Benign Parliamentarian from Batticaloa II
[Continued from last week]
by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
I wrote last wek that Joseph Pararajasingham quit government service in
the late sixties. That was incorrect. Joseph gave up government service in
the early seventies. This again was due to an interesting reason. As
stated earlier former Batticaloa MP Rajan Selvanayagam was a first
cousin of Joseph's wife Sugunam. Her mother was the sister of Rajan's
father SA Selvanayagam a very rich Batticaloa businessman.Rajan
contested Batticaloa as an Independent in 1970.
Joseph however was a staunch follower of SJV Chelvanayagam and
therefore a federalist.. The FP candidate was Chellia Rajadurai. Despite
the close relationship with Rajan, Joseph backed Rajadurai in the
elections. In spite of strong family pressures Sugunam stood by her
husband against her cousin. Rajan a very controversial and colourful
personality in his own right was very angry at this "filial betrayal". 1970
saw both Rajadurai and Rajan being elected as first and second MP"s of
Soon Rajan aligned with the government of Mrs. Bandaranaike and
became politically powerful. One of his earliest acts of political revenge
was to transfer Joseph out from Batticaloa Kachcheri to Nuwara
Eliya.Instead of going to Nuwara - Eliya Joseph opted to retire from
government service. He then tried his hand at many businesses ranging
from mineral water manufacture to wholesale paper sales.
Joseph then became partner and Rajeswara theatre manager.
Thereafter he bough the old "Imperial" movie theatre and re- christened it
after his departed son Subaraj. Incidently Joseph was an avid filmgoer
and was interested in talking about films. He loved being a theatre
manager often discussing films with movie fans. He also started the
"Subaraj" tourist lodge and the "Subaraj" shopping complex later on and
became a successful entrepreneur.
When Joseph became an MP in the early nineties it was a very difficult
period for Tamils in Batticaloa and Amparai districts. The LTTE was
restricted mainly to the jungles and some areas of the Western hinterland
known as "Paduvankarai" or shore of the setting sun. The tigers did not
have a permanent presence in the littoral to the East of the Batticaloa
lagoon known as "Eluvankarai" or shore of the rising sun. Tigers used to
infiltrate this area for certain purposes at times.The Littoral was better
developed and had the bulk of the population. It was also heterogeneous
with interspersed Tamil and Muslim villages adjacent to each other.
The state unleashed a scorched earth policy on Eastern Tamils in order
to subdue them. Apart from the army and Police the Special Task Force
was deployed almost exclusively in Batticaloa - Amparai. Sections of the
Air Force were also used here. Sinhala and Muslim homeguards were
used as auxiliary troops. Some Muslim groups were armed by the state
and used against Tamils. Tamil - Muslim enmity was encouraged.
Disappearances and civilian massacres were very much on the
increase.As a result of these measures helpless Eastern Tamils were
crushed underfoot beneath the military jackboot.
It was during such a bleak and dark period of the Eastern Tamils that
Joseph Parajasingham became an MP from the district. The other two
Tamil MP's were Former Batticaloa Central College principal Prince
Casinader and ex - TELO military commander Karunakaran alias Jana.
The two Muslim MP's were Hizbulla of the SLMC and Basheer Segu
Dawood. Basheer is now the chairperson of the Muslim Congress. At that
time he was of the EROS backed independent list. Alagu. Gunaseelan
was elected first on the list but forfeited the seat due to a LTTE inspired
boycott of Parliament. Basheer next on the list became MP just as Joseph
became MP due to Sam Thambimuthu's death.
Joseph Pararajasingham despite his physical stature was not an
aggressive personality. . He was a very powerful orator in Tamil on
political platforms but soft spoken and mild - mannered in every - day life.
While his wife Sugunam is of a fiery temperament at times , Joseph was
generally quiet and gentle. He avoids arguments of any kind. Joseph was
very much like a gentleman of the old school type who does not like to
offend or cause controversy. Becoming Batticaloa MP in the nineties
however thrust him into an entirely new role. Joseph was compelled to
take on the powers that be in his role as representative of the Tamil
Though the role of a Batticaloa Parliamentarian was thrust on Joseph due
to the deaths of Amirthalingam and Thambimuthu the benign
Pararajasingham was of the view that it was in his destiny to be so. The
stars had already ordained such a role for him he felt. He had always
been interested in politics but never had any lofty ambitions of entering
Parliament. His attitude however changed in the late sixties while working
under former GA Kathirgamanathan.
A "Kandam" reading astrologer from India read the "Ola leaves" and
predicted that Pararajasingham will one day enter Parliament. Old friends
recall him being excited by it and even telling his boss the GA about it. He
was subject to some teasing as "our future MP" by friends for a while due
to this. Fate however decreed that he be an MP representing Batticaloa.
The affected Tamil people turned to Joseph the new MP with their
problems and grievances. In the old days the problems were about jobs,
transfers, etc. Now it was literally and metaphorically existential issues.
Disappearances, arrests, torture, assaults, killings, shelling, bombing,
firing, detentions etc were the problems. Joseph telephoned military .STF
and Police officials;he wrote letters and faxed them to the President,
defence secretary, defence service chiefs and ministers; he visited
places where state terror had been unleashed and spoke reassuringly to
victims and next of kin; he ensured that medical treatment was afforded
to injured people.
Being generally an amiable person with good inter - personal skills Joseph
maintained cordial relations with the serving Police and defence service
officials of the district. Sugunam who functioned as his secretary would
get the people on the telephone and Joseph would speak to them.. At
times he would go personally to meet them. The late General Lucky
Algama was very hostile to Joseph initially. After some interaction they
became quite friendly to each other.
This does not mean that Joseph was able to remedy the grievances of the
people at all times. That could not be so given the fact that a war was
going on. But where Joseph succeeded more was in providing solace and
limited succour to affected people. He provided a ray of hope for the
beleaguered ordinary people of Batticaloa. They felt that there was one
man at least to whom they could turn to in their troubles. He and Sugunam
listened intently. Sugunam would provide refreshments and at times meals
to the poor people who had travelled from far. She had good rapport with
CP Chandraprema in his interesting series of articles in "The Island" on
the state of the UNP writes of the "Manushakama" provided by Vijaya
and Chandrika Kumaratunga to aggrieved people during the dark days of
the JR Jayewardene regime. They lent a sympathetic ear and a shoulder
to cry on for the people. It was this empathy and humanity that endeared
them to the people at that time observes Chandraprema. Joseph and
Sugunam too provided this same "Manushathanmai" or
"Manithabimanam" to the afflicted people of Batticaloa who sought their
help. I must emphasise here that these attributes of the Pararajasinghams
were not necessitated by politics alone. It was inherent in their nature to
Let me digress slightly at this point and refer to my personal links with the
couple in order to comment on their friendly and hospitable nature..I first
met Joseph and Sugunam in 1977 in Batticaloa. Though only a cub
reporter at the "Virakesari" I had been transferred to Batticaloa as Staff
Correspondent. As mentioned earlier in these columns the 1977 elections
had seen a bitter division within TULF ranks. Rajadurai and Kasi Anandan
were contesting each other. The Kasi Anandan lobby accused the
Batticaloa correspondent veteran Journalist VS Kathirgamathamby of
being partial to Rajadurai. They demanded an impartial reporter and so
Kathirgamathamby was called to Colombo and I was sent to Batticaloa.
Joseph and Sugunam like Sam and Kala Thambimuthu were supportive of
Rajadurai. The Rajadurai camp viewed me suspiciously as being pro -
Kasi Anandan. Joseph, Sugunam, Sam and Kala however were
exceedingly nice towards me. Joseph in particular was a "competitor"
since he worked for "Dinapathy" then.Yet he was always helpful and
hospitable. He would often provide transport to attend election
meetings.He also introduced me to several government officials.
It was Joseph who briefed me vividly of the prevailing political situation in
the East. Their house then was on Central Rd only a few yards away from
the "Virakesari" office. I would often drop in or be asked to drop in for a
chat.I called them "Annan" and "akka" then and continued to do so.
Later on I returned to Colombo but Joseph remained in touch just like
Sam. Both of them were very useful and important news sources from
Batticaloa for me while working on "The Island" and later as Colombo
Correspondent of "The Hindu". I myself put him in touch with a few foreign
journalists who were also impressed by his contacts and information.
Many others contacted him on their own. Soon Joseph was very much in
demand as a news contact from Batticaloa to many foreign journalists. He
also continued with his own journalism and was elected President of the
Eastern Tamil Journalists association. After coming to Canada I began
editing two Tamil weeklies the "Senthamarai" and "Muncharie" at different
times. Once again Joseph provided a lot of information from Batticaloa.
With two of their children and other close relatives being in Toronto the
Parajasinghams often visited Canada. I used to meet them very often
here. Initially the TULF was treated as enemies by the LTTE in
Canada.The local LTTE media blacked out the TULF and even Kumar
Ponnambalam then. The only Canadian Tamil journals that gave Joseph
and Kumar "positive" publicity were the ones edited by me. I also used to
do a radio program then and interviewed both for it much against the
wishes of those running the radio show..
The situation changed later on. The LTTE was angry for my reporting the
facts about "Operation Riviresa" and conducted a campaign against me.
The shop owners selling the paper and advertisers were intimidated. I had
to shut my paper. The tigers however got close to people like Joseph and
Kumar. Both were lionised by them in Canada. Despite the close links I
had had with Kumar he began avoiding me in order to curry favour with
the local tigers. But Joseph was different.
In spite of pressure applied by the LTTE in Canada Joseph never cut off
his links with me. He would always meet me in Canada as he had done in
the past. I also remained in touch on the phone.I continued to visit them at
their daughters place and Sugunam would always be extra hospitable just
as she would have been if living in her own house.
Joseph was also troubled by my estrangement with the LTTE. He would
often advise me that an antagonistic relationship was not helpful to either.
His position was that despite areas of dispute or problems with the LTTE
all Tamils had no option but to support the tigers in the face of a greater
threat to Tamil identity and cohesion from the Sinhala dominated state.
Joseph even tried to mend fences and made representations to many
LTTE personalities in Sri Lanka and abroad. Though he was doing so with
all good intentions I was annoyed at this and asked him to stop. He gave
up his efforts only because I asked him to.
Our relationship became slightly strained after the Anandasangaree
episode. I was critical of the TNA for surrendering their independence to
the LTTE and attempting to oust Sangaree according to their diktat.
Joseph was initially soft on the issue and tried to make Sangaree withdraw
on his own. The LTTE however increased pressure on him . Joseph then
was compelled to take a very strident role in ousting Sangaree.
I was extremely critical. Joseph explained that he had no choice in the
matter as the Tamilselvan demanded it. Though we lost contact thereafter
Joseph would always inquire after me from mutual friends or
acquaintances. I have no doubt that he would have spoken to me amiably
if I had called but then I did not. Who knew then that his life was going to
be snuffed out so soon?
One thing I learnt from his own lips was that Joseph was no blind follower
of the LTTE.He was unhappy about many of the acts of omission and
commission by the LTTE. I am sure that he would have made his views
known gently and unobtrusively to the tigers. But he was a genuine Tamil
nationalist at heart. Joseph was of the firm view that despite the flaws the
Tamil people had to back the LTTE unitedly.
"Nammadai aatkaluku ithu vilanguthillai" ( Our people dont understand
this) he would often say. I realised that this was what drove him in his
politics and made him take up certain stances. I of course do not
subscribe to the view that one has to submit one's independence and
reason to the LTTE in the name of Tamil nationalism. But he
differed.Whether one accepts or rejects Joseph's view it was a genuine
conviction as far as he was concerned.. He was not an opportunist.One
must respect those views. He had every right to his political opinion and
course of action.
What is tragic however is that none of the principal Tamil militant groups
had ever respected this right. The tendency of killing those with different
political views is very much prevalent in the LTTE. But other groups were
not very different either. The current tragedy undergone by Eastern
Tamils is the targeting of civilians by both the mainstream LTTE and its
renegade faction led by "Col" Karuna. Both sides kill people on the basis
that those who are not with us are against us. Sadly all those being killed
are Eastern Tamils regardless of their political opinion.Joseph is one more
victm in this vicious cycle. In spite of the red herring of "Sennan Padai" or
Sennan force the finger of suspicion clearly points to those of the Karuna
faction as being responsible.
[To be continued next week]