Remembering Santasilan Kadirgamar: Intellectual, Activist and Loyal Alumnus of Jaffna College


Mahendran Thiruvarangan

When I learnt about Santasilan Kadirgamar’s demise, I felt I had lost a loyal alumnus of my old school Jaffna College and a friend from whose activism I learnt a lot about the significance of inclusive social movements to our quest for justice. My interactions with Silan happened in these two spheres besides knowing him as the father of my good friend Ahilan.


I had the opportunity to converse with Silan for the first time when both of us were elected to serve the Executive Committee of the Jaffna College Alumni Association (Colombo) in 2009. When I mentioned in my introduction that I was a student in the Faculty of Arts, University of Peradeniya from where Silan had graduated a half century from then, Silan was curious to know what I was studying and what my academic interests were. We had a lengthy conversation on the history of the Department of English at Peradeniya and Silan recalled his friends who studied English when he was an undergraduate. University of Peradeniya, our common interest in the Humanities and our common political beliefs made our friendship within and outside the Alumni Association stronger in the subsequent years.

Silan always encouraged young alumni members to contribute to the future of Jaffna College and was keen to find out what recent school-leavers like me felt about Jaffna College, its history and its achievements. Within the alumni association, Silan participated in the discussions in a lively and democratic manner and would often reminiscence the democratic traditions that Jaffna College nourished in the past.

It was also in 2009 that I was working on my undergraduate dissertation on the Jaffna Exodus of 1995. As part of my research, I read two fascinating articles that Silan had written some years ago. One of them was about the role of the Church in national reconciliation and the other focused on the Leftist political tradition(s) among the Tamils in Lanka. While appreciating and recognizing the efforts made by various leaders of the Church, especially Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe, and Christian groups towards achieving national harmony, Silan, as a Leftist intellectual, did not hesitate to critique the elitist attitudes of the English educated leadership of the Church in the years after independence and the narrow nationalisms that dominate the Churches in the north and south even today.

Silan was a down-to-earth activist who never hid from anyone that he had once supported Tamil nationalism and Tamil militancy. Keeping in line with the Leftist intellectual tradition, he constantly evaluated his political views in light of the changing realities on the ground. Thus he became critical of the LTTE when the movement started to kill Sinhala civilians in the south and dissenting Tamil groups in the north-east. Silan’s criticism of militancy and narrow nationalisms, however, never made him turn a blind eye to the brutality of the Sri Lankan state towards the Tamils and the other minority communities. In an interview with a Tamil newspaper a few years ago, Silan unswervingly said that federalism would be the only solution to the ethnic conflict.

Silan’s essay, “The Left tradition in Lankan Tamil Politics” speaks about the attempts made by sections of the Tamil community to build progressive social movements and promote inclusive electoral politics during the colonial and post-colonial periods and how state-sponsored discrimination against Tamils and the dominance of Tamil nationalism crippled these movements in the latter half of the twentieth-century. Silan’s work on the Youth Congress of Jaffna is crucial to understand the progressive tradition of Jaffna’s anti-colonial politics and the rise of secularism in northern Sri Lanka. Silan’s life and activism, especially in the Sri Lankan ecumenical movement, show us that there can be constructive dialogue between religion and social justice and religion can indeed a play a proactive role in effecting healthy transformations in the state and society.

We are on the thresholds of “change” brought about by the people of this country on the 8th of January and the 17th of August. To make this change concrete and meaningful to all of us, particularly the poor, the downtrodden, the working class, women and ethno-religious minorities, in political and economic terms, we have to find ways of connecting with one another as individuals and communities across the barriers that we and the state have created over the years. In reflecting on the kind of activism that the present historical moment expects from us, I would like to go to back to the days when the Movement For Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) and the Citizen’s Committee, activist groups which Silan was deeply involved with between the late 1970s and early 1980s, were struggling against state authoritarianism in Jaffna and all over the country.

The courage demonstrated by these non-partisan groups and activists like Silan, who strived for justice in times of political repression, inspires confidence in us to initiate multi-ethnic movements during these relatively peaceful days to create an inclusive and egalitarian future for all of us. While remembering the life and work of Silan as a friend, comrade and fellow alumnus of Jaffna College, I also remember the national and local multi-ethnic social movements of which he was an active member and their commitment and contribution to democratizing our societies and the state. Silan and the emancipatory vision of the movements that he was part of will certainly have immense relevance to our activism and politics in the days and months to come.

An event to celebrate the life of Silan Kadirgamar, a meeting of reflection and fellowship, will be held in Ramakrishna Mission Hall, 60 Ramakrishna Road, Colombo 06, on the 28th of August 2015 at 5.30pm. Silan’s friends, comrades, fellow activists, members of the Jaffna College community and the public are invited to this event.