The book launch of “Rana Bimaka Panhinda” (Notes from the battlefield) written by former “Lankadeepa” journalist Ratnapala Gamage took place at the J.R. Jayewardene centre in Colombo on 13 September. The Lankadeepa’s ex- defence correspondent now domiciled in Switzerland has in the book recounted many of his experiences while reporting on the long war between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil l Eelam (LTTE).
Among the many anecdotes related by Gamage is one that occurred 21 years ago on 26 September 2001. According to Gamage, he was interviewing the then Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Gen. Rohan Daluwatte at his office in Colombo when the ex-army commander got an important telephone call. After the call, the CDS cut short the interview and rushed off to a top level defence sector meeting chaired by then President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
The reason for Gen. Daluwatte ending the interview abruptly and rushing off for the defence meeting was due to news of a successful strike by the Army’s Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) in the Northern mainland known as the Wanni. The greater part of the Wanni was then under the control of the LTTE. A hit squad of the LRRP also known as the Deep Penetration Unit (DPU) had successfully targeted a vehicle with a claymore mine in the Wanni east region.
There was much excitement in military circles then because preliminary reports indicated that Veluppillai Prabhakaran – the elusive supremo of the LTTE – was in the vehicle caught up in the explosion.
The initial report of the tiger chief being killed in the claymore mine attack was incorrect. The occupant of the doomed vehicle was not Veluppillai Prabhakaran. It was Vaithilingam Sornalingam alias Col. Shankar Sornalingam, who was also known as “Muhilan”, a senior stalwart of the LTTE and a key aide of Prabhakaran.
Puthukkudiyirupp – Oddusuddan Road
Shankar was travelling along the Puthukkudiyirupp - Oddusuddan road after the meeting tiger supremo at Kaeppaapulavu when he was killed. Even though the tiger chief was safe, the loss of Shankar was at that time a tremendous loss to the LTTE in general and Prabhakaran in particular.
Vaithilingam Sornalingam’s 21st death anniversary was on Monday 26 September. It is against this backdrop that the “Political Pulse” column re-visits the killing of Col. Shankar, 21 years ago and focuses on the former tiger leader who was a remarkable personality pioneering several projects for the LTTE during his time.
Col. Shankar at the time of his death was the head of the LTTE’s military intelligence division as well as the nascent Air wing of the tigers. The LTTE released an official communique confirming Shankar’s death.
The communique said: “A deep penetration commando unit of the Sri Lankan Army triggered a claymore mine on Col. Shankar’s vehicle and he was killed on the spot. The incident occurred around 10.45 a.m. today near Oddusudan in the heart of Vanni, Northern Sri Lanka. The media release also stated Col. Shankar has been an active participant in the Tamil people’s freedom struggle for nearly two decades. He was a close confidante of the LTTE Leader Vellupillai Pirapaharan.”
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 Prabhakaran paid his last respects to Shankar privately, he did not attend the public funeral due to security reasons.
This was because the LTTE Supremo knew he was being targeted by the special assassination squad known as the LRRP and/or DPU. In fact, the claymore mine that killed Shankar was really meant for Prabhakaran. Ratnapala Gamage has confirmed this indirectly by recording how the army thought initially that Prabhakaran had been killed.
Actually, the LTTE was in the throes of a crisis at the time of Shankar’s death. In the media communique, the LTTE had accused the “deep penetration commando unit of the Sri Lankan Army” of being responsible for Shankar’s killing. The LTTE faced a threat in regions under its control then because of this unit.
The past few months had seen a number of its senior and prominent leaders being targeted in landmine ambushes. Some were fatal. Col. Shankar, killed on 26 September 2001 was the highest-ranking and most senior Tiger leader to be killed in this manner at that time.
|Sornalingam alias Shankar was a valuable asset to Prabhakaran. The LTTE Chief began relying on him in many areas. Soon Shankar became a close, trusted confidante of Prabhakaran and began accompanying Prabhakaran on several confidential missions
Vaithilingam Sornalingam alias Col. Shankar
Vaithilingam Sornalingam alias Col. Shankar was born in September 1948. His father was from Valvetty while his mother was from the adjacent coastal town of Valvettithurai. As is well known, Valvettithurai or VVT is regarded as the nursery of armed Tamil militancy. Several leaders of the LTTE including Prabhakaran are from VVT. Shankar was six years elder to the LTTE Chief Veluppillai Prabhakaran.
Shankar was educated initially at the Tamil Maha Vidyalayam in Vavuniya and later at Hartley College in Point Pedro. He was boarded at Hartley College as his parents were residing in Vavuniya. His father Vaithilingam was a senior Irrigation Department official who worked in Vavuniya for decades.
Sornalingam alias Shankar was a keen sportsman at Hartley College. Old students of the school by the Point Pedro sea, recall “Sorny” (as Hartleyites called him) playing Cricket and Soccer for Hartley College. He excelled in football and was a reputed goal scorer. “Sorny” also represented his “Thamotheram” house in the annual Athletic meets doing well in both a Track and Field events. He also played Soccer for a club in Vavuniya.
LTTE Numero Uno Prabhakaran’s father Veluppillai working in the Lands Dept. had for some time been stationed in Vavuniya. It was during this period that Sornalingam had first interacted with Prabhakaran. Despite the differences in age their common interests were playing football and talking politics. As the years progressed, Prabhakaran got further politicised in Jaffna and travelled on the road to armed militancy. Shankar proceeded to India for further studies. Their paths were to intersect some years later.
Hindustan Institute of Engineering Technology
After leaving school, Sornalingam began seeking employment. He was unsuccessful in such efforts. He then went to Chennai (then Madras) and enrolled at the Hindustan Institute of Engineering Technology (HIET). He pursued a newly started course in Aircraft Maintenance Engineering at HIET.
After completing his studies at HIET, Sornalingam returned to Sri Lanka and tried to get a job at Air Ceylon. Failing in his attempts to find employment in his own country, Sornalingam went to Britain. After spending some years in the UK, Sornalingam relocated to Montreal in Canada where he reportedly worked in the aircraft maintenance section of a reputed aeronautical company.
Meanwhile, two of Sornalingam’s younger brothers had become “helpers” of the LTTE. Due to their efforts, Prabhakaran re-established contact with Sornalingam in 1981. Sornalingam reportedly gave a hefty financial “donation” to Prabhakaran for the LTTE then.
Then came the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983. Both younger brothers of Sornalingam joined the LTTE as full time members. Shankar himself came down to India and met with Prabhakaran in Tamil Nadu. It was then that Prabhakaran extended an invitation to Sornalingam saying he needed a person like him. Sornalingam accepted the invitation instantly. He did not return to Canada.
Sornalingam joined the LTTE and took the nom de guerre Shankar. The first LTTEE cadre to die in combat was Sathiyanathan alias Shankar of Kambarmalai. He died on 27 November 1982. The LTTE began observing “Maaveerar Naal” (great heroes’ day) on that date annually since 1989. Now LTTE Chief Prabhakaran himself wanted Sornalingam to use Shankar as his nom de guerre for sentimental reasons. In later years when the LTTE underwent a process of “De-Sanskritisation”, Sornalingam adopted the nom de guerre Muhilan also in addition to Shankar.
|Whatever his personal faults, there is no denying that Shankar had made an immense contribution to the LTTE. Shankar had pioneered several projects for the movement
Prabhakaran’s close, trusted confidante
Sornalingam alias Shankar was a valuable asset to Prabhakaran. The LTTE Chief began relying on him in many areas. Soon Shankar became a close, trusted confidante of Prabhakaran and began accompanying Prabhakaran on several confidential missions. It was Shankar who went along with Prabhakaran to Himachal Pradesh in North India where the first and second batches of tigers were being trained secretly by the Indian Army.
Prabhakaran also utilised Shankar’s services at important meetings whenever LTTE political adviser and ideologue Anton Balasingham was unavailable. The first meeting between Prabhakaran and the Norwegian Peace Envoy Erik Solheim was in 2000. Prabhakaran, political wing Chief Thamilselvan and Shankar participated in the meeting representing the LTTE. At the meeting, Shankar also played the role of an interpreter.
After the so called “Mmahattaya betrayal affair” where the former LTTE deputy leader Gopalaswamy Mahendrarajah alias “Mahattaya” was executed for allegedly conspiring with the Indian espionage agency RAW (Research and Analysis Wing), Prabhakaran dissolved the LTTE’s registered political party, the PFLT (Peoples Front of Liberation Tigers).
He also fired the then political wing chief Yogi. Thereafter, Prabhakaran wanted to appoint Shankar as the LTTE political commissar. However, Anton Balasingham who did not like Shankar intervened and got his blue eyed boy Thamilselvan appointed instead. That Thamilselvan later stabbed Balasingham in the back is another story.
Balasingham’s dislike of Shankar was shared by many others in the LTTE. Shankar was perceived as someone who ingratiated himself with Prabhakaran by flattering the boss and carrying tales about others to the tiger supremo. Tiger cadres nicknamed Shankar as “Andal Master” meaning sneaker. Most seniors who gave internal lectures were called “Master” by the juniors.
Shankar had a flair for the dramatic and used it to impress Prabhakaran. Current Indian Cabinet Minister and former diplomat Hardeep Singh Puri related an interesting anecdote concerning Shankar and Prabhakaran to me many years ago.
Hardeep was then the Political Secretary at the Indian High Commission in Colombo and had gone to Jaffna to escort Prabhakaran by helicopter to India for talks with the then Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi. This was prior to the Indo-Lanka accord of 29 July 1987. Shankar had come up to Puri and in the presence of Prabhakaran said: “Remember you are taking the soul of Tamil Eelam with you. Bring back that soul safely to us.” Shankar had then repeated the words in Tamil to Prabhakaran who seemed to be very pleased.
|It was Shankar who undertook the task of mapping out the Wanni in a systematic mode. This exercise in cartography was of immense help to the LTTE in resisting the Indian army then and later the Sri Lankan army after 1996
Immense contribution to LTTE
Whatever his personal faults, there is no denying that Shankar had made an immense contribution to the LTTE. Shankar had pioneered several projects for the movement. Initially he was responsible for setting up the LTTE’s Office of Overseas Purchases (OOP), the department responsible for armament acquisitions abroad. It was later run by Selvarasa Pathmanathan alias “K.P”.
During his stint in acquiring arms, Shankar once made a grave blunder. He had procured arms and ammunition valued at 500,000 sterling and was transporting it via sea to India but the ship got stuck at Aden and the arsenal was lost forever. This was a huge loss to the LTTE in those days. Yet Prabhakaran forgave his favourite Shanka for this costly failure.
Shankar also helped establish the LTTE’s sophisticated communications network and personally procured the necessary equipment from Singapore. He was also associated with Prabhakaran in purchasing the LTTE’s first ship and trawler. Shankar was personally involved in refurbishing the latter and equipping it with a radar. It was named “Kadal Pura” (sea dove) after a popular novel written by Sandilyan.
Shankar was also the founder-commander of the LTTE’s marine division, “Kadal Puligal” (Sea Tigers). The sea tigers acquired a flotilla of gun boats and trawlers and functioned like a mini-Navy. It was also responsible for off-loading “cargo” from LTTE ships at mid-sea and bringing it back to shore. The sea tigers division was later commanded by Soosai.
Shankar also pioneered and developed the LTTE’s undersea attack unit, which consisted of well-trained frogmen and frogwomen. The first major attack was by a woman diver Angayatkanni who exploded a Navy ship at Kankesanthurai. The unit was headquartered first in Kachchaai in the Jaffna peninsula and later at Vattuvaagal in the Wanni.
Shankar also established and developed the LTTE’s anti-aircraft unit, which downed a large number of planes and helicopters with its anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles. It was first set up in Neervely in Jaffna and then re-located to the Wanni.
Another of his projects was the LTTE Air wing known as the “Vaanpuligal” (air Tigers). Shankar was one of the first two tigers who got a pilot licence. The other was Vasanth. Utilising his aeronautical engineering knowledge and piloting skills, Shankar set up the nucleus of a fledgling air wing.
A makeshift runway was established at Kaeppaapulavu. However, Shankar was killed before the Air Tigers took off literally and metaphorically. Shankar was also involved in the planning and execution of the LTTE attack on the Katunayake Air Force base in 2001.
Mapping of the Wanni
Another of Shankar’s little known feats was the systematic mapping of the Wanni. When the LTTE was compelled to relocate to the Northern mainland in 1987 after the Northern peninsula was re-taken by the Indian Army through “Operation Pawan”, they had no accurate maps of the region, especially the forest areas.
It was Shankar who undertook the task of mapping out the Wanni in a systematic mode. This exercise in cartography was of immense help to the LTTE in resisting the Indian army then and later the Sri Lankan army after 1996.
Second of six sons
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 “Kadal Pura” 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.
Subsequently, Shankar married the widow of his brother Haran, Kuhaneswary known as “Kuha Akka”. Kuhaneswari’s parents were from Point Pedro and VVT. She was related to Prabhakaran Kuha Akka and was very much attached to Prabhakaran’s family, especially the children. She was killed along with Prabhakaran’s eldest son Charles Anthony in Mullivaikkal during the last stages of the war in May 2009.
Another brother, Vaseekaran alias “Lieutenant Siddharth”, was killed in an explosion in Kaithadi on 14 February 1987. This was when the LTTE was trying to drive an explosive-laden vehicle into the Army camp at Kaithady.
Shankar’s youngest brother also joined the LTTE and was reported missing after he went to Colombo in the late 1980s. He was reportedly on an intelligence mission for the LTTE then. Nothing is known about him since. Another brother, an engineering student, was killed by a Sri Lankan Air Force bomb in 2000. Only the eldest brother, a medical doctor in the United Kingdom, is alive now.
Col. Shankar was a bold and daring character who took reckless risks and lived life dangerously. One of his little-known exploits in Chennai in 1985 illustrates the vividly. I wrote about that incident in an article for the Indian news magazine “Frontline” when Shankar was killed in 2001. I shall conclude this article with excerpts from that piece about Shankar’s defiant, dare devilish act in Chennai:
Shankar’s daredevil act in Chennai
“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 26 September, 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 Prabhakaran 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 Prabhakaran’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.”
(This writer can be reached at [email protected])