To meet him, you had to visit his camp by the side of the Batticaloa lagoon. It was heavily fortified with woodenv railway sleepers and sandbags. There were two armed men at the entrance. And within, where he saw guests in a small photo-lined room, were scenes you would encounter in any military camp: a few bunkers here, exercise bars there, and rolls of barbed wire to prevent infiltrators from sneaking in.
And an appointment was a must. For there were 'operations' he conducted suddenly. On that Thursday morning, for instance, he had been out on such a mission. His targets were three members of the Tiger pistol gang who had slipped into town. And like he always did, he had carried his 9mm Belgian-made Browning pistol. It was concealed under the striped T-shirt he loosely wore. But that day neither he nor his men were lucky. The Tigers had melted away by the time they arrived.
For 35-year-old Muthulingam Ganeshkumar, better known in the east by his nom de guerre, 'Razik,' it was a miss that barely produced a ripple of worry on his broad forehead. He shrugged it off with the ease of a man who felt he would be lucky the next time.
Looking at him, though, there was little that suggested the features of a Tiger hunter in the east. Seen on the street, with his receding hairline, the trimmed beard that framed his oval-shaped face and his paunch, he could have easily been mistaken for a businessmen or an NGO-wallah. Yet, that he was, and with a reputation, too - the Tiger hunter.
But little did Razik know that his life would come to an explosive end barely 48 hours later. For at 1:30 on Saturday afternoon, the Tigers struck back. They used one of the customary weapons in their armour: a suicide bomber. He ran towards Razik, who was standing outside a mechanic's shop along the Trinco-Batti road, and detonated the bomb strapped to his body. Razik died on the spot.
If sympathisers of Razik expected the town to plunge into mourning, the mood on the streets that weekend would have been revealing. Hardly anybody rushed home and stayed within the safety of closed doors. Shops did not shut. In fact, on both Saturday and Sunday evening, given the spirit of Wesak celebrations in the air, hundreds thronged the narrow streets to enjoy the slice of entertainment in the form of a musical show, a few lanterns on display, and a motorcyclist performing in the Well of Death. The dead Tiger hunter was far from their minds.
But Razik's role in Batticaloa will not be forgotten easily, particularly his doings since August 27, 1996, when he formed what many Tamils in this town came to know as the 'Razik group.' It threw up a unique chapter in the course of the current ethnic conflict. What Razik and his group did, hardly any other Tamil militant organisation had emulated. And what was that? To fight the Tamil Tigers along with the Sri Lankan army.
For that, of course, they received state assistance. Before joining, the 150 men, mostly Tamils and a few Muslims, were put through two months army training, including jungle warfare. In the form of military hardware, they were supplied with weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades, multi-purpose machine guns, light machine guns, 40 mm grenade launchers, and sniper rifles. And like enlisted soldiers, the men of the Razik group received a regular salary, too: Rs 9,000 per month.
Yet Razik admitted that his group was not part of the conventional army. And that despite them wearing khaki uniforms and participating in joint military operations to strike at Tiger camps in the east.
"We are the army's special support group," he said, adding, "We want to carry arms legally to fight the Tigers, and the only way we can do so is this way."
Furthermore, he saw their contribution as an advantage to the army. "We speak the Tigers' language, we know the region well, we know who is a Tiger, and once we were also like them, so we know their minds, their behaviour, and how they will act," he declared. He had changed radically from his initial mission as a young militant.
It was as a boy of 13, in 1978, that he was first attracted to the Tamil militancy. At the time, the enemy was the Sri Lankan state. And during his teen years, he was as determined as his other youthful Tamil peers to snipe away at the government. The ideas of the EPRLF nourished him. And neither his mother, a teacher at that time, nor his father, employed in the local bureaucracy, could dissuade young Muthulingam Ganeshkumar.
Until the '83, however, he was still labelled a militant. The anti-Tamil riots that July, however, changed it all. It was the spark that pushed him into a new realm: to be a rebel equipped with military skills. For he became one of the many hundreds of Tamil youths who slipped across to India to receive military training. In Razik's case, the opportunity came in 1984. He joined a band of 121 destined for the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, in the Hindi heartland.
"I don't know where exactly we were," he admitted. "But it was good. We were given two-and-a-half mon- ths basic training, then a month of advance training, and after that three months to do commando work."
On his return, Razik chose to stay in Mannar and visit the Jaffna peninsular, than head for Karativu, his village along the south-eastern coast of the island. For it was in the north that the Tamil militancy were displaying their strength. It was relatively quiet on the eastern front.
But if it was action that Razik wanted, he had to wait till the Indian Peace Keeping Force arrived in 1987. For his organisation, the EPRLF, began to receive favoured treatment. And when the EPRLF were given the licence by the Indians to create a Tamil National Army to handle security in the area, it was natural that the party hierarchy would turn to Razik for his skill. He knew very well that his guns would be pointed at the Tigers. Yet it did not pose a problem for him. Since like the rest of his EPRLF, he, too, had grave misgivings about the prevailing ideology of the Tigers. To him, they had become the new enemies of the Tamils. And such a sentiment was reflected when he spoke with delight in his voice about his attacks on the Tigers. "I have killed 237 of them when fighting alongside the IPKF," he said.
That glory was short lived, though. With the IPKF being forced out of Sri Lanka by President Ranasinghe Premadasa, the Tigers returned to the east. And in Batticaloa, they set their sights on the men of the TNA who had hounded them till then. In December 1989, nearly 300 TNA members were mowed down in an orgy of Tiger fire. Many of the leaders sought shelter in the surrounding forests, and subsequently escaped to areas where the Tigers had no access, like the hill country. Razik was one of them.
But he was not done with the east, his home turf. After a stint in India between '91 and '95, he returned to renew his battle with the Tigers. His suggestion to create an armed wing of the EPRLF, like the PLOTE and the TELO had, went against the prevailing grain of his party. So he pursued another alternative. He created a national auxiliary force peopled by like-minded Tamils and Muslims from the east. As a result, he was made the commander the group.
For the people of Batticaloa, however, the Razik group soon became another nightmare forcing its way into their already fractured lives. Word began to spread about forced conscription and extortion. Human rights groups began to receive complaints about Razik and his men being abusive in town as well as villages like Manmagam, Pooncholai, and Thalavai. There were even instances when young Tamil boys had been taken in by Razik's men and tortured. The latest victim, said one member of the Batticaloa Peace Committee, was a 20-year-old, who had been taken from his home and been severely assaulted. To them, Razik was more than just a Tiger hunter; he had become their latest tormentor. No wonder they sniggered when they had heard him say he wanted to help the Tamils, to protect their interests.
So it was hardly surprising that no tears were shed on the day he was killed.
Razik, then, was not only out of step with the people he wanted to save, but was also not in touch with the Tigers, who, he claimed, he knew well, and whose behaviour, he said, he had mastered.
It may be a while before another Tiger hunter, as passionate, surfaces.