Vairamuttu Varadakumar: the quiet centre of the struggle for Tamil rights

By Rachel Seoighe

The Tamil community has lost a quiet hero. V. Varadakumar held the centre of Tamil community organising and human rights work in the UK for more than 30 years. He created coherence and clarity in the struggle for Tamil rights. In his unassuming way, he was a visionary, a facilitator, a source of support and a bridge between groups. With his constant, steady energy, he sought out every opportunity to improve the lives of Tamil people in the UK and in Ilankai.

Varadakumar was the Executive Director of the Tamil Information Centre (TIC), a human rights and community organisation based in Norbiton, London. The TIC office, known as Thulasai, is simple and the organisation is primarily volunteer-driven. Varadakumar welcomed the widest imaginable range of visitors to that discreet office: refugees and asylum seekers; researchers, students and volunteers; lawyers, journalists and human rights workers; politicians and public figures; and many others who shared food, time, problems and ideas with him. He was hospitable and reliable; he created an essential and productive community space at Thulasai. Only last year, the office was renovated and volunteers built a library in the space. We spoke about it as being built ‘for Varadakumar’ as well as a space to preserve and enhance knowledge in the community. He and the space are indivisible. Varadakumar was the heart of Thulasai, the heart of TIC and the steady beating heart of the Tamil community in London.

A dependable presence at community and political events, Varadakumar’s absence was noted this week and he was subsequently found by friends in his home on Wednesday 13 March. As news of his passing spread, calls were received from around the world. One TIC director received more than 200 calls in one night, testament to his renown and value in the global Tamil community.

Holistic approach

Though he was nearing 70 years old, Varadakumar was peculiarly ageless. He was energetic and unstoppable. He never included himself in the category of ‘elder’, though much of his time was dedicated to TIC’s Elderly Empowerment Programme. A telling example of his character was how he arranged elders' exercise classes with the same seriousness as political accountability events in Parliament. He sought to address all the needs of the community; his approach was holistic and based on everyday upliftment and support. The personal was the political for Varadakumar, in the most real sense. TIC was his life’s work and his relationship with the community was deeply reciprocal. He was valued and cared for, and he took immense pleasure in his work.

His achievements are innumerable – some subtle and everyday, others more spectacular. In 2002, for example, TIC won a court battle challenging the problematic and discriminatory section 19(d) of the UK’s Race Relations Act. This section allowed immigration officers to discriminate on grounds of nationality or ethnic or national origin, allowing for certain specified ethnic or national groups to be subject to more rigorous examination than others. Varadakumar saw the injustice here – the actual and potential discrimination suffered by Tamils and other national or ethnic groups – and worked with lawyers to bring about legislative change. With a keen understanding of geopolitics and human rights, Varadakumar always acted with solidarity and connected the Tamil struggle with other oppressions and injustices. He was outward facing - always learning and working towards a better future for his people and wider society.

Under his direction, TIC organised activist, academic and human rights conferences, side panel events at the United Nations advocating for accountability for war crimes, and countless community events. He arranged livelihood projects for those in need in Ilankai; he worked to make possible the construction of essential buildings and delivery of services and he supported volunteers advocating for the rights of war widows. The projects he designed and oversaw were many and varied. Varadakumar was the driving force behind all this activity – he reached out and gently pulled everyone into TIC’s orbit and the struggle for justice, human rights and community engagement. Varadakumar made things happen, by pure force of will and quiet determination.

Friend & mentor

Thulasai, under his direction, became an indispensable place for people seeking support, information and advice. Asylum seekers and those arriving in the wake of war and atrocity from Ilankai found a necessary welcome there. Human rights organisations, journalists, researchers and lawyers relied heavily on Varadakumar as a source of grassroots information and analysis on human rights, justice issues and community concerns. His trusted networks in Ilankai were carefully maintained; he prized information and knowledge as the routes to freedom.

A skilful organiser, facilitator and analyst, he took part in every conversation in the struggle for Tamil rights since the beginning of the conflict. Never in the limelight, his talent was bringing people together and directing conversations, with astute analysis and sensitivity, towards solutions. He tactfully avoided the many traps of politics and grievance; he focused solely on human rights and was resolute in his principles. He encouraged others, particularly the young generation of Tamil activists, to lead conversations, to develop their knowledge and their skills. Varadakumar saw, valued and fortified their resourcefulness. He taught us all how to work with care and dedication, how to advocate for justice, and how to live for others.

More than 10 years ago, I went to Thulasai for the first time. We have worked together since; he was my friend and mentor. He was immensely supportive. I loved working with Varadakumar, spending time with him, learning from him and laughing together. I will miss his warmth, his sense of fun and mischief, and his insight. He knew how much I cared about him; I take some consolation from that.

This year, the 10 year anniversary of the end of the war, we were working together to organise a memorial exhibition. Varadakumar worked single-mindedly for months to arrange this exhibition, entitled ‘Tamils of Eelam: a timeless heritage.’ He was determined that we present the resilience and creativity of the Tamil community, despite the immense hardship and violence suffered during the war and in its aftermath. Tamil children and young people are the primary focus of the exhibition; Varadakumar was intent on bringing the Tamil story to life and ensuring that the next generation are connected to their history and culture. The exhibition organisation committee is youthful and dynamic: Varadakumar galvanised and assembled young, creative Tamil volunteers alongside seasoned activists and organisers, artists and researchers. We are all stunned by his passing and determined that the exhibition – his final project and final wish – is a fitting tribute to him.

Varadakumar was a mystery and an archive. He never spoke about himself or sought recognition for his work. Now that he is gone, we will share stories and start to build a true picture of the extent of his contribution to Tamil rights in the UK, Ilankai and worldwide. My sense is that it will astound us all.☐

The ‘Tamils of Eelam: a timeless heritage’ exhibition will take place on the 18-19 May in Tolworth Recreation Centre (Surbiton KT6 7LQ). Varadakumar was passionately fundraising to make the exhibition happen. Please consider donating to the exhibition fundraising platform:


Dr. Rachel Seoighe is a  l ecturer in Criminology at School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, University of Kent. She is the author of 'War, Denial and Nation-Building in Sri Lanka' (Palgrave MacMillan).




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