Northern Province Chief Minister Canagasabapathy Visuvalingam Wigneswaran, who possesses a remarkable flair for getting embroiled in controversial issues, is in the eye of a storm again. This time it is over some remarks made by him during the course of a media interview on April 14th 2017. Mr Wigneswaran was interviewed by a Tamil website called “Thinappuyal” meaning “Daily Storm”. Well, the interview has certainly caused a storm centring around the Northern Chief Minister.
While responding to a question by the interviewer, Mr Wigneswaran had referred to Jesus Christ and Swami Premananda in a manner that appeared to draw an analogy between both. This reference has hurt the sentiments of Christians, who regard Jesus Christ as the “Son of God” and believe in him as their “Lord and Saviour”. Many are angry that the Chief Minister was comparing Jesus Christ to a “Swami” or “God-man” who was convicted of rape and murder by the Indian courts.
The Youtube posted on the web by “Thinappuyal” showed the interviewer asking Mr Wigneswaran about his being a Premananda devotee and whether it was correct to be a devotee of a man convicted as a criminal by the courts. The ex-supreme court judge responded to the question by saying Jesus Christ was convicted 2,000 years ago but people were worshipping him now as God.
Mr Wigneswaran reiterated his point about Jesus Christ by saying again in Tamil “Avar oru Kuttravaali. Avarukku Marana Thandanai Theerkkappattathu. Aen Innum Kireesthavargal Avarai Iraivanaahap Paarkkiraargal”? (He was a criminal. He was convicted and given a death sentence. Why are Christians still seeing him as God”? The point Mr Wigneswaran was trying to make through his counter-question seemed to be that like Premananda, Jesus Christ too had been convicted 2,000 years ago.
Mr Wigneswaran’s remarks and question about Christians regarding Jesus Christ as God touched a raw nerve among Christians of all folds – Catholics, Protestants and Evangelicals. It became a heated issue as YouTube was shared widely via social media. Mr Wigneswaran came in for heavy criticism for what was seen as a comparison between Jesus Christ
Even several Tamil speaking Muslims took umbrage at this remark about “Eesaa Nabhi” as “Prophet” Jesus is referred to in Islamic tenets. Tamil Catholics vehemently protested against Mr Wigneswaran’s remarks. Many young members of the Catholic Laity wanted to stage widespread protest demonstrations against the Chief Minister.
They were restrained by the Catholic clergy, who did not want an ugly situation to develop. A significant section of the Catholic clergy in the North and East has been strongly supportive of Mr Wigneswaran’s hawkish political approach in the recent past. These sections were agitated and upset over the new development.
A public statement condemning Mr Wigneswaran’s comments was issued by Mr Anton Punithanayagam, the president of the Mannar Diocese Catholic Federation. (Mannaar Maraimaavatta Katholikka Ondriyam)
The senior lawyer is also the adviser on legal affairs to the Dioceses of Mannar and Jaffna. Mr Punithanayagam called upon Mr Wigneswaran to withdraw his comments and issue an apology to the Catholic Church. If not the Chief Minister would have to face questions and protests from Tamil and Sinhala Catholics warned, Anton Punithanayagam.
Bishop Emeritus Kingsley Swampillai
There is currently no Bishop for the Mannar Diocese after Bishop Rayappu Joseph retired. The Bishop Emeritus of Trincomalee-Batticaloa Diocese, Most Rev. Kingsley Swampillai is functioning in Mannar as the Apostolic Administrator. Bishop Swampillai contacted senior Jaffna district MP Somasuntharam Senathirajah alias “Mavai” Senathirajah and informed him that Catholics were deeply hurt by Mr Wigneswaran’s remarks.
He made an amicable suggestion that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) as a party could intervene in the matter and engage in damage control. Thereafter the TNA leader and Leader of the Opposition R. Sampanthan communicated with his hand-picked Northern Chief Minister and asked Mr Wigneswaran to issue an unqualified apology.
Meanwhile, the Central Committee of the Ilankai Thamil Arasuk Katchi (ITAK) is scheduled to meet in Batticaloa on April 29th. It is expected that the Wigneswaran issue would be raised and discussed at length on that occasion.
In order to understand the hurt feelings of Christians over this comparison more fully, it is necessary to know more about the personality of Swami Premananda, who was convicted on charges of rape and murder by the Pudukkottai Sessions Court in India’s Tamil Nadu State.
He was sentenced to life imprisonment in August 1997. Consequent appeals made against the verdict by Swami Premananda to the Madras High Court and to the Indian Supreme Court were dismissed in December 2002 and April 2005 respectively.
Premananda died of acute liver failure on February 21st 2011, while serving his jail term at the Cuddalore Central Prison.
Though Premananda was convicted in India and died there, he was actually born in Sri Lanka. Premananda whose real name was Somasundaran Premakumar was born in Matale on November 17th 1951. His father was from Thanjavoor in India while his mother was from Matale, Sri Lanka. Premakumar transformed into Swami Premananda in 1971 and established an Ashram in Matale. Subsequently, he set up an Ashram in Puliyankulam in the Northern Province in 1975.
Swami Premananda was also known as the Matale Swami and Ravi Swami. His Ashram cum Orphanage in Matale was burnt by mobs in July 1983. Premananda relocated to the North and then to India in 1984. He founded the 150-acre “Premananda Ashram” at Fathimanagar near Trichy town in the Tiruchirappalli District of Tamil Nadu.
A Wikipedia entry under the heading “Swamy Premananda”(guru) discloses pertinent details of Premanananda’s downfall in India. Here are relevant excerpts –
“Originally from Sri Lanka, He moved to India with his followers in 1984 to escape the Sri Lankan Civil War, bringing with him undocumented Sri Lankan orphans who had been in his care. He initially opened an ashram in a rented building in Tiruchirappalli, then moved to Fatimanagar in 1989. The ashram there covered 150 acres of land with plantations of flowers, fruit, and teak. The ashram served as a shelter for women and orphan children. About 200 people lived in the ashram, most of Sri Lankan origin. Branches of the ashram later opened in the UK, Switzerland, Belgium and other countries”.
“In 1994, one of the girls living in the ashram, Arul Jyothi, escaped and reported that she had been raped and was pregnant. The All India Democratic Women’s Association provided moral support and legal aid to the victims.
“On 15 November 1994, the Police started an investigation. Two ashram residents also reported that another, called Ravi, had been murdered for attempting to expose the happenings at the ashram”.
“Trial took place in the Sessions Court in Pudukkottai, presided over by a woman judge R. Banumathi. Noted Criminal lawyer Ram Jethmalani was among those representing the Swami. The defence claimed that Premananda had divine powers and was capable of performing miracles, which included materializing vibhuti and regurgitating small Shiva lingams. To debunk this myth, an illusionist was invited into the courtroom; he performed both in court”.
“Ram Jethmalani argued that the women had consented to sex. The court noted that in some cases the consent was obtained by deceit, such as promising a cure for ailments such as asthma or by saying that sex with the swami was “service to God”.
The court also noted that some of the girls had been threatened with dire consequences and that some of the victims were below the age of consent (16 at the time of trial) when they were raped. Jethmalani also said that the trial was unfair because witnesses and the accused had been subjected to Police brutality”.
“The murder victim’s remains were found buried on the ashram premises and were presented as evidence. DNA samples from Arul Jyothi, her aborted foetus, and Premananda were also introduced as evidence. The prosecution argued that the results established his paternity. The defence hired an expert witness from the UK, Wilson Wall, who took DNA evidence back to the UK and analysed it; his results were that Premananda was not the father and that analysis by the Indian scientists was mishandled”.
Life Imprisonment Sentence
“On 20 August 1997, Premananda was sentenced to life imprisonment and fined INR 67.3 lakhs for 13 counts of rape, molestations of two girls and a murder.
“Failure to pay the fine was to carry an additional term of 32 years and 9 months. He was also convicted of cheating the residents of his ashram, which carried another one-year sentence. Six others were also found guilty of conspiracy to commit rapes and destroying evidence. Five were given life sentences. In view of the severity of the crimes, the judge denied them any future remission of their sentences or amnesty by any state or central government. Premananda appeared unperturbed by the sentences and while talking to reporters, said: “Truth will ultimately triumph”.
“In January 2000, the Madras High Court ordered that INR 36.4 lakhs from Premananda’s frozen accounts be placed in a fixed deposit for three years and the resulting interest should be paid to the victims as compensation.
The original guilty verdict was appealed to the Madras High Court and was rejected in December 2002. In April 2005, the Supreme Court of India rejected an appeal”.
“On 5 February 2009, the Madras High Court rejected a habeas corpus petition, keeping in view the recommendations of the district sessions judge at the time of conviction and the previous Supreme Court order. On 26 June 2010, however, the same court accepted Premananda’s petition requesting three-month parole to undergo medical treatment. As of 2005 a European named Doris was running the ashram, who said that Premananda was innocent”.
“Premananda died on 21 February 2011 of acute liver failure, while being held in Cuddalore Central Prison. Until his death, he continued to say he was innocent”.
The above excerpts from Wikipedia about Swami Premananda sums up the charges against him and the trial, conviction and imprisonment.
Against that backdrop, it is easier to understand why Mr. Wigneswaran’s references to Premananda and Jesus Christ have saddened and angered those of the Christian faith.
Hurt and indignant feelings were further exacerbated by the fact that the mouth from which these words emanated belonged to a respected retired Supreme Court judge who was elected chief minister by a majority of Hindu and Christian voters.
Whatever the discerning public or outside world may opine about Premananda, he is yet the Swami to thousands of his followers. Some perceive and worship him as an incarnation of God. The most distinguished disciple of Premananda in Sri Lanka is arguably Mr. C.V.Wigneswaran, who became his devotee in 1981. Mr Wigneswaran remains faithful to the Swami despite Premananda’s trial, conviction, imprisonment and death. Many others lost their faith in the Swami after the judicial proceedings involving Premananda but not Justice Wigneswaran.
In fact, Mr Wigneswaran’s conduct in support of Premananda came in for much criticism then.
Peoples Union of Civil Liberties
When allegations were made against Premananda, few expected constructive legal action would be done as the Swami had much money power and powerful political connections. However the All – India Democratic Women’s Association affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and the Peoples Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) led by respected lawyer and human rights activist K.G. Kannabiran took up the case and extended support to the women and child victims. The PUCL gave shelter to the victimized children and women. It was the pressure mounted by these organisations with media support that led to the detention and trial of Premananda and other officials at the Ashram.
When the trial began at the Pudukkottai sessions court before the woman judge R. Bhanumathy, a formidable legal team was mobilised on behalf of Premananda. Chief among these was well-known lawyer Ram Jethmalani. Many eminent notables gave evidence in support of Premananda. Among these was C. V. Wigneswaran who was the defence witness No 16. Unfortunately, much of the testimony was disbelieved by the Sessions Court judge despite Mr. Wigneswaran being a Judge in Sri Lanka.
The Sessions Court judge R. Bhanumathy later became an Indian Supreme Court Judge.
According to sources from legal circles, Mr. Wigneswaran had persisted with his efforts on behalf of Premananda during the appeals before the Madras High Court and Indian Supreme court. It is alleged that Wigneswaran sought personal meetings with the Judges hearing the appeals and attempted to influence them in favour of Premananda.
PUCL lawyers had to intervene and seek a re-constitution of the bench as a result of this alleged lawyer sources.
Kannabiran Memorial Lecture
There was however an ironic twist in this matter in 2014. The PUCL President K.G. Kannabiran had passed away in 2010. C. V. Wigneswaran who retired as Supreme Court judge had contested polls and on the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK)symbol of the house and been elected as Northern Province Chief Minister. The PUCL organised the first Kannabiran Memorial Lecture in Chennai in November 2014. The Northern Chief Minister was invited to deliver it. Apparently, PUCL officials were unaware that Defence witness No. 16 in the Premananda case was now the Northern Chief Minister.
Mr Wigneswaran made PUCL officials painfully aware of who he was, by first visiting the Premananda ashram in Trichy. Upon knowing this, the PUCL was horrified by the fact that they had unwittingly invited Mr Wigneswaran to deliver the first Kannabiran Memorial Lecture. It was too late to cancel the lecture. As a result, several Lawyers, Judicial officers and human rights activists kept away from the Kannabiran Memorial Lecture delivered by Mr Wigneswaran.
Mr Wigneswaran’s efforts on behalf of Premananda ashram continued even after he became Northern Chief Minister. Though Swami Premananda was no more three other Ashram officials convicted along with him were yet serving their term of life imprisonment in the Puzhal jail. In an unprecedented move, the Chief Minister of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka wrote a letter directly to the Prime Minister of neighbouring India seeking the release of the three convicts. Many had expected Mr Wigneswaran to make legitimate requests to the Indian Govt. and Prime Minister for assistance to help reconstruct and develop the war-affected Northern Province after he became Chief Minister.
Mr Wigneswaran had not done so. But now he was defying norms to seek clemency for three persons convicted for criminal offences under Indian law.
Times of India News Report
A Times of India news report dated April 24th 2015 stated as follows –
“Chief Minister of Sri Lanka’s Tamil-majority Northern Province C V Wigneswaran has requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi to release three life convicts in the sensational Swamy Premananda case. The three -Kamalananda, Balan alias Balendiran and Sathis alias Sathishkumar – were convicted and sentenced along with Premananda for raping 13 girls, including minors, and conspiring to murder an inmate in the godman’s ashram near Trichy”.
“They were sentenced to double life imprisonment, and the punishment was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2005. While Premananda died in Cuddalore prison in 2011, the other three are currently lodged in Puzhal jail in Chennai. All the four were Sri Lankan Tamils”.
“In his letter, Wigneswaran, a former judge of Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court, said Kamalananda and the others were falsely implicated in the case.
“Premananda’s ashram and its properties have to be maintained. No one is there to take care of them. Please immediately release them as they are innocent,” he said.
Some senior officials expressed surprise and shock over Wigneswaran questioning the Indian judicial system and describing the convicts as innocent”. “Premananda died in 2011 at the age of 59 in due to multiple health problems, including acute end-stage liver disease. Kamalananda, a close associate of Premananda, Balan and Satish were convicted for abetment in the rape of the girls and the murder of Ravi whose body was buried inside the sprawling ashram at Fathima Nagar near Trichy”.
“Kamalananda’s wife Dr Chandradevi, who was charged with terminating the pregnancies of some of the rape victims, was convicted and sentenced to a 39-month jail term. She completed her prison term and was released on payment of a fine of Rs 30,000. While Kamalananda and Balan are engineering graduates, Satish had completed higher secondary. All of them have completed 16 of the 40 years of their sentence”.
Appeal To Narendra Modi
“Declining to reply to queries emailed to him by TOI, including one on whether it was right to seek the release of the life convicts, Wigneswaran merely admitted to sending an appeal to Narendra Modi for their release. He added that the case history was known to senior advocate Ram Jethmalani, who had defended the convicts”.
“A Sri Lankan, Premananda had set up the ashram in the 1980s. In 1994, he was charged with raping the 13 inmates, all Sri Lankan Tamils. The case came to light after one of the victims escaped from the ashram. Another victim became pregnant and a DNA test established that Premananda was the culprit. On August 21, 1997, the then Pudukottai district and sessions court judge R Banumathi (now Supreme Court judge) sentenced Premananda to double life imprisonment and a cumulative fine of Rs 66.4 lakh”.
Mr C. V. Wigneswaran in his Chief Ministerial capacity has been the target of a lot of criticism for his poor performance amounting to virtual non – performance. Sadly the Northern Provincial Council elected to office amidst great expectations has been woefully inefficient in the discharge of its duties. It has set a record in passing irrelevant resolutions.
The Chief Minister is known for making speeches all year round. Funds allocated by the Colombo Govt are under-utilised. Corruption is rampant. The Northern Governor Reginald Cooray says openly that the people of the North are approaching him in large numbers to solve their problems despite an elected council and Chief Minister being there. Mr Wigneswaran has made a name for himself as a Chief Minister who made provocative statements about matters outside his purview instead of concentrating on administering the Provincial Council constructively.
Sri Poobalakrishna Temple
Even as Mr Wigneswaran is being heavily faulted for his performance as Chief Minister, the Premananda devotee can take credit for one accomplishment. He was instrumental in constructing a temple and erecting a statue of Swami Premananda in Puliyankulam.
The temple deity is a statue of Lord Krishna known as “Poo Bala Krishna”(Poo means flower and Bala is a child). It is claimed that Swami Premananda materialised the statue out of flowers and consecrated it at Puliyankulam many years ago.
A new temple was constructed mainly due to the efforts of Mr Wigneswaran. The Sri Poobalakrishna temple was ceremonially declared open on February 2th 2015 at Puliyankulam. A statue of Swami Premananda was carried in procession into the premises to the accompaniment of a band and dancers.
A visibly elated Wigneswaran made a speech on the occasion. An extract from his speech is as follows –
“It is indeed a dream come true! Here we are today, gathered together at the opening of this Sri Poobalakrishna Temple in Puliyankulam. At the time of Swamiji’s Samadhi, we had no idea that such a temple would ever be built or opened. Even when I became the Chief Minister of the Northern Province in 2013, I still had no idea that this temple could be built. When I laid the foundation, installing a small statue of Balakrishna into it (One that had been materialized by Swamiji and given to my family), I could not imagine how this temple would ever come to be constructed, nor how soon it would be completed. But slowly the dream started unfurling, a dream which Swamiji slowly instilled into our minds, into our hearts, into our psyches. Then the desire to build came; the finances to start the work came; help came from many quarters. Our synchronized activities have now melded to create this wonderful result”.
Devotee Of Swami Premananda
It is therefore very clear that Mr C. V. Wigneswaran is a true, genuine devotee of Swami Premananda. The fact that Premananda was convicted and sentenced on charges of rape, molestation and a murder conspiracy does not matter to a sincere believer.
In spite of being a Supreme Court judge, Mr Wigneswaran opines that Premananda’s conviction was a travesty of justice. His belief is that Premananda and his cohorts were the victims of a conspiracy aided and abetted by the law enforcement agencies and judiciary of India. Each man is entitled to his beliefs and faith.
However, when a person of Mr Wigneswaran’s stature and eminence asserts his faith in a Person like Premananda he is very much likely to be challenged by the public.
Since Mr Wigneswaran has been elected to high office by the people, democratic practice decrees that Mr Wigneswaran be questioned about his devotion to Premananda. Mr Wigneswaran, however, strives to seek a parallel to justify his stance on Premananda. In a bid to portray Premananda as being unjustly persecuted, he draws an analogy between Premakumar of Matale and Jesus of Galilee. This naturally infuriates those of the Christian faith. This is what seems to have happened in this instance.
What is of importance is that the comparison of Jesus Christ with Premananda was made by Mr Wigneswaran himself. The “Thinappuyal” interviewer did not refer to Jesus Christ in his questioning. He only asked Mr Wigneswaran about Swami Premananda. It was the Northern Province Chief Minister who referred to Jesus Christ in the conversation and tried to draw a parallel. He added insult to injury by posing the question as to why Christians regard Jesus Christ who was sentenced to death as a criminal 2000 years ago as God?
Mathiabaranam Abraham Sumanthiran
Furthermore, it is a moot point as to whether Mr Wigneswaran’s analogy between Jesus and Premananda was appropriate or substantially correct! TNA Jaffna District Parliamentarian and official spokesperson Mathiabaranam Abraham Sumanthiran has in a Facebook entry pointed out the fallacies in Mr Wigneswaran’s attempt to strike a parallel between Jesus Christ and Swami Premananda. Mr Sumanthiran who is both a lawyer and a Christian has outlined three important differences to be considered between Jesus Christ and Swami Premananda.
They are as follows –
1. Jesus was never accused of rape or murder. The accusation was that he tried to liberate his people from the Roman Empire and declared himself “King of the Jews” (“Now Jesus stood before the governor. And the governor asked Him, saying, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus said to him, “It is as you say.” – (Matthew 27:11)
2. There was no judicial inquiry in Jesus’ case like we have today. No witnesses were cross-examined, no two appeals thereafter at which brilliant lawyers appeared and argued. More importantly, Jesus was never found guilty even once. (“Now Jesus stood before the governor. And the governor asked Him, saying, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus said to him, “It is as you say.” Pilate said to them, “What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said to him, “Let Him be crucified!” Then the governor said, “Why, what evil has He done?” But they cried out all the more, saying, “Let Him be crucified!” When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it. (Matthew 27:11, 22-24)
3. Jesus rose from the dead (This is what those who regard him as God celebrate on Easter Day)
This 3rd point is a matter of personal faith. But the first two points are narratives that have been confirmed even by non-Christian historians. Therefore in my humble opinion, it is not appropriate to compare these two persons.
Mr Wigneswaran’s Apology
This then is the crux of the matter. Upon seeing some reports in the Tamil media that Mr Wigneswaran had issued a statement clarifying his position, I e-mailed the Chief Minister requesting that he send me a copy of his statement in full. This was because the statement purportedly issued by Mr Wigneswaran did not appear to be an unqualified apology. Apart from complaining against the website, which interviewed him and emphasizing that he won a prize at Royal College for the study of comparative religions by reading the Gospel according to St. Mathew and that he participated at the annual St. Anthony’s feast, there was very little substance in the statement. Also, Mr Wigneswaran’s apology seemed half-hearted and confusing. He expressed regret if he had hurt the feelings of Christians but also said that he had not done so by his actions. When reading the statement in Tamil, I was quite doubtful whether the statement had been accurately published. This was because the statement was so confusing, meandering, contradictory and did not address the issue at hand properly. It did not appear to have been drafted by a retired Supreme Court Judge.
In a bid, therefore, to ascertain whether the statement had indeed been issued by the Chief Minister, I requested that he send me the statement in full in English. There has been no response so far. As such, I was unable to incorporate Mr Wigneswaran’s viewpoint in this article. It is to be hoped that I receive a positive response from Mr Wigneswaran in due course.