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Home > Nations & Nationalism > The Strength of an Idea > Forging Nationhood - Sumantra Bose > Struggle for Tamil Eelam >
"We are the cyanide-capsule guerrillas. As long as we wear these around our necks, we fear no power in this world", Kittu, then Jaffna commander of LTTE had informed a Western journalist in 1986.
Upon being inducted into the movement, each Tiger cadre is presented with a capsule containing potassium cyanide, which she/he is expected to constantly wear around the neck. To date, some 15 per cent of LTTE battle fatalities (i.e., approximately 600 out of over 4,000) have resulted from fighters biting their capsules rather than risk capture, torture and execution.
Moreover, cyanide-suicide, in LTTE lexicon, is apparently no respecter of rank or genderthe dead include both top commanders and commissars, as well as teenaged foot-soldiers, men as well as women. Particularly prone to this form of death are the LTTE commandos, again both men and women, who specialise in suicide missions, and who are known in the movement as karum-puligal, or 'Black Tigers'.
From Prabhakarans words, it is evident that this unusual practice has a dual purpose. The first is the element of pragmatic necessity, the need to protect movement secrets from the enemy. But it is the second purpose, the mystical power attributed to the deadly four-inch vial, that is the more interesting, and merits closer examination....... The two preferred means of attaining martyrdom are biting the capsule and going on suicide bombing missions against enemy targets. Of course, the principle of self-immolation at the altar of a higher, collective cause is common to both.
This aspect of the LTTE has also attracted ever increasing publicity in recent years. A book dealing with the military evolution of the Tamil insurrection is titled The Cyanide War: Tamil Insurrection in Sri Lanka, 1973-88 (Edgar O'Ballance, Brasseys, Oxford, 1989, while a BBC film on the LTTE, shown on British television in October 1991, was titled Suicide-Killers.
For years, the LTTE has been consciously promoting a 'martyr cult' in the north and east of Sri Lanka. .... wherever possible the funerals of fallen LUTE cadres are observed with pomp and pageantry. Posters and funeral decorations are displayed, and processions organised. The terms veera vannakam (homage to the heroes) and veera maranam (martyrdom) are frequently mentioned' (The Suicide Killers in Frontline, Madras, 22 June 1991).
Indeed, an entire week, at the end of November each year, is observed with much fanfare by the Tigers as 'Martyrs' Week'.
The first LTTE member to swallow cyanide was a fighter named Bhageer, alias Selvam, who died in 1984. The Tiger who pioneered the suicide bomber phenomenon in South Asia was a teenager code named 'Miller', who blasted a Sri Lankan army camp' killing 112 soldiers, on 5 July 1987. Further, that small minority of Tigers who do not kill themselves when faced with capture, or are reluctant to go suicide bombing, are regarded as having somehow 'let down' the movement. They either are demoted in rank, or quietly dismissed.
One of the LTTE activists I spoke to at length was the Black Tiger Mama. Mama cited a two-fold motivation for undertaking such a dangerous mission. First, he wanted to set a personal example of self-sacrifice, and apparently regarded it as a singular honour to have been the one selected to carry out such an important mission. Second, he had calculated before setting out that even if he was shot before he could escape, his comrades from Mannar would have got rid of a very large number of enemy soldiers in exchange for just one life - his own.
I strongly believe that the cult of the cyanide capsule and the suicide bomber cannot be dismissed out of hand as some kind of bizarre, fanatical quirk of a nationalist movement that has gone out of control. On the contrary, the cult of violence and martyrdom is of absolutely central significance to the forging of a solidary Tamil national identity. Hence its apparently inordinate importance to the nation building project of the LTTE.
Some of the reasons for the extraordinary centrality of violence and martyrdom to revolutionary Tamil nationalism are fairly evident. There is the aspect of reaffirming the moral sanctity of the cause by incarnating it to the point of death, as Albert Camus brings out in such poignant and beautiful prose. Total indifference to death, and the readiness to lay down one's life at any time, is also the one factor that distinguishes the committed LTTE militant from the Tamil population in general and, by extension, 'confers' upon that organisation (at least in Tiger thinking) the 'right' to lead the national struggle, to act as its 'vanguard', the revolutionary elite....
An LTTE woman leader thus lectured the assembled gathering at a recent, and typically ornate, funeral of three fallen fighters in the following terms:
Or recall Prabhakaran's statement 'It is this cyanide that has helped us develop our movement very rapidly'. The LTTE supremo has in fact dwelt on this theme very frequently, and explicitly, since 1986:
As Peter Schalk writes 'the many tokens of commemoration of great heroes in many road junctions in Jaffna concern not only the past but also the future of armed resistance' (emphasis added). (Professor Peter Schalk's letter to President Ranasinghe Premadasa, dated Christmas, 1991)
Second, the martyr cult is linked to the egalitarian strand of LTTE ideology, and to the 'levelling' process in Tamil society that has been noticed in course of the struggle being waged under its leadership. The fact that all LTTE members, irrespective of social origin, caste, class, religion, gender, rank and seniority are dying for the cause, and in similar ways (in combat, by consuming cyanide, while carrying out suicide bombing raids) constitutes in itself a most powerful egalitarian statement, as well as a simultaneous affirmation of the paramountcy of the 'national' identity above all others - all Tamils, regardless of any other 'subordinate' affiliation, are sacrificing themselves for the same cause, that of national liberation' which they share in common.
In the words of Yogaratnam Yogi, formerly LTTEs top political commissar The struggle is uniting everybody. All the old barriers are fast disappearing'. (Quoted in the radical newspaper Tamil Nation London), January 1992, p. 9.)
Third, the blood of fallen martyrs acts as the cement that holds the national movement together, and assures the continuing loyalty, allegiance and dedicated service of its members. 'Shankar', a senior Tiger frontline commander, was recently asked by a British interviewer what motivated him to daily walk the tightrope separating life and death. His reply was most instructive: 'When the friends you live with, eat with, sleep with, die every day in front of your eyes, you don't give up the cause. (Interviewed in the BBC telefilm Suicide Killers).
As Frantz Fanon once wrote, in his celebrated discussion of the role of violence in revolutionary nationalist strategy
The Liberation Tigers Tamil Eelam in their ideology and strategy, have consistently displayed an acute appreciation of this facet of nation-building. But what is perhaps of even greater significance to the overall thrust of this book lies in what the discussion above illustrates about the nature of nationalism in general, and, more specifically, about the construction of national identities.
This is where violence, and especially, the blood of the 'martyr' to the national cause, has the potential to be of great utility. What brings the Tamils together as a 'nation' is not only the fact that they have constantly been victims of the violence of the state. The cement that solidifies the national bond is also derived from the violence that Tamils themselves perpetrate, and the death they encounter, and the 'martyrdom' they achieve, while doing so.
This is, of course, not to suggest that a Tamil national identity is conjured out of thin air, or that it represents a form of manipulated 'false consciousness'. Far from it. Tamil nationalism in modern Sri Lanka may be an invention, but it is hardly a fabrication. What makes this kind of nationalist mobilisation at all possible, in the first place, is that Sri Lankan Tamils also share certain 'objective' bases for the formulation of a common identitya shared language, history and territory, to mention but a few. But that, in itself, is simply not sufficient to give rise to the kind of 'national consciousness' that imparts to the Tiger Movement its stamina and resilience.
Nor are the Tigers the first nationalist revolutionaries to have realised the emotive power that death and martyrdom can exercise over the collective imagination, the 'hearts and minds' of the masses. Or, more precisely, how it can act as the critical catalyst in spreading the fires of nationalism 'horizontally and vertically to the farthest periphery and the lowest strata'.
Aurobindo Ghosh, an early twentieth-century Indian nationalist leader, had clearly grasped that struggle and martyrdom could be a most potent instrument in igniting the nationalist imagination:
It is difficult to imagine a more eloquent exposition of the centrality of revolutionary violence to the mission of forging the nation. And it is hardly surprising that the quotation cited above appears, in boxed form, in a recent issue of a pro-LTTE Tamil nationalist paper. Ghosh's views are also significant in that they served as a principal inspiration to young middle class Bengalis who took up arms against British colonialism during the 1920s and 1930s. And some of these Bengali youth are the only instance in history known to me of radical activists killing themselves with potassium cyanide rather than be taken alive by their enemies. But Ghosh was hardly the only nationalist ideologue who believed in the capacity of individual self-sacrifice to spark the collective, national resurgence.
All Sharia'ti, the noted Shi'i thinker and activist of Iran, whose writings supplied much of the ideological where withal for the Islamic Revolution of 1979 (though he was a socialist, opposed to Khomeini-type traditionalism, and died prematurely in 1977), has this to say on the martyr as the locomotive of history and of revolution:
Shariati is worth special mention in light of the fact that he belongs to a school of thought, broadly defined, which supplied the ideological force behind the Shi'i revival, not just in Iran but also in such locations as southern Lebanon. It is telling, therefore, that the Shi'ite Muslims of southern Lebanon were the original pioneers of the phenomenon of the suicide bomber, in course of their resistance to Israeli aggression, before this was taken up with a vengeance by the Tamil Tigers in the South Asian context. And the human waves, of Iranian soldiers that stopped Saddam Hussein's Iraq in its tracks during the Iran-lraq war were replicated, in a much more minor but none the less interesting South Asian variant from the late 1980s onwards, when the LTTE used similar human waves' of fighters in its (often successful) assaults on the remaining Sri Lankan army camps and military installations in the northern province.
One might also mention that one of the most legendary of Indian nationalist leaders (whom, incidentally but perhaps not quite accidentally, Tiger supreme Prabhakaran venerates) once wrote:
The striking parallels and similarities in this formulation of nationalist ideology, whether in the context of British India, revolutionary Iran, or Tamil Ceylon, are only too evident. What seems to emerge from all this is an accent on revolutionary practice, the act of violence (or self-immolation). No wonder, then, that the LTTE is strongly oriented towards 'action'. Almost none of the top Tigers are much concerned with revolutionary theory. They have established their present positions through distinguished service in the field of battle. In the words of Anton Balasingham, the only theorist in the highest echelons of LTTE leadership:
This is not to imply that the Tigers are a group of isolated, blood and guts' fanatics - the content of the previous section of this chapter attempts to decisively demonstrate that this is not the case.
However, even though the organisational structure of the movement is formally divided into a M.O. (Military Office) and P.O. (Political Office), the distinction between the two is often reduced to a mere technicalityfor most 'political cadres' are also usually highly trained military personnel. Tiger publications unequivocally state that 'our movement, from its inception, did not separate the military from the political.
Instead, both were integrated into a politico-military project'; while simultaneously clarifying that 'the LTTE gives primacy to politics and upholds the dictum that politics guides the gun...(and that) our fighters are armed political militants, political agents with a mission of liberating our people from all modes of exploitation and oppression' (LTTE & Tamil Eelam Freedom Struggle 1983).
This declaration only seems to confirm that the practice of violence and the pantheon of martyrs are indeed indispensable to mass mobilisation and the forging of a Tamil national identity.
An important question, however, is yet to be resolved. How is it possible for an organisation like LTTE to consistently motivate thousands of Tamil youth to sacrifice their lives, and hundreds of thousands of Tamil citizens to undergo years of privation and suffering, all in the name of what is after all an abstract idealism? I believe that a probable answer to this question can help shed further light on the nature of nationalism and nationhood.
Benedict Anderson reminds that 'nations inspire love, and often profoundly self sacrificing love' (Benedict Anderson - Imagined Communities:Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalisms,1983).
But why? Donald Horowitz has pointed to a certain resemblance that the identification with one's nation sometimes bears to the identification with ones family (Donald Horowitz - Ethnic Groups in Conflict, 1985) and Anderson seems to agree.
According to him, just as 'the family has traditionally been conceived as a domain of disinterested love and solidarity`, so also 'the whole point of the nation is that it is interestless'. Thus, giving one's life for the nation becomes invested with a certain 'moral grandeur, which dying for the Labour Party, the American Medical Association or perhaps even Amnesty International cannot rival, for these are all bodies that one can join or leave at will'.
Walker Connor concurs with Anderson's logic: 'an intuitive sense of kindredness or extended family would explain why nations are endowed with a very special psychological dimension an emotional dimensionnot enjoyed by essentially functional or juridical groupings, such as socio economic classes or states' (Walker Connor - Ethnonationalism in Understanding Political Development, 1987).
It is noteworthy that nationalist thinkers like Ghosh and Sharia'ti had anticipated this argument, at least implicitlythe quotations cited above from the writings of both contain references to the children who comprise the national community.
Consider what Kingsley Swamipillai, the Roman Catholic bishop of the eastern Tamil town of Batticaloa, told William McGowan in end-1987:
Or recall the views on this issue, as told to McGowan, of the head of Jaffna Mothers' Front, an organisation of Tamil women:
.And, of course, the description here of the Tigers as 'our children' is as much figurative as literal.
One can further draw out this line of argument, by pointing out that the LTTE organisation (which, incidentally, is famous for its unity, cohesion and solidarity) itself bears an uncanny resemblance to an extended family. Thus, the movement nickname for Velupillai Prabhakaran, 39, the much-adulated founder leader is thambi, an affectionate diminutive, in Tamil, for 'younger brother'. New recruits swear loyalty, upon induction into the movement, to 'our brother Prabhakaran'. Of course, all 'brothers' and 'sisters' are hardly equal in importance, but the resemblance to a kinship group is nonetheless extremely strong. Further, the LTTE holds that once a new cadre joins up, 'the movement becomes the family' (Hamish McDonald - Mauled but Unbeaten Far Eastern Economic Review 12 September 1991).
In this regard, then, the Tiger Movement seems to be a microcosmic version of the 'Tamil nation' taken as a whole. It is possible to conceive of the two entities as overlapping concentric circles, with passionate, indeed fanatical, identification with the group being the common denominator. Once we can visualise this aspect of nationalist mobilisation, it becomes much easier to account for the astounding selflessness, and unswerving allegiance, that the 'national family' can engender in its members.
Lawrence Thilagar, a member of LTTEs Central Committee and the movement's official representative in Paris, has commented thus on the conflict in Sri Lanka:
Several points are implicit in Thilagar's analysis - themes that are also of crucial importance to the theoretical thrust of this study. First, the LTTE leader correctly highlights the role of the state in creating two nations within the territorial boundaries of Sri Lanka. It is also quite clear from the tone of his statement that he believes, as I do, that a sense of (Tamil) nationality has been the historical outcome of an evolutionary process that took place over time.
The Tamils are 'today' a collectivity who regard themselves as a nation, the culmination of a process of identity formation that was 'consolidated' and 'solidified' over a period of 40 years. As Walker Connor has argued (Walker Connor - What is a nation in Ethnic and Racial Studies, January 1990), perhaps the central theoretical issue at stake is not 'what is a nation?' but rather, 'when is a nation' - at what point in the development of an 'ethnic group' does a nation come into being? In other words, there was nothing 'inevitable', or pre-ordained, about the current conflict between nationalities in Sri Lanka.
Equally importantly, it is implicit in Thilagar's commentary that it is a shared consciousness that is of the essence of a nation. The LTTE has elsewhere been even more categorical, on this point:
But, as I have tried to bring out in this chapter, even the 'reality' of a national consciousness is not something static and unchanging. It cannot be taken for granted, even in the presence of overwhelming state repression of the national identity. It is necessary to keep applying cement to the bond that has come about because of popular alienation from the state.
Only then can the level of solidarity which is a prerequisite for staking a claim to sovereignty be attained. In the final analysis, then, the rise and persistent motive force of mass nationalism can only be understood in terms of the dialectic of state and society, which is also one of domination and resistance.