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S. Sivanayagam (1930-2010)

A Tribute from a Protégé

by Sachi Sri Kantha, December 7, 2010

"Having lived a life with neither glory nor ignominy for the first fifty years of my life, the next twenty was to become a roller-coaster ride. Hounded by the Sri Lankan government, escape to India by a midnight country boat, separation from the family, jailed by the Indian government without charge for one year, incarceration in two jails, Vellore and Madras, chained to the bed in the Madras General Hospital, a further detention under police guard for six months, litigation after litigation paid for by friends of the Tamil Forum Ltd in the UK, a nomadic life for one and a half years through six to seven countries and finally heard-earned safety in the West. There are no regrets however. Journalism is no journalism if it lacks passion."

The news that S. Sivanayagam, the courageous Tamil journalist, had died in Colombo on November 29 at the age of 80, was not shocking to me. But I was saddened to hear it. I had anticipated this news for the past three years or so. My sadness was that, I never had a chance to meet him in person, though he was an intermittent presence in my life since mid 1960s. In his [what I believed as a] message of farewell to me, sent two years ago, he himself had grumbled about the downward turn of health that he had to face. We have to think that we were blessed to have Sivanayagam in full bloom since 1982. His life might have ended on June 6, 1956, on his night train ride from Jaffna to Colombo, before he reached his 26th birthday. His, as well as our, good karma made him to enjoy life for another 50 years. His spirited life was an inspiration for many of us.

S. Sivanayagam in March 1991 in Madras India
S. Sivanayagam in March 1991 in Madras

Though we never met even once, I was pleased that Sivanayagam became a journalist mentor to me. I contributed to the Tamil Nation and Hot Spring that he edited. In the autumn of his life, we corresponded via letters. I used to address him as ‘Mr. Sivanayagam’. He would send me autographed copies of his two books [The Pen and the Gun – Selected Writings 1977-2001 (2001) and Sri Lanka: Witness to History – a Journalist’s Memoirs 1930-2004 (2005)]. I had reviewed these books, in this website.

If only, Mr. Sivanayagam had not suffered from the stick wielding administrative machineries in Sri Lanka and India, we would have benefitted much from his intellect. But, that was not to be. In his introduction to his Selected Writings, published in 2001, he wrote “Having lived a life with neither glory nor ignominy for the first fifty years of my life, the next twenty was to become a roller-coaster ride….There are no regrets however. Journalism is no journalism if it lacks passion. But it goes with a price.” He wouldn’t surrender his principles to administrative minions. That was his strength. In animal metaphors, I categorize journalism into three types:

  • louse (lousy parasitic) journalism
  • lapdog journalism
  • bee sting journalism

In Sri Lanka (especially among the Tamil journalists), the majority played it safe by practicing louse (lousy parasitic) journalism and lapdog journalism. I have been a regular critic of those who practice lapdog journalism in this website, and Narasimhan Ram and his coterie, including D.B.S. Jeyaraj, are good examples for this type. But Mr. Sivanayagam stood out in practicing bee sting journalism and he suffered from its consequences. There was his namesake, S.D. Sivanayagam (a mentor of my estranged uncle K.T. Rajasingham), who practiced louse journalism. Though this S.D. Sivanayagam had talent, he sacrificed it at the altar of his Sinhala media moguls. Our Mr. Sivanayagam was made of a different fiber. There was another important difference between S.D. Sivanayagam and S. Sivanayagam. Whereas, the former was a master in verbose Tamil prose, the latter was a master in pungent English.

In the book, ‘War Zones’ (Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1988), authored by Jon Lee Anderson and Scott Anderson, there appears an excerpt of an interview given by Sivanayagam. In it, he had reminisced about his 1956 train-ride from Jaffna to Colombo, that I had mentioned earlier. His profile is presented as follows:

“Subramanian Sivanayagam is a chain-smoking, dapper man in a Madras shirt who repeatedly lights incense, the scent of it pervading his small office. A Tamil, he was a lawyer and magazine editor before going into exile in India; he fled by boat in 1983 upon learning the Sri Lankan government planned to detain him. Today, Sivanayagam runs the Tamil Information Center in Madras.”

Here is what Sivanayagam had reminisced to Anderson brothers.

“Nineteen fifty six was the year in which, for the first time, the Tamils were subject to Sinhala violence.

On that day I was in Jaffna and, unfortunately for me, I had decided to travel to Colombo; I was doing my law studies, and for us Tamils the job opportunities were in Colombo. When the train reached the next large station after Jaffna, I found a large crowd waiting to board the train but not getting in. I called one of them and asked, “Why are these people not getting into the train?’ and he said, ‘It seems there is some trouble in Colombo.’

Mind you, at that time we never knew about problems; we never had attacks, we never had any case of this kind. Anyway, most of these people decided to stay back.

On that day, we reached a town about twenty miles north of Colombo at eight o’ clock in the morning. As the train started moving, I heard some commotion in the next compartment. I looked out and saw people’s belongings, suitcases and pillows, all getting thrown-out, and then I realized there was some problem. And then this gang of about twenty people came rushing in and asked, ‘Are there any Tamils here?’ Well, I was the only Tamil in my section of the compartment – all the others were Sinhala people – so I was in the corner seat and wondering what is going to happen. Then one man saw my suitcase and my pillow and he knew I had to be a Tamil coming [overnight] from Jaffna, so that fellow pointed out that I am one. So they came for me. They pulled me out – even then I was wearing glasses – somebody socked me and the glasses fell off.

Of course, there were some Sinhala people protesting about this – ‘Why do you want to harm him?’ ‘What has he done to you?’ ‘Leave him alone!’ – in Sinhala. But these thugs, they managed to put me out of the compartment, and the whole idea was to push me out from the moving train. I resisted to the last. Fortunately for me, at that moment a guy who was in the corridor blocked the way.

In this situation I ran to the next compartment and then went as far as I could go, almost to the guard’s van, and there I had to stop. Fortunately, when the train slowed down for the next station, these guys all jumped off, but until we reached Colombo Fort station I was still nervous.

When I got down, there was a police van in the station itself. So then I became aware that Colombo already had this problem. Anyway, they said, ‘You get into the van. We must convey you.’ And they took me to the Fort [police] station. Even on the way the mobs were gathering, because they could see me all surrounded by the policemen, so they thought there was a Tamil inside and they started to push the van. Anyway, we managed to go to the police station, and in another three, four hours they took me back to my home.

But that was my first taste of… I realized that, as a Tamil, I don’t have to hold any particular view, I don’t have to be critical of the government, I don’t have to do anything to fall in as an enemy of the Sinhala, but the simple fact that I am a Tamil meant that they could put an attack on me. I could cost my life. That – that shattered all the illusions I had.” [pp. 196-197. Dots are as in the original.]

Sri Lanka: Witness to History A Journalist's Memoirs 1930 - 2004 S. SivanayagamNot only Mr. Sivanayagam’s journalism had passion. His writings packed power, sensibility and style. His masterpiece ‘A Journalist’s Memoirs (1930-2004)’ offers ample vignettes for his style of story-telling. Quite a number of journalists (including Mahatma Gandhi and C.N. Annadurai) had spent time in Indian jails. Here are two sweet paragraphs, from Sivanayagam’s experience in spending time in an Indian jail, on a trumped-up false accusation [courtesy, RAW operatives], after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

“The most popular of the murder convicts was a young man called Jayaprakash who had made newspaper headlines by hacking to death his elder sister, her husband and their three or four children in one fell sweep. What made him do that multiple murder? It seems that the sister’s husband was a regular drunkard who kept beating his wife, gave her no money even to feed her starving children, and Jayaprakash himself being only a student had no way of helping them. He had asked himself the question whether his sister and children deserved that kind of life? Wouldn’t death be a blessing for them? Yes, he thought, and decided to play God, and relieve them of their miserable existence. About to be hanged after trial in that Vellore jail, there was a last-minute reprieve from the President and he was saved from the gallows. Jayaprakash was thereafter not only a model prisoner, respected and maybe feared by the jail staff, but he became my friend as well. Looking at his pleasant countenance, it was hard to believe that he could have committed such a horrible crime. Each morning, he would bring me the copy of The Hindu, the only newspaper allowed which nobody else in our block of cells read. Even after I left jail and left India he would send a card of good wishes to me to my old address in Besant Nagar. There was one lesson that I learnt from jail life and that was – there were worse uncaught criminals in high places in public life outside, than those within prison bars!

Prison routine meant that we would be locked up from 6 pm to 6 am in our respective cells. Dinner would be served before lock-up time, and water for flushing the toilet, would be stored before that. A weak bulb on the verandah roof outside the cell door would remain lit the whole night. Each cell had a cemented bed with elevated headrest. Visitors were allowed on two prescribed days in a week. It meant a day’s travel for my wife who had to take three buses either way to get to Vellore from Besant Nagar where we lived. Cooked food was not permitted, but bread, bananas, cigarettes, reading material (depending on the whim of the official) were allowed. Every other Tuesday I was taken along with my two assistants to mark our presence before the magistrate at Saidapet in Madras – all the way by public transport, changing into three buses either way, with one hand manacled and led by a chain, as if leading a herd of cattle. At the beginning, I used to feel the humiliation of it all, but the complete absence of any interest or curious looks by the mass of people on the road or by fellow bus passengers made me think that we were not in the public gaze. The people themselves seemed to go about with blank looks as if they have been desensitized to loss of human dignity.”

Mr. Sivanayagam’s soft prick at the status of the Hindu daily within the jail, “the only newspaper allowed which nobody else in our block of cells read” was amusing to me. One is made to wonder, why only the Hindu was allowed within the jail? Could it be that it was once popular among the English literate Indian prisoners – maybe during the British colonial period?

The Pen and the Gun Selected Writings 1977 - 2001 S SivanayagamAs a tribute to Mr. Sivanayagam, I have transcribed below the Introduction that he wrote to his book, The Pen and the Gun: Selected Writings. In this, he has placed the Mahavamsa myth on the origin of Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, in proper perspectives.

The Pen and the Gun: Selected Writings 1977-2001

Introduction by Sivanayagam (June 2001)

[Note: The words in bold font and italics, are as in the original.]

Sri Lanka’s post-independence history could be said to be divided, symbolically, into two phases – the supremacy of the sword and the ascendancy of the gun! The dividing line between the two falls roughly around the mind-eighties. The sword is the one you see in Sri Lanka’s national flag and in the official emblem: a figurative but yet ferocious-looking lion holding a threatening sword in its right paw, with its trail raised in the air – altogether a picture of aggression.

In life, we take many things for granted, and not many people, certainly not the non-Sri Lankans, are likely to pause and wonder how the lion came to be the Sri Lanka’s national flag, nor why some patriotic Sinhalese like to call themselves members of the Lion Race. To understand this mindset, one has to go back to a pseudo-historical work called the Mahavamsa (“The Great Chronicle”) written by Buddhist bhikkus, which as a leading Sinhalese historian K.M. de Silva says, was “permeated by a strong religious bias, and encrusted with miracle and invention”(1). Compiled at the beginning of the sixth century after Christ, but containing as it does the island’s recorded history from 500 BC. It is also embellished with tales of mythical beings and miracles. While it is possible to separate the grain from the chaff and use it as an invaluable source of the rich historical tradition of the island, the myths and legends that adorn the Mahavamsa unfortunately took a permanent grip on the popular Sinhalese imagination; with disastrous results to the country and its peoples.

The inventive narration of the founding of Sri Lanka with the arrival of the Sinhalese is a case in point. The story surrounding Vijaya, the supposed founder of the Sinhalese race, as is given in the Mahavamsa is not only fanciful but sordid as well. The Sinhalese people, it is said, are descendants of an “amorous” princess in the country of the Vangas (Bengal in India) who mated with a lion! The soothsayers had “prophesied her union with the king of beasts”, says the chronicle, “and for shame the king and queen could not suffer her.” So she left her home, seeking an independent life and joined a caravan. What follows is an intriguing account that has all the drama that would make a good Hollywood blockbuster!

The caravan was travelling to the “Magadha country” and on the way a lion attacked it in the forest. While “the other folk fled this way and that” the princess fled along the way by which the lion had come. “When the lion had taken his prey and was leaving the spot he beheld her from afar, love (for her) laid hold on him, and he came towards her with waving tail and ears laid back. Seeing him she bethought her of that prophecy of the soothsayer which she had fiercest passion by her touch, took her upon his back and bore her with all speed to his cave, and there he united with her, and from this union with him the princess in time bore twin-children, a son and a daughter.” The son’s hands and feet were formed like a lion’s and the mother named him Si(n)habahu. The daughter was named Si(n)hasivali. Thus they lived in the lion’s cave for sixteen years.

Now, it was the lion’s habit to close the cave entrance with a rock before setting forth in search of prey. When Sihabahu was sixteen, he asked his mother: “Wherefore are you and our father so different, dear mother?” So she told him. The next thing that happened was of course what could be called in contemporary terms, a case of malicious desertion! When the lion had gone out in search of prey, young Sihabahu dislodged the rock that covered the cave, carried his mother and sister on his two shoulders, clothed themselves with branches of trees and escaped to the border village. When the lion returned and found the wife and children gone, “he was sorrowful, and grieving after his son, he neither ate nor drank”, says the Mahavamsa. He set forth in search of them in neighbouring villages, and wherever he went, the people fled in fear. They then went to the king and told him: “A lion ravages thy country; ward off (this danger) O King”. The king offered a reward of a thousand gold pieces to anyone who would bring the lion’s head. Since there were no takers, he increased the reward in turn to two thousand and then three thousand gold pieces. Sihabahu accepted the promise of reward and despite his mother restraining him went to his father’s cave. As soon as the lion saw his son, he came forward with love towards him. Sihabahu’s arrow struck the lion’s forehead, but because of his tenderness towards his son, the arrow rebounded and fell on the earth at the youth’s feet. And so it fell three times, but “then did the king of beasts grow wrathful and the arrow sent at him struck him and pierced his body.

Sihabahu took the head of the lion with the mane and returned to the city to receive a hero’s welcome. In course of time, he founded the new “kingdom of Lala”, made Sihasivali (his sister) the queen, and by her had “twin sons sixteen times”, thirty two sons in all. The eldest of them was named Vijaya whom the king consecrated as prince-regent. Vijaya, according to Mahavamsa, turned out to be “of evil conduct”. He, and his followers, seven hundred of them, perpetrated “many intolerable deeds of violence” that angered the people. The father Sihabahu lost his patience, half-shaved the heads of the lot of them and put them on a ship banishing them from his kingdom. It was this Vijaya who eventually landed in Lanka and founded the Sinhala race, according to the chronicle.[2]

Not a pleasant way to trace the origin of the Sinhalese people – a story of animal descent, an over-sexed princess, a parricide father, an incestuous marriage and a wicked son banished by his people! One would have expected the Sinhalese people to have dismissed this story of a shameful genealogy from their minds, and laughed it off – given their habitual sense of humour – (unlike the Tamils, they have a greater capacity to laugh at themselves) as arrant nonsense. But alas, their politicians were of a different mould. When the leaders of predominantly Hindu India opted for the Asoka Chakra, with its Buddhist connotation of Peace as the national emblem at the time of independence, the Buddhist leaders of Sri Lanka who claim that the island is the first and final repository of Buddhism, Ahimsa and Maithreye decided to make a ferocious-looking lion holding a sword on its paw as their flag and emblem!

This represented an unfortunate state of mind, which was bound to have a deleterious effect on the future history and governance of the country. Should it surprise anyone that the country has been experiencing one form of violence or another and shedding of blood for 45 years of its 53-year post-colonial history? The history of violence in the country wears several faces: Sinhala mob violence against Tamils (1956, 1958); Sinhala dissentient violence against the State (1971); Sinhala State violence against Sinhala dissent (1971); Sinhala State violence against Tamil civilians (1977, 1981, 1983…Tamil militant violence against the State (1983…); Tamil militant violence against Tamil dissent…Tamil militant violence against Sinhalese civilians… and suddenly in mid-1987 Sinhala violence turned inwards with floating corpses in rivers and streams in the south, while in the North and East, an ‘Indian Peace-Keeping Force’ went to war with the Tamil Tigers. By now the violence had peaked into a frontal war between two nationalisms that has shown no signs of abating after seventeen years of bloodshed and loss of seventy thousand human lives. Bad enough for the Sinhala State to carry a historical baggage going back to 2500 years, complete with lion and sword, but worse for the Sinhalese people to burden themselves with myths and legends that reflect badly on their own past. Historically speaking, one could say the tiger-, an equally ferocious predator in the jungle as the lion – was at least a late starter in the jungle politics of Sri Lanka! The calculation must have been that against the Sinhala Lion and the Sword of State, the effective counterpoise would be a Tamil Tiger and an AK 47 gun!

“America, when it started out, was a blank page of history waiting to be written upon”, wrote Tocqueville, the French political scientist. The problem about Sri Lanka is that it is a country heaving with a heavy cargo of the past that even to identify a national hero, the Sinhalese go back two thousand years, before Christ, to remember a Dutugemunu! (The Tamils at least can claim a living one!) What they choose to remember and what they recall with pride are matters for Sinhalese politicians and the Sinhalese people, but by foisting what they believed was a symbol of Sinhala pride (and four Bo-leaves in the flag to denote Buddhist hegemony) in a country that was multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-religious, they had legitimized Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarianism at the very beginning of life as an independent nation. Two stripes of red and green placed alongside the Lion flag, - like the two stripes on a squirrel – as Tamil Senator S. R. Kanaganayagam quipped at that time, were added later as a patronizing gesture towards the presence of two “minorities” in the country, the Tamils and the Muslims. As for the fair-skinned Burghers, they were not even given a thought. They were expected to leave the country, which they did, in large numbers – for Australia. The Tamil exodus out of the country was to start 35 years later, with the State-inspired pogrom of 1983. That year remains as a major watershed.

The title of this book needs a word of explanation. The contents here correspond almost nearly (beginning 1982) with the period when the gun had come into play in the political life of the country. Previously, I had spent thirty years in Colombo, involved with the written word – in newspaper journalism, advertising, tourist promotion, magazine publishing – but the kind of writing devoid of political content. The events in Jaffna in May-June 1981 were to rouse the political animal in me. If any State could virtually declare war against its own citizens, and in a part of its own territory (Jaffna) and do it unashamedly, that happened in 1981. Nancy Murray, a member of the Campaign against Racism and Fascism, and the Council of the Institute of Race Relations said in a subsequent report:

By 1981, the Liberation Tigers had killed perhaps twenty policemen, many of them notorious torturers. In April and May of 1981, following the Neervely bank robbery, twenty seven men were arrested, and at least twenty two of them, according to an Amnesty International report, tortured in a number of ways and then chained to walls at the Elephant Pass army camp and elsewhere for six months at a time. Against the background of relentless State repression, Jayawardene’s effort to defuse the situation by calling elections for District Development Councils was probably doomed from the start, even if he had not aroused Tamil suspicions by sending up a contingent of 300 specially-trained Sinhalese policemen to oversee the election proceedings in Jaffna.

“The run-up to the elections was predictably violent. Tamil youth groups denounced the TULF for going along with the elections – they viewed the DDCs as toothless and TULF cooperation as a sell-out. On 24 May, a UNP candidate was assassinated and the army went on a rampage of looting and torture. And then, on 31 May, an unidentified gunman fired some shots at an election meeting, and the tense atmosphere exploded into State-sponsored mayhem. With several high-ranking Sinhalese security officers and two Cabinet Ministers, Cyril Mathew and Gamini Dissanayake (both self-confessed Sinhala supremacists), both present in the town, uniformed security men and plainclothes thugs carried out some well-organised acts of destruction. They burned to the ground certain chosen targets – including the Jaffna Public Library, with its 95,000 volumes and priceless manuscripts, a Hindu temple, the office and machinery of the independent Tamil newspaper Eelanadu, the house of the MP for Jaffna, the Headquarters of the TULF, and more than 100 shops and markets. Four people were killed outright. No mention of this appeared in the national newspapers, not even the burning of the Library, the symbol of the Tamils’ cultural identity…”[3]

As a Tamil, as a book-lover, what happened was saddening and shocking enough. But as a newspaperman by training, the way the Colombo newspapers blacked out – what should have been banner headlines on Page 1 – outraged my sensibility as a journalist. As a believer in the notion that an unseen hand shapes our lives, confirmation of it came when I received an urgent message from K. Kanthasamy (to whom this book is dedicated) asking whether I could meet with a few Tamil activists at a meeting he would be arranging. It was out of this meeting came the action plan for an English-language newspaper for the Tamils, to be brought out from Tamil soil, and with me to accept both the responsibility (and the risk) of editing such a paper. Used to quick decisions, foolish or otherwise, I did not hesitate. In September, I gave the required three months’ notice of resignation at the Colombo Plan Bureau, shifted myself and my family to Jaffna and in January 1982, launched the Saturday Review. And with that my own future was sealed.

Having lived a life with neither glory nor ignominy for the first fifty years of my life, the next twenty was to become a roller-coaster ride. Hounded by the Sri Lankan government, escape to India by a midnight country boat, separation from the family, jailed by the Indian government without charge for one year, incarceration in two jails, Vellore and Madras, chained to the bed in the Madras General Hospital, a further detention under police guard for six months, litigation after litigation paid for by friends of the Tamil Forum Ltd in the UK, a nomadic life for one and a half years through six to seven countries and finally heard-earned safety in the West. There are no regrets however. Journalism is no journalism if it lacks passion. But it goes with a price. Having paid that price, I believe this book is its own reward.

Foot Notes

[1] K.M. De Silva, A History of Sri Lanka, Oxford University Press, 1981, Second Impression, 1984, page 3.

[2] The Mahavamsa or the Great Chronicle of Ceylon. Translated into English by Wilhelm Geiger, Ph.D., assisted by Mabel Haynes Bode, Ph.D., with an addendum by G.C. Mendis, Ph.D., Lecturer in History, University of Ceylon, published by the Ceylon Government Information Department, Colombo, 1950.

[3] The State against the Tamils, Sri Lanka: Racism and the Authoritarian State, Institute of Race Relations, London, 1984.

Coda

Time permitting, next year, I plan to compile the few, infrequent letters he wrote to me and post them in this website.

*****