Sacrificial Devotion
by Michael Roberts
This is Part II of Michael Roberts' Review Essay of Nations Have the Right to Kill
To read the entire essay on our website, click here.
The LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) or Tamil Tigers was a separatist organization based in northern Sri Lanka. Founded in May 1976 and headed by Velupillai Prabhakaran, it waged a violent secessionist campaign that sought to create an independent Tamil State in the north and east of Sri Lanka. LTTE was defeated by the Sri Lankan military in May 2009 (Prabhakaran was killed by government forces on May 19, 2009). In his review essay, Roberts compares the sacrificial ideology of World War I nationalism and Nazism with that of the LTTE.
Michael Roberts joins the Library of Social Science to participate in our Comparative Study of Sacrifice Project.

Michael Roberts, historian and anthropologist, is a well-known political commentator and public intellectual. An authority on nationalism, terrorism and war, he is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Adelaide.

By the Reviewer, Michael Roberts

This is the pictorial version (Volume II) of Roberts’ latest book, a collection of his recent essays with Chapters on the following topics:

  • Sacrificial symbolism & “dead body politics”
  • Death & eternal life: contrasting sensibilities in the face of corpses
  • Nationalism and sacrifice
  • Killing Rajiv Gandhi
  • The Tamil death toll during the end game
  • Torture images on television
  • Misrepresenting the Sri Lankan war

The LTTE emerged as an underground militant organization in May 1976. Though sustaining strong informal links with the Tamil United Liberation Front, the parliamentary party committed to independence, the youth who led the LTTE believed that a revolutionary path was the only route available to their peoples.

The pogrom directed against Tamil people living in the south central parts of Sri Lanka in July 1983 resulted in a huge expansion of its personnel. It was around this stage that Pirapāharan decreed that all fighters should carry a cyanide capsule—a kuppi as they call it in Tamil—so that they could “bite it” when imminent danger of capture was looming.

As training was formalized, like all armies the LTTE had a passing out ceremony for their fighters. The induction of a batch of female fighters is graphically depicted in a BBC documentary filmed in the LTTE territories in 1991. One sees/hears them chant in unison in response to their female commander’s initial prompt:

Our revolutionary organization’s purified aim / is for a free society to achieve Tamil Eelam / My life and soul and all this I sacrifice to / our organization’s leader, our brother, Mr. Prabhakaran / We fully accept that for him we will be very faithful and trustworthy / The aim of the Tigers – Tamils’ freedom.

Here, the national goal and the leader (talaivar) are fused as one – not unlike the Nazi ideology of Führer and Germany, or, for that matter, many military dictatorships in the modern era. On this occasion in 1991, the Australian Tiger, Adele Balasingham, told the BBC in matter of fact manner that “the cyanide capsule has come to symbolize a sense of self-sacrifice by cadres of the movement, their determination, their commitment to the cause, and ultimately, of course, their courage.” Tigers who die for their cause are identified as māvīrar, “great heroes”; but this term is often rendered as “martyrs” in the LTTE’s English translations.

Whether in defense, or attack, or in protest, these suicidal politico-military practices can be read as weapons of the weak, instruments deployed by an organization that has inferior strength in an armed conflict. But, significantly, none of the other armed Tamil Eelamist organizations adopted this code.

The uniqueness of the LTTE in this regard gave them a distinct edge in the bidding competition for support from their own people; but it would be an error to see this pragmatic purpose as the only reason for adopting the kuppi initially as defensive modality. I surmise that Pirapāharan and other seniors in the early LTTE command structure had a deep conviction in total dedication to the cause of Eelam through the LTTE.

In his early and sympathetic account of the LTTE’s “cult of tiyaki,” Peter Schalk referred to the concept of arpanippu (dedication or gift to a deity) driving the Tamil Tigers to such total commitment. When I asked a Christian Tamil octogenarian who had lived in the Jaffna Peninsula in the 1980s to clarify the meaning of this word, his eyes lit up and he said: “the devotion that the Tigers showed was unmatched.” In the context of subsequent history, this remark suggests that a segment of the population in the northern and eastern reaches were attracted to the LTTE by this testimony of sacrificial commitment.

Its fighting capacities indicate that the sacrificial dedication of its personnel was of considerable value in maintaining an esprit de corps. Set beside the data from Koenigsberg regarding the rigorous demands imposed on soldiers by their generals during the First World War, one can conjecture that one of the critical considerations in Pirapāharan’s insistence on the bond around and through the kuppi was the goal of cementing a mutual community of purpose.

This first celebration, it is said, was “a restricted affair [where] the highlight was a highly emotional address delivered extemporaneously by Prabakharan to his enraptured followers” (Jeyaraj 2006). The peak moment here is the lighting of the flame of sacrifice at 6.06 p. m., the juncture when the first Tiger fighter, Shankar, died. As Schalk suggests, one can say that Shankar “is made a collective focal point for re-experiencing the mourning experience of Velupillai Pirapākaran”.

The Māvīrar Nāl culminating in the ceremony 27 November, therefore, can be set alongside Anzac Day in Australia, Remembrance Day in Britain and the End of the Asia-Pacific War day at the Yasukuni Shrine in Japan, among others. All fall within the compass of the type of politics discussed by Katherine Verdery in The Political Lives of Dead Bodies (1999).Thus directed, we are in the realm of what can be termed “dead body politics”.

Any comparative study of such events cannot dwell on contemporary expressions alone. One must tap the experiences of participants in the immediate post-war aftermath. For Australia, this would be the period 1918-1939. But such researches would have to attend to a further difference in circumstance: among the Tamils, Māvīrar Nāl occurs in the course of an unfinished and ongoing struggle. The homage to their dedicated dead is intended to gird loins for more dying, to inspire the Tamil fighters’ dedication to the LTTE collective, its talaivar and its goals.

By mid-1990, the LTTE had managed to seize control of a large chunk of territory wherein the SL Tamils were in a majority. In effect, they headed a de facto state, with Jaffna town as its symbolic center. At this stage the LTTE hierarchy seem to have decided that the fallen were their personnel and that they should therefore have first lien on their bodies; and, secondly, that all should be planted as natukal valipādu or “hero stones worthy of worship” (Jeyaraj 2006) at their very own tuyilam illam or resting places.

From 1990 onwards the LTTE proceeded to establish numerous tuyilam illam [i.e. cemeteries in our terminology] at various locations in their territories. By 1995 they set up a special office charged with the task of maintaining these sites, and by the turn of the century they had 21 major tuyilam illam, everyone immaculately maintained. These tuyilam illam, like cemeteries elsewhere in the world, are sacred terrain and are explicitly deemed to be “holy places” and “temples”.

As Sangarasivam contends, the “laying of bodies […] and the building of tombstones inscribe the presence of the honored dead into the land [and] their physical substance coalesces with the soil of the land to create a culturally circumscribed sacred space”.
Other evidence compounds this act of contradiction. The idea of reincarnation appears in metaphoric and other ways in some of the Tamil poetry that is part of LTTE propaganda (Hellmann-Rajanayagam 2005). Again, D. B S. Jeyaraj is quite categorical: “the Great Heroes Day observances provide [the LTTE cadre] with the feeling that by sacrificing their lives they would grasp eternity and ensure immortality”.

Such an emphasis on immortality gains further weight when one links it to the widespread LTTE practice of describing the fallen heroes as vitae, that is, “seeds,” and as vittudal (pronounced viththudal), namely, “bodies that become seeds.”

Hellmann-Rajanayagam’s study of a brochure entitled Curiyap Putalvar published by the LTTE in 2001, together with her translation of 12 poems, enable those without expertise in Tamil to gain a glimpse of the resonant emotions conveyed by the LTTE patriots, both ordinary folk and literati, whose outpourings figure therein. She concludes that the core message within this pamphlet carries three motifs: “the hero as seed out of which new life sprouts both literally and spiritually, the hero as history clothed in immortality, and the hero as victim who sacrifices himself to pay a debt or provide a gift (to the Mother soil?)”.

The sacrificial commitment of the Tamil Tiger fighters, therefore, must be understood within the context of devotional gifts of self and propitiatory vows to deities that result in extreme acts of self-punishment (fire-walking, rolling on the ground in religious processions, et cetera) by Tamil Saivite believers. Set within this backdrop and located firmly within LTTE activities, it is hardly surprising that one of the poems translated by Hellmann-Rajanayagam praises the hero “who sacrifices himself for the whole by destroying the ‘I’, to protect the ‘Us’ (the community)”.

Here, within the LTTE, we have a principle that was also inscribed within Hitler’s thinking and Nazi ideology. But not only Hitler, as Koenigsberg reminds us. This principle was par for the course for most fighting nations during World War One and seems to be bow tie and bootstrap attached to every nationalist enterprise. Indeed, one could go further and contend that it is uniformly built into the disciplinary culture of every military outfit.

In effect, I have pinpointed a feature that may be a universalism amidst the enormous diversity of tongues and modes of heightened expression. This suggestion must immediately be circumscribed. All practices, even embodied practices of exhortation, occur in contexts of space and time. As such, they work in association with the pragmatic demands of contingent political processes.