|RAGHAVAN, LTTE’s co-founder with Prabha, TELLS ALL|
|Sunday, 22 February 2009|
In a revealing interview tracing the origins of Tamil nationalism and militancy, Ahilan Kadirgamar speaks to C Rajeshkumar alias Ragavan — a founder member of the LTTE — about the early years. Ragavan left the Tigers in 1984 and has since lived in exile in London. Ahilan, a contributor to Lakbimanews, offered this interview originally published on the web, for publication in this newspaper. Excerpts:
Did your family background have any impact on your affinity towards Tamil nationalism at that time?
The aim of my family, as with any other Jaffna Tamil middle class family, was to educate and make their children doctors or engineers. There was a production line mentality. At least one child, the elder child, should try and become a doctor, an engineer or, at the least, an accountant. Because of social limitations or a lack of resources, this was the only goal. A Tamil proverb says: “Kolzii meinthallum govermentil meikavendum”. This means, “Even if you’re going to have a chicken farm, you should do it for the government”. That was the middle class aim which had become the Jaffna Tamil mentality. The family structure was headed by the authoritarian father figure whom you couldn’t question. I wanted to leave the family as soon as possible. Even before I joined the LTTE, I wanted to leave the house. I even considered getting a job after I passed o/levels. I was inspired at the time by Tamil nationalist ideology and began to read papers like ‘Suthanthiran’ and ‘Viduthalai’.
In your formative years, how did class and caste play out in your local community? Were you conscious of such issues at that time?
I was conscious of caste at an early age. My village, Punallaikatuvan, was divided into areas that didn’t have a single identity. There was the north side and south side. Marriage customs differed and were restricted. In the early 60s, when I was around six or seven, my mother told me that a man called Thuraisingam — who was upper caste and a chandiyan (village thug) — had murdered someone long ago. He also owned land and the Dalits, the service caste, would work for him. There was a problem one day because the Dalits didn’t want to work, as he hadn’t paid them properly. Consequently, the entire Dalit community was chased away from my village. More recently, this was similar to the manner in which the northern Muslims were chased away. The chandiyan and his followers took away all the belongings of the Dalits. It was a long time before they could return and resettle. No one challenged that eviction and this had a lasting impact on me, although I was from a Vellala middle class family. In a sense, the Tamil nationalist ideology claimed that all Tamils should be united. We did not think about caste contradictions at the time and we felt that everyone should join the struggle irrespective of structural inequalities and caste hierarchy.
In the 70s, the government tried to implement existing legislation allowing equal access for Dalits to temples and public places. Temple entry in my village was out of the question. Nobody wanted to challenge the strength of the caste system. I remember going to a barber saloon (barbers belonged to the oppressed castes) when I was small, and asking the barber if he would allow Dalits into his saloon. There was a big muscular farmer standing next to me and he slapped me, because he was angry that I would even ask such a question. The barber saloon was soon closed down as the barber was scared of the upper castes. He started visiting people’s houses and doing his work. The caste system was strong in the villages. With the service castes, there was no question of workers’ rights. Whether or not you were paid, you had to work.
How did Tamil political formations of the time, particularly the dominant role of the Federal Party, influence young people like you?
The Federal Party talked about Tamil nationalism but did not have an organized program. They did not even have a committee or village level organization. They would come every now and then and say, “This is our agenda”. They didn’t create democratic political space, because there was no political participation by the people. The Federal Party just made decisions at the top and passed them down. I often compare them with the DMK in India. While I don’t agree with the DMK’s politics, they have a strong, layered organizational structure and committees at village level. The Federal Party would, maybe, have one person in each village and the Federal Party MP will come and talk to him. A meeting would be arranged once in a blue moon. I am referring exclusively to Jaffna society. Therefore, we didn’t have a democratic culture and there was the repressive character of the caste system, so the democratic mindset was also lacking. Everything from caste to the family was hierarchical in structure, designed in such a way that you must obey orders rather than discuss or criticize.
I believe the LTTE’s political ideology reflected Jaffna Tamil, middle class and upper caste interests and pride, while its authoritarian structure stemmed from the hierarchical system of family and caste. We are now talking about the need for democratic culture but I would say we didn’t have it then, either. There was electoral democracy but not a democratic culture. Grassroots civil society organizations did not exist. There were only state structures.
When did you become an active member of the LTTE?
Four people with the Maanavar Peravai escaped from the Anuradhapura prison during a jailbreak in 1974. One person from my village, who was involved with the Maanavar Peravai, hid one of them in our village. They knew we wanted to become active so they started speaking with us. I bought a pistol from a local thug and hid it. The police were not an issue for me... it was my father! I also started writing slogans on walls. A local saw me doing this one day so I ran away and stayed with my aunt for a couple of days because I was afraid that my father would beat me. I returned after learning that my family was looking for me. My father was the headmaster of a local school. One time, Education Minister Badiudeen Mahmud was visiting and all the schools were expected to welcome him. The night before his visit, a friend and I wrote slogans like “Badiudeen Mahmud Get Out!” Such activities were inspired by the TULF’s idea of protest. More than opposing the state, we thought “traitors” should be eliminated first.
My first connection with the militants was when this person, Chetti, hid in our village. I started helping them. After they robbed a cooperative store, my role was to take them to safe houses. I would take them on my bicycle and provide them food and so on. I met (Velupillai) Prabhakaran through such connections. He, too, had belonged to the Maanavar Peravai and that’s how I encountered him in 1974. He was talking about a separate state. I decided to support him.
The first organization Prabhakaran started was the Tamil New Tigers (TNT). The name was coined by Rasaratnam, a strong Tamil nationalist who had been with the TULF. Rasaratnam fled to India after Maanavar Peravai members were arrested and lived there until his death. The TULF was talking of federalism but I must say that the Suyaatchi Kazhaagam (V. Navaratnam’s organization) always compared the Tamils with the Jews. ‘Exodus’ was translated into Tamil and ‘Viduthalai’ papers at the time always related the Tamil people to the Jewish people. “We are intelligent and they are intelligent. We are a small minority and they are a small minority. They do fasts and do not eat meat during fasting and we do the same. They were able to form a country of their own and we should do that.” The Tamil identity is also mixed with Hindu or Saiva identity. Prabhakaran, Kuttimani and Thangathurai all took up this idea. Prabhakaran and Thangathurai were from the same village. But Thangathurai was not part of the TNT, because he thought Chetti, who was in our group, had been sent to a rehabilitation school for young people and was a thief.
There were so many factors and relationships at play. In my village, I would hardly ever see the army. Back then, the army was a symbolic force and not a fighting army. There were only a few thousand soldiers in the country. To my recollection, there were only 6000 armed forces personnel — army, navy and air force. But Velvettithurai was a smuggling village with an everyday army presence and there was always some tension between the army and the people. This is one reason why young people from Velvettithurai became active. Thangathurai was pro-US and pro-Israel. Prabhakaran was also of the same mindset but he was also, strangely, inspired by Hitler. He had with him a copy of ‘Mein Kampf’. He also was inspired by Bhagat Singh and Subash Chandra Bose. It was a strange combination. On the one hand, I think he had ideas about Jewishness, the state and the formation of Israel. On the other hand, the idea of eliminating the “other” came from Hitler. There was a connection in his mind. The TNT was being formed in 1974 and I joined them soon after. But I didn’t become a fulltime member until 1976. None of us were mature enough to understand what we were doing. Part of the problem was the TULF which did not have concrete plans to fight for federalism or for a separate nation. The TULF just used rhetoric to gain parliamentary seats. Consequently, young people inspired by the TULF ideology wanted to fill the gap and this became a very dangerous problem.
Iconic figures like Bhagat Singh and Hitler were outside figures. Were there any from the Tamil community who inspired the TNT?
No. Even the Tiger, the flag comes from the Chola kingdom... so it was always inspired by outside actors. All this is part of the mythology, particularly when we claim, that we were two nations before the British came. We were unable to even identify with someone like a king from that nation.
When did the interaction with India and Tamil Nadu begin? When did you first go to Tamil Nadu?
There was no direct interaction with India and Tamil Nadu. Still, even from the early seventies they would run to India to find a safe haven. It had nothing to do with the Indian state or politicians but was mainly through the smuggling links. They would stay with the Indian smugglers. I became “wanted” in 1976 and I went to India for the first time that year in a boat from Mannar arranged by Thangathurai. Back then, only a couple of local politicians were sympathetic towards us.
How did you become “wanted”? How did the police get to know about you?
On 27 July 1975, Alfred Duraiappa was killed. I was not aware that he was going to be killed. But after he was killed, Prabhakaran hid in my grandmother’s house. I would stay with my grandmother, giving tuition to students as a cover to hide these people. When my father asked about them, I could tell him I was teaching them mathematics. The TULF would claim to support us but didn’t even give us fifty rupees. I once cycled from my village (Punallaikatuvan) to Velvettithurai to collect ten rupees from a man because we did not have any money.
After the Puttur bank was robbed, we started small farms with the money, cultivating onions and chillies. That was the cover for our training camps. The TNT then had about eight members and five of them were in the central committee — Prabhakaran, Aiyar, Pattanna, Kumarachelvam and I can’t remember the fifth person. I was the youngest. A couple of others were also in the group, including Chellakili. One person who was part of the bank robbery was caught. He exposed my name and I became “wanted”.
(The full interview can be accessed on http://kafila.org/2009/02/16/interview-with-ragavan-on-tamil- militancy-part-i/)
|Last Updated ( Friday, 09 October 2009 )|
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