to the feature John Merritt wrote to the London Observer, which appeared in April 29, 1990. In this feature, John Merritt had interviewed Rajani’s parents and archbishop Deogupillai, and they were not sure on who were the murderers of Rajani. One could guess that they were either ‘diplomatic’ in not pointing the fingers on the LTTE for reasons of personal safety or they really were not sure about Rajani’s assassins. However, Mr. Rajasingham, Rajani’s father, had pointedly accused the Indian army as well as Sri Lankan army for destroying many of Rajani’s writings, reports and their family possessions. The question arises, that if he was diplomatic enough, he wouldn’t have bothered to even accuse the Indian army or the Sri Lankan army directly in his comments to John Merritt. But he was forthright in mentioning how these two agencies have harassed them and Rajani.
Readers should take note that John Merritt is not an enlightened Bertrand Russell. Thus, there is a dimension of typical British colonial condescension in the tone of his description, including the pejorative caption of his piece, ‘The Battle for No Man’s Land’.
As has stated by Rajan Hoole in 1997, Merritt’s trip to Jaffna was sponsored by the human rights activists with whom Rajani became acquainted, while in Britain; thus, obligatory ‘appreciative notes’ for the unnamed ‘small group of people’ who were toiling under hardship as well as ‘depreciative notes’ for the violent-ridden LTTE, have been sprinkled like raisins in the cake, for consumption. Also, Pirabhakaran’s name is not mentioned even once in the entire feature, though a couple of quotes from Anton Balasingham are noted.
Despite these limitations, John Merritt’s article on Rajani deserve citation in extenso, since it includes the views of Rajani’s parents and the then Roman Catholic Archbishop of Jaffna, the Right Revd. Theogu Pillai on who assassinated Rajani. Excerpts:
The Battle for No Man’s Land
On the Assassination of Rajani Thiranagama:
“…She is just one of an estimated 30,000 people killed last year  alone in a country where murder comes second only to massacres. And, when the precise nature of every successive brutality seems to compete with the last to defy imagination, her death was relatively clean. Yet beside one of her pictures someone had posed the sort of question it is no longer usual to ask: ‘Who Killed Rajani?’
Rajani Thiranagama was a 35-year old doctor, teacher and mother of two young girls, 11-year-old Narmadha and nine-year-old Sharika. But it was a different vocation that led to her death…
On 21 September last year she was shot dead while cycling home from Jaffna University, where she was Head of the Anatomy Department. She had just finished marking the last of her students’ final exam papers. Her killer struck at about 6pm on the quietest spot in her 15-minute journey. He had the time, when she fell after the first shot, to fire four more bullets into Rajani’s head. Two students saw the killer cycle off; they managed to persuade the reluctant driver of a passing car to take her to hospital. But she was dead on arrival, and the students ran away without leaving their names.
Like most of the killings in a country where government regulations conveniently permit the disposal of bodies without any inquiry, her murder has never been investigated. Rajani’s mother, Mahilaruppiam, says: ‘People say my Rajani was foolish. They say she should have stuck to her work and stayed quiet about the killings. But she couldn’t see anyone suffer and she couldn’t accept the young people carrying guns. She said all killing was wrong – whoever did it, for whatever reason. And now we have lost our child and her children have lost their mother’.
Rajani, a Christian Tamil, had lived through the Sri Lankan government’s slow ruin of the island’s Tamil minority, with its weapons of stark deprivation and the suppression of the Tamil language in favour of the Sinhalese spoken by two thirds of the country’s 16 million population. When the pace speeded up it was natural that she should identify with the aspirations for survival and self-determination embodied by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the LTTE-popularly known as ‘The Boys’. But then she saw, and began to speak against, the Tigers’ degeneration into what she believed was ‘a purely militaristic organization, exploiting the youth, with a callous disregard for the people’.
Views of Rajani’s parents:
Her mother still talks of Rajani in the present. ‘You see, my Rajani wants to see the killings stop and she has to side with those who don’t carry guns’. After church on Sunday Mahilaruppiam sits with her husband, Rajasingam, a former college and hospital administrator, on the long veranda now overlooked by an LTTE camp in a house commandeered from relatives who have fled abroad. She says: ‘We are frightened, so it is better not to be sure about who killed her. We are too old to leave. Perhaps there is no point in blame, we won’t get our child back.’
Rajasingam points to the LTTE camp: ‘For more than a year, before the Tigers were there, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) occupied that property. They took away Rajani’s writings and the reports she had compiled on the killings. Before that, the Sri Lankan army came here and destroyed many of our possessions and took away our family photographs’. Government forces were hunting Rajani’s older sister, a former English tutor at Jaffna University and now a refugee in Britain, who was arrested with two doctors and a priest and accused of harbouring members of the LTTE. She was one of the few survivors of a subsequent prison massacre of hundreds of ‘suspects’.
‘So you see, what does it mean to ask who killed our Rajani, when everyone is killing everyone?’ Rajasingam asks. ‘Rajani was perhaps too honest. She once left a university senate meeting in tears because the university authorities wouldn’t agree to an inquiry into the murders of students by government and Indian forces.’
Rajani’s actions against the wishes of the Indian army operatives:
“Singlehanded she [Rajani] had reopened the university two years earlier [in 1987] when it was occupied by the IPKF, often staying after curfew to organize repairs to the bomb damage. Eventually her colleagues were persuaded to return by her conviction that ‘we must show a will of our own to make our own future’. In a note to the vice-chancellor the day she returned, she simply stated: ‘There is no life for me apart from my people – so here I am’.
The Tigers had perhaps been the best hope the downtrodden Tamils had, the teeth – if not the voice – of the oppressed, the only group to offer effective resistance against genocide. Their appeal in the north and east of the island grew in direct proportion to the barbarity of the Indian and government forces. Rajani was active in exposing and documenting the atrocities, the limbs cut from live youths on saw benches, the crushing of heads under the wheels of armoured vehicles, immersions in acid, rapes and strangulations, the dismembered bodies draped from trees and telegraph poles and the bullet-riddled corpses smouldering on piles of burning tyres by the roadsides.
But she became equally concerned with similar excesses by the Tigers and their role in the militarisation of the youth, as many of the LTTE’s young idealists died or grew disillusioned and left the country…
Popular support for the Tigers grew when the IPKF arrived to ‘keep the peace’ in July 1987. Their initials came to stand for ‘Indian People Killing Force’, as they massacred civilians, including those in hospitals and refugee camps, and subcontracted the butchery to bands of anti-Tiger, anti-government Tamil militias. These Indian-trained and armed groups added to the proliferation of paramilitary organizations throughout the island, groups with two things in common: a blind pursuit of murder that made everybody someone’s enemy, and the word ‘Liberation’ in their convoluted titles.
When doctors were too frightened to reveal an IPKF massacre at Jaffna Hospital in October 1987 which left 70 staff and patients dead, and were even afraid publicly to commemorate their dead colleagues, Rajani interviewed survivors…
With a handful of other women, Rajani cycled throughout the region, collecting information on the murders and tortures, and on the rapes that are a widespread but shamefully hidden consequence of the conflicts. She listed the experiences of the mothers and young girls, counseling them and giving them whatever they needed from whatever she had…”
Merritt’s suggested motives of LTTE for killing Rajani:
After describing such actions of Rajani, Merritt also had recorded that “Rajani came to be regarded as a traitor by the Tigers. Her mother says, ‘They used to say of her, ‘Even when an Indian soldier dies she will cry’.” According to Merritt, what sealed the fate of Rajani was the planned publication of ‘The Broken Palmyra’ – the early copies of which had begun ‘to circulate underground three months before Rajani’s murder’. But Merritt tactfully omitted providing the vital answer in the affirmative. Rather, he had attempted the answer to arrive from the mouth of Rev.Deogupillai. The then spiritual shepherd of Jaffna’s 150,000 Roman Catholic flock had responded to the vital question as follows:
“ ‘They say the Indians or someone did it. She [Rajani] was a bit outspoken you know. It is no use complaining – nothing happens. The people know that.’ But what is his own opinion? ‘I don’t have one’ he says. ‘It is best not to. Will you drink your tea?”
In sum, contrary to what Rajan Hoole believes, Merritt has provided adequate details [especially via the impressions of Rajani’s father and Rev.Deogupillai] for pointing the accusatory finger of Rajani’s murder to the Indian Intelligence wallahs. If there is truth in Rajan Hoole’s assertion that Senkathir, a protégé of Mahattaya, was the assassin of Rajani Thiranagama, it aligns well with the proposition that she was eliminated by the actions of Indian Intelligence-wallahs who had forged links to the then Mahattaya faction of the LTTE.
Role as a RAW’s Mole: My View
On Mahattaya’s role as a RAW’s mole, I can only present what I had gathered from circumstantial evidence. Previously I have cited an intelligence memorandum submitted by one of India’s intelligence agencies to the Jain Commission [see, The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon – part 19]. This document, prepared by the operatives around mid 1987, was made public in only in 1997. Unless documents of such confirmatory value surface, how and when RAW operatives trapped Mahattaya to neutralize Pirabhakaran cannot be determined precisely. But, one can surmise that by July 1989, when Amirthalingam, Yogeswaran and Uma Maheswaran were assassinated and there appeared the RAW-planted premature obituary of Pirabhakaran [see, The Pirabhakaran Phenomenon – part 1], Mahattaya seems to have capitulated to the viles of operatives practising the second oldest profession.
In this context, I wish to provide excerpts from a published 1992 letter of mine, which was critical on the views of N.Ram, the Chennai busybody cum journalist. To quote,
“…Regarding his current status on the Eelam issue, Ram has observed, ‘Indian policy has become somewhat inert and inactive. So there is no question of my playing a role. Because I don’t play an independent role. It is part of a policy response.’
Ram uses words like ‘policy’, ‘assessment’ and ‘mistakes’ euphemistically to hide the role initiated and played by the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the Indian counterpart of CIA and KGB. If Ram had stated openly on the failure of the RAW to infiltrate the LTTE (rather than referring to it passively as ‘For one thing they were not accessible’), and his relationship with the RAW, I would have admired his courage and conviction. His antagonism to the LTTE is understandable, if one separates the kernel from the chaff. LTTE was (and still is) the only Tamil militant group which the RAW personnel could not manipulate to dance according to the whims of the Indian policy mandarins…” [Tamil Times, October 15, 1992]
In response to this communication, I received an unsolicited, anonymous letter, dated 10 February 1994, from a Tamil correspondent from Australia. This letter criticized me for my then ignorantly-held belief that LTTE was impenetrable to the spookish pranks of RAW. This correspondent, who used to send me anonymous letters had been a reader of my writings published in the Tamil Times, Tamil Nation and Lanka Guardian of the early 1990s. In one of his letters, he had identified himself as having worked in the Lake House group of newspapers in the early 1980s, but for reasons known to him never had the courage to identify himself to me so that I could respond to him. For reasons unknown to me, he also had a gripe on LTTE. He wrote,
“Dear Mr.Sri Kantha,
In your letter to the Tamil Times of 15 October 1992, you mentioned that LTTE was the only group which the RAW personnel could not manipulate to dance according to the whims of Indian policy mandarins. But if one were to go by a news item in Kalathil of 14 January 1994, LTTE’s second-in-command, Mahataya, his body guard Suresh and another person code-named ‘Engineer’ are now under investigation for their alleged clandestine links with the RAW.
Some of my friends, who were in Colombo during December ‘93 - January ‘94, on holidays, quoting people who had come to Colombo from Jaffna said Mahataya, Yogi, and 74 others are now kept under house-guard at Kalvayal, close to Chavakachcheri, for the said offence. In other words, your contention that LTTE was (and is?) an impenetrable monolith (if Kalathil’s statement was correct) has gone awry.
I wish to inform you that popular belief among many Tamils in Australia is that the so-called Mahataya’s RAW connection was a trumped-up charge leveled at Mahataya by Prabhakaran so as to eliminate Mahataya from LTTE’s leadership. These Tamils say Prabhakaran would never countenance any one getting popular in the LTTE, nor would he permit any leadership challenge to him…”
My correspondent was entitled to his opinion on Pirabhakaran. But the question arises, whether Pirabhakaran was so dumb not to know about what was happening behind his back, to the organization he founded. Was he unaware of the premature obituary which was circulated by the RAW operatives to promote Mahattaya in 1989 and cause confusion among Tamils in Eelam and Tamil Nadu? The observation on Mahattaya by the Broken Palmyra scribes in 1990 is relevant here. To quote,
“Mahattaya had a childhood steeped in want. He is very much a loner and is not much of a public man. Mahattaya is once said to have had serious differences with Prabhakaran. These appear to have been patched up. Those who befriended him in old times can perhaps claim a hint of loyalty that did not quite approach friendship. He would be suspicious of the kind of ties formed by Kittu.” [Book: Broken Palmyra, 1990, p.183]
Thus, to be fair by Pirabhakaran, considering the time lag between mid-1989 and end of 1993, during which
with hindsight one can infer that Pirabhakaran had knowingly or unknowingly tolerated the ‘clandestine links Mahattaya had with the RAW operatives’. If he had tolerated unknowingly, then it shows that Pirabhakaran trusted Mahattaya for a long time under much duress. If he had tolerated knowingly, then it suggests that he allowed sufficient length of time to accumulate proof for his actions on punishing Mahattaya and his associates.
V.Suryanarayan’s Version on Mahattaya
Prof.V.Suryanarayan, a regular commentator to the Chennai Frontline magazine, can be labeled as one who is close to the RAW’s sphere of influence. In his 1999 analysis on the 1998 Heroes’ Day address of Pirabhakaran to the Frontline’s readers, he has presented the view which can only be transcribed from the RAW’s files. This view is in divergence to what I have scrutinized. To quote:
“President Ranasinghe Premadasa held negotiations with the LTTE between May 1989 and June 1990. The two came together because they found a convergence of interests: to get the IPKF out of Sri Lanka…
The honeymoon lasted only until the IPKF left the island on March 30, 1990. The vacuum left by the IPKF was filled by the LTTE, which gained complete control of the northeastern region. After the IPKF left, Prabhakaran put forward two demands – the dissolution of the North-Eastern Provincial Council and the repeal of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. The Government rejected the demands and the Second Eelam War broke out. A few months later Premadasa fell victim to an LTTE suicide squad.” [Frontline magazine, Jan.16-29, 1999]
The last sentence is factually incorrect, unless Suryanarayan’s sense of the phrase ‘few months’ extends to more than 33 months. To be precise, the Second Eelam War began in July 1990. Premadasa was assassinated on May 1, 1993.
Sajith Premadasa’s Version on Mahattaya
On the negotiations President Premadasa had with LTTE during 1989-90, I wish to cite a 1998 revelation, emerging from the President’s son, Sajith Premadasa, a rising star in the current UNP.
Question by Roshan Peiris: “It is reported that a Presidential Commission is to be appointed to probe how your father gave arms to the LTTE. Any comments?”
Sajith Premadasa: “My father provided arms only to the LTTE when deputy Mahattaya was emerging as a rival of Velupillai Prabhakaran. My father’s aim was to get Mahattaya to subvert Prabhakaran. During World War II, Britain and the US gave support to German generals who opposed Hitler. My father was following a covert military strategy of attempting to defeat Prabhakaran from within.” [Sunday Times, Colombo, Oct.25, 1998]
This version was reiterated in a two page, anonymous commentary, which appeared in the Economist magazine of Dec.5, 1998. To quote,
“It was specifically the Tiger’s leader, Mr Prabhakaran, some people in the [Premadasa] government decided, who was the problem; he should be killed. What happened then is disputed. Reportedly, Ranasinghe Premadasa, who had become president in 1989, arranged for the army to supply arms to the Tigers. For what? For dissident rebels to use against Mr Prabhakaran, says the former president’s son Sajith. For the Tigers to use against the president’s enemies, say some others. Whatever the truth, it was not Mr Prabhakaran who suffered: Mr Premadasa was killed by the Tigers in 1993.”
While ignoring the judgemental claim in the latter half of the last sentence [for which no irrefutable evidence has been presented in a Sri Lankan court until now], if President Premadasa’s motives were to promote Mahattaya against Pirabhakaran, as commented by his son Sajith, then it reinforces two points. One, the sinistral designs of RAW who had used Mahattaya to snoop on Premadasa’s strategy; the other was Premadasa’s much recognized expertise in double-crossing anyone, including Pirabhakaran, to advance his own agenda.
Being oblivious to this revelation, Chennai-based analyst Suryanarayan also penned the RAW’s promotional line that,
“The LTTE also used the period during which it carried on negotiations to carry forward its policy of annihilation of political opponents. Thus, TULF leader A.Amirthalingam was killed while the LTTE was holding talks with the Premadasa Government. The group even justified the killing. In an interview to Mervyn de Silva, Editor of the Lanka Guardian, Mahattaya justified the assassination of Amirthalingam and his party colleague Yogeswaran: ‘They were killed not because they held views different from that of the LTTE, but because they were acting as the agents of India; in short, traitors, collaborators’. Ironically, Mahattaya himself was executed by Prabhakaran on the charge of being ‘a RAW agent’.” [ibid]
Even in 1999, Suryanarayan had omitted from mentioning some secretive acts which RAW played between 1988-90. These include items such as (1) who propped LTTE’s political opponents like the EPRLF in 1988-90, (2) who were behind the establishment of the Tamil National Army (TNA) in 1990, (3) who promoted the Mahattaya leadership by planting the story of Pirabhakaran’s premature obituary in 1989, and (4) who shielded Mahattaya’s name from being listed in the ‘LTTE accused list’ of Rajiv Gandhi assassination trial in 1992.
Fate of Mahattaya
On the fate of Mahattaya which Suryanarayan had alluded, the Amnesty International Report of August 1996 carried a few sentences, as follows:
“It was also reported that Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah, alias ‘Mahattaya’, and several of his supporters who were sentenced to death in late 1993 had been executed. In an article published on 29 November 1995 in the Indian magazine Outlook, an LTTE spokesperson is quoted as having stated in early October 1995: ‘Mahattaya is no more. He was executed for plotting to kill Prabhakaran [Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE]’. In late 1993 and early 1994, Amnesty International had called upon the LTTE not to execute these prisoners and for them and other political prisoners held by the LTTE to be granted immediate and regular access to the ICRC.”
I leave it for those such as Anton Balasingham, who had known both Pirabhakaran and Mahattaya, to shed more light on the Mahattaya episode, at appropriate time. [Continued]