Sivaram, much more than a scribe
By Rajpal Abeynayake

Dharmaretnam Sivaram

This is a personal tribute - -and a personal account of D. P. Sivaram, a frontiers-man in journalism. His specialty was cutting edge technology coupled with the best skills in story-telling and analysis. But, of more interest was the fact that Siva was an intellectual, a hugely sought after expert on defense and Tamil affairs, and an extremely popular well-connected and well-liked man.

He hailed from a Batticaloa family of landed gentry, his paternal grandfather S. Dharmaratnam being a State Councillor of the then legislature of the country that his grandson Sivram eventually rebelled against. Sivaram was educated at Batticaloa St. Michael’s College, and his brother, a doctor in England, at S. Thomas' College Mt Lavina.

Sivaram’s grieving wife and three children

They say all but the best columnists come with the names of their papers attached, but the names of the very best stand on their own. Sivaram's was one of the best. Whether he used his pseudonym derived from the legendary Afghan resistance leader (Taraki) or wrote under his own name, he was known in his own right - - and not by the name of the paper he was writing for at a particular time. Pseudonyms and newspapers were for him but handles to pursue his exacting professionalism - - or to advancing his own point of view.

Incidentally, I had a hand in blowing Sivram's cover! When he first wrote a Taraki, freshly arrived from giving up his gun-carrying role as the General Sectary of the PLOTE, the level of curiosity was at fever pitch about the man who had so much inside-dope on the militancy of the Tamil movement. Who in hell was Taraki, they all asked?

The then editor of the Island had sworn Siva to secrecy, and presumably only he and Sivaram knew who Taraki was. But, when the editor learnt that I had let drop Taraki's real name at a Colombo cocktail, he was livid -- but more intrigued than livid, anyhow.

Sivaram eventually asked me how I had come to know, and when I told him, was amused. We have been the best of friends ever since, the friendship getting better with time like some good wines Siva was a connoisseur of. With Ram, there was never a dull moment, and sometimes, it got too exciting for his own good -- as on the day he died. But then, as Siva used to tell me, this is not England. Every day is unpredictable in this country which is why he loved the adrenaline burst, and vowed never to leave, in spite of my advice to him to disappear as I was convinced as he was, that there was some threat to his life. But he shrugged it off and I eventually tired of asking him to take a break overseas for his own safety.

My hand phone registers a call at 9.47 pm from him on the night of the 28th Thursday, minutes before he was abducted. He called as he often does on a Thursday or Friday evening, and teased me about working too hard too late - "a midnight cowboy'' he said. I would have joined him - - except that he couldn't tell me where he was, before the phone got cut off.

I didn't persist; I was to meet him in Batticoloa on Monday May 2nd anyway, after having attended a conference in Kandy, as I had already informed the Editor in office. If he gets shot, I get shot I told the Editor, only half in jest.

Sivaram's passion for a good story was only second to his enormous passion for life - which is paradoxical considering that he obviously was a bit of fatalist to persist doing what he did, despite the threat to his life particularly after his schoolmate, Karuna, split from the LTTE. Though it may have appeared to those who didn't know much about him that he was an absentee father, that wasn't correct in the least.

He was more family man than many I know - - and thought nothing of indulging his two daughters and 10 year old son lavishly, taking them abroad once on a jaunt just to show them ''a little bit of history and the world.''

Shortly after that call, when I reached home, news reached me of Sivaram's abduction. My first call was to the Army Commander, Shantha Kottegoda. He said, 'Rajpal, you should immediately inform the police so the gang will not make a getaway.'' He seemed not to immediately recall who Sivaram was, but I told him. He promised to do what needs to be done, and said he will inform Army Intelligence of the matter.

It appears there wasn't time for anyone to do to do anything about Siva's murder anyway - -Siva was abducted around 10. 30 pm, and his body was discovered 12.30 am -- just two hours had lapsed.. He wasn't tortured, the coroner says vehemently. It appears he was taken to Diyawanna - given one blow at the back of his head, and shot pointblank while he lay on the ground in a thicket. In Sivaram's pocket was one document recovered by the police. It was a draft letter of a civil society protest initiative of a JVP motion to form a Select Committee to probe NGOs. A copy of the JVP's draft motion on a parliamentary lettererhead was attached.

This will give the JVP baiters the goosebumps, but personally I'm not biting that story. The JVP had ideological differences with Ram, but to kill him?? The JVP backed PNM has not been killing people, its unlikely they would start with Sivaram, and now. When Karuna and allied operatives had so many reasons to kill him due to the increasing pressure on the Karuna group and government operatives in Batticoloa why would people go the length to blame the JVP when there was a more obvious candidate as a perpetrator??

The Army Commander expressed deep regret about the killing when informed by me the next morning. He said someone had already told him. He recalled that he was a keen reader of the deceased Sivaram's reports and analysis.

Was Sivram involved with the LTTE - - to an extent that I did not know??? People ask me the question. I say "I don't think so but the bottom line is that I really do not know.'' I took his credentials as a journalist at face value, and knew that he had trouble with the LTTE publishing Tamil Net. He soon had to carry a homily each day about press freedom at the bottom of each Tamil net web page, just to remind the LTTE about press ethics. I considered him a human being and a journalist, as he considered me.

One thing is indubitable; he hankered after all things Sri Lankan, as opposed to what originated in the cold impersonal West, where he could have disappeared and stayed out of harm's way. He loved this country, which means the entire 25,332 square miles of it and not just a little off the top and a sizeable chunk to a side. That's why one of my family members once told him ''you seem to be more comfortable here in Colombo's social milieu than that of Batticoloa.'' As far as I remember, Sivaram didn't answer that question either way, but it's a fact that his children went to school in Colombo, and his family home was in Mt Lavinia, despite the fact that the police raided it over and over again, once in my presence.

The above gives a fair indication of the man-by way of personal perspective. I think any more words by way of tributes are redundant. Surely those who killed him should have been a thousand times more circumspect before they carried out the deed - even if they thought there was a reason -- a valid one in their minds - to kill him. To me personally there can be only one view - it was a stupid, ghastly, unwarranted murder that laid waste a remarkable life.

See Rajpal Abeynayake Columns

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