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Thileepan: the reckoning that non-violence didn’t stand a chance – by Usha S Sri Skanda Rajah

The 26th of September 1987 will remain collectively etched in the minds of Eelam Tamils as the day of reckoning for them when they realized, agonisingly, that non- violence didn’t stand a chance in their quest to liberate their homeland: It had already been established that non-violence had no chance 26 years before that on the 17th of April 1961 and ever since that day, when a peaceful civil- disobedience campaign, organised to protest a highly discriminatory law enacted against Eelam Tamils, was crushed, using excessive force in a vicious display of abuse of power.

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The 26th of September 1987, was the day, Thileepan, the political head of the LTTE for the Jaffna district breathed his last, making the ultimate sacrifice for what he believed was a cause far bigger than his life. Thileepan had undertaken a fast-unto-death, calling on India to fulfill its pledge based on a “gentleman’s agreement” towards “setting up an interim government” on an understanding reached earlier, between the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Velupillai Pirapaharan and the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. The promise was given verbally, on trust, on the latter’s prompting, that took place at the Prime Minister residence, one that he promised to keep. It was given on the understanding LTTE would cooperate with the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and would lay down its arms.

ThileepanThe story of Thileepan is inspiring as well as heart-rending, gut-wrenching as well soul-stirring – it’s the story of a Tamil Freedom Fighter, who died a martyr, not by fighting as an armed combatant but by embracing non-violence – all for the noble cause of the freedom of Tamil Eelam – it’s about a young man who fought a courageous fight to move if not spur both the Indian and Sri Lankan governments into action. A story that stands as a grim reminder and a clear illustration that non-violence didn’t stand a chance in seeking basic demands for Tamils – those demands that were tied to their legitimate rights and aspirations.
Thileepan had made five demands and died without his demands being met.

Thileepan laid down his weapon, embraced non-violence and began his fast on 15, September, 1987, denying himself food and water, waiting in vain for some reassurance from Indian officials, namely J. N Dixit Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and died on 26, September, 1987. Neither did Mr. Dixit visit Thileepan nor were any assurances given on the “interim government” that was promised.

Thileepan’s Five Demands were:

1. All Tamils detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act should be released.

2. The colonisation of Sinhalese in Tamil areas under the guise of rehabilitation should be stopped.

3. All such rehabilitation should be stopped until an interim government is formed.

4. The Sri Lankan government should stop opening new Police stations and camps in the NorthEastern province.

5. The Sri Lankan Army and Police should withdraw from schools in Tamil villages and the weapons given by the Sri Lankan government to ‘home guards’ should be withdrawn under the supervision of the Indian army.

The conversation between Rajiv Gandhi and the LTTE leader on the subject of an “interim government” is well documented in the book: ‘War and Peace – Armed Struggle and Peace Efforts of Liberation Tigers’ by Anton Balasingam, who was himself witness to what transpired:

Promising to speak to President “Jayewardane to persuade him not to hold a referendum” on the proposed merger of the North and East, which was a sticking point in the Accord for the LTTE leader, for he didn’t like the fact that the merger was subjected to a referendum, Rajiv Gandhi told the LTTE leader, “You must trust the Government of India, we are genuinely committed to promote the interests of your people.”
ThileepanThe “defect and flaws” in the Accord, in particular its failure to sufficiently define the powers and functions devolved to the Provincial Councils (a set of proposals negotiated between 4May 1986 and 19, December 1986 between the governments of Sri Lanka and India and the TULF leaders were recommended as the basis for the settlement – which the LTTE leader had already intimated he would not accept) was a bone of contention for the LTTE leader. Rajiv Gandhi admitting to the flaws and the time required to establish the Provincial Council, proceeded to reassure the LTTE leader he is prepared to, “enter into a secret agreement regarding the formation of an interim government in the Tamil region” until such time the Provincial Council is formed:
“We are aware of the fact that your organisation as well as your people do not trust President Jayewardane. Personally I don’t trust him either. Yet we have extracted major concessions from and formulated this Accord by exerting heavy pressure. There may be defects in the Provincial Councils Scheme. Nevertheless we can negotiate and improve upon it, enhancing the powers of regional autonomy. You should realise that it will be impossible to implement the provincial scheme immediately. It will take a long time. During that period we can set up an interim government in the NorthEast, in which your organisation can play a predominant role. I am prepared to enter into a secret agreement with you regarding the formation of an interim government in the Tamil region,” he said

Thileepan felt betrayed the “interim government” which was to function under LTTE control promised by Rajiv Gandhi was not materialising even after LTTE laid down its arms. In his “We Love India” speech on the 4th of August, the LTTE Leader spoke to the Tamil people over the concerns he had with the Indo-SriLanka Accord. Nevertheless he said, “the Indian Prime Minister has given me certain pledges. He has offered to guarantee the security of our people. I trust his sincerity. I have faith in his assurances. We trust that the government of India will not allow the Sinhalese racist state to resume genocidal violence against out people. It is because of this trust that we have decided to lay down our weapons to the Indian Peace keeping Force.”

The LTTE leader’s “We Love India” speech extracts of which is given below needs to be read to appreciate his concerns, the extent to which the LTTE leader placed his trust in India and was ready to lay down arms and give non-violence a chance :
“My beloved and esteemed people of Tamil Eelam…Having convinced me that the Indian Prime Minister desired to meet me, I was taken to Delhi in a hurry. The Agreement was shown to us when we reached Delhi. There was a lot of flaws and defects in the Agreement. We doubt whether the Agreement will bring a permanent settlement to the problems of our people. Therefore we explained to the government of India that we cannot accept this Agreement. But the Indian government was firmly determined to implement the Agreement whether we opposed it or not. ..We are not surprised over the position of the Indian government. The Agreement is not primarily concerned about the Tamil question. It is essentially a bi-lateral agreement concerned with Indo-Srilanka relations. There are obligations in the Agreement that bind Sri Lanka to Indian geo-strategic influence. It prevents the penetration into Sri Lanka external subversive forces inimical to Indian interests. It is for this reason that India showed extraordinary interest in the Agreement. At the same time this Agreement contains elements that determine the political destiny of Eelam Tamils. That is why we are strongly opposed to the Agreement, since it was concluded without taking into consideration our views and the opinions of our people. But our protests are meaningless when a mighty super power is determined to decide the political destiny of our people, it is beyond our ability do anything. The Agreement directly affects the political projects of our liberation organisation. It affects the mode of our struggle. It attempts to put an end to our armed struggle. The mode of our heroic struggle, fought for the last 15 years and built on the blood and sacrifice of our fighters is to be dismantled in a few days time. This we cannot digest. This agreement suddenly disarms us without providing adequate time. Without getting the consent of our fighters. Without offering guarantees for the safety and security of our people. Therefore we refused to lay down arms. ..It was in these circumstances the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi invited me for discussions. I told him frankly about problems. I confided to the Indian Prime Minister that I do not repose the slightest trust in the Sinhala racist state, nor do I believe that the Sinhalese will implement the agreement. I spoke to him of the issue of security of our people and the guarantees for their safety. The Indian Prime Minister has given me certain pledges. He has offered to guarantee the security of our people. I trust his sincerity. I have faith in his assurances. We trust that the government of India will not allow the Sinhalese racist state to resume genocidal violence against out people. it is because of this trust that we have decided to lay down our weapons to the Indian Peace keeping Force…. The weapons we took up and deployed for your safety and protection, for your liberation, for your emancipation we now entrust to the Indian government. From the very moment we hand over our weapons, we hand over the responsibility of protecting our people to India. In receiving our weapons from us, the only means of protection for the Eelam Tamils, the Indian government takes over from us the tremendous responsibility of protecting our people…The handing over of arms signifies the handing over the transfer of this responsibility. Were we not to hand over our weapons, we would be placed in a perilous situation of clashing with the Indian army. We do not want that. We love India. We love the people of India. We are not prepared to deploy our arms against Indian soldiers.. ”

Anton Balasingam describes in his book ‘War and Peace’ LTTE’s disappointment in Delhi’s failure to “setup the promised interim administrative authority” despite them having laid down their arms as a “gesture of cooperation” and handed over the “tremendous responsibility” of protecting the Tamil people to India.
Not only that, what happened after the Accord was signed on 29th July 1987, was entirely unexpected and did most certainly infuriate and frustrate the LTTE leadership.
It saddened Thileepan and affected him so deeply that he vowed to fast-unto-death unless India fulfilled its pledges:
“There were no initiatives from the government of India. In the mean time the Sri Lanka government opened up new police stations in the NorthEast consolidating the state’s law and order machinery in the Tamil homeland. The Sinhala colonisation schemes intensified with the backing of the government. The funds assured by the Indian Prime Minister for the administration of the LTTE structures were discontinued after one month’s instalment. The issue that deeply disturbed the LTTE leadership was the arrival in Tamil Eelam from India of a large number of armed cadres from the EPRLF, PLOTE and TELO. They were freshly trained and armed by RAW. While clandestine boat landings of EPRLF and PLOTE members took place on the East coast at night TELO cadres occupied some coastal villages in Mannar. The penetration of these armed groups hostile to the LTTE posed a serious threat to the security of the Tamil Tigers. There were attacks in which the LTTE suffered casualties. The IPKF refused to take action when the matter was brought to their attention. As time passed in a political vacuum Pirapaharan became agitated and frustrated.
Thileepan a popular political leader in Jaffna and a person well acquainted with the pledges given by the Indian Prime Minister in the form of a gentleman’s agreement undertook a fast-unto-death to mobilise public protest against India’s failure to fulfill its assurances.”
As Thileepan lay dying, the LTTE leader knew he had to persuade Mr. Dixit to visit him and give Thileepan the guarantees he was asking. But Mr. Dixit believed there was a conspiracy against him and the government of India and Thileepan’s fast was designed to provoke “anti-Indian sentiments”. Although the LTTE leader and he (Anton Balasingam) tried to allay his fears, Mr. Dixit wasn’t convinced, as was revealed in his book: ‘Assignment Colombo’, Anton Balasingam writes. Had Mr. Dixit actually visited Thileepan he could have saved Thileepan’s life and, “Indo-LTTE relations would not have been strained,” he further opines:
“When Pirapaharan and I met Mr. Dixit at the IPKF headquarters at Palaly, Thileepan was on the threshold of death. We pleaded with the Indian envoy to visit the young fighter and assure him that India would fulfill the pledges given to the LTTE and request him to break his fast. Dixit rejected our genuine plea fearing there was conspiracy behind our invitation. On this issue he writes: ‘IPKF and our intelligence sources had informed me that the plan was to take me to Thileepan at the Nallur Kandasamy Temple, subject me to a massive anti-Agreement and anti-Indian demonstration and then reject my request with a lot of publicity about the Indian High Commissioner’s efforts being spurned. It was clear in my mind I would not subject the government of India to such a humiliation’ There was no plan to humiliate Mr. Dixit or the government of India. It was simply a figment of his imagination. If the Indian diplomat has visited Thileepan and assured him that Delhi would fulfill the pledges the tragedy of his death would have been avoided and Indo-LTTE relations would not have been strained.”
The irony of all ironies here is that ‘non-violence’, or ‘Ahimsa’ the weapon used by India to liberate itself from a colonial power had neither any impact, nor value, nor did it make a difference, let alone prick the conscience of men for whom it should have meant something – unlike a woman from a neighbouring country, Sri Lanka for whom it understandably failed to impress for it may have not meant anything.
The Satyagraha Movement

The early reckoning that non-violence wouldn’t work became clear when a civil-disobedience campaign in 1961 led by the leader of the Federal Party, organised to protest against the move to making “Sinhala the de facto official and administrative language of the country” (including the adoption of a motion making Sinhala the language of the House of Parliament), was met with violence by the newly elected government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. These actions amounted to a vicious abuse of power, involving the exercise of emergency rule, that shut the door on any negotiations with the Tamil leadership in the most undemocratic and autocratic manner. S Sivananyagam in his book ‘Sri Lanka – Witness to History’ writes:
Chelva sathyagraha“On January 1, 1961 Sinhala became the sole official language of the country under the terms of the Official Language Act .. On January 22, the Federal Party at its convention called on the population of the North and East to picket government offices, refusing to cooperate with officials conducting business and to resist the teaching of Sinhala in schools in the two provinces.. On February 20 began the 2nd phase of the non-violent agitation, which was soon to encompass the entire population the north and east, including Muslims… “By April 24, Chelvanayagam and 58 others, including 14 MPs were under arrest ..although Mr. Sivasithamparam was spared. ..”Jaffna came under virtual army occupation. Communication links with the rest of the island (and with the rest of the outside world) were cut off. Postal, Telegraphic, Telephonic and train and bus services were suspended. With Military trucks and jeeps plying constantly and at high speed, towns and streets were deserted. Undisciplined, trigger-happy soldiers shot dead and injured persons outside curfew hours on the pretence of enforcing the curfew. Shops were robbed of soft drinks cigarettes and eatables. Meek requests for payment was met with amused taunts, “get the money from Chelvanayagam. Soldiers made fun of passing cyclists, harassed and humiliated pedestrians and in some instances attempted to molest women even within their homes at the point of a gun. During curfew hours residents were ordered to put off the lights…Despite the upsurge of Tamil national feeling represented the high-watermark of Tamil unity and collective passive resistance it was to end in failure…”

It took Thileepan’s death for Mr. Dixit to persuade Jayawardane to “institute an Interim Administrative Authority” and there was agreement on powers, functions and composition; but there was serious disagreement on the choice of Chief Administrator. However the, “arrests of two senior LTTE commanders Pulendiran and Kumarappa and fifteen high ranking cadres by the Sri Lankan Navy and their mass suicide in custody at the Palaly Air-Base was a tragedy of immense consequences.” Although Mr. Dixit at first was confident he could secure the release of the LTTE commanders and cadres he failed because, “Mr. Athulathmuthali, Sri Lanka’s Minister of National Security was firm in his demand that the LTTE cadres should be taken to Colombo for interrogation,” and the IPKF also refused to intervene, despite the, “arrests being a violation of the Accord as all cadres were given a general amnesty after the LTTE had laid down its arms,” Anton Balasingam writes.
According to Anton Balasingam this was, “the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of the tense relations between India and the Tigers.”
Writing this article has affected me emotionally, as most of my articles do. It led me to re- read three books that I consider essential reading to understand the Tamil Freedom Struggle. Under my article I have included selected extracts to whet people’s appetite and recommend they read them. I am also pleased to inform everyone that a film on Thileepan directed by Anand Murthy @AanMur: ‘The Life and Death of a Martyr’ is in the making, hope you would support it.
I like to conclude by quoting from Adele Balasingam’s ‘Will to Freedom’ on Thileepan’s final journey:
“Small candle lit shrines housing Thileepan’s picture was set up in front of every house in the village (Valvettiturai) as they were throughout the Peninsula. Plaited dry coconut leaves, the traditional Tamil decoration indicating mourning strung from post to post, fringed roadsides; funeral music blared from the loudspeakers of temples and schools. Thileepan’s ravaged body was dressed in full military uniform draped in the insignia of the LTTE. The garland bedecked funeral cortege had moved slowly from village to village through out the Peninsula to pay their profound respect to this legendry martyr. The sombre beat of the military drums heralded the movement of the cortege from its resting place through the village to its next destination. As Thileepan’s open cortege crept through the main village road for the last time I stood silently with the crowd to pay my final salute to a young man whose fast and sacrifice had surpassed that of the Guru of Satyagraha, Mahatma Gandhi himself. Thileepan transcended Gandhi in his act of self denial by refusing not only food but fluids also.”
Thileepan’s last words:

“I am confident our people will one day achieve their freedom. It gives me great satisfaction and contentment that I am fulfilling a national responsibility to the nation”

-Thileepan-
1960-1987

In your light we shall travel…I promise.