Groundviews

Of Tamils and Tigers (Part I and II, by Ben Bavinck) and Palmyra Fallen (by Rajan Hoole)

Picture courtesy panoramio

The following is a commentary on the books “Of Tamils and Tigers” [part I and II] and “Palmyra Fallen”

These three books are essential reading for those interested in the events in the North and East of this Island, and their impact on the people of that region as well as on national reconciliation. I am not attempting a review of these books. That would be much too big a task for me to take on. I found these 1000 pages most rewarding, and will go on to offer some comments in the hope that these comments will not only be useful but also encourage many others to secure these books (available at Vijitha Yapa) and invest time and energy in reading them. The information and analysis in these books not only help us to know and understand the past and the present, but also serve as a guide to the future. These books will also serve as incomparable sources of reference for many decades.

Ben Bavinck was a Dutch missionary who served with great dedication for nearly three decades in Jaffna and for a few more years attached to the National Christian Council in providing relief to those affected by the on-going civil war. He passed away in his home in Amsterdam in 2011. His two books are edited translations from his diaries that he recorded in Dutch. He had the fluency to record them in English or Tamil. But he opted to write in Dutch so as to protect those who he named in the event that any part of the diary leaked prematurely.

We had many conversations over the years and on one occasion he gave me vivid details of the incident concerning the Muslim policeman who was shot by the LTTE along with hundreds of Sinhalese and Muslim policemen who has surrendered to the LTTE on the orders of President Premadasa. The few Tamil policemen among them were beaten up and chased away but not killed. The Muslim policemen referred to received a bullet to the head and fell, but had the sense to stay still and pretend to be dead. The Tigers had kept watch for some hours and anyone who showed signs of life was immediately shot dead. After a few hours, when he was sure that the Tigers had left, he got up and wandered into the countryside and stumbled into the home of a Tamil farming family.

He was still fearful but decided to tell them details of the circumstances in which he was injured. Fortunately that family was kind and helpful. They dressed his head wound, helped him to bathe, gave him fresh clothes, burnt his police uniform and provided him with food. They also showed him the direction in which he should progress to reach the closest Army checkpoint. It was there that he met Ben Bavinck and got a ride with him to Colombo. He told Ben Bavinck of what had happened and also expressed appreciation of the kindness of the farming family.

I urged Ben to publish this story since it highlighted both the racism and kindness among the different ethnic groups. Ben does not mention it, he may not have been then aware, but we learnt from Rajan’s book that some non-Tamil service personnel had hunted Tamil policemen spared by the LTTE and killed them. Ben undertook to publish the story and had included an outline of the incident in one of his books, but without details that would reveal the identity of vulnerable persons, notably the Muslim policeman and the farming family.

Rajan’s book is a heavier reading and less personal than Ben’s semi-autobiographical diaries. Those who have read Broken Palmyra that Rajan co-authored and his earlier monograph Arrogance of power would have come to expect this new monograph to contain an incredible wealth of information, well-argued and analysed. There are also some Mathematical formulae and equations which those who are unfamiliar with the subject can skip without losing any essential part of the argument. Rajan appears to have the benefit of some reliable, tried and tested informants who have supplied him with an amazing array of data that may not be available in any other publication.

Connecting with Ben’s books and Rajan’s book is a deep appreciation of the late Dr. Rajani Thiranagama and a firm orientation towards human rights and non-violence; whereas Ben’s books were edited by him and the Rajani Thiranagama Memorial Committee, Rajan’s book is dedicated to Rajani Thiranagama as evident by the subtitle, ‘From Rajani to War’s end’, the full page colour photograph on the opening page and repeated reference to her ideals throughout the text.

It is not surprising that neither the LTTE nor the last Tamil militant groups in Jaffna who actively violated the law liked independent minded human rights activists including Rajani and Rajan. It is also not surprising that the Vice Chancellor of Jaffna Snr Prof. Vasanthy Arasaratnam, who owes her office to Douglas Devananda, tried hard to suppress that discussion and release of the book at the Kailasapathy or any other Auditorium within the University premises. The University Grant’s Commission (UGC) Chairman informed me that that he was a batch mate of Rajani’s; and it took his intervention to reverse the Vice Chancellor’ s prohibition, and enabled the discussion and book release to proceed in the Jaffna University Library Auditorium. The war years saw militant groups trying to use the University for their narrow ends and the LTTE used terror to attain its ends, while the EPDP used the power it acquired at top government level to enforce abusive practices in the Administration of the Jaffna University. It is to be hoped that the Jaffna University will recover from these links and become at least an equal of the other Universities of the country in the near future.

The two books by Ben Bavinck and the book By Rajan Hoole need to be read widely and preserved as sources of reference for future generations.