Silan Kadirgamar: A Man of Breadth, Depth and Commitment

Sivamohan Sumathy, courtesy of The Island, Monday, 18 Jult 2016 where the title is On Silan Kadirgamar, Marxist, Humanist, Activist and Academic”

Silan Kadirgamar , lecturer, Marxist, non-Marxist, humanist, activist, and one of the founder members of MIRJE and its strongest voice in Jaffna, passed away last year on July 25th in the 81st year of his life. Recalling my memories of him, on the first anniversary commemoration, to be held in Jaffna on the 16th of July this year, and the subsequent conference on Social Justice and Post War North, which focussed on gender, caste and class, I am once again overwhelmed, as I was a year ago, about the loss of a generation of fearless women and men, who had been uncompromisingly on the side of a basic sense of humanity and stood up for what they thought right. My memories of him are deeply personal, going back a long way into childhood while my political alliance with him, in years to come, on many fronts, is shaped by that very same sense of belonging to an age and a space that was both personal and political: Jaffna College, Left politics, Tamil nationalism, militancy, the insular world of the JTCs ( Jaffna Tamil Christians) and the gossip that attended it, friends, family, murders, arrests, loss, human rights, love, light, laughter and loss.


My first impressions of him are from the days when Silan and Sagu his wife were at Jaffna College, Vaddukoddai. Mallika Kadirgamar, Rajan Kadirgamar, Silan’s older brother’s daughter and I would find ourselves walking over to their house, in the flats of Jaffna college, to play with Ajayan the little son and to stare at the overlooking vast stretch of paddy fields that gave us two children, a sense of the freedom denied to us. Silan Kadirgamar, or Silan Anna as we called him, was a tall, gaunt and silent figure; he might be carrying Ajayan or flitting about the house, with an aloof and intellectual air about him. That he had fallen in love with my aunt, which story I had overheard from the gossip in the house, made him even more a figure of intrigue and mystique.

Those were the Jaffna college days; fleeting, full of light. He was again there, a neighbour this time, in Nallur, among the Moothathambys, a vast clutter of ancestors and extended family surrounding us on Navalar Road. He was at first attached to the Department of History at the University of Colombo and then moved to Univ. of Jaffna, as Senior Lecturer in the mid 1970s. I knew all his brothers and sisters; Rajan Kadirgamar was our principal. I chatted with his other brothers Nesan and Kumaran, as easily as a small child would with friendly grown ups, but I was still in awe of Silan Anna, curious about him, and watched him from a distance.

He was always, even when we had grown very intimate, in the last decade and a half of his life, a figure of mystery and intimate charm. We had formed a tight bond of political alliance and dissent. I found in him an anchoring of my own dissent with political mainstream, but this too is historical and not born over night. In the days of growing nationalism in Jaffna, he came across to me as a voice of reason, moderation, and total and utter sincerity. I remember the meeting of the national Student Christian Movement (SCM) in Jaffna in the mid-‘70s. This was post 1972; the resistance to the new constitution, and the much talked about standardization were driving forces of growing youth rebellion. The theme at the SCM conference was the National Question and Bishop Ambalavanar gave the keynote address, on the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt. A guest speaker from the TULF addressed the gathering as well as one of the visiting students from the south, offering a ‘Sinhala’ perspective. The trends and tenor were very clear. Silan took part in the ensuing discussion in the voice of moderation, but of deep commitment to what we would call social justice and justice for the Tamil people. He insisted on minorities having a fair deal. As a teenager, I was a silent, and yet active participant in the conference and its sessions made a deep impression on me. My older sisters at that time were involved and they sounded the notes of anti-nationalism stridently. He cautioned them. It is with surprise that I saw years later that the sessions had made as deep an impression on him as it had on me. He talks about it in his paper “Management of Ethnic Relations” in 1998.

” While the TULF was formulating this demand for a separate state in August, 1976, the SCM was having its annual conference at St. John’s, Jaffna. Over 50%of the audience were Sinhalese from the south. A member of IlaignarPeravai, the youth wing of the TULF, was invited to address the crowd. I was asked to chair this session. It was an extremely difficult task. The discussions were trilingual. The speaker knew only Tamil. The left radicals from the newly found jaffna University were present. This was the period when there Sinhala students in the Jaffna university. More importantly, highly articulate persons such as President of the university student council, Jeyapalan, Lecturer, Nithiyanandan, Nirmala and Rajani were there. They were all vehemently anti Tamil-Eelam. The dominant trend was for a united Lanka. I found myself in the position of consistently trying to protect the rights of the youth league member, to protect his view. Then came the 1977 riots”

In this vivid description of the event, he comes alive once more, his voice ringing out in prophetic tones, once again. Silan was an organic intellectual in many senses of the word. As a historian, his greatest contribution lies in giving Jaffna Youth Congress its due place in history. The Jaffna Youth Congress (1980), is a seminal and authoritative work of his on the history and impact of the Jaffna Youth Congress, which was a remarkable, if brief, feature of the north that stood for egalitarian and democratic principles while eschewing narrow ethnic nationalisms.  It has been reproduced and also been translated into Tamil.

In Jaffna Youth Congress he saw an antidote to the narrow nationalism of our times, majoritarian Sinhala chauvinism and the victimhood politics of Tamil nationalism. He set the record straight on why the Youth Congress boycotted the Donoughmore Constitution; It was not because, as is widely believed even by scholars, that the Commission did not grant any protection to the minorities, but because it stopped short at giving dominion status to the country. They were the radicals of the time. He kept the memory of Jaffna Youth Congress alive in the midst of a rejection of any talk of reconciliation and political alliances across ethnicities by nationalists . He abhorred the petty political bickering between the Federal Party and the Tamil Congress that was the meat of political discussion of the early nationalist days in Jaffna.

A word about MIRJE, the Movement for interracial Justice and Equality. He was a pioneering figure in MIRJE formed in 1979 and was its first chair, stationed in Jaffna. MIRJE was an early human rights social organization and played a key role in looking at human rights violations and safeguarding the rights of detainees. PTA had just been ushered in and the thuggery associated with the JR government was raising its head, viciously. Military activity in Jaffna was turning ugly at that time. Arrests, detention, torture and even disappearances and deaths in custody were not uncommon. One could sense that the place was gearing up for full scale war. MIRJE was in some senses the UTHR at that time, and we have to be thankful to Silan. There are other heroes too who have to be tributed alongside, Fr Paul Caspersz, Balakrishnan, Charlie Abayasekera, Sunila Abayasekera, Surya Wickramasinghe, Kumar David, Rajan Phillips, and others. In the aftermath of the burning of the Jaffna Library in 1981, Silan co-founded the Jaffna Citizens’ Committee.

What was remarkable in Silan was that, despite a growing tendency among the left and liberals alike to voice and give into nationalist sympathies, on all sides, he did not fall into that trap. He kept his thought and action regarding violations distinct from narrow nationalist positions. He admitted to being a nationalist at that time; The times were such; but he did not let such an engagement blind him to the sad spectacle of narrow chauvinist nationalism. A keen critical eye combined with a disinterested commitment to people kept him away from that kind of careless flirtation. He spoke up unequivocally on the eviction of Muslims by the LTTE. There was no vacillation on his part and he did not proffer any excuses citing extenuating circumstances when it came to the eviction and other such atrocities committed in the name of freedom; nor did he make the state’s atrocities an excuse to exonerate the militants as was common among many intellectuals at the time. His critical and forthright stances on the national question drove him and his family to exile in Japan in the mid-80s. Ethnicity: Identity, Conflict and Crisis, co-edited In 1980, Silan with Kumar David (Hong Kong, 1989), The Tamils of Lanka: Their Struggle for Justice and Equality with Dignity (Kanyakumari, South India, 2010) and The Left Tradition in Lankan Tamil Politics (in Hector Abhayavardhana Felicitation Volume, Colombo, 2001) are some of his publications that demonstrate his commitment to the cause of justice for all people and to the minorities who had been denied a life of dignity for a long time.

He was a raconteur. Everytime I visited their house in Dehiwala, I would be quite excited because he would hold court there and with a glass in hand, regale us with stories about figures that ranged from old Jaffna College stalwarts, Bicknell, Bunker and Boss Chelliah, to public personalities like Chelvanaygam, Fr. Thanninayagam and the dons at Peradeniya, Fr. Pinto, K.N. Jayatilleke and others. We formed a bond born out of political alliance and a desire for political gossip. The decline of Jaffna College is something that bound us together in lost memories and hopelessness and he would talk about the historical mistake made by the Christians of Jaffna in not embracing take over of schools by the state. In the last few years of his life, there was something of the air of a prophet about him. With his flowing white beard and height, he cut quite a figure. He would question me about all of my convictions. He was interested in education and would deplore falling standards, with me disagreeing. We would argue passionately about it. He would hold forth on many things, until quiet Sagu Acca, his wife, quiet perhaps only for that moment, would interject , in wisdom born out of experience: “Now it is enough, Silan. Why don’t you listen to other people’s opinions too?” Her opinion maybe.

He had the immense capacity to change, even in old age, not as a chameleon, but as a child of history. He would repeatedly ask: what are you? Are you an atheist or a believer? He did not really want an answer from me, fortunately, and would say on these occasions: I am an agnostic. Neither he nor I really knew what an agnostic was, but he in his sharpness of intellect had sensed something in the life of Sri Lankans, Tamils, Muslims and Sinhala and all others in the country, an affirmation of the spirit of co-existence, both willing and unwilling, of an existentiality that embraced difference within itself. The pastor’s son he was, growing in the time of independence and struggles for social justice, he instinctively rejected the fanaticism characterizing atheism. I am happy that he was able to see a change in the political regime of the country in January 2015 for that gave him hope. He was hopeful of a future for the people of the country. He was happy to have Ajayan, Tanuja, Arjuna and Nadine visit them and to have Ahilan, Ramya and the rest of the extended family around. He loved to bully Sagu acca and be bullied back by her in turn. He loved company, a drink, a song and even a prayer at times.

It is only fitting that we are back at Jaffna Library today commemorating his life with a discussion on caste, gender, land, debt, displacement and a political solution on the first anniversary of his death .

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Sivamohan Sumathy is attached to the Dept. of English at the Univ. of Peradeniya

ALSO SEE works on the Jaffna Youth Congress

Jaffna YC


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One response to “Silan Kadirgamar: A Man of Breadth, Depth and Commitment

  1. I knew Seelan as a fellow undergraduate in Peradeniya in Ramanathan Hall and later as an academic in Colombo in the 1990s and the 2000s. I participated in his attempt to set up a school in Bambalapitiya by the beach. Mrs Seelan was a very friendly figure. I did not know them intimately but associated with them on some common feelings and attitudes. Dr Sumathy Sivamohan’s feature about him is written from a much closer relationship and I read it with much acceptance, admiration and respect. As Christians all of us had similar feelings and world views and I am priviledged to have shared the thoughts found in Dr Sivamohan’s paper.
    Wilfred Jayasuriya

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