"Man’s dearest possession is life. It is given to him but once, and he must live it so as to feel no torturing regrets for wasted years, never know the burning shame of a mean and petty past; so live that, dying he might say: all my life, all my strength were given to the finest cause in all the world- the fight for the Liberation of Mankind."
Today, twenty two years ago, Kandiah Kanthasamy, lawyer and human rights activist, was abducted in Jaffna by one of many armed groups that roamed the streets of Jaffna then
Those who knew him have written of his unassuming and modest nature but with a total commitment to the cause of peace and justice. Suriya Wickremasinghe, Secretary of the Civil Rights Movement who edited a commemorative volume for Kanthasamy, wrote of him: "His vision of justice knew no narrow boundaries. Through his dedicated work in the Civil Rights Movement he promoted the human rights of all Sri Lankans; in his active membership of Amnesty International he sought to help victims of human rights violations in the rest of the world."
Kanthansamy fell into the category of persons whom Nikolai Ostrovsky, the Soviet writer and activist, had in mind in the above well-known quotation from his writings Kanthasamy’s life and his strengths were devoted to the finest cause in all the world – the liberation pf mankind. Wickramesinghe continues in her introduction: "Kanthasamy was totally non-partisan. He believed that relief and rehabilitation work should be conducted after identifying priorities carefully and according to proper standards and accepted procedures. While recognising the need to have rapport with various political agencies, whether governmental or other, Kanthasamy was adamant that the independence of a non-governmental organisation engaged in such humanitarian work should be preserved and must not be subject to political pressures, from whatever quarter they may come. ‘If we cannot carry on as a free organisation we should close it down’ was what he wrote shortly before his abduction.
In documents that he had with foresight left for safe-keeping with the Civil Rights Movement, Kanthasamy speaks of the leaders of the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation (EROS) calling on him on a number of occasions in the months prior to his abduction. Kanthasamy had been one of the founder members in 1977 of the Tamil Refugee Rehabilitation Organisation (TRRO, not to be confused with the present TRO) and was actively engaged in relief and rehabilitation work in the North and East. In this work, he had circulated a memorandum detailing the work being done and the work that needed to be done.
Kanthasamy writes of the meeting he had at his office with three representatives of EROS who had called there: "The discussion was centred round the memorandum circulated by TRRO under my signature. They said they would disrupt any rehabiltation work not in conformity with their policy, and no work will be tolerated except with their permission (as an after-thought they added with the permission of LTTE). When I asked them what their policy was, they said they cannot announce it, but permission should be obtained case by case. They also reminded me that Kathiramalai was killed because he acted against the policy of EROS, and that would be the fate of others as well."
The end and the means
It was clear as to which group was the primary suspect in Kanthasamy’s abduction. But irrespective of which group was involved in this case, one needs to question the wisdom of violence in achieving one’s objectives. Regi Siriwardena, in a memorial lecture on the first anniversary of Kanthasamy’s abduction, stated: "There is in fact a deadly symmetry between the logic of ruling powers and the logic of militant groups engaged in mortal combat with them. Both believe that the end justifies the means. In the one case, it is the end of preserving democracy, restoring law and order, protecting national integrity; in the other case, it is the end of national liberation or social liberation. In either case, the lives of individual human beings are considered to be a small price to exact for the cherished end.
"What makes this logic unacceptable are not just human considerations which some people will dismiss as sentimental moral squeamishness. It is the fact that the means you use determine the end you reach. As the German socialist Lassale wrote in the last century:
Show us not the aim without the way.
For ends and means on earth are so entangled
that changing one you change the other too.
Each different path brings other ends in view."
We see the truth of what Siriwardena and Lassale said in our own situation, and have seen the truth of it in the past in many countries. ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ was the rallying cry of the French Revolution but very soon the revolutionaries under the Jacobins led by Robespierre had instituted a reign of terror. At the trial of the deposed King, Robespierre (or his colleague Danton) had declared: ‘We don’t need to judge the king; we will kill him’ and so the King was executed. Not long after, Robespierre had Danton executed for dissent. It did not take much more time for the tide to turn against Robespierre and he was denounced in the Legislative Assembly and sent to the guillotine. Arrogance and disregard of the rule of law will always end in disaster. As Siriwardena said, it is inane logic to attempt at preserving democracy by undemocratic methods and upholding law and order by breaking the law.
Mahesway Velautham, also a lawyer and an activist, was yet another victim to the violence of one of the militant groups in Jaffna. She dared to be independent. But twenty years before the assassin’s bullet got her, she wrote of Kanthasamy: Those who killed him have committed an enormous crime against our society. Kanthasamy acted nobly without swerving from his ideals, never was afraid to do right, never hesitated. Siriwardena said: It isn’t difficult to see that the very existence of such a man was a challenge to any group which was seeking to enforce uniformity of opinion. Kanthasamy can rightly be honoured as a martyr to a cause which too few people are prepared to defend today in this country.
Why Human Rights is important
The UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Almost all countries have a chapter on fundamental rights written into their Constitutions and many have ratified optional human rights treaties. The issue of human rights is not to be dismissed as some sort of sentimental airy-fairy concept. It is related to real life. In almost all countries, there are issues of violence based on race, ethnicity, religion, caste, gender and politics. Domestic violence, violence against women and children, violence against political dissidents and discrimination in various forms are every-day life situations for many even in Sri Lanka. That is why it is important to ensure that fundamental rights are not only entrenched in our Constitution but enforced. Those who violate them have to be made accountable for their actions. Very often, violation of fundamental rights by agents of the state are not properly investigated and our justice system has time and again proved ineffective.
Suriya Wickremasinghe in the same commemorative volume raises some very pertinent issues which all those who wish for a Sri Lanka where peace and justice prevails must ponder: "What is the role of the moderate, nonpartisan activist in human rights and relief work in Sri Lanka today? What is the role of the truly independent non-governmental organisation in this field? Traditionally, threats have been seen to come from the State, one has learned to cope with and to live with such dangers. How do individuals and organisations now face up to new threats from other and hitherto unexpected quarters?" Wickremasinghe was talking primarily of militant groups who then abducted and killed people like Kanthasamy. But even today those concerns are still valid with armed groups still active not only in the North and East but also in other parts of the country as well.
Human rights, justice and democratic freedoms can be preserved and the rule of law upheld only if we have courageous people like Kanthasamy, who will speak up for these freedoms and stand in solidarity with such courageous people who struggle for such freedoms. Wickremasinghe concludes: "Everyone concerned with human rights and relief work must face up to and discuss these issues. Most important, the public must be made aware of them. For in the last analysis it is the responsibility of the people to decide on and demand the standards they expect of their leaders, and the nature of the society in which they aspire to live."