By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
The tenth death anniversary of well-known columnist D.P. Sivaram who wrote under the pseudonym of “Taraki” falls this week. Dharmaretnam Puvirajakeerthi Sivaram who wrote in English and Tamil was abducted on April 28, 2005 at Bambalapitiya around 10. 30 pm. His body was found about four hours later by the Police on the banks of Diyawanna Oya near Kimbula-ela junction, about 500 metres away from the Parliament Complex. It was concluded at the inquest that he had died of gunshot injuries after midnight between 12.30 and 1.00 am on April 29th.
The brazen abduction and brutal assassination of “Taraki”Sivaram caused shock waves. He was formerly a gun toting Tamil militant who had later turned into a pen wielding journalist. As a freelance journalist, Sivaram had written his weekly Taraki column at different times for different English newspapers such as “Sunday Island”, ”Daily Mirror” and “Sunday Times”. He also wrote occasionally in Tamil under the by-line “DP Sivaram” for newspapers such as “Virakesari”. (Later he got involved with the “North-Eastern Herald” journal and the “Tamilnet”website). Though controversial at times, his informative and analytical political columns were widely read. The circumstances of his abduction and death therefore evoked strong reactions from many including this writer. In penning this article on the occasion of Taraki’s tenth death anniversary, I am drawing liberally from some of my earlier writings.
On that fateful night of his abduction, Sivaram known to his friends by various names such as “SR,” “Siva” and “Ram” had been enjoying a good drink in amiable company. His companions at the Bambalapitiya restaurant were freelance journalist cum political activist Kusal Perera, health sector trade unionist Ravi Kumudesh and an NGO coordinator, Prasanna Ratnayake. It was 10.25 pm when the quartet came out of the Bamba waterhole.
Ravi and Prasanna bade good bye and walked towards Kollupitiya saying they wanted to take a three-wheeler to Borella. Kusal and Siva walked towards Wellawatte talking to each other. The idea was to finish their private discussion and then board a bus to go home. Perera and Sivaram were at a bus halt on Galle Road near De Vos Avenue when the latter received a call on his mobile phone. Speaking in Tamil, the 46-year-old bi-lingual journalist walked a little ahead, while Kusal stayed back looking out in the opposite direction for a bus. At one point he saw a Pettah - Panadura bus coming and turned to Sivaram to alert him about the bus.
What he saw unnerved Kusal. A silver-grey vehicle was parked on the road near Sivaram. It was a Toyota SUV with the number plate WP G 11... Kusal could not see the other digits properly. Two men were trying to force Sivaram into the vehicle, while a third individual was standing near the opened door. The engine was running with the fourth man at the wheel. Suddenly they gripped Sivaram from behind and began forcing him to get into the vehicle. Sivaram was grappling with his abductors. Though they were in civvies they exuded an aura of ‘uniform.’
"Though controversial at times, his informative and analytical political columns were widely read. The circumstances of his abduction and death therefore evoked strong reactions from many including this writer. In penning this article on the occasion of Taraki’s tenth death anniversary, I am drawing liberally from some of my earlier writings"
Kusal Perera said that he saw this scuffle and tried to go near them shouting “Siva” and “Sivaram.” The abductors succeeded in pushing Sivaram into the vehicle. Two men gestured menacingly at Kusal and got in themselves. Kusal said that he panicked as the vehicle sped off. The entire abduction occurred right opposite the Bambalapitiya police station. He then went home and alerted a number of people about the incident.
Subsequently, it was revealed through eyewitnesses that four men had been loitering outside the restaurant from about 8.30 pm onwards. Two men were speaking in Tamil to each other while the other two spoke in Sinhala. According to an eyewitness, one of the men had called someone in Tamil on his mobile and wanted the “Vaahanam” (vehicle) to be sent. With the wisdom of hindsight, it was realized that the vehicle called for was the one in which Sivaram was abducted. Since it arrived very quickly, it was surmised that the vehicle must have been ready and waiting close by.
Upon learning of the abduction, Sivaram’s wife Yogaranjini, also called Bhavani, contacted her brother living in Mattakkuliya and went with him to the Bambalapitiya police station to lodge a complaint. Sivaram’s journalist colleague and friend Rajpal Abeynayake also informed a number of officials, including then Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Shantha Kottegoda who promised to issue an alert to all military checkpoints.
It was about an hour
past midnight when the Talangama police station received an anonymous telephone call informing the cops that a body was lying on the bank of Diyawanna Oya alongside the Sri Lanka - Japan Friendship Road. When the police went to the spot near Kimbula - ela junction, about 500 metres behind the Sri Jayewardenepura Parliament complex they found a dead body lying amidst the shrubs. It was identified later by friends and family to be that of Sivaram’s.
Sivaram was gagged with a dotted serviette and had his hands tied behind his back. He had been hit with a blunt instrument on the back of his head. This seems to have been done to prevent his struggling. The brave fighter that he was, Sivaram would have obviously resisted his abductors valiantly and therefore was made unconscious.
Sivaram seems to have been shot at point blank range with a 9 mm Browning. One shot had cleanly entered his neck and chest. The second had penetrated his hand and entered the body. Contrary to reports in the Tiger media, there were no signs of torture. Two 9 mm empties were found near his body. There was very little blood at the scene.
The body was then taken to the Colombo JMO office for a postmortem. Dr. Jeanne Perera, the Head of Forensic Medicine at the Colombo Medical Faculty at that time, conducted it. When the media contacted her afterwards she declared “there was no torture or assault. I say that vehemently.”
Continuing, Dr. Perera said “he (Sivaram) had been given one blow on the back of his head and then shot twice on his shoulder blade and neck while he lay on the ground. The killing occurred where the body was found. The swelling on one of his eyes was not the result of a blow but due to the vibration when the bullets pierced the body.” She also placed the time of death at about 12.30 to 1. 00 am.
The mortal remains of Dharmaratnam Puvirajakeerthi Sivaram were laid to rest at the family burial grounds of Aalaiadicholai in Batticaloa on May 2, 2005. Most Batticaloa-Tamils unlike their Jaffna counterparts bury and do not cremate their dead. The ancient Tamils of India and Sri Lanka used to bury their dead and Batticaloa Tamils follow this practice still. It denotes that they are children of that soil with vintage history and roots.
Sivaram loved his Batticaloa home and native eastern land. To him, the greatest pleasure in life was to stand atop the Puliyantheevu Bridge over the Batticaloa lagoon and enjoy the gentle “thendral” (Southern breeze). It was fitting indeed that his family resisted pressures by the Tigers to bury him elsewhere. It was Sivaram’s wish that he should be buried at Aalaiyadicholai. It was only in 2004 that he wrote so publicly.
A large crowd of relatives, friends and admirers bade farewell to this brave warrior of the eastern soil. “Taraki” he may be to the English oriented rest of the world-but here in his native soil he was “Kungi” to his relatives and “Essaar” (SR) to his friends. His militancy and journalism may have caused much controversy elsewhere but he was simply a ‘homeboy’ in Batticaloa. In his life of 46 years, he had accomplished much in the wider world. But for eternal rest he had to come home.
Sivaram was born on August 11, 1959, the fourth in the family. He was married in a quiet ceremony at Ratmalana in 1988. The late Richard de Zoysa and I were the only journalists at Siva’s wedding. His wife also of Batticaloa, was Yogaranjini Poopalapillai. She is also called Bhavani. The three children are daughters Vaishnavi, Vaidehi and son Seralathan. After Sivaram’s death, the family relocated to Canada.
"Sivaram seems to have been shot at point blank range with a 9 mm Browning. One shot had cleanly entered his neck and chest. The second had penetrated his hand and entered the body. Contrary to reports in the Tiger media, there were no signs of torture. Two 9 mm empties were found near his body. There was very little blood at the scene."
Sivaram was the scion of a family tracing back its roots to more than three centuries. His grandfather was the legendary S. Dharmaretnam known as “Dharmaretnam Vannianaar.” He represented the Batticaloa South constituency in the colonial State Council from September 17, 1938 to November 20, 1943. The Batticaloa South constituency consisted of all areas in the present Amparai District and the territory south of Batticaloa town. Areas north of Batticaloa town and the present Trincomalee District comprised another electorate.
Dharmaretnam and his brother Rajaratnam, a lawyer by profession owned extensive tracts of land - from Verugal to Pottuvil in the old Batticaloa District. Dharmaretnam’s son, Puvirajakeerthi was Sivaram’s father and was one of the earliest Batticaloa Tamils to be educated at Cambridge University.
Dharmaretnam Vannianaar was a well-known hunter. It is said that his political opponents poisoned him on a hunting expedition causing his health to deteriorate. It was his health condition that led to his resigning from the State Council.
Sivaram’s mother was Maheswariamma. Her maiden name too was Dharmaratnam. Siva’s father was generally called Keerthy or Dharmakeerthy. Sivaram’s mother’s people had their roots in Point Pedro. One of her brothers was the lawyer Mailvaganam; another brother was the medical practitioner Veluppillai. Both made names for themselves in Batticaloa. Sivaram’s father’s sister was married to the famous Tamil scholar Prof. Kanapathipillai.
Sivaram hailed from an elitist eastern Tamil background. The land reforms of the ‘70s impoverished the family to some extent. Their family home at Lady Manning Drive was a place where all friends of the children were made welcome. Siva’s mother Maheswari was a cultured and gracious lady. She was both modern and progressive while retaining old world values of hospitality and family affiliations.
She was enlightened enough to know that true knowledge and wisdom came not from educational qualifications but through the school of life. Thus she allowed Sivaram to charter his own course in an unconventional way. One thing however, was her encouraging him to read widely and voraciously. She would give him money to buy any book he desired. It was this reading that helped Sivaram acquire much learning that was denied to many of his contemporaries.
He was eclectic in his intellectual appetite - Marx, Shaw, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Kautilya, Sun Tsu, Clausewitz, Jomini, Omar Khayyam, John Donne, Auvaiyaar, Thirumoolar and the various Sithar Padalgal etc. were devoured and digested at a relatively early age. It was this affinity for reading that led Sivaram to pioneer in Batticaloa the Vasagar Vattam or Readers’ Circle in 1980. He was scheduled to go to Batticaloa as chief guest for the silver jubilee ceremony. Fate decreed otherwise.
Sivaram was educated at St. Michael’s College, Batticaloa and at Pembroke and Aquinas in Colombo. He entered Peradeniya University in 1982. After studying English, Tamil and Philosophy for the GAQ, he focused on English thereafter. He never completed his degree. The 1983 July violence saw him being a displaced undergraduate to Jaffna. He dropped out in 1984 and took to full time guerrilla warfare. Even while at Peradeniya he would suddenly disappear from lectures for extended periods to do his ‘political’ work. He was called “SR”then.
Sivaram’s fascination for armed struggle began much earlier. Even during his school days, he had a distaste for the non-violent student politics of the day. According to his former schoolmates, Sivaram had felt at a very early age that only force would work with the Sri Lankan State and that ‘ahimsa’ tactics were a waste of time. This however did not prevent his volunteering with the Gandhiyam movement and helping resettle refugees in the early ‘80s.
Sivaram was originally a home-grown militant. A group of young men in Batticaloa town and Kallady formed their own indigenous Batticaloa group. The live-wire of this was a lad called Suresh. This was in 1983. This group had no name. Almost at the same time another Batticaloa group called the ‘Nagappadai’ or ‘Cobra force’ also emerged in the east. It is erroneously believed that Sivaram belonged to the Cobras because many of its members were subsequently absorbed into the People’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE).
"Sivaram’s fascination for armed struggle began much earlier. Even during his school days, he had a distaste for the non-violent student politics of the day. According to his former schoolmates, Sivaram had felt at a very early age that only force would work with the Sri Lankan State and that ‘ahimsa’ tactics were a waste of time. "
The group to which Sivaram belonged accomplished two operations. It botched up a third bank robbery. Its primary success was the robbery of more than 350 guns from the Batticaloa Kachcheri arsenal. The youthful militant group had one firearm with which they held up the guards. This gun belonged to Sivaram’s family. The stolen guns were hoarded at Kalladi and Kaluthawalai. These originally belonged to Batticaloa farmers and had been confiscated by the authorities due to the security situation.
A second operation was the robbery at the Highways Department. A lot of equipment, including an exploder were taken. These robberies irked the security apparatus that launched an intensive search. The 11 members belonging to the group scattered and went underground. Sivaram went away from Batticaloa. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) also took note of this indigenous eastern militancy, a Tiger cadre named Ram came to Batticaloa, made contact and recruited seven of the eleven into the LTTE. The Tigers and Peoples’ Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam( PLOTE) also absorbed most of the cobra force members.
Sivaram, being away from Batticaloa at that time got left out and was extremely disappointed. By this time Sivaram had reached a decision that he should join the LTTE. SR was essentially a man of action. To him, the continual pattern of guerrilla attacks by the Tigers was appealing. He also had deep admiration for Velupillai Pirapaharan, a self-made guerrilla. His friends say that he went to the Jaffna university to study the militant movements and made his choice. While in Jaffna, he also joined groups of undergraduates collecting money for refugees. He travelled extensively in Jaffna and the Wanni.
Sivaram decided that he should join the LTTE. An appointment with Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah alias Mahaththaya was arranged through a friend then known as “Kandiah Amman”. Sivaram had read-up well on theory of guerrilla warfare and tried to impress Mahaththaya with his knowledge. Siva also said that he would conduct political classes for recruits. Mahaththaya was not receptive. He may have even felt threatened by this eager, young man’s earnestness. Mahaththaya refused to take him into the LTTE. Sivaram tried his luck again with Sathasivampillai Krishnakumar alias Kittu. He too declined asking Sivaram to concentrate on his studies and help them in writing tracts and pamphlets.
A deeply disappointed Sivaram now tried his chances with PLOTE. An eastern Tamil, Yogan Kannamuthu helped him join the PLOTE. Another Tamil from Batticaloa, Ramalingam Vasudeva was also a high ranking member of the PLOTE then. Sivaram had worked closely with him in the Gandhiyam movement. Subsequently, Sivaram was to become a close relative of Vasu. Vasudeva’s wife’s sister was proposed in marriage to Siva. He agreed and got engaged to her. Unfortunately Vasudeva was killed by the LTTE in 1987. Nevertheless, Sivaram married Vasu’s sister-in-law in 1988.
After joining PLOTE, Sivaram underwent military training in Oratha Naadu in the Thanjavoor district of Tamil Nadu State in India. But he was used for politics, and was very much in demand conducting political and military theory classes for PLOTE recruits. Besides, the PLOTE never undertook major military operations. There was a time when the PLOTE had the largest number of cadres among all-Tamil militant movements.
Sivaram conducted classes in India and the north-east. At one point, he was placed in-charge of the military section in Batticaloa. Later on, Sivaram supported the Eeswaran faction of the PLOTE, which criticized Umamaheswaran’s leadership. This opposition by Eeswaran and the faction led by Paranthan Rajan, led to the famous conference after which the PLOTE split. Sivaram however changed his stance in a controversial twist and supported Uma Maheswaran. It is said that Vasudeva played a role in shifting his allegiance to Uma Maheswaran. Consequently, Sivaram was elevated to the PLOTE Central Committee.
Sivaram travelled about in the south and Colombo during the 1983-87 period. He made a lot of contacts and friends during that period. Among these were Vijaya Kumaratunga and Ossie Abeygoonesekara. He also established links with the JVP then. Former JVP Secretary Upatissa Gamanayake and PLOTE military commander, Manickam Thasan were first cousins. Their mothers were sisters. This connection was used for political purposes. Interestingly, Sivaram was also close to the strongly anti-JVP alternate group ‘Vikalpa Kandayama’ members.
PLOTE also maintained links with the Marxist-Leninist armed groups - loosely called Naxalites - of India. Sivaram was part of this effort too. He travelled about widely. One experience Sivaram cherished was attending a ‘People’s War Conclave’ in the jungles of Andhra Pradesh where he met the legendary revolutionary Kondapalli Seetharamaiya.
SR also met with some of the ardent Tamil ultra-nationalists of Tamil Nadu. Many of them were in the Dravida Kazhagham or its offshoots. A few were outside the original Dravidian movement. Many of them had not abandoned the Tamil Nadu separatist goal, but were lying low for want of impetus. The rise of the Eelam militant movement and its armed struggle provided these sections a revivalist fillip.
The Indo-Lanka accord of July 29, 1987, saw the PLOTE accept it with some reservations. The accord paved the way for the PLOTE to relocate officially to the south and make a transition from armed struggle to democratic politics. The PLOTE formed a political party - the Democratic People’s Liberation Front (DPLF). Its first President was Dharmalingam Siddharthan and the first secretary was none other than Dharmaretnam Sivaram. A new phase in Sivaram’s life was beginning. This flirtation with post-accord politics was the forerunner to Sivaram’s transition from gun to pen.
PLOTE leader, Kadirgamar Umamaheswaran alias “Muhunthan” was assassinated by some of his cadres, including two body guards on July 1989. After Umamaheswaran’s death, there was mass scale desertion from the rank and file. Most cadres started going abroad. Sivaram too became dejected. Sivaram was still the secretary of the PLOTE political party, the Democratic People’s Liberation Front. The DPLF President, Dharmalingam Siddharthan now succeeded Uma as PLOTE leader. PLOTE military commander, Manickam Thasan wanted to fill Umamaheswaran’s shoes. Sivaram was in the forefront of those who opposed Thasan and was greatly instrumental in Siddharthan’s success. Thasan hated Sivaram after that and began to poison the minds of the remaining PLOTE cadres against Sivaram.
Richard de Zoysa
In this changing scenario, Sivaram was feeling increasingly isolated within the PLOTE though his friendship with Siddharthan remained intact. Siva felt that there was no grand future for the PLOTE in Tamil politics. Siva had also begun dabbling in a little bit of journalism by assisting Richard de Zoysa for the Inter-Press Service (IPS). The time was now ripe for a shift from politics to journalism. When the opportunity presented itself in the form of “The Island”, Sivaram was quick to grasp it, and so, was born the journalistic avatar ‘Taraki” who began to make waves in journalism.
"When the opportunity presented itself in the form of “The Island”, Sivaram was quick to grasp it, and so, was born the journalistic avatar ‘Taraki” who began to make waves in journalism"
The transition of Sivaram from militant to journalist and his entry into English journalism via “The Island”was in 1989. I had left “The Island” in 1988 and gone to USA and then Canada, it was our mutual friend and colleague Richard de Zoysa who facilitated his teaming up with “The Island”.
The editor of both - the Daily and Sunday Island - at that time was Gamini Weerakoon known generally as “Gamma”. Gamini Weerakoon in an article written after Siva’s death related the manner in which he recruited Sivaram and how the nom de plume “Taraki” came about. It is best therefore, that the tale is told in the words of Weerakoon himself. I conclude this article with relevant excerpts from the aforementioned Gamini Weerakoon’s piece:
“It was sometime in 1989, that to my surprise, I received a call from Richard de Zoysa, who met with his tragic death in the same way as Siva, asked me whether “The Island” would like to have a columnist who was extremely knowledgeable about the north-east conflict. I was surprised because Richard and I were mere acquaintances and had nothing in common; but he cleared my doubts. He said something like this: “I know you, and I will not agree on many things and this columnist too does not go along with your thinking, but we are aware your paper publishes many points of view - even those that go against your editorial views,” he said”.
Arts Centre Club
“We met a few days later at the Arts Centre Club. It was about 18 years ago and Siva looked almost a youth. He was not over effusive and canvassing for a job. He was terse and said he could write a weekly column for the “Sunday Island” on matters concerning the north and east. We spoke about the prevailing situation in the north and east at that time, and I was very much impressed by his knowledge and interpretation of events. I offered him the highest payment made for a freelance contribution at that time by my paper”.
“He had left it to me to find a nom de plume, and since both of us wanted his identity to be kept confidential, I on my own decided on the feminine name of ‘Tharakai’. But the best laid plans of editors are blown sky high by sub-editors who want to make their own contributions. When I saw the article in print, the name was ‘Taraki’, the name of the former deposed Afghan dictator! (Noor Muhammed Taraki), Siva was amused and so we let it be and later it took various forms until the present name of ‘Taraki’ came to be”.
“His first article - if I remember right - “Military Strategies of the Tamil National Army” - caused consternation amongst political, military, diplomatic, journalistic, and NGO circles, including paid informants to some of these organisations. There were many inquiries made, including one whom I suspected to be a paid informant to the military who was working in our office. He was not a journalist and was called the ‘Colonel Blimp.’ He asked me for the columnist’s identity and I laughed in his face reminding him about the journalistic practice of keeping identities secret. He walked off in a huff. But he had enough resources to ‘spy’ on me and have those who came to my office watched. In a few weeks, he identified Siva, who used to come in with his column every week. That was how Taraki’s cover was blown, although some with fevered imaginations now have produced their own versions involving themselves”.
“I had no problems with Siva’s column. He obviously read my mind and knew my limitations under the law and my feelings towards the LTTE and the Indian involvement. He, most of the time kept away from writing about ideology, and instead wrote on military strategies and operations. This was sailing very close to the law such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Official Secrets Act, Public Security Act etc., but I was willing to take that risk. During his entire stay with “The Island”, I had no problem, and I cannot recall a single instance of drastically editing a column of his”.
“In the few years he was on “The Island”, Siva came to be regarded as an oracle on north-east affairs. He was a much sought-after. Siva was offered a travel grant by the American government which he accepted and took off promising to return and write about his American tour. But that was not to be. After his US tour, he crossed over to Canada”.
“One night, I received a call from Canada from a former journalist of “The Island”, D.B.S. Jeyaraj, who had a rendezvous with Siva in Ottawa. They were in high spirits and were deeply appreciative of the good times they had working together with me. I was delighted that they appreciated working together with me - two Tamil colleagues.
This was indeed a refreshing change from those namby-pamby, half-baked Sinhalese who are still hell bent on calling me a ‘chauvinist’ because I write in support of all Sri Lankans, including the Sinhalese and do not spit on my own people”.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com