Remembering Sivaram Dharmeratnam

darmaratnam_sivaramPirapaharan confers “Maamanithar” title to Sivaram

“Death never destroys great men who had lived for lofty ideals,” said V Pirapaharan in a message released from Vanni Saturday conferring the “Maamanithar (Great Humanbeing)”award on journalist Dharmeratnam Sivaram. Mr Sivaram, a senior editorial board member of TamilNet, was abducted and murdered by unidentified persons Thursday evening 10.30pm.

Full text of the message issued by Liberation Tigers conferring “Maamaniathar” award to Sivaram follows:

Tamil people have lost today a highly principled man who deeply loved them and the Tamil Nation. A voice that echoed the freedom of the Tamil people and their homeland, Tamil Eelam had been silenced today. An eminent Tamil journalist had fallen victim to the enemy’s act of cowardice.

Humble and honest, Mr.Dharmaratnam Sivaram is a unique person. He is knowledgeable and is an expert in the field of journalism. As an internationally renowned journalist, Sivaram does not need any introduction.

Through his writings, he brought out the Tamil National question in the international arena with clarity and cohesion. Diligently and cleverly, he exposed to the international and diplomatic community, the false propaganda undertaken by the Sinhala regime. Positioning him in the Sinhala stronghold, Sivaram forthrightly told the outer world the injustices and the atrocities perpetrated by the Sinhala ruling elite on the Tamil Nation. Although facing danger and threats, Sivaram fought against injustice fearlessly with courage. Above all, he relentlessly worked to keep the Tamil people politically vigilant. The yeoman service rendered by him is eternally praiseworthy.

Respecting his love of the Nation and his love for freedom, I am proud to confer post-humously on Mr.Dharmaratnam Sivaram, the noble National Award of “Great Man”. Death never destroys great men who have lived for lofty ideals. They have an everlasting place in the history of our Nation.

Full PDF-sivaram maamanithar award

One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century

Mamanithar Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)
(1959-2005) – A Worthy Life

“..Death never destroys great men who have lived for lofty ideals. They have an everlasting place in the history of our Nation…” Tamil Eelam Leader, V.Pirabakaran – Mamanithar Award Citation –  Dharmeratnam Sivaram

“..நாம் இன்று அனுபவிக்கும் உரிமைகள் அனைத்துமே பேசிப் பெற்றவையல்ல, அடித்துப் பெற்றவையே..” தினக்குரலும் சிவராமும்

Sachi Sri Kantha, 30 April 2005

For quantitative evaluation, creativity of individuals can be scaled under three categories. These are, (1) ample quantity without quality, (2) ample quality without quantity, and (3) ample quality and quantity.

In the field of journalism, where Dharmaretnam Sivaram [aka, Taraki by his nom de plume] made his reputation, individuals belonging to the first category – ample quantity without quality – forms the majority and I need not mention names.

In the fields of poetry and music, those belonging to the second category – ample quality without quantity – are also represented. Among those who enriched the Tamil literature, one can cite singer S.G.Kittappa (1905? – 1933) and poet Pattukottai Kalyanasundaram (1930-1959) as belonging to this group. Premature death due to disease, accident, homicide or suicide are the contributing causes for this second category.

Those making their grade in the third category – ample quality and quantity – are the trend-setters who will be remembered by history.

Where does D.Sivaram, whose untimely, tragic death on April 29, 2005 saddened the Sri Lankans, contributions fit in the three categories. In my evaluation, Sivaram’s journalistic contributions to Tamil welfare in the print media for the past 15 years make him a sure nominee into the third category, who educated the average Tamils on the intricacy of military affairs by his lucid commentaries.

However, his murder also places him in a slot in the second category – of ample quality without quantity -, if one thinks of how much Sivaram could have contributed to electronic journalism and academic literature on Eelam Tamil history, politics and militancy of the 20th century.

One of Sivaram’s predecessors among the Tamil literati who belongs to both the second and third categories of the creativity assessment scale was the great poet Subramanya Bharathi (1882-1921).

That Sivaram contributed lucid commentaries representing the Eelam Tamil nationalism for the past 15 years is known to all.

But, his only major study [to my knowledge, that is] on Tamil militarism appeared as a eleven part lengthy essay in the now defunct Lanka Guardian journal edited by Mervyn de Silva, from May to November, in 1992. For some reason which I cannot fathom now I had long felt that even that lengthy series got terminated without a proper closure. May be Sivaram was distracted by his other professional commitments. May be, since 1992 was the year when coverage on the Rajiv Gandhi assassination trial was topical, the page space in the Lanka Guardian issues [a slim pages per issue] was at a premium then. Even if that series by Sivaram came to a premature closure, one should credit that Mervyn de Silva thought it apt to print Sivaram’s studious analysis on the vibrancy of Tamil militarism. Here are the individual segments from Sivaram’s lengthy study, as it appeared in the Lanka Guardian issues then.

1. Tamil militarism: Origins and dispersion in South India and Sri Lanka, Lanka Guardian, May 1, 1992, pp.7-8 and 11 (with foot notes 1 to 13).

2. Tamil military castes. Lanka Guardian, May 15, 1992, pp.17-19 (with foot notes 14 to 28).

3. The code of suicide. Lanka Guardian, June 1, 1992, pp.13-15 and 24 (with foot notes 1 to 7).

4. Militarism and caste in Jaffna. Lanka Guardian, July 1, 1992, pp.9-10 and 14 (without foot notes).

5. The suppression of Tamil military castes. Lanka Guardian, July 15, 1992, pp.15-16 (without foot notes).

6. Bishop Caldwell and the Tamil Dravidians. Lanka Guardian, August 1, 1992, pp.11-12 and 24 (with one foot note).

7. The Tamil Soldier and the Dravidian Diaspora. Lanka Guardian, August 15, 1992, pp.12-13 and 28 (with 5 foot notes).

8. The Twin Narratives of Tamil Nationalism. Lanka Guardian, September 1, 1992, pp.10-12 (without foot notes

9. [Subramanya] Bharathy and the Legitimation of Militarism. Lanka Guardian, October 1, 1992, pp.6-8 (with 5 references).

10. Warrior Sons and Mothers. Lanka Guardian, November 1, 1992, pp.17-18 and 20 (with 5 foot notes).

11. The Legend of Cheran Senguttuvan. Lanka Guardian, November 15, 1992, pp.15-16 (without foot notes).

During its six month ‘run’, Sivaram’s analysis also received critical comments from five Lanka Guardian readers, including me. The correspondents and their critical notes appeared as follows:

1. M.Raja Jogananthan: Militarism & caste. Lanka Guardian, July 15, 1992, p.16.

2. Sachi Sri Kantha: Prabhakaran’s mentors. Lanka Guardian, August 1, 1992, p.2.

3. R.B.Diulweva: Martial Tamils. Lanka Guardian, September 1, 1992, p.24.

4. C.R.A.Hoole: Tamil military caste. Lanka Guardian, September 15, 1992, p.12.

5. T.Vanniasingham: Maravar militarism. Lanka Guardian, October 15, 1992, p.21.

In his foot-notes in the series, Sivaram answered two of his critics, namely Raja Jogananthan and Diulweva. Though he did not directly answer to my criticism on the omission of M.G.Ramachandran’s (MGR) contributions in the Tamil movies of late 1940s to whole of 1950s, as inspiration for martial talent among young Eelam Tamils in his first three segments of the series, it was evident that Sivaram had accepted and accomodated my criticism and incorporated references to MGR in the published 8th and 11th (and final) segments. This is a note-worthy skill of a sincere scholar.

In the 11th segment, Sivaram referred to poet Kannadasan’s inspirational lyrics written for MGR in the movie Mannathi Mannan

அச்சம் என்பது மடமையடா
அஞ்சாமை திராவிடர் உரிமையடா
ஆறிலும் சாவு நூறிலும் சாவு
தாயகம் காப்பது கடமையடா

Achcham enpathu Madamaiyada
Anjaamai Dravidar Udamaiyada
Aarilum Saavu Noorilum Saavu
Thayakam kaapathu Kadamaiyada

In English translation,

“Cowardice is but foolishness
Courage is a trait of Dravidars
Whether death is at six or hundred
Protecting the motherland is a Duty”

Sivaram had proved in life and in his courageous death that he had lived up to emulate the words penned by poet Kannadasan. This is no mean achievement. To celebrate Sivaram’s worthy life, I’ll shortly prepare his lengthy essay of 1992 and the comments of the five correspondents to this essay, for electronic record. He deserves it.

Selected Writings of Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki) 


Sivaram Dharmeratnam: A Journalist’s life  [TamilNet, Friday, 29 April 2005]

Mark Whitaker, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Carolina, Aiken, U.S.A, is completing an intellectual biography of Dharmeratnam Sivaram’s life and work in a book entitled “Learning Politics from Sivaram.” Prof. Whitaker summarizes Sivaram’s life and work in this feature.

Learning Politics From Sivaram

Sivaram Dharmeratnam, the well-known and controversial political analyst and a senior editor for, was born on August 11, 1959 in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka to Puvirajkirtha Dharmeratnam and Mahesvariammal. His was a prominent family with significant land holdings near Akkaraipattu, though his immediate family later lost much of their inherited wealth. Nicknamed “Kunchie” as a child, Sivaram was educated at St. Michael’s College in Batticaloa, and later at Pembroke and Aquinas Colleges in Colombo. He was accepted into the University of Peradeniya in 1982 but soon dropped out due to tensions associated with the first phases of Sri Lanka’s civil war.

In 1982 Sivaram joined the Ghandian Movement, then a front organization for the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). After Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict erupted into civil war in 1983, Sivaram, under the alias “SR”, soon became a prominent PLOTE militant. Sivaram’s role in PLOTE was unique because he played an important part in both the organization’s military and political wings at a time when PLOTE kept those functions, to its eventual misfortune, completely separate from one another. In 1988, a year after the Indo-Lankan accords were signed, Uma Maheswaran, PLOTE’s leader, appointed Sivaram General Secretary of the Democratic People’s Liberation Front (DPLF), the organization’s registered political party. Sivaram left PLOTE in 1989, however, after arguing against Maheswaran’s attempts to establish firmer relations with the JVP and due to his distaste for the group’s involvement in an abortive coup in the Maldives.

On September 8, 1988 Sivaram married Herly Yogaranjini Poopalapillai of Batticaloa. They eventually had three children: Vaishnavi (16), Vaitheki (13), and Seralaathan (10).

In 1988 while still General Secretary of the DPLF, Sivaram met the newscaster, journalist and actor Richard De Zoysa. De Zoysa, impressed by Sivaram’s ability to produce off-the-cuff political analysis, asked him to write articles for the UN-funded Inter Press Service (IPS), for whom De Zoysa was a correspondent. In 1989, when The Island newspaper found itself in need of a Tamil political analyst, De Zoysa suggested Sivaram. The Island editor, Gamini Weerakon, proposed tharaka (or ‘star’) as Sivaram’s pen name but a sub-editor accidentally printed “Taraki” instead, giving birth to Sivaram’s famous nom de plume. Sivaram’s Taraki articles were an immediate success. They combined a dispassionately, ironic style with accurate, inside information, and took care to explain in crystal clear prose the military, political, strategic and tactical assumptions of all sides in Sri Lanka’s complex conflict. Moreover, Sivaram’s wide reading in military science and political philosophy (especially in Marxism and post-structuralism) allowed him to bring intellectual tools to his articles that soon made them more powerful than mere punditry.

In 1990 Sivaram helped identify Richard De Zoysa’s body after De Zoysa was abducted from his home and killed.

By the early 1990s Sivaram’s Taraki column had become a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in Sri Lanka. In 1991 fans of his writing among the Tamil community in France published a collection of his work entitled The Eluding Peace (An Insider’s analysis of the Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka). As a free-lance journalist, Sivaram, eventually wrote for many newspapers including The Island, The Sunday Times, The Tamil Times (London), The Daily Mirror, and Veerakesari. In 1997 Sivaram helped reorganize itself into a Tamil news agency with its own string of reporters, and remained a senior editor there until his death. He filed his last story for at 7:30 PM on the night he was murdered.

Sivaram’s work was not limited to journalism. Sivaram’s grasp of Tamil politics and literature and Sri Lanka’s complex history made him a magnate for scholars. Hence, Sivaram collaborated and argued with historians, political scientists, anthropologists, policy experts, and geographers from many of Sri Lanka’s universities and think tanks, as well as with foreign and foreign-based scholars from (among other schools around the world) the University of Colorado, the University of South Carolina, and Clark University. As recently as April 2005, Sivaram provided a purely scholarly introduction to the Mattakkalappu Poorva Sariththiram (Ancient History of Batticaloa), a recently released definitive edition of an ancient Batticaloa palm leaf manuscript.

Beyond this, in the mid-1990’s many governments and Human Right’s NGOs turned to Sivaram for advice on political and military matters. He soon became widely traveled in Europe, Asia, and North America and equally well known to governments, the diplomatic community, and human rights activists. Indeed, his death arrived just ahead of a scheduled trip to Japan to consult with the Japanese government.

As opposition to his reporting mounted, and as death threats began to multiply, friends and colleagues from around the world frequently begged Sivaram to move himself and his family out of Sri Lanka. He always vehemently refused to leave. “Where else should I die but here?” he often declared. Yet in 2004 the police twice searched Sivaram’s home, and various groups in Sri Lanka publicly threatened him. Given the uncompromising nature of his reporting, his death by violence was no surprise.

“He will be an irreplaceable loss to the academic and human rights community around the world,” said Dr. Jude Fernando, of Clark University, a sentiment echoed by many.

I should add a personal note here. I am an associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Carolina, Aiken. I first got to know Sivaram in 1982 while I was conducting cultural anthropological research in Batticaloa. We became friends because we discovered a common interest in philosophy, and because we also shared some horrors during the 1983 riots. My own work in Sri Lanka initially focused on Batticaloa’s local politics and religion, as can be seen in my 1999 book Amiable Incoherence: Manipulating Histories and Modernities in a Batticaloa Hindu Temple. But as the conflict in Sri Lanka grew more complicated and intense, and as Sivaram’s role as its primary chronicler and analyst loomed ever larger, I felt it my duty to try, in some way, to record his thoughts and efforts – especially since I grew worried over the safety of his life almost since I first met him. In 1997, therefore, we decided to collaborate on an intellectual biography of his life and work. It should, we agreed, be entitled Learning Politics from Sivaram; and he insisted also that the book be as uncompromising as he was. I hope to have this biography completed shortly; I only hope as a memorial it can even partly do him justice. I shall mourn for him, my lost best friend, for the rest of my life. I ask all of you who knew him well, friend or foe – for he would talk with anyone – to raise a glass and toast him. And may those that killed him look on in shame.

Sivaram: The man, the legend, the legacy (1959 – 2005)

In May 2005, three days after Sivaram was abducted and murdered, one of the most senior and respected journalists in the south of Sri Lanka, late Ajith Samaranayake wrote:

“..Sivaram as a political analyst was equipped with impressive intellectual resources. His interests were by no means circumscribed by Tamil horizons. History, sociology, military strategy, international affairs – all this he took in his stride. He was not beyond post-modernism either, that devoutly – worshipped demi-god of the demi-monde. Siva’s commitment to the Tamil struggle did not preclude him from his own sound assessments of Sinhala politics. In that sense we are also the poorer for being deprived of the ‘insights of this former Tamil militant into the murky world of Sinhala party politics, insights from which we could have gained immeasurably as a society.

Having known Siva intimately as colleague, friend and a former neighbour (once at Ratmalana where he ultimately set up house) I have many reminiscences of happy days with him in Colombo, Jaffna and Batticaloa but this is not the time for self-indulgent memories. The harsh truth is that Siva is dead. It is not for us to point fingers now although ultimately the truth will emerge. For the moment the harsh truth is the death by killing of a colleague, friend, a human being.

And by some deaths we stand condemned.”   –  (Ajith Samaranayake, ‘Emblem and sacrifice of the Tamil struggle’ / ‘Sunday Observer – 01 May 2005)

One week after, Ajith revisited his own column through writing another. He had something further to add:

“Last week I closed this column by saying that by certain deaths we stand condemned. I would want to add that by certain deaths we are also impoverished and debilitated as a society and a nation”   –  (Remembrance of things past’ / ‘Sunday Observer – 08 May 2005)

Seven years after, even in the absence of both Sivaram and Ajith, those words still stand tall.

Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS)

Taraki’s death seven years on: What we have lost – Mark Whitaker

Dharmaratnam Sivaram: Murder of a brilliant journalist – Viraj Mendis

External links:

Siva: A man with rare charisma – Gamini Weerakoon

Taraki: The selective politics of an assassination  – Ajith Samaranayake

Sivaram, his murderers and his mourners – J. S. Tissainayagam

Mourning Sivaram – Qadri Ismail

Sivaram: Unassuming greatness, unforgettable charm – Professor Karthigesu Sivathamby

From gun to pen: The story of Sivaram – D.B.S. Jeyaraj

Sivaram’s murder never took place – Harinda Ranura Vidanage

Social diversity, only through Tamil right to self-determination – Jude L.Fernando

Significance of Sivaram’s (Taraki’s) Murder – Col.Hariharan

The man who knew too much: is now dead – Professor Tom Plate

Sivaram: Death of a Warrior – S.Sathananthan

Sivaram Dharmeratnam: A Journalist’s life – Mark Whitaker

A shameful crime – UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura

Selected Writings of Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki) – Tamilnation


By Professor Mark P. Whitaker – To begin with I want to thank Mr. Arun Gananathan and Mr. Uvindu Kurukulasuriya and the Tamil Legal Advocacy Project for inviting me to speak at this Sivaram Memorial Event.Mark P.Whitaker

It is entirely fitting and proper, I think, that a memorial for Sivaram should also entail public remembrance of the many Sri Lankans of all ethnicities who, like him, have sacrificed their homes, their freedoms, and, in all too many cases, their lives as journalists. Their sacrifices bespeak the intense need to protect freedom of speech as a fundamental right not only in Sri Lanka but in any state proclaiming itself a democracy. Now it is exactly five years since April 28, 2005, the night Sivaram Dharmeratnam — one of Sri Lanka’s most original, important, and (obviously, to some) infuriating journalists — was abducted on a Colombo street and, as we soon learned afterwards, murdered.

Since I was unable to attend his funeral and actually see that, yes, the impossible had happened and my friend of over twenty years was now dead, I long felt a nagging, ridiculous suspicion that it was not true. That another late night phone call would come, another impossible knock on the door, and his inimitable voice would say again, “Ah, Mr. Whitaker, what have you been up to, machchaang .” I knew, of course, that this was not the case. His cousin called and told me, immediately after the funeral, that he had touched Sivaram’s surprisingly cold face in the casket. I knew he was indeed gone. But knowing is one thing; understanding quite another; and so a chance, periodically, to grieve for my friend officially is to me still very helpful.

But then, of course, I know there is a larger purpose here that makes this mourning also a kind of necessary civic education. For Sivaram’s death was not, like some sepia photograph of an old atrocity, a singular event in a fading history. From 1992 to 2009 the Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that 18 journalists were killed (by all sides) because of what they wrote or said during Sri Lanka’s long civil war . And if we cast our historical net wider yet to trawl from, say, 1983 to 1992, a period including the Sri Lankan government’s anti-JVP war, then we haul in a far higher number of journalist-victims including, for example, the famously photogenic Rupavahini news anchor Richard de Zoysa, Sivaram’s old friend and mentor, and the very man that drew Sivaram into journalism. (Not long after his abduction, de Zoysa’s body was found washed up on the Moratuwa coast. Sivaram had to identify the remains). The majority of those killed, of course, were Tamil; but others, such as Lasantha Wicrematunga, the late editor of The Sunday Leader, were not. And many other journalists, Tamil, Muslim, and Sinhalese, also clearly due to the war, were forced into exile or, most famously in the case of the J.S. Tissainayagam, jailed (though we can all be thankful for his release on January 13, 2010). Apologists for these actions have often pointed to the harsh necessities of war for their excuse. But as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both recently noted, the end of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE last May has not meant an end to the violent harassment of journalists . The unsolved disappearance of the political analyst Prageeth Eknaligoda on January 24, 2010 during coverage of the recent elections is but one bitter example among others of its continuance. Sadly, then, the practice of using violence to suppress journalism has, now, a long history in Sri Lanka, and seems to have become unmoored recently even from the martial circumstances originally used to justify it. It has become a kind of tradition – or, worse, a kind of routine, like tea in the morning: very sour tea.

None of this, of course, would have surprised Sivaram. One of his foremost traits as a thinker was his ability to comprehend unsentimentally the key role violence often plays in the politics of states, especially his own. He was never shocked, thus, at the notion that his journalism might make him a target; he simply tried – and for years succeeded – in being an especially difficult target. Similarly, Sivaram never viewed the mistreatment of the press in Sri Lanka as something either unique or disconnected from the world at large. He was always very careful to place Sri Lanka’s political foibles in a wider context of global forces and well distributed international ‘security’ practices. More amazing to me, however, in retrospect, is how anyone who viewed the world and his own mortal fragility within it, as he did, with such brutal clarity could nonetheless blithely carry on being a journalist in Sri Lanka. And I feel a similar amazement, and admiration, for those journalists who have come after Sivaram, risking what he risked, and all too often, ending as he ended. What explains such persistence?

Thinking of all this, I find my mind drawn back fifteen years ago to 1995, the first time Sivaram visited America, and the first time he told me that he thought his journalism was going to get him killed . Sivaram had come to America that year on an exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency. At that time, the USIA had such programs to spread ‘democratic’ and ‘pluralistic’ values to important journalists they had selected from the world’s inter-ethnic hot spots, a purpose Sivaram found more amusing than helpful given that his visit coincided with America’s burgeoning O.J.Simpson hysteria and the racial tensions revealed therein. In any case, this “Building Democracy in Diverse Communities” program brought Sivaram to Washington D.C. on September 14, 1995, and from there, over the course of three weeks, to Los Angeles California, Akron Ohio, Miami Florida, and eventually back to Washington D.C. From there, Sivaram was supposed to return immediately to Sri Lanka on October 12 – “Have a safe and pleasant journey!” chirped his overly chatty USIA Travel Schedule — but with his six month, multiple-entry visa in hand he flew down to visit me instead.

He arrived in Aiken, South Carolina, where I teach, wearing a natty gray sports coat, rolling a single small suitcase, and toting a large plastic carrying-bag full of pamphlets on democracy and grass-roots political action which he gleefully deposited in my trash can since, as he put it, “they appear to have all been written by giddy insects.” But he told me, nonetheless, that he liked his first look at America and Americans. “You are such a happy, naive people. It’s been really very pleasant, machchaang, like looking at children playing. Very cheering.” He was especially cheered by Aiken’s local supermarkets, which, in those pre-Keels supermarket days, he found ridiculous in their fecundity. He liked being taken to the Wal-Mart Supercenter so he could stand in one of the food aisles and simply laugh. “I could kill myself eating here, machchaang. I could easily murder myself.” After my wife, who was teaching in California at the time, arrived for the Thanksgiving holidays, we took Sivaram to Charleston, South Carolina’s tourist city, and the very place where the American Civil War started. It was partly for pleasure, of course, but partly for Sivaram’s own research, for while Sivaram was thoroughly enjoying his first trip out of South Asia, his journalistic curiosity was fully engaged. He was forever striking up conversations, buttonholing, and generally chatting up strangers; and not the tame people USIA had paraded before him in their ‘workshops’. Rather, in every city he visited, Sivaram had slipped out, and walked around, seeking the poor and the angry and the marginalized. By the time he got to me in Aiken he had spoken with Ethiopian political refugees in Washington DC, Mexican laborers in several states, a prominent Chinese-American dissident in LA, several black labor activists there too, a Marxist priest in Miami (with whom he had, one evening, sipped wine on Biscayne Bay while talking about the Haitian boat people disaster), and unorganized low wage workers everywhere – none of whom were on his official itinerary. He simply had an ear for those voices others do not hear. So it was in Charleston, walking down Meeting Street with Ann and I, when Sivaram noticed a picket line in front of the Omni Hotel and shopping arcade. He immediately joined it, asking questions, striking up conversations, eventually finding out the whole story behind the strike. In about an hour he knew more about the labor politics of South Carolina than I had learned in several years. Buying a local paper, he pointed out that the whole event was simply not covered. “And your USIA people, my friend, think they have a free press.”

And he laughed.

At various times, during that first long visit, I had to take him to dinner parties with other academics. These were invariably a disaster. We would go and there would be wine and cheese and attempts at witty talk over discretely sipped goblets of expensive wine. If the academics were older or especially self-important they would then attempt to lecture Sivaram on what they thought he should know about the world, politics, philosophy, and literature. Since Sivaram was generally better read than they were, and his experiences more concrete, these were intensely uncomfortable moments, made worse by Sivaram’s penchant for subtly – and sometimes not so subtlety –baiting such people. I remember once a young fancily degreed academic attempting to explain Kojeve’s writing on Hegal to Sivaram, only to stand dumbfounded and stone-faced as Sivaram, after pointing out how profoundly mistaken this young man was in his interpretation of Kojeve, proceeded to quote, from memory, the relevant passages. Sivaram was particularly, loudly, and rudely hard on academics who thought of themselves as ‘politically active’, maintaining, with a dismissive wave of his wine glass, that the only true sign of political activism in an academic was a death threat and imminent imprisonment. “You have to risk something. Otherwise you are just playing,” he would say. He ended the evening, as he often did such occasions, by laughing at the selection of tasteful ‘eastern’ music, the under spiced food, the ersatz antique ‘Third world’ paraphernalia on the walls, and the politics. He also ostentatiously drank too much, and let it show, something which he rarely did unless he wanted to. After we left, I was furious.

“Couldn’t you have been more polite? For God’s sake!”

“Machchaang, machchaang, don’t upset yourself. They will think nothing of it.”
“Come on! They’re not completely naive!”

“No, Mark, you are wrong. They are all completely naïve.”

On the way home from one of these affairs, I forget which one, Sivaram looked longingly on the moonlight silvering the oak trees flashing by and said that he hoped when he died that his molecules would mingle with the soil of the Batticaloa district so that, in this way, he would eventually become one with its jungles and flowers.

“Why are we talking about death?” I asked, still somewhat testy about the disastrous party.

“Because, young man, what I am doing now is eventually going to get me killed. It has to.”

We argued about this and he ended up telling me that when he died I would know it because a bottle of arrack would arrive in the mail. “I’ve put it in my will”, he said.

“Unless you would prefer something else. Should it be a bottle of gin?”

“Arrack is fine. But you are not going to die.”

“Oh I am going to die, young man. Just remember the arrack.”
In the event, when he was killed, I heard by phone call and not by post. Over the next several weeks, as his death sank in, people kept calling me – his friends, his journalistic colleagues, academics — all offering theories about who might have killed him. Nobody knew exactly anything, of course, and we still don’t, though we all shared suspicions that are probably accurate. But I know why people kept calling. For to work on solving the mystery of his death was, at least, to be doing something like what he would have done. It was a kind of final tribute, an acted memorial, completely fitting, and still going on in the actions of his endangerd journalistic peers. The day after his murder, however, as I sat down to drink a glass of arrack and ginger, the arrack taken from the last bottle I purchased with him – at the Cargills in Dehiwala, as it happens – I began to think not about who killed him but why he was killed. Or, rather, as he was intimating to me fifteen years ago, why he had to be killed by someone, eventually. And the answer I came up with is that he was simply too good at his job. He refused to withhold his insights, or cloak them in diplomatically vague abstractions. He believed, instead, in being perfectly clear, in letting everyone know, in making sure all those left out were included in, even if this meant he had to painstakingly teach them what ‘in’ looked like. He was, in short, far too blatantly Sivaram.

Consider, for example, the kinds of judgments, insights, and principles Sivaram brought to his work as Taraki and as an editor for Tamilnet. Let me, in fact, enumerate some of them.

First, Sivaram was one of the few journalists who understood early on how profoundly the end of the Cold War had transformed Sri Lanka’s geopolitical circumstances. This was something he had remarked upon on as early as 1990, long before other commentators were taking this tectonic shift into account; and it gave him an insight into the complex politics being played out between India, the US, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government that, I suspect, was embarrassing in its clarity for all the players involved. Second, Sivaram from 1990 onwards wrote with insight and sympathy about the problems of east coast Muslims and upcountry Tamils, the excluded of the excluded. This unusual insight enabled him to note without surprise the kinds of spanners their particular problems frequently threw into the works of proposed political settlements and strategies by all sides. I do not imagine this pleased overmuch those in love with false and simplistic clarities. Third, Sivaram had a thorough understanding of the role violence plays in the running of modern nation states — even supposedly peaceful ones. With this knowledge Sivaram was able to show how, for example, the then current Sri Lankan state was in fact dependent upon its oppression of Tamil people; and to argue, hence, that any settlement would have required not only a radical restructuring of the state, but an equally radical reordering of the means of violence currently at its disposal. I can’t imagine how threatening this notion must have been to those in charge of the guns and shackles, but I can guess. Fourth, Sivaram had practical experiences as both a warrior and a politician. This is because, unlike many intellectuals who participated in the Tamil nationalist movements of the eighties, Sivaram was equally active in both the military and political wings of PLOTE, his organization then. The practical consequence of this was his ability to understand and explain both the political and military aspects of Sri Lanka’s complex situation equally well — a fact of no small chagrin, I would guess, to politicians wishing to be hazy about military fiascos, or to militarists too much in love with force for force’s sake. Fifth, Sivaram was willing and able to talk with anyone. Moreover, his electric personality was such that most people, regardless of political stripe, were willing to talk to him as well. It should be borne in mind that many of his most prominent public mourners in Sri Lanka, for example, were Sinhalese journalists, some of them quite Chauvanist in their attitudes, and a number of whom eventually labored under death threats on his behalf, and went on to suffer similar fates for covering other stories displeasing to those in charge. This ability to talk to all sides in Sri Lanka, and occasionally to provide a span of insight between them, was not just a shallow conviviality over drinks but the deep undergirding of his journalism: he left no one out of his conversation, and he made sure you knew it in his writing. I’m sure this rankled his killers and would-be killers no end. Sixth, Sivaram was the consummate journalistic professional. What he meant by ‘professional’ is, of course, a pretty complicated business to explain, since his beliefs about this ranged from the deeply political (‘professional’ meant you could not hide, even on pain of death, from the implications of what you thought were right) to the deeply practical (never write anything unless you had checked and double checked the facts). But Sivaram’s professionalism, nonetheless, will perhaps be his greatest contribution to South Asian journalism. When he died, I could hear the painful creaking of spines stiffening all over the region, and all over the world. And clearly, given the journalistic body count, this has lasted. Finally, seventh, there is Sivaram’s fierce and unrelenting dedication to what he perceived as his ultimate goal: achieving due rights and justice for all the Tamil people. Although he was astutely adjustable and strategic when it came to discussing how this goal might be achieved, he never hid his disdain for anyone who thought it appropriate to aim for something less. For him it was worth his own death, worth taunting his enemies with his refusal to leave or temporize, and, finally, worth a kind of resolution for his molecules as they mingle with the soil of the Batticaloa he so loved. “I find this idea strangely comforting,” he once said to me, ten, or fifteen or twenty years ago, about this eventual recycling. “I will bloom with the flowers.”

And then he laughed.

So I think I know why he was killed. But they killed him, of course, for their purposes, far too late.

As for what his death has meant to me? I remember talking with one of his close cousins on the phone soon after Sivaram died. He told me that, although he felt selfish saying so, what troubled him most about Sivaram’s death were the conversations he now would never have with anyone else like Sivaram again. For Sivaram, he claimed, could talk about ideas with him in a way no one else could. I knew exactly what he meant. I think all those who knew him well do. When he died, that died – that kind of talking, that flash of brilliance, that fierce irony, and fearless thinking. He made us all uncomfortable in the most valuable way. What a legacy to be carrying on with.

Thank You.

The full text of the speech delivered on April 29, 2010 by Professor Mark P. Whitaker at a meeting held in London to mark the 5th death anniversary of slain journalist Darmaratnam Sivaram (Taraki). The event was organized by Friends of Sivaram and Tamil Legal Advocacy Project. Mark P. Whitaker is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of South Carolina, Aiken, where he also holds an endowed chair in Social and Behavioral Science. He is a cultural anthropologist, and has conducted research in and on Sri Lanka since 1981. Most of his research has focused on politics, religion, and journalism in Sri Lanka’s Tamil community. He is the author of two books: Amiable Incoherence: Manipulating Histories and Modernities in a Batticaloa Hindu Temple (1998), the University of Amsterdam Press; and Learning Politics from Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka (2007), Pluto Press. He has also written 17 articles. He met Sivaram Dharmeratnam in 1982, shortly after arriving in the Batticaloa district to begin fieldwork, and the two of them remained close friends and intellectual colleagues till Sivaram’s death on April 28, 2005.


1. Sivaram liked to pronounce the word ‘machchaan’ (male [cross] cousin) as ‘machchaang.’ Note: in the interest of avoiding transliteration problems, I am showing long vowels by doubling letters.

2. “18 Journalists Killed in Sri Lanka since 1992/Motive Confirmed”, Committee to Protect Journalists [] accessed 16/4/10.

3. “Sri Lanka: Demand Investigation into missing journalist” Urgent Action, ASA 37/003/2010 [] accessed on 4/16/10; “Sri Lanka: end Harassment, Attacks on Journalists”, Human Rights Watch [] accessed 16/4/10.

4. The following story is drawn from my book. See Whitaker, Mark. (2007) Learning Politics from Sivaram: The Life and Death of a Revolutionary Tamil Journalist in Sri Lanka, pp. 113-116. London: Pluto Press.

*Mark P. Whitaker,Professor of Anthropology , University of South Carolina, Aiken

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[see also Some Reflections on Popular Anthropology, Nationalism, and the Internet – Mark P Whitaker, 2004 and Selected Writings – Dharmaretnam Sivaram]


External Links:
The Slaying of Sivaram