The Rights of the (Wrongfully) Accused in Visakesa Chandrasekaram’s “Tigers Don’t Confess”

Visakesa Chandrasekaram’s 2011 novel Tigers Don’t Confess raises a sensitive and provocative discussion related to issues of incarceration and the perverse nature of the process of “presenting evidence” in the Sri Lankan system. While being a gripping and entertaining novel set in the LTTE-feared 1990s of Sri Lanka, the strength of the work – as I saw it – was in its undertaking in laying bare the corrosion and corruption within the law enforcing offices which function on behalf of the state. Of three main threads the novelist presents one crucial focus is on a “LTTE suspect” – a final year Management undergraduate from the University of Colombo, named Kumaran – whose case is being prosecuted after a lengthy detention under provisions for the “Prevention of Terrorism”.

Chandrasekaram’s narrative maintains the guise of objectivity – the very guise of an “inquest” – that at the beginning of Kumaran’s case one takes for granted that Kumaran is a LTTE pistol squad member, as he is accused by the Terrorist Investigation Team (TIT): which, most probably, is Chandrasekaram’s mask for the TID. Kumaran’s most immediate accusations are the killing of a UNP politician and a PLOTE activist named Ganeshan. However, as the narrative develops, and as Kumaran’s greenhorn lawyer Shiv carefully lures the witnesses of the prosecution out of their “comfort zones”, loopholes and hiatuses appear revealing Kumaran to be the unfortunate victim of military perversity and official imbecility.

510a9N5vTAL._SL500_SS500_The novel takes into consideration a wide range of socio-political factors which shaped the emergence and the rise of the LTTE and aspects that fed its activism to garner public sympathy and support. For instance, Chandrasekaram’s development of the determined LTTE carder Shalini – who, as it is repeatedly emphasized, is a femme fatale, but one who has been turned into a hardcore Tiger owing to social and personal injustice – puts in perspective the shaping of the “Tamil Tiger mentality”. On one end, we are shown the bestiality of the twisted agendas of Sinhala extremist politicos and their proxies, while, to complement that end, we have the rhetoric and jingoism of the LTTE-led Eelamist camp. Many “Tigers” are caught between the two widening gyres, with Shalini being a prototype among them. Significant is how on most occasions Chandrasekaram’s chosen protagonists – such as Shalini and Dayabaran / Haran – are seen to join the LTTE as a means of satisfying personal vendettas, revenge and injustices. One might argue that this is a weakness in the novel, as the writer seems to “personalize” the wider national and historical implication of the North-Eastern conflict. Yet, one should also bear in mind the extent to which such “hunger for vengeance” throws otherwise docile and humble persons on the line of extremism and uncompromising sacrifice. It is, in this sense, a metaphor for the thwarted collective conscience of those affected by military wrath.

The novel culminates with the release of Kumaran, but not before a demonstration as to how the Police-military can potentially act in filing cases and in presenting concocted evidence to satisfy their perverse ends. Chandrasekaram has a “Terrorist Investigation Team” (TIT), with a Sai Baba-devotee as its head and a line up of officers who don’t come across as being too imaginative (except in fabricating evidence and in submitting these fabrications in court as “truth”). The disturbing fact is that these fabrications are done by the lower rungs of the hierarchy, for what the commanding officer asks for is any form of “confession”, no matter how that confession is obtained. The list of injuries caused to Kumaran’s person and the variety of torture schemes through which the pain is maximized follows generally known “native genius” of the Lankan militia. Chandrasekaram, however, balances the chart by showing how the “Tigers”, too, resort to merciless torture in their questioning of suspects / traitors. The TIT-informant Anan, for instance, barely escapes death following his prolonged torture in a series of makeshift concentration camps, while being held under the LTTE.

Chandrasekaram (photo c/o the ANU website)

Chandrasekaram (photo c/o the ANU website)

The TIT’s submission of false evidence, their framing of people for crimes not committed, their taking of bribes to drop cases etc however ridicule the gaping hole in the state machinery at prosecution. Chandrasekaram is critical of both the legal system that has no sanctuary for the wrongfully accused – as the law processing mechanism is in the corrupt hands of the Police and TIT-likes – and of the detrimental slowness of the process. Kumaran is a fictional instance, where his case gets resolved in two years; but, he is an inefficient reflection of the number of “suspects” (specially of “terrorism”) who undergo sentences given and spent under the most testing conditions. Some are charged and detained under petty, if not insignificant, reasons: as it is in the case of the Thotalanga tailor who had adjusted a shalwar kameez for a woman who (as it is later revealed) happened to have been a suicide bomber. This fellow, made a culprit by pure circumstances, is a chief “suspect” in the TIT list, merely for the want of efficiency and know how.

Tigers Don’t Confess is essentially a better novel than most ethnic-conflict related quips with which our recent English Literature is infiltrated. It is both promising and engaging as a commitment to the understanding of detention and prosecution in Sri Lanka as a whole; specially so, since the reputation of the Police and other militia in this department has shown nothing but depreciation over time.                    

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