The Sunday TimesPlus

4th May 1997



The day Jane Russell had to go: a brief encounter with power and authority

When the oppressor was taken by surprise

By Indrakanthi Perera

I had been concentrating on what to buy for dinner for Jane that evening, at least to make her lone vigil on that narrow bench at the Mirihana police station a wee bit lighter.

This was anyway better than the past week when we didn't know where she would be bundled off to next and under which offence - first it was a traffic offence, then supposedly under the PTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act), as a police officer had said at the maximum security prison Bogambara, then the Welikada women's section and now for the visa she had failed to extend (owing to the non-receival of her passport from the relevant authorities) at the Mirihana police station.

The definite reason for her strange arrest and subsequent imprisonment was never clearly stated. She did have a glimpse at a letter by the Controller, Immigration to the Kadugannawa police and found that her arrest was made based on a personal request by him and that the traffic offence for which she was arrested was merely a pretext.

One did not have to guess hard what this whole thing was about and who was behind it. We in Sri Lanka are not unfamiliar with these sort of events though it is rare where foreign nationals are concerned.

However it was in a lighter spirit that I went to the police station with my husband that evening. It may have been the accessibility to Jane after all the previous events and also Jane's own relaxed manner and her capacity to take things as they came and think things out that gave me a sense of confidence as well.

Yet, the situation was tense and it was her few close friends who met us just outside the communication room where Jane told us that the final decision to deport her had been made and that she may leave any minute as soon as the immigration officers arrived. Dinner was a foregone conclusion and we were told to speak to her and leave. Jane had started chanting a Tibetan chant.

I too volunteered to chant the sutra I had taken along and joined her and her long time friend and business partner Malathi on the bench.

We chanted amidst the buzzing and the voices of the radio messages reporting thefts and crimes around the country. My husband and some other friends somewhat confused by our actions, but leaving us to it, moved outside and were speaking to some officers trying to understand the situation better and bring about if possible a reasonable negotiation - an alternative to this outrageous act that was about to take place.

They did unearth that orders came from the 'highest' and that the Mirihana police could do nothing other than comply.

The President who was the real highest who had intervened and stopped a similar attempt an year ago was out of the country and no other reasonable politician in the government could be contacted even to pass on the news of this latest turn of events the day being Mrs. Bandaranaike's birthday and this being late evening. The timing was good for foul doing........ We continued to chant having hardly any other means than to turn to what ever methods available to keep our spirits up.

The police officers said that we were making too much of a racket and that we had to remember this was the communications room but as Jane was not permitted to go elsewhere we continued to stay and chant at a lower volume.

They gave us some time and with increasing annoyance asked Malathi and me to leave. I remember feeling calm and relaxed, smiling and continuing as the police officer got angry and said he will have to throw us out. I told him then that I understand that if that was his duty he had to do it and explained calmly that I too was doing my duty for my friend.

There was much talk and walking to and fro and many angry and exasperated glances at us but we looked straight ahead and chanted over and over again. And in me I felt "metta" which is loving kindness, towards the top planners and conspirators of this family vendetta against Malathi.

For some time the police officers ignored us and then finally said that we should stop as they had to say some thing important to us. They told us to our surprise that Jane could be accompanied by us to the Airport; two in the same vehicle and that the rest could follow in another.

When the time came for her to leave, the immigration officers arrived. As we left the police station, the police officers were almost apologetic. On the way Jane wanted us to sing. We sang and she sang too; Sri Lankan and other oldies and the offcers in front turned back looking surprised that Jane knew all these songs (not really a surprise being here for so long and very much a Sri Lankan like any of us).

It was much later that I realised the significance of what we did that day. In some small way we took by surprise the organised forces of oppression and found that when they confront new methods of resistance, the old seeped in organised order however powerful, crumbles for a bit and gives way. We could not prevent what was planned for her ultimately but could at least prevent the manner in which it was carried out and bring in some sanity or at least an iota of humaneness to the whole episode. Control could take many forms from holding a weapon at your head to denying your basic rights.

What we achieved that day was what Jane wanted. She left that place and our country she loved much with dignity. They did not dispose of her like a louse from the head. She was finding it difficult to face the final moments all alone after all the surprise moves and the exhaustion and mental torment of the uncertainty of what would come next that she had to undergo. We merely helped her to go the way she wanted to with dignity and yes, laughter too.

It was with unspeakable sadness that I bade farewell to Jane knowing that I may never collect enough resources to find the means to visit her if she never could come here again and for no real criminal offence or fault of hers at that. A sense of failure and disappointment too prevailed: a far cry from the feeling of hope for change when I cast my vote for the present government wearing that bright red 'Rajini - Freedom from Fear' T shirt.

"The day may yet dawn, Jane, although the wait is long and tiresome....."

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