Rameswaram (Rameshwar)in the South of Tamil Nadu state in India is revered by Hindus all over the world as a place of tremendous religious significance.The Island town was the scene of an ugly rumpus on the tenth of this month when a well-known Sri Lankan Tamil businessman visiting for a religious purpose was victimized in a deplorable act of rowdyism. He was apparently targeted because of his relationship to President Mahinda Rajapaksa through marriage.
The incident however has serious implications and cannot be viewed in isolation as a solitary act.The rowdyism at Rameswaram was a vicious symptom of an anti-Sri Lankan malady afflicting sections of the peace-loving Tamil Nadu population. There has been a recurring phenomenon of organized hostile activity against Sri Lanka and some Sri Lankans by political activists belonging to minor political parties and organizations in the state.
Great antipathy has been shown in recent times towards President Rajapaksa and his Government by political elements considered to be sympathizers and fellow travellers of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE)organization.
These elements have been demonstrating against Sri Lankan politicians who visit Tamil Nadu.Racist rowdyism has been shown against helpless Sinhala tourists and pilgrims in the state. These innocent people had nothing to do with the Rajapaksa regime.
The latest attack at Rameswaram has been directed against a Sri Lankan Tamil not due to his ethnicity but because he was perceived as an extended family member of the Rajapaksa clan engaging in religious rites for the benefit of the Rajapaksa regime.
57 year old Thirukumar Nadesan is an “Ilangaithamizhan” of Jaffna origin residing at Horton Place in Colombo 7. His father is from Araly and mother from Manipay in Jaffna.Known to friends as both “Thiru” and “Kumar” he was born and bred in Colombo and studied at St.Josephs College. He later got a BA (hons)degree in Business studies from Middlesex University in the UK .
Thirukumar Nadesan is a commercial entrepreneur focusing chiefly on Investment, property development and the hospitality industry . He is the Chairman of Hotel Developers Ltd and Managing Director of Asia Project services Ltd.He is also a director of Lighthouse and Waters Edge Hotels. Apart from these pursuits Nadesan also functions as a freelance business/investment consultant.NIRUPAMA
Nadesan became a relative of the President when he got married to Nirupama Deepika Rajapaksa the daughter of George and Lalitha Rajapaksa.Nirupama as she is generally known is a United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) Parliamentarian from Hambantota district and deputy minister of Water supply and Drainage.
Nirupama’s paternal grandfather DM Rajapaksa was the pioneering member of the family to enter politics during British rule. He became a State Councillor in 1936 representing the Hambantota constituency and was known as the “Lion of Ruhuna”. After the death of DM Rajapaksa in 1945 his younger brother DA Rajapaksa contested the ensuing by-election and became a state councilor. Hambantota was later carved into the electorates of Tissamaharama and Beliatta in 1947.
Don Alwin Rajapaksa contested Beliatta on behalf of the United National Party (UNP) in 1947. He crossed the floor with SWRD Bandaranaike in 1951 and co-founded the Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP) in 1952. DA Rajapaksa contesting on behalf of the SLFP won the Parliamentary elections of 1952,56 and 1960 July.He lost in 1960 March and in 1965.After DA Rajapaksa’s death in 1967 November his son Mahinda became Beliatta SLFP organizer and then MP in 1970.He was the youngest MP then at 24.
The sons of DM Rajapaksa, Lakshman and George also entered politics. While Lakshman Rajapaksa was somewhat an unsteady, maverick politico his brother George proved to be a stable, successful political leader. He contested the newly demarcated Mulkirigala electorate in March 1960 on the SLFP ticket.
George Rajapaksa was undefeated in Mulkirigala in the elections of 1960,65 and 70.It was George Rajapaksa as a deputy –minister who led a revolt against then Finance minister Felix R Dias Bandaranaike for raising the price of rice and caused Felix to resign his portfolio in 1962. He served as Minister of Health and Fisheries in the Government of Sirima Bandaranaike of 1970-77. After George’s death in 1976 his brother Lakshman contested the Mulkirigala by-election in 1976 and won.
George Rajapaksa’s daughter Nirupama had a fiery baptism in Politics when she contested by-elections in 1983 at the age of 20.She lost then but entered Parliament in subsequent elections and was later appointed deputy minister. Although Nirupama Rajapaksa is referred to mainly as a niece of Mahinda Rajapaksa,the President’s siblings like Chamal, Gotabaya and Basil too are her uncles
Nirupama therefore is the link through which Thirukumar Nadesan is connected to the President. This relationship has been the cause of harassment at times to the couple on their trips to India particularly Tamil Nadu. They were harassed a few years ago too in the state and had to be given Police protection.
Despite his Colombo upbringing Thirukumar is a devout Hindu who frequently visits India for religious and cultural purposes.He has been to places of religious significance such Benares,Gaya and Haridhwar in North India and several places in South India like Thiruppathy. He worships annually at the Murugan temple in Thiruchenthoor each year during “Kandasashdi”and can recite the “Kandasashdi Kavasam”verses.
Thirukumar Nadesan has often been to Rameswaram where the famous Ramanathaswami temple dedicated to Lord Shiva is located.Rameswaram is basically a town where pilgrims and tourists flock.Interestingly both Rameswaram and the Ramanathaswami temple are“connected”to Sri Lanka in belief,legend and history.
Rameswaram is a coastal town situated on Paamban Island in the Ramanathapuram (Ramnad) district of Tamil Nadu.Paamban Island in the gulf of Mannar is at the Southern tip of India and linked to the Indian mainland by the Paamban bridge built over the waters known as Paamban channel.
Rameswaram is about 50 km away from the Mannar island in Sri Lanka . The Indo-Ceylon ferry used to sail between Thalaimannar in Sri Lanka and Dhanushkodi in India . Incidently Dhanushkodi is the birthplace of famous scientist and former Indian President APJ Abdul Kalam who is currently visiting Sri Lanka.
The name Rameswaram is derived from Rama the king of Ayodhya and avatar of the deity Lord Vishnu.According to folklore and belief it was from Rameswaram that Rama with the help of his “Vaanara senai”(monkey army)built the bridge known as “Ramar Anai or Ram Sethu”(Adam’s bridge)to invade Sri Lanka and rescue his abducted wife Sita from the clutches of Ravana the king of “Lankapuri”.
According to folklore and some versions of the “Ramayana” it was at Rameswaram that Rama prayed to Lord Siva to seek pardon and absolve himself of sins committed during the course of the war against Ravana.Although the premier deity at the temple is Lord Siva both Saivaites as well as Vaishnavaites worship here in large numbers as it is considered to be one of the holiest places for all Hindus.
For Vaishnavaites worshipping Lord Vishnu Rameswaram is one of the four main “char dam”(four abodes) along with Badrinath,Puri and Dwarka dedicated to the avatars or incarnations of Lord Vishnu.Badrinath in the north,Rameswaram in the South, Dwarka in the west and Puri in the East form a geographical rectangle.
The chief deity at the Rameswaram temple , Ramanathaswamy is in the form of a “Shivalingam”. The lingam here is one of the twelve great abodes of Lord Shiva in India known as “Jyothilingams”.These are shrines where Lord Shiva is worshipped as a “pillar of light”.(Jyothilingam).
Among these temples dedicated to Lord Shiva the Kashi Vishwanath temple in North India at Varanasi(Benares) and Ramanathaswami temple in South India at Rameshwar(Rameswaram) are regarded as the most important.Both are revered as holy places to conduct last rites for the departed, scatter or dissolve ashes and observe rituals to propitiate ancestors.
There has also been a special relationship between the Rameswaram temple and the Tamils of Sri Lanka. There was a time when cows were reared in Neduntheevu ( Delft )island in the north for the Rameswaram temple and milk supplied regularly for “Abhiseghas” there. There are also many properties belonging to the temple in Jaffna . Several jewellery shops in Kannathiddy, Jaffna are “owned” by “Ramanathaswami”.
Devotees from Jaffna have flocked to Rameswaram for many years. Several have settled down permanently in Rameswaram and there is a tiny “ Jaffna ” colony in proximity to the Eastern Gopura (Tower) of the temple.
Among the Jaffna Tamils who settled down there was a School teacher called Kanagasuntharam who taught English to former Indian President Abdul Kalam. Thavamanidevi from Jaffna who made a mark as an attractive actress in Tamil films also settled down in Rameswaram in later life and was married to a Brahmin priest.
There was also a special pilgrims inn or “Madam”specifically for Jaffna devotees called “Yaarlpaanathaar Thirumadam” on the “Vadakku veethi” or northern street.It was renovated and reconstructed by Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan. The building was later taken over by the Tamil Nadu government and is now used as an office of the temple.
All these details illustrate the continuous relationship between Jaffna Tamils and Rameswaram. It is against this backdrop that the recent rowdyism of an attempted attack against a Hindu devotee of Jaffna Tamil origin has to be viewed.It must be emphasized however that the act cannot be regarded as an isolated instance but has to be seen as part of the anti –Sri Lanka, anti-Rajapaksa frenzy being whipped up by extremist racist elements in Tamil Nadu.
Like many devotees ,Thirukumar Nadesan too has been going to Rameswaram for many years in the past to conduct special poojas and Yagnas for propitiation purposes. He was doing so in a personal capacity. Unfortunately his visit to Rameswaram had been grossly misinterpreted by some political elements who mobbed him and accused him of doing pooja on behalf of President Rajapaksa
BRAHMINSAlthough the incident happened on January 10th its reverberations continue still.The federation of Brahmins associations in Rameswaram with a membership over 500 announced a hunger strike in protest over the attack on Thirukumar Nadesan.Although the Police gave permission to stage it on Friday January 20th the permission was later revoked.Shankara Vaathiyaar the president of the Brahmins federation has said that at present the hunger strike has only been postponed.
Many days have passed since the rowdy incident occurred.The incident as a flashpoint of tension sheds much light on the nexus prevailing among low level(metaphorical and literal)sections of the local Police,media and political activists of the region.Moreover the incident has been distorted and misreported by sections of the media in India and Global Diaspora. For these reasons this column wishes to focus specifically on the rowdyism at Rameswaram on Jan 10th 2012.
Thirukumar Nadesan arrived in India on Saturday January 7th. After an unpleasant past experience it had been the practice to request security from India during such visits. It had always been granted.
The fact that his spouse Nirupama was a niece of President Rajapaksa and was also a Govt deputy minister necessitated such security. But on this occasion Nadesan did not make such a request to the Indian High commission in Colomo as Nirupama was not accompanying him and also because it was a personal pilgrimage undertaken for religious purposes.
Nadesan checked in at the Chitra Park Hotel in Thiruchenthoor and commenced his religious observances. Thiruchenthoor is one of the “Arupadaiveedugal” or six revered abodes of Lord Muruga or Skanda.It is believed to be the venue of the battle in which Lord Muruga led the Devas and defeated the Asuras.Lord Muruga is worshipped as Senthilaandavan and the temple known as Thiruchenthoor Senthilaandavan Kovil.
While at Thiruchenthoor Nadesan came under the radar of the local Police “Q’branch. The special branch of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in Tamil Nadu is known as the “Q” branch. The “Q”branch set up in 1971 specializes in intelligence gathering and monitoring suspected extremist activity. The “Q’branch was aware that Nadesan’s next destination was Rameswaram.
Nadesan reached Rameswaram at about 3 pm on Monday January 9th and checked in at Hotel Royal Park . The local”Q”branch Police were awaiting him at the Hotel when he arrived. In the evening Nadesan went to the Ramanathaswami temple to worship.He was accompanied by two “Q’branch officers in civils. While exiting the temple a person presumed to be from the press photographed him suddenly. However a uniformed Police Inspector politely sent the photographer away. Nadesan had dinner at 8.30 pm at the Royal Park hotel where he had six “Q’branch officers as guests.
Nadesan left the Hotel very early in the morning. When he went out there were two “Q”branch officers in the Hotel lobby.The Sri Lankan Tamil devotee then proceeded to the residence of a Brahmin priest RC Anandha Dikshithar on Nadutheru in the Melavasal area.
A “Shraaddha”ceremony began at the house at 6.00 am. It was conducted by Brahmin priests on behalf of Thirukumar Nadesan. This involved a “Pinda -dhan” where offerings are made to ancestors in the form of “Pindas”made by Brahmins.The pindas are balls made of cooked rice or flour mixed with ghee, honey and black sesame seeds. The Pindas are offered to the souls of departed ancestors and then dissolved in water.
In Nadesan’s case the “Pinda –dhan” was for three generations of paternal and maternal ancestors. After the ritual at the Nadutheru residence the Sri Lankan Tamil businessman had walked to the beach on the eastern side of the Ramanathaswami temple known as “Agni theertham”(holy water body of fire) and dissolved the Pinda or rice balls in the sea.
There are 64 “theerthams”or holy water bodies in Rameswaram. Bathing or performing religious rites here earn great merit.”Agni theertham”is regarded as the most sacred among them. Nadesan then returned to Anandha Dikshithar’s residence to continue with the rest of the religious rituals, He was bare –bodied and wearing a verti according to custom.
When Nadesan returned he found six persons at the gate. They had come on three motor cycles and possessed cameras, camcorders and tape recorders.Introducing themselves as being from the press they began bombarding Nadesan with questions.
The “journos” asked questions about the Political situation in Sri Lanka and about the Rajapaksa family.Nadesan politely declined to answer saying he was not a politician and that he was in Rameswaram for a religious and not a political purpose.
Sudenly a mob of about 40 to 50 persons emerged from a pharmacy named “Moon Medicals” across the road. Many in the group were wearing black tee shirts with the portrait of slain LTTE supremo Veluppillai Prabhakaran or with a picture of a leaping tiger. This rabble virtually surrounded Nadesan and began shouting slogans in Tamil.
They began chanting that there was no place in Rameswaram for Rajapaksa family members when the Sinhala navy was killing Tamil fishermen from Rameswaram. They also screamed that Sinhala govt people who had massacred Tamils in Sri Lanka wont be allowed to enter Tamil Nadu.Black flags and placards were waved vigorously.Nadesan tried to explain but his voice was drowned in the shouting.
Upon hearing the commotion the Brahmin priests came outside.Concerned for Thirukumar’s safety the priests pulled him out of the melee and took him inside the house.Seeing their target escaping some of the rowdy mob tried to hit Nadesan with the flag poles. A few threw their slippers and chappals at him. But Nadesan entered the house safely
The enraged rabble then tried to forcibly enter the house but the priests led by the owner Anandha Dikshithar bravely blocked them for a while and managed to lock the front door from inside. Anandha Dikshithar sustained minor injuries in the scuffle. The mob then threw stones and footwear at the house while shouting slogans and threats of a racist nature.
The Police were informed and cops arrived within 10 minutes at the scene and dispersed the mob. Nadesan was escorted amidst tight security to the Hotel. In a disturbing disclosure one Policeman told the Tamil businessman that he had been officially assigned as Personal security officer but had been ordered to keep away by his superior officer so as to not attract attention.
Nadesan checked out of the Hotel immediately and left for Trichy from where he returned to Sri Lanka . He had been unable to complete the religious rituals or bathe in the “theertham within temple precincts as intened due to the rowdyism.
The incident however began receiving wide publicity. The leaders of the mob began giving interviews to the media and seemed very proud about what they had done. The tiger and pro-tiger media organs within the Tamil Diaspora publicized the event as a great victory against the Rajapaksa regime.
Nadesan was portrayed as Rajapaksa relative who had tried to conduct a pooja in Rameswaram for the benefit of President Rajapaksa and his Govt. The demonstration was depicted as a victory for having thwarted the move.
After returning to Colombo Thirukumar Nadesan wrote to the Indian High Commissioner Ashok Kantha outlining what had happened to him. He also wrote to External affairs minister Prof.GL Peiris and the Lankan envoy in New Delhi Prasad Kariyawasam.Nadesan also told sections of the media that there had only been a demonstration and an attack attempt against him and that he was not harmed physically
Meanwhile the Tamil Nadu police began cracking down.Nadesan himself had not made an official complaint but the Brahmin priest Anandha Dikshithar had lodged one with the Rameswaram Police.The Federation of Brahmin priests with a membership of over 500 began exerting pressure on the Police. Public opinion in Rameswaram was horrified at the incident.It had violated the cultural norm of hospitality where a guest was akin to God.
The Rameswaram Police found themselves under pressure from an unexpected segment of the local population. Rameswaram fisherfok reacted strongly against the incident. Thirteen mechanized boats associations and ten country boat associations representing Rameswaram fishermen issued a joint statement condemning the incident and staged a protest demonstration.
NJ Bose the general secretary of the mechanized boats association federation said that a foreign national and a priest should not have been attacked. Bose feared that the incident could adversely affect on going negotiations between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen as the demonstrators had made references to Rameswaram fishermen being attacked thus conveying the impression that the demonstration was an act of vengeance.
With mounting pressure the Police acted swiftly and began arresting those allegedly responsible.Seven persons including suspected ring leaders were arrested and produced in courts.They were remanded to judicial custody for fifteen days by the Rameswaram judicial magistrate.Police have also identified 40 other persons as suspects involved in the fracas.
Based on the complaint made by Anandha Dikshithar a case was filed in courts under Sections 506(1), 294(b), 427, 448 and 355 of the Indian Penal code for the offences of criminal intimidation, uttering obscene words, mischief, house trespass and assault. ” Deputy Inspector General of Police of Ramanathapuram range Sandeep Mittal told “The Hindu” that “All those involved in the incident would be brought to book”.
Most of the “activists”involved in the incident belong to the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (MDMK) led by Vaiko and Naam Thamizhar Iyakkam(NTI) led by Seeman.Among those arrested and remanded are “Karate”Palanisamy the state deputy –secretary of the MDMK youth wing and Kan.Illango the Rameswaram organizer of NTI.
The involvement of Vaiko and Seeman’s followers in the incident comes as no surprise because both leaders are rabid supporters of the LTTE and firmly opposed to a united Sri Lanka . These elements together with supporters of some Dravida Kazhagham(DK)factions have engaged in a vitriolic campaign against Sri Lanka in the state.
Seeman a film director cum actor has been obnoxiously racist. He was detained in Tamil Nadu for many months for publicly threatening to kill Sinhalese in India as retaliation for Tamil Nadu fishermen being killed.
He was deported from Canada some time ago for making racist remarks threatening the lives of Sinhala persons. Recently Seeman was denied entry to the USA and turned back at the John F Kennedy Airport in New York.
Seeman’s movement has a leaping tiger as its symbol. His younger followers wear black tee –shirts with Prabhakaran’s portrait and describe themselves as “Karumpuligal” or black tigers.
Energised by the inflammatory and provocative utterances of so called political leaders such as Seeman ,emotional youths in Tamil Nadu have displayed antipathy bordering on hatred towards Sri Lanka and the Rajapaksa regime. Very often these feelings deteriorate into sheer racism against the Sinhala people who are demonized as an oppressive majority destroying Tamils in the Island.
The rise of such racism has paved the way for a new form of vigilantism to emerge in Tamil Nadu. These political activists are determined to keep out Sri Lankans connected to the Rajapaksa Govt. Demonstrations are staged very often against perceived targets. While the objective is political at an ideological level, crass racism is pervasively visible in actual practice. Ordinary Sinhala people have been targets in addition to politicians.
Former Speaker WJM Lokubandara experienced a demonstration when he visited the temple dedicated to Shaneeswarar or Saturn at Thirunallaru. Opposition leader Ranil Wickremasighe found his vehicle surrounded by a mob chanting “Rajapaksa go home” in Tamil Nadu.
Wickremasinghe then told the mob who he was and said that he must be allowed to go home if Rajapaksa was to be made to go home.
Gampaha district MP and deputy minister of state resources and enterprise development Sarath Kumara Gunaratne found himself mobbed when he went to the Roman Catholic Church at Vellankanni. Some Muslim ministers have also found themselves the target of demonstrations. A senior Muslim cabinet minister went for an Islamic literary conference in Tamil Nadu without any fanfare to avoid trouble.
Tamil Nadu also witnessed racist anti-Sinhala threats and intimidation at many places last year. Sinhala tourists and pilgrims were threatened resulting in hundreds of them seeking protection at the Maha Bodhi society in Egmore, Chennai. Over 300 pilgrims going to Buddhist and Catholic places of worship and around 1000 sight-seeing Sinhala tourists abruptly terminated their stay in Tamil Nadu and returned home in August 2011.
These incidents of the past year as well as the latest one in Rameswaram reflect the simmering racist tensions in the state. These embers can be fanned into huge flames at any time by irresponsible politicians. The Rameswaram rumpus indicates a nexus among politicians,media and Police at the local level. The recurring phenomenon of racist rowdyism can have serious repercussions affecting Indo-Lanka relations in the future.
It is indeed ironic that the antics of these racist elements in Tamil Nadu are contrary to avowed policy measures of India towards Sri Lanka . India is very keen on fostering people to people relationships and are encouraging travel and tourism to India from Sri Lanka . Commerce and trade is being developed.India is also keen to attract Sri Lankan professionals in key sectors through agreements such as CEPA.
While this goes on at one level the Indian state that is closest to Sri Lanka in more ways than one is not creating a conducive climate for amity and friendship. The racist attitudes displayed by these political elements are undermining the overall Indian policy objectives. At present these incidents are mere irritants but gradually the friction could assume grave proportions.
It is time then for the powers that be in India both at the Central and state govt level to take appropriate action and prevent such incidents in the future.
It is the right of every Sri Lankan with a valid visa to visit India in general and Tamil Nadu in particular safely and securely. It is of Paramount importance that all Sri Lankans visiting India for religious and cultural purposes be allowed safe passage and a secure stay.
The rise of racist vigilantism in Tamil Nadu manifesting itself in disgusting forms such as the recent rowdyism at Rameswaram needs to be condemned vehemently.
Tamils of Sri Lanka must disassociate themselves with despicable acts such as these that are being committed by racist rabbles in the name of Pan-Thamizhian solidarity.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org