Death of a Tiger

Print edition : October 13, 2001
D.B.S. JEYARAJ

THE year was 1985, when several Sri Lankan Tamil militant groups were active in Tamil Nadu. One afternoon, the residential area of Mahalingapuram in Chennai was rocked by gunfire. The venue was the Tamil Information Centre (TIC) and the events there reminded one of scenes from "B" grade Hollywood thrillers. One man was bundling another, with a bleeding foot, into a vehicle, holding a gun to him while firing shots into the air from another gun to keep at bay the armed bodyguards of the latter. The man performing the act was Shankar of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). On September 26, he was killed in a landmine attack in Sri Lanka's northern mainland the Wanni.

The incident at Mahalingapuram was a sequel to the abduction of LTTE leader Pottu Amman by the rival People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). Pottu Amman, who currently heads the LTTE's intelligence wing, was then in charge of the coastal camp in Vedaranyam in Tamil Nadu. He was taken captive following an argument with PLOTE operatives. A furious LTTE chief Velupillai Prabakaran assigned his deputies Shankar and Aruna with the task of freeing Pottu Amman. A round of talks between PLOTE military commander Jotheeswaran alias Kannan and Shankar took place in the residence of a Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) Member of Parliament considered to be close to the PLOTE leadership. However, the talks failed as an enraged Shankar stormed out of the meeting after slapping the parliamentarian.

Shankar then revised his strategy and telephoned Dr. Sivanathan of the TIC at Mahalingapuram and asked him to arrange a meeting with the PLOTE's Kannan. Kannan arrived with his retinue of bodyguards and engaged in discussions with Shankar. At one point Shankar whisked out his gun, fired on Kannan's foot and quickly placed his gun against Kannan's head. Shankar pulled out Kannan's firearm and began firing into the air, while prodding Kannan with his own gun towards a waiting vehicle. The PLOTE bodyguards could do nothing as their leader was taken captive. Later, the LTTE exchanged Kannan for Pottu Amman. The incident attracted negative publicity and, as a result, Shankar was incarcerated for a while though ultimately no serious punishment was meted out.

The man who earned Prabakaran's praise for the daredevil act remained a close associate and trusted lieutenant of the LTTE supremo for nearly two decades, until the day of his killing. Shankar was travelling from Oddusuddan on the A-34 highway, or the Mankulam-Mullaithivu road, to Puthukkudiyiruppu on the A-35 highway, or the Paranthan-Mullaithivu road. He was travelling alone in his two-seater, four-wheeler pick-up vehicle along a fairweather jeep track cutting through a swathe of thick jungle when a claymore device, concealed on a tree, exploded at 10-45 a.m. "Colonel" Shankar was killed on the spot.

VAITHILINGAM SORNALINGAM alias Shankar was born in September 1948. He was educated at the Tamil Maha Vidyalayam in Vavuniya and at the Hartley College in Point Pedro. A keen footballer, he played for his college and a club.

Shankar was the second of six sons. Three of his siblings also joined the LTTE. One brother, Manoharan alias "Captain Haran", was the commander of the Tiger boat which was seized on the high seas by the Sri Lankan Navy in October 1987. This happened after the Indo-Sri Lanka accord was signed. When attempts were made to transport the arrested persons, including LTTE leaders such as Kumarappa and Pulendran, to Colombo they committed suicide by consuming cyanide. The incident resulted in war breaking out. Shankar married the widow of his brother Haran.

Another brother, Vaseekaran alias "Lieutenant Siddharth", was killed in an explosion in Kaithadi in February 1987. Shankar's youngest brother was reported missing in a skirmish with the Army in Mannar in the 1980s. Nothing is known about him since. Another brother, an engineering student, was killed by a Sri Lankan Air Force bomb. Only the eldest brother, a medical doctor in the United Kingdom, is alive now.

People in the LTTE-controlled areas of the Wanni mourned the death of Shankar. His body was taken in a procession to the Great Heroes' Commemorative Hall at Mulliyawalai and kept there for people to pay their last respects. Although Prabakaran paid his last respects to Shankar, he did not attend the funeral.

Shankar became a full-time member of the LTTE in 1983. He left Montreal, where he was residing, and arrived in Chennai after the July 1983 pogrom of Sri Lankan Tamils. However, his relationship with the LTTE had begun almost a decade before that.

Shankar had pioneered several projects for the movement. He was responsible for setting up the LTTE's Office of Overseas Purchases (OOP), the department responsible for armament acquisitions abroad. It is now run by Kumaran Pathmanathan alias "K.P." Shankar also helped establish the LTTE's sophisticated communications network and personally procured the necessary equipment from Singapore. He was also associated with Prabakaran in purchasing the LTTE's first ship and trawler. Shankar was personally involved in re-furbishing the latter and equipping it with a radar.

Shankar was the founder-commander of the LTTE's marine division, "Kadal Puligal" (Sea Tigers). He pioneered and developed the LTTE's undersea attack unit, which consists of well-trained frogmen. Shankar also established and developed the LTTE's anti-aircraft unit, which has downed a large number of planes and helicopters with its anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles. Shankar was involved in the planning and execution of the recent LTTE attack on the Katunayake Air Force base.

He was perhaps Prabakaran's closest confidant. Shankar used to accompany Prabakaran on several confidential missions. The latest and well-known one was the meeting with the Norwegian peace envoy, Erik Solheim, in 2000. Prabakaran, political wing chief Thamilchelvan and Shankar participated in the meeting representing the LTTE. At the meeting, Shankar also played the role of an interpreter.

There is little doubt that Shankar's demise is a tremendous blow to the LTTE, particularly to Prabakaran.

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