Murder in the Cathedral: Christmas killing of Joseph Pararajasingham

Tuesday, 22 December 2020 01:45 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

‘Murder in the Cathedral’ is a drama written in verse by the great poet, essayist and playwright Thomas Stearnes Eliott known to the literary world as T.S. Eliot. It is based on the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in December 1170 during the reign of King Henry II. Eliot had relied heavily on the eyewitness account of the murder by a monk Edward Grim published later.

I first came across TS Eliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ when I was a student at Jaffna College, Vaddukkoddai. The Chief librarian Sebaratnam Thambiah was an aficionado of drama who often produced and directed plays. Trying to stage ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ was one of his ambitious ventures. A few of us students and some teachers were roped in and given copies of the verse drama. I liked it very much then. We attended a few rehearsals but the project never got off the ground. However the abortive attempt helped instil in me a deep, abiding love for Eliot’s poetry.

Many years later there was another ‘Murder in the Cathedral,’ this time in Sri Lanka. This was not a drama about a historic event but a true life incident. Just as Archbishop Becket was killed in Canterbury Cathedral on a day in December, another person – not a Bishop but a Parliamentarian – was killed in a Cathedral on 25 December during midnight mass for Christmas. I was living – as now – in Canada at the time but the incident shocked me. 

The victim and his wife – injured in the incident – were people with whom I had interacted closely in the past. I was familiar with the Cathedral where the murder occurred and had even worshipped there a few times. Moreover the Bishop in whose presence the dastardly deed was committed was also known to me.

Thus the incident had a profound effect on me although I was living thousands of miles away. The fact that the killing took place during midnight mass for Christmas affected me very much then. It still does. The 15th death anniversary of the murdered former Batticaloa Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Parliamentarian Joseph Pararajasingham is on 25 December this year. It is against this backdrop therefore that I write about the ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ and its aftermath in this article.

Parliamentarian Joseph Pararajasingham was killed in a Cathedral on 25 December 2005 during midnight mass for Christmas



Entry into politics

Joseph Pararajasingham was of Jaffna origin, having been born in Manipay on 26 November 1934. The family moved to Batticaloa when Joseph was three years old. Joseph therefore grew up in Batticaloa and lived there as a "Mannin Mainthan of Mattakkalappu" (son of the Batticaloa soil). He was known earlier as P. Joseph. It was later when he entered active politics that he reverted to the Tamil name Pararajasingham. However to most people he was always Joseph. I first met him when I worked in Batticaloa as Staff Reporter of the Tamil daily ‘Virakesari’ in 1977. I always addressed him as Joseph “Annan”.

Joseph Pararajasingham became an MP representing Batticaloa District in 1991. He was an MP since then for 14 years until his demise in 2005. When LTTE Eastern Regional Commander Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan revolted against LTTE supremo Veluppillai Prabhakaranin 2004 and broke away, Joseph was not supportive. Among the prominent politicians of Batticaloa, it was Joseph alone who spoke out against Karuna after the split. He condemned the regionalism preached by Karuna and supported Prabha in the name of undivided Tamil nationalism.

Joseph was a marked man by Karuna after the split. Realising he was a target, Joseph for a long time, avoided coming to Batticaloa unnecessarily. Yet he did come to Batticaloa weeks before Christmas in 2005 and stayed there. The family always attended midnight mass for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, Joseph and wife Sugunam had gone to church at about 10:30 p.m. though the service was to begin at 11:30 p.m. Finding the church virtually deserted they had turned back but returned in a few minutes after the arrival of Sugunam’s brother, Robin and family.

The assassination

The assassins had first arrived at the St. Anthony's Church in close proximity to the St. Mary's Cathedral. They had discarded their military fatigues inside the vestry and moved out quietly in civilian dress. Moving into the cathedral compound through a side gate they had entered through one of the side entrances to the cathedral at the front. This was when the Pararajasinghams with some others were kneeling at the altar for bread and wine. The choir had full view of the assassins but did not suspect anything.

Even as Joseph got up the assassins moved closer to the altar and the Bishop. Sugunam got up a few seconds later. Joseph who had started returning to his pew paused and turned halfway to allow Sugunam to precede him. It was at this point that the assassins started firing. The congregation, choir and clergy including Bishop Kingsley Swampillai dived to the floor in panic. Joseph fell down. It is believed he was killed instantly. The time was 1:10 a.m. It was Christmas!

Sugunam and seven others were injured in the firing. The assassins then walked down the aisle firing away in the air. According to some reports they got into a waiting three-wheeler which headed out to the security camp located at an old toothpowder factory premises. The Patpodi camp as it is known was then the operational safe house of the Karuna faction in Batticaloa town.

Pararajasingham had five Police bodyguards with him at the time of the incident. They were standing outside the church with one of them popping in every five minutes to check whether the MP was safe. None of the bodyguards fired back at the assassins. Their explanation was that it may have hit the people. But then they did not fire even after the assassins went outside the church. Furthermore there were no attempts by the guards after the firing to take Pararajasingham to the hospital. Finally Joseph was taken by a nephew in his car and Sugunam by a niece in her car to the hospital. Fellow parishioners helped carry them to the vehicles.

Apart from the official bodyguards the surrounding area usually teemed with security personnel. Additional men were deployed for Christmas. When people came to church the vicinity was bristling with men. But when they returned none were seen. In fact security people reappeared only after an hour or two. The intriguing conduct of the bodyguards as well as the mysterious disappearance of the security personnel along with the safe and easy passage enjoyed by the assassins made many feel that the killing was an officially sanctioned unofficial execution.

The mortal remains of Joseph Pararajasingham were laid to rest at the family plot in Batticaloa's Aalaiyadicholai burial grounds on 29 December 2005. The body lay in state at the Subharaj theatre owned by the family, for the Batticaloa public to pay their respects. The funeral was held at the family residence on Lady Manning Drive. The body was then taken in procession to the cemetery for the final farewell. Sugunam, still receiving medical treatment for her injuries, had only been told on the day of the funeral that her husband of 49 years was no more. It was indeed heart-wrenching, according to those present, to see Sugunam Pararajasingham sobbing inconsolably. The Pararajasinghams were to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary in 2006.

Murder investigation

Thus ended the life of Joseph Pararajasingham. There was very little progress in the investigations into his murder for almost 10 years during Rajapaksa rule. Things began changing albeit on a minor scale after the ‘Good Governance’ Government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe came into being in 2015. Some of the investigations shelved during the Rajapaksa regime were reactivated. The CID began pursuing a number of cases that had been put into cold storage including the Joseph assassination case.

On 4 October 2015 a team of CID officials led by Chief Inspector Ravindra Wimalasiri arrested two stalwarts of the Thamil Makkal Viduthalip Puligal (TMVP) namely Edwin Silva Krishnanandaraja alias Pradeep Master and Rangasami Kanaganayagam alias ‘Gajan Maamaa’in Batticaloa. Pradeep Master, a resident of 3rd Cross Street off Hospital Road in Battiacaloa was the District Coordinator of the TMVP in Batticaloa. The TMVP was the political organisation founded by former LTTE Eastern warlord “Col” Karuna after he broke away from the LTTE in 2004. 

At the time of Joseph Pararajasingham’s killing, the TMVP was officially led by “Col” Karuna. However in the absence caused by Karuna’s clandestine sojourn in India and Nepal, his Deputy Leader Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias “Pillaiaan” ran the show in the east then. Subsequently Karuna was ousted and replaced by Pillaiaan as TMVP Leader in 2007. The TMVP contested the Eastern Province elections in 2008 and the Thamil Makkal Viduthalaip Puligal (TMVP) Leader Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias “Pillaiaan” made history as the first elected Chief Minister of the Eastern Province. In 2012 the TMVP fared badly at the provincial poll but Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiaan was elected Provincial Councillor. Pillaiaan contested the 2015 Parliamentary Elections and was defeated.

Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiaan was reportedly in hot water after his deputies Krishnanandaraja alias Pradeep Master and Kanaganayagam alias ‘Gajan Maamaa’ were taken into custody over the Pararajasingham assassination. Both were detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and interrogated. It is believed that during interrogation, they pointed the finger at Pillaiaan as their “boss” at the time, Pararajasingham was killed. Pradeep Master had allegedly admitted to taking orders directly from Pillaiaan. According to media reports of the day, both Pradeep Master and Gajan Maamaa were reportedly estranged from Pillaiaan after being incarcerated.

Consequently Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiaan was taken into custody after a detention order was issued under the PTA. Initially a team of Police officers had gone to Batticaloa to arrest Pillaiaan. His family however said that Pillaiaan was not at home though his vehicle was seen parked on the premises. The Police then informed the family that Pillaiaan was to present himself to the Police in Colombo on 11 October 2015. The ex-Chief Minister who was at one time in charge of law and order in the Eastern Province adhered to the Police summons and presented himself accordingly. He was accompanied by a lawyer. The Police however took him into custody under a 72-hour detention order issued under the PTA.

After interrogation for three days the Police produced ex-Chief Minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan in courts for the first time on 14 October 2015 and sought more time to keep the suspect in custody and question him further regarding the Pararajasingham murder. Media persons gathered around when a handcuffed ex-Chief Minister was led out by the Police. An unfazed Pillaiaan raised his manacled hands and told the photographers with a smile, “Nalla Padameduthu athai kondu poi TNA kaarangalitte Kaatungo. Avangalukku Santhoshamaayirukkum” (take a good picture and show the TNA fellows. They will be happy).

Immediately after Pillaiaan’s detention, his political aides from the TMVP conducted media conferences to emphasise Chandrakanthan’s innocence and express the view that the ex-Chief Minister would soon be set free. TMVP Secretary P. Prashanthan made it a point then to insist that Pillaiaan’s arrest was not linked to the Joseph Pararajasingham assassination. Despite these denials the investigation proceeded steadily against Pillaiaan and other suspects.

Since Joseph Pararajasingham was a Member of Parliament at the time he was killed, the Police invoked the PTA to detain, investigate and interrogate suspects. The suspects including Pillaiaan were denied bail under the PTA. Pillaiaan mounted several legal challenges against his prolonged detention. His party activists kept accusing the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government of being in cahoots with the TNA led by R. Sampanthan and conducting a political vendetta against Pillaiaan. They charged that the case was a frame-up to keep Pillaiaan detained indefinitely.

After a protracted probe, the Attorney General indicted Pillaiaan (who was 3rd accused) with six other persons in the High Court of Batticaloa for offences committed under Sections 32, 102, 113[b], 140 and 146 of the Penal Code read with Section 2[1][a] , 2[i] and 3[b] of the Prevention of Terrorism [Temporary Provisions] Act No. 48 of 1979 as amended by Act No. 10 of 1982 and Act No. 22 of 1988 in connection with the killing of former Member of Parliament for Batticaloa District Joseph Pararajasingham.

The key element or mainstay of the prosecution’s case was the purported statement amounting to a confession made by Edwin Silva Krishnanandaraja alias Pradeep Master of the TMVP. Though indicted under the PTA, the “confession” was not procured under the PTA but through the Evidence Ordinance. The statement had been made before a Judge in a Voir Dire inquiry. Pillaiaan’s lawyers challenged it before the High Court as being inadmissible. The High Court validated the confession as admissible. This was appealed and a two-Judge bench of the Court of Appeal heard the case.

The legal team appearing on behalf of Pillaiaan reiterated the position that the confession/statement was not admissible. After examining arguments by both sides the Appeal Court ruled that the confession was inadmissible. Media reports of the ruling are hazy but it appears that when the statement was originally made to Court, the Judge had told the 1st accused Pradeep Master in Tamil to keep in mind that his statement could be beneficial or detrimental to him. (“Nanmaiyum Nadakkalaam, Theemaiyum Nadakkalaam”). It was argued that this amounted to an “inducement or threat”. The Appeal Court upheld this reasoning.

With the confession being deemed inadmissible by the Appeal Court, the Batticaloa Courts had to grant bail to the accused persons including Pillaiaan. It was granted on 24 November but a travel ban was imposed. However there was a pertinent question as to whether the Attorney General intended to proceed with the case or not. Time was granted by Courts to the AG to arrive at a decision. The AG informed Courts the next day that he intended proceeding with the case notwithstanding the Appeal Court ruling. A new date was fixed. The case will be heard early next year. What is likely to happen next remains to be seen.

TMVP Leader Chandrakanthan (Pillaiaan)

Meanwhile TMVP Leader Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiaan is being lionised after his release on bail. He was detained for five years under the draconian PTA which has been criticised on the grounds that it reverses the presumption of innocence until proven guilty principle to that of being presumed guilty unless proven innocent. Pillaiaan’s stance has always been that he was innocent and that he was being framed for political reasons. His party the TMVP under the guidance of his loyal Deputy and Party Secretary Prashanthan has been intensely publicising this claim of innocence to the people of Batticaloa.

The TMVP has used the Pillaiaan card in election propaganda meetings. People were asked to vote for the TMVP to demonstrate their belief in Pillaiaan’s innocence. It was stated that a vote for the TMVP would strengthen the demand for his release. When the Local Authority elections were held in February 2018, the TMVP contested eight Local Authorities. It polled 42,365 votes and obtained 36 seats in all. 

When Parliamentary Polls were held in August this year the TMVP contested Batticaloa District with the imprisoned Pillaiyaan as chief candidate. The Tamil National Alliance contesting as the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK) topped the district with 79,460(26.66%) votes. The TMVP came next with 67,692 (22.71%) votes. Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiaan was elected MP polling the highest number of preferences – 54,198 in the district.

Thereafter Pillaiaan was appointed Co-chairperson of the Batticaloa District Coordinating Committee along with Eastern Province Governor Anuradha Yahampath. Until his release on bail, Pillaiaan obtained special permission from Courts to be allowed to attend Parliament as well as District Coordinating Committee meetings. Furthermore there is every likelihood of Pillaiaan getting a ministerial portfolio if and when he is acquitted or if the AG decides on a “Nolle Prosequi” in the Joseph Pararajasingham murder trial.

Whither justice?

The eminent English Jurist William Blackstone wrote in his seminal work ‘Commentaries on the Laws of England’: “It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” This dictum known as ‘Blackstone’s Formulation’ or ‘Blackstone Ratio’ is the staple principle by which most legal systems are governed. In that context, it is imperative that no innocent person be penalised for the Joseph Pararajasingham murder.

However it is a fact that some persons did commit murder most foul in the sacrosanct precincts of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Batticaloa on 25 December 2005. It is a fact that an elected Member of Parliament bearing the name of Jesus’s father Joseph was brutally gunned down in full sight of the congregation after receiving Communion from the Catholic Bishop Kingsley Swampillai. It is also a fact that no one has yet been convicted for committing murder in the Cathedral on the day of Christmas. Whither justice?

(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at [email protected])


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