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Home> Tamils - a Nation without a State> Struggle for Tamil Eelam > Shankar Rajee - Founder-member of EROS
TAMIL EELAM STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM
"Whatever may be said,
whosoever may say it -
EROS founder member dead - V.S. Sambandan, Hindu, 11 January 2005
Shankar Rajee (55), a founder member of the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation (EROS) died here early this morning of a "sudden massive heart attack," his family and associates said.
Mr. Rajee complained of "severe chest pain" early this morning. "An ambulance was called for, but he passed away by the time medical help could reach him." A post-mortem is underway and the results are likely to be announced tomorrow.
Mr. Rajee was among the first Tamil militant leaders, along with Rathinasapapathy, the founder of EROS, to establish contact with the Palestine Liberation Organisation and a personal rapport with the late Palestinian President, Yasser Arafat. He quit his job as an engineer with Ford Motors in London to start the EROS and was in-charge of its military wing till 1987.
As one of the earliest militant groups formed in 1975, the EROS took the initiative in arranging training facilities for other militant groups.
The then chairman of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Uma Maheswaran, was among the first to be sent by the EROS for training to Palestine. Mr. Rajee was a representative of the EROS at the India-mediated peace talks in Thimpu 1985.
An articulate exponent of the Tamil cause, Mr. Rajee established a rapport with members of all militant groups, political sections and journalists. "His friendship cut across party lines and he sincerely tried to bring all Tamil parties to an understanding," Dharmalingam Sithadthan, President of the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), said.
Suresh Premachandran, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP for Jaffna, said: "He relinquished the comfort of the western lifestyle, came to Sri Lanka and played a pioneering role in establishing Tamil resistance. He understood the Indian role in the Sri Lankan conflict and was close to the Indian establishment."
Terming his demise, a "personal loss" and "shocking," Mr. Premachandran, also a founder member of the EROS, said "he still had a lot to contribute to the Tamil cause and his demise will be a loss to the future political outcome as he was experience in both democratic and militant phases of the Tamil struggle."
The EROS split in 1979 and led to the formation of the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), a party now led by Mr. Premachandran, a constituent of the LTTE-backed TNA.
Despite being the leader of the EROS, which won 13 seats in the Sri Lankan parliamentary election in 1989, Mr. Rajee did not opt for a parliamentary seat. The EROS split after the departure of the Indian Peacekeeping Force in 1990, with its leader, V. Balakumaran, joining the LTTE.
After the tsunami, Mr. Rajee "was thinking along the lines of reconstruction of rebuilding the livelihood of the affected people ," a close associate of Mr. Rajee said
Tribute: Shankar Rajee - M.R. Narayan Swamy 16 April 2005
Shankar Rajee, who died of a heart attack in Colombo on January 10, 2005, was one of the earliest entrants into Tamil militancy in Sri Lanka, one who closely witnessed the growth of the movement from its nascent days to the frightening proportions it has now assumed.
In the last years of his life, Shankar (real name Nesadurai Thirunesan) had bowed out of the Indian media scene and led a largely low key, though not quiet, life, hopping between Chennai, where his mother lived, and Colombo, where he was a consultant with the state-run Cashew Corporation.
He was also the leader of whatever was left of the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation (EROS), the oldest of all the Tamil militant groups which came up in the 1970s in response to growing Sinhala chauvinism. Shankar, who was educated in Jaffna and London, was among the earliest Tamils who took military training from the Palestinian guerrillas in the Middle East, probably in the hope that their own communi!ty would some day produce a Yasser Arafat.
In the years I covered the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict, I came into close contact with Shankar and he helped me gain valuable insight into the Tamil society. Our first meeting took place at the EROS office in a middle- class Chennai neighbourhood where I had gone to interview its other best-known leader, V. Balakumar. As the latter spoke to me, I saw Shankar seated by his side, studying a map of Jaffna and making a note or two.
EROS had a collective leadership in which Balakumar and Shankar were the first among equals. They had contrasting personalities. Balakumar was the quiet one, almost inaudible, at home in Tamil, while Shankar spoke Tamil and English with equal ease, was outgoing and felt comfortable dealing with Indian bureaucracy and diplomats. Shankar was designated the head of the EROS military unit and maintained liaison with revolutionary groups from around the world.
Like so many Sri Lankan Tamils of that era, Shankar was a Marxist during his student days. In London, he and like-minded students formed a student group and then, in 1975, set up EROS. It was a path-breaking development in Tamil history. Some EROS members enjoyed a warm relationship with the local PLO representative who helped them to fly to Lebanon and Syria to get military training from Arafat's Fatah guerrilla group. Shankar valued this training although nothing much came out of it.
It was EROS that introduced LTTE, then a virtually unknown group, to the Palestinians but this produced friction between him and LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran. The row was over money, which Shankar paid up. But their relations never improved, and years later LTTE's Anton Balasingham, probably reflecting Prabhakaran's view, accused Shankar of being an Indian spy -a charge the latter vehemently denied.
Much before that, Shankar recalled meeting Prabhakaran sometime in 1957-76 in the Tamil Nadu town of Tiruchy. Shankar had flown into India from London carrying air gun pellets, batteries and film rolls. He had been told to deliver them to a man but was not given his identity.
It turned out to be Prabhakaran, a young and largely unknown entity who turned up at the small hotel across the Tiruchy bus stand where Shankar was putting up. When I reasearched for the LTTE chief's biography (Inside an Elusive Mind, Konark, 2003) Shankar told me: "It was Prabhakaran who came to take the delivery. Honestly, I was not impressed with him. He did not seem happy with what I had brought. He obviously was expecting some other things. Just what, I do not know."
Years later, before the souring of ties, Shankar had a more fruitful meeting, in an LTTE hideout in Sri Lanka's north, with Prabhakaran, who by then had begun to acquire a stature in the militant ranks. Shankar had a vivid memory, and in 2001 could recall what really happened: "Prabhakaran was eager to know what training the Palestinians imparted. His eyes sparkled at the mention of M-16s, AK-47s and anti-articraft guns. But he was keener to hear about pistols and revolvers."
But Prabhakaran was not a man of theory; he invited Shankar to display his shooting skills. The target was an empty Milk Maid can. From 20 feet away, Shankar took aim and grazed the can, toippling it. "Prabhakaran walked up to the fallen can, picked it up and put it back on the wall. He then returned to where the Fath-trained (Shankar) was standing and fired the gun, hitting it smack in the middle." Shankar was naturally impressed.
Despite the Palestinian training, Shankar and his friends in EROS did not carry out any military action in Sri Lanka. There were also differencs within EROS, leading to a split and the birth of the Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF). When Tamil militancy galloped from 1983, EROS was among the first groups to secure Indian military training. Shankar was also among the first to understand that New Delhi would never allow an independent Tamil Eelam to come up.
During the years leading up to the 1987 India-Sri Lanka peace agreement that sought to end Tamil separatism, Shankar, as the EROS military wing leader, masterminded some deadly bomb attacks in the island-nation that claimed many innocent lives. He also developed close ties with the Indian establishment but this was not enough to save him from a jail term in Chennai that may have contributed to his early death.
Shankar and Balakumar met the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, just before the latter flew to Colombo in July 1987 to sign the India-Sri Lanka accord. Prabhakaran, however, continued to mistrust him. Shankar and Balakumar met the LTTE chief at New Delhi's Ashok Hotel at that time; but on a second occasion, Prabhakaran told Balakumar that he did not want to see Shankar.
Shankar had a keen understanding of the Sri Lankan Tamil society and of LTTE. When the Tigers took on the Indian Army, he prophesied to friends that Prabhakaran would never, ever give up his Eelam goal. He was proved right. In March 1990 the Indian troops came home and the now-powerful LTTE ordered EROS to disband or merge with the Tigers. Some disgusted EROS members drifted away from politics, others (Balakumar included) joined LTTE while small band led by Shankar kept the outfit's flag flying for whatever it was worth.
Shankar was arrested in Chennai in 1997 on charges of smugggling foreign currency and was jailed. None of his contacts in the Indian establishment came to his rescue. He spent over a year in prison, where, his mother recalled later, he developed a good rapport with the other, mostly Indian, prisoners and became their leader. But despite the bitterness the detention caused, Shankar considered himself a friend of India. The imprisonment, however, affected his health, and he was never the same old self again.
Shankar never underestimated the LTTE or Prabhakaran, At the same time, he could not think of giving up his independent existence. Once the Sri Lankan military took control of Jaffna from LTTE in December 1995, Shankar visited the town to see a relative. The LTTE-which controlled a small part of Jaffna peninsula but had many eyes and ears in the region-came to know about the visit. The Tigers wanted to know if Shankar was merely calling on the relative or trying to resurrect EROS.
Shankar got the message and promptly left Jaffna. More than once he told me that Prabhakaran's personality would never allow him to compromise with Colombo, Norway or no Norway. It is a viewpoint that many have come to share now. But in February 2002, when the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government signed a ceasefire, only a few like Shankar asserted, with confidence that comes with experience, that it would not lead to Prabhakaran embracing Colombo, never ever.
"The LTTE network is still effective but influence on and support from Tamil communities is less than it was," says Shankar Rajee, a former militant turned politician. "The younger generation who migrated from the war may still be supportive, but many older professionals are more influenced by international perspectives."
Shankar Rajee, 55, is a founder-member of the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation (EROS), one of the earliest militant groups. He had his initial training with the Palestinian movement and was a member of the executive committee of the EROS. Rajee, who was in charge of the EROS' military affairs until 1987, is involved in the current developments to resolve the Tamil national question.
On the distance travelled by Tamil militant nationalism:
There is no comparison between the initial stage and now. Earlier, an accumulation of various grievances culminated in a situation in which a majority Tamils felt there was a need for an inevitable separation of forces. This was between the early 1970s and 1983, which marked a big transformation owing to the involvement of India.
This went on till the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement. I and the general Tamil leadership at that time believed, accepted and trusted the Indian leaders, particularly the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, to resolve the Tamil problem through the Agreement and a Provincial Council system. We felt India would be the guarantor for its fair implementation. This is where the transformation started taking place.
I have gone on record saying that I do not see a zero presence of the Indian Army in the island. I thought this would give the Tamils an experience in using federalism as a tool in resolving this issue. Of course, a big transformation took place when India announced that it was pulling out its troops. This was a decisive moment for Tamil national militants: to abandon guerrilla warfare - where terrorism also played a part, though not the only means - and join the democratic mainstream.
The Thimpu talks was perhaps the only time when the entire Tamil national movement was united in a single forum and we enunciated the Thimpu Principles. Subsequently, the LTTE was singled out to be the sole representative and brought to the Bangalore talks, which gave the early ideas to the LTTE that it could represent the Tamil community on its own. This is one of the big problems we face today - the LTTE trying to claim this status even through political assassinations and elimination of other groups and parties.
On the impact of the Karuna-led split in the LTTE:
There is not a great deal of difference between a Wanni Tiger and a Karuna Tiger. I am also worried and concerned about the forces which would try to weaken the Tamil national movement using the `K factor'.
Karuna's set of grievances of discrimination is a serious political problem and nothing new to Tamil nationalism. Even during the days of Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (Federal Party), these feelings of regional inequality existed. I regard it as a genuine concern of the people of the east. This would have to be addressed, discussed and democratic solutions found. It is not to be regarded as - as the LTTE says - `a one-man problem' or as one that can be solved by eliminating a few of Karuna's lieutenants or by driving him out of the eastern province. I doubt if the LTTE, in its present form, has the means to address this problem in a democratic manner.
On the path ahead for Tamil nationalism:
The Tamil national movement has to learn to accommodate democracy, pluralism, tolerance and values, which free nations cherish.
On the Oslo formulation and the LTTE's position:
It is something the LTTE seems to have accepted, but is trying to wriggle out from. A solution within the framework of federalism in any form, and genuine will on the part of the government to implement such a formula will have to be the way forward.
On the change in the Sinhala polity since the advent of Tamil militancy:
There has never been a spontaneous change on the part of the Sinhala nationalists. It has always been forced by various circumstances. Perhaps it is also imperative that we accept that Prabakaran never openly settles for anything less than Tamil Eelam. Hence any solution would have to be termed interim.
Interview with Shankar Rajee,
22 October 1984
Most of Colombo, the capitol of Sri Lanka, was dark. Birds announced the dawn, and a few vehicles, headlights lit, began puttering through the streets.
In an ear-tearing roar the nightmare woke up the city. A corner of a church was lifted from the ground and sagged onto the street, instantly burying a passing Tamil man underneath the rubble. Cement shards and pieces of glass rained down for almost a full minute afterward. The explosion was heard over ten kilometers away. Since the country was in the teeth of a civil war this wasn't as much of a surprise as if it had happened in, say, Oklahoma City, but, just to be safe, security forces were sent to the location along with medical personnel and a bomb squad. They expected that mop-up would be necessary. Multiple ambulances were deployed, and the Sri Lankan Army was put on alert.
As soon as these teams pulled up to the front of the smoldering church another bomb ripped apart a bus station on the south end of the city. Phonelines started to jam, police and security forces were stationed at the edges of town, and the Sri Lankan Army picked up their weapons to head over to the bus station since this was now clearly not some accident. By the time this second emergency team arrived at the scene of the crime a third bomb was reported from the west end of town, where a television transmission station owned by the state-run SLBC had been blown apart into ribbons of twisted steel.
Only several minutes later an office building in the downtown business district of Colombo erupted. The roof fell in, the majority of the multi-level building slowly collapsed, and the four more people stopped their lives. In a suburb outside of town two people opened a box they found lying on the sidewalk. Seconds later their limbs were more than 10m away from an enormous smoking wou!nd in the middle of the road. Meanwhile, 5 km down the road, at Fort Railway Station, an unexploded bomb was found by the police. While the Sri Lankan Army was diffusing that one a second detonated nearby, injuring dozens of people. A traincar blew over like a matchbox in a sulfur breeze. Several minutes followed before a blast was reported near the ministry office.
It was too much; buildings were collapsing, people were dying, city workers and rescue teams were panicking and the civic fabric was being torn where it wasn't stretched thin. There were no more emergency workers available and SLBC, from a remaining broadcast tower it had left, pleaded that people stay indoors, remain calm, and wait for authorities to unwire a city that had been turned into a bomb.
The work week in Sri Lanka had begun.
But it wasn't over; five more explosions were yet to come in the next two hours. And since that morning in 1984 more than 70,000 people have died unnatural deaths in Sri Lanka as a result of something between "Freedom Fighting" and "Terrorism."
It's difficult, sometimes, to tell the difference so I decided to go ask the guy that set the bombs. I wondered why he placed the bombs where he did, what he wanted to get from doing it. And I figured I'd ask him what he thought of the United States, while I was at it.
I was supposed to meet Shankar Rajee, in front of the kovil in Colombo, at 10:30. I took a 3-wheel taxi (a "tuk-tuk" as they're called around here) and told my driver I'd be back in 90 minutes - wait for me here. Given Shankar's pedigree I didn't think we'd have long to talk.
Since Mr. Rajee was one of (if not The) responsible parties of the Colombo bombings of Oct 22, 1984 I wanted to ask him about how he did it and why. I wanted to understand the context of what had happened and how it was someone as well educated as he could tell themselves that it was a thing worth doing. I wanted to meet someone that had helped train the Tamil Tigers in their early days, and I wanted to meet a non-Palestinian militant trained by the PLO. He was the "terrorist" specimen I'd been searching for.
But not really. He was too smart. When I got to the temple a doughy guy in a white buttoned shirt glided up and started politely shaking my hand. I thought it might have been Rajee's driver and stumbled over my first few words as I oriented that this small pudgy balding man in front of me had lived his life high on Most Wanted lists for a number of years.
He quickly loaded me into a different tuk-tuk. It didn't seem suspicious. I wondered where we were going. Meeting Rajee, in fact, was a visual disappointment; I was expecting a hardened war criminal, some sort of Indian version of a Clint Eastwood of a man. But Rajee was soft spoken, and slow moving. He had chubby hands and he used them to wipe his chin often, as if he were drooling. He has a wife and children who he didn't talk about. He is an extremely articulate man. When we met he spoke slowly and carefully considering his words before speaking.
EROS might be considered the unnatural coupling of London intellectuals and PLO-trained munitions consultants. In January of 1975 a group of Tamils living in London formed EROS and eventually set root in the native soils of Sri Lanka. EROS worked as a liaison between the PLO/PFLP and other Tamil militant organizations in Sri Lanka, and not always without friction and confusion. Not that there was a shortage of this sort of Palestinian-Tamil interaction. The Tamil Times reported in June of 1984 that there were almost 60 of Israel's Mossad living in Sri Lanka, so the PLO was happy to lend a helping hand. The EROS has consistently remained a group that holds a high value on its ideals. They refrained from robbing banks, and suffered financially as a result. EROS has generally worked to glue together different factions of the Tamil militants, save for a few specific acts they undertook on their own.
These days Shankar continues to work for the Tamil cause, though with far fewer bombs.
Shankar Rajee - his life
history, 4 April 2003
MSM: Before we get started I have a trick question; What is a Tamil?
MSM: Okay, thanks. I'm sort of conducting a survey… Could we start with your personal background?
MSM: And how old were you then?
MSM: So where did you move to then?
MSM: Sinhalese or Tamil?
MSM: Bad place to leave the tricycle if the house is on fire.
MSM: Considered dangerous by the government? THEY were afraid to cart you around?
MSM: …like yourself.
MSM: Was this Ratna's intent?
MSM: So I suppose you had guest lecturers too, then?
MSM: We like tea! We work late!
MSM: What did they teach you?
MSM: Did they talk about psychological impact that these weapons had, or was it just pragmatic?
MSM: And who was "The Enemy?"
MSM: October 22, 1984. [referring to the bomb blasts in Colombo]… What happened?
MSM: How did you determine the locations?
MSM: And what do you interpret the messages of September 11, 2001 to be? It was similar in its ability to draw public attention, but it was also different because that was intended to maximize casualties. What do you think Al Qaida was saying?
MSM: When you were a student in London you talked about how you studied Angola and Palestine to learn how they dealt with their problems, looking for similar solutions. I'm approaching the problem in the same way, but I come from the imperialist side of the equation. So, as I said, I'm trying to learn what happened in Sri Lanka.. what [was it that] helped diffuse the anger of the Tamils and finally get back to the talks. With that in mind, what could Sri Lanka have done 50 years ago to avoid all of the problems here?