Composing THE BROKEN PALMYRAH: Rajani Thiranagama’s Rigorous Oversight … and Her Insights

Rajan Hoole, whose chosen title is “Thirty Years After: Rajini Rajasingham Thiranagama’s Lasting Impact”

Text of Speech delivered by DR. Rajan Hoole at Trimmer Hall, Jaffna, on 21st September 2019 to mark the 30th anniversary of Dr.Rajini Thiranagama’s assassination [by the LTTE] …. presented first at

Ever since Rajani was killed, on 21st September 1989, many around the world have seen her as a heroic figure that stood for human values, not in a legalistic sense, but in the full-blooded sense that evokes an emotional and intellectual response; that moves those around her to commitment and action that is contagious. Accepting that we are living in a world that is not pacifist, her activism was towards solutions that avoided violence. The other view of Rajani was simply that she is a traitor. For those who felt helpless when the Tigers carried all before them, she inspired them as a symbol of resistance to the emerging fascist order, where to dissent was to court death.

Between these ways of seeing her, something crucial is lost. That is her role as a public intellectual, a word she viewed with deep reservation. She was an academic extraordinary, not one whose fame owed to a numerical count of obscure papers. She wrote in the Broken Palmyra: “In this sketch an encompassing view is attempted, within the framework of historical analysis. … [It] rather breaks into emotional and descriptive scenarios. This has been inevitable for us, as we are participants in the pain and agony of a nation. This sketch is attempted principally to bring out into the open the little known side of our nation (already people are adapting themselves to living with reality, pushing and smothering the pain into the recesses of memory) and the underlying causative processes and forces.”

As ‘pain and agony’ in the passage suggests, for Rajani, intellectual activity was entwined with our emotions and feelings, and flowing with these it gives direction to our actions. This is evident in everything she wrote, but within a rigorous discipline that demanded truth and accuracy. Everything had to be properly reasoned out and the reader should not be taxed with obscurities and ambiguities.

When she got the co-authors together and edited the first typed scripts of the Broken Palmyra, in 1988, one had to put up with passages from one’s writing being pencilled out or being asked to redraft certain portions. One was made to take one’s ego less seriously and the pain was ameliorated by her kindness and charm. Finally, the book was improved tremendously by the pains she took and our co author Sritharan’s quick, sharp and unfailing analysis.

The key to understanding Rajani as an intellectual is her compassion for the downtrodden, and those ridiculed and oppressed because of their birth. She was in spirit and action part of their struggle to emancipate themselves and was harshly critical of leaders who misguided and misused them. This comes through in her sectionNo More Tears Sister -The Experiences of Women’:

“Unlike in the other groups, however, in the EPRLF, women were taking a more assertive role and putting forward clear, honest political positions in times of crisis. For instance, after the massacre of the TELO cadre by the LTTE, the EPRLF was the sole movement in the ENLF (the United Front of the EPRLF, the EROS, the TELO and the LTTE) that protested and organised demonstrations and other protests. This campaign was led by their women members. This position contrasts with that of the other members of the ENLF, such as the EROS who tactically decided to keep quiet and co-exist with the LTTE. Later when the EPRLF was crushed by the LTTE, many EPRLF. women were beaten-up by the L.T.T.E.. One prominent member of the L.T.T.E. had said while beating some women: “What, liberation for you all. Go and wait in the kitchen. That is the correct place for you.”

She adds, “Therefore the armed women’s sections developed either in terms of “use” as in the case of the LTTE. or in a mechanical fashion, as a graft of an idea borrowed from other liberation struggles as with the EPRLF. Thus, the passive stand by the LTTE women can be understood, as the movement approved of them exactly as their society did. The fact that the EPRLF, possessing an advanced consciousness, was unable to transplant it in the community, is a general phenomenon in all EPRLF activities – in the armed struggle, the mobilisation of people and the construction of people’s structures, among others. In every major aspect, the EPRLF exhibited estrangement between its theory and practice. Therefore neither our material reality nor our history had the basis to support a fully blown women’s section in the armed movements. It is tragic that these women’s sections themselves did not make any attempt to grasp their reality; an analysis of the position of women, the crucial social issues confronting them in Tamil society and women’s history, would have enlightened them and cleared the way to laying down the fundamental tasks and priorities.”

Her compassion extended no less to the children forced to bear arms cynically and die horribly, and the Indian soldier sent to fight and die in a war that was completely beyond his ken. Rajani laid emphasis on what is largely lost in Tamil politics today, as integral to the liberation struggle, to keep in view and support the aspirations of other Tamil speaking minorities. She saw India historically as a would-be superpower, whose limits were defined by other actors:The Indian Tamil labour who built up the plantation sector … were simply grafted on to Sri Lankan society by their colonial masters and were rejected as aliens by the local population. … [Post independence] they were disenfranchised and became the most exploited and oppressed social group within the country … the growing contradiction between the local subsistence agriculture and the plantation sector manifested itself in the most fierce antagonism towards this under privileged group. Unscrupulous political elements used this contradiction to their advantage by portraying this dispossessed poverty stricken group as an arm of Indian expansionism. Even opposition to Indian supremacy in the region was expressed by victimising this minority group.”

Likewise she says of the Muslims: “Though the slogans and programmes of all movements paid lip service to the rights of Muslims, there has never been a concrete programme to realise their goals, or the articulation of their needs and objectives during the process of the struggle. What has been proclaimed is a programme designed by the Tamils for the Muslims. There are immense contradictions and prejudices between Tamils and Muslims, which should have been handled during the years of struggle, a common basis built and an organic cohesion produced.” What we have is tokenism, some tenuous slogans, a token presence of Muslims in the movements and the imposition of the hegemony of the Tamils (especially peninsula Tamils) which led to increasing contradictions.”

For Rajani, in solving the problems of peoples there could be no half measures, no escape from getting down to brass tacks. In this light we say a few words on the historical role of the Tamil leadership. The Donoughmore Commission proposals of 1928 formed a singularly progressive document to come from a colonial power. In proposing universal adult franchise, their main motive was the emancipation of the socially oppressed and underprivileged by the exercise of the franchise.

It was the Ceylon Labour Union which originated in the activism of Ponnambalam Arunachalam and led by A. E. Goonesinha that had urged universal adult franchise before the Commissioners, to which other leaders were fervently opposed. Opposition unavailing, the main Sinhalese leaders concentrated their energies on denying the franchise to the Plantation Tamils. To this end they played with the words ‘abiding interest’ used as the criterion for the vote by the Commission and argued that the illiteracy and low birth of Plantation Tamils precluded their having an abiding interest in public affairs of the country, whereas the Donoughmore Commissioners saw franchise as the process by which the oppressed further their rights and access to education.

The Sinhalese leaders saw an opportunity to concentrate power in themselves and refused to let go. This was also their way of attacking the Trade Union Movement. This movement which was then the bulwark against communalism, was founded on the idea of Empire citizenship, where British subjects would enjoy equal civic rights throughout colonial lands of the Empire, with the exception of self-governing Dominions. Thus the trade union movement in Ceylon had in its ranks Indian Tamils, Sinhalese and Malayalees working shoulder to shoulder.

The challenge to this order came in the early 1920s from British settlers in Kenya excluding the Indians from colonial privileges. This was about the time the Indian National Congress sought independence from the British Empire. The Sinhalese leaders took these developments as the cue to exclude the Indian labour from the franchise.

Francis Molamure, who led the franchise debate in the Legislative Council said (Hansard 15 Nov.1928): “… it is not a question of foresight; it is a question of self-preservation. We know it for a fact, Sir, that the Sinhalese form the largest section of the people of this country. Among the brotherhood of communities, the Sinhalese community, as I say, is the eldest child of this mother Ceylon. Therefore if the younger children are going astray, is it not up to the eldest child to point out their waywardness, to point out that they are treading the wrong path? The younger children should respect the views of the eldest child, especially on a matter which has come up for the first time in the Council, a matter which affects the preservation and safety of this country.”

This was the cue for brazen majoritarianism that has plagued this country’s political life and discourse for the past ninety years and laid the foundations for today’s National Security State. There were able Tamil leaders in the Legislative Council. Arunachalam Mahadeva protested, “… at the very first opportunity they get in the Council they get up and shout the loudest … that they will not have the Indians in their midst.” He was ridiculed by C.W.W. Kannangara, who was Mahadeva’s fellow committee member on the All Ceylon Trade Union Congress. For the Trade Union Movement it heralded the move from internationalism to parochialism.

Among those who protested aloud were T. B. Jayah, Natesa Iyer and A. Balasingham, perhaps, the greatest among intellectuals we had as our representatives. Balasingham said, “If we realize the rights of men; if we realize that men are entitled to be treated as human beings, to have some voice in the administration, to have some voice in righting the wrongs under which they are groaning … we cannot with any sense of propriety refuse [the vote] to these British subjects who are toiling and moiling for us in this country.”

Molamure’s motion, seconded by D.S. Senanayake, which began the process of exclusion of Plantation Tamils by introducing a literacy test as a condition for the vote, was passed with several Tamils supporting it, including Balasingham. One could understand Balasingham’s action by his close association with the Jaffna Youth Congress, and many of us grew up hero-worshipping its leaders for their contribution to education, their opposition to caste oppression and their commitment to secularism.

The Youth Congress supported the Donoghmore proposals under the rubric of national unity and as a door to independence. They had little, if anything, to say about the Plantation Tamils. This question and the future of minorities, raised by Mahadeva, should have been sorted out then and there. Answers to these questions were fudged on our move towards independence and we have paid for it ever since. The questions however would not go away. G.G.Ponnambalam put forward the entirely unrealistic 50 – 50 proposals in 1937, Chelvanayakam proposed Federalism in 1949, separatism in 1975 and then we were plunged into a destructive war.

This is not to say that matters were hopeless. Two Sinhalese trade unionists Victor Corea and C.H.Z. Fernando voted against Molamure’s bill. Others like Kannangara, whose communalism was not of the crude variety, could have been challenged. He was a leading advocate of the social upliftment of poor, underprivileged youth through free education, while supporting an order that denied the same to the plantation youth. The opposition to the 1948 Citizenship Act by the Left may have clinched the matter but for the ambivalence of the Tamil Congress, the bulk of whose MPs abstained.

For Rajani, there was no question of fudging issues by avoiding a thorough examination of thorny questions. Without this conviction many of our Tamil leaders continue to get lost. Mahadeva and Ponnambalam accepted portfolios from Senanayake. Somersaults got worse as politics became increasingly divorced from reality. We are no longer horrified when former liberators ally with Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Rajani repeatedly reminded us that the sins of the young are not more than the sins of the fathers who passed off as gentlemen.

As evident in her writing on women fighters, Rajani was part of their struggle and shared in their aspirations, and in their humiliation. Academic aspirations were empty for her without the corresponding social commitment in the struggles of her people. For her, the place for a committed intellectual was home, even when assassination threatened her. It is nowhere but at home that one could realise the fullness of humanity. The EPRLF leadership did not understand her, and if they had done, the young LTTE assassins would not have killed her.

Looking back at what Rajani has written, words are economical and not one out of place. Her relation of facts was clinical. After the passage of thirty years there is hardly anything one could disagree with. Rajani can no longer pencil out paragraphs I have written, but I have had the joy of her daughter Sharika doing that for me in her place.

   ***  ****


* Faizal Samath,Sri Lanka Activists Brave Death Squads in Documenting Human Rights Violations,” 16 September 1993,

* UTHR: The Broken Palmyrah

* Bart Klem:  “The Terrain of War: Ahmed and Thiranagama from Outside and Inside,” 4 November 2016,

* Rajan Hoole: The Rajasingam Legacy,” Colombo Telegraph, 23 September 2016,

Rajan Hoole: The Rajasingams and Their Profound Legacies,”  24 September 2016,

Some Works by Sharika Thiranagama …. or about her work:

2009 “A New Morning? Reoccupying home in the aftermath of violence in Sri Lanka” in Struggles for Home: Violence, Hope, and the Movement of People. Stef Jansen and Staffan Löfving (eds.) Oxford and New York: Berghahn Books. Reprint of article in Focaal.

2010 “In Praise of Traitors: Intimacy, Betrayal and the Sri Lankan Tamil Community” in S. Thiranagama and T. Kelly (eds) Traitors: Suspicion, Intimacy and the Ethics of State-Building. University of Pennsylvania Press.2010. Traitors: Suspicion, Intimacy and the Ethics of State-Building Co-Edited

with Tobias Kelly. University of Pennsylvania Press.

2011 In My Mother’s House: Civil War in Sri Lanka. Foreword by Gananath Obeysekere, University of Pennsylvania Press, ‘“The Self at a Time of War”, Special issue “The Self in South Asia”, Mookherjee, N (ed). Journal for Historical Sociology Vol 25, No.1.

“Sharika Thiranagama: A Talk, A Book and More,” 10 April 2012,

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