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Sunday, 15 May 2005    
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Taraki: The selective politics of an assassination

Sunday Essay by Ajith Samaranayake

Over two weeks after the daring abduction and dastardly killing of D. Sivaram (Taraki) the Sherlock Holmses are seemingly at a loss (although huffing and puffing about clues and the number of persons questioned) but the spate of words is in full flood.

Naturally so since the victim of the assassination himself was a man of words having abandoned the gun for the pen although paradoxically falling victim to another's gun.

These words have ranged from the emotional and the sensitive to the rankly venal. While most assessments, tributes and analyses justly recognised Siva's undoubted writing skills, his deep political insights, impressive grasp of military strategy and historical depth others have insisted on nailing the slain writer to the cross inflicting on him a cruel double death.

One anonymous writer who had obviously read too much of John Le Carre even pictured him as the perfect spy prowling the corridors of power and lurking in the lush gardens of the Colombo diplomatic enclave in the service of the LTTE.

While it is not necessary to cover the same ground what strikes one after wading through this spate of words is the feeling of guilt which Siva's death has generated in Colombo Sinhala society.

After all here was a Tamil and a former militant at that who was moving about quite freely in the capital city, hobnobbing with the political panjandrums and the diplomatic elite, the opinion-makers and the hoi polloi alike.

He was a fixture in Colombo politics and all this inspite of the hysteria and the frenzy over the LTTE in the Colombo media and the thinly disguised attitude of most Sinhalese that every Tamil is a Tiger.

In fact it is no secret that Siva's neighbours at Mahindarama Road, Mount Lavinia treated him with undisguised suspicion while the Mount Lavinia Police raided his house regularly and took him in for questioning.

All this Siva treated with his customary belly-laugh (as this columnist well knows) although he could not have been unaware that he was skating on thin ice. But the fact was that Siva was Colombo society's resident Tamil, the token Other to whom Sinhala society could point its finger as the symbol of its own generosity and broadmindedness. Look we even have Tamils among us.

Hence the sense of outrage bordering almost on betrayal that Siva had not criticised the Tigers or denounced their atrocities, that he had only targeted the Sri Lankan State from which paranoia grows the picture of the perfect spy, the perfidious Tamil who bites the hand which feeds it.

While I do not subscribe to the theory that Siva was an uncritical LTTE apologist he was certainly a victim of the tragic bifurcation of the Tamil national movement which swept it in directions which were inimical to any healthy pluralistic or tolerant political culture.

The LTTE is no doubt an authoritarian movement, which brooks no opposition, but there are large sections of Tamil opinion which sees it as the authentic representative of Tamil aspirations.

However unpalatable this might be this is something which Sinhala society will have to recognise if not live with. It is his attitude of mind and not so much a sense of fear which prevents most Tamils from condemning the LTTE's atrocities and in the case of a sensitive person such as Sivaram this could have led to agonising ambiguity which he perhaps resolved by thinking of the broader historical picture.

This I believe is the point which Dayan Jayatilleka made in his perceptive piece last Sunday where he invoked the case of the famous debate between Sartre and Camus. Can we while we are embroiled in historical battles sit back with the necessary detachment to make moral judgements or is that for the future thinker or historian?

What is clear, however, from Siva's all-too brief life and stay with us in Colombo was that he himself had no such dilemmas. He saw Colombo as the natural locale for his work as a writer and he had no hesitation in living among the Sinhalese not in the salubrious residential areas of the city but in a far-flung industrial outpost with a not insubstantial lumpen presence.

He often used to come home late. He enjoyed the convivial company of friends. As he said at the Sinhala-Tamil cultural festival of October 2003 luridly branded as a Pongu-Thamil event by sections of the Sinhala press and attacked by the JHU Colombo is where he has chosen to live in the presence of the Sinhalese. He did not after all operate from the Wanni or one of the plush capitals of the Diaspora.

He lived and died in the heartland of an embattled country trying to make sense of that battle and trying to convey something of its flavour and his own historical dilemma as a participant and a chronicler to the outside world. That is why his death should diminish us all.

This is where Dayan Jayatillake's question becomes relevant. How did a man whose grandfather was a member of the State Council come to the position of being the subject of debate in its successor, the Parliament.

What do Sivaram's roots and trajectory tell us about ourselves and our society. D. B. S. Jeyaraj in his characteristically well-researched piece tells us that Siva's family had held considerable landholdings in Battocaloa, which they had lost to the Land Reform.

The Siva I knew was like most of us a man of modest means struggling to bring up a young family and a free-lance writer most of the time. He neither boasted about his grandfather's membership of the State Council nor his father's Cambridge education or for that matter his own work in the higher echelons of PLOTE during those heady and dangerous days of struggle.

Neither was he seized by any sense of grievance against Sinhala society except that he saw clearly the direction of history. Hailing from a distinguished Tamil family cast in the traditional mould of gentry and elite the generation passage saw Siva forsaking higher education for the life of the jungle. He abandoned the struggle for political journalism and became soon a master of the art.

He did not seek the fleshpots of political office. He owned no car and only his humble home. He was Everyman while not being like other men.

That is why his death should humble us and leave behind a sense of loss not merely among his friends but everywhere in this blood-spattered society reeking of fear from its nostrils. of Relief Rehabilitation & Reconciliation)

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