by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
From Shenuka to Niromi:True Tale of a “Tamil Tigress”-2
Gaining acceptance for military training by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) organization and being inducted into the movement after a one to one meeting with tiger leader Veluppillai Prabhakaran was a great achievement for the author of “Tamil Tigress” at that juncture in her life.
The seventeen year old girl whose nom de guerre was going to be “Shenuka” in the tigers had realized her long cherished goal at last.
What is remarkable about this act is the fact that neither she nor her friend had been forced into recruitment or arms training. The choice of embracing the LTTE thereby risking life and limb was a voluntary act done willingly. Similiarly when Shenuka opted to quit the LTTE a year later she was allowed to do so with the tigers themselves ensuring she reunited safely with her mother.
This conduct by the LTTE may be hard to believe when viewed against the backdrop of how the tigers behaved later when expanding the number of their cadres.Likewise it may also be perplexing as to why young boys and girls joined militant ranks voluntarily and courted martyrdom willingly in a by gone era.
Forcible recruitment or conscription had become an established practice of the LTTE in the years of the new millennium.It had reached dizzying heights during the final phase of battle.But there was a time when the LTTE and all other militant movements did not engage in recruiting forcibly or conscripting.This was during the early years of the Tamil armed struggle.
Intensive propaganda was conducted to encourage youths to join voluntarily but no force was used.This was because the various movements knew that a conscript would not make a good guerilla.Conviction and not coercion was of paramount importance.Motivation could not be imposed through force.
This unwritten code was first violated by the Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front(EPRLF) and Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front (ENDLF) during 1989-90 acting on instructions of the Indian espionage agency RAW (Research and Analysis Wing).
The EPRLF and ENDLF crossed the “Lakshmana rekha” by abducting and conscripting cadres to strengthen themselves in the face of armed resistance proffered by the LTTE towards the Indian army and its allies in the post-Indo-Lanka accord period. These cadres were later forged into a military outfit known as the “Tamil National Army”.
After the Indian army began leaving Sri Lanka, the LTTE unleashed its fury on the so called Tamil National army. The tigers were aided and abetted in this by the Sri Lankan armed forces. The conscripted recruits were no match for the LTTE and thousands of hapless youths were massacred by the tigers.
The annihilation of the India-sponsored Tamil National Army by the LTTE demonstrated clearly that forcibly recruiting youths and turning them into a fighting machine was a doomed venture.
Ironically the LTTE too began forcibly recruiting youths in later years demanding that every family should provide a “hero or heroine from the house”(veetukkoru veeran allathu veeranganai)
Just as the unwilling cadres of the forcibly recruited Tamil national army were exterminated by the LTTE,the forcibly recruited tiger cadres were also killed in very large numbers by the advancing army in the Wanni.Young boys and girls with minimum training and no previous battlefield experience were thrown into the front against a sophisticated army that outnumbered and outgunned them.
Thousands of these conscripts perished in battle. Mercifully a large number of them surrendered in droves during the final days of the war to the armed forces. The bulk of these “surrendees” were housed in detention camps. They are being released in batches after undergoing a process of rehabilitation.
This terrible phenomenon of forcible recruitment was totally absent at the time the author of “Tamil Tigress” whom I have dubbed as “Sharmila” joined the SOLT in 1986 and the LTTE proper in 1987.
To understand why a talented girl with bi-lingual fluency like her hailing from an upper middle class,Christian family studying in an elite school opted to join the LTTE it is necessary to know something about the prevailing situation then in Jaffna.
There was a time when 30-35 armed Tamil groups calling themselves liberation movements were functioning in the North and East.The joke then was that one gun,two cycles and three youths were enough to start a movement. This proliferation however diminished gradually with many groups becoming dysfunctional or merging with other groups. Some were banned or destroyed by the LTTE.
Seven major groups made their mark in Jaffna and carved out a niche in the annals of history by the mid –eighties of the previous century. They were the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) led by Prabhakaran, Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam(PLOTE) led by Umamaheswaran, Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front(EPRLF) led by Pardmanabha, Eelam Revolutionary Organization(EROS) led by Balakumaran and Shankar Raji, Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization(TELO) led by Srisabaratnam, Tamil Eelam Army(TEA) led by “Panagoda”Maheswaran and Tamil Eelam Liberation Army(TELA) founded by “Oberoi “Thevan who himself was killed by the tigers in 1983.
All these organizations were active in Jaffna peninsula which had reached a “semi-liberated” state by mid-1985.The armed forces and Police had ceased moving about within the Peninsula and the various Tamil armed groups were wielding power and ruling the roost. The Jaffna based Govt servants,corporation employees and teachers were getting their salaries from Colombo but obeying the dictates of the gun –toting groups.
The process of shutting down Police stations in the Peninsula had begun after the PLOTE attack on the Anaikottai police station in July 1981. In May 1985 the Jaffna Police station itself was attacked successfully by the LTTE. Thereafter all effective Policing ended. Local poicemen in civils would go to the Jaffna fort and sign up for duty. A police post with non –uniformed cops was maintained at the Jaffna hospital.There was no uniformed Police presence.
The Army too facing innumerable landmine attacks began curtailing their movement.Things took a turn for the worse when New Delhi imposed a ceasefire and arranged for peace talks in the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu in July-August 1985.The armed forces were confined to barracks.
The different groups then set up positions around the military installations. The tigers had the lion’s share in setting up these defences. When the talks collapsed and fighting erupted again the armed forces found themselves virtually boxed in.
pic courtesy: Sajeevana Centre
Thereafter the war situation in Jaffna changed. The cadres from different militant outfits known generally as “podiyal” or boys set up sentry points around the security installations. If and when the army attempted to move out the militant bases in proximity were alerted by sentries. Immediately other cadres with heavy weapons would rush to the spot and mount resistance. The army would regularly venture out from camps,meet with resistance and return to base.
With the mobility of armed forces being restricted on ground the war intensified in a different way inside the Peninsula . Besieged armed forces began firing long range artillery from within their camps against the elusive enemy outside. In many instances these artillery shells fell on civilian dwellings and structures as the militants were living amidst and among the civilians. There were many civilian deaths and injuries.
Another outcome of the new situation was the beginning of aerial bombardment and strafing. Helicopters would bomb or fire down upon perceived or suspected militant targets. Aeroplanes would throw down bombs. As in the case of artillery shelling, the aerial strafing and bombardment also caused many civilian deaths and destruction. In such a situation much resentment and hostility grew in the minds of civilians against the armed forces. These flames were fanned by the local media.
In such an atmosphere of conflict and danger the Tamil armed groups began assuming a larger than life heroic image. They were projected as the defenders of the people who were preventing the army from moving in and causing harm to the people. Tamil media described them as “Kaaval Theivangal” or Guardian deities. The armed groups were referred to as “Punitha Iyakkangal” or holy movements.
The armed groups also began to fill the vacuum caused by the rupture in civil administration and law enforcement.They set up “Inakka sabhaigal” or conciliation boards comprising respected civilian supporters to inquire into alleged offences of a civil nature. Their decisions were endorsed and enforced by the movements. Alleged offences of a criminal nature were inquired into by the movements themselves. Those found “guilty” were penalized by the movements who acted as “judge,jury and executioner”.
The armed groups also imposed taxes on businesses and individuals. They issued stamps. They manufactured alcoholic spirits. They engaged in small industry. There were also notice boards at various junctions with up to date news bulletins of the war. There were also public boxes where one could drop complaints or suggestions.Private TV stations also flourished.Some groups like the LTTE ran their own TV and Radio. Several Tamil journals and tabloids were published by the different groups. The privately owned mainstream Tamil newspapers toed the militant line.
in Jaffna – by indi.ca
Many disturbing developments were occurring in this “Shangri-la” of the Island’s arid north. There was much rivalry among the armed groups to establish supremacy.This led to internecine warfare in which the LTTE triumphed militarily over the TELO and EPRLF and caused the PLOTE to cease overt functioning. The TEA and TELA went out of circulation. The EROS maintained an uneven ,uneasy relationship with the LTTE and survived.
There were also many human rights violations. Persons suspected of being traitors, informants or dissidents were punished most often by summary execution. People were detained in abysmal conditions and interrogated and tortured. While accusing the “Sinhala dominated state” of repression the would be liberators of the Tamil people were also turning slowly into mirror images of their alleged oppressors.
PET MONKEY ”BELLE”
It is against this backdrop that the LTTE emerged as the foremost Tamil armed group in Jaffna.Despite its abominable conduct in many spheres the LTTE did retain an aura of heroic valour. The tigers impressed the people particularly the youths through their projected image of dedication and sacrifice. The sight of its colorful military commander Sathasivampillai Krishnakumar alias Kittu whizzing around in a double –cab with his pet monkey “Belle”sent young hearts racing “pitter-patter”.. The sight of young, handsome, dashing tigers on their motor cycles caused many eye-lids of girls to flutter.
Sathasivampillai Krishnakumar alias Kittu
The elaborate funerals and homage for fallen fighters instilled among the people, a feeling of admiration and gratitude for their sacrifices. The prevailing atmosphere and mood was one in which the tigers were seen as saviours and protectors who needed to be supported no matter what their acts of omission and commission were.
It was in such an environment and period of time that the “Tamil Tigress” author opted to join the tigers.Apparently her decision to do so was met with disbelief and even skepticism by many of her contemporaries and acquaintances.
This was mainly due to her family background,upbringing ,interests and aptitudes. It was difficult to accept that a person like her would willingly join the LTTE and fight for liberation.
Even the LTTE leaders who interacted with her seemed to have misgivings about her decision to get arms training. One reason may have been due to doubts about her ability to withstand the rigorous life of an armed guerilla. Another reason may have been genuine reluctance to pluck a talented young girl from school and expose her to great risk and danger as an armed fighter.Muralie who recruited her first into the LTTE’s student organization SOLT was hesitant initially into enlisting her for arms training. Thileepan the political commissar was totally opposed to the idea. He tried hard to persuade her to continue schooling and make a decision after two years. Even the tiger supremo Prabhakaran in his first meeting with her had wondered aloud whether a girl like her from a relatively privileged background could undergo the harsh, hard life of an armed guerilla.
It appears that Sharmila’s outward appearance, interests and way of life made many who knew her react negatively to the news of her opting for military training in the LTTE.
”Sharmila” through her determination managed to convince them all.
I have been gathering some additional information about her in the past weeks. Many of her classmates and schoolmates remember her vividly and retain many memorable anecdotes.What I have learnt enables me to form an impression of the author of “Tamil Tigress” at the time she was a student in Jaffna.
“Sharmila” as I refer to her at this point seems to have been a girl with an aptitude for languages and a flair for the creative arts.As a student at Holy Family Convent(HFC)Jaffna she had topped the class in both Tamil and English. She had also won prizes in speech, essay,poetry and spelling competitions in both languages.Sharmila has also written and acted in plays.One play she acted in was staged at the Jaffna university.Her close friends at HFC were Ajanthi (who joined the LTTE with her) and Shereena who now lives in North America.
One incident remembered by her former classmates was one where she had an argument with the Tamil teacher Sr.Yolande (who is now the principal at HFC). The clash was over the “Ramayanam” written by Kambar. Sister Yolande’s teaching was contested by “Sharmila” who interpreted Kambar differently.
“Sharmila” was also devoted to the Tamil poet Subramania Bharathy referred to generally as “Bharathiar”.Subramaniya Bharathiyar sang of Tamil and Tamils and India and India’s freedom.He also sang of women’s emancipation and envisaged a liberated woman whom he depicted as the “puthumaippenn” or novel woman.“PUTHUMAIPPENN”
Enchanted by Bharathiyar ”Sharmila” thought of herself as the bard’s “puthumaippenn” and stubbornly refused to learn cooking at home.She also wrote poems and short stories in Tamil. Some of her classmates recall an intriguing practice by her. Apparently she would write a short story without an ending and pass it around her classmates asking them to suggest one.Later she would read them all and select the best “conclusion”.
Another aspect remarked upon by many contemporaries is her handwriting. It was strikingly beautiful. One of the things she did those days was to write Tamil poems and drop them off “anonymously” in the suggestion/complaint boxes maintained by the LTTE. The tiger cadres of that time used to wrack their brains trying to identify the writer. Finally it was her uniquely lovely handwriting that helped to identify her.One poem she wrote then was about the LTTE handing over bodies of dead soldiers to the Army lodged at the Jaffna Fort.
She also had a red notebook in which she engraved her poems. This notebook given to a distant relative in the EPRLF fell into LTTE hands when the former was attacked by the latter. Later the poetry book was seized by the Indian Army during a raid on a tiger camp. The red notebook got into the hands of an Indian army officer from Tamil Nadu who was immensely impressed by the poems.
Sharmila as a child had been fond of reading the children’s magazine”Ambulimama”. Her favourite feature was the Vikramadithan –Vethaalam story series. As a teenager she read various Tamil magazines. Her favourite writer in Tamil those days was Pattukkottai Prabakar who specializes in mystery and thriller stories.The “Tamil Tigress” author was equally fond of reading in English too. As a child she liked to read cartoons like Herge’s adventures of Tintin and books by Enid Blyton. Her favourite books by Enid Blyton were “Famous Five” and “Secret Seven” series. Adventure books seem to have fascinated her in childhood. Later her interests changed to more serious stuff.
Singing, dancing and music were also among “Sharmila’s diverse interests.Her first Bharatha Natyam “guru” was Gnanamani Chelliah .Later it was Vineetha Swampillai. Sharmila had performed at Veerasingham hall Jaffna and was also preparing for her imminent “arangetram” or public dance debut when she teamed up with the tigers.Instead of “Alarippu” and “Thillana” life became a “ruthra Thandavam”.
Sharmila had a penchant for music and could play the Piano, Violin, Piano accordion, guitar and the Veena. She could also sing well and learnt Carnatic music from the well-known classical singer Thilaganayagam Paul.
Like most Jaffna schoolgirls she was an avid listener of Tamil film music and an ardent fan of music composer Illayarajah and to a lesser extent KV Mahadevan and MS Visvanathan.Her favourite actor was Sreedevi.
She was also interested in western music. Needless to say like the majority of her generation Michael Jackson was “God”. She also warbled the songs of Rick Astley, Glen Medeiros and Phil Collins all of whom she liked. And there was ABBA of course.
Sharmila” was a huge success at a YMCA competition where she came first in solo singing “Una Paloma Blanca” by George Baker. Her group in which she was lead singer also won the group singing prize at the same competition singing ”Move on” by ABBA. She also sang (Alto) in her School and Church choir.
Apart from interests like music,singing,dancing,poetry and drama she was also good in painting and sketching and had some of her work displayed in school art exhibitions.
In contrast to her literary and artistic aptitudes Sharmila was not in the forefront in sports and games unlike her friend Ajanthi who represented school in netball.She was however junior and senior squad leader at physical training competitions and once came first at a district walking race in her age group.The “Tamil Tigress” author was also a cricket fan. She would play improvised home cricket with the children of neighbouring families. “Sharmila” was also a great admirer of cricketers like Australia ’s Dennis Lillee, England ’s Ian Botham, India ’s Chetan Sharma, West Indian Viv Richards and Sri Lanka’s Ranjan Madugalle.
Girls riding bicycles singly or in pairs or in groups was a familiar sight in Jaffna those days. The author of “Tamil Tigress” also used to cycle alone and also with her friends.She had a “flying pigeon” and used it to ride to school, to visit friends, to go for tuition classes and to drop in at restaurants like “Rolex” and “Subash” for snacks or for ice cream.
Both she and best friend Ajanthi were fond of dogs. Ajanthi who lived in Swartz lane with her family had a Pomeranian cross named “Rosie”. Unfortunately a coconut fell on her accidentally and Rosie was no more.”Sharmila” living in Rakka lane had three Pomeranians as pets. One was named “Scamper” after the dog in Enid Blyton’s secret seven. The others were named “Bruno” and “Remo”. These names were selected after perusal of the St.Patricks College school magazine.
Interestingly enough the girl whom I have dubbed as “Sharmila” had a nickname among boys in Jaffna then. She was called “Thalai Thadavi” or “head stroker”. This was because she had long wavy hair that was often unruly when she rode a bicycle. So she would frequently stroke and pat her hair while cycling thus earning the “thalaithadavi” nickname.
She and her friend Ajanthi were customers of the Jaffna hair stylists.”Shaggy Salon”. “Sharmila” used to have her hair cut like Princess Diana.Later she changed it to the fashionable “material girl”hair style.
The greater part of “Sharmila”’s education in Jaffna was at Holy Family Convent where she passed her GCE (OL) with 4 distinctions and 4 credits. It was for her Advanced Level classes that she joined Chundikuli Girls College which is the “sister school”of St.Johns College, Jaffna.
RED AND BLACK
Students of both schools had the same red and black tie. She was in the GCE (AL) first year class when she joined the LTTE student organization SOLT and in the second year when she abandoned studies and went in for arms training.
This then was the author of “Tamil tigress” as a schoolgirl more than twenty years ago. She was a typical example of an upper middle class girl from a bilingual Christian family studying at an elite school in Jaffna.
As stated earlier it was a sign of the times and environment she lived in then that a girl of her background chose to leave a the comfort and security of family and home and begin a new journey into the unknown ,risking great peril, in pursuance of what she deemed to be a lofty ideal at that point of time in her life.
NEXT: VICISSITUDES OF GUERILLA LIFE
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org