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Remembering the Krishanthi Kumaraswamy case

Featured image courtesy UK Tamil News

On the  7th of September 1996, around six in the morning, a girl in her late teens stood in front of the portrait of Goddess Saraswathie that was hanging askew on the wall. Here she stood erect, with closed eyes and clasped hands, in contemplation for a few minutes. There was a special reason for her to ask for favours from this Goddess on this particular day.

She was in the midst of the G.C.E (A/L) examination, and on this particular day in less than four hours she would be answering her Chemistry Multiple Choice paper. Needless to say among the pantheon of Hindu deities Saraswathie was identified since she was the Goddess of learning.

The girls name was Krishanthi Kumaraswamy and she attended Chundukuli Girls’ College, a prestigious school for girls, in Jaffna. On this morning her mother cobbled together a meal from what was available at that early hour. Krishanthi had only a small portion of the meal as she was never hungry enough for a full breakfast. Following breakfast the girl flicked through the notes, in condensed form, she had prepared for last minute revision. Around 7.15 a.m. the girl, attired in her white school uniform, red tie, socks and shoes took her red bicycle outside the house and walked towards the road, twenty meters from the house. Mother followed daughter up the road, wished her ‘good luck’ and watched her mount the bicycle and literally fly away, until she lost sight of the girl.

The name of the affectionate mother was Rasammah Kumaraswamy. She was 59 years of age and a graduate of a prominent Indian university. In 1996 she was serving as vice principal of a school at Kaithady, where her house was located. She was blessed with three
children. The eldest daughter, Prashanthi, was living in Colombo pursuing a course that would lead towards a professional qualification, her second daughter Krishanthi who was now in the midst of an examination; and the youngest Pranavan, a boy going on sixteen awaiting G.C.E (O/L) examination results. Rasammah became a widow in 1984 and to her, life had no purpose if not for these children.

That day when she lost sight of Krishanthi on her bicycle, Rasammah made a beeline to the Hindu temple a few metres away from her house. At the temple she made an offering that didn’t take much time. This was a Saturday, a nonworking day, the lady had plenty of time on her hands. On her way back from the temple she spent a few minutes at a fellow teacher’s house and around 8.15 a.m. left that place. Rasammah directly went home. She was fasting that morning, she did forgo her breakfast and the next meal for her would be lunch. This she would partake with Krishanthi and her son, who had gone to his private tutor’s residence.

Rasammah was aware that day her daughter’s examination was supposed to commence at 9.30 a.m. and finish by 11.30 a.m. Therefore, she anticipated that her daughter would arrive home by 12.30 p.m. or at the latest by one in the afternoon. In a jiffy she made an elaborate vegetarian lunch and waited for her daughter. As there was no sign of Krishanthi’s arrival or any explanation for the delay a twitchy mother kept walking, to and fro, between the house and the road. Rasammah expressed her concern to her elder sister, Sivapakiam, who lived alone next door and spent the night with her. In desperation the nonplussed mother came towards the gate and remained riveted to the spot with several thoughts crossing her mind.

This was the moment Kirubamoorthi, a person well known to Kumaraswamy family, came towards Rasammah and informed the dreadful news he had learnt from someone. The alarming news was that Krishanthi had been detained by the army at the Chemmani security check point. Grasping the gravity of the situation Rasammah decided to go in search of her daughter, without dilly-dallying, a decision chimed in by Kirubamoorthi. The boy, Pranavan,who arrived short time ago from the tutor’s residence, placed his mother on the pillion of his bicycle, and followed by Kirubamoorthi who was also on his bicycle, rode towards an army check point located in the vicinity of a cremation ground.

Neither Krishanthi nor the other three – mother, brother and Kirubamoorthi – returned to Kaithady that night.

Two relations of the Kumaraswamy family left Kaithady on the following morning to bring this to the notice of Chief Post Master, Jaffna, Kodeshwaran. Kodeshwaran was considered by the locals as a person who kept his ear to the ground. After listening to what the two from Kaithady stated Kodeshwaran felt in a situation of this nature the first port of call should be the nearest military camp. Therefore, these two persons accompanied by Kodeshwaran, went to the Pungankulam military camp and made a complaint about the missing persons. This was done within 24 hours of Krishanthi’s detention.

The post master, also being a kinsman of the Kumaraswamy family, strained every nerve and sinew to find out what exactly happened to Krishanthi and the three who went in search of her. The army officers from Jaffna, maintained that the ‘soldiers knew nothing of the disappearance’. Kodeshwaran also spoke to the police and got a nephew of his to provide the police information about sighting the bicycle chain cover of Pranavan – the school boy, who went with the others in search of his sister. The post master’s nephew had seen this chain cover at a cycle repair shop close to the Chemmani military check point.

At the time when these persons went missing Jaffna was under direct control of the military.

The area was a tightly knit network of a myriad of check points and camps. Therefore it remained baffling as to why the local security personnel allowed this to remain shrouded in mystery for more than a month.

National newspapers didn’t bother to even report this matter. To journalists associated with the national media writing anything against the military establishment would be tantamount to an ‘unpatriotic’ act.

With nothing positive being heard from Jaffna Mr.T. Poopalan, an unswerving human rights lawyer from Colombo, did whatever possible to highlight the incident. He contacted a Member of Parliament, Joseph Pararajasingham, to raise the matter in Parliament. Poopalan also contacted several important persons including the President Mrs Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaranatunga. The President, naturally, shocked by what she heard, ordered the authorities to conduct an investigation immediately and bring the miscreants to book.

Following directions from the President a military police investigation unit headed by Lt.Col. Gunaratne was sent to Jaffna. Though most of those served at the Chemmani post, on the day Krishanthi went missing were deployed elsewhere, they were brought to Jaffna for interrogation.

Many of them admitted to raping the school girl. They also admitted killing Krishanthi, Rasamma, Pranavan and Kirubamoorthi. Based on the information elicited from them, 45 days after the persons went missing, in the presence of the local Magistrate all four bodies were exhumed, a few metres away from the Chemmani check point where Krishanthi was detained. Subsequent to exhumation, all persons arrested including the Lance Corporal in charge of the check point were taken to Colombo.

Based on the evidence gathered Attorney General indicted these military and police personnel before a three member High court Bench. The trial at bar comprised of Judges Nimal Disanayake (president), Andrew Somawansa and Gamini Abeyratne. At the trial it
came to light most of the accused persons gang raped and killed the school girl. It also came to light that these criminal elements by killing the other three persons thought they erred on the side of caution by obliterating any trace of evidence, a ploy frequently attributed in Sri
Lanka to military establishment to cover wrong doing.

This complex trial lasted several months and at the end Judges found five soldiers and a police constable guilty of a several charges including rape and murder. Some government politicians of that period hailed the outcome of the trial as a commitment on their part to human rights and rule of law. However the disappearance of Krishanthi and others wouldn’t have been investigated if not for President  Kumaratunga’s directions.

Ironically,the slaughter of 25 Tamils following the soldiers going on a shooting spree at Kumarapuram, six months prior to Krishanthi’s disappearance, didn’t receive the same attention. While the Chemmani trial concluded within two years of the incident, the Kumarapuram trial, in contrast, took twenty years. The inordinate delay reminds one of the often quoted maxim “Justice delayed is justice denied.”