Rajani Thiranagama: A true heroine
of our times

By D. B.S. Jeyaraj                                                                       

More than fifteen years have passed since Rajani Thiranagama nee Rajini
Rajasingham was brutally gunned down at Thirunelvely, Jaffna on September
21st 1989 as she was cycling back home from the Jaffna University. She was
Professor of Anatomy at the Jaffna Varsity medical faculty. The 35 year old
mother of two daughters was also a human rights activist, feminist, critic of
narrow nationalism and opponent of irresponsible militarism. No one has officially
claimed responsibility for her killing and several attempts have been made by
those close to the perpetrators to deflect blame elsewhere. Despite these moves
the people at large know who the killers were though not many dared to say it
publicly.

A decade and a half however fails to erase the indelible memories of Rajani
among those who knew her. Her brutal murder has not been forgotten.
Whenever the human rights violations of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
are referred to in detail her name always crops up. Whenever the tragic plight of
women caught up in Sri Lankas long drawn out "Machismo" war is highlighted her
murder is usually focussed upon. Whenever the story of the Tamil liberation
struggle going terribly wrong is discussed the murder of Rajani Thiranagama is
always an issue cited.

She was truly a heroine of our times and an unforegettable symbol of its
enveloping tragedy. As former UN special rapporteur on violence against women
and current chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka
Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy observes . " Rajani had a vision for her people, the
Sri Lankan Tamils. She envisioned a time when they would live in peace and
dignity enjoying democratic rights and freedoms. Standing against oppression
and brutality in all its forms, she is a beacon of light for a community living in fear
and struggling for self - respect. She will never be forgotten; an icon for
everyone in Sri Lanka fighting for freedom ".

One agency that has remembered Rajani is the National Film Board of Canada.
The land of the Maple leaf has made a name for itself in the realm of
documentary films. "No More Tears Sister" - the anatomy of hope and betrayal is
the title of an 80 minute film on the life and times of Rajani Thiranagama
produced by the Canadian Film Board.. It is written and directed by Montreal
based Canadian film maker  Helene Klodawsky. The narrator Michael Ondatatje
the Sri Lanka born reputed author now domiciled in Canada. A novel feature in
recreating the life of Rajani is the portrayal of her mother by Sharika the younger
daughter now in her early twenties.

The Canadian feature documentary will have its world premiere at the  Hot Docs
International Documentary Film Festival being currently held in Toronto. "No
more tears  Sister" will screen at 9. 45 pm on April 26th at the Isabel Bader
theatre and at 7. 30 pm on April 28th at the Innis Town Hall.

Unlike most recreations of a contemporary personality the story of Rajani
provided a stiff challenge for the filmmakers. There was very little documentation
or authentic correspondence. Many of those who knew her or were associated
with her were too scared to be filmed. Moreover filming in Jaffna where Rajani
grew up, lived and died was out of the question because of the political climate.
One also supposes that an element of screcy had to be maintained at all times
due to the sensitive content and theme of the film.

Despite these problems that would have defeated most film makers of Cinema
verite Helen Klodawsky has accomplished her task well. She was fortunate that
family members and a few fellow human rights activists and feminists were
courageous enough to come out openly. Rajanis parents the Rajasinghams,
sisters Nirmala, Sumathy and Vasuki, Daughters Narmada and Sharika, husband
Dayapala Thiranagama and some unnamed activists have all been interviewed
and the life of Rajani unfolds on screen through their accounts mainly.

The vivid and perceptive comments made by Nirmala and Dayapala are the chief
 strengths of the film. The story of Rajani is inextricably inter- twined with that of
her elder sister Nirmala a political activist cum feminist in her own right. Rajanis
story cannot be told without without relating the story of Nirmala also. In that
sense this film is as much about Nirmala as it is about Rajani. Nirmala has broken
her long "public" silence on Rajanis death in this film. While not dwelt on
forcefully the film leaves no doubt in the viewers mind about the forces behind
Rajanis assassination.

Dayapala Thiranagama comes off very well. Both Rajani and he came from
contrastingly different backgrounds.  He provides many fresh insights into
Rajanis life. The scenes showing Nirmala and Dayapala in conversation are
illuminating. A revealing moment of truth for anyone familiar with the rise and fall
of the Tamil liberation struggle would be the one where the comment is made
that political activism is no longer the armed struggle but that of upholding
human rights.

The story of Rajani is interwoven with the violence of the ethnic conflict in Sri
Lanka. What made Helen Klodawsky the daughter of a concentration camp
survivor herself take up this tale? This is what she says - "I wanted to understand
how ethnic conflict and national struggles impact women - be they victims of war,
militant fighters or peace builders. I wondered whether there was a feminist
critique of both state and guerilla violence It was well known that the Sri Lankan
military and the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were both guilty of
torture, illegal detention, disappearances and extra - judicial executions. I wanted
to explore whether women were, on the one hand, torn between loyalties to their
ethnic communities and on the other hand the community of women. Did
oppressed minority women imagine fighting injustice in different ways than their
male counterparts?

The story of Rajani Thiranagama - her courageous life, unique vision and tragic
assassination - offered a compelling narrative to pose many of my questions.
Rajanis evolution into a spirited champion of the Tamil peoples rights in the
seventies and eighties paralleled the escalation of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.
Moved by her peoples complex struggle against ruthless state violence, she
believed Tamil militancy was the answer and joined the Liberation movement. But
when she witnessed the corruption and cruelty within, she felt compelled to
document what she saw and urged her people to resist blind adherence to any
leader or movement. Embracing feminism and a belief in human rights, she felt
that women in particular were the primary casualties of war.

I believed that by following Rajanis life story and the circumstances surrounding
her untimely death, several themes could be explored. Nationalisms anti -
nationalism; the lives of women as both participants and innocent victims of war
and the belief in armed struggle vs a critique of militarism.

Though "No More Tears " is set in Sri Lanka, a similiar story might have been
explored in Africa, other parts of Asia, the middle - east, Eastern Europe or Latin
America. In the sixties and seventies, Rajani was part of a generation of young
political activists in post - colonial societies around the world - activists who
dreamed of radically transforming their societies to achieve equality and justice
for all. But this idealism continues to be ruthlessly thwarted by narrow nationalist
agendas in countless Countries.

Cinematically, I wanted NO MORE TEARS SISTER to reflect the passion and
beauty of Rajani's ideals. Together with my talented team including Francois
Dagenais (director of photography)Patricia Tassinary (Editor) and Bertrand
Chenier (Composer) I aimed at making a film that is political, feminist and
aesthetic.
" Rajani had a
vision for her
people, the Sri
Lankan
Tamils. She
envisioned a
time when
they would
live in peace
and dignity
enjoying
democratic
rights and
freedoms.
Standing
against
oppression
and brutality in
all its forms,
she is a
beacon of light
for a
community
living in fear
and struggling
for self -
respect. She
will never be
forgotten; an
icon for
everyone in
Sri Lanka
fighting for
freedom ".
- Dr. Radhika
Coomaraswamy