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Anbudan, the Memory Remains Forever

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[…] ”Sometimes tears flow uncontrollably and I cannot work anymore. I know I want to be strong, I want to call my historical strength as a woman. I want to remember and hold onto memories of women who conquered the inability and pain… I cannot leave this small country, its belly constricted by hunger and mind blurred by pain. One day some gun will silence me and it will not be held by an outsider — but by a son — born in the womb of this very society, from a woman with whom my history is shared. You know how powerful it is to prove negative that women like me have not the courage to stay and fight — I want to prove that ordinary women like me have enormous courage and power. That there are in the world steel women.” […]

(Excerpt from a written letter by Dr. Rajani Thiranagama on the 15th of September 1989, one week before her death)

The assassination of Dr. Rajani Thiranagama on the 21st of September 1989 in Kokuvil, is one of many painful accounts which reflect the climate of oppression towards ordinary civilians who had committed themselves to challenge and critique the ever increasing social demise of integrity and courage. It mirrors in an unmistakable manner what dissidents of armed forces and military actors, such as intellectuals, feminists and activists dared to oppose in the totalitarian and authoritarian policies placed on Tamil speaking communities of the time. The same policies which Dr. Rajani Thiranagama herself had opposed it. She was, according to those in the Diaspora who have come across her life or death during their studies and based on the publications and reports such as those by UTHR (Jaffna), a human rights initiative of which she was one of the founders, never indifferent to the nature of radical posture compared to those who are responsible for her death but the important distinction was that she fought at the side of the ordinary civilians to transform their realities which made them cannon fodder for state forces and the movement. She is often described as someone who tried to forge integrity together with the people instead of without them.

Although many claim that it would be too uncertain to know who killed Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, it would certainly be clear upon closer sociological examination, as to why she was killed on the order of the L.T.T.E.  Her unconditional commitment in solidarity with the oppressed civilians within someone else’s war was ended cowardly because of her dedication towards a just and democratic society including her eye-opening contribution for “Broken Palmyra”. A warning to those who dared to contrast the totalitarian and authoritarian policies which had been established within the Tamil speaking communities in the North at that time. With her assassination, Dr. Thiranagama’s killers tried to erase one of the pillars of the much needed pedagogical social work in Jaffna, a loving and caring sister of the oppressed from all parts of society. Little did they know that they have since achieved precisely the opposite of what they had hoped for with her death; if one considers how many in Sri Lanka and the Diaspora have dedicated themselves to the same groundwork as hers even decades after her death. 

Many might have been wondering why she was killed after all, an act which stands in contradiction to the tradition of patriarchal bragging that followed behind such assassinations during those times. This questioning exposes the lack of understanding in the importance of her dedication in social responsibility to question the unjust conditions of the ordinary civilians. Indeed, Dr. Thiranagama did something which was unacceptable for the oppressor.

It remained ultimately unanswered because those who cowardly killed her or those, her own students, who had provided the information on which basis she was killed have chosen to remain publicly silent. 

Why should she, out of all the people who have died in the North during the armed conflict or the numerous Anti-Tamil pogroms in the past, be exclusively remembered or commemorated considering the tens of thousands killed and disappeared is a recurring question which many nationalists from all parties of war throw at those who have committed themselves to ensure that Dr. Rajani Thiranagama’s work and her death shall not be forgotten by generations to come. 

It is perhaps safe to say that Dr. Rajani Thiranagama examined and understood the danger of a society in which the desire to align towards the role of an oppressor grew significantly. She must have seen by her own lived experiences that it was crucial for the survival of a society to reject the notion of duality and replace it with responsibility for equal autonomy, that love and freedom certainly were no gifts by destiny but committed and lived attitudes shaped by democratic and whole human values. She supported the oppressed to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well, by using their heart and words as weapons instead of bullets. She apparently realised that the power from the weakness of the oppressed will be needed to free both, to ultimately achieve some form of sustainable coexistence. Therefore, any attempt to weaken the power of the various oppressors to achieve autonomy of the oppressed outside of the duality in oppression always invited the oppressor to perpetuate injustice; as it was the case with Selvanithy Thiagarajah where the L.T.T.E. was generous enough to admit to have executed her in one of their prison camps. The unjust social policies of the Tigers and armed state forces was the foundation of this “generosity,” which was repetitively fed with death, dispersal and further oppression. This is why the various ‘armed wielders of power’ over the Northern communities at that time became desperate in the face of any form of love or kindness as a threat to its source of dominance.

“A life is a life. Whoever takes life must be exposed independently of party feeling. We wanted to show that in the first place, we valued life”, to quote her in order to understand the foundation of the forgotten courage of their times. She always stood by the side of the oppressed not the oppressors, but at the same time she challenged the oppressors with humanity and humility; valuing every life. 

Any situation in which the Tigers aggressively exploited its ordinary civilians or hindered their quest for self-affirmation as responsible and courageous beings was a situation of oppression. A kind of a situation which represented violence in itself, even if it was covered up by constructed benevolence paired with a romantic notion towards the cause. By establishing the same relationship of oppression, violence had already commenced. In fact, how is it possible that they became violent when they themselves were the result of violence? How could they be the promoters of something whose objective enactment gave rise to their existence as the oppressed? There would be no oppressed if there had not previously been a situation of violence that gave rise to their chains. Ultimately, violence is brought upon by those who oppress, exploit and do not acknowledge others as equal beings and not by those who are being oppressed, utilised and denied recognition. It is not the unloved who cause dissatisfaction, but those who cannot love because they only are exclusively infatuated with themselves. It is the helpless who are subjected to terror, but the violent who create the specific situation through their power that produces its dissence. It is not the tyrannised who initiate tyranny, it is the tyrants. It is not the scorned who cause hatred, but those who scorn. It is not those who are denied humanity but those who deny humanity and thus deny their own humanity. Violence is not exercised by those who have become weak under the supremacy of the strong, but by the strong who have dehumanised them.

The violence of the oppressors certainly prevented the oppressed from being fully human, making their reaction to its violence motivate their desire to pursue the right to be free. The moment the oppressors dehumanised unconditionally others for dissent and violated their right to freely express contrary opinions on the “national question”, they dehumanised themselves. If the cause of the Tigers was the desire to become fully free, they could not achieve it by merely reversing the terms of the contradiction; by simply changing the poles of oppression. The circumstances around Dr. Rajani Thiranagama’s assassination must and will be an important reminder for future generations in order to shape a just and equal society which is shaped by a tolerance of ambiguity rather than an intolerance to individual identities and lived experiences. Experiences similar to those which Dr. Thiranagama and many like minded and courageous people of their times worked and fought relentlessly for, fully aware that like their own shadows death is constantly following them wherever they go.

Dr. Rajani Thiranagama saw as a strong feminist particularly in the globally historic women’s struggles by surviving with dignity and autonomy, a crucial drive for the support of oppressed people within her own communities. It is because of this that many nationalists are still trying to either talk her death down as collateral damage for the bigger cause or oppress her life even after death by manipulating the narratives of the events surrounding her assassination. There is this chronic fear of violence which is still to this day for many Tamil speaking communities an ever present companion in their lives, especially for those in the Diaspora. Many Tamils fled from the island because of such a climate in fear following the Anti-Tamil pogrom in July 1983 and its long lasting aftermath but the fear remained and is still very present. This time it comes from descendants of ignorance within the narrow minded Diaspora. This everlasting plague of fear has only become manifested by the same dominant tolerance of ignorance as it has caught Dr. Thiranagama. The majority of displaced Tamil speaking communities of Sri Lanka are to a degree sociologically still very isolated and silent individuals without a sense of community and unity. An invisible majority. 

Strong values and courageous integrity against hypocrisy and injustice are most definitely quintessential assets in the task of abolishing oppression and inequality. Civil courage is the essence for the desired social change. May the life and work of Dr. Rajani Thiranagama be one of the many unforgettable reminders and motivations to establish these values again, in consideration of our individual strength and capacity.

now,

we don’t know about you

but we don’t think 

the primary purpose of lives 

in our plural communities 

and its entirety 

of our displaced, dead 

and disappeared loved ones

is ultimately to blindingly trust,

to support any oppression

and its corrupt system

of mental occupation

forever and ever 

until we finally run out of 

decency and dignity,

peace and harmony

and have to resort 

to become deaf and blind

to ensure our survival

we don’t think 

we’re supposed to 

sit by idle while we 

continue to fear 

an outdated ideology

that only produced space for 

dispersal, death, corruption, 

which ruined all communities 

and still threatens every aspect 

of the people and cultures

while it has done nothing 

but to divide and segregate

we don’t think 

the sisters and brothers

we have celebrated, 

the lives we have ended, 

all the courage we destroyed,

all the critical solutions 

that have been assassinated 

for the so called cause, 

is a good evidence of 

how courageous

our community is today

but we do think 

we have to remember 

the courageous with humility

we’ve lost so brazenly,

those who stood by the weak 

in the misery of oppression

it is time to remember,

time to open closed eyes

so they never can be

just a slowly fading memory 

of loving and caring decency

their love is still here, 

we cannot afford to lose it

we must act with love, 

we must act with courage

our beating hearts are real 

but we cannot afford 

to forget again

to remember our fallen hearts

taken by our own people, 

to remember integrity,

to fear none no more

for our love in dignity.

power will never respect life

and when tomorrow comes

we must remember again

if we fear courage and love,

we’ll lose ourselves

again in fears and

that’s where we 

marginalize needed change

we don’t need a lot

to speak out the truth

about the truth and its lies

who are we fooling, 

we’ve got all the heart

to build a new space

to correct our flaws, 

the immersive labels,

that have cost us

our own loved ones

who were so far out 

of their comfort zones

who stopped, thought, 

who began to revive,

whose voices were on 

the frontline of civil courage

to open our eyes and hearts

so we can save us all

from those who 

we thought protected

and fought for the people

while we still avoid

the path to harmony

physically and mentally

in the homeland and overseas

where no one 

hears us scream

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