Colombo, January 17 (The Sunday Times): The Indian High Commission (IHC) in Colombo made desperate efforts last Saturday (January 9) to reach Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. He was away in Kurunegala, his electorate, meeting constituents.
As he returned to Colombo on Sunday afternoon, High Commissioner Gopal Baglay rushed to his residence at Wijerama Mawatha. He voiced serious concerns over the demolition of “Mullaivaikal memorial” located within the precincts of the Jaffna University. He is learnt to have told Premier Rajapaksa that coming as it does just after the visit of Foreign Minister, Dr Subramaniam Jaisahankar, it could lead to protests erupting in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
Mullaivaikal, in the northern Mullaitivu district, saw the final phases of the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). There were large concentrations of civilians in the area, declared a “no fire zone.” Tamil groups allege that a large number were killed here, a claim strongly denied by security forces and the police. The memorial, with the approval of a previous Vice Chancellor, was commissioned in February 2019. Earlier, a directive from the University Grants Commission (UGC) to halt the construction, which began in April 2018, had not been carried out. The reason was the clout the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) enjoyed in the former yahapalana government. Parts of the memorial had been pre-cast outside, brought into the campus and assembled.
Premier Rajapaksa went into action promptly. UGC Chairman Prof. Sampath Ameratunga and Jaffna University Vice Chancellor Prof. Sivakolunthu Srisatkunarajah were in touch with each other to defuse the situation till the wee hours of last Monday. The result – protesting student groups were allowed to erect another “Mullaivaikal memorial.” On Monday morning, a symbolic foundation stone was laid using stones from the demolished memorial. On Friday, they dug holes to lay concrete to begin erection of a new monument. Work is now under way.
The Presidential Secretariat was unaware of the event. So much so, on Saturday, the Sunday Times learnt, officials hurriedly telephoned Vice Chanceller Srisatkunarajah to ask “who gave instructions” for the demolition that triggered many other events. “I explained the situation in detail to an official of the President’s office,” Prof. Srisatkunarajah told the Sunday Times.
It took some time for the details behind the 60 hours (from demolition to laying of a new foundation stone) to unfold.
By then, considerable damage had been done both to the Government and the country. That highlighted grave weaknesses in national security. Foremost is the absence of a centralised mechanism, security or political, to take control. Added to that was a colossal intelligence failure. None of the agencies was able to report to government leaders that such a move was afoot and warn of the consequences to follow. It seemed like such key issues were on “auto pilot.” A parallel would be the ongoing campaign against COVID-19 where different arms of the Government act independently in contradiction of one another. However, the faux pas in Jaffna was far more serious.
A backhoe is used to destroy the ‘Mullaivaikal memorial” within the Jaffna University campus on Friday night.
It led last Monday to a hartal — closure of all shops, offices, and other establishments in Jaffna and in many key towns in the east. A new feature – participating in the events were both Tamils and Muslims. Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) General Secretary Nizam Kariappar issued a statement extending support. So did Rishad Bathiudeem, leader of the All-Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC). That paralysed activity in the northern peninsula and parts of the east. Embarrassed government officials tried to deflect the issue in the east by saying it was due to Covid-19 but the diversion did not work.
In Tamil Nadu, Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami said he was “shocked” to hear about the demolition of a memorial that was dedicated to the war dead. He termed it an ‘obstruction’ to unity of the North and South. Viduthalai Chiruthai Pulikal (VCP) party leader Thol Thirumavalan declared in Chennai he would join Vaiko Gopalsamy’s Marumalartchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam to protest outside the Sri Lanka Deputy High Commissioner’s office in Chennai. “We demand that the Sri Lankan government reconstruct the memorial inside the campus,” he said. There were also other groups planning protests in Tamil Nadu.
Speaking in the UK House of Commons, Siobhan McDonaugh, Labour MP for Mitcham, and Morden, called for the British government to move a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on the memorial demolition saying it was a denial of religious freedom. She is known for espousing the cause of Tamils who form a sizeable number in her constituency. In Canada, Tamil expatriates ran a motorcade carrying LTTE flags and tooting their horns to draw attention. Among the vehicles shown in video clips were new models of Mercedes Benz, BMWs, Audis, and brand-new Double Cabs. They have stuck it rich and wield considerable influence among politicians there. The Jaffna Municipal Council on Wednesday adopted a resolution condemning the removal of the memorial. It called for the re-construction of it in the same place.
The Sunday Times learnt that the cause for the demolition of the “Mullaivaikal memorial” was a ‘secret’ report the Deputy Inspector General of Police (Jaffna) sent Vice Chancellor Srisatkunarajah in October last year. It had encompassed reports from intelligence agencies, some of which had also gone to the Defence Ministry earlier. One in particular from the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) spoke about links between ‘pro LTTE’ students and activities related to the memorial. Since the Ministry has no direct purview over the Vice Chancellor, it had been channelled through the Police. The existence of the memorial, they have claimed, posed a threat since there were students who were not in favour of its existence. It was also becoming the centre for different ceremonies linked to the LTTE during anniversaries and other events, they have contended. They had therefore wanted the memorial demolished.
Added to that, the Sunday Times learnt, was another factor. Whenever, Srisatkunarajah interacted with military or Police seniors during conferences, the first issue to be raised, a source said, was the “Mullaivaikal memorial.” There were questions on when it would be demolished. One intelligence source admitted, “he was under heavy pressure to act on the documented request. They were mounting and reached a new high a week ago.” He had been told that no construction could take place in a university without the express permission of the UGC – a position which Education Minister G.L. Peiris took up during a news conference after the incident. The minister took up the same position at Monday’s weekly ministerial meeting. Minister Wimal Weerawansa condemned the Vice Chancellor for allowing the laying of a foundation stone for a new memorial.
“The right hand does not seem to know what the left is doing,” remarked an irate minister who was agitated that the events could not have come at a worse time as this. He was alluding to the visit of Indian Foreign Minister, Jaishankar and his departure only the day before, proposed changes to 13th Amendment to the Constitution, postponement of Provincial Council elections and rejection of demands that Muslims dying of Covid-19 be buried.
Vice Chancellor Srisatkunarajah had, after confidential consultations with engineers and other connected stakeholders, decided that the demolition should take place after 10 p.m. on Friday January 8. Students were asked to leave the premises that night. VC Srisatkunarajah and his Registrar Viswanathan Kandeepan were in the premises. When a backhoe fixed with spotlights on the roof, hired from a private party in Tellipalai, began to demolish the memorial, residents at nearby Ramanathan Road and Parameshwara junction heard what they suspected was unusual activity within the campus. Soon the people, including students, turned up at the entrance and watched what was going on. The backhoe was loading the destroyed debris of the memorial and was later unloading it in a corner area. By Saturday morning crowds had swelled. That included V. Mannivannan, a lawyer and Mayor of Jaffna. He hurriedly appeared for two persons taken into custody and obtained bail.
Students staged a sit-down protest fearing two more similar memorials within the campus would also be destroyed. The Pongu Thamil monument memorial is located in the Arts Faculty and a memorial in memory of Rasiah Partheepan, better known by his LTTE nom de guerre Thileepan, a medical student, in the science faculty. He died in a ‘fast unto death” in a dais from outside the Nallur Kandasamy Kovil in 1987. This was when the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was present in Sri Lanka.
As the night grew on Saturday, there were hectic activity. Nine university students launched a hunger strike. By 1 a.m. VC Srisatkunarajah had taken a tough stance. He told a group of students that the “Mullaivaikal memorial” had been built without obtaining approval. Tamil newspapers ran banner headlines in black about the incident and there were more crowds turning up. Local television stations gave wide coverage and an entire peninsula was aroused. It was around 3 a.m. when the Vice Chancellor changed his stance. He turned up before the students on fast with a bowl of rice porridge and declared “let us lay a new foundation stone in the morning for a new memorial.” He accompanied the students to the demolished site where they laid flowers. The Vice Chancellor then recited a stanza from Tiruvasagam, a song for Lord Shiva.
Outside the campus, by Saturday morning, strength from Jaffna, Kopay, Manipay, and Atchuveli Police stations had been deployed around the campus. So were Army troops from the 521 Brigade in Kondavil and Special Task Force (STF) personnel of the Police. They were also assigned strategic points. They dispersed the crowds but more began coming in. VC Srisatkunarajah on Monday morning told Parliamentarian S. Sritharan that he would apologise to the students and added that they would be allowed to re-erect the memorial. He noted that the turnout of the Army and the Police prevented damage being caused. At one point, ambulances from the Jaffna Hospital had arrived to take the students who were on a death fast to hospital.
The presence of senior Army and Police officers prompted VC Srisatkunarajah to seek the help of a police officer to translate what he said into Sinhala. The words he used tell the story of how situations can escalate without the knowledge of government leaders and, in this instance, when their security arms are unaware of what was going on. Despite the saturation of intelligence personnel in the North, they were blissfully unaware that trouble was about to erupt placing the Government and the country in a most embarrassing position. The words of Srisatkunarajah explain:
“I have received orders from the Government to resolve this issue amicably. I wrote to the UGC and this caused some issues in Tamil Nadu as well. We are going to put some stones as a symbolic ceremony to calm down my students. The construction of the monument will commence with proper approvals.” Work has now begun on a new memorial. Here again, placing stones to resemble a foundation, also raises an issue. It could be argued that such an act, to “diffuse a situation,” has been carried out without any formal approval. Why did not the relevant authorities, including the Vice Chancellor, look into these aspects before boldly deciding to demolish the memorial?
Srisatkunarajah’s words raise some key issues. If VC Srisatkunarajah is right, the Jaffna University would have to be mindful of “issues in Tamil Nadu” in the conduct of his official duties. That begs answer to an important question – why he could not tell the UGC or the security authorities of this factor. Instead, he has waited for more than three months on a “secret” report and took decisions immediately thereafter under pressure from different quarters. The unfolding events have shown that such quarters do not appear to have informed government leaders nor obtained their covering approval for the demolition raising an overly critical question – who is in control? The adverse impact has been on the government, national security, intelligence failure and even foreign relations setbacks.
If the matters were not resolved last Monday, one is not wrong in saying that it would have caused greater misconceptions in New Delhi. The argument would have been that the memorial had been removed less than 24 hours after the departure from Colombo of India’s External Affairs Minister Jaishankar. It could have been construed as a rebuff for his urging government leaders to adhere to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and conduct Provincial Council elections. Like it happens in most cases, the fiasco will be forgotten until the next one occurs.