Sasikala Raviraj-let your tears herald in a husband’s proud legacy

Despite being different in ethnicity and religion, Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers can come together as one.

By Nayomini R Weerasooriya

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, Voltaire’s words rang hallow last Friday across Colombo, as the country watched in horror the death of your husband, another promising politician, another voice silenced. Just minutes before, he appeared on a Sinhala TV programme, in his usual charismatic way, articulating in broken but powerful Sinhala, about the tragedy that Jaffna had become. His parting words were heavy with emotion for his people. As I was sharing his comments with my husband, himself a lawyer, over breakfast, the TV announced that Raviraj had been shot. I had watched him alive one minute and the next, he was shot, I was watching the scene of the shooting. My mind was still coming to grips with his gestures and words and then, his death. I had to steer myself to accept the inevitable – that in such a tragic-mockery of a nation in which we live, nothing, absolutely nothing, warrants surprise.

By now, you would know that your husband was a man not just Tamils but the Sinhalese liked – not merely because he could hold fort in usually lop sided Sinhala political talk shows but because, he was one of the few who could build – and hold a bridge between the two communities. Do not wait for leaders, do it alone, person to person, said Mother Theresa. Everything Raviraj stood for as a politician, embodied this. He took the issues head on.

[More than five thousand people comprising Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims from all walks of life participated in the funeral procession bearing placards written ‘SHAME’ in Sinhalese, Tamil and English, on Nov 13, 2006 – TamilNet Photo]

He chose to stand up and be counted. As a human rights activist, he went beyond Tamil rights alone, championing the rights of other minorities. We saw that side of him when he along with other TNA MPs expressed their stand against the dreaded Anti- Conversion Bill. We saw that side of him when he shared with a delegation from the National Christian Fellowship of Sri Lanka (NCFSL) the Christian values instilled in him by the school he attended in Jaffna. He was always there for the Christians – when the churches were attacked, pastors were beaten up, he would assure the Christian community and its leaders his support and commitment to minority rights.

He understood the tragedy that can overcome a nation when a few extremists who tragically assume they represent the majority, are given pride of place. He understood that in this day and age, everyone’s opinion counted…he realized, unlike most politicians in Sri Lanka today, that the world was no longer a place where the majority could rule the minorities or that the minorities were expected to be grateful for the tolerance of the majority.

He saw the global perspectives and could understand them, in a way most shallow, mediocre politicians whose oyster was not the world but the backwaters of their electorate, could not. He was truly a man of the moment who understood and tried to articulate that unless as a nation we came together, we would perish.

On the day your husband was shot, I found myself gazing at the school photograph of my eight year old son. My husband and I are bringing him up as a Sri Lankan – our hope, our prayer is that he and his generation would succeed in rising above ethnic and religious differences that have been the bane of this nation. No one understood better the dangers of playing politics with race and religion, than Lee Kwan Yew, who went on to create a strong, vibrant country in which race and religion played no role in nation-building. A lesson we have yet to learn.

The photograph captures my son and other Sinhalese boys, sitting happy amidst their Tamil, Moslem and Burgher class mates ; the students of Form 02 E of S. Thomas’ College do not see nor care to know ethnic and religious differences. The school by the sea is indeed a wonderful place for a child to grow up in and experience the truly multi-religious, multi-ethnic society of ours, as I am sure Bishop’s College where you teach and where your daughter attends, is.

If only more schools were like that, we would truly be able to call ourselves a plural society in practice. My son’s class symbolizes the kind of society your husband gave his life for – one in which Sinhalese, Tamils, Burghers, Moslems, despite being different in ethnicity and religion, can come together as one.

That was the opinion he expressed, the one that got him the gunman’s bullet. They hated the stand he took, the words he uttered, the opinions he expressed. He not only challenged the fallacies of the extremists but he often times made mockery, justifiably too, of them.

As you would know, the majority of the Sinhalese don’t even think twice about getting along fine with those of other communities. The extremists may fool some of the people some of the time but as the saying goes, not all the people, all the time. If it must take a few narrow-minded, insecure fanatics whose view of the world is that of the well, to make you or other Tamils think otherwise, you would know by now that it is a joke in bad taste, a stinking left over from decades past.

The hundreds of Sinhalese who paid tribute to your husband’s bier would bear testimony to that.

As a wife and a mother myself, I know your world has collapsed right now – losing your husband, your children their father. But rise you must, eventually, from the ashes. Not just for the sake of your children and yourself, but also for the hundreds of voiceless Lankans, many starving physically, emotionally, spiritually in the north but others starving of righteousness and justice in the south.

Sasikala, take heart. The legacy of your husband lives on in their hearts, forever alive. The story you will share about him with your grandchildren will be a legend, of valour and courage. It’s better to have lived a full, meaningful but short life than a long one without achievements worthy of a lifetime.

There are many such empty vessels among us today – they may live long and tell fancy stories but their contribution to the nation, to the people have been little or nothing. In a country where a lot of noise is not always the right one simply by default, your husband’s voice had something to say. It still reverberates across the plains of Jaffna, across the hearts of those who loved him not because of what he was but what he believed in.

When the bier of the assassinated US President Abraham Lincoln passed by, an African American woman set free by Lincoln’s abolition of slavery, pointed out the President’s bier to her little daughter. “There goes the man who set you free, who gave his life for your freedom”. Let those words reverberate once again through the streets of Jaffna as Raviraj comes home for a final good-bye.

May you and your children be comforted by the Master at this time. []

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