by D.B.S. JeyarajBharatha Lakshman Premachandra , gunned down brutally on October 8th 2011 was a vibrant personality who could be portrayed as an “anti-hero” of real life. The circumstances of his untimely end casts him in the mould of a tragic anti-hero.
In literature, stage and screen an anti-hero is a complex character with some negative qualities of the typical villain while also retaining some of the positive attributes of the conventional hero.The anti-hero character is a blend possessing heroic qualities and intentions on the one hand and villainous personality flaws on the other.
The concept of an anti-hero has evolved due to a tendency on the part of authors,dramatists and screenwriters to present “villains” as characters whose motivations are not inherently evil and sometimes even good.The line demarcating an anti-hero and villain is at times unclear.
Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra was one such person. His demise is depicted as being decreed by fate on the basis of the saying ”He who lives by the sword dies by the sword”. His death is explained away as being due to a shoot-out between two armed groups fighting a political turf war.
There is however a counter-narrative too. Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra’s friends, supporters and well-wishers prefer to see their beloved “Lucky Aiya” as a knight in arms who was constrained to take up arms to fight against the forces of evil.In an exhibition of modern chivalry he is said to have rushed to the aid of a distressed damsel or dame and was murdered in a cowardly fashion.
Whatever the actual situation concerning Bharatha Lakshman’s death there is no doubt that in popular perception he died a heroic death at the hands of cowardly assassins There is also sympathy because of the opinion that he had been betrayed by those for whom he fought valiant political battles.The manner in which Bharatha Lakshman was killed and the events that followed thereafter have evoked widespread anger and resentment.
While the main narrative of Premachandra’s death is being viewed through the prism of political rivalry and law and order there has also emerged a sub-narrative that looks upon him as some kind of a latter-day folk hero. The massive crowds attending his funeral at Umagiliya grounds and the spontaneous popular response to his daughter vowing to follow in her father’s footsteps are indicators in this respect.In the emotional aftermath following his murder,Bharatha Lakshman’s attractive daughter Hirunika Premachandra announced that she would continue in her father’s example and take to politics. This was welcomed by many but her mother Sumana Premachandra did not approve. Later the daughter calmed down and said she would make a decision after about four years. Such a long delay would deprive her of the opportunity to ride the crest of the current sympathy wave.
It remains to be seen as to whether the daughter would enter politics but there is no doubt that if Hirunika were to don her fathers mantle she would be a smashing success. South Asian politics is replete with instances of such “daughters of destiny”. His son Yohendra too may follow suit but given Hirunikas personality and goodlooks she has a better chance of making a mark.
VIJAYAThe English metaphysical poet John Donne wrote ”Each man’s death diminishes me for I am involved in mankind”. Bharatha Lakshman’s death saddens me as I knew and interacted with him slightly in the eighties of the last century. His mentor and leader was the late Vijaya Kumaranatunga.
Like Vijaya , Bharatha too was devoid of communalism. He stood for a multi-ethnic Sri Lanka where the minority ethnicities would not be discriminated against. While being firmly committed towards the unity and territorial integrity of the countryt Bharatha was also supportive of power sharing through devolution.The Tamils and Muslims have lost a friend.
Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra was literally and metaphorically a “child of fifty-six”(Panashaye daruwo). He was born in 1956 on January 26th. (which is Indian republican day)He belonged to a generation whose day in the sun had been ushered through the 1956 revolution of SWRD Bandaranaike.But to his credit Bharatha Lakshman was not a Sinhala chauvinist or supremist.
He came from a non – elitist but progressive background. His father worked at the Ceylon Petroleum corporation and was an active trade unionist. Cabinet minister Tissa Vitarane has stated that the father was a Sama samaajist.The son inherited the father’s leftist perspective.
Bharatha was one of seven children,two boys and five girls. At the time of his Bharatha’s birth the family was living in Wellampitiya. Later it moved to Kolonnawa. The Premachandras were not rural folk but lower middle class semi-urbanites.
Bharatha Lakshman studied at Ananda College, Colombo. After leaving school he is reported to have worked for a very short time as a bookkeepers assistant.However he took to political activism in his early twenties and was virtually devoted to it full time.
Despite his left leaning tendency Bharatha Lakshman joined the Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP) in 1979. TB Illangaratne who represented Kolonnawa electorate in the late sixties and early seventies was the party organizer.Bharatha’s idol and leader was Vijaya Kumaranatunga.He became engaged in trade union work for the party.
This was the time when the United National Party(UNP) under President Junius Richard Jayewardena was ruling the Sri Lankan roost. Kolonnawa was represented by Weerasinghe Mallimarachchi .The SLFP was a feeble force facing overwhelming political odds. The party itself was faction ridden
The spirit of defiance, protest and resistance within the demoralized party was spearheaded by Vijaya. Bharatha was one of the many courageous youths who were inspired by the charismatic politico – actor.The 1982 Presidential elections where Vijaya worked tirelessly for Hector Kobbekkaduwe was a campaign in which Bharatha cut his political teeth.
Kolonnawa was then under the thuggish rule of Mallimarachchi and his sons. It was a formidable task to paste anti-UNP posters, distribute leaflets and even hoist the SLFP blue flag.Bharatha Lakshman was courageous enough to give the lead in these matters despite the Mallimarachchis and their minions.
It was during this time that I first met Bharatha Lakshman through fellow journalist on “The Island” and friend Ajith Samaranayake. I can recall a prolonged discussion lasting several hours with him. Interestingly Bharatha had requested Ajith for a meeting and wanted me to participate in it
I remember vividly Bharatha trying to convince Ajith and myself that violence could only be met and overcome by violence. He would say that UNP authoritarianism in general and Mallimarachchi hectoring in particular left him no choice but to offer fierce counter resistance.
Looking back, I feel that it was this situation caused no doubt by the hegemonic UNP that moulded and shaped his future politics. The brave young political lieutenant prepared to face violence with violence for his party and leaders transformed into a captain who relied on the adage “brothers are not helpful as blows”.
One fact that impressed and endeared Bharatha Lakshman to me was his positive and progressive thoughts on the Tamil national question. The Tamil armed struggle was still in its embryonic stages then and the “ethnic problem”had not assumed massive proportions then.
Nevertheless Bharatha seemed to realize even in 1982 that the problem if not resolved satisfactorily would become a major calamity. He even quoted Sagara Palansuriya about the light from the northern cigar engulfing the South in flames
Going on the campaign trail with Kobbekkaduwe and Kumaranatunge to the North had broadened Bharatha Lakshman’s political horizons. He was happy that the Tamil people were bold enough to vote against the UNP despite its hegemonic authoritarianism. The fact that more Tamils in Jaffna voted for Kobbekkaduwe than Jayewardena was a source of heartening satisfaction to him.
Bharatha’s soft corner towards minority ethnicities extended to the Muslims also. A veteran Muslim journalist told me about how Bharatha had helped the Muslims in the area. A large number of Muslims have moved into the Kolonnawa region in recent times.
When the Muslim people tried to construct mosques in their new areas of habitation some persons belonging to the majority community resented it and tried to block it. The Muslims turned to Bharatha who intervened in the matter and resolved it amicably. Several mosques have been constructed without any communal disharmony due to Bharathas efforts.
Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra due perhaps to the influence of Vijaya Kumaratunga had an enlightened attitude and approach towards the Tamils and Muslims. He kept the Kolonnawa area a safe haven for Tamils and Muslims to reside in.The large number of minority community mourners at his funeral testify to his bona fides on this key aspect.
Within weeks of this meeting with Ajith and myself where I got to know Bharatha Lakshman well, the fiery particle was in custody along with his hero Vijaya. This was the time when JR came up with the notorious “Naxalite conspiracy” charges against Vijaya and his supporters and jailed them. This was a ploy to keep them out of the controversial referendum polls campaign.
Bharatha Lakshman now identified as an efficient deputy of Vijaya was also arrested. The Police encouraged by politicians in power offered the young man a way out of incarceration. Bharatha Lakshman was asked to betray his leader by making a statement implicating Vijaya. If he did so he would be set free without any conditions ,Bharatha was told
The young political activist was made of sterner stuff. He refused to do so. This honourable refusal was indeed laudable and was perhaps the turning point where the “boy” became”man”.So Bharatha Lakshman too was imprisoned.Later the so called “Naxalites” in the SLFP were all released unconditionally.
Vijaya and Chandrika split from the SLFP and formed the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya (SLMP) in 1984. Bharatha Lakshman too followed and was one of the founder members of the SLMP. He immersed himself in developing a trade union movement within the party.Bharatha was particularly successful at the Colombo harbour.Later he was appointed SLMP organizer for Kolonnawa electoral division.
Vijaya and Chandrika held positive views on the resolution of the Tamil national question. They were bold enough to travel to India and meet the Tamil militant group leaders. Later Vijaya along with Ossie Abeygoonesekara and Felix Perera went north and met the LTTE Jaffna commander Sathasivampillai Krishnakumar alias “Kittu”.
Bharatha Lakshman was excited about these happenings and firmly supported Vijaya’s initiatives. I remember Bharatha giving me a video cassette of Vijaya’s Jaffna trip and waxing eloquent about the breakthrough this would cause in Sinhala – Tamil relations.Alas!That was not to be so.
The Indo – Lanka accord was signed on July 29th 1987. The SLMP despite its opposition to the dictatorial JR welcomed it. Vijaya actively campaigned in support despite the violent opposition to it by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) Ultimately Vijaya was killed in February 1988.
Some of the Tamil groups regarded as left of centre maintained contact with Vijaya. One of these was the Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) led by Kandiah Umamaheswaran alias Mukunthan. The Indo-Lanka accord provided for a general amnestry and created space for Tamil militant groups like PLOTE to enter mainstream politics.
The PLOTE led by Umamaheswaran wanted to engage in democratic politics. Umamaheswaran wanted to relocate some of his cadres to Colombo to do political work.
There was however some anxiety and concern for their safety. The UNP govt was not trusted by the PLOTE. The LTTE was also feared. So a request was made to Vijaya Kumaratunga to provide security.
Vijaya agreed and delegated the task to Bharatha Lakshman who rented out a few houses in the Wellampitiya area. The initial batch of PLOTE cadres sent to Colombo were housed in these houses. Bharatha Lakshman and some of his SLMP activists provided round the clock security to them.
Later Umamaheswaran himself came to Colombo and a party office was set up in Kollupitiya.Other safe houses were set up in Colombo and the Mt.Lavinia-Ratmalana areas. The Wellampitiya safehouses were dismantled.
Although of short duration amounting to a few months the role played by Bharatha Lakshman in this exercise was commendable. I remember Him bringing a PLOTE member known as “Maran” and introducing him to me as the media liaison man. Maran used to bring PLOTE press releases and propaganda material to journalists in 1987 – 88.
While working as a trade unionist within the SLMP Bharatha Lakshman also got involved in electioneering. He first contested and won a seat at the Kotikawatte-Mulleriyawe Pradeshiya Sabha polls. Later he was a member of the Kolonnawa urban council too.
After joining the SLMP Bharatha Lakshman contested the western provincial council elections in 1988. He was elected as a Western Provincial councilor. This was the time when the JVP was targeting politicians participating in provincial councils created because of the Indo-Lanka accord.
It was during this time that a lone gunman suspected of being JVP targeted Bharatha Lakshman at his residence. But Bharatha’s father despite his age bravely confronted the would be assassin.There was a scuffle and Bharatha too plunged in.Then in an unbelievable feat of bravery, Bharatha Lakshman seized the firearm and shot dead the man who came to kill him.
This incident increased Bharatha Lakshman’s image and stature within the party and area. He was now regarded as a tough guy and acquired a “chandiya”persona. The fact that he had fought and killed in self – defence was overlooked.Nevertheless this chandiya image helped him counter the twin threats posed by UNP and JVP.
Chandrika Kumaratunga retuned from her self –exile in Britain and engaged in politics. After breaking up with the SLMP she teamed up briefly with Dr. Rajitha Senaratne and then returned to the SLFP. She forged a multi-party front led by the SLFP known as the Peoples Alliance(PA)
Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra too followed her and in 1994 contested on the PA ticket. He was elected as a Parliamentarian from the Colombo district. I think he won in two subsequent elections also but was not assigned any ministerial portfolio.
Disappointed, he drifted away from Kumaratunga politically. Bharatha had always enjoyed good rapport with Mahinda Rajapaksa but now he got closer. This was a time when the man from Medamulana was a virtual loner in the SLFP where the Bandaranaike family hold was firm.
Bharatha however was not lukewarm in his support to Mahinda within the party and backed him strongly as opposition leader, Prime minister and Presidential candidate. He worked tirelessly for Rajapaksa in the 2005 presidential campaign where Mahinda was a virtual underdog.
Despite Mahinda’s success Bharatha was not so fortunate. He failed to get elected in 2004 to Parliament. This effectively deprived him of an opportunity to be a minister or deputy minister. He also lost the post of organizer for the electoral divisions of Borella and Kolonnawa to UNP “crossers over” Thilanga Sumathipala and Duminda Silva.
President Rajapaksa appointed him as a special presidential adviser on trade unions and provided him with an office at the Presidential secretariat. He was also given two bodyguards from the Presidential security division. Premachandra functioned effectively and helped resolve some prickly trade union issues through behind the scenes negotiations.
After Premachandra’s demise, a visibly affected President was to tell media heads of how he had offered the Ratmalana electorate organizer post to Bharatha who had turned it down He had also declined an invitation to contest the mayoralty stakes as UPFA nominee for the Colombo city this year.
President Rajapaksa’s statements indicate that being a pugnacious political fighter , Bharatha Lakshman did not want to be driven out from his home turf. After all this was the area where he spearheaded a SLFP renaissance against the formidable UNP amidst tremendous hardship. He was in no mood to abandon the electorate he nurtured to a Johnny come lately with a disreputable track record.
Premachandra defied the party leadership in his own way by continuing to nurse the Kolonnawa electorate despite being replaced as organizer. He rejected offers to move elsewhere and with dogged determination aimed at re-establishing his hold on the area and regaining his lost status.
PROXY BATTLEThe local authority elections of 2011 saw a proxy battle for preference votes within the UPFA between Bharatha and Duminda in the Kotikawatte-Mulleriyawa Pradeshiya Sabha. Bharatha backed his disciple and incumbent chairman Solangaraachchi. Duminda Silva worked against him and propped up others
The campaign was nasty and affected by violence. Bharatha Lakshman with three decades of political experience turned it into a moral crusade against drugs and drug dealers.Popular antipathy towards the “kudukaraya” menace struck a responsive chord in the hearts and minds of the voters.
Seated crosslegged close to the casket containing the remains of slain Presidential Advisor Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra, Prasanna Gunasinghe Solangaarachchi who polled the highest number of Preference votes in the Kolonnawa electorate mourns the death of his mentor. Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara-courtesy: sundaytimes.lk
When results were announced it was a great political triumph for Bharatha.His “candidate” had got a record number of 42,322 preferences. His rival’s nominee had only got 5811 preferences. The voters had overwhelmingly endorsed Bharatha Lakshman’s war against the drug mafia. In the process he had demonstrated that he was yet a political force in the areaSadly Bharatha Lakshman was not alive to savour his victory.Fate’s moving finger had written his epitaph already. Bharatha Lakshman met “Iyaman or Mara ” the god of death on October 8th. Upon hearing of an attack on the wife and mother of Solangaarachchi, Bharatha Lakshman rushed to the spot. The unarmed Premachandra confronted Duminda Silva and in the process embraced death.
The circumstances of his death are mired in controversy. There are strong doubts about the various reports appearing in the media about what really happened. There is also strong suspicion that powerful elements are conspiring to thwart and obstruct the course of justice. Bharatha’s siblings residing in Canada have levelled accusations against the President.
Given the passionate sentiments within the party and people justice must not only be done but should also appear to have been done in the case of Bharatha Lakshman’s tragic demise.
Meanwhile in a land devoid of true heroes even a tragic anti-hero like Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra is likely to be viewed by a segment of the population as a hero. Time will tell whether this impression will last for ever or like all others this shall pass too.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org