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Sri Sabaratnam - Revisited
17 July 1999
Sri Sabaratnam, TELO and the stand for Tamil Eelam at Thimpu...
The question as to the inclusion of the 1987 Sri Sabaratnam Memorial Lecture at the tamilnation website reflects on some matters of general significance to the struggle for an independent Tamil state.
Sri Sabaratnam was one of those who stood trial at the Colombo High Court in 1982/1983 together with Nadarajah Thangathurai, Selvarajah Yogachandran (also known as Kuttimuni).
Nadarajah Thangathurai's statement from the dock on 1 March 1983, remains, 16 years later, a moving political testament of the movement that he had led with simplicity, dignity and clarity:
At the end of that trial in Colombo, I declared:
Nadarajah Thangathurai and Selvarajah Yogachandran were murdered in Welikade jail in 1983. Sri Sabaratnam who had been tried in absentia (and who was not in Welikade jail), survived to lead the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO).
It was at Sri Sabaratnam's request that I participated, on behalf of TELO, at the Thimpu Talks in 1985. I joined the Talks at the Second Phase in August 1985. Before accepting the invitation to lead the TELO delegation to Thimpu, I discussed with Sri Sabaratnam, at some length (for many days) the issues that confronted the struggle - and the stands that we should take at Thimpu. I was particularly anxious that any stand that was taken at Thimpu should be a united one. Sri Sabaratnam remarked to me, in Tamil:
Sri Sabaratnam, spoke as the leader of an organisation which had received military assistance from the Indian Government, but who was also mindful of the serious limitations of being the recipient of such help.
In the article on Tamil Eelam, Kurds & Bhutan that I wrote in July 1985, immediately prior to the Second Phase of the Thimpu Talks, I explored some of the issues that confronted the talks at Thimpu. A copy of the article was handed over to the Indian Foreign Office officials at Thimpu and in it, I said:
Again, the statement that I made on 14 August 1985 at the Thimpu Talks, was a statement that was made on behalf of TELO and it had Sri Sabaratnam's full support. I said:
After the Tamil delegation had walked out of the Thimpu Talks on 17 August 1985, India's Foreign Secretary, Romesh Bhandari sought to browbeat them with a view to getting them back to the table or, in the alternative, to engage in indirect talks with the Sri Lanka delegation. At the confrontation with Romesh Bandhari, that which irked him most was when I declared:
After the confrontation, the only other delegation that supported the stand that I had taken was the delegation from the LTTE led by Lawrence Thilagar. And later in Madras, Sri Sabaratnam gave his open and public support for the stand taken by the TELO delegation at Thimpu.
Where then did Sri Sabaratnam err? Because err, he did...
Where then did Sri Sabaratnam err? Because err, he did.
With India's involvement in the struggle in the 1980s, Sri Sabaratnam relied on Indian support to progress the struggle towards the goal of an independent Tamil Eelam. In this reliance on India, TELO was not alone, though perhaps it is fair to say that during Indira Gandhi's period in office, TELO was New Delhi's favoured son. New Delhi consolidated its links with the Tamil armed resistance by encouraging the belief that Tamil Eelam was round the corner and that India was about 'to do a Bangladesh'.
Though Sri Sabaratnam was not unmindful of India's own foreign policy objectives and the inherent weakness of 'thongura power', he took the view that as TELO built up its strength, it would be in a better position to push forward its demand for Tamil Eelam.
In the end, Sri Sabaratnam failed because he failed to build TELO into a disciplined, strong guerrilla force with the capacity to withstand Indian pressure. He failed because he failed to prevent Indian Agencies from establishing their own direct links with TELO cadres at every level. He failed where Velupillai Pirabaharan succeeded. Velupillai Pirabaharan succeeded not because the LTTE had not obtained assistance from New Delhi but because the LTTE had taken care to build its own strength and in this way secure the integrity of the struggle.
The words of Subhas Chandra Bose about Jawarhalal Nehru come to mind:
LTTE's attack on TELO in 1986 - an attack that raised many questions...
The attack that was launched by the LTTE on TELO in May 1986, was led by Sathasivam Krishnakumar (Kittu). In 1990, at a meeting in London Kittu expressed the view that on reflection, it may have been better if the LTTE attack had been confined to the leadership of TELO rather than being extended to hundreds of its cadre.
At the time of the action against TELO, the reason initially put out by the LTTE was that TELO had abducted and killed a LTTE member and that TELO was an indisciplined militant group which had exhorted funds from the Tamils in the Jaffna Peninsula.
However, many Tamils found it to difficult to accept that 'abduction' and 'indiscipline' were sufficient grounds for the ultimate response of 'annihilation'.
The failure of the LTTE to state in 1986, the true reasons for the attack, added to the confusion in the minds of the Tamil people. Later, after the 1987 confrontation with the IPKF, LTTE sources did declare more openly that it was the danger posed by the infiltration of TELO bases in Tamil Eelam by Indian agencies that had led to the attack on TELO. It appears that in 1986, the LTTE felt that it was not in a position to alienate India by openly declaring the reasons for the action that it had taken.
Be that as it may, Mao Se Tung was right to point out that internal contradictions within an armed struggle should not be handled in the same way as external contradictions. Any action that the LTTE may take against the Sinhala armed forces in combat will be acknowledged as justified without need for further elucidation - and will strengthen the solidarity of the Tamil people. But, any action that the LTTE may take against another Tamil, has the potential to turn that Tamil's family, friends and supporters against the struggle - unless the actions taken by the LTTE are seen to be patently just.
Where the reasons for the action are not stated openly and the justice of the action established, those who earlier associated themselves with the struggle, distance themselves and become, at best, spectators. Public support for the struggle may erode. Fear may silence but will not persuade. Fear (and perhaps, revenge) may even lead some to cross over to the enemy. And the enemy will spare no effort to promote this movement - and in this way nurture 'factions'.
Unity can be built only around that which a people perceive to be right...
The political reality is that unity can be built only around that which a people perceive to be right. There is no quick fix. Unity will not be achieved by assassinating the character of those who may differ from us. Unity will not be achieved by labelling as traitors those who are committed to the struggle for an independent Tamil state but who may differ from us on the steps to take to achieve that goal. None of us is the font of all wisdom. In the end, a guerrilla movement derives its strength from the people whose cause it represents - and it will need to place its trust on the wisdom of that people. Indeed, if it is to succeed, it has no other option.
The question is not one of heroes. Neither is it a matter of hero worship. We rightly honour those who have been willing to put their lives on line, for the freedom of their people. Sri Sabaratnam was one of those who did.
That Sri Sabaratnam was 'responsible for the death by shooting of Dass who was his comrade in arms after luring him to the Jaffna hospital to talk peace' must cause a certain repugnance. However, the circumstances that led to that action are not publicly known. Equally the circumstances that led to the disappearance of Mahendrarajah (also known as Mahattya) and who served as the leader of the Political Front of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are not publicly known.
Condemnation of these actions, without a knowledge of the facts, may simply serve those who are intent on undermining the struggle for an independent Tamil state. On the other hand, justifying such actions, where those accused do not declare the reasons for their action and do not even accept that they were responsible, leaves those who justify such actions open to the charge that their support is 'blind support'.
Guerrilla warfare is directed not from outside but from within. A Tamil who is not a part of the armed resistance movement and who has not accepted a full share of the risks involved, may not be a privy to the information on which the guerrilla movement takes crucial decisions relevant to its survival. How then, does the Tamil supporter of the goal of the struggle respond on a principled basis, to issues related to the struggle, when the facts are not self evident?
Does he turn a blind eye and plead ignorance? Is he to justify every action taken by the armed resistance as 'right' because to do otherwise would be to 'undermine' the struggle? Is he to assert as Lenin did:
Even apart from anything else, if he continues to act in this way, will not his own credibility be eroded? And, therefore, over a period of time, will the support that he extends to the struggle become less and less useful as he, himself, becomes 'used up'? Can he secure the integrity of the struggle, if he loses his own integrity?
A national struggle is just that: the struggle of a nation - it is not the struggle of any one individual or group...
These are some of the reasons which led me to declare at the Sri Sabaratnam Memorial Lecture more than twelve years ago, in May 1987:
It is not necessary to agree with everything that Velupillai Pirabaharan has said and done to recognise that Velupillai Pirabaharan has earned the trust and respect of large sections of the Tamil people. Trust, because of his deep seated commitment to the cause of Tamil Eelam; and, respect, because of the political and military skills that he has displayed in leading the struggle for an independent Tamil State - an independent Tamil state that will, of course, need to structure the basis of its association with both Sri Lanka and India.
However, the struggle for an independent Tamil state will succeed only to the extent that the struggle is able to mobilise broader and broader cross sections of the Tamil people behind it. Initially, an armed resistance movement may face difficulties as it seeks to broaden its support base. It is true that influences inimical to the interests of the Tamil people may infiltrate the struggle. That is a fact of political life. The words of Thiruvalluvar on the 'enemy within', find reasonance in the modern day writings of Regis Debray:
But the answer does not lie in the Stalinist response of the 1920s and the 1930s - a Stalinist response which sought to protect the Russian revolution from outside infiltration and which led to the 1936 Vyshinsky show trials of 'traitors' and ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
As an armed resistance, acquires sufficient strength and, little by little, becomes the vanguard, the extent to which that armed resistance is able to freely interact with the people (whose struggle, it is ) will also be a measure of it's strength. In the ultimate analysis, the struggle will be secure only to the extent that it is firmly rooted in the Tamil people.
The resources that the struggle for an independent Tamil state may draw upon are three fold: the Tamils of Eelam, the Tamils of Tamil Nadu and the Tamil Diaspora. There is a need to mobilise all three resources. And, today, as the leaders of the struggle, the LTTE carries with it the heavy responsibility of securing that mobilisation, through a constructive interacting process. The struggle for an independent Tamil state will not succeed if built on a narrow sectarian platform.