"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
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Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
 
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Selected Writings by Nadesan Satyendra
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Sri Sabaratnam - Revisited

17 July 1999

A visitor to the tamilnation website wrote:

"Re the 1987 Sri Sabaratnam Memorial Lecture, it will be dishonest on my part to say that I agree with all that you say. In this lecture, I have no quarrel with your tributes to Kuttimani and Thangathurai. But not so when you praise Sri Sabaratnam. The latter 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. Now look at TELO? They are hunting with the hare and running with the dogs! You have a high regard for Valluvar and I know it. You should read the Chapter on the enemy amongst you. They are valid even now, specially in the context of our struggle. May be in 1987, you thought Sri Sabaratnam was a hero. But we know that he is not. Then, should  we praise him now? Is there no self-contradiction when we  praise both Pirabaharan and Sabaratnam? Someone who does not know you, will be confused. I think this page should be removed. Or else say that this was your view in 1987"

Response: ...."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..."


Sri Sabaratnam, TELO and the stand for Tamil Eelam at Thimpu...
Where then did Sri Sabaratnam err?  Because err, he did...
LTTE's attack on TELO in 1986 - and the questions that it raised ...
Unity can be built only around that which a people perceive to be right...
A national struggle is just that: the struggle of a nation ...


up 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:

"We are not lovers of violence nor victims of mental disorders. We are honest fighters belonging to an organization that is struggling to liberate a people... We are firm believers in the saying that what one sows one reaps. That is why our minds are calm. The seeds we sowed were not seeds of poison, our arrow heads were not dipped in venom..."

At the end of that trial  in Colombo, I declared:

"In relation to my clients I would state this publicly and for the record. I have felt humbled in the presence of persons from my own community, who have been willing to give that which is the most precious thing that humans can give - their lives - for the liberation of their people - and before them I bow my head."

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:

"There are two types of power. One is 'Thongura' power where you hang on to some body else and seek to derive power from them. The other is the power that accrues to you when you serve your people. Thongura power is not power - because with it, you can only help yourself, you cannot help your people. The only true power is that which comes from your own people."

He added:

"Whatever differences I have with Thamby (Pirabaharan) I have no difference with him on the goal of an independent Tamil Eelam."

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:

"....let us remember that Bhutan is not a mere exercise in skilful advocacy. Let us learn that at the end of the day, we must secure our own strength in order that we may secure that which is right and just...

To give justice the thick edge of action, there is an urgent and immediate need to identify and mobilise the entire resources of the Tamil people - and if circumstances compel us, then this must be done whilst the talking goes on and the talks themselves must be directed to bring about this mobilisation.

We must recognise that it is only in this way that we can handle the reality of the evolving matrix which constitutes the international power frame in the Indian region and within which, our struggle must inevitably take place...

....we are not chauvinists... The growing togetherness of the Tamil people, is but a step in the growth of a larger unity. We know that in the end, national freedom can only be secured by a voluntary pooling of sovereignties, in a regional, and ultimately in a world context. Let us say that we recognize that our future lies with the peoples of the Indian region and the path of a greater and a larger Indian union is the direction of that future...

We do not plead for fairness. We do not beg for justice. Too many Tamils have given their lives to permit us to do that. They have died so that we, who have survived may have the courage to stand up for that which is right and just. And so we patiently and respectfully request our friends in the international community to make their position clear...."

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:

"We do not regard Bhutan as an exercise in political horse dealing. To the Tamil delegation present here, Bhutan is an exercise in search for that which is just and right. And in this, we find strength in the statement of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that a fair and lasting solution must be found to the Tamil national question ...It is in this frame, and with this approach, that the Tamil delegation will participate in the talks at Thimpu. We are not here to find an opportunistic and unprincipled settlement as a way of resolving some immediate problem for some person or another. And we would like to believe that the Sri Lankan government has been moved to come to this table for the same reasons and will approach the discussions in the same way...

We say: 'yes, we are a reasonable people and as a people, we will sit and talk with you. You have the right to choose, just as much as we have the right to choose - no less and no more'. From that dialogue, amongst equals, we know that the rationalities will prevail. But if you say: 'no, we are the rulers and you are the ruled', then we have not even got to first base in the process of dialogue...

...Thousands of Tamils, young and old, men and women, and children as well, have died and suffered so that we, may stand up at Thimpu and declare, 'yes, we too, are a people and we will sit and talk with you, on behalf of the Tamil nation, or not at all'.

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:

"Yes, we are mindful of the material support that India has given us, but, remember, it is we, who gave the lives."

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.


up Where then did Sri Sabaratnam err?  Because err, he did...

Where then did Sri Sabaratnam err?  Because err, he did.

TELO started life as a militant response to alien Sinhala rule. Thangathurai and Kuttimuni are evidence enough of that. But the growth of militancy does not follow a settled order and pattern. Initially each militant group believes that it alone can lead the Tamil people to the promised land. As I have said elsewhere:

"An armed resistance movement takes shape in the womb of oppression. Its seeds are to be found in the eternal quest for equality and freedom. But, though born of natural parents it is at birth illegitimate - because it breaches the existing legal frame, and seeks to supplant it. And that simple fact has much to do with its subsequent development and growth... The metamorphosis from 'unlawful' to 'lawful' is gradual (and many layered)..."

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:

"...If he really wants to serve..., he must first of all make sure of his foundations. For if he doesn't take care to seek solid ground under his feet, the ground won't seek his feet either: consequently, he will never be able to stand perpendicular anywhere..." (Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, quoted in the Lost Hero, a Biography of Subhas Bose by Mihir Bose, Quartet Books, 1982)


up 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.

"The LTTE was distributing the stolen jewellery and other goods recovered from the TELO camps. Mr.A.S.Balasingham ( the spokesman for the LTTE) said: "We have exhibited the stolen material in front of the Windsor theatre in Jaffna so that people can identify them and take them." (Madras Hindu, 3 May 1986)

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'. 


up 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.

To say this, is neither to defend the actions that were taken nor to condemn them. Indeed, without a knowledge of all the facts surrounding actions such as these, the warnings that may have been given and the specific (detailed) charge against the concerned individuals, it will be difficult, if not impossible to form a principled view.

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'.

"Deniablity" may have its uses for a guerrilla movement (and for governments as well). But it creates real difficulties for those who, by choice, stand outside the armed struggle and at the same time supports its goal. 

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:

"Our morality is completely subordinated to the interests of the ... struggle..." (Quoted by Robert Conquest on Lenin, Fontana/Collins, 1972)

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?


up 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:

"... let us recognise that reason will not emerge in secret conclave behind closed doors. Reason will not emerge from a conspiracy of silence about the issues that really matter. There are ofcourse, those who respond to any attempt to openly examine the issues that confront us in a rational way by saying: do not rock the boat. And they do have a point. We must not rock the boat. At the same time, it is also true that we are all in the same boat and the direction that the boat should take must surely have something to do with the concerns of all of us as a people.

A national struggle is just that: the struggle of a nation. It is not the struggle of any one individual or group. After all, that is also what democracy is about. The democratisation of the Tamil national struggle will not weaken it - it will strengthen it. But democracy is not something that can be 'given' to a people - it is something that we, as a people, must build for ourselves."

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:

"..... to protect the safety of the guerrilla force itself: 'Constant vigilance, constant mistrust, constant mobility are the three golden rules. All three are concerned with security. Various considerations of common sense necessitate wariness towards the civilian population and the maintenance of a certain aloofness." (Revolution in the Revolution? - Regis Debray, Pelican Latin American Library, Penguin Books, 1967)

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.

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