Rajini Thiranagama: Unstoppable echo of humanity | Sunday Observer

Rajini Thiranagama: Unstoppable echo of humanity

22 September, 2019

“Rajani did not get accustomed to grief or fear. She was heartbroken when students went missing and cried at the stories she heard. She cried from fear as well. I fell asleep so many nights, listening to her tears. The next morning she would be bright, brave, determined and hopeful. She taught me courage coexisted with vulnerability, kindness and sensitivity. She had empathy and generosity for nearly everyone she met, except powerful people who turned their face away.

“As a medical doctor, she would go and treat anyone who needed her, whether they were her enemies or not. Civilians, soldiers, militants - she was their doctor. She was also a research scientist who was fearless in her pursuit of truth and who followed where the evidence led.

“She was also a workaholic: up at dawn to prepare for classes. She kept an immaculate house. Ran her university department. She then did all the advocacy, investigation and human rights work in the evening. All this while dealing with the war and its challenges.

“My mother wanted life - for everyone. She was utterly uninterested in the politics of death and martyrdom. She helped me find joy in a cup of tea after a bombing raid, the freedom of a day or an hour of silence or peace. We found reasons to laugh and smile. Then they killed her.

“I have these clear, treasured memories - not just of events, but of her - the space she took up, her gaze, her emotions - because life felt very, very short in Jaffna. But I never thought it would be her who would die,” Narmada Thiranagama tweeted the daughter of Dr Rajani Thiranagama, in memory of her beloved mother, on her 30th death anniversary. Rajani proved an extraordinary courage and remorseless commitment in her quest for justice and human dignity against the thirty-year-long brutality of armed conflict in the country.

Rajani’s protest was against all parties, irrespective of whether a state soldier or an LTTE cadre – whose actions entangled in the brutal armed conflict where the lives of ordinary civilians were placed at risk and misused as human shields for narrow political purposes.

In the late ‘80s, the Tamil community in the Northern Province was the most affected witnesses of the vicious war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan army.

In this context, Rajani, who once was a hardcore supporter of the political ideology of the LTTE, made a revolutionary yet fatal shift as she could no longer contribute to the destructive war according to her conscious realization of her community and ethnic identity. She was a meticulously sharp-minded human rights activist who paid the price for what she believed in.

As a first year student of the medical faculty of the University of Colombo, the Student Christian Movement (SCM) was where Rajani began her political activism. The SCM was quite popular among students of the ‘70s. The shockwaves created among the student movement were felt all over the country when University of Peradeniya student Weerasoriya was gunned down by the police in 1976. For the first time in history, the Colombo Medical Faculty went on strike, condemning this action and Rajani was at the forefront of the strike. As Dayapala Thiranagama, Rajani’s beloved husband, recalls, this protest was how they came to know each other.

“Our meeting marked a new chapter in our lives and the decisions we would make from then would change not only our lives but also our families forever. We fell in love and got married on August 28, 1977 in the midst of anti-Tamil riots in Colombo. Rajani was still a medical student and I had just begun an academic career at the University. We sometimes called ourselves ‘the unity of opposites’ in relation to our social, cultural and ethnic differences,” Dayapala recalled.

As Dayapala describes, being a middle-class, Tamil woman, Rajani’s conscious decision to get married to a Sinhalese, lower middle-class man who had spent many years in prison was somewhat revolutionary. “Rajani’s courage and human understanding in accepting me as I was, bewildered even some of our political friends, whose understanding of inter-ethnic relations in both communities had serious defects at the time, as it does today,” he said.

As a human rights activist, a strong factor in her passion for justice can be understood as her firmness on human relationships and her unbiasdness for socially constructed barriers and customs.

Her constant message for the rebellious youth who took arms against the state was, “I agree with you that the actions of the State are without excuse and we care no less about liberation than you do.

Liberation must begin with questioning ourselves. But the way you are getting about it, wounding our society grievously by your actions, would weaken and humiliate us and render us servile before the State and larger powers.”

She took a conscious political decision to quit the LTTE in the mid 80s’ and merged with her new political ideology against the rule of the gun dedicating herself to organise structures that would ensure democratic freedom with human dignity. ‘Broken Palmyra’ the ground breaking literary work co- authored by Rajini and three dons from the University of Jaffna brought new hope for the Tamil community who were exhausted by the brutality of the war. During this time the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) was formed, with her involvement. However, all these radical attempts created an ‘ideological shockwave’ for the LTTE which later became fatal to her life.

“As far as our family was concerned, ideologically and politically, it departed from the accepted family norms of its existence and Rajani’s contribution was crucial in this transformation.

Without Rajani’s deep understanding, unhesitant approval and courage we would not have built a family unit that would withstand the political and survival tests of our times. She was honest, politically straightforward, fiercely independent and committed to her beliefs for the LTTE to handle. These were the personal qualities of a new kind of revolutionary Rajani came to represent in her personal and political journey, which resulted in the ultimate sacrifice for the right of dissent in the Tamil community,” Dayapala said.

The criticism against despotism of any section of the society must be made by the people of the same society. Dr. Rajani Thiranagama marked such a historically iconic moment through her activism against the brutality of the LTTE which she once represented ideologically.

Even thirty years later, her assassination tells us of a society with an inability to bear the opinion of the other, as well as the failure of humanity itself.

“Thanks to Rajan Hoole’s detailed investigation a few years ago we have detailed information about how her murder was planned and carried out. Now I know she remonstrated with her killer even after the first shot. My fierce mother. It was only when I heard this, that I truly knew she had been killed and not simply disappeared from my life that day, riding back to the university, wearing the elegant sari which was my favourite: a white gauze with a print of green and yellow leaves,” Narmada said in her tweet.