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Hoping against hope

The family members of Prof. S. Raveendranath anxiously await a miracle

By Ayesha Zuhair

Four months and seventeen days have slipped by since the abduction of Professor Sivasubramanium Raveendranath, (former) Vice Chancellor of the Eastern University of Sri Lanka in one of Colombo’s most tightly guarded neighbourhoods.

For the family of the VC, December 15 unexpectedly turned out to be the darkest day of their lives. Enduring every moment that has snailed past them since that treacherous, sunny day has been unnerving, with no news - whatsoever - indicating the whereabouts of the ‘disappeared’ scholar.

Sivasubramanium Raveendranath had been attending a conference at the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science down Vidya Mawatha, Colombo 07 and is said to have been last seen by colleagues during the tea break.

Considering the overarching experience in relation to enforced disappearances, the sinister absence of eye-witnesses and the Professor’s own health conditions (heart disease and hypertension) one would find limited space for optimism.

Yet hope springs eternal in the human breast and it is this hope which makes the family of the missing academic yearn for his return. “We still haven’t given up on him. We are hoping that he returns to us very soon,” affirmed Dushyanthi Malaravan, the daughter of Prof. Raveendranath.

Is there any particular reason to believe that he is alive? “We have no reason as such, but we suspect that he is being held back by his captors for fearing of making their identity known,” quipped Dr. Muthusamy Malavaran, Dushyanthi’s husband who is a doctor attached to a government hospital.

That is why the family has pledged that they will not initiate any legal proceedings in the event that Prof. Raveendranath is released. Their sole aim is to have their much loved family figure safely back at home; bringing those responsible for his disappearance to justice is not their goal. “Confidentiality has been assured. We are simply not interested in revealing identity to anyone. We are only asking for his release and nothing more,” Dr. Malaravan firmly insisted.

It has been alleged that Prof. Raveendranath is a supporter of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but according to his family he has no political motives. He was a humble academic who was interested in furthering the standard of education at the Eastern University in Batticaloa, where he served conscientiously for over 25 long years.

The drama began when Balasingham Sugumar, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Culture of the Eastern University was abducted by two unidentified men in Batticaloa on September 29, 2006. The abductors called for Vice Chancellor Raveendranath’s resignation in return for the release of Dean Sugumar. Responding to this demand, Prof. Raveendranath submitted his resignation on October 2 and Dean Sugumar was released subsequently.

However, the University Grants Commission (UGC) did not accept his resignation, on the basis that it was a presidential appointment and requested him to continue his duties from Colombo. Following this, the VC received a number of death threats demanding he abandon his post altogether.

Then on that fateful 15th day of December, Prof. Raveendranath disappeared in a high-security zone in Colombo, in broad day light - with no eye-witnesses to relate the event. His resignation from the post of VC was accepted on January 19, well over a month after his disappearance.

According an Amnesty International report of December 20, 2006 “Since he was in an area tightly controlled by the military, it seems likely that his captors are an armed group operating with the tacit support of the security forces. He is at risk of torture. He suffers from heart disease, putting his life in greater danger.”

The abductors are believed by many to be members of the breakaway Tamil Tiger group headed by Col. Karuna, who want Prof. Raveendranath, a northerner, out of “their territory” in the East. Raveendranath who was born in Kokuvil East on February 22 1951, is the father of two girls Dushyanthi (27) and Abiramy (24) and a grandfather to Dushyanthi’s daughter Kaniska (2).

He began his academic career in 1978 in Karadiyanarau at the Institute of Agriculture. In 1981, he joined the Eastern University as an Assistant Lecturer. He was appointed as the Acting Vice Chancellor in 2004 and Vice Chancellor in 2005 by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.

On Friday, December 15, Prof. Raveendranath was expected at home for lunch but when there was no sign of him even at 2.30 pm; his daughter dialled his mobile number only to find that the phone was switched off. Fifteen minutes later, she called the driver phone.

Contrary to a number of media reports, the driver was not a complete stranger to the Professor, who had driven him many a time in the past.

That morning, Prof. Raveendranath had requested transport from the University to attend the forum at SLAAS. The car which was parked at the university guesthouse in Kirulapone picked Prof. Raveendranath at 8.30 am from his daughter’s apartment in Dehiwala and dropped him off at the venue where he was last seen.

The driver had informed his passenger that there was a tyre puncture to be repaired and he would proceed to a garage to get it fixed. At 12.25 pm, Prof. Raveendranath had phoned the driver, but the latter was in a garage still attending to the repairs.

“He informed my father that he will not be able not come as the repair work was still going on,” Dushyanthi said.

The VC had asked his driver to come at 2.00 pm when the meeting was over. The driver contacted the family as he could not get in touch with Mr. Raveendranath.

“My father had received a number of anonymous phone calls asking him to resign from the post of Vice Chancellor, so we were immediately concerned about his safety,” she said. The anxious family took turns in giving a number of calls to the mobile but each time they were left disappointed. As the minutes turned into hours, the family’s worst nightmare was cemented. At 9.30 pm that day, Dushyanthi’s husband lodged a complaint (225/260/CIB2) at the Dehiwala Police Station.

The driver, who hails from Batticaloa, remains in custody but the interesting twist here is that the family says that they have no reason to suspect him of any involvement in the kidnapping. Moreover, they had in fact requested that he be released but the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) says that they have good reason to bar his release.

There are many who believe that there is no substantive evidence against the driver and that he is being held back simply because the state has to show the public that something is being done.

It is clear that Prof. Raveendranath’s family has taken every possible measure to secure his release. This is evident in the hefty load of white paper that was produced by Dr. Malaravan. This included documentation relating to both verbal and written communications with the President, Prime Minister, Defence Secretary and the Opposition Leader as well as a number of Cabinet Ministers and other high-ranking government officials.

Moreover, the issue has been discussed with political parties of the North and East, the Civil Monitoring Mission, The International Committee of the Red Cross, the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission, the University Grants Commission and the Organisation of Professional Associations. The family has also spoken directly to the Karuna group, who have flatly denied playing any role and have blamed the LTTE for the abduction.

The matter has also been raised at the United Nations as well. In the family’s third appeal to Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights they wrote:

“We have with great pain of mind and body approached very high authorities with political powers to intervene in this matter and facilitate the release of his captivity. But, it is of no avail. There is ominous silence from all quarters and no progression in this issue so far. He is having high blood pressure and heart disease. We are undergoing untold anguish and miseries without his presence at home.

He rendered his resignation on 2nd of October 2006 but it was accepted by the University Grants Commission on 19th January 2007. We thought that his resignation was the prime demand of the abductors. But, still we have no news about his whereabouts. The abductors must at least inform us about his safety and health. But, his whereabouts are still cloaked in a shroud of mystery as we have tried enough through all sources. Still he remains missing. The official investigations have yet to present credible evidence as to the identity of the abductors.”

On the former VC’s abduction, the SLAAS has noted: “This reads more like something that could happen to a mafia boss, rather than to a respected professor, the head of an academic institution peacefully attending a research conference. Yet, what this shows is that scientists, scholars and educators are not free from harassment and even violent death (as in the cases of Neelan Tiruchelvam and Rajani Thiranagama), at the hands of terrorist and criminal elements that rule the roost in Sri Lanka today.”

Asked to comment on the impact of the abduction, Dushyanthi Malaravan said, “It is my mother who has been worst affected by this tragedy. She depended on my father a great deal, and ever since he disappeared she has been experiencing severe emotional difficulties,” she explained.

The Professor’s wife, R. Jegatheswary is currently suffering from high blood pressure and diabetes. Since her husband’s disappearance, she has been gradually weakened both physically and emotionally due to her mental frame of mind.

“He has never said a harsh word to anyone. Even though he was a university professor, he was not tough as a person. He was so kind to everyone... he helped everyone,” her voice trailed.

After a pause the distraught daughter added, “When there are so many criminals who are roaming the streets so freely, I don’t understand this has happened to a simple and good-hearted person like my father. It just doesn’t make sense.”

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