Raviraj’s fluency in Sinhala was an ace up his sleeve in presenting matters with clarity and with conviction before Southern politicians and the Southern community, and through him, the South had the opportunity of hearing the grievances of the North. In symbolic terms, Raviraj was a bridge that could have connected the two valleys, but, perhaps, what was detrimental to Raviraj was also the fact that he was being heard and understood: for, being represented and with clarity is too troublesome for demagogues and people who would rather keep the populace under their thumbs through false impressions.
The sign of a saviour seems very far away from the shores of Sri Lanka, where justice and the people’s confidence in the justice-meting mechanism seem to be on holiday, even in the time of a government that checked into the sites of power using those very two words as their gate pass. Sri Lanka and the world alike seem to look on with skeptical eyes as the five suspects, including three Navy personnel, who had earlier been charged with the murder of Nadarajah Raviraj – the vocal ITAK parliamentarian – which happened in the vicinity of a highly secured zone under around-the-clock military surveillance in the heart of Colombo in 2006. Raviraj was a tireless speaker on issues that were immediate to the Northern community from which he was elected, and was no beater around the bush in his attacks on the state and its players. Raviraj’s murder was one of the earliest murders attempted on “out of the establishment-line” voices during the time coinciding with the Rajapakshe government. Even the booking of suspects who may have committed homicide was delayed almost by a decade, and a reasonable breakthrough happened only within the last year – what, at that time, was felt as a reversing of the order of disorder, and a fair attempt at bringing out truth and justice.
The news of the acquittal of suspects, even in the face of witness accounts, comes as a shock to many close observers, and the news has already gained wide international attention. Both the Daily Mail and the Indian Express, in their reports of the development do little to disguise their bitter amusement, and seem to hint that they have better apprehensions of who the responsible parties are of Raviraj’s killing. Both sources make sustained references to President Rajapakshe’s regime and the questionable circumstances under which the parliamentarian was gunned, along with his security officer. Yaltribune.com, in its report of the acquittal, hints at indirect pressure created by the President Maithreepala Sirisena who has, over the past 2-3 months or so, made comments that may easily be seen as defensive of what might be constituted as crime charges against the state military. Yaltribune.com reports: “In a highly unusual move, the jury’s verdict was delivered at midnight following a unanimous decision in the month-long trial… Earlier this year, Sri Lankan President Maithreepala Sirisena who has previously ruled out allowing any political leader to be prosecuted for alleged war crimes, said he was concerned that naval and military commanders had been summoned before the courts”. The verdict had been delivered by an all-Sinhala jury in a case that involved a Tamil parliamentarian being gunned down by a group of suspects who were, again, Sinhala; which includes three militants (in the popular psyche, the “vanguard” of the Sinhala nation) who are identified as acting under the orders of a pro-Sinhala nationalist regime.
My memories of Nadarajah Raviraj are very vivid. His entry into parliament happens in 2001, at the young age of 39. He was a trilingual, energetic lawyer-activist cum politician, who emerged from a community that was linguistically and culturally distanced from the majoritarian Sinhala South. Raviraj’s fluency in Sinhala was an ace up his sleeve in presenting matters with clarity and with conviction before Southern politicians and the Southern community, and through him, the South had the opportunity of hearing the grievances of the North. In symbolic terms, Raviraj was a bridge that could have connected the two valleys, but, perhaps, what was detrimental to Raviraj was also the fact that he was being heard and understood: for, being represented and with clarity is too troublesome for demagogues and people who would rather keep the populace under their thumbs through false impressions.
Raviraj’s inspirational political trek arrives at a crucial landmark when, in 1998, the LTTE kills within a few months the mayor of Jaffna, Sarojini Yogeswaran, and her to-be successor, Pon Sivapalan, both of the TULF. The second killing also wipes out the top military command of the Jaffna area including Brig. Susantha Mendis, creating a vacuum and a dubious atmosphere. The terrorist climate thus encouraged made representative politics be held under the gun. Raviraj’s stepping up to take the role of Acting Mayor and, then, Mayor was therefore a courageous and challenging move in the immediate context of things. Later, when nominated to parliament, Raviraj was a vocal opponent of the abusive state of human rights, specially as they affected the day-to-day culture of the Tamil community. He was a regularly sought after representative in media political debates, and was charismatic and intelligent in his deliveries and tabling of issues. On the eve of his murder, Raviraj had demonstrated against a military shelling that killed 40-odd persons in Vaharei. His death happened close to his Narahenpita house, when his self-driven vehicle was obstructed by a motorcycle and was repeatedly fired at by the assailant at close range.
Nine years after Raviraj’s death, the Rajapakshe government was toppled by the loose alliance of a merged UNP and SLFP gene, whose election platforms boomed with rhetoric of justice for all. A strong dictation was made against corruption and malpractice, which, after a brief hope-awakening (false) start of sorts seems to have reclined to a back seat of the government’s agenda. In any case, the search for justice seemed to be more focused on the corrupt smaller pawns of Rajapakshe’s second and third tiers (as it is, as it should be in a system where one statesman is as corrupt as the other), while strategic “sins of omission” have left the bigger and better fish untouched and unharmed. The enthusiasm and zest with which crackdowns were being made on the alleged killers of Lasantha Wickramatunge, Prageeth Ekneligoda, Waseem Thajudeen and others such as Nadarajah Raviraj seemed to suddenly fizz away, as if hitting headlong a giant stumbling block. The FCID activism in probing into ministerial accounts and activities of the former government has, to date, achieved very little in terms of a “search for justice”, than feeding the roadshow of politics. If the world is a stage, then surely President Sirisena is cast to play an ambiguous role. Throughout 2015, he was a silent and detached viewer from the gallery, his position and voice often unheard and made to look uncertain. When he did begin to speak, in the wake of startling revelations in the Thajudeen and Wickramatunge cases, his voice seemed to be very different to what the people had heard (or thought they had heard, or – alternatively, were made to hear) the previous year. Ventriloquism is a complex art, and we are but a humble people.
As recent as October, President Sirisena made a statement that was given much circulation, where he expressed his concern over members of the military (ex-militants included) being summoned and tried before courts of law. This was a major setback to what was earlier generally seen as a facilitating environment for the execution of the law’s due process and was alarmingly viewed by activists both here and abroad as well as by diplomatic missions that show concern of Lanka’s reconciliation path (See, the Sunday Observer and the Colombo Gazette among other sources that reported on this, in the week of October 16th). What were seen as “major breakthroughs” were being achieved in the murder cases alluded to above, and coincidentally (or not) the trails of blood were being tracked back to some of the highest in the military and in politics. President Sirisena had the difficult task of choosing between the nationalistic heartbeat of the Sinhala masses, and the line of justice. His vote was admirable, and revealing, under the circumstances.
Now, notwithstanding the developments of the past year or so, the five suspects of Raviraj’s killing have been acquitted. As a Facebook post shared by Lanka-E-News on the matter sardonically observed: “So, now did no one kill Raviraj, then?”. The Sri Lankan government has taken the curve. It has now, over the past 4-5 months taken the anti-climactic dip towards the very pit of vice they lobbied against in December 2014 and January 2015. The budget proposals recently tabled revealed the pus and blood with which its economic and social programmes are written. This silence in the courtroom, one may argue, is one of the first of a possible string to follow, where that quest for justice and truth will be further pushed away into the distant horizon, as (the Tamil community of) Sri Lanka moves on in search of that ever-illusive palm tree in the oasis.