RAJESHKUMAR ‘RAGHAVAN’
'Raghavan' is the alias of Rajeshkumar. Born in Punnalaikkadduvan in the North of Sri Lanka, 'Raghavan' spent most of his youth in the charge of the LTTE before leaving in protest over authoritarianism and internecine killings in 1984. He moved to the UK in the mid-1980s, gaining asylum status in 1992. One of his earliest memories traces his initial consciousness of the injustice of caste issues in his village. In his reflections, he recalls Pallar labourers being chased out of the village by Vellalar landowners in the 1960s. As a young person, he felt constrained by his father’s discipline and was more worldly than academic, reading epic poetry and playing sports. He joined the movement during the political groundswell of the early ‘70s, influenced by socialism, Tamil student politics and the discriminatory impact of Sinhalese state policies. As the militancy strengthened into the 1980s, he became uneasy with political infighting and increased authoritarian control within the LTTE. That, coupled with the outbreak of a bloody struggle for dominance between rival groups – including LTTE, PLOTE (People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam) and TELO (Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation) – influenced Raghavan to strike out on his own. Once out, he not only lived in constant fear of repercussions from both military and militant personnel, he struggled to adjust to the material concerns of everyday life. He met his future wife in India, she too an ex-LTTE supporter, and eventually found asylum in London. In his early years in London, he worked various odd jobs while becoming involved in global struggles for South Asian solidarity and against apartheid in South Africa. He currently lives in west London, working in the legal profession, providing legal support to Tamil refugees and asylum seekers in the UK, and staying in touch with pro-democracy initiatives in Sri Lanka.

EVEN IF YOU WANT TO RAISE CHICKENS

Rajeshkumar ‘Raghavan’, 56, talks about the personal, political and ideological awakenings that influenced his to decision to take up arms against the state.

In his interview, he also talks about the social emphasis of education and government service in Jaffna, made doubly important in his home environment by his parents’ positions as educators…

‘Education, education, education, that’s the only one thing everybody would say…There is a proverb in Tamil: ‘Even if you want to raise chickens, you should be a government employee.’ You have to be a government employee, you know. The reason is you could get a pension or whatever. So you should have a stable, permanent job. So the only way to find this is that government job. So whatever you do, you should go and join the government service. So whether you can be a teacher, clerk, anything. So education was given a priority. And, you know, all the parents, especially the lower middle-class and middle-class parents, their aspiration was to make one child an engineer or a doctor. So that was the dream at that time. So my parents thought that I would become an engineer [laughs] and make money and…’

…his initial consciousness of the injustice of caste issues in his village…

‘For instance, I can take an example from my village. When I was very young, I think the early sixties, in my village there was a man…there were these people who are Dalits, called Pallars. They were the people who worked on these upper caste landowner’s land. They didn’t have their own houses. These lands would be allocated by the upper caste people for them to stay in that cultivation and they would do all the labour for the people. There were certain arrangements such as they may give some kind of produce, whatever they produced, and there may be wages, very poor wages. In the ‘60s, what happened was some of them refused to work in that particular man’s land and as a result all those people were chased out from my village. They didn’t have any valuable things but still whatever they had, some tools and all those things were taken away.’

…the layers of belonging between different language communities in Sri Lanka and the more direct forms of racism he experienced in the UK…

‘…In day-to-day life, for instance, if I go to Colombo, I wouldn’t be seen as a different person, you know, you are the same – except I may have a moustache and the Sinhalese person may not have a moustache [laughs]. That’s the only difference. Whereas in the UK or any other countries, because of the colour, it is much easier to identify you as a different person as well. So then the antagonism can be very, very quick. For instance, if you are a racist, and if someone sees me, they immediately call you a ‘Paki’ or whatever, whereas in Colombo, I may not be identified as Sinhalese as such. So there is a lot of difference between racism in the UK and the discrimination there in day-to-day life. Institutional discrimination may be there but not necessarily practiced in everyday life.’

…the political awakenings in Jaffna in the 1970s…

‘…There was an organisation called Suya-Aadchi Kazhakam (Tamilar Suya-Aadchi Kazhakam) that is… it actually means self-determination, yeah? That organisation would put up posters saying that Tamils didn’t have any nation so we should find a nation and all those kind of posters. I could have been, I don’t know, but I could have been inspired by those posters and propagandas as well. Then in the early ‘70s when the new government, you know, SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party) and Communist Party, Sama Samaja Party, they had the coalition and they became the ruling party. So during that time, then this standardisation was introduced as well. So, when the standardisation was introduced, most of the students became politicised as well. So they started going on, ‘What’s going on? Why we can’t enter the university?’ Although if I look back, it may not be the right thing we did but still. And also in ’72, then the government announced that Buddhism was given the important religion. So all these constitutional changes plus certain standardisation policies made young Tamil students to think differently as well. And they became aware. But I wouldn’t say that during the ‘70s, lots of people were, a lot of the Tamil young were not interested in such politics, but a few of us became involved.’

…village impressions of his political activity…

‘Initially, my family members were very, very upset that I was, you know, to be honest, it was about a few members at that time so I was one of them. So I became wanted very early, in 1976. So my parents, they were both teachers and kind of respectable, kind of not people in the village. It’s a good thing. My mother said she was very upset, not because I was…they thought I was a kind of bank robber or whatever [laughs]. So that’s how the rest of the village would talk about us because at the time nobody knew LTTE or any liberation or whatever. In the village, they would talk about this guy who was a bank robber. One joke, my parents, they were teachers so your income is very low and you get the money from the government. They are government servants. So we built a house and it took a long time. And after I went away, they finished the house. So the village people started talking that the money came from me [laughs]. This story, I didn’t know but my parents told me later on.’

…the growth of popular support for the Tigers…

‘What happened was all these youths went and joined the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) or any other organisation, all the militant organisations. J.R. Jayawardene government also banned all the opposition organisations such as all the communist parties, Sama Samaja Party, as well as TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front). So the TULF leaders had to go to India and they also lost their political base. That was a serious problem because it was…so they couldn’t do anything in Sri Lanka as well. That political space was filled by the militant movements. And people also, especially after the riots, people also became, you know, they thought that these groups can only do something for us. They truly believed these militant groups. You know we had full support.’

…life immediately after the LTTE…

‘…Because I was with the organisation for a long period of time and most of the youth was spent in the LTTE, you know – so when I came out, I was not able to mix with the ordinary people’s life, like talking about house or children or cars or whatever. Even now I have problems with that as well [laughs], probably car I am now OK [laughs]. I can talk about cars…It was alien to me because I didn’t think about money. The money’s not mine. You know it was a common thing. So the money’s there for my food or whatever, yeah, not as my possession. So these worldly possessions were not in my mind so there was a kind of conflict between my existence and those who surrounded me after I left. You know, I’m not talking about the members who joined me – because I had to go and stayed in different places in India. So it took awhile. And also I was very, very bitter and disappointed. You know, we had a kind of dream and it was over.’

…and the ongoing process of settling in the UK…

‘…Initially we had this plan to go back, both of us. And we didn’t even want to – many people who came with us, they bought their houses and this and that. We decided not to buy anything. We still had that idea of not having any possessions. So we just rented out flats and moving here and there. I think we would have moved about ten houses between 1986 to 1994. Then obviously when you are living together, you will have children. I don’t know, even now I am not fully settled as such. But I can say that now I’m, to be honest, now I am in quite a reasonable life, lifestyle and everything is OK, fine…Yeah, you have this, it’s not about our life and our pleasure, it’s a broader outlook you have. So you always think about your own failures. What you wanted to achieve is not like running a marathon and becoming first or whatever [laughs]. You know you think about it in a different way. So it’s always lacking, whether we failed to do certain things, what is our mistakes. It’s always unconsciously…’