Originally published on Sangam
Is Pirapaharan dead?
Ten years back, TamilNet senior editor and military analyst Taraki Sivaram wrote a brilliant piece on the political legacy of Pirapaharan at fifty. Come 26 November this year, the founder-leader of the LTTE and one of the most brilliant military minds of South Asia will turn sixty. Quite a lot has been said, by both admirers and adversaries, about the life of the man. But what is his meaning?
It is impossible to understand Pirapaharan unless one understands the interrelated essences of Sangam poetry – love and war – and its influence on the Tamil military tradition. The ethics of Tamil akam poetry, that of unconditional love towards the object of concern influences the ethics of the puram poetry, which calls for unconditional fidelity to the king and the kingdom. However, even this unconditionality carries within it a condition that reinforces the unconditionality. For instance, the woman of virtue (Tamil progressives will, and with ample justification, criticize this, but let us leave discussions about gender problems in epic poetry for another day) is the object of love because she is a woman of virtue, the love has a platonic character because of the virtuous nature of the object. Likewise, the soldier’s fidelity to the king is because the king is loyal to the kingdom, and the king’s loyalty to the kingdom commands the soldier’s fidelity. The object of love and the object of fidelity function as cornerstones in a discursive network, without which the network would collapse. In other words, they provide meaning to the meaning of things.
In a sense that is Pirapaharan. At sixty, in what some call the ‘post-conflict era’, the symbolism of Pirapaharan speaks that Tamil nationalism is alive and kicking. The 5 lakh students who got out on the street in Tamil Nadu in early 2013, and thousands of protestors in the diaspora who challenged the injustice of the international community carried his image. These activists believe that this image signifies Tamil nationalist resistance to oppression. But isn’t this ‘idol worship’ problematic?
Commenting on the veneration of revolutionary leaders, Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle writes “‘Hero-worship’ becomes a fact inexpressibly precious; the most solacing fact one sees in the world at present. There is an everlasting hope in it for the management of the world. Had all traditions, arrangements, creeds, societies that men ever instituted, sunk away, this would remain. The certainty of Heroes being sent us; our faculty, our necessity, to reverence Heroes when sent: it shines like a polestar through smoke-clouds, dust-clouds, and all manner of downrushing and conflagration.” An oxymoronic, mostly moronic, ‘liberal left’ discredits the idea of leadership. No less a person than Lenin believed that a revolution required revolutionary leaders who stuck to their principles, and were willing to make decisions that the ordinary could not make. This belief is reinstated by contemporary philosophers like Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou, who also argue that a true revolutionary leader represents a Universal over and beyond narrow particulars.
While Lilliputian minds would fix a region, religion or caste label to Pirapaharan, the real ideological significance of Pirapaharan is that he transcends these narrow particularities and serves as a Universal referent for Tamil nationalists. Not only is Pirapaharan now a symbol of Eelam Tamil nationalism, he has also transfigured as a symbol of Tamil civilizational consciousness. What else explains the tens of thousands of youth in Tamil Nadu considering an Eelam Tamil leader as their own Tamil hero who provided a promise of Tamil renaissance?
But every great uniter is also a divider. As Pirapaharan becomes the symbolic standard that unites patriots, he is also the standard that separates traitors. The Pirapaharan school of thought, which is the radical extension of the thoughts of V. Navaratnam and SJV Chelvanayagam, as much as it is a standard for evaluating patriotism, also becomes the scale by which treason is judged. To be a true Christian, it is imperative to believe in the struggle between Good and Evil, not just external Evil, but also the Evil that is internal. Likewise, to be a Tamil nationalist in the footsteps of Pirapaharan means not just an opposition to the Sinhala state and its allies, but also traitors who undermine the struggle from within. And for that, we need to keep reminding ourselves what Pirapaharan means, what is the idea of Pirapaharan.
Coming back to the original question – Is Pirapaharan dead? This might confuse some people, but I would say that Pirapaharan the individual died when he founded the LTTE. Ever since, what has existed is an idea. An idea that means sovereign Tamil Eelam; the creation of a society that is based on universal principles of justice and equality; a society without regionalism, communalism, sexism or casteism; a society where the love of heroic passions replaces the lust for trivial sentiments; a society without particularist chauvinism or cheap liberal cosmopolitanism; the creation of a people who resonate the glories of the Tamil past purging it of all darkness and enriching it with the emancipatory narrative of a universal future; the idea that the impossible can be made possible by the Will to Freedom.
And ideas, like heroes, are immortal.
Finally, when people ask questions like “Will Pirapaharan come back,” I remember a conversation I had with a Jesuit in Chennai. I asked him “Do you really believe in the Second Coming of Christ?” He replied nonchalantly, “I do not know if he will come or not. But if he does, I want to be sure that I have remained a true Christian, that I have done all in my power to serve the humanity he so loved so that he will be pleased on arrival.” This is precisely the spirit that Tamil nationalists must adopt now.
Also see at Countercurrents
In the political discourse of the Eelam Tamils, ‘thurohi’ or traitor is the worst abuse that can be hurled at a Tamil. While the armed struggle led by the Tigers began with a punishment meted out to a traitor, the term as such gained popularity in the landmark year 1987.
After Rajeev Gandhi’s India and Jayawardane’s Sri Lankan government signed the Indo-Sri Lanka accord in July 1987, the controversial 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution, that promised minimal devolution of powers to Tamils within unitary Sri Lanka, was made. India also despatched the Indian Peace Keeping Force the same year to ensure the implementation of this accord.
Even as other Tamil militant groups were arm-twisted by India into accepting the accord, Pirapaharan’s LTTE stoutly rejected it. What followed, the LTTE-IPKF war, involving over a hundred thousand Indian soldiers at its heights, with Jaffna bearing the worst brunt of Indian army atrocities, is history. And the other Tamil militant groups who uncritically accepted the accord were branded as traitors not just by the Tigers but by the Tamils at large.
Why reject the 13th amendment? A few obvious points:
1. It does not recognize the sovereignty of the Eelam Tamil nation but desires to preserve “the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka”.
2. It does not recognize the North and East of the island (Tamil Eelam) as the historical homeland of the Eelam Tamil nation but that “the Northern and the Eastern Provinces have been areas of historical habitation of Sri Lankan Tamil speaking peoples, who have at all times hitherto lived together in this territory with other ethnic groups”.
3. The North and East are not unconditionally recognized as one inseparable unit, but rather the East may have a referendum to decide whether it should “constitute a separate administrative unit having its own distinct provincial council with a separate Governer, Chief Minister and Board of Ministers.” (The Eelam Tamil political pundits who are still talking about ‘internal self-determination’ should note this)
4. While the Tamils will be disarmed, there are no restrictions on the monopoly of violence that the Sinhala state holds in that “The Government of Sri Lanka will utilise for the purpose of law enforcement and maintenance of security in the Northern and Eastern Provinces the same organisations and mechanisms of Government as are used in the rest of the country.”
The other Tamil militant groups who welcomed this accord were not inherently intentionally bad political actors. Most, in fact, with the best of intentions and/or lacking the strength to critically oppose external pressures, adopted the wrong concept. Wrong concepts gave wrong ideas. And wrong ideas brought about wrong actions.
They were confined to the dustbins of history by the Tamils. Branded as traitors.
But the best argument these poor creatures put up at that time was that “If we oppose India, what else do we have for support?”
Come Geneva 2013 and the US resolution on Sri Lanka that was passed on March 21.
The student upsurge in Tamil Nadu, youth protests in the diaspora, several Eelam Tamil grassroots organizations in the homeland and in the diaspora have rejected it outright.
Why did the reject the US resolution which is according to some ‘against Sri Lanka’?
1. Let alone mention of the Tamil national question, there is not even mention of the word ‘Tamil’ in the resolution. Reading the resolution, a person unfamiliar with the conflict would get the image that it was an internal scuffle within a nation called Sri Lanka. Nothing close to the ground reality of an irreconcilable war between Sri Lanka and the Eelam Tamil nation.
2. Let alone mention of genocide, or even that weak term ‘war crimes’, there is no mention of even ‘war’.
3. The only hint of the Tamil movement in the island is that of ‘terrorism’, thereby delegitimizing the Tamil cause. Or course, with the necessary appeals to adhere to international law. “States must ensure that any measure taken to combat terrorism complies with their obligations under international law, in particular international human rights law, international refugee law and international humanitarian law, as applicable”.
4. While abuses should be avoided, and ‘minority’ rights should be safeguarded, the state is the final sovereign authority.
5. Explicit legitimization of LLRC, which does not recognize any Tamil traditional area, and is a blueprint for a protracted, structural genocide through Sinhala colonization.
Now, the people who welcomed this resolution call themselves ‘realists’. And the people who opposed this resolution, which practically is worse than the empty 13th amendment, on conceptual grounds are called ‘leftists’ or ‘extremists’.
Pirapaharan’s LTTE was called impractical for opposing the 13th Amendment and the IPKF by the other Tamil militant groups.
Just like the Tamil groups in Jaffna 1987, the ‘realists’ at Geneva 2013 also say “If we oppose the US resolution, what else do we have for support?”
The obvious historical questions, of course, elude these misguided souls. Why didn’t Pirapaharan do the same in 1987 and accept the solution that India offered? Why didn’t he accept Premadasa’s offer in the early 90’s for ‘ellaam but Eelam’ (anything but Eelam)? Why was he adamant in refusing to unconditionally accept any clause on ‘internal self-determination’ that was unwittingly promoted by certain Tamil sections during the peace talks?
Those who do not understand or who deliberately refuse to understand Pirapaharan the concept will never understand why he did these. Pirapaharan was also a realist – a realist who believed that conceptual weakness would scar the Tamil nation’s polity, a realist who recognized the intentions and interests of powers as regards the island, and a realist who understood that a people’s struggle is the greatest material manifestation of realism.
The Geneva ‘realists’ however seem to believe in a free lunch provided by powers. Rather than a clear calculation on the basis of the collective strength of their people, their experiences, their knowledge, they seem to have more faith that the world powers will be fed up with the intransigence of the Sri Lankan state and would offer them Tamil Eelam on a platter. Maybe this is why they disparage mass protests against the US resolution and prefer to be more western than the west while articulating Tamil concerns.
A popular adage among Tamils is “pasu thol pothiya puli” – Tiger in cow’s skin.
The current context demands the inverse actually. Especially considering that some of these lobbyists wouldn’t dare openly endorse reconciling with unitary Sri Lanka in Tamil forums.
Let the cows in Tiger skin keep waiting for their free lunch. The real realists in the Tamil polity must realize that there is going to be neither justice nor freedom for the Eelam Tamil nation without a concrete, conceptually clear struggle against the establishments.
for all that
it sees and hears
a human shield
for the wretched
from the land
it gave birth to
in a million
prophet to some
messiah to some
some say ‘leader’
some say ‘god’
but dont ask me
i have searched
in all languages
i have failed
but ask me
look at this image
When the body of one
who lights the temple’s fire
was set aflame
by the Other,
and perished a victim
in the yard of the shrine
of the elephant god,
a three and half year
asked his Tamil father
“Why didn’t he hit back?”
On that day ended
On that day was born
the Eelam Tamil nation
And though their hopes and dreams were shattered
let their deaths not be in vain
We must keep forever burning
freedom’s torch, the victor’s flame.
The Tamil Tigers are over, Eelam is over. So claimed the Sri Lankan government on the 18th of may – a claim which was echoed by many sections of the Indian media as well. Gory images, of what the Lankan government claimed to be, the bodies of Velupillai Prabhakaran and his son, Charles Anthony were telecast on news channels. The Lankan government also claimed that the entire top brass of the Tigers, including Pottu Amman and Soosai, were killed in the “final assault” on the Tigers. Till now, however, the Tigers have confirmed only the deaths of Nadesan and Pulidevan. They claim that the high command is still alive and active.
Yet, the images had their effect. Many in my family were horrified when they saw the image of a “dead Prabhakaran” on TV. Some wept. So would have thousands of Tamils across the world, for the charismatic leader of the LTTE meant many things to them. A cherished son to the old, an inspiring Annan to the young, a Sooriyathevan (sun god) to some fanatic supporters, a revolutionary icon, a romantic hero, a guardian. Above all, he symbolized hope. Even those Tamils to whom he was a ruthless despot now feel that the strongest voice that represented their cause has been silenced.
On the other side of the racial divide, among the Sinhalese, there was jubilation. Many news channels showed vulgar public display of triumph by the Sinhalese in Colombo. They were seen bursting crackers, beating drums, feeding sweets and cakes to “their heroes,” the security personnel. For them, it was not merely a victory of the army over the LTTE – it was the establishment of Sinhalese superiority over the Tamils. A Tamil contact from Sri Lanka told me that Tamils were harassed in many parts of the country, especially in the capital city. He said that Tamils were forced to shell out money to Sinhalese mobs so that they could buy sweets for the victory celebrations. Back home in Tamil Nadu, a friend who is closely associated with the Sri Lankan Tamils Protection Movement (SLTPM) said that if at all there is justice in the world, the Sinhalese would pay with their blood for every drop of tear shed by the Tamils. The victory of the Lankan army, if anything, has only accentuated the existing Tamil-Sinhala divide.
After the news channels flashed disturbing images of “Prabhakaran’s body,” many theories emerged on his death. Some say he committed suicide. Some say that a close aide shot him. The Lankan army claims that they finished him off – and the Sri Lankan government has given half a dozen versions of the final encounter. Pro-LTTE outfits say that the body is not Prabhakaran’s, that it is a decoy. They also claim that the Lankan Army has used this ploy to divert attention from the large scale massacre of Tamil civilians that occurred in the last one month and to demoralize the Tamils. In fact, even the Tigers don’t seem to be unanimous in their stance. Selvarasa Pathmanathan, LTTE’s head of International Relations, claimed on May 24th that Prabhakaran “attained martyrdom fighting the military oppression.” This was promptly denied by the Tiger’s intelligence wing the very next day. Controversy, it appears, would not elude the elusive leader ever.
So is Prabhakaran dead? Or will he remain a mysterious disappearance like Subash Chandra Bose? The loopholes in the government’s versions have been pointed out by many experts on the issue. At the same time, unless there is a concrete proof that he is alive nothing much can be said on the Tigers’ contention that he is still active. What needs to be analyzed at the moment are the factors that led to the fall of the Tigers.
How the Tiger was trapped
The single greatest factor that contributed to the defeat of the Tigers was their transformation from guerilla warfare to conventional warfare. The Tigers were considered masters of guerilla warfare, placed on par with the Viet-Minh. They waged successful battles against the Sri Lankan army in Eelam Wars I, II and III and managed to capture huge swathes of territory. During the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka from 1987-90, the LTTE, who had a cadre strength of around 3000, were able to secure a decisive victory over a 100,000 strong army by deploying guerrilla strategy.
For an insurgent outfit, the greatest asset is fluidity. By Maoist terminology, the discontented Tamil masses were the “water” in which the guerilla fighters, the “fish,” could swim freely. But the transition to conventional warfare restricted the fluidity of the Tigers. In their transition, the Tigers flouted two main rules of insurgency – not to engage in battles that cannot be won and to be on the move continuously. The conventional mode of war is more suited for a state’s army – not for non-state actors. The Tigers functioning as a state’s army, providing no space for criticism and self-criticism, weakened them internally.
The defection of Karuna in March 2004, partly engineered by the Lankan government, came as a great blow to the LTTE. Karuna, who was the Eastern commander of the Tigers, took along with him a sizeable group of experienced fighters. They provided the Lankan army the much needed inside information on the Tigers. Soon after his defection, the Eastern provinces under the control of the Tigers fell to the military offensive like a house of cards.
‘World opinion,’ or the opinion of politically and economically powerful countries of the West, turned against what they dubbed ‘terrorism’ post 9-11. The governments of these countries saw no difference between one group and another – any non-state actor waging an armed struggle against a recognized state was considered terrorist. The eventual proscription of the LTTE in the US, Canada and the EU hit them where it hurt the most – their endless supply of funds from the Tamil Diaspora.
The political isolation of the Tigers in the South-Asian region, though it didn’t matter initially, worked against them in the long run. India, Pakistan and China, each having strong economic interests in Sri Lanka, went head over heels in their attempts to woo the Lankan government. While Pakistan and China were overt in their military assistance to Sri Lanka, India could not afford to do so, fearing a backlash in Tamil Nadu. It, however, covertly provided military equipment, training for Sinhalese soldiers, intelligence inputs and radars. Plus, Israel and Russia also provided military support to Sri Lanka through arms deals. One similarity about all these countries is that all face some form of secessionist-liberation struggles back home. Without any support from any government in the region, the Tigers were fighting a full fledged war against not one, but six forces. They were outnumbered and outgunned.
To sum it up, an analogy can be drawn between the predicament of the Tigers and the fate of Abhimanyu in the Mahabharata. Like Abhimanyu, the Tigers entered a form of battle that they were partially accustomed to. They fought against larger forces, with all odds against them. And like Abhimanyu, they fought valiantly to the last. The dubious role of Jayadratha, the character who prevented the Pandavas from reaching Abhimanyu in time, is best suited for India. In the past, India had prevented many an arms consignment from reaching the Tigers at crucial times in the war. So what was the role of the Lankan army in the Kurukshetra of the Vanni jungles? Similar to the role of Dushasan’s son who dealt the death blow to a battered and bruised Abhimanyu. They killed a wounded Tiger.
The idea of Eelam
“There is no end for Prabhakaran,” thundered Vaiko at a massive rally organized by the SLTPM on May 21st in Chennai. There is an element of truth in his statement. Prabhakaran was synonymous with an idea. An idea of Tamil Eelam, that emerged as a concrete concept after the Vadukkodai resolution of 1976. An idea of an independent state that the Tamils could call home. An idea of an egalitarian society sans bias, sans discrimination where free men and women would progress and prosper. An idea of struggle for justice and freedom. Prabhakaran is among those individuals who were identified with certain ideas and who survive in public memory through the ages. Prabhakaran used to say that history was his guide. The history of Prabhakaran and the Tigers serve as guides for any future action towards securing justice for the Tamils. Whether he is alive or dead, the idea of Prabhakaran lives in the hearts of millions of Tamils world over. And as long as that survives, the dream of Eelam will persist among the Tamils and will haunt Sri Lanka as a nightmare. This critical moment in the timeline of the Eelam struggle signals only the end of a phase, not the struggle as such. Tamil Eelam is not over. It has reached a new beginning.
At a decisive stage in the ongoing hostilities in Sri Lanka, Prabhakaran’s Heroes Day speech on November 27 sprung quite a few surprises. Far from being perturbed by the heavy losses that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have faced over the past few months, besides tremendous civilian casualties among the Tamils, Prabhakaran insisted that the “yearning for freedom remains strong” among the Tamils. Not compromising on his dream of a separate state of Tamil Eelam, he stated with optimism that “It is true, Tamil Eelam is a small nation on the globe. However, it is a nation with great potential. It is a nation with a characteristic individuality. It has a distinctive language, cultural heritage and history.”
The bitterness and desperation that underlay the Heroes Day speech of 2007 was conspicuous by its absence this year, a time when the Tigers are faring their worst. Prabhakaran, who claimed in 2007 that the Tamils had lost confidence in the international community, seems to have regained hope after the series of demonstrations and protests in Tamil Nadu expressing solidarity with the Eelam struggle. Thanking the leaders of Tamil Nadu, he said, “Notwithstanding the dividing sea, Tamil Nadu, with its perfect understanding of our plight, has taken heart to rise on behalf of our people at this hour of need. This timely intervention has gratified the people of Tamil Eelam and our freedom movement and given us a sense of relief.”
While taking great pains to emphasize that the Tigers never considered India their enemy, Prabhakaran appealed to the “Indian superpower” to view the struggle for a Tamil Eelam in a positive light, and to revoke the ban on the LTTE, “which remains an impediment to an amicable relationship” between India and the Tigers.
Strong public expressions of solidarity with the Eelam Tamils by social organizations, intellectual forums, labour unions, student unions and political parties in Tamil Nadu reflect public sentiment in Tamil Nadu, which feels increasingly alienated from the approach of both the central and state governments towards the issue. The various outfits, besides condemning the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka, have also put forth the demand that the central government should enforce a ceasefire in Sri Lanka. But genuine public sentiments and political pressures apart, what can India do now?
Tamil politicians frequently cite Indian intervention in East Pakistan in 1971, in view of the alleged atrocities by the Pakistani army and a refugee influx in India, leading to the creation of the independent state of Bangladesh, and argue that India should do the same in Sri Lanka, where the ethnic conflict has claimed the lives of over 1,00,000 Tamils. Let us assume that India interferes in the conflict in the favour of the Tamils, would it favour the Tigers or a separate state of Eelam? It is nigh impossible for a Congress-led government to reconcile itself with the “killers of Rajiv Gandhi.” So, as some political novices like Subramaniam Swamy have suggested in the past, India would attempt to disband the Tigers and support other Tamil groups, and facilitate the implementation of the Indo-Sri Lanka accord of 1987. But history has shown that the LTTE, which, incidentally, has the support of a sizeable section of the Tamil population, considers itself to be the sole voice of the Eelam Tamils and has displayed ruthlessness in crushing dissent. So, India intervening on such a plane would only lead to a fiasco, similar to the IPKF intervention of 1987.
Should the BJP come to power in the next general elections, a change in approach towards the Eelam issue can be expected. Indian intervention under the BJP, which with its agenda of Hindu nationalism has been relatively more inclined towards the demands of the Tamils, who are predominantly Hindus, could create a separate Tamil Eelam state. But then again, a semi-fascist organization like the BJP, which unabashedly professes a supremacist agenda, would never allow a revolutionary socialist organization like the LTTE to be in charge of affairs in the new state. It would only prefer a puppet government that would ensure Indian hegemony in the region. So, while Eelam would be created, it would have lost its purpose – independence.
Besides pressures from Tamil Nadu, there are other forces which shape India’s approach towards Sri Lanka. Ever since its decisive victory over Pakistan in the war of 1971 and its emergence as a regional nuclear power, India has consistently pursued an agenda of imperialist expansionism. Lenin argued in Imperialism that “an essential feature of imperialism is the rivalry between several great powers in the striving for hegemony, i.e., for the conquest of territory, not so much directly for themselves as to weaken the adversary and undermine his hegemony.” In its attempts to retain its economic and political hegemony over countries in South Asia and to score points over Pakistan and China, India has extended overt and covert support to undemocratic polities like the former monarchy of Nepal and the militarist regime of Burma. Does it then come as a surprise when Pranab Mukherjee, India’s External Affairs Minister, tells Sri Lanka that India can meet its security requirement “provided you do not look around”?
The Indian government is more likely to negotiate a settlement with the Sri Lankan ruling class, one which is favorable to its own strategic interests, than favor a minority waging an armed struggle for independence against the Lankan state. And it is precisely for this reason that the Indian ruling class and their agents in the media conjure theories that a separate Tamil Eelam may provoke secessionism in Tamil Nadu, thereby dismissing the very question of support to Eelam. India’s paranoia about secessionism and genuine struggles for liberation within its own soil is obvious from the way it has brutally suppressed the genuine demands of various nationalities like the Kashmiris, the Assamese, the Nagas and the Manipuris. So, from one rogue state to another, the Indo-Lankan alliance seems natural.
A drastic reaction from the public of Tamil Nadu and the political parties may change India’s agenda, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. Until that happens, Prabhakaran’s wish for aid from India would remain what it is – a wish.