By: T. Sabaratnam
Going in for a revolver
master’s arguments that parliamentary democratic methods would yield
no result reinforced Pirapaharan’s childhood conviction that hitting
back is the only option available to the Tamils. The 14–year boy
placed his trust on armed struggle and the separate state.
arguments were twofold. The first demonstrated that Tamils, though a
minority, are a distinct nation enjoying all the elements needed for
nationhood - a separate identity with a distinctive language, religion, history and
culture, living in a separate territory and with a burning desire and
firm will to preserve their identity. The
will to preserve their identity Tamils had demonstrated from ancient times
by resisting Sinhala intrusion into their territory whenever it occurred
and by expelling conquerors at the earliest opportunity. At times,
they had also fought with their southern Sinhala neighbours and expanded their
second argument of Venugopal's held that the parliamentary democratic means adopted by the Tamil
leadership to win Tamil rights had failed and armed struggle was the
only available option.
had also told his class that Sri Lanka provided a classic example of how
a unitary state structure imposed on a pluralist society helps the
ethnic majority to consolidate its own position and aids it to subjugate
the minority ethnic community. The Sinhalese, the ethnic majority, had
made use of its numerical superiority to suppress minority Tamils.
Sinhalese suppressed the Tamils by encroaching on their land through
state-aided colonization and by reducing their voting strength, and thus
their share in government, by disfranchising nearly a million Indian
Tamils by depriving them of their citizenship. The Sinhalese then marginalized
the Tamils by denying their language, Tamil, official status and
requiring the Tamils to learn Sinhalese, the only official language, to obtain
Tamils naturally resisted. Their resistance was suppressed by the
use of mob violence and the armed might of the state. The first show of
Tamil protest - the 1956 Galle Face satyagraha- was disrupted by
organized Sinhala hoodlums, denying forever to the Tamils the freedom
to stage non-violent protests in Sinhala majority areas, including the
country’s capital, Colombo. Defiance
would be dealt by Sinhala mob.
denial of the right of peaceful public protest was extended five years
later, in 1961, to include the Tamil majority northern and eastern
provinces by the use of armed power of the state. In that
year, the Federal Party, led by the Gandhian Samuel James Velupillai
Chelvanayakam, launched a peaceful protest against the implementation of
the Sinhala Only Act. The satyagrahis prevented Tamil officers from
working in Sinhalese by blocking them from entering the five main
government secretariats in the Tamil majority provinces. The Federal Party leaders and volunteers sat in front of the
gates of the secretariats in Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mannar, Trincomalee and
Batticaloa and prevented officers from entering their offices to work in
Sinhala. The government clamped down with emergency rule, imposed curfew,
used the army to break up the protest and detained the Tamil leaders.
avenue of extra-parliamentary peaceful protest was thus denied to the
Tamil people. The use of parliament itself as a forum to take forward their
campaign for Tamil rights had totally failed. The two agreements the
Federal Party leaders had worked out with two Prime Ministers were not
honoured. The 1957 Bandaranaike- Chelvanayakam Pact was abandoned by
Bandaranaike the next year when a group of Buddhist priests sat opposite
his residence demanding that the document he signed with
Chelvanayakam be torn to pieces in their presence. The Prime Minister
obeyed. He brought the original document he and Chelvanayakam signed and
tore it to pieces. Chelvanayakam's 1965 Agreement with Prime Minister Dudley
Senanayake had a similar fate. Three years after signing Senanayake told
Chelvanayakam that he was not in a position to implement it due to
opposition by the Buddhist clergy.
parliamentary numbers game Chelvanayakam played between 1960 and 1968 in
which he used his party's strength in parliament to break and make
governments also failed to advance the cause of Tamil rights. In April
1960 Chelvanayakam joined the Sri Lanka Freedom
Party (SLFP) to vote Dudley Senanayake’s government out of office on
the assurance that Tamil grievances would be addressed if the SLFP came to
power. When it came to power in July, 1960, the SLFP’s new leader, Sirimavo
Bandaranaike, refused to honour that promise. She implemented the Sinhala
Only law with vigour. In
1965, Chelvanayakam switched sides. He signed an agreement with Dudley
Senanayake and joined his government. He was let down again.
analysed all these events and told his students that parliamentary
politics and pious non-violence would not produce results.
“Parliamentary democracy has not solved ethnic conflicts
anywhere in the world,” he told his pupils. He demonstrated with
examples from history that armed struggles had succeeded where
parliamentary democratic process had failed.
had seen army excess since childhood . In Valvettithurai, his village, it
was a case of daily military repression; roundups, searches, extortion,
arrests and torture. People hated the army. Children detested soldiers.
Pirapaharan has said in interviews that he grew up in an environment that
loathed the army. He himself abhorred the army.
was six years when, on April 19, the army fired and wounded three youths
at Valvettithurai and killed one and injured two at Point Pedro. Youths
inflamed by the arrest of Federal Party leaders the previous day had
stones at an army night patrol. The soldiers shot at the stone-throwers. Pirapaharan joined a
group of agitated youths who visited the houses of the wounded youths.
Valvettithurai, children invented a new game to replace the traditional
cop and robber game. In their game guerrillas armed with air guns
tucked under the waist bands of their shorts would wait hidden to spring
and attack soldiers. Pirapaharan played the game with his friends,
always taking the role of the guerrilla leader. He selected the hideouts,
conducted the training and led the assault group.
hatred of the army deepened after he came under the influence of
Venugobal. He became politically active. He attended political meetings
and met the Federal Party youth leaders. He discussed the plight of the
Tamil people which always ended with his query, "Can’t we hit back?"
recall his telling the stories of Sinhala atrocities he heard from the
elders. He also told them about the political meetings he attended and
about Amirthalingam’s strident call to build Tamil resistance.
was then reading a book containing the speeches of Swami Vivekananda. He
showed the book to us and talked about his appeal to Hindu youth to rise
and work for the revival of Hinduism. Knowing his attachment to Variyar,”
his classmate now residing in Australia said, “we teased him: Are you
going to follow Swami Vivekananda? He said: No. I am more interested in
the plight of the Tamils. We must first put an end to army
then used to talk about army atrocities and the need to fight them back.
“You cannot go and sit and shout slogans. They will hit you.
You must fight back. Then only they will stop hitting,”
Pirapaharan argued and others agreed. They also agreed that they needed
arms to fight the army.
decided to experiment making bombs. Pirapaharan opted for time bombs
because exploding them would be less risky. They first experimented with
the chemicals packed in firecrackers. Then, they tried with the chemicals
pilfered from the school lab. They filled empty soda bottles with
chemicals and closed them with a cork. They
inserted an incense stick through the cork.
His classmate now living in Australia
recalls: "We decided to explode the time bomb during the lunch interval.
We waited until other boys finished using the toilet. We waited outside. Pirapaharan and another boy took the time
bomb, placed it inside the toilet, and lighted the incense stick. We
waited with bated breath. Nothing happened. Losing patience Pirapaharan
wanted to go and find out whether the incense stick was burning. Others
prevented him. Then the time bomb exploded.
“We all burst out laughing. We were
all thrilled. Just then, someone in our group whispered, 'Principal.'
back to our class.”
Principal went to the toilet. He inspected the place and walked straight to
Pirapaharan’s class. He knew that that must be the class that would
have done it because students of that class attended the Valvai Tutory.
People of Valvettithurai knew that Venugobal master was preaching armed
The Principal said sternly, "Who did it. Tell me who did it?"
There was deafening silence. None
spoke. The Principal was an understanding person.
He was aware of the emerging situation. Revolt was brewing in
young minds. He did not press hard.
“Alright. Keep these things outside
school,” he said and left the classroom.
Pirapaharan kept his preparations to
battle the army outside school from then on. He and his schoolmates learnt the basics of karate and judo. They learnt
to condition their bodies to endure prolonged suffering and deprivation.
They would tie themselves up inside sacks and lie in the sun the entire
day. They would lie on chili bags. They would prick their nails with
pins. Those were the acts of torture the police and army then employed.
“We are freedom fighters,”
Pirapaharan boasted to his friends, “and we must be psychologically
equipped to withstand torture.”
for a Pistol
of his friends were as eager as he was to fight back the army. They took
part in training and in the manufacture of bombs. They formed themselves
into a small group. They did not bother to find a name. They had only
one objective: to fight the police and the army, the armed instruments
of the oppressive state.
told them that the pious formulation of an objective would not suffice.
One must have arms to fight, at least a pistol or a revolver. They had seen
those weapons in the hands of the police and some elders. None of them
had ever touched one. They decided to buy at least one weapon. To buy one they
needed money. They decided to float a fund. They decided to contribute 25
cents a week from their pocket money.
was the president, secretary and treasurer of the group. Others
considered him trustworthy. He kept the money. In 20 weeks, that
nameless, secret group had amassed forty rupees.
that treasure, they decided to look for a pistol. They heard a chandiyan
(village thug), Sambanthan
of Point Pedro, wanted to sell
his pistol for Rs. 150. The group decided to buy it. Pirapaharan sold
the ring he had received as a present during his elder sister, Jagatheeswari’s,
wedding for Rs. 70. They were still short by Rs. 40. Pirapaharan said he
would persuade the chandiyan to either reduce the price, recognizing the patriotic
nature of their mission, or agree to accept the balance of the money later.
morning Pirapaharan and one of his friends left for Point Pedro by bus and
met Sambanthan ,who was puzzled
to see two schoolboys in shorts asking for the pistol. His first
reaction was to chase them away. However, their eagerness to see the weapon
made him show them the pistol. He allowed them to have a look, taking care
not to permit them to touch it.
is not a play gun. You children should not even touch it,” he told
who had seen a pistol at close range for the first time was in tears
when he was told not to touch it. He begged the thug to show him how to
operate it. The thug declined, saying that was not a weapon for boys.
He then asked why they wanted it.
proudly proclaimed that they needed it to fight the police and the army.
must drive them away, these instruments of Sinhalese oppression,”
win the Tamil nation its freedom,” Pirapaharan replied proudly.
was bewildered. He told them not to talk above their age and advised
them to concentrate on their studies.
are leaders to look after these matters. You had better study now. After
growing as big like me you can think of those things. Now go.”
was not prepared to go. He asked, "Will you sell it to us if we bring the
balance money? "
said he would not do so and Pirapaharan returned crestfallen.
the Velicham interview Pirapaharan recalled that event thus:
I was a fourteen- year school
boy and with seven like minded youngsters at our school we decided to
form a movement with no name. Our aim was to struggle for freedom and to
attack the army.
I was the leader of the movement.
At the time the idea
that dominated our minds was somehow to buy a weapon and to make a bomb.
Every week the others would give me 25 cents they had saved from their
I maintained this pool of
savings till we had accumulated Rs.40/-.
At this time we learned that a
'Chandiyan' (thug) in the neighbouring village had a revolver which he
was prepared to sell for Rs.150/-.
Determined to buy this revolver
I sold a ring which had been presented to me during my sister's
It fetched Rs.70/-.
Altogether we now had Rs.110/-.
We had then
to abandon our plan to buy this revolver as we couldn't find the balance
was not the only person who rebuffed him. A former teacher at Chidambara
College, now in his eighties, recalls, "Pirapaharan’s class had become
noted. I remember some teachers talking about the class and saying they
had warned the class. I don’t remember anyone singling out Pirapaharan. "
lost his interest in education by the time he reached GCE (OL). He was
more involved in politics. He attended political meetings and discussion
attended the Federal Party’s Eleventh Annual Convention held at Uduvil
during April 7-9, 1969 at which Chelvanayakam admitted the failure of his policy
of cooperating with the Sinhalese in an effort to get them to solve the
Tamil problem. Chelvanayakam told the convention;
Since 1960, we experimented with a new
strategy of cooperation with the major Sinhala parties.
supported the SLFP in March 1960 to defeat the UNP because the SLFP came
to an agreement with us.
But the SLFP failed to honour that agreement.
In 1965, we entered into an agreement with the UNP which promised to do
some things for the Tamils. Now they too have let us down.
Shorts-wearing Pirapaharan was with the group of youths who mooted a resolution
calling for the establishment of a separate state for the Tamils. They
argued that since both the major Sinhala parties - the UNP and the SLFP had
let down the Tamils, the only option left for the Tamils was a separate
state. The Federal Party leadership persuaded the youths to drop the
resolution at this convention.
questioned Chelvanayakam about the youths' proposal. He was asked,
"The Sinhalese call you
federalists, separatists. But you persuade the youth to drop their
separatist demand. Why did you reject the separatist demand?"
His answer was, "We did not reject it. We only told them: Give us
some more time. We will try and persuade the Sinhala leaders to call us
by the correct name – federalists – and make them realize that
federalism is an instrument of unity and not separation. They [the
agreed to give us that time. "
Chelvanayakam was asked, "What will happen if you fail to persuade the Sinhala leaders?” His answer was, "If we old people fail, youth will triumph."
May Education Minister I. M. R. A. Irriyagolla provoked Tamil youths by
ordering the three Tamil schools started by Harijans who embraced
Buddhism and to be run as Sinhala Buddhist schools. He announced that he would
be present at the takeover ceremony. Tamil youths took that as a
challenge and commenced recruitment of volunteers to stage a massive
satyagraha campaign. Federal Party persuaded Prime Minister Dudley
Senanayake to defuse the tension by canceling the takeover of the
Federal Party Youth Front, determined to show its opposition, organized
a protest march, but the police refused permission. The Youth Front
announced its decision to defy the ban. The government deployed the navy
to reinforce the police protection afforded to the three schools. The
Federal Party intervened and dissuaded the youth from clashing with the
Federal Party’s dilatory tactics caused immense heartburn among Tamil
youths. Many groups broke away from the party and one such group was
called the Kuttimani – Thangathurai group. Both Kuttimani and
Thangathurai were from Valvettithurai.
Kuttimani’s real name was Selvarajah Yogachandran. Nadarajah
Thangavelu was the real name of Thangathurai. In 1969, they organized a
meeting in Jaffna. The group voiced its frustrations with the activities
of the Federal Party and decided to organize an armed struggle.
Thangathurai, an admirer of Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation
Organization, wanted to name the new organization the Tamil Liberation
Organizaton (TLO), but no final decision was made. The
group decided to leap into armed struggle.
group held its regular meetings in a spacious private residence in Point
Pedro. Pirapaharan attended those meetings. He was the youngest of those
in the group. He was 14-years old. Besides Kuttimani and Thangathurai,
Periya Sothi, Sinna Sothi, Chelliah Thanabalasingham (Chetti),
Chelliah Patmnathan (Kannady), Sri Sabaratnam, Ponnuthurai Sivakumaran,
and Vaithilingam Nadesuthasan also attended the meetings.
did talk about revolutions. We also talked about revolutionaries. But we
talked more about making bombs and collecting arms… We were a small
group, about 15 in all,” Nadesuthasan has recalled to a Tamil
In 1971 and in 1972, while the group was making explosives inside a palmyrah grove in Thondamanaru bombs went off injuring many members. Pirapaharan got a severe burn injury in his leg which left a black scar.