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Obituary Vairamuttu Varadakumar: 1949-2019

PHIL MILLER salutes the life and work of the director of the Tamil Information Centre, a tireless campaigner for his people

IT WAS one of the most iconic anti-deportation protests of the last century. A dozen Tamil men stood on the tarmac at Heathrow and stripped down to their underwear, as stunned police and journalists looked on.

The bold and defiant demonstration on February 17 1987 secured their struggle a slot on the evening news, and delayed the flight long enough to win a High Court injunction halting their deportation to Sri Lanka, where they had fled a British-backed genocide.

One of the planners behind this brave action was Vairamuttu Varadakumar, director of the Tamil Information Centre, who has recently passed away aged 69. Throughout his decades of distinguished service to the Tamil community he saved countless compatriots from deportation, often working closely with staff in Jeremy Corbyn’s office.

Varadakumar was born on May 11 1949 in Colombo, the capital of what was then called Ceylon, a year after the end of British rule. The middle of three brothers, he grew up in the Tamil north of the island at Manipay, and went to school at Jaffna Hindu College.

He later studied at Madras Christian College in Chennai, south India, before moving to London. There, instead of becoming a small obedient cog in the vast imperial system, he found his calling as a community organiser and human rights researcher, constantly putting a mischievous spanner in the engine of oppression.

When the civil war finally ignited between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese ethnic majority and the Tamil minority in July 1983, Varadakumar was already a key part of the nascent Tamil Information Centre (TIC) in London. A BBC interview from July 28 that year shows him with TIC comrades surrounded by telephones and typewriters, documenting the unfolding pogrom and clearly communicating with the outside world.

With his measured and calm voice, he told the reporter Gary Lloyd: “The Tamils want a separate state, and they feel that they will be secure if they are given a place in their homeland — the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka.” It was a national liberation struggle to which he would dedicate the rest of his life in a civilian capacity.

That same year, Varadakumar helped TIC co-publish a seminal book, Sri Lanka: The National Question and the Tamil Liberation Struggle, written by Satchi Ponnambalam. The left-wing Zed Press was the other publisher, and it opened with quotes from Marx, Lenin and Gramsci.

Already the TIC was providing some of the very best analysis of the Tamil struggle in English that was accurate, reliable and authoritative. Soon it would go on to publish Tamil Information, an indispensable bulletin edited by S. Sivanayagam chronicling the massacres of Tamils and their fledgling resistance movement.

In London, Varadakumar embodied international solidarity, working closely with groups like Campaign Against Arms Trade and Liberation (formerly the Movement for Colonial Freedom), sharing office space with activists from fellow national liberation struggles like Eritrea and treasuring a plaque given to him by Irish hunger strikers.

He was also in constant contact with activists back home, and helped soothe the tensions between different Tamil armed factions so they could deliver a powerful united front at the Thimpu peace talks in 1985 — at a point in the fighting when Tamils held the upper hand.

Tragically, the Sri Lankan forces — backed by Britain — used that ceasefire to rearm, upgrade their air power and ultimately prolong the conflict. The fighting would carry on in one form or another until 2002, when a more permanent ceasefire took hold once the Tamils had again established military superiority.

As the Tamil struggle used the peacetime to acquire the trappings of statehood, TIC played an important role in advancing human rights within the context of a national liberation struggle.

While Human Rights Watch, housed in the Empire State building, hounded the Tamil guerrillas over their resistance tactics, Varadakumar discreetly arranged for the nascent Tamil Eelam police force to receive human rights training in the Republic of Ireland.

He had boundless love and time for his people, as he marvelled at their long history, of which this agonising war was just the latest (and he hoped not the final) chapter.

As the community became increasingly militarised in its battle for survival, he represented a precious strand of Tamil civil society, the researcher who chronicled the hardship and acted as a custodian of its culture. Even in his late 60s he would conduct exhausting field work in Sri Lanka, zipping along dirt tracks perched on the back of a moped.

Under his humble and modest stewardship, the TIC was a space for research, debate and nuance — things that some may consider a luxury for a besieged armed struggle, but are essential for a movement that wants to achieve liberation and not be permanently disfigured by the violence of its oppressor.

He was never just a passive observer, but a key community organiser. Varadakumar was equally adept at helping asylum-seekers avoid deportation as he was at mentoring second generation British Tamils about their identity and sharing knowledge with outsiders — researchers such as myself.

We began collaborating in March 2015 after I published a report outlining British complicity in Sri Lanka’s assaults on the Tamil struggle. Although most Tamil groups were focused on lobbying the UN, he approached me quietly after the launch and said the British state had to be held to account for its actions in Sri Lanka.

He offered his help to expand my research and over the last four years he stayed true to his word, guiding me to sources and contacts. He opened doors for me to meet survivors of massacres by British-trained troops in some of the most downtrodden, frankly butchered, corners of Sri Lanka.

In 2017, he supported a Tamil widow to bring litigation in Belfast, after we found declassified documents suggesting the Royal Ulster Constabulary had advised Sri Lankan forces linked to her husband’s murder. He was also aghast when I found that Britain’s Foreign Office had recently destroyed hundreds of files about its role in Sri Lanka from the start of the war, and wanted to bring a legal challenge to stop the destruction of more historic records.

This year we had plans to promote my forthcoming book and film about British complicity in Sri Lanka’s war crimes, which was to be the culmination of the last four years work. It pains me immeasurably that he is no longer alive to see that project come to fruition.

Last summer, I spent several weeks conducting research at TIC, and saw how Varadakumar was utterly devoted to his work. He seemed to spend 16 hours a day at his desk, a relentless routine which probably contributed to his sudden and premature demise.

When work overwhelmed him, he would drive his small car to nearby Richmond Park and recharge amidst the nature. If only he had done this more.

Varadakumar is survived by his son Prasanna and his younger brother, Niruthakumar. His body was found by friends who visited his flat on March 13 2019 after he did not answer phone calls.

His sudden and unexpected death is a devastating blow to the Tamil community, still struggling to come to terms with the loss of another Tamil intellectual, Ambalavaner ‘Siva’ Sivanandan, just last year.

In writing Siva’s obituary, Varadakumar let slip some of his frustrations at the Tamil youth: “As for the younger generation in the diaspora, the very sad reality today is that most of them have no basis for making decisions except their own momentary feelings and their own immediate selfish interests.

“… Tamil youths are becoming more individualistic, more pleasure seeking — simply unable to tell the difference between correct and incorrect ideas and principles. Siva would always use the phrase, ‘The personal is not political; the political is personal.’

“Any ‘new’ Sri Lanka, therefore, would not be much different from the old one. Therefore, we need an urgent transformation. We need to see ourselves as not simply permanent victims, but as new men and women with the potential to create and positively transform our society from bottom to top. One starting point is to learn about our history.”

It is a fitting tribute to Varadakumar then that has he has left behind a repository of literature about the Tamil struggle at the TIC, in a library that was refurbished just last summer.

He was also working around the clock on an exhibition of Tamil history, to open in May 2019 on the 10th anniversary of the crushing military defeat of the Tamil movement.

This museum project will only occur if the younger generation, who have been waiting in the wings, step forward and carry on the work of Varadakumar and the TIC, to keep his memory alive while his spirit finally rests in peace.

The ‘Tamils of Eelam: a timeless heritage’ exhibition will take place on May 18-19 in Tolworth Recreation Centre (Surbiton KT6 7LQ).

Please consider donating to the exhibition fundraising platform: gofundme.com/tamils-of-ilankai-museum.

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