Issues, Peace and Conflict

The Storyteller

I first met him in 2004 and liked him immediately. His storytelling was a joy to experience. On our journeys up to Jaffna, the 10 hours would fly as he shared his stories from his salad days with my cousins at St Johns, his work for Home for Human Rights or his take on this politician or that.

The story that sticks in my mind is of how he entered politics. When he had to attend the funeral of his former colleague and at the same time to throw in his lot with mayoral politics in Jaffna, his mother refused to let him leave the house. The mother’s anxiety over her son’s decision was understandable. He belonged at that time to the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and the irreparable gulf between it and the Tigers meant that he was taking a massive risk: the previous two mayors and one mayoral aspirant had all been assassinated. So the story goes, his mother knowing that her son strictly observed Hindu customs and rituals, positioned herself in front of the doorway, her legs blocking his path. Hindu custom dictates that you should refrain from crossing over someone else’s legs, especially those of your mother. This put him in a dilemma: to ignore his mother’s wishes and commit a grave sin against her or go to Jaffna to sign up as mayor. For hours he agonised and when it finally came to leaving for the airport, he crossed over to take the first steps of his political career.

It ended on Friday, 10 November 2006 when Raviraj and his bodyguard Lucky were gunned down on their way to the law courts. The previous day he had protested in front of the UN Head Office in Colombo against the killing of 47 refugees in Vaharai by government forces.

Raviraj’s courage in taking up the post of mayor of Jaffna, despite the obvious dangers, is something many people still admire. He was only twenty eight years old, but played it smart and survived. He told me once that certain individuals helped him stay alive through anonymous telephone calls and letters. One had been a young man that he had helped to release in a case brought under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Ironically, the young man, clearly frustrated over the treatment meted out during his ordeal with the authorities, had subsequently joined the Tigers! Later he had called Raviraj to question his allegiances and to find out why he had taken up the post of mayor. Raviraj explained simply: “thambi this is something I have to do”. Raviraj would then receive telephone calls from this young man from time to time: “Don’t go to Jaffna this month”, “Stay away from Chavakachcheri next week”. It would continue like this. Modestly, Raviraj put his survival during his days as mayor to these unusual contacts.

Raviraj had this seemingly boundless energy. He managed to live up to Kipling’s standard for a man, filling each unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, his schedule filled to the brim. He somehow managed to juggle his parliamentary duties, human rights work and peace advocacy. But making sure that he didn’t miss the arangetram of a neighbour’s daughter or stop to advise an old lady on how a dispute over a common well could be resolved.

Once we were having lunch at a small kade off the A9. An old man came up to Raviraj and to him in Sinhala about a debate on Sirasa. He said he appreciated the work that Raviraj was doing in trying to bring communities together. That was the last time I saw him.