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Selected Writings by Dharmeratnam Sivaram (Taraki)
On Tamil Militarism - a 11 Part Essay
Lanka Guardian, [pp.7-8 & 11]
Tamil nationalism in South India and Sri Lanka can be described in terms of two sets of ideas and beliefs. The one, the purity and uniqueness of Tamil language and culture; the other, Tamil traditions which exalt military virtues and ideals. These ideals and beliefs have dominated the vocabulary of anti-Hindi and secessionist agitations and propaganda of the Dravidian movement in South India in the 50’s and 60’s. The nationalism of the movement for Tamil language rights and regional autonomy in Sri Lanka was articulated in the same vocabulary after 1956.
The LTTE’s nationalism is also expressed in terms of these two sets of ideas and beliefs. But militarism – the spirit which exalts military virtues and ideals – has been the dominant and characterizing component of the LTTE’s Tamil nationalism from its inception. The stated aim of the Tigers is to build a modern military structure.(1) The ideology of militarism plays an important role in their effort to create an efficient and advanced military organization. Therefore, in addition to standard modern methods of discipline, organization and training the LTTE inculcates the belief among its cadres – and propagates the idea among Tamils – that it is part of an ancient and powerful martial tradition, to develop and sustain a motivated and fierce fighting force.
The Tiger symbol is considered the most important manifestation of this tradition. “Prabhakaran had a reason for selecting the Tigers as the national insignia of Thamilzh Eelam. The Tiger insignia is an image rooted in Dravidian civilization. It is a symbol that illustrates the martial history (Veera varalaru) and national upheaval of the Tamils. Our national flag is the symbol of the independent state of Thamizh Eelam to be created, rooted in the martial traditions (Veera marapuhal) of the Tamils.”(2)
How is the LTTE able to thus define its militarism as being rooted in “Dravidian civilization” and Tamil traditions whereas the Sri Lankan Tamils have usually projected their cultural ethos as one which made them a community devoted to education, government employment, commerce and agriculture? Tamil politicians and intellectuals have in fact claimed that Tamil militancy arose from a perceived threat to these avenues of social advancement. The LTTE’s militarist definition of Tamilian identity is possible because Tamil militarism is an unexamined but important feature of Tamil culture and nationalism.
This study therefore intends to examine Tamil politics in South India and Sri Lanka by addressing to questions,
The Dravidian movement has been studied primarily in terms of the Brahmin-non Brahmin contradiction, in terms of the pro-British regional politics of non-Brahmin elites of South India,(3) the Pure Tamil and Self Respect movements, linguistic nationalism and secessionism.(4)
But the other important component of Tamil nationalism – its militarism has not figured in studies of the Dravidian movement.(5) This is partly attributable to the influence of a historiographic tradition that has shaped concepts of Tamil culture and society in Dravidian studies. It arose from a strong political compulsion in the nascent and early phases of the Dravidian ideology to portray the Tamil people and their culture as peaceful and unwarlike.
Maraimalai Atikal, the father of the Pure Tamil movement wrote in English that, “as we come to the study the life of the ancient Tamils from their most ancient literary work, I mean the Tolkappiyam, the age of which on the best internal evidence goes back to 1,500 B.C., we see them already settled into a highly civilized community for the most part peaceful, but for a few infrequent feuds between one Tamil King and another. It is to this continuity of a peaceful and highly civilized life enjoyed by the Tamils that we owe the existence of the Tamil language still in its pristine purity, vigour and glory.”(6)
Maraimalai Atikal’s views are representative of the early Dravidian movement. We can see that, the nascent Dravidian school of Tamil studies – the concepts and beliefs of which have influenced the study of the Tamil nationalism is no small measure – is marked by its patent inclination to present the history of the Tamil people as the “continuity of a peaceful and highly civilized life.”
If this was the view of the founders of the Dravidian movement, then where can one locate the ‘origins’ of Tamil militarism? Although South India in general and Tamils in particular have an insignificant place in the modern Indian army – the Madras regiment being the only unit of the southern region – the origins of Tamil militarism is closely related to the question of military and society in India.
The preponderance of north Indian peoples in the Indian army has lead to the study Indian militarism mainly as part of the evolution of society and politics in the northern parts of the subcontinent. The rise of the martial castes and classes of north India in the development of Indian army has been skillfully analysed elsewhere.(7) That ethnic, religious and caste groups which consider military service as their hereditary or natural occupation make better fighters in a modern army, is an idea that has played an important role in the formation of the Indian and Pakistani militaries.
This idea – the martial races theory, which dominated British recruitment policy toward the latter part of the 19th century, is another orientalist discourse that has shaped modern perceptions of India’s people’s, the martial north and the non-martial south. Thus in a book published under the official auspices of the government of India, recounting the martial traditions of the Indian army,(8) there is not one tradition connected with a South Indian caste or class.(9) The ‘martial races’ of independent India’ military – the Sikhs, Rajputs, Jats, Gorkhas, Marathas, Punjabis, Dogras, Garhwalis, Mahars and Kuomanisare all north Indian castes and classes. Yet we find that in the early history of the Indian army, South Indian groups such as Tamils and Telugus had distinguished themselves in the crucial wars which subjugated India to British rule.(10)
There are two phases in the decline of the South in the Indian army and the shift in recruitment towards the ‘martial races’ of the north in general and the north western parts of the subcontinent in particular; - what Stephen Cohen calls the Punjabization of the Indian military.(11).
In the first phase the reorganization of the army after the mutiny of 1857 on the basis of recommendations made by the Peel Commission in 1859 and the Eden Commission in 1879 defined service and recruitment on a territorial basis to suit the policy of divide et impera. Drastic reductions were made in the Bengal army. Brahmins and upper caste Hindus were dropped in large numbers. Active Service for Sepoys was limited to their home Presidencies. And as there was no major internal security problems in the Bombay and Madras Presidencies, they became military backwaters. This was followed by claims that the fighting qualities of the classes in these regions had deteriorated. Reductions were recommended and made in the Bombay and Madras armies.
In the second phase the great threat of the Russian empire on the north western frontier of the Raj in 1885, followed by the Burma war of 1887-1889 created a massive need for manpower “belonging to races whose martial qualities were well authenticated.”(12) As a result the territorial basis of recruitment for divide and rule was given up and castes and classes mostly from India’s northwest where the bulk of the fighting was done, were extensively recruited. Special social and economic privileges were extended to these peoples to ensure a reservoir of martial manpower. “To preserve their loyalty, conserve their martial spirit and enhance their prestige, the colonial state attempted to make time stand still on the northern plains”.(13) Thus began the rise and dominance of the Rajputs, Sikhs, Jats, Punjabi Muslims and Gorkhas in the Indian army. The ideology of this process – the martial races theory – is another orientalist discourse with its 19th century ‘scientific’ paraphrenalia that has contributed in no small measure to the evolution of modern perceptions of India’s peoples and regions. It sought to establish why some Indian peoples (those who were being extensively recruited) were martial and while others (those who had been dropped in large numbers) were not.