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Rameswaram bullets and explosives: Islanders recall their tryst with militancy

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Thangachi Madam has been in the news recently. At this fishing village on Rameswaram island, a huge cache of near-antique bullets and explosives were dug out from the septic tank of a house.

Next to Thangachi Madam is Thanneer Uutru. The name refers to a fresh water spring at the seashore. A Ramayana-based legend has it that Ram shot an arrow into the ground and the fresh water that sprang out fed his thirsty monkey army.

Thanneer Uutru is a picture-postcard fishing village. Quiet, peaceful and dotted with palm trees, it however hides a momentous time in the history of Tamil Nadu – and Sri Lanka, just across the Palk Bay. “Our village was where the Tamil militants lived. Near Thanneer Uutru was the base camp of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO). At the Pungu Thidal Muniyasamy Koil was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) camp,” says James, a country boat fishermen who does coastal fishing in that village.

While there was much excitement across Tamil Nadu about the ammunition dump in Anthoniarpuram, Thangachimadam, residents of Rameswaram were rather nonchalant about it. They had seen a lot more thirty years ago. After the 1983 pogrom against Tamils in Sri Lanka, refugees came to Rameswaram. Along with them the militants also came. It was a normal sight those days to see men in military fatigues carrying big guns all across the island. “They made it a fashion to grow beards and wear stonewash jeans, denim shirts and Casio watches,” says Robert, another fisherman.

Each Rameswaram man and woman had their own favourite militant group. Getting nostalgic, Robert says he was a supporter of the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS). He recalls the formation of a support group called Eelam Friends Organisation in the island and a journal named “Paalam” coming out in support of the cause.

EROS was based in Raja Nagar in Thangachi Madam and the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) had its base in Naalupanai. Militants of People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) lived in a dilapaidated building in Mandapam, outside the island. When the accord was signed and the Indian government wanted to bring the militants under control, it formed a group named Eelam National Democratic Liberation Front. Its members lived in Pamban for many years, recall Rameswaram residents.

When EPRLF split leading to the formation of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), the group led by Douglas Devananda had a base in Neduntheevu. Devananda, who became a minister in the Sri Lankan federal government, and lawyer Maheswari Velayutham in Sri Lanka helped to secure the release of many fishermen in the 1990s, says a fishermen leader who didn’t wish to be identified.

Part of daily life

Arul of Thanneer Uutru recalls his formative years, living with the militants and making friends with them. He joined TELO militants when they went swimming in the sea. In their camp, the militants often played the Tamil film song, “Tholvi ena ninaithal…” that said the very thought of defeat is against the idea of living. Hearing the song, TELO members would feel inspired and so did Arul.

Arul watched the film, “Vanambadi” in Sriram Theatre in Rameswaram along with the militants, and felt goosebumps hearing the song, “Vaazhum varai poradu” – Struggle all your life.

“The top leaders of TELO would visit Thanneer Uutru and Ariyangundu. Everything changed upside down when their leader Siri Sabarathinam was murdered by LTTE cadres. The cadres of the two groups were ready to fight each other in our village but we forged peace between them,” says Jesu, a villager.

Sabarathinam’s bodyguard Thillai became a Thanneer Uutru resident. He married a local who bore him two sons. Many others of TELO gave up their cause and settled down in Rameswaram.

Though Thillai passed away, his son Amudhan still lives in Thanneer Ootru along with his mother and brother. “My father was a TELO militant. But in 2009 when the LTTE was defeated and thousands of Tamils were killed, I organized a protest fast here,” says Amudhan, a college student

“Militants carrying guns was a normal sight in those days. They would come here and take the train to Uttar Pradesh where there was training camps organized by the Indian government. They would leave for Sri Lanka on their fiber boats in the night,” says Kumar.

“The LTTE was the most disciplined group. Only one designated person would interact with the villagers. No one would grow a beard and none would drink. Even if they wore full sleeved shirt, they would roll up the sleeves to the elbows. They brought a jeep to the island and would roam around on that jeep, attracting much attention,” he adds.

As the groups fought with each other, leaders like TELO’s Siri Sabarathinam and PLOTE’s Uma Maheswaran were murdered. In 1990, EPRLF leader Padmanabha was killed by the LTTE. “As they broke with the Indian government, LTTE presence in Rameswaram reduced,” says Saravanan.

Loyal to the cause

The LTTE continued to have its agents on the island – those who smuggled goods across were called “ootti”. “I was an ootti. First I did it for the money, but later, seeing their commitment and dedication, did it out of conviction,” says Rajesh. “I used to flit across Mannar, Nachiguda and Iranatheevu. I was their most skilled ootti. My village had the most fearless and most adventurous oottis,” says Rajesh, a fisherman at Akkal Madam.

“Leaders who pass off as Eelam enthusiasts can’t come close to what we did and the sacrifices we made. A relative went to Mullivaikkal with supplies and was killed in the war. His family was destroyed too. I am stuck in cases. No one talks about us,” adds Rajesh.

(All names have been changed)

(The author is a lawyer and was born and raised in Rameswaram)

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