Torture in Custody and the Manufacture of Evidence: Chandrasekaram’s “Tigers Don’t Confess”, and Munasinghe’s “Eliyakandha Wadha Kandhawura”.

What is referenced in passing as incarceration, torture in military custody and the use of coercive means to obtain substantive statements which, in turn, are detrimental to the detainee in some of the previous sections is, perhaps, most comprehensively brought into a creative work by Visakesa Chandrasekaram in his Tigers Don’t Confess (2011). The main artery of the narrative, for me, is a focalization on how the military and its arms abuse the privileges given to law enforcement by the Prevention of Terrorism Act (1979), and ‘fabricate’ evidence to achieve a result favourable to them while engaging in harassment, inhuman treatment and torture of suspects taken into their custody. In that way, the story of Kumaran Mylvaganam – a student of the University of Colombo hailing from Jaffna, taken into custody by the Terrorist Investigation Team under the suspicion of being Haran, a member of the LTTE’s ‘pistol squad’ – becomes symptomatic of the fate of thousands of young men and women similarly incarcerated for long, and hopeless years.

17288112._UY400_SS400_The story unfolds against the political quagmire of Sri Lanka caught in the transitional phase between the last years of the UNP regime in the early 1990s and the coming into power of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s People’s Alliance in 1994. Chandrasekaram creatively uses the ambiguous political climate of the time with killings of eminent political personalities, explosions of bombs and a cryptic puzzle of nerve-wracking possibilities as to who the actual masterminds behind these shake ups could be. In a shooting that takes place in the Kirulapona Ground annexing Mugalan Road, a “Greens” MP Appapillai Nagalingam dies leaving behind sufficient mystery for the sleuths to ponder on. This, coincidentally, is the very ground in and conditions under which the onetime UNP frontliner and Democratic United National Front (DUNF) heavyweight Lalith Athulathmudali was gunned down in April 1993.

When Kumaran is first presented to us, he is in court being charged with an extensive list of assassinations – MP Nagalingam’s and a PLOTE cadre, Ganeshan’s, included – and is about to be convicted and sentenced to an impossible prison sentence. The inexperienced lawyer who defends him barely gets past base one, but a request for an assessment of injuries Kumaran claims to have sustained – bodily wounds received, as his lawyer alleges, while being tortured and beaten in Police custody – gives thin light for the case to proceed to some progressive length. The lawyer Shiv hopes that a confirmation of torture wounds by a medical authority would annul the validity of the supposed confession which Kumaran is claimed by the Police to have given voluntarily, of his own. Chandrasekaram uses this as a departure point to unveil step by step not only the horror of Kumaran’s experience being held at the Terrorist Investigation Department, but also to set within a creative frame the arrogance and impunity of an abusive system that uses any means possible to ‘obtain a confession’ that promotes their agenda.

The Terrorist Investigation Team is headed by (a supposedly oblivious) ASP Tissa Wadugama, consisting of seemingly unassuming (and disciplined) servers of the law such as IP Mohotti, Sergeant Silva, Constable Razik and Woman Constable Kumari Ranaweera. As the plot progresses, these ‘law enforcers’ get recast as malicious violators of persons and of human rights at a deplorable and degrading level. What is even worse is that as agents of an abusive and twisted system, these Police officers are merely ‘accomplishing a job’: the abuse of suspects has become normalized and internalized as part of the routine in ‘a day in the office’.

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Visakesa Chandrasekaram (Pic. Sharmalee Tirimanne)

The structural violence Chandrasekaram is occupied with goes beyond the TIT dungeons. For Chandrasekaram, the very vicious act of implementing damage on a person, swivels and forms a cycle of hatred and the need for revenge which is seen in several characters we meet in the novel who have joined the ranks of the LTTE carrying a seed of grievance against an aggressor from the Sinhala military / political camp. This is best seen in the development of Shalini’s role – who had her parents – merchants from the South – killed before her eyes as a twelve year old, and was then brutally gang-raped by the same murderers. She later joins the LTTE in search of justice and vengeance. On the surface, Shalini is a beautiful young woman who uses her flirtatious charm to advantage and as a survival instinct. But underneath, she’s a tormented person and harbours sadistic impulses which can be suggested to have been born of her own trauma and pain. When a traitor of the Tigers is being tortured – as Tissa’s spy Anan, after being captured, is in the Eastern jungles – Shalini finds in the trauma of the victim a redemptory satisfaction. She undergoes a breast-removal to facilitate bombs to be unsuspectingly placed in her person which is powerfully symbolic of the levels of sacrifice a destroyed soul would go to in order to fulfill her ambitions of vengeance.

The other vengeful Tiger we meet is Dayabaran / Haran / Pushpa: the one with many disguises and incarnations. This is a cadre who is even out of his own superiors’ control within the LTTE hierarchy – therefore, for different reasons, is a doubly hunted – but one who had taken off on his own to fulfill a plan of revenge. He is one of the swiftest marksmen, but is later found out to be a chronic victim of trauma as a result of being abused and tortured for long periods in Police custody. This is the foundation of the killer the TIT could not fathom or decipher: the monster of its own work bench.

In consolidating the line of inquiry Chandrasekaram opens out in his work, the reading of the work by Rohitha Munasinghe can be crucial in many ways. Munasinghe’s Eliyakandha Wadha Kandhawura is one of the most comprehensive and detailed witness records of being extra-judicially detained, tortured, harassed and treated with gross contempt during 1989 by the Sri Lanka army at a torture camp in Brown’s Hill, Matara. Munasinghe’s incarceration takes place during the tail-end of the Second Insurgency by the JVP dated from 1987 to 1990, and presents the harrowing tale of a Southerner (as opposed to the North-East of the island) and a Sinhalese being held in military captivity and whose plight in custody could even in the worst of situations be suggested to be less than that of a Tamil in a similar position. But, Munasinghe’s testimony confirms that the military – as a class – functions for that class, and spearheads its own class interests; and that it bows to the command that steers the herd of the platoon and responds to no other denomination or formation outside that regimented mentality.

1.jpgRohitha Munasinghe, by admission, had been a one-time JVP activist at the district level, but had defected from the party in the around 1982. By the time his ancestral home is rounded up by the military and he, along with his brother-in-law, is taken into custody in 1989 he had had no connection whatsoever with the JVP or with its militant activism at the time. Eliyakandha Wadha Kandhawura was written in self-imposed exile in France, which Munasinghe reaches as a refugee after smuggling himself out of the country in 1991. Munasinghe is perhaps one of the most important writers whose work since the late-1990s has produced a consistent body of literature that compel us to review the historical narrative of the Bheeshana Samaya of 1987-90 in comparative terms, with emphasis on a subalternized narrative of the kind that is often de-selected from the mainstream. This, in a context where popular sources on the Insurrection years (available in English) such as C.A. Chandraprema’s JVP: The Years of Terror (1991), A.C. Alles’ The JVP: 1969-1989 (1990) and Rohan Gunaratna’s Sri Lanka: A Lost Revolution? (1991) present blatantly pro-establishment views of things.

Alles’ The JVP 1969-1989 is in fact a dishonest document: an extension of his treatise of the 1971 insurrection (published in 1979), which is hurriedly extended with a glossing over of the worst human tragedy the island’s South has known in modern history with the addition of a few hastily added chapters. Chandraprema’s is a very disturbing book as he suggests to be intimately knowledgeable with details that clearly fall in the category of the extra-judicial, which includes deaths of persons, knowledge of their would-be killers, the ways in which these deaths / killings were carried out, who the ultimate authorities involved were and so on: facts that to this day remain classified and unknown to the world in general. Munasinghe’s narrative, in a way, counterbalances the volition created by establishmentarian voices that often downplay the humanitarian tragedy caused by military violence. Other influential work that complement Munasinghe’s series of narrative that work to destabilize the mainstream voice on 1987-90 includes his Rangala Preme (2002; supposedly a fictionalized portrayal of JVP frontliner and military wing member Ragama Somey), Ja.Vi.Pe Sangavunu Ithihasayen Bindhak – I&II (2007, 2010) and Upanayaka Upatissa Gamanayake  (2016).

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Rohitha Munasinghe

In the line of Literature to which I subscribe Munasinghe we have a slow, but steady discursive tendency emerging from about the mid-1990s with efforts such as Prins Gunasekera’s A Lost Generation: Sri Lanka In Crisis: The Untold Story (1998) – again, written in self-imposed exile – being a daring and crucial project. This book is written in a context where Alles, Chandraprema and Gunarathna have already cemented an arbitrarily pro-regimental history of the insurrection that was brought to a close eight years earlier. As it should be, Gunasekara investigates the struggle from an informed historical perspective, laying open for discussion the precedents of the conflict, as a chain of event from the mid-1970s onwards. Gunasekara’s text takes account of the insurgency as an unavoidable result of a chain of ruthless anti-democratic maneuvers by the state over a near-decade period (1977-1987). With roots in the traditional Left-Center, one might even suggest that Gunasekara’s writing signifies empathy for the JVP, while being apprehensive of the UNP governments of JR Jayawardene and R. Premadasa.

In more recent Literature writers such as Prasanna Sanjeewa Tennakoon, Ruwan P. Jayathunga, Ravindra Fernando, Darman Wickramaratna, Victor Gunathilake, Samson Gunathilake and Udeni Saman Kumara have contributed to the gradually extending corpus of literature that are collectively positioned at re-probing the extra-judicial violence of 1987-90. The discourse to which these writers contribute in the capacity of biographers, commentators and creative writers is timely and with much impetus to our Literature classroom of all languages.  The sharpening of the ways in which society, history and politics can be read and interpreted through the means of textual intervention is a long overdue commitment the Lankan classroom has to accommodate. As such, literature that relates to the very climates, outcroppings, foundations and roots of the socio-political and cultural nexuses of which we are a part should receive rigorous scrutiny in the hands of the literature student. The frequent practice of reading literary texts based on the leisure and pleasure principles – charitable as these preoccupations are – should be balanced with texts that invite the student to intervene with the immediate world with political and historical awareness. I am told that one must read a text for pleasure, too: to enjoy, and to feel good about what you read. For me, there is only one way to read a text: and that is a reading which will excavate the document for political, social, historical nuance and resonance; or the lack of them.

 

 

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