Blessings of Christmas are once again upon us all! Even as we immerse ourselves in this universal season of peace and great joy, my thoughts hark back to a terrible incident which marred the spirit of Christmas and sanctity of a Church a decade ago. It was an instance of murder most foul being committed within the hallowed precincts of a Catholic Cathedral in front of the Diocesan Bishop and congregation during midnight mass on Christmas. It happened ten years ago in 2005.
Though several persons including the MP’s wife were injured in the incident the primary victim was Joseph Pararajasingham the benign Tamil Parliamentarian from Batticaloa. He was the target of the assassins. The 71 year old politician was shot dead at the St. Mary’s Cathedral in Batticaloa at 1.10 am on Christmas day.
Pararajasingham was attending the Christmas midnight mass conducted by Bishop Kingsley Swampillai, the Catholic prelate for the Trincomalee -Batticaloa Diocese. He was returning to his pew after partaking of Holy Communion at the hands of the Bishop when the assassins walked forward and opened fire. While Joseph was killed his wife Sugunam and seven others were injured in the firing.
The mortal remains of Joseph Pararajasingham were laid to rest at the family plot in Batticaloa’s Aalaiyadicholai burial grounds on Thursday, December 29. The body lay in state at the Subharaj theatre owned by the family, for the Batticaloa public to pay their respects. The funeral was held at the family residence down Lady Manning Drive. The body was then taken in procession to the cemetery for the final farewell.
I have written about the life and times of Joseph Pararajasingham on earlier occasions too. He was a person whom I first came to know as a fellow journalist named P.Joseph. Later I continued to interact with him as a journalist in his new political avatar as the eastern parliamentarian Joseph Pararajasingham. Even though our political opinions differed strongly in later years, I cannot forget the cordial relationship I enjoyed with him and his loyal wife Sugunam for many years. It is against that backdrop therefore that I recall his memory fondly on the occasion of his tenth death anniversary and compile this article relying on many of my earlier writings.
Let me commence on a personal note and relate how I first met Joseph and Sugunam. I first met the couple in 1977 in Batticaloa. Though only a cub reporter at the “Virakesari” I had been transferred to Batticaloa as staff correspondent. The 1977 Parliamentary elections had seen a bitter division within the Tamil United Liberation Front(TULF) ranks. The incumbent TULF 1st MP for Batticaloa Chelliah Rajadurai and firebrand poet Kasi Anandan were contesting each other in the same constituency. While Rajadurai was the official TULF candidate contesting under the sun symbol, Kasi Anandan was also contesting under the house symbol of the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK). The Kasi Anandan lobby accused the “Virakesari” Batticaloa correspondent, veteran journalist V. S. Kathirgamathamby of being partial to Rajadurai. They demanded an impartial reporter and so Kathirgamathamby was recalled to Colombo and I was sent to Batticaloa in his stead.
Young Stranger From Colombo
Joseph and Sugunam like Batticaloa TULF stalwarts Sam and Kala Tambimuttu were supportive of Rajadurai. The Rajadurai camp viewed me suspiciously as being pro - Kasi Anandan. Joseph, Sugunam, Sam and Kala however were exceedingly nice towards me. Joseph in particular was a ‘competitor’ since he worked for the “Sun” newspaper and his wife Sugunam was the “Dinapathy” Batticaloa correspondent then. Yet Joseph and Sugunam were always helpful and hospitable to the young stranger from Colombo. They would often provide transport for me to attend election meetings.
It was Joseph who briefed me vividly of the prevailing political situation in the east. Their house then was only a few yards away from the Batticaloa Virakesari office. I would often drop in on my own or be invited to drop in for a chat. I called them “Annan” (elder brother)and “Akka” (Elder sister)then and continued to do so. In similar vein I also referred to Lawyer and ex –MP Sam Tambimuttu and his wife Kala as Annan and Akka also.
Later on I returned to Colombo but Joseph remained in touch just like Sam. Both of them were very useful and important news sources from Batticaloa for me while working on “The Island” and later as the Colombo correspondent of “The Hindu”. I myself put him in touch with a few foreign journalists who were also impressed by his contacts and information. Soon Joseph was very much in demand as a news contact from Batticaloa to many foreign journalists. After coming to Canada I was editing two Tamil weeklies the “Senthamarai” and “Muncharie”. Once again Joseph provided a lot of information from Batticaloa.
With two of their children and other close relatives being in Toronto, the Parajasinghams often visited Canada. I used to meet them very often here. Initially the TULF was treated as enemies by the LTTE in Canada. The local LTTE media blacked out the TULF and even Kumar Ponnambalam of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress then. The only Canadian Tamil journals giving Joseph and Kumar positive publicity in those days were the ones edited by me. I also used to do a radio programme then and interviewed both much against the wishes of those running the radio station then.
The situation changed later on. The LTTE was angry for my reporting the facts about Operation Riviresa and conducted a campaign against me. The shop owners selling the paper and advertisers were intimidated. I had to shut my paper. The Tigers however got close to people like Joseph and Kumar. Both were lionised by the tigers in Canada. Despite the close links I had had with Kumar Ponnambalam he began avoiding me in order to curry favour with the local Tigers. But Joseph was different. In spite of pressure applied by the LTTE in Canada Joseph never cut off links. He would always meet me in Canada as he had done in the past. I continued to visit them at their daughter’s place and Sugunam would always be extra hospitable just as she would have been in her own house.
Estrangement With The LTTE
Joseph was also troubled by my estrangement with the LTTE. He would often advise me that an antagonistic relationship was not helpful to either party. Joseph even tried to mend fences and gave up his efforts only because I asked him to stop doing so. Our relationship became slightly strained after the Ananda Sangaree episode. I was critical of the TNA for surrendering their independence to the LTTE and attempting to oust Sangaree according to their diktat. Joseph was initially soft on the issue and tried to make Sangaree withdraw on his own. The LTTE however increased pressure on him . Joseph then was compelled to take a very strident role in ousting Sangaree.
I was extremely critical of that. Joseph explained that he had no choice in the matter as former LTTE political commissar Suppiah Paramu Thamilselvan had demanded it. Though we lost contact thereafter Joseph would always inquire after me from mutual friends or acquaintances. I have no doubt that he would have spoken to me amiably if I had called him but then I did not. Who knew then that his life was going to be extinguished so soon?
One thing I learnt from his own lips in those days was that Joseph was no blind follower of the LTTE. He was unhappy about many of the acts of omission and commission by the LTTE. I am sure that he would have made his views known gently and unobtrusively to the Tigers. But he was a genuine Tamil nationalist at heart.
Joseph was of the firm view that despite the flaws the Tamil people had to back the LTTE in unison at that juncture.
“Nammadai aatkaluku ithu vilanguthillai” (Our people don’t understand this) he would often say. I realised that this was what drove him in his politics and made him take up certain stances. I of course did not subscribe to the view that one had to submit one’s independence and reason to the LTTE in the name of Tamil nationalism. Whether one accepts or rejects this view it was a genuine conviction for Joseph. He was not an opportunist. One had to respect those views. He had every right to his political opinion and course of action.
What was tragic however was that none of the principal Tamil militant groups had ever respected this right. The tendency to kill those with different political views was very much prevalent in the LTTE. But other groups were not very different either.
Finally assassins from the LTTE breakaway faction headed by former eastern region tiger commander “Col” Karuna snuffed out Joseph’s life.
Son Of The Batticaloa Soil
Joseph Pararajasingham was of Jaffna origin, having been born in Manipay on November 26, 1934. Incidentally, November 26 was the birthday of Velupillai Pirapaharan and the late Lalith Athulathmudali. The family moved to Batticaloa when Joseph was three years old. Joseph therefore grew up in Batticaloa and lived there as a “Mannin Mainthan of Mattakkalappu” (son of the Batticaloa soil). He had his education at St. Michael’s College under the benevolent guidance of many American and European missionaries. He was a lanky youth who played soccer and basketball and also was an athlete. A particular favourite of the sports crazy Fr. Weber after whom the Batticaloa stadium is named, Joseph excelled in the high jump event and represented St. Michael’s at the public schools meet
Joseph’s wife Sugunam nee David, studying at St. Cecilia’s Convent was also good at sports during her schooldays. According to old friends they were attracted to each other because of this. Sugunam whose family was also of Jaffna origin with roots in Thondaimanaru had two first cousins who were also parliamentarians from Batticaloa. One was Rajan Selvanayagam who was second MP for Batticaloa from 1970 to 1977. He was elected as an independent but crossed over to the SLFP later. The other cousin was Nimalan Soundaranayagam, who was elected on the TULF ticket Batticaloa District MP on October 10, 2000. He was shot dead by the LTTE then commanded in the east by “Col.” Karuna within a few weeks of the poll.
Joseph worked as a technical draughtsman at the Batticaloa Kachcheri from the mid ‘50s. He retired under Official Languages Act provisions after 1970. This again was due to an interesting reason. As stated earlier, former Batticaloa MP Rajan Selvanayagam was a first cousin of Sugunam. Her mother was the sister of Rajan’s father S. A. Selvanayagam, a very rich Batticaloa businessman. Rajan contested Batticaloa as an independent in 1970.
"Joseph even tried to mend fences and gave up his efforts only because I asked him to stop doing so. Our relationship became slightly strained after the Anandasangaree episode. "
Joseph however was a staunch follower of S. J. V. Chelvanayagam and therefore a federalist. The FP candidate was Chelliah Rajadurai. Despite the close relationship with Rajan Joseph backed Rajadurai. In spite of strong familial pressures Sugunam too supported her husband against her cousin. Rajan a very controversial and colourful personality in his own right was very angry at this “filial betrayal.” 1970 saw both Rajadurai and Rajan being elected as first and second MPs of Batticaloa. Soon Rajan aligned with the government of Mrs. Bandaranaike and became politically powerful. One of his earliest acts of political revenge was to transfer Joseph out from Batticaloa Kachcheri to Nuwara Eliya.
Instead of going to Nuwara - Eliya Joseph opted to retire from government service. He then tried his hand at many businesses ranging from mineral water manufacture to wholesale paper sales while continuing as a freelance journalist.
Dawasa Group Of Newspapers
Joseph had earlier cut his teeth in journalism on the “Suthanthiran” owned by S.J.V. Chelvanayagam and edited by S.T. Sivanayagam of Batticaloa. Later Sivanayagam fell out with Chelvanayagam and went on to edit the “Dinapathy” and “Chinthamani” published by the Dawasa Group of Newspapers. Joseph became the Batticaloa correspondent for both papers. Since he was a government servant then the stories and articles from Batticaloa in Tamil appeared under his wife’s name. The byline was Sugunam Joseph. Since Joseph was proficient in English he also became the “Sun” and “Weekend” correspondent. After he retired from government service he wrote under his own name as P. Joseph.
It was as P. Joseph that he was known for most of his life. It was only after he entered full-time politics that he gave emphasis to the Tamil name Pararajasingham in preference to the Biblical Joseph. He is still known to old friends as “Joe.” Though Joseph was offered a staff reporter post at the editorial department in Colombo he declined it as he wanted to live in Batticaloa, his homeland. It was indeed tragic that he had to leave the comparative safety of Colombo and return to his native soil for Christmas and meet death in the Batticaloa Cathedral.
Joseph also worked as manager for many years of the Rajeswara theatre in Batticaloa owned by the businessman Eeswaran. In later years Joseph went on to buy the Imperial theatre in Batticaloa and rename it Subaraj after his son who died in the ‘80s. He also became a successful entrepreneur and owned a tourist inn and shopping complex in Batticaloa. These too were named Subaraj after the departed son. Their only daughter Subodini and one son Subakanth live in Canada now. The other son Subajith is in Britain.
Joseph was an ardent Tamil nationalist from his student days. He joined the Federal Party led by the “Gandhi of Eelam” S.J.V. Chelvanayagam in 1954. Joseph and Sugunam who got married in 1956 participated in a massive political demonstration on the day of their wedding. It was a protest over Sinhala being made the sole official language. Due to his government job and journalism Joseph kept a low profile as far as active politics was concerned. He played a prominent behind the scenes role in Federal Party politics in Batticaloa. He was a devout disciple of Chelvanayagam and fervently believed in non - violence as a political creed.
Tamil unity was the need of the hour in the ‘70s. The FP became an integral component of the Tamil United Front (TUF) in 1972. This became the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in 1976.
With Chelvanayagam dying on April 26, 1977 the leadership mantle fell on the shoulders of Amirthalingam and Sivasithamparam. One post-Chelvanayagam problem that arose was the side lining of Chelliah Rajadurai.
Chelliah Rajadurai-Kasi Anandhan
Rajadurai, a blue-eyed boy of Chelvanayagam, had been the first MP for Batticaloa since 1956. In 1977 the TULF nominated him as the official party candidate and also nominated the fiery Tamil poet Kasi Anandhan as the FP candidate for Batticaloa. Rajadurai had the sun and Kasi Anandhan the house as their respective symbols. With Kasi Anandhan riding a wave of popular support on account of his long period of incarceration under the Sirima Bandaranaike regime, he was expected to de-throne Rajadurai.
"As stated earlier, former Batticaloa MP Rajan Selvanayagam was a first cousin of Sugunam. Her mother was the sister of Rajan’s father S. A. Selvanayagam, a very rich Batticaloa businessman. "
It was obvious that the TULF hierarchy was using Kasi Anandhan to oust Rajadurai from centre stage in Batticaloa. The FP old guard in Batticaloa including Joseph and Sam Tambimuttu rallied firmly around Rajadurai. They took up the position that they had to support the “official” TULF candidate. Rajadurai won but went over to the UNP in 1979. Staunch Tamil nationalists like Joseph did not follow suit but remained TULF loyalists.
It was in the late ‘80s that Joseph came into his own. The TULF, TELO and EPRLF came under the TULF umbrella and contested the 1989 elections. Joseph encouraged Amirthalingam to contest in Batticaloa. Amirthalingam was put up by Joseph and Sugunam at their own house during the polls campaign. Joseph now an independent entrepreneur also contested at the polls.
Since Amirthalingam was a “Jaffna man” who had parachuted into Batticaloa, a malicious campaign on regional lines was undertaken against him as an outsider. Joseph however remained steadfastly loyal and backed him firmly. By doing so Joseph proved that his position on Rajadurai in 1977 was a principle-based stand and not due to personal bias for Rajadurai or against Amirthalingam.
Initially both Amirthalingam and Pararajasingham lost in 1989 due to the IPKF inspired manipulation of votes. Amir however entered parliament on the national list. After his assassination Mavai Senathirajah was nominated to the post. Meanwhile Batticaloa MP Sam Tambimuttu and his wife Kala were gunned down by the LTTE opposite the Canadian High Commission in Colombo in 1990. With Amirthalingam being dead it was now the turn of Joseph - next on the list -to become Batticaloa district MP.
Very Difficult Period For Tamils
The early ‘90s of the last century was a very difficult period for Tamils in the Batticaloa and the Amparai Districts. The LTTE was restricted mainly to the jungles and some areas of the western hinterland known as “Paduvankarai” or shore of the setting sun. The Tigers did not have a permanent presence in the littoral to the east of the Batticaloa lagoon known as “Eluvankarai” or shore of the rising sun. Tigers used to infiltrate this area for certain purposes at times. The littoral was better developed and had the bulk of the population. It was also heterogenous with interspersed Tamil and Muslim villages adjacent to each other like flour and coconut in a “pittu”bamboo.
The state unleashed a scorched earth policy on eastern Tamils in order to subdue them. Apart from the army and police the Special Task Force was deployed almost exclusively in Batticaloa - Amparai. Sections of the air force were also used here. Sinhala and Muslim homeguards were used as auxiliary troops.
Some Muslim groups were armed by the state and used against Tamils. Tamil - Muslim enmity was encouraged. Disappearances and civilian massacres were very much on the increase. As a result of these measures helpless eastern Tamils were crushed underfoot beneath the military jackboot. It was during such a bleak and dark period of the eastern Tamils that Joseph Pararajasingham became an MP from the district.
Joseph Pararajasingham despite his physical stature was not an aggressive personality. He was a very powerful orator in Tamil on political platforms but soft spoken and mild-mannered in everyday life. While his wife Sugunam is of a fiery temperament at times, Joseph was generally quiet and gentle. He avoided arguments of any type.
Joseph was very much like a gentleman of the old school type, who did not like to offend or cause controversy. Becoming Batticaloa MP in the ‘90s however thrust him into an entirely new role. Joseph was compelled to take on the powers that be in his role as representative of the Tamil people.
Though the role of a Batticaloa parliamentarian was thrust on Joseph due to the killing of Amirthalingam and Thambimuttu by the LTTE the benign Pararajasingham was of the view that it was in his destiny to be a parliamentarian. The stars had already ordained such a role for him he felt. He had always been interested in politics but never had any lofty ambitions of entering parliament. His attitude however changed in the late ‘60s while working under former GA Kathirgamanathan.
Parliamentarian Representing Batticaloa
A “Kandam” reading astrologer from India read the Ola leaves and predicted that Pararajasingham would one day enter Parliament. Old friends recall him being excited by it and even telling his boss the GA about it. He was subject to some teasing as “our future MP” by friends for a while due to this. Fate however decreed that he be a Parliamentarian representing Batticaloa.
"Joseph was very much like a gentleman of the old school type who did not like to offend or cause controversy. "
The affected Tamil people turned to Joseph, the new MP with their problems and grievances. In the old days the problems were about jobs, transfers, etc. Now it was literally and metaphorically existential issues. Disappearances, arrests, torture. assaults, killings, shelling, bombing, firing, detentions etc. were the problems. Joseph telephoned the military STF and Police officials; he wrote letters and faxed them to the President, Defence Secretary, Defence Service Chiefs and Ministers; he visited places where State terror had been unleashed and spoke reassuringly to victims and next of kin; he ensured that medical treatment was afforded to injured people.
"The assassins had arrived at St. Anthony’s Church ...They had discarded their military fatigues inside the vestry and moved out quietly...."
Being generally an amiable person with good inter - personal skills Joseph maintained cordial relations with the serving Police and defence service officials of the district. Sugunam who functioned as his secretary would get the people on the telephone and Joseph would speak. At times he would go personally to meet them. The late General Lucky Algama was very hostile to Joseph initially. After some interaction they became quite friendly to each other. This does not mean that Joseph was able to remedy the grievances of the people at all times. That could not be so given the fact that a war was going on. But where Joseph succeeded was in providing solace and limited succour to affected people. He provided a ray of hope for the beleaguered ordinary people of Batticaloa. They felt that there was one man at least to whom they could turn to in their troubles. He and Sugunam listened intently. Sugunam would provide refreshments and at times meals to the poor people who had travelled from afar. She had a good rapport with the womenfolk.
C. P. Chandraprema in his interesting series of articles in “The Island” on the state of the UNP has written of the “Manushakama” provided by Vijaya and Chandrika Kumaratunga to aggrieved people during the dark days of the J.R. Jayewardene regime. They lent a sympathetic ear and a shoulder to cry on for the people. It was this empathy and humanity that endeared them to the people at that time. Joseph and Sugunam too provided this same “Manushathanmai” or “manithabimanam” to the afflicted people of Batticaloa who sought their help. I must emphasise here that these attributes of the Pararajasingham were not necessitated by politics alone. It was inherent in their nature to be so.
Selfless Work Done By Joseph And Sugunam
It was the cumulative result of the selfless work done by Joseph and Sugunam in the early ‘90s that led to Pararajasingham’s remarkable victory in 1994. The TULF given up as ‘defunct’ raised itself up again with five MPs. Batticaloa District had three, namely Pararajasingham, Selvarajah and Thurairajasingham. Joseph himself won handsomely with a tremendous tally of preferential votes. Realising that he was now the mainspring of the TULF in terms of popular support, Pararajasingham demanded and obtained the TULF parliamentary group leader position. Later Joseph rose in TULF ranks to be senior vice -president, making him next in line for leadership.
Years later the original TULF became part of the Tamil National Alliance(TNA).In 2004 the LTTE eastern military commander Karuna revolted against Veluppillai Prabhakaran’s leadership. Among the prominent politicians of Batticaloa it was Joseph alone who spoke out against Karuna immediately after the split. He condemned the regionalism preached by Karuna and supported Piraba in the name of undivided Tamil nationalism. It was a very bold stance but Joseph was only being true to himself as he had always stood for those policies as a disciple of S.J.V. Chelvanayagam. Also Joseph was close to LTTE eastern political chief Karikalan and not “Col” Karuna. The former had gone over to Kilinochchi after the split. This too may have influenced Joseph’s position but his genuine Tamil nationalism cannot be disputed.
Joseph was a man marked by Karuna after the split. Realising he was a target Joseph avoided coming to Batticaloa unnecessarily. Yet, he did come to Batticaloa weeks before Christmas and stayed there. The Pararajasinghams had gone to church at about 10. 30 p.m on Christmas eve though the service was to begin at 11. 30 p.m.. Finding the church virtually deserted they had turned back but returned in a few minutes after the arrival of Sugunam’s brother, Robin’s family.
The assassins had first arrived at St. Anthony’s Church in close proximity to the St. Mary’s Cathedral. They had discarded their military fatigues inside the vestry and moved out quietly in civilian dress. They were tall and dark toned. Moving into the Cathedral compound through a side gate they had entered through one of the side entrances to the Cathedral at the front. This was when the Pararajasinghams with some others were kneeling at the altar for bread and wine. The choir had full view of the assassins but did not suspect anything.
Even as Joseph got up the assassins moved closer to the altar and the Bishop. Sugunam got up a few seconds later. Joseph who had started returning to his pew paused and turned halfway to allow Sugunam to precede him. It was at this point that the assassins started firing. The congregation, choir and clergy including Bishop Swampillai dived to the floor in panic. Joseph fell down. It is believed he was killed instantly.
Assassins Walked Down The Aisle
Sugunam and seven others were injured in the firing. The assassins then walked down the aisle firing away in the air. According to some reports they got into a waiting three- wheeler which headed out to the security camp located at an old toothpowder factory premises. The Patpodi camp as it is known was the operational safe house of the Karuna faction in Batticaloa town.
" At times he would go personally to meet them. The late General Lucky Algama was very hostile to Joseph initially. "
Pararajasingham had five police bodyguards with him at the time of the incident. They were standing outside the church with one of them popping in every five minutes to check whether the MP was safe. None of the bodyguards fired back at the assassins. Their explanation was that it may have hit the people. But then they did not fire even after the assassins went outside the church. Furthermore there were no attempts by the guards after the firing to take Pararajasingham to the hospital. Finally Joseph was taken by a nephew in his car and Sugunam by a niece in her car to the hospital. Fellow parishioners helped carry them to the vehicles.
Apart from the official bodyguards the surrounding area usually teems with security personnel. Additional men were deployed for Christmas. When people came to church the area was bristling with men. But when they returned none was seen. In fact security people reappeared only after an hour or two. The intriguing conduct of the bodyguards, as well as the mysterious disappearance of the security personnel along with the safe and easy passage by the assassins, indicate clearly that the killing was an officially sanctioned, unofficial execution.
Thus ended the life of Joseph Pararajasingham ten years ago. Given the circumstances of his assassination it was the state which stood in the dock. Mahinda Rajapaksa had been elected President just a month before. The Karuna faction is strongly suspected of being the instrument of death. No concrete efforts were undertaken by the Rajapaksa regime to conduct an efficient probe into the murder. Now the current dispensation under President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has initiated an investigation and even Karuna’s deputy Pillaiyaan has been detained. It remains to be seen as to whether justice would be done.
Great Loss To People Of Batticaloa
The brutal manner of Joseph being killed in the church after partaking of communion on Christmas Day within full view of the congregation in the presence of the Bishop denotes depths of depravity by the killers. Whatever his politics, Joseph Pararajasingham did not deserve to die or be killed in this manner. His death has been a great loss to the people of Batticaloa. The circumstances of his death fill me personally with great sadness even after ten years . My thoughts are with Sugunam Akka and the children at this time. (ENDS)
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org