By D. B. S. Jeyaraj
Former Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Jaffna District Parliamentarian and Lawyer Nadarajah Raviraj and his Police bodyguard Sgt.Lakshman Lokuwella were gunned down on a Colombo street in broad daylight ten years ago. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) investigation report on Sri Lanka (OISL) presented at the 30th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in September 2015 summed up the shooting in the following manner:-
“On November 10, 2006, Nadarajah Raviraj, a human rights lawyer and MP of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), was shot dead on a main road in Colombo by an assailant riding a motorbike. The attack took place near a Security Force base on a stretch of road between police checkpoints. MP Raviraj was widely known for his moderate views and critical statements of both the LTTE and the Government, particularly in the weeks leading up to his murder. Along with other parliamentarians he had set up the Civilian Monitoring Committee, which alleged the Government was responsible for abductions, enforced disappearances and unlawful killings. The day before he was killed, Raviraj and other TNA parliamentarians took part in a demonstration in front of the UN offices in Colombo to protest against the killing of Tamil civilians by the military in the East and the increasing abductions and extrajudicial killings”.
He was personally known to me and one of the many political leaders on either side of the ethnic divide known to me who were killed during the course of Sri Lanka’s protracted ethnic crisis which spawned South Asia’s longest war. The moderate Tamil MP’s killing on a Colombo road in broad daylight amounted to a murder most foul. The 10th death anniversary falls on November 10th. This column intends focussing on the life and death of MP Raviraj in a bid to remember the bright young star in the Tamil political firmament who was gunned down most cruelly at the age of 44.
Chavakachcheri in Thenmaratchy
Nadarajah Raviraj born on June 25, 1962 was a native of Chavakachcheri in the Thenmaratchy sector of Jaffna. His father was a school teacher at Chavakachcheri Hindu College in Sangathanai. His mother taught at Hindu Ladies College, Chavakachcheri. Raviraj was an old boy of Drieberg’s College, Chavakachcheri and St. Johns College, Jaffna. Friends recall with affectionate nostalgia that Raviraj generally known as Ravi was also nicknamed “kilangu” (potato) during his school days.
He passed out as a lawyer and took his oaths in 1987. He joined the Attorney – General’s Dept in 1990 and worked there till 1993. He quit in 1993 and became a human rights lawyer attached to the Home for Human Rights and worked there till 1996. Thereafter he began private practice and soon set up his own law office Raviraj and Associates. He was involved in human rights activities from 1984 onwards even during his law College days.
Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF)
Raviraj became enamoured of democratic politics at a time when most Tamils of a younger generation were aligning with militant groups. He joined the TULF and worked actively for the party along with other young Tamil lawyers like former Jaffna Mayor Pon. Sivapalan and ex-Batticaloa MP Thurairajasingham who is now an Eastern Provincial Minister.
Raviraj owed his rise in politics to TULF stalwart Veerasingham Aanandasangaree who regarded his younger colleague as a protege. Sangaree who was senior vice president and later President of the TULF in those days promoted Raviraj within the party. Raviraj became a TULF Central Committe member in 1990. In 1998 he was appointed Legal adviser to the party. He was made a TULF Politbureau Member in 2000 and in 2001 became Administrative Secretary of the party.
The TULF, of an earlier era faced great danger at the hands of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Other militant Tamil groups supposedly functioning as “ half- democratic” parties were also not well -- disposed towards the grand old democratic party of Sri Lankan Tamils. It was amidst great physical danger that the TULF contested the Jaffna Municipality in 1998. Raviraj too was on the list. The TULF with its slogan of “unarmed democracy” (Aayuthamatra Jananayagam) topped the polls in Jaffna despite not having resources like other parties such as EPDP, PLOTE, TELO and EPRLF. Raviraj became a municipal councillor.
Acting Jaffna Mayor
Sarojini Yogeswaran became Mayoress and was shot dead by the LTTE. Pon. Sivapalan then succeeded her. Sivapalan along with Jaffna military commander Brig. Mendis and several others were killed when the LTTE exploded a claymore mine concealed in the ceiling. The mayoral aspirant Pon. Mathimugarajah was assassinated by the LTTE in front of the Nallur Kandaswamy temple.
In spite of the danger involved, Raviraj backed up by Aanandasangaree came forward to don the mayoral mantle. He was appointed Deputy Mayor in 1998. Instead of becoming Mayor immediately he functioned as Acting Mayor. He was the de facto and not de jure mayor for a while. Raviraj adopted this razor’s edge stance and managed to survive. In October 2000, he contested the Parliamentary elections on the TULF ticket but failed to win a seat. In 2001, he was formally appointed as Jaffna Mayor. But within months, he was elected to Parliament and resigned from the Mayoral office.
Tamil National Alliance
By 2001, there was a sea of changes in Tamil “moderate” politics. The TULF, Tamil Congress, EPRLF and TELO joined hands and formed a loose alliance known as the Tamil National Alliance. They started moving close to the LTTE and began toeing the Tiger line.
The TULF then faced danger at the hands of Douglas Devananda’s EPDP which treated the new political formation as potential danger. When the TULF went into the Islands to do propaganda the EPDP saw it as an affront and a challenge. The EPDP had for long regarded the Kayts division as its fiefdom. A gang of EPDP goons led by “Napoleon” and masterminded by “Mano” accosted the TULF in Thambatty in Naranthanai and launched a brutal assault. Raviraj driving up in the front vehicle displayed great physical courage in combatting the challenge. Two TULF activists were killed and people like Mavai Senathirajah and M.K. Sivajilingam sustained injuries. It was this incident which turned the tide against the EPDP then. The case is still continuing at the Jaffna courts.
Raviraj too won and entered Parliament for the first time in 2001 December. There was however a split in the TULF during this time when the old warhorse Aanandasangaree fell foul of the LTTE which wanted him ousted. The TNA was now fast-becoming a puppet of the LTTE. Sangaree resisted LTTE domination and paid the price as most of his colleagues and followers deserted him and paid pooja to the Tigers.The unkindest cut for Sangaree was the “transformation ” of Raviraj. The young MP had initially backed his political mentor but gradually parted ways with his senior colleague. In 2004, April Raviraj was re- elected as Jaffna district MP but Aanandasangaree was defeated in an “undemocratic” poll conducted under dubious means. Raviraj soon became a rising star in the TNA which contested under the house symbol of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK).
Best known face among TNA MP’s
One of his strong points was his fluency in Tamil, English and Sinhala. This enabled him to participate fully in Parliament debates, media discussions and interviews and public meetings. He was a forceful speaker and conveyed his views precisely and clearly. He was capable of quick repartees and often made pithy and pungent comments. He also participated in demonstrations particularly those concerning freedom of expression. Raviraj had many friends among the Colombo media. He participated in many TV shows in all three languages. He was perhaps the best-known face among TNA Parliamentarians” to the “Sinhala” South.
Raviraj was in Canada some years ago, and I heard him speak at a public seminar on the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka. He was the last speaker and there were a couple of Canadian mainstream MP’s at the meeting. As is usual among western politicians who “grace” minority community occasions just to keep up “appearances”, the two gentlemen began moving out as Raviraj was on the rostrum. The young Tamil MP was not fazed and made a public appeal that both MP’s should not leave but sit and listen to his speech. Taken aback both men promptly returned to their seats, tuned in and after it was over engaged in long discussions with the Sri Lankan Parliamentarian.
I also recall that Raviraj could not have dinner with me as arranged earlier because his departure from Toronto had to be expedited due to an urgent matter. I was not at home when he called to inform me of the sudden change of plan. After returning to Colombo, he was courteous enough to call me and apologise profusely.
The conflict in Sri Lanka began escalating after Mahinda Rajapakse became President in November 2005. The war conducted against the LTTE resulted in great hardship for the Tamil people. The basic human rights of the Tamils were violated with impunity during those days of war.”Terror”was on the rise.
Civil Monitoring Committee
Raviraj was in the forefront of those resisting this creeping state of terror. He joined hands with those of different political beliefs and ethnicities to fight for common causes. A case in point was his active involvement in the Civil Monitoring Committee (CMC) set up to monitor extra – judicial executions, disappearances and abductions. Raviraj worked with people like Siritunga Jayasuriya, Mano Ganesan, Vasudeva Nanayakara, Dr.Wickramabahu Karunaratne,and Appapillai Vinayagamoorthy etc in this regard.
I also know for a fact that he was one of the few Tamil MP’s who interacted closely with diplomats, human rights activists and media personnel about issues affecting the Tamil people. Though he did not hog the limelight in this, he worked quietly behind the scenes in keeping the “world” informed about what was happening in the Island. Raviraj had participated in conflict resolution workshops hosted by the Institute of Federalism in Switzerland, Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Germany and Peace Institute in Austria among others.
Raviraj, along with a few other MP’s was the live-wire of the TNA. The TNA was being forced to adopt a more militant yet non-violent stance in espousing the Tamil cause. After many non-violent demonstrations in Parliament, the TNA began taking to the streets to articulate Tamil grievances. The demonstration opposite the UNHCR office in Bauddhaloka Mawatha was the beginning of a new series of envisaged protests. Once again Raviraj played a crucial role in organizing and conducting the demonstration. 19 of the 22 TNA Parliamentarians who participated. Apart from handling logistics his voice could be heard shouting slogans and demands loudly in all three languages. He also interacted with the media and obtained much publicity for the event. Given the prevailing political culture of that time where all Tamil dissent was ruthlessly suppressed a voice such as that of Raviraj’s too had to be silenced from the viewpoint of those wielding power in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.
D-day or Death Day
D-day or death day was November 10, 2006. The TNA MP from Jaffna district and his bodyguard Police Sgt. Lokuwellamurage Shantha Laxman Lokuwella from Gampaha were shot dead in broad daylight at about 8.39 am in Colombo. The shooting occurred close to Raviraj’s residence in Manning Town, Narahenpita. The spot where the shooting occurred was in close proximity to the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority and the Registrar of Motor Vehicles Department. The Jaffna MP had returned home after a discussion – interview on “Derana” TV from 7.00 am – 7.30 am, quickly changed clothes, had breakfast and was heading for his law office.
Raviraj had his own driver but he was on leave. The driver had requested a further extension of leave a few days before the killing. According to Raviraj’s brother-in-law, the MP had then told the driver good – humouredly ” Even if I die, you can have your leave”. The TNA Parliamentarian had first tried to use his wife’s car but finding the battery had drained down chose to use his own vehicle.
Raviraj had asked his bodyguard Sgt. Lakshman, a native of Gampaha, to get in and climbed onto the drivers seat. The Toyota Land Cruiser Prado bearing number plate WP KE 1279 was then slowly driven along Martha road by Raviraj. The vehicle was turning into Elvitigala Mawatha when a motor cycle with registered number JE 3507 came near from the opposite side. Two men with helmets were on it. One got down from the pillion, removed his helmet, went across and stood on the pavement. He had a shoulder bag.
Raviraj’s vehicle was cruising along very slowly when the man tore apart the bag he was carrying and started firing. The weapon was a T-56. The assassin did not pull the gun out but fired while it was yet inside the bag. The assassin fired away at point blank range on Raviraj’s vehicle from the front, side and rear. An entire magazine was exhausted in the firing. He then ran quickly and climbed on to the motorcycle pillion again.
The assassins had then turned into Martha road and sped away. The bag containing the T-56 as well as the helmet of one rider were found on the side of the road. Police also stated that a three wheeler parked close to the spot had also driven away after the shooting. It is suspected that the three wheeler driver was a “look – out” for the assassins and had tipped them off by mobile phone about the movements of Raviraj’s vehicle.
Colombo National Hospital
Raviraj was hit five times and Lokuwella eight times. Both victims were rushed to Colombo National Hospital. Lokuwella was pronounced dead upon admission. Raviraj was in critical condition and an urgent surgery was performed. But was pronounced dead at 9. 20 am. Hospital sources said the MP was “clinically dead” while being admitted. Thus ended the life of Nadarajah Raviraj.
Raviraj was married to Sashikala, a teacher at Bishop’s College, Colombo. They have a daughter Praveena and son Yuthishthran Raviraj lived and worked in Colombo. His bodyguard who died along with him was a Policeman. Raviraj’s mother described the bodyguard as “part of our family” and lamented about the dead cops wife and two young children. Raviraj’s daughter Praveena in speaking about her father said ” He thought the Sinhalese loved him and he loved them in turn. He didn’t see ethnic differences, but he saw that it was red blood which united us all,” Raviraj’s wife Sashikala said about her husband ‘‘ He was a genuine, open person with a good heart who had close ties with people of all backgrounds.”
National Peace Council Executive Director Jehan Perera described Raviraj’s role in the following manner when the MP was killed. “Raviraj was a Tamil leader who helped to educate the non-Tamil population about the perspectives of the Tamils and their sufferings. On Tuesday November 14, he had agreed to be a speaker at a Religious-Political Dialogue organised by several civic organisations. He was friendly with all, and always prepared to engage with others, even with those of a very different political mindset. Although the Sinhala language skills at his disposal were limited, he courageously made use of them to debate with the representatives of the nationalist Sinhalese political parties and provide another perspective on current and national issues. With his killing this important avenue of information is likely to close for both the general public and the international community to whom he spoke with a measure of credibility.”
Last Testament and Will
Pronouncements and views expressed on ones deathbed or prior to death are treated as sacrosanct. Raviraj did not know that he was going to be shot at 8. 40 am and that he would die at 9. 20 am on Nov 10. His final media interview was between 7.30 – 8.00 am that same morning. Some of the views he expressed then could be regarded as his last testament and will (in political terms).
What does Raviraj tell “Derana”?
The people in the North-East aspire to live together. They aspire for the merger of the two provinces, it is a basic human right of those people. In the ancient times, there were Sinhala and Tamil kingdoms in Sri Lanka. It is not new to our people. That is mainly an area of Tamils from ancient times. It does not mean that we want to divide the country. We believe that North and East should be considered as a single unit. That should be the base if we are to find a solution to the ethnic crisis.”
“In 1947, when India achieved Independence, Mohamed Ali Jinnah demanded Pakistan to be separated. We asked for 50-50 and then a Federal system and now the LTTE was fighting for separate State. However, as politicians we still believe in a united country”.
Those who knew Raviraj intimately would realise that these last words of Raviraj came from his heart. The real Raviraj was the man who boldly distanced himself from the LTTE on TV and said “It does not mean that we want to divide the country” and also observed ” now the LTTE is fighting for a separate State.
Connector not Divider
This then was the real Raviraj. He worked with all sections of the people, involved himself in many issues and helped build bridges between the Tamils and other communities. He was a connector of people and not a divider of communities. The fact that a large gathering of people from diverse, multi-ethnic backgrounds paid their respects demonstrated that ordinary people understood that difference. Ravi’s death diminishes humanity and has been a loss to us all.
D. B. S. Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org