A Sri Lankan Tamil who could have made a difference

M.R. Narayan Swamy

If the Tamil Tigers had not assassinated him, K. Pathmanabha would have turned 60 Saturday. A Sri Lankan Tamil who embraced militancy in the 1970s, Nabha - as he was known - did not have the glamour of Velupillai Prabhakaran. He did not kill at will.

True, the man did later head a 'People's Liberation Army'. But it was a rag tag force more suited for a photo opportunity than to wage war against Sri Lanka.

A humble man, he embraced Marxism like so many of his era. Nabha strongly believed that salvation for the Tamils lay in forging bonds with like-minded Sinhalese and building a new non-racist Sri Lanka.

He did not advocate ethnic hatred. In the process, he lost the race among militants to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that ballooned with tit-for-tat killings after the 1983 anti-Tamil violence.

The Tamil community then sought revenge. Prabhakaran delivered them what they wanted. The likes of Pathmanabha took a backseat.

To the LTTE, men like Pathmanabha were a hindrance to the fight for Tamil Eelam. One day, Prabhakaran sent hitmen who shot dead Nabha and his close associates in Chennai in June 1990.

For months previously, Nabha's Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) had headed a provincial government in Sri Lanka's northeast, mainly with New Delhi's blessings.

Once the Indian troops quit Sri Lanka, the EPRLF regime collapsed, thanks to new-found bonhomie between the LTTE and President Ranasinghe Premadasa.

Like many Tamils ranged against the LTTE, Nabha fled to India. He felt he would be secure there. He had underestimated Prabhakaran.

When he died, Nabha was only 39 years old. Tamil Nadu Police were lax in their investigations, thanks to which the man who oversaw the mayhem came back to India next year to mastermind Rajiv Gandhi's assassination.

Nabha was no theoretician or a military craftsman. Like Prabhakaran, he was at home in Tamil. But unlike the Tigers chief, he was passionate about a dignified political deal for the Tamils.

Born in 1951, Nabha was a student activist who became radicalized following the killing of 11 people at a 1974 Tamil conference in Jaffna.

In 1976, when his middle class parents sent him to Britain for higher studies, he met fellow Tamils who shared his political views.

In London, PLO representative Said Hamaami, later assassinated by radical Palestinians, helped a small group of Sri Lankan Tamils, Nabha included, to take military training in the Middle East.

After a while, he returned to Sri Lanka where security forces were looking for him. He travelled in different identities, disguising himself as a worker or a shopkeeper or a student. He lived among farm workers.

In 1981, Nabha travelled to Kumbakonam town in Tamil Nadu and laid the foundation for the EPRLF. He remained its general secretary till he died.

He was not without faults. His EPRLF regime was accused of killings and more when it presided over Sri Lanka's northeast.

But his heart was not in breaking up Sri Lanka. He bitterly opposed the LTTE's killing of innocent Sinhalese.

Nabha constantly argued that Prabhakaran's murderous politics would one day leave the Tamil community in ruins. Even when he died, trying to ward off AK-47 carbine with a pillow, no one would have imagined that he would prove to be so very right.

(19.11.2011 - M.R. Narayan Swamy can be contacted at narayan.swamy@ians.in)