Today is the anniversary of what was, for many supporters of the Non-Stop Picket, a traumatic day. Viraj Mendis, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Group and a supporter of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group was deported from Britain to Sri Lanka on 20 January 1989. In line with the group’s commitment to linking the struggle against apartheid in South Africa with anti-racist work in Britain, many City Group activists were also members of the Viraj Mendis Defence Campaign (VMDC).
On 20 December 1986, having exhausted all legal avenues to prevent his deportation, Viraj took sanctuary in the Church of the Ascension in Hulme, Manchester. In the early hours of Wednesday 18 January 1989 the police raided the church and snatched Viraj from his sanctuary. Within hours, his supporters in Manchester and around the country, including many City Group members were on the streets taking militant action to try to prevent his deportation. By 9am that morning, 700 of Viraj’s supporters were marching into the centre of Manchester, where they staged a mass sit-down protest. In London there was a picket of the Home Office and later 300 people protested outside Downing Street. That afternoon, three young women from City Group (who were also VMDC members) disrupted parliamentary proceedings in the House of Commons in protest at Viraj’s detention. They were held in the cells until the end of business that night. A further five VMDC supporters did the same the next day. On the Thursday a twenty-four protest was held outside Pentonville Prison where Viraj was being detained. Even on the Friday, seven of Viraj’s supporters breached security at Gatwick airport trying to prevent his deportation – five got within a few metres of the Air Lanka plane that was due to remove him from Britain. The night of his deportation ‘Viraj Mendis will return’ was daubed on the walls of the Sri Lankan High Commission in London and the police attempted to frame two City Group activists for the action. These actions reveal something of the links established between City Group and other anti-racist campaigns in Britain and suggest the deeply entwined networks of activists the provided mutual solidarity and support to each other’s campaigns at the time.
At the Anti-Apartheid Movements AGM on 1 December 1985, the day before the initial appeal against his deportation was heard, Viraj Mendis was part of a slate of City Group supporters nominated for election to the AAM’s national committee. Because he was a member of City Group and the Revolutionary Communist Group, AAM officials tried to prevent the distribution of information about his defence campaign at their meeting. He received 268 votes, but was not elected.
Although he was born into a Sinhala family, as he became politicised, Viraj came to support the right of the Tamil people to self-determination. Much of his case against deportation was based on his fear that, as a communist and a vocal supporter of the Tamil national liberation struggle he feared for his live, if he returned to Sri Lanka. Ultimately, those fears were not realised. Eventually, following his deportation, Viraj was able to relocate to Germany, where he still lives and where he works for a human rights organisation. In 2010 he was refused permission to return to Britain to attend the funeral of Father John Methuen who had granted him sanctuary in the Church of the Ascension.
To rework a slogan chanted at the time – Viraj Mendis is our friend, we stuck with him until the end!