A REVIEW OF Jacob Copeman: Veins of Devotion: Blood Donation and Religious Experience in North India


A REVIEW OF Jacob Copeman: Veins of Devotion: Blood Donation and Religious Experience in North India, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009, 233 pp)

by Ron Barrett of Macalester College

Taken from the American Ethnologist May 2010, vol. 37/2, pp. 380-81.

Recent years have seen an emerging literature on the sociopolitical dynamics of human tissue exchange. Most of these studies are of a critical nature, focusing on the exploitative aspects of organ trade and other high-profile controversies. Yet few studies have closely examined the apparently mundane forms of biological exchange and the remarkable contexts in which these everyday activities can occur. Jacob Copeman addresses this important gap with Veins of Devotion, a well-researched ethnography about the contributions of several North Indian devotional movements to voluntary blood donation campaigns. Critical in the classical sense, this volume traces the flows of blood, spirit, and power through expanding domains of kinship, asceticism, nationalism, purification, and gift exchange in the urban heart of neoliberal India.

Veins of Devotion begins with a poignant example of bioavailability: a spiritual leader promising to recruit his devotees for blood donation. The promise comes in the form of a traditional Indian blessing (prasad), a combination of spiritually laden substances that, in this case, includes a piece of paper with the words “Every month, one camp.” The “camp” refers to a large-scale health camp in which hundreds or thousands of devotees donate their blood, ostensibly as offerings to the guru and to Indian society at large. Not surprisingly, these stated purposes are segues into more complex dynamics with multiple agendas and rich opportunities for ethnographic analysis.

Copeman formulates the concept of “virtuous utility” as an organizing theme for this volume. Challenging the conventional dichotomy of utilitarian versus symbolic reasoning, virtuous utility describes interoperable relationships between these two modes while leaving plenty of space for conflict and criticism. Virtuous utility is aptly illustrated with populist religious movements who tout blood donation as a sign of enlightened modernity and moral superiority over their traditional counterparts, while claiming that their devotions would otherwise be wasted on idol worship.With similar claims to moral superiority, blood donation campaigns serve all manner of status contests, social protests, and nationalist agendas—especially when linked to historical events and memorials to charismatic leaders. One of the most famous of these campaigns is enshrined in the Guinness Book of Records for the most blood collected in a single day. A gold standard in popular Indian imagination, the Guinness Book states that the 12,000 units collected that day were “equivalent to 67 bathtubs of blood!” (in Copeman, p. 105). The author notes that these kinds of popular statistics serve to validate the mobilizing abilities of religious and political leaders.

Copeman also examines the interoperability between biomedical technologies and ever-expanding meanings of blood and kin. Blood has long been an index of kinship in India; yet with voluntary blood donation, both the sanguine and consanguineal are centrifuged to communities beyond the horizons of extended family. Until recently, people commonly donated blood to close kin through family replacement schemes. But with the rise of volunteer schemes, increasing numbers are allowing their blood to flow outside the traditional boundaries of kin to a much larger social body. Kinship also extends with the reproductive notion that donated blood will save, not just patient lives, but also the lives of patients’ families and their future offspring. This reproductive potential is further enhanced by laboratory centrifugation, in which whole blood is separated into multiple components, creating the possibility that a single donation will benefit as many as four patients, four families, future generations, and so forth. With these imagined reproductions, utility is framed as maximum beneficence to a maximally extended Indian family.

Utility meets virtue when the reproductive capacity of donated blood entails a similar capacity for spiritual merit. But merit is problematic on many levels. Copeman observes that anonymous blood donation may entail more merit than family donation because the anonymity of recipients fits better with classical notions of ritual gift-giving, or dan. However, dan is often given to priests and pandits in situations when the recipients are known but their worthiness is undetermined (Gold 2000; Parry 1986).

With rakt dan—a modern form of blood sacrifice—the recipients are unknown but nevertheless imagined to be worthy of the gift, at least in the sense of being maximally needful.

There is also the dilemma of poison in the gift: a common belief that offerings serve as media for the transmission of sin from donor to recipient (Raheja 1988).Within this belief, spiritual attainment is often a matter of transportive purification, the shedding away of bad deeds at the expense of recipients rather than the acquisition of merit for helping them (Barrett 2008). In a similar vein, one can easily give blood across caste lines, but receiving blood from lesser castes can be highly problematic. It is therefore notable that, although many of Copeman’s informants claim their donations as proof of caste transcendence, the real test is whether they would receive blood by the same methods.

In addition to issues of ritual pollution and caste, the author points to a more concrete dilemma posed by the promise of spiritual merit for blood donation. Blood banks have shifted from paid to voluntary donation largely because of concerns that remuneration would add incentives for overdonation or for unqualified donations from people with HIV or other blood-borne infections. Yet spiritual merit can be as powerful an incentive as money, therefore presenting the same kinds of medical risks as paid donation. Some devotional movements have guarded against this with personal health pledges to maintain the purity of their blood. These pledges, however, may also have the unintended consequence of linking medical qualification to spiritual worthiness. In all these cases, it is far better to give than to receive.

In summary, Veins of Devotion is a fascinating ethnography of everyday tissue exchange in urban India. For medical anthropologists, Copeman expands the dimensions of ideology, structure, and agency in bodily donation. For scholars of religion and South Asia, he provides a new venue for analyzing the shifting domains of sacred and secular in contemporary urban India. Accessibly written, this volume is eminently teachable for a graduate or upper division undergraduate course. It is an excellent work of scholarship.

References Cited

Barrett, Ron
2008 Aghor Medicine: Pollution, Death, and Healing in Northern India, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gold, Ann G.
2000 Fruitful Journeys: The Ways of Rajasthani Pilgrims, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Parry, Jonathan P.
1986 “The Gift, the Indian Gift, and ‘The Indian Gift’,” Man 21:453-473.
Raheja, Gloria G.
1988 The Poison in the Gift: Ritual, Prestation, and the Dominant Caste in a North Indian Village, Chicago: University of Chicago


Review of Jacob Copeman: Veins of Devotion: Blood Donation and Religious Experience in North India, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009, 233 pp)

By Herman Tull of Princeton University

Taken from the Journal of Asian Studies ?? pp 300-01

Jacob Copeman’s fascinating study, Veins of Devotion: Blood Donation and Religious Experience in North India, begins with a brief introduction to the modern medical process of blood donation, a topic that for many sits at the far edge of daily experience. Throughout the world, the success of modern health care depends on donated blood; yet because shortages are an unfortunate and predominant fact, getting blood into the system represents a central concern.

There are three routes that move blood into the health care system: paid donation, replacement donation (whereby the family of the individual who uses the blood replaces it in the system), and voluntary donation. As Copeman reports, in recent years the World Health Organization has promoted voluntary donation as the safest and most stable route. Paid donors, often from society’s lowest socioeconomic rungs, tend to be disproportionately health compromised, while replacement donation lacks surety and tends to be a one-time only affair.

Critical to Copeman’s study is the notion that voluntary donation is undergirded by an element of ethicization; that is, through the action of donating blood, individuals come to express a sense of altruism and selfless service to their communities, and these connotations can be used to compel individuals to donate blood. (According to Copeman, the relationship of utility to ethical value is a contentious subject in anthropology [p. 4], a shockingly naive position to those grounded in the study of ethics.) With this basic framework, Copeman finds in India that the culturally attuned factors of service (seva) and gift (dan), intertwined with ideas of “virtue, service, kinship, and the nation” (p. 2), center the discourse of voluntary blood donation. Along the way, Copeman looks to the broader elements of giving and exchange (as expressed in anthropological theory) to fill out the edges of his study.

As Copeman notes, Indians have not unambiguously embraced voluntary blood donation. Blood in India has long been viewed as a source of strength, and, equally, the loss of blood is understood to result in a state of long-lasting (if not permanent) weakness. In an attempt to change this perception, Copeman cites the work of donor recruiters who have reconceptualized blood donation to create a sense that giving blood leads not to blood loss but to blood gain. This has been achieved by representing blood donation as an opportunity to shed older, weaker blood cells, thereby opening the way for the production of fresh, younger blood cells.

In addition to the physical gain here, Copeman looks at how efforts to boost voluntary donation in India have benefited from an imagined spiritual component. This aspect of blood donation can be seen in the idiom developed by a number of guru-based (or satguru) reformist religious groups that have involved themselves in blood collection (Copeman attends in particular to the activities of the Sant Nirankarai Mission and the Dera Sacha Sauda [chapters 4 and 5], based on his field participation in the greater Delhi area). This idiom makes use of such conceptualizations of blood donation as that of the spreading of “spiritualized liquid love” (p. 97), as well as that of god returning what is given as a selfless gift (p. 87). Here, winning the approval of the guru for the selfless service of donation augments the spiritual element of the gift. Of course, this conceptualization is not without problems.

Copeman describes how, in their quest for service, these organizations generate a near-frenetic attitude to the gaining of voluntary blood donors; donor camps (often with more than 10,000 participants) become competitive events in which “world record” blood collections take precedent over safety and quality (pp. 89, 107). Additionally, as Copeman points out, by emphasizing the spiritual aspects of blood donation, potential donors may lose sight of the fact that voluntary blood donation is ultimately controlled by specific physical parameters; accordingly, those who are rejected from donating blood because of compromised health (and these individuals are disproportionately from the lower rungs of society) have effectively had a message of diminished spirituality delivered to them. Hence, rather than building a sense of a common spiritual bond regardless of caste (a key component of the satguru traditions), blood donation may very well reinforce India’s traditional social demarcations.

This brief review hardly touches the surface of Copeman’s richly conceptualized study, in which he nimbly moves from his underlying frame of the Indian notions of gift and service to touch on a range of related topics, from national integration (“The Nehruvian Gift,” chapter 7) to Indian notions of asceticism, sacrifice, sin, and caste. A few points, however, may be mentioned that detract from the overall high quality of this work: Copeman’s discussion of Marriott’s substance-code theory (pp. 24–25) is far too cursory given its significance for the topic of blood donation; additionally, Copeman has a tendency to use highfalutin language that in the end obfuscates rather than clarifies (e.g., “efflorescent biospritual medical creativity,” p. 147). However, these are small quibbles, and they should not deter readers from delving into Copeman’s study, which lucidly connects a range of Indian spiritual idioms to the seemingly unlikely, mundane context of voluntary blood donation.

Princeton University




Michael Roberts, 6 March 2010

One’s academic trajectories and journeys are invariably subject to vagaries and contingencies. The events and researches leading to my interest in “communal violence” and “zealotry” in the 1990s, and thereafter to what I have called ‘sacrificial devotion” (embracing the topics of “terrorism,” suicide bombers and Tamil Tigers),[i] were shaped by such contingencies. Since my web site will present some short essays on both these topics in the course of this month, let me detail some moments during my research work that resulted in the journeys that produced such outcomes.

In 1986-87 I spent about 14 months in Sri Lanka on research work during my sabbatical year. I was completing my research and writing on the history of Colombo in British times and the associated rise of a Westernized middle class-cum-bourgeoisie – work that resulted in the book People Inbetween (Sarvodaya, 1989).[ii] The island was still under the clouds cast by the attacks on Tamils in the southern parts of the island in July 1983. Following the British colonial lexicon this momentous and tragic set of events was generally described as the “1983 riots.” But such politically-aware scholars as Newton Gunasinghe and Shelton Kodikara were among those who depicted the event as a “pogrom.” This was a sensitizing revision that I accepted.

Riots May 1958 - A Tamil passenger was taken out of the vehicle and beaten up

Riots May 1958 - A Tamil passenger was taken out of the vehicle and beaten up

The lesson crystallised when a chance event, one of those “contingencies” that I spoke of in my opening sentence, cut into the lines of research that had dominated my focus in the 1980s. Neelan Tiruchelvam buttonholed me and asked me to provide a broad overview on the event known as the “1915 riots” (marakkala kolahalaya in Sinhala) for a conference that was being organised in the Maldives by the International Centre of Ethnic Studies, a gathering that encompassed South Asia writ large and included several scholars from the subcontinent.

Apart from the attractions of the enterprise, the Maldives as place of meeting made the offer irresistible to a beachcomber such as me. As matters turned out, the event was held in Kathmandu in February 1987, but that location was no less attractive. In effect my research direction took a U-turn in the sense that my existing field of research now had an additional field alongside it.

This terrain of research was not entirely new. Neelan approached me because he was aware of my earlier article on the “1915 riots,” one that was initially a Ceylon Studies Seminar paper at Peradeniya in 1972 and then appeared in print after revision in 1981.[iii] Both versions were moulded by an approach directed by the British empiricist tradition of historical research, albeit leavened by some sociological threads.

When I took up this particular baton once again, however, both my reflections and my subsequent explorations of additional bodies of source material were leavened by my experiences in teaching and reading social anthropology. One of my presentations at Kathmandu was a summary overview of the 1915 pogrom directed at the Sri Lankan Mohammedans (as the Muslims were called then), with some reflections thereon. This presentation was point-form and never re-written as such. But I also presented a written draft of another paper that eventually saw print under the title “Noise as Cultural Struggle” in a book edited by Veena Das which assembled some of the papers presented at Kathmandu (Mirrors of Violence, Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1990).

With People Inbetween bedded as a book, from 1989/90 my research work was now directed towards a study of communal violence as well as nationalism in the modern world. My intent was to produce a book on the anti-Moor pogrom of 1915, a work that would run alongside research on another book on Sinhalese nationalism in the British period. The latter field was informed by the literature on South Asia, notably “subaltern studies.” It was also directed by my questioning of some lines of argument within this literature that were influenced by Edward Said’s “Orientalism.”[iv]

These lines of interest were not without the impact, emotional and otherwise, of the July 1983 pogrom. During my long sojourn in Lanka in 1986/87 and other visits I had gathered anecdotal data on the 1983 pogrom that deepened my reflective thoughts, and indeed, my anger about that cluster of events.[v] This material, moreover, had led me to conjecture that in their minds the stirrers and assailants behind the atrocities in 1983 as well as 1915 were moved by a sense of ‘legitimate’ vengeance so that their awful actions were deemed righteous. They were teaching the Moors (1915) and the Tamils (1983) a lesson.

I did not, however, wish to be submerged by the local particularities of empirical detail and my local particularity as a Sri Lankan. Comparative studies of ethnic violence in Europe, USA and India seemed advisable in order to preclude tunnel-vision. Short six-month sojourns at the University of Virginia in 1991, Delhi (1995) and Leiden (1996) rendered feasible by Fellowships secured as well as Australian research grants enabled me to broaden my vision. These travels included brief visits to the library archives at the Weiner Foundation in London and YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research in New York. The considerable bodies of data from these fields that I collected remain on the shelves — mostly unanalysed. However, these explorations provided perspectives and raised useful questions.

Furthermore, they yielded photographs, startling photographs at times. I still have in my mind’s-eye an image of Nazi men and women clambering among a mound of Jewish bodies searching for booty – a newsprint photograph of poor quality that I saw at the Weiner Foundation. My quest for photographs had been inspired by two of the shocking scenes from the atrocious mayhem at Borella Junction, Colombo, on 24/25th July 1983 that had been reproduced in the Tamil Times.

1983 Borella rioters - burning

1983 Borella rioters - burning

Culled from the poor-quality reproductions in that periodical these images were reproduced in my literary essay, a personal statement of protest, entitled “The Agony and the Ecstasy of a Pogrom: Southern Lanka, July 1983” when it was reprinted in the anthology entitled Exploring Confrontation: Politics, Culture and History (Reading, Harwood Academic Publishing, 1994).

Both the limits and incisiveness of visual imagery surround the embellishments attached to these pictures. One reveals a mob of jubilant looters and assailants and indicates that ordinary people participated in the pogrom (as indeed confirmed by numerous witnesses — from Karen Roberts in her July to the research work on the July 1983 pogrom undertaken by Naren Kumarakulasingham[vi]). The other is even more shocking, but also highlights how a picture can sometimes mislead.

When I saw this picture I took it as given that (A) the naked man was a Tamil and (B) that he was subsequently killed. Both interpretations were conjectures that amounted to cultural readings, interpretations that, say, a Canadian may not have essayed. Reading the image at face-value I also called the reproduction “Dancing the Killing.” (see Roberts, 1994d, page 324).

It was not till my article had reached the bookshelves that Charles Abeysekera gave me the name of the intrepid cameraman who took these flash pictures in extremely dangerous circumstances. This was Chandragupta Amarasinghe, who had then been attached to the Communist Party newspaper, Äththa, whose offices were a stones throw from Borella Junction. This led me to contact Amarasinghe and purchase better copies of the photographs he took that night. I also gathered empirical details from his observations as a witness of the activities that night both at the Kanatte cemetery initially and then on the streets around.[vii]

1983 Borella rioters - kick boxer
1983 Borella rioters – kick boxer

He confirmed both my principal conjectures. That poor Tamil man had indeed been killed. But he also modified my third assumption. The assailant was not dancing, said Chandragupta. He was swivelling around as he administered a karate kick. So I was mistaken on this detail. The critical aspect, however, was the fact that this killer, together with others around him, was certainly enjoying this horrendous work. Yes, as Chandragupta attested, both adrenaline and ecstasy were coursing thought their veins (see also a photograph from the 1958 mini-pogrom reproduced in Ivan’s Paradise in Tears, Plate 247).

These details, then, reveal a form of zealousness that is not motivated by religious fervour, but by ethnic prejudice, that is by relational subjectivities and sentiments based on ethnic differentiation (distinct in some ways from racial differentiation based on skin colour)[viii] and reaching a climax through political processes, rumour-mongering and currents of rhetoric.

It was within this background that I penned an essay, “Understanding Zealotry,” in 1995 for the Newsletter produced by my hosts at Leiden University, namely, the International Institute of Asian Studies. This essay will be inserted in this web site soon together with some other pictures illustrating the violence emanating from zealotry and extreme forms of nationalist or communalist action directed against an Enemy Other. A broader selection can also be reviewed by visiting the website https://sacrificialdevotionnetwork.wordpress.com/ and surfing down the right panel and clicking “Photos.” This site in its turn was due to an initiative from Dan Nourry[ix] after a Workshop I organised at Adelaide University in late 2005 to discuss “Sacrificial Devotion in Comparative Perspective: Tamil Tigers and Beyond.”

The projected book on the 1915 pogrom never eventuated. The reasons are two-fold: in preparing my anthology Exploring Confrontation in the years 1991-94 I distilled my work on the pogrom into two chapters. One, “The Imperialism of Silence” improved and filled out the circumstances that generated religious disputes and thus superseded my previous essay on “Noise as Cultural Struggle.” The other, “Mentalities: Ideologues, Assailants, Historians and the Pogrom against Moors in 1915,” summarised my main findings and arguments.

That done, I did not have the energy for a ball-by-ball coverage of the details clarifying the manner in which a section of the Sinhalese population terrorised most bodies of Mohammedans in their midst.[x] Besides, by 1994/95 I was fully immersed in my work on Sinhalese nationalism. By 1996 I even had several chapters in draft form.

Yet, these have never appeared in print. Twist, turn and contingency interrupted this book-venture. For one I was diverted to the work of editing a new set of articles on Collective Identities Revisited (Colombo, 1997 & 1998 under the Marga imprint). This endeavour in turn flowed into the interventionist project organised by Godfrey Gunatilleke on A History of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Recollection, Reinterpretation and Reconciliation that involved several workshops in Sri Lanka between 1999 and 2003. Since all these ventures engaged the political processes and various currents of ideology within modern Sri Lanka, clearly, my research findings for the book remained directly pertinent to whatever I wrote under the ambit of these programmes. Indeed the draft chapters have informed all my articles within the period 1995-2009. Thus, the condensed abstracts that feature within the title “History-Making in Sri Lanka and the Sinhalese” in fact embody some of the findings destined for this unfulfilled book.

There was another reason for the delay in production, a major force in fact. While focusing on the changes arising in the period of British colonial domination, my outline for the book envisaged an initial background chapter that would condense the ideological and political circumstances preceding the advent of British control. The intention was to set up a “baseline” so that one could the better comprehend the changes emanating in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This meant a summary view of what we tend to refer to as the Kingdom of Kandy (though it is more proper to call it the Kingdom of Sinhalē). Well, then, as it turned out, this chapter ballooned out and became a book Sinhala Consciousness in the Kandyan Period, 1590s-1818, (Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Associates, 2004).

This expansion backwards, let me assure you, was an educational experience. One could say it was a tale involving the “re-education of Roberts.” It was a lesson in humility. I discovered that one could be wholly illiterate but nevertheless highly knowledgeable about one’s society and able to transmit this knowledge by chant, poem, story and artistic expression on stone or wall. I had previously derived some experience of the power of oral transmission, and thus of oral sources for history-writing, through my anthropological teaching and research in other societies, notably Africa.[xi] But the active engagement in material on the Kandyan period and my serial conversations with such scholars as Ananda Wakkumbura, Punchi Banda Meegaskumbura, Srinath Ganewatte, Mayadunne, KBA Edmund, Ananda Tissakumara, Sandadas & Sandagomi Coperahewa and JB Disanayake inscribed the message indelibly in my consciousness and methodology.

Sinhala Consciousness is a complex book and far from easy reading. I assert here that the second chapter on the power of oral and visual means of cultural transmission is a central foundation for its findings. It is so central that Radhika Coomaraswamy understood its import and arranged for the ICES to print a re-worked version even before the book appeared in print: see Modernist Theory. Trimming the Printed Word: The Instance of Pre-modern Sinhala Society (Colombo: International Centre for Ethnic Studies, 2002, 46 pages, ISBN: 955-580-068-7).

As this title indicates, this essay underlines my previous criticisms[xii] of Benedict Anderson’s influence in the social science thinking. It is not that his Imagined Communities is erroneous. Print-technology in the era of capitalist market forces did revolutionise modes of transmission and heightened nationalist (and other) currents of thinking. But the alacrity with which scholars embraced this argument, deepened by some post-modernist currents of scholarship immersed in textuality,[xiii] has led to the underestimation of other modes of transmission that remained forceful in the modern era. It also meant that such scholars could not grasp the fact that people who did not possess a written script possessed the capacity to develop ideas of political community that embraced large numbers and spread over a wide area. Here, I am thinking of such African peoples as the Nuer, Dinka, Ashanti and Zulu, rather than the Mons, Lao, Burmese, Khmers, Vietnamese, Thai, Bengali and Sinhalese of Asia who had the backing of a written script as well. One did not require “concrete” local networks of kinship and interaction to develop sentiments of oneness with others who were not immediate neighbours. Anderson’s “imagined” rests on far too sharp a distinction from an unelaborated theoretical category identified as “concrete.” The latter is unelaborated and rests on the flimsy example of the aristocratic classes of early modern Europe characterised by relatively small size, “fixed political bases, and the personalization of political relations implied by sexual intercourse and inheritance.”[xiv]

Imagined Communities could also be said to have misled the scholarship on Europe. Its emphasis on print technology took readers away from the sort of data and perspectives that led Adrian Hastings to contend that England and France had national identities by the later Middle Ages or the early modern period.[xv] Thus, my work on the Sinhala material, that of Hastings and the book Thant Myint U on Burma make nonsense of Hobsbawm’s assertion that there could have been no mass linguistic uniformity in countries lacking a formal system of education.[xvi]

Here, then, we see that the tracks of scholarship are beset with contingencies and sharp turns. The dribs, drabs and twists in my trajectory did flow into each other though not always in planned manner. Thus, for example, the work that went into the central chapter in People Inbetween, one that is entitled “Pejorative Phrases: The Anti-Colonial Response and Sinhala Perceptions of the Self through Images of the Burghers,” has been of critical significance for my subsequent researches on Sinhalese nationalism. For those with access to this book let me stress that one of the principal arguments in this chapter is distilled within Chart I on page 15 which is entitled “Some Twentieth Century Ethnic Pejoratives in Sinhala and Ceylonese English.”

Indeed, I stress here that this deciphering work in “Pejorative Phrases” on the underlying semantic structure of disparaging epithets in the Sinhala language – inscribed as they are by a history of migrant encounters, devastating wars and colonial subjugations in the past – has led directly to my two signature essays, “Why Thuppahi” and “The Sinhala Mind-Set.” Both may arouse distaste in some Sinhalese minds. They are meant to generate reflection and self-examination rather than anger. If anger is aroused, then, I ask readers to pause and think “Why?”

Likewise, it was during my work among historical sources in the early twentieth century, and specifically my reading of Anagarika Dharmapala’s “A Message to the Young Men of Ceylon,” that I literally stumbled upon the ideological current involving the subsuming of whole (Ceylonese) within the part (Sinhalese) in a powerful taken-for-granted manner.[xvii] This was but one ingredient that entered my analysis in “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhala Perspectives: Barriers to Accommodation.” This article was drafted in 1976 and appeared in print initially in 1978; but it was influenced strongly by the pessimism that had overtaken me from 1973/74 while at Peradeniya University about the direction which ethnic relations in Sri Lanka were moving at that point of time. It provides no pleasure for me that subsequent events justified my pessimism and went beyond my forecast in the degree of severity envisaged.


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Roberts, Michael 2006 “Pragmatic Action & Enchanted Worlds: A Black Tiger Rite of Commemoration,” Social Analysis 50: 73-102.

Roberts, Michael 2007a “Suicide Missions as Witnessing: Expansions, Contrasts,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 30:  857-88.

Roberts, Michael 2007b “Blunders in Tigerland: Pape’s Muddles on ‘Suicide Bombers’ in Sri Lanka,” Online publication within series known as Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politics (HPSACP), ISSN: 1617-5069.

Roberts, Michael 2008 “Tamil Tigers: Sacrificial Symbolism and ‘Dead Body Politics’,” Anthropology Today June 2008, 24/3: 22-23.

Roberts, Michael, Percy Colin-Thome & Ismeth Raheem 1989    People Inbetween:The Burghers and the Middle Class in the Transformations within Sri Lanka, 1790s-1980s, Vol 1 Colombo: Sarvodaya Press, with volume 1 drafted by M. Roberts, 389 pages.

Roberts, Michael (ed.) 1997 Sri Lanka. Collective Identities Revisited. Vol 1.

Roberts, Michael (ed.) 1998 Sri Lanka. Collective Identities Revisited. Vol. 2.

Rogers, John 1994 “Post-Orientalism and the Interpretation of Pre-Modern and Modern Political

Identities: The Case of Sri Lanka,” Journal of Asian Studies 53: 10-23.

Thant Myint U 2000  The Making of Modern Burma, Cambridge University Press.

[i] See Roberts 1996a, 2005a, 2005b 2006, 2007a, 2007b, and 2008 in bibliography.

[ii] Also see Roberts, “Two Faces of the Port City,” 1989.

[iii] “Hobgoblins, Low-Country Sinhalese Plotters or Local Elite Chauvinists?: Directions and Patterns in the 1915 Communal Riots,” Sri Lanka Journal of the Social Sciences 1981, 4: 83-126.

[iv] This field is usefully summarized by John Rogers in his “Post-Orientalism and the Interpretation of Pre-modern and Modern Political Identities: The Case of Sri Lanka,” Journal of Asian Studies 1994, vol. 53: 10-23.

[v] I had picked up anecdotes re the mayhem taking place in Sri Lanka in July 1983, two from Tamil friends who witnessed events first-hand. I wrote my article on the “Agony and the Ecstasy of a Pogrom” (1994d) in a particularly pensive mood while relatively isolated on my own in a research environment in Charlottesville, Virginia. This essay is deliberately presented in a separate section of Exploring Confrontation as a counterpoint to the sanitized air of my other academic writings.

[vi] Kumarakulasingham has just finished a dissertation on the topic of July 1983 at a university in USA and has provided me with some information. The fictional background in Karen Roberts’s book is based on her experiences in Colombo, notably when she walked down the middle of Galle Road from Colpetty to her home in Dehiwala on Monday 25th July (as she clarified for me during the Galle Literary Festival in 2008). Note that Karen is no relative, but is as mixed as I am – being of Sinhalese and Burgher lineage with her Sinhala side being a mix of Navandanna and Govigama.

[vii] These photos are used for my web pages and also were deployed in the reprint of “Agony” in Nēthra. Thus the caption in Nēthra should now be read as my finalised perspective on this scene.

[viii] A clarification of the relational and experiential factors promoting ethnic differentiation and competition can be found in Roberts, “Ethnicity after Said,” 2001c.

[ix] From Macquarie University, Nourry, is working on the Catholic Church’s conceptualizations of martyrdom, past and present.

[x] Note that at Beruwela and Maradana the Moors had sufficient numbers of men to mount a defence and indulge in street battles.

[xi] Note the earlier influence of my editorial experiences in organising the articles reprinted within Using Oral Sources: Vansina and Beyond, special issue of Social Analysis, vol. 4, Sept. 1980, edited by Kenneth Brown and Michael Roberts.

[xii] See Roberts 1993 and 1996b. Also see Kemper 1991. This criticism seems to have had little influence on scholarly research. Anderson’s felicitous prose and his location at the centres of production seem to have sustained the hegemony he has secured in academic circles.

[xiii] Some post-modernist scholars seem to dwell in a discursive world enveloped by their own erudite texts. These texts serve as source of data and argument as they address each other. The lives of ordinary people and the societal structures that mould their lives simply become irrelevant: the cumulus clouds of post-modernist discourse reign supreme. See also, Roberts,”Ethnicity after Said,” 2001c.

[xiv] Imagined Communities, p. 74. For critical reviews, see Roberts 1993: 152-54 and Roberts 1996b.

[xv] Adrian Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood , Cambridge University Press, 1997.

[xvi] Hobsbawm, 1990: 92-130, espec. 93 and Thant Myint U, The Making of Modern Burma,2000.

[xvii] Return to Righteousness, 1965, pp. 501-18 – originally published in 1922 [but I believe it was presented earlier].

Kaplan’s Savage Orientalism


by Michael Roberts

2 January 2010

The original version of this article was drafted in September 2009. There was no response from Atlantic Monthly when I sent it to them. Nor did it pass muster with SLATE, Mother Jones, the NY Times, International Herald Tribune and Tehelka. However, HIMAL accepted it, but also made a few editorial changes and suggested some extensions. Their format did not have space for footnotes or citations. The version that is reprinted here is an amalgam of my original piece and the article that appears in Himal,

January 2010.

I here acknowledge the courtesy extended to me by the Editors of HIMAL. See http://www.himalmag.com/pg=index for article and the Comments it drew.


The senior US journalist Robert Kaplan is well-connected and famous, a master of prose. He is versed in wrapping his international forays with word-pictures of place, person and context. His texts may ramble in places, but they are rarely ornate. The ‘word foliage’ displays are designed to be pleasing and are sometimes capped with striking titles – what could be more catchy, for instance, than the title of his Sri Lanka-focused piece in the September 2009 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, “Buddha’s Savage Peace”?[1] But these invitations to buy into his investigations of the political terrain are mixed with dubious contentions. Notably, his recent interpretations of the Sri Lankan political scene are as simplistic as they are misleading.

    Although a longtime reporter, Kaplan was first widely recognised for his striking essay from February 1994, “A Coming Anarchy,” also published in The Atlantic. This article was prefaced by the line, “How scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet.” Kaplan is currently a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and his essays regularly feature in leading US newspapers. He has revealed remarkable versatility and has ventured into many battle terrains – authoring several books, including Warrior Politics: Why Leadership demands a Pagan Ethos (2001), Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground (2005) and even a travel book entitled Mediterranean Winter

    Now, 15 years after “A Coming Anarchy”, Kaplan continues to depict images of anarchy by stirring up American fears of the Oriental ‘Other’. When Sri Lanka, normally an obscure place in most American eyes, re-entered the world stage with a showdown war in spring 2009, Kaplan seems to have jumped on board to continue this agenda of fear-mongering. South Asian tales of brutal wars and killings without ethical restraint have now been added to his offerings of looming anarchy. Here, the “morality of the result” (namely, suppression of the ‘terrorist’ LTTE in American eyes) has been conveniently discarded in favour of his dichotomy of the moment.
    Kaplan’s analysis of the Sri Lankan dispensation is not all dross. During his recent travels through the island, he talked at length with Bradman Weerakoon,[2] and mingled with several noted politicians and NGO representatives, such as the activist Kumar Rupesinghe. Kaplan also absorbed riveting arguments between Sinhalese and Tamils in the lounge room of the Indian diplomat who oversees the work of RAW in Sri Lanka.[3] He even dipped into the odd book, for instance one by K. M. de Silva and another by Channa Wickremasekera on Kandy at War: Indigenous Military Resistance to European Expansion in Sri Lanka, 1594-1818 (Delhi, 2004).

    This image of the Sinhalese community in fear is deepened by a trip that Kaplan takes into the past with the aid of Wickremasekera and de Silva. The sturdy resistance to European invasion pursued by the Sinhalese for several centuries is highlighted. Unfortunately, this is done in ways that enable Kaplan to heighten two elements: the present-day Sinhalese political paranoia and the significance of Kandy as a “sacred city”. Thus, sacredness and serenity today are conveyed as being permeated by threads of political anarchy – juxtapositions and contrasts that are crafted into Kaplan’s increasingly Orientalist work in general. 
    These lines of emphasis dovetail neatly with the spin that Kaplan imposes on the contemporary conflict. It is a tale of “a quarter century of civil war between ethnic Sinhalese Buddhists and Hindu Tamils” (emphasis mine). In keeping with his title, the essay drives home an associated point: “Buddhism can be, under the right circumstances, a blood-and-soil faith.” During the brutal war, “the Buddhist Sinhalese relied on a powerful sense of communal religious identity” in order to defeat that “quasi-cult terrorist group” known as the Tamil Tigers, led by Velupillai Prabhakaran, whom Kaplan paints as a sadistic ogre. Thus, the victors in this war drew upon the same “emotional wellsprings as the tradition of worship at Kandy’s tranquil Buddhist shrines.” 
    In this neat manner, Kaplan builds upon his opening travelogue in serene Kandy by depicting a ‘torso’ marked by the awesome bloodletting of a war driven by religious fuel. This is a tactical ploy that, from the time of Edward Said, we comprehend as a standard element within Orientalist strategies. From the eighteenth century, the European literati developed a picture of a static unchanging ‘East’ that served as a foil for its self-affirming construction of a progressive and dynamic ‘West’. This process, of course, admits to various twists: currently, one sees sections of the Western media deploying Sri Lanka as an arena of inhumane war crimes in ways that highlight their own ethical superiority. If one deciphers the plot organising both Kaplan’s “The Coming Anarchy” and “Buddha’s Savage Peace,” their striking similarity is indicative of an Orientalist framework.

Christian Lacunae

There is a major omission in this analysis, one that has Kaplan presenting a potentially dangerous quarter-truth. Either by design or out of ignorance, Kaplan does not tell his readers that Christian Tamils and Christian Sinhalese participated in the bloodletting on both sides. Most Christians on both sides are Catholic and the Catholic Church of Sri Lanka has been sharply split down the middle as a result of the war. Indeed, any journalist worth his salt would know that Catholic priests have been ardent supporters and important ideologues in the LTTE enterprise;[4] and that Christians of all faiths have been among the Tamil Tigers who have carried out suicide attacks. In 1981, Roman Catholics made up around 41 percent, 12 percent and 15 percent of the largely Tamil districts of Mannar, Jaffna and Mullaitivu, respectively, even outnumbering Hindus in Mannar. Several senior LTTE personnel in the 1980s (such as Victor, Rahim and Lawrence Thilakar) as well as LTTE negotiator Anton Balasingham were raised Catholic.    

    If this is deliberate obfuscation on Kaplan’s part, the question obviously arises: Why such a silence? In fact, this writer would suggest that this needs to be seen as firmly in step with Kaplan’s Orientalism – a branding of the religions (and peoples) of the East as those conducive to ‘savagery’. It is reasonable to contend that any reference to Christian involvement at the heart of the Sri Lankan Tamil struggle would muddy the turbulent seas of the dangerous Orient that Kaplan is carefully moulding.

    In this, Kaplan is not alone. Another American intellectual, the well-known political scientist Robert Pape, has likewise maintained a studied silence on the Christian dimension of the Sri Lankan conflict. In his book Dying to Win: The Logic of Suicide Terrorism (2005), there is a chapter on the LTTE’s suicide bombers. In setting out the background, Pape notes:

The most prominent factor driving Tamil community support for individual self-sacrifice is fear of Buddhist extremism. Especially since the establishment of the new state constitution in 1972, prominent Tamil leaders have consistently claimed that the Sinhalese government is motivated by the goal to extend Buddhism into the Tamil regions of the island, a religious game plan that justifies treating the Tamil people harshly, which in turn justifies extreme self-sacrifice as necessary to meet the threat (emphasis mine).[5]

Pape drives this point home by relating religious inspiration to the suicide ‘cult’: “fear of religious persecution, not internal dynamics within Tamil society, largely accounts for the pervasive use of suicide terrorism in this case” (2005: 140). Sinhala Buddhist extremism is indeed a problem, but there are also Sinhala Christian extremist voices that sharpen the confrontations. The phenomenon thus becomes far more complex, ultimately boiling down to extreme forms of Sinhalese nationalism. Further, it should be stressed that the term used locally by moderate voices to depict the extremists at both poles of the Sinhalese-Tamil divide is usually “chauvinists,” a label that captures differentiation that is not based on observable racial features.

    Robert Pape’s thesis came out earlier in 2003 as an article in the American Political Science Review.[6] On this occasion, Satchi Sri Kantha, an ardent Tamil nationalist, contacted Pape in order to correct his presentation of the LTTE as a “Marxist group”. In the course of correspondence with Pape throughout 2004, Sri Kantha supplied him with information on the suicide cadres of the Tigers, including the role of Christians within such operations (mostly, I add, battlefront naval acts[7]). But in 2005, Pape proceeded to give an interview to the rightwing journal American Conservative in which he carefully avoided any reference to such facts. He could not escape the remarkable Sri Kantha, however, who got back in contact to ask him why he had failed to include mention of Christian cadres. “Is it because this would offend the sentiments of the American Conservative readership?” he asked.[8]

    Why indeed? These glaring omissions of the involvement of Christian Tamils in militant acts, omissions perpetrated by Pape as well as Kaplan, point towards prejudices and strategies of political import. They underline hidden agendas and political conservatism, as well as their unreflective Orientalism.

All that glitters
It should be noted that Kaplan’s coverage has been far better than that of some other media groups. In the tense period since the end of military action in Sri Lanka in May, some organisations have been criticised for running biased or even concocted stories critical of the Colombo government (the UK’s Channel Four being a foremost example).[9] Kaplan does not go up that path. His ‘deceit’ works instead through half-truths and oversimplifications. He is clearly not always alive to his blunders. This blindness arises not only from inadequate local knowledge and shallow spadework in certain regards, but also because Kaplan appears to be under the spell of his own wordplay.

However, deliberate tunnel vision does seem to intrude when Kaplan enters the realm of international politics. Stark evidence on this count was on display when he was reverentially interviewed in early July 2009 as an “expert” on Sri Lanka by Michael Totten, a high-profile conservative journalist and blogger, for the benefit of an American audience. [10]

Totten: So you just got back from Sri Lanka. What did you see there? What did you learn?

Kaplan: The biggest takeaway fact about the Sri Lankan war that’s over now is that the Chinese won. And the Chinese won because over the last few years, because of the human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government ……

Kaplan then tells us that, by supplying Sri Lanka with arms, China has secured permission to build a deep water port at Hambantota as part of “its string of pearls” in the Indian Ocean — said to be a means by which China can encircle India with various military installations. He then refers to the killing of a “prominent media critic”[11] – eliciting a “wow” from Totten and encouraging Kaplan to proceed thus:

Kaplan: There are a thousand disappearances a year in Sri Lanka separate from the war. Journalists are terrified there. The only journalism you read is pro-government.[12] So that’s one thing they did. …. The government killed thousands of civilians.

MJT: Tamil civilians?

Kaplan: Yes. They killed thousands of civilians in the course of winning this war. It acted in a way so brutal that there are no lessons for the West.

MJT: Would you say it was as brutal as Russia’s counterinsurgency in Chechnya?

Kaplan: Yeah. It was. The U.N. is investigating whether as many as 20,000 civilians have been killed during the last few months. 

So, the Sri Lankan and Russian operations in Chechnya are all of a piece. This is certainly an argument that one can place on the debating table, but there are glaring omissions here once we proceed to the global stage of comparisons: George Bush’s enterprise in Iraq and its subsequent ramifications, the range of American operations in Afghanistan, recent Pakistani-US operations in the Swat Valley for instance. While it may have been Totten who suggested the comparison, Kaplan seems happy to run with it. If Kaplan’s charm calls to mind the proverbial real estate agent, here, then, we find out that he is an American real estate agent.

    Nor is there much pleasure for Tamils in Kaplan’s reading of Sri Lankan events. Interspersed within his replies to Totten, one finds the following comment: “The Tamil Tigers had human shields by the tens of thousands, not just by the dozens and hundreds like Al Qaeda. They put people between themselves and the government and say ‘you have to kill all the people to get to us.’ So the government obliged them.”    

    Later, Kaplan was asked how popular the LTTE was amongst the Tamil population. “Not particularly popular,” he responded. “The Tamil Tigers pioneered the use of suicide bombers. They pioneered the use of human shields, of fighting amidst large numbers of civilians. They had their own navy and air force.”[13] Readers will observe that there is no logical sequence in this response – the second sentence does not follow from the first, and little light is shed on Totten’s question.

    Nonetheless, and predictably, the latter information drew an exclamation from Totten. The LTTE’s military capacities were indeed remarkable and was matched by its ruthlessness and use of suicide bombers. But it is typical that both Kaplan and Totten immediately honed in on the spectacular within its three military arms – namely, the air wing. Glitter evidently draws those without much background knowledge. Any amateur military analyst would have told them that the LTTE’s maritime capacities were in fact a central aspect of the LTTE’s strength, and that the embryonic air wing offered little more nuisance than a mosquito in hardline military terms. (Kaplan, it should be noted, has written well-regarded articles on naval power elsewhere.) From the very outset, during the 1980s, the Tamil Tigers’ coastal smuggling-and-shipping resources made India a safe haven and a steady source of supplies, while simultaneously enabling troop movements of immense strategic value for them. For over 20 years, their ‘brown water’ navy of speedboats was a major thorn in the side of the Sri Lankan military; while its international shipping company was a vital logistical medium for military hardware, as well as an economic asset.[14] Indeed, on one occasion in the 1980s, Prabhakaran himself stressed that “geographically, the security of Tamil Eelam is interlinked with that of its seas.”[15] Kaplan, it appears, is blissfully ignorant of this dimension of the LTTE’s history, though to the detriment of his own analysis.
    As breathtaking, too, is the confidence with which Kaplan can tell the world that the Tamil Tigers were not “particularly popular” among the Tamil people. This is quite erroneous. Without visiting the Jaffna Peninsula, without much background reading, his unqualified response highlights his conceit. But, then, he was presumably addressing an American audience through Totten. To tweak the old saying, in the land of the blind the one-eyed man can play king.
Michael Roberts is an Adjunct Associate Professor, Dept of Anthropology, University of Adelaide. 

[1] Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 2009, http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200909/sri-lanka.

[2] Now retired, Weerakoon was a senior administrator who served at the highest levels, including stints as the right-hand of some Presidents. He is knowledgeable and widely respected.

[3] I was present too on this occasion at one point in late May 2009 and was among those participating in raging arguments. Key figures in this salon-debate included several Tamil parliamentarians, Minister Tissa Vitharana and Kumar Rupesinghe, with the latter often acting as mediator and peacemaker. Kaplan was mostly a listener.

[4] For instance, Bishop Emmanuel (now in Germany), Revd. Chandrakanthan (now in Canada) and Frs. Bernard and Pakianathan.

[5] Pape, Dying to win: the strategic logic of suicide terrorism, Random House, 2005: 146.

[6] Pape, “The strategic logic of suicide terrorism,” American Political Science Review, 2003, 97: 343-61.

[7] See Stephen Hopgood, “Tamil Tigers, 1987-2002,” in Diego Gambetta (ed.) Making Sense of

      Suicide Missions, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005: 43-76 and Roberts, “Pragmatic Action & Enchanted Worlds: A Black Tiger Rite of commemoration,” Social Analysis, 2006, 50: 73-102.    

[8] See Sri Kantha, “On educating Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago,” www.sangam.org representing the Ilankai Tamil Sangam, namely, the Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in USA.

[9] In late August 2009 Channel Four in UK broadcast a video purporting to show executions of Tamil Tigers by Sri Lankan soldiers as filmed on mobile camera in January 2009, with the qualifying note that it was not authenticated. This video has been analyzed by experts and shown up as a concoction (Asian Tribune, 31 August 2009 and Neville de Silva’s article in Island, 14 Sept. 2009). In fact, one could say that Channel Four has tended to run a campaign marked by a pronounced animus against the Sri Lankan government. One of its journalists, Nick Paton Walsh, was deported from Sri Lanka around 10 May 2009 for filing a video and report on the IDP internment camps that was sullied by hearsay information about horrible conditions. On this issue, see Roberts, “The Rajapakse Regime and the Fourth Estate,” in http://www.groundviews.org, 8 December 2009,

[10] Totten: “A conversation with Robert Kaplan,” 2 July 2009, http://www.michaeltotten.com/ archives/2009/07/a-conversation.php.

[11] Though he is not named, this would be a reference to Lasantha Wickrematunge, Editor of the Sunday Leader, killed on 8th January 2009. Note that 34 media personnel have been killed – and others intimidated – between 2004 and 2009, so this is serious issue and indeed an indictment of the governing order (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/sinhala/news/story/2009/07/ 090722 _jds_ journalists.shtml).

[12] This is an exaggeration. The Sunday Leader was, and remains, relatively independent. There are a few English-media newspapers as well as Tamil and Sinhala newspapers/magazines that have some independence, while there are a few vibrant cyber-net sites such as http://www.groundviews. org. All the print media, however, work within a highly intimidating backdrop that constrains comment; while encouraging many independent news channels to cater to Sinhalese – repeat “Sinhalese” not just Sinhala-Buddhist – prejudices. This threatening environment does require emphasis.

[13] Readers will observe that there is no logical sequence in this response. The second sentence does not follow from the first and little light is shed on Totten’s question.

[14] See Roberts, “Ideological and Caste Threads in the early LTTE,” (2009, mss under journal review) and M. R. Narayan Swamy, Tigers of Sri Lanka, Delhi: Konark Publishers Pvt Ltd, 1994: 54, 71, 74, 78 and “Interview [by Ahilan Kadirgamar] with Ragavan on Tamil Militancy (Early Years),” http://kafila.org/2009/02/16/interview-with-ragavan-on-tamil-militancy-part-i.

[15] Quoted by Shyam Tekwani, “The Man who destroyed Eelam,” (http://www.tehelka.com/ home/20090523/default.asp. 2009, p. 10)




On Tuesday 20 October 2009 I received an unsolicited email pointing me towards a video clip in which an Islamic American lady named WAFA SULTAN takes on the Islamic world – full frontal so to speak — through Al Jazeera network. In doing so I included the email introduction which was part of the unsolicited message (see below).

A good friend, young and of sharp intellect, has indicated to me and others in our special cluster, that I have contributed to extremism by implicitly praising a form or reprehensible right-wing ideology with its own partialities, etc etc. SO, a process of re-education has been initiated for those on the fringes of certain debates. This is precisely what SACRIFICAL DEVOTION, VIRULENT POLITICS is about – note the second part of the title!!

Hence I enter the lively exchange initiated within our restricted circle within this open site so that others can join in. I thank Ajit for opening the subject up and others who joined in,

MICHAEL ROBERTS, in Adelaide, 21Oct. 09

An exraordinarily brave woman. Watch this quickly before it is taken off the WEBThis is amazing. WATCH THIS, BEFORE IT’S TAKEN OFF THE WEB
http://switch3.castup.net/cunet/gm.asp?ai=214&ar=1050wmv&ak =
It is extremely surprising that the Arab financed TV station in Dubai would allow this to air. Be sure and watch this, it is so powerful I have no doubt she now has a very large price on her head. I also have no doubt it won’t be on the net very long.
She is one impressive woman.
Here is a powerful and amazing statement on Al Jazeera television. The woman is Wafa Sultan, an Arab-American psychologist from Los Angeles . I would suggest watching it ASAP because I don’t know how long the link will be active. This film clip should be shown around the world repeatedly!

AJIT CHITTAMBALAM Oct 20, 2009 at 8:39 PM

Dear Dr. Roberts,

I wonder if you email account has been hacked again, or if indeed you had intended to send out this link to this email group that you have kindly reconstituted, and with which you share many valuable links – and let me thank you for them. Your work continues to be very influential and provoking, and I look forward to reading more.

Just a brief however, to say in response – in case you do wish for this video clip to be circulate – Wafa Sultan’s clip has been widely circulated before, and I find it reprehensible in every way. Not only is her message saturated with racism and a portrayal of Islam that does not disguise its contempt, but it is factually untenable, and intellectually flimsy. Consider, for example, her ludicrous assertion in 4:43 of the clip “we have not seen a single Jew protest by killing people.” This comment, and many such others that she makes, betray – apart from an absurd effacement of history – a fawning acceptance of American and Israeli rhetoric.

But I am even more puzzled at your introduction of this message, and the endorsement that it is a rare or threatened on the web. In fact, it is not – it is freely available on Youtube. Second, and more troubling, is your claim that she is “brave” or “powerful.” First, she was speaking in the US – not in the Middle East. Second, her power or bravery comes from a parroting a view that is disseminated by the most vociferous right-wing American and Israeli groups – even the most critical Israeli scholars would disagree with her. And her belligerence is the same belligerence as, say, Fox news, (and ironically, the same belligerence that she accuses “Muslims” of having) and so I certainly do not think that there is anything that we need to celebrate in Sultan’s so-called “bravery.” In fact, we should acknowledge how commonplace and vulgar her views are.

However, this argument against her, has been made before, and the larger arguments that she makes (for example, a zealous faith in reason, secularism and modernity) have been shown to be simply untenable by scholars such as Edward Said and Talal Asad. And, as these scholars show, more to the point, that adopting a critical stance towards her does not mean one supports the Taliban, for example. In fact, I would wonder if your own work does not, in a Sri Lankan context, strive to undo the kinds of things she says.

What I do want to draw attention to here, however, is to say in response, in this (semi)public forum, that I will certainly not be circulating this video, at least not with any triumphalist tenor; rather, I might attempt to do so with an acknowledgment of how racist, imperialist and xenophobic her views are. But, one only has to turn on the news here in the US to see just how unexceptional and hawkish her views are.

And in that sense, your endorsement of her views and the sense of urgency with which you ask us to consider it are a re-iteration of those hawkish and insular views; I wonder how comfortable you would be, then, in affixing your signature to this video clip.

With profound respect and best wishes,

SWATI PARASHAR Tue, Oct 20, 2009 at 9:44 PM

Dear Ajit

I read your response with interest and feel sufficiently provoked to express my views here. To me what is striking is how easily you dismiss her views, without locating it or even bothering to engage with her politics. I would not be surprised if you had similar views about Tasleema Nasreen, Ayan Hirsi Ali or such like. Your so called critical stance does not make you tolerant towards this kind of criticism of a faith thats coming from people who may have more experiences of the kind they speak about than you or me.

We have moved much beyond Talal and Said and much beyond teh political correctness you seem to espouse. Its not just about these women, who incidently happen to be Muslims, but about several brave others who critique their own regious and cultural experiences. I know of several Hindus, Buddhists and Christians who do that and face enough flak for the same. I do not see why you think its less courageous for her to speak in America than in teh middle east. To me its not teh location, but what she speaks that is imp. incidently thats also a very narrow view of America where such expressions would not make her life any more comfortable.

It is interesting that you feel the need to dismiss her views as racist and intellectually flimsy, denying her the right to her experiences and her politics. Moreover, you feel the need to protect communities ( whatever here you imagine she is spekaing against), over individuals right to speak up against their experiences. I am hoping your critique is not just targetted at women, who show exceptional courage to speka against the norm and knowing fully well the consequences of their actions. i am sure you are familiar of Hirsi Ali’s and Tasleema’s experiences.

Incidently, what she is spekaing against is a religion that she was born into and the way she has interpreted/experienced it. I do not see what crime that maybe, given that most religions do include racist and mysoginist concepts that have evolved through years of practices that are based on exclusion and violence. As I said she incidently is a Muslim. I am assuming you would have similar opinion of others who express deep anguish and rage at belonging to groups nad communities where their individual rights are non existent. Nothing is infallible and beyond questioning. Not religions of all kinds who treat women like beasts than anything else. I feel the need to reiterate that practices within Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, have all extended similar treatment to women and thsoe perceived as ‘others’. The least we can offer as intellectual space is for individuals to express themselves.

There is far more to her politics than racism, imperialism and hawkishness that you attribute to her. There are some people in the world who have shown exceptional courage in speaking up against what they perceive as injustices nad unfair treatment. I wonder who we try to please by rejecting such individual expressions. It is only unfortunate that her views are appropriated by the ‘right wing’, but that still does not mean that her views dont matter at all.

It is time we dropped all guards and understood the need to critique communities and groups and their politics. It doenst do any good to parrot ‘religions’ mean well…..we should jolly well acknowldge that militants, racists and rioteers have all emrged from within religious discourses and they locate their politics within religion.

I am disppointed by your reaction. In nay case, I am sure people have seen this video before it was sent on this email list (intentionally or unintentionally)…There is a need to debate certain uncomfortable issues instead of seeking refuge in the likes of Said and Talal. there is a need to look beyond ideologies as fortresses that need to be defended. There is need to realise that people matter more than the discourse.

best wishes


BODHI DHANAPALA Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 1:33 AM

You say: “I know of several Hindus, Buddhists and Christians who do that and face enough flak for the same.”
Could you give some details of Buddhists and substantiate your claim.

SWATI PARASHAR Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 1:45 AM

for Bodhi D’pala
So is the debate only about proving a point? then maybe u could look around yourself….

How many Hindus have spoken against the caste atrocities, against radical/militant Hindu politics…?

Likewise, there are enough Sri Lankan Buddhists, who have expressed grave concerns on the way the Tamil community has been treated by the state and are opposed to the religious nationalism that the state has propounded, that has often excluded minorities.

Christians have done likewise against the Church dictats which restrict freedom of individuals esp women.

The critical discourse has always been part of any religion….and those speaking have never had it easy esp women….

AJIT CHITTAMBALAM Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 1:45
Dear Swati,
Thank you for your response; I have responded publicly on this forum once again, and I ask anyone not interested in this exchange to excuse this flurry of emails.
Swati, I am in disagreement in almost everything you say; not simply your political stances, but your theoretical claims as well – assuming that we can separate ‘politics’ from ‘theory.’ But I will somewhat artificially separate the two because I hope to pose a question that may leave this debate open, – and if people would like to comment, I invite them to do so, on this list serve or to please contact me to form a different email group.
So I will respond to one drift in your thought. You say, “Your so called critical stance does not make you tolerant towards this kind of criticism of a faith that’s coming from people who may have more experiences of the kind they speak about than you or me.”
One of the clear drifts of your response, I think, is to pose the question of people or discourses ( a distinction that I do not draw here), and to suggest that people’s experiences give them a right to speak (out) against certain violence. But I very much disagree that personal biography authorizes someone to speak in a way that indemnifies their positions, nor that they have a privileged viewpoint to their politics. Not that I want to suggest that certain authors have not experienced unimaginable atrocity, but that experience does not automatically produce a politics that we should espouse. In fact, is not you who psychologizes Sultan’s position by claiming that her experience authorizes her to have a certain kind of politics? But how is that different from, let’s say, and Israeli position that suggests that “their experience” of the Holocaust authorizes them to have certain views, or that the American experience of 9/11, allows them to practice all kinds of violence in the name of that event? I do not want to deny that these events occurred, but we must certainly guard against the fact that the myriad political positions that flow from them should all have equal merit, or are all equally valid. In fact, if politics automatically flowed from experience, we could not begin the questioning of everything that you call for. If we must “engage with her politics” as you say, then we must in some way refuse to psychologize or biographize Sultan’s position and consider her ability and choice to mediate her struggle against fundamentalist Islam in a number of ways.
You also note that: “we should jolly well acknowldge that militants, racists and rioteers have all emerged from within religious discourses and they locate their politics within religion.”
I completely agree with this statement, but I would extend it to Sultan herself: militants, racists and rioters have emerged claiming their “experiences” or “victimhood” as legitimation for the politics they espouse. And I certainly do not claim to defend religion or prevent the critique of communities and groups and I did not express this view. I despise the abhorrent treatment of women in certain Islamic regimes, but it seems that Sultan’s view offers very little in a critique or position that would promote a more inclusive politics.
I have many other disagreements with your position, and I invite you to continue this discussion by writing to my email directly if you choose. At least let me note that, Sultan’s views such as “we have not seen a single Jew protest by killing people” are inexcusable and unjustifiable, at least not by an appeal to either a standard of intellectual rigor or a progressive or inclusive politics. And my intention to respond to Dr. Roberts’ email was to draw attention to this fact.
Thanks for your time and best wishes,

JEFFREY BALE Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 3:15 AM

I completely agree with your views, Swati.

BTW, Wafa Sultan periodically appears on al-Jazira, a news network that systematically peddles Arab nationalist and Islamist propaganda are adopts a virulently anti-Western stance, to challenge Islamist spokesmen. In the process, of course, she is subjected to incredible amounts of religious, political, and gender abuse. I would say that makes her courageous, though not as much so as Hirsan Ali, who had to have bodyguards assigned to protect her, merely for stating the obvious. The Islamist response to any criticism of Islam, no matter how legitimate, is to threaten to kill the critic, as one can document in numerous contexts. The fact that so many intellectuals not only try to appease them by advocating levels of “sensitivity” that are not granted to anyone else, especially in Western societies where all oxen are gored and everything sacred is (and should be) satirized, is itself the real scandal.

As for those who continue to worship that dishonest propagandist Said and his ilk, peddle other types of mindless political correctness, and slander everyone who disagrees with them as “imperialists” or “Islamophobes,” who really cares what they think about anything? The apologists for Islamism, like the apologists for communism and fascism, will eventually be consigned to the dustbin of intellectual history. The sooner, the better. What we need is more George Orwells, not more Andre Gides.

AJIT CHITTAMBALAM Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 4:45 AM
My last response:
It never ceases to amaze me how much ire scholars like Said and Asad (let us not talk about the likes of people like Foucault and Derrida!) evoke amongst the most gentle people; and I must assume that Jeffrey Bale is a kind and gentle soul, since he has evoked the most velvet passive-aggressive tones and allusions to belittle my comments. And since we are all here for a bit of fun, let me retort!
Let’s assume that Jeffrey Bale’s (I will refer to his proper name since I lack the tact he shows) comments have some merit; a far-fetched notion as that is. (Among the gems in his little email is his claim that Hirsan Ali is “more courageous” than Sultan simply because she needed bodyguards.) It is alarming, how the structure of his critiques and jabs parallel Wafa Sultan’s! I am a worshipper (of Said), in a religion which can be dismissed wholesale (“mindless political correctness”) as a backward, anti-modern ideology that goes against the grain of history (“consigned to the dustbin of intellectual history”). And he suggests, about the views of my fellow horde of zealots, “Who really cares what they think about anything?” What a lovely way of summing up American and Israel foreign policy attitudes towards the middle east over the last half century! Jeffrey Bale has certainly watched the video clip, I see, and is practicing Wafa Sultan-lite!
But since Jeffery Bale has made no reference to the two emails I shared (which claim no great merit on its own, they are quick dispatches) and showed no attempt to read, cite, argue, reason with anything like good faith with the people with who he is in dialogue (this email group in general, myself in particular – and for my disagreements with Swati, I thank her for the generosity she shows), I scarcely can believe that he has bothered to read “Said and his ilk” with any “sensitivity.” In fact, none of what he attributes to me is accurate. And though I am certainly not a huge fan of Said, I acknowledge the weight of his work (I am a bigger fan of Frenchies like Foucault and Derrida, and I say this to allow Jeffrey Bale to have a finer impression of me than he already does). Dear Jeffrey, did you know that Said in fact wrote quite a bit on both George Orwell and Andre Gide?
But since Jeffrey does not really care what my ilk thinks, I am afraid that I will loiter in the refuse of history. From here, we will all look up and forward to more to come from Jeffrey Bale. But I hope to find some comfort in the others I might find in the dustbin, for example Walter Benjamin, who often invoked that image to invoke the pathos of the wreckage of civilization (Edward Said and his ilk have written on this as well), and Jeffrey Bale may well want to look up this reference to note the profound irony that marks every comment of his own email.
from the Dustbin,
P.S. I will now refrain from further responses

GAUTAM GHOSH Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 9:27 AM

Hello All,

I am interested and invested in these debates. However I could not view this particular clip, either via the email below or by searching on youtube. Anyone else have this problem — and solve it?

From my — admittedly hasty — review of the debate thus far, and some basic info I’ve found on the Internet, my impression is her perspective is more problematic than promising. And the apparent approval she has garnered from people like David Horowitz and Glenn Beck doesn’t bode well.

But, again, I haven’t seen the clip and will appreciate being pointed to it.

Best wishes,


RIAZ HASSAN Wed. 21 Oct morning

Dear Michael,

Wafa Sultan is a vocal Syrian/American critic of Islam and you can find all her statements on the internet including the video you have circulated. She presents a personal view of Islam, Islamic world, Muslims and what is wrong with them. Sultan speaks for herself (and does so passionately) and those who share her views but not for all Muslims and even non Muslims as reflected in the ensuing exchanges following your postings of her video clip. I hope that for those who want to critique Islam, Islamism, Islamic regimes would, Muslims would consider going beyond applauding and identifying with criticisms of Ali, Tasleema and Sultan. There are a whole range of sources, critiques and commentaries which are easily accessible. I hope that in our haste to we don’t dump works of people like Said and Asad. The easy starting point for those interested will be the 2003 two part essay entitled “/Which Way to Mecca/’ by the late Clifford Geertz in the /New York Review of Books/, and then there are feminist NGOs like the/ Sharkat Gah/ in Lahore and scholars associated with them, books by Khaled Abou al Fadl (particularly ‘/Speaking in God’s Name’/ for gender issues and Islamic regimes), Hanifa Deen’s ‘/The Crescent and the Pen/’ on Taslema Nasreen and even my book /Inside Muslim Minds.


MICHAEL ROBERTS Wednesday morning, 21 Oct.Adelaide

The cross-reference to the WAFA SULTAN clip arrived unsolicited on Tuesday evening on via Lankan circuit with the “Preamble” penned by a Sri Lankan whom I did not know. I used ‘scissors and paste’ and sent the message on to our sacrificial devotion cluster.

I had never heard of Wafa Sultan or seen the clip before – which just goes to show that many in Australia and in Sri Lanka are not at the epicentre of worldly debate or power [while Guam and New Zealand seem beyond the cyber world of U Tubes to judge from Gautam’s and Douglas Farrer’s inability to view the clip].

Thus, impressed as I was by the forcefulness with which Wafa Sultan confronted the Islamic world in the heartland itself — insofar as Al Jazeeera is so located – I considered the ‘tale’ worthy of notice in our circle.

I am grateful to Ajit for bringing me up to speed and introducing me to a range of debates with which I have limited familiarity. I did note Wafa Sultan’s either//or approach to the subject – an attitude I do not share. Ajit’s comments notwithstanding, I think she is brave, as, indeed, indicated by the manner in which a mullah branded her a “heretic”.

I thank Ajit too for making me aware of the American context of debate and for opening up a fascinating, if contentious, terrain of discussion for consideration.

It will now be inserted on https://sacrificialdevotionnetwork.wordpress.com/
which, incidentally, has VIRULENT POLTICS in its formal title.


Bodhi Dhanapala is not a member of our cluster and his intervention indicates considerable entreprenuership! Apropos of his query and its implicit political positioning, I note (A) that The present regime came to power on a campaign which explicitly lauded the 1956 political transformation and may even have contained references to its totemic emblem, Anagarika Dharmapala; and (B) that in the last 5-8 years there have been sporadic attacks on Pentecostal and Catholic churches.

I do not have figures on the latter phenomenon and would appreciate it if someone posts cross-reference or gives some basic empirical facts.

For those unfamiliar with Dharmapala (1864-1933) note the two articles in my anthology Confrontations. But what is more pertinent to this issue is the situation today and rohan Bastin’s article is hot press; see Rohan Bastin, “Sri Lankan Civil Society and its Fanatics,” Social Analysis, Spring 2009, vol. 53/1, pp. 123-40. His abstract runs thus: “The current moment, seen by some as an interregnum between societies of discipline and control, is marked by intense forms of religious fanaticism and iconoclasm that are striving to create new forms of the state. This is evident in the militancy and political engagement of Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka, who promote war against Tamil separatists as well as violent resistance to the proselytization identified with global civil society agencies that, due to the war and the 2004 tsunami disaster, have been active in the country. The article looks at this rising Buddhist militancy, which is associated with a political party that is linked to the more famous party known as the JVP. It argues that instead of resisting the formation of the new global civil society, the iconoclasm of this Buddhist political formation is facilitating its establishment.

If so disposed I encourage some of you to read Rohan’s article and initiate separate debate within the s/v/p web site.

MICHAEL Roberts, 25 Oct 09

On a different tack, I recommend a read of Mike Marqusee: If I am not myself, London: Verso, 2008. In this book “he reminds us … that Zionists and anti-Semites sg hare the same sinister, racialized concept of group identity. both in the eloquence of his writing and the deep humanism of his vision, he stands shoulder to shoulder with the spirits of Isaac Deutscher and Edward Said” (reviewer Mike Davis). Mike is an anti-zionist Jew, and an American in London who has written book on bob Dylan and on cricket. Indeed, I met him because of another cricket addict, Niggy Tiruchelvam.

Apart from content and thrust Mike presents his contentions in accessible language

SWATI PARASHAR Mon, Oct 26, 2009 at 11:00 pm

Thanks Riaz for drawing attention to the critiques. Much appreciated. However, the debate is also about who can speak for whom. If Ali, Sultan and Nasreen can be dismissed as expressing ‘personal opinion and as speaking for themselves, might not it apply to all of us? when can/and most importantly who can effectively be representing a group especially a religious/ethinic group is also worth paying attention to. Why should the experiences of these women not be speaking for/to other women and men. They have received considerable support too and that cannot be overlooked. I have been greatly troubled by these questions because my fundamental understanding and postion is that religions are patriarchal domains and it is not fair to dismiss criticisms of people (women) who live through different experiences. Does that mean that only certain people’s experiences can be validated? For example, whats so unusual and ‘personal’ about Nasreen claiming the horrifying treatment of minority women by Islamists in Bangladesh and why should these women’s lives be brutally threatened by the radical forces only because they argue that their  experiences reveal religions are oppressive and patriarchal ? Whats so unusual and personal about critiquing ones experiences of belonging to any community? I am thinking of Rajini Thiranagama too, who had the courage to speak against the LTTE. She also spoke against a community that she belonged to, didnt she and paid the price with her life.

I am raising these questions in order to argue that we should not also be hasty in dismissing these women, their locations and their politics. Religions should not be sacrosanct domains which are beyond common critique and dissent. Religions/practices and popular culture  are so intrinsic to our lives (I speak as a South Asian and specifically as an Indian) that it is important to allow ‘personal’ critiques and enagage with them. I am against the politics of silencing these women only because they speak in a language we are unwilling to understand or appreciate. My point is again, how do we decide whose critique is valid and representative?
Thanks to Michael for facilitating this debate.

Analytical Anthology


by B.Muralidhar Reddy

Amended and abbreviated version or article in Frontline, Vol. 26, No. 20, 26 Sept 2009

Michael Roberts’s latest book assembles thirteen of his recent academic essays on the cultural and ideological roots of the majority Sinhala and minority Tamil nationalisms in Sri Lanka. It includes a study of the pogrom against the Muslims in 1915 and a remarkably detailed analysis of the projects of Anagārika Dharmapāla (1864-1933), a staunch Sinhala Buddhist who launched a full-throated campaign against British rule and Christian missionaries.

The author‘s preface “Before Pirapāharan, after Pirapāharan” was written after the military decimation of the LTTE early this year, but all the other articles are the product of years of research. This journey, clearly, has been a labour of love. We now have some of the results before us so that they can be subject to critical scrutiny.

Taken as a whole, this book of 450 pages that include 35 striking photographs with mini-essays comes as a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere heavily polluted by hasty accounts penned by fly-by-night journalists and self-appointed Sri Lanka experts on Eelam War IV.

The temporal focus encompasses the last two centuries for the most part, though there are excursions further back. Issues of collective identity, modes of communication and the embodied practices of committed people provide some of the overlapping themes that straddle past and present.

Sinhala consciousness serves as a central theme within the collection, with particular attention to its modern form, namely, the currents of Sinhala nationalism from the British period onwards. The author’s readiness to depict some of these expressions as “chauvinist” provides a clue to his political positioning today.

The book clearly shows that the crisis which Sri Lanka faces today was born well before Prabākaran. The roots of Sinhala claims to hegemony go deep. If the chapter on Dharmapäla’s thinking and the “Marakkala Kolahālaya” in 1915 are not revelatory enough, that on the logic of association and conflations of time which inspired the Kandyan rulers of the 1810s to link the threat posed by the demonic white foreigners with that of the “sädi demalu” (vile & fierce Tamils) of Dutugämunu’s time is illuminating: it highlights the historical depth of sharp differentiation.

Attention to Sinhalese thinking is balanced, albeit unevenly, by some space devoted to Tamil nationalism in modern times. Roberts indicates that the first sustained exposition of Sri Lankan Tamils as a “nation” was presented by the Ceylon Communist Party in 1944. However, the book does not trace the history of this current and jumps to a consideration of specific threads informing the commitment of those who joined the LTTE.

Two essays elaborate on the religio-cultural roots of the martyr cult deployed by the LTTE in the course of the Tamil struggle for self-determination. This takes Roberts on a journey into the southern Indian heritages around the Cankam poetry and bhakti movement. These chapters also dwell upon a whole range of everyday practices of religious devotion oriented towards the negation of the self and the offering of votive gifts to powerful entities/goals. Renewal of self through fusion with a deity, it is argued, is conducive to martyrdom on behalf of one’s people and their cause.

Michael Roberts’s corpus of writings is substantial. They “straddle the fields of politics, history and culture;” while his disciplinary specialities are described as “cultural anthropology and historical sociology” (publisher). Few scholars on Sri Lanka can match his credentials, though his arguments on the ethnic strife in the island nation have been contested and debated by equally erudite personalities. Love him or hate him, Michael Roberts’s works cannot be ignored.



by Michael Roberts
22 May 2009
FRONTLINE VOL. 26, No 12, 6-19 June 2009.
[Note: The article is based on a talk/presentation before the Sri Lanka America Association on 26 May as part of a Forum that included Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu and Mangala Samaraweera. The topic addressed was : “Post-War Scenario.”]

Orient Club - 1907

Orient Club - 1907 -Founded in 1894 the Orient Club represented the peak of the indigenous social order in Colombo in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its members were those doctors, lawyers, "landed proprietors," businessmen and administrators who were attracted to the recreational facilities around bar, lounge, billiards and bridge. The chat embraced politics and it is likely that many a memorandum in the struggle for constitutional devolution was drawn up within its portals. Indeed, this picture includes such key figures as EJ Samerawickrame, FR Senānāyake, James Peiris, Walter Pereira and Frederick Dornhorst.The Orient Club was trans-ethnic and cosmopolitan in orientation. Its minutes from the period prior to 1912 indicate a membership of 78 Sinhalese, 4 Moors, 12 Tamils, 25 burghers & Eurasians, 4 Colombo Chetties, 1 Parsee, 1 West Indian (TW Roberts) and one whose ethnicity could not be ascertained. There was one significant exception to its openness however: Europeans were specifically debarred from membership in what was clearly a counter colour bar, a form of anti-colonial resistance.

“One can win the War, but lose the Peace.” Cliché this may be, but it also a hoary truism that looms over the post-war scenario in Sri Lanka. The triumphant Sri Lankan government now has to address the human terrain rather than the fields of battle.

In facing this challenge both government and concerned people must attend to another truism: as Sinnappah Arasaratnam pointed out long ago, extremisms have been feeding off each other and undermining political compromise in Sri Lanka over a long period of time. Now, apart from the well-known Sinhala chauvinist forces outside and within the Rajapakse government, we must attend to the Tamil chauvinist forces in the TNA and elsewhere in Sri Lanka, in Tamilnadu and in the ranks of the vociferous SL Tamil diaspora across the world. These forces have to be corralled and undermined.

This is not an easy task. It calls for a multi-stranded strategy involving many moderate forces. One element is already in place: under the initiatives taken by the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs under Dew Gunasekera Tamil has been made a compulsory subject at school in the Sinhala-speaking areas since mid-2007; while proficiency exams have been introduced at various levels of the public service that give incentives to those with bi-lingual capacity. It remains to be seen whether these steps on paper reach deep and become implanted as effective practice.


Banda-Chelva Pact

Banda-Chelva Pact


Government’s Will and Political Reform

As clearly, all observers are wondering if President Rajapakse’s sweet words will be matched by substantive reforms in the political dispensation which institutionalize devolution and reach out to Sri Lankan Tamil hearts and minds. When some three lakhs of Tamils in the northern Vanni chose in the course of year 2008 to move east with the retreating LTTE forces, they did so because they distrusted the Government and believed the LTTE was their protector. So, President Rajapakse’s advisors have to ask two related questions. “How was this so?” “And why are the Tamil peoples, including many in the Jaffna Peninsula and in Colombo District, so alienated and distrustful of the present regime (and past regimes)?”

In addressing this issue they must thank the Tigers for their parting ‘gift’. By turning draconian around January 2009 and holding roughly three lakhs of Tamil people in “bondage”, to use DBS Jeyaraj’s term, till they eased constraints on the remnant 50,000 on the 10th May 2009, the LTTE alienated most of these people – sometimes to the point of virulent opposition.

But note, too, that the feeling of bitterness extends beyond the LTTE. “I do not know the purpose of my life. I wonder why and for what the LTTE and military fought the battle and what was achieved in the end. We believe the Tigers, Sri Lanka government and Indian people with whom we share a special bond are all responsible for our fate today,” said one 67-yearold named Aryanathan when he was interviewed at Manik Farm Zone IV by a body of foreign journalists (see Muralidhar Reddy article in Hindu, 27 May 2009). Aryanathan spoke in English and presented this view as a distilled statement embodying the views of some 21 IDPs assembled at one spot.

Subject to the caveats encoded within Aryanāthan’s statement, the feelings of the Tamil refugees towards the LTTE represent a reality check to the Tamil communalists in Lanka and abroad who are marooned within their very own island of rage and fantasia. The sentiments of such Tamil IDPs are also a potential boon for the government of Sri Lanka. But will the government demolish this opportunity by being too draconian in its treatment of the IDPs in what are effectively internment camps rather than “welfare centres”? Screening the IDPs is certainly called for and de-mining is an essential operation in the war-ravaged terrain of their old villages, but military adjutants who bark orders will undermine the political project of the government. The administrators, whether military or civilian, must be individuals with a humane touch. Their rule must also be transparent and marked by the registration of all IDPs.

While the Tamil IDPs are an immediate issue, the long-term question of constitutional reform cannot be postponed. This is not my field of expertise. The draft 2000 constitution is widely regarded as a good foundation which specialists in Sri Lanka can build on for this purpose.

But from the outside I suggest that these specialists should be ready to (a) think outside the box and go beyond the 13th amendment in the constitutional reforms that are put in statutory place; and to (b) insert some measures of asymmetrical devolution within these plans.

Ongoing Obstacles: Authoritarian Big Men, Anti-Democratic Practices
Suppose, then, that by some work of genius a wonderful new constitutional scheme of power-sharing is worked out and put in place. Will it last? Can it work? I foresee two major problems that will undermine this project, problems that have in fact undermined the working of democratic institutions in Lanka for six decades. In a nutshell these are (A) the overwhelming concentration of power in the President’s office in the De Gaulle constitution set up by J. R. Jayewardene in 1977 with advice from Professor A. J. Wilson; and (B) anti-democratic practices in electoral processes and party organization that are of endemic character. Both these facets are sustained by (C) a set of cultural practices that I have described as the “Asokan Persona” in the course of four essays in Exploring Confrontation (Reading: Harwood and Delhi: Navrang, 1994).

My path to this theory was accidental and began at Peradeniya University in 1970. I had placed an application for research funds in late 1969. Having no response by early 1970, I asked the deputy-registrar why no decision had been taken. Answer: “we could not meet because Professor HA de S. Gunasekera is too busy” (he was electioneering for Mrs Bandaranaike’s ULF alliance). I buttonholed HA de S at the earliest opportunity when no one else was around. He said: “Yes, yes, yes, I will attend to it.” Not easily fobbed off, I utilized his bosom-friendship with Dr. AJ Wilson within his own department to present an alternative pathway: “Why can’t Willie attend in your place?” The immediate and instinctive reaction was” No, no, no. I have to be there.” QED. I had to wait till the year never-ending.

That, in a nutshell, is what I conceptualize as the Asokan Persona. The Big Man (invariably male) has to control every fiddling little thing. My theory therefore highlights a deeply-rooted cultural tendency towards the over-concentration of power at the head of organizations and a failure (if not an ingrained inability) to delegate power.

Apart from generating administrative bottlenecks, such practices sustain a top-down flow of authority in ways that stifle initiative among higher-level and middle-level officers. This strand of interpersonal organizational practice, in turn, is shored up in Asia’s hierarchical context by cultural practices that encourage subordinates to kow-tow (significantly a Chinese word incorporated into English) to superiors in ways that encourage them to think themselves God-Almighty. This tendency is accentuated by standard practices associated with ministers of state at public functions: the ministerial or presidential persona is always pirivarāgena, surrounded by an entourage (or preceded by beeping security cars on road). The concept pirivarāgena is deeply etched within Sinhalese thinking: images of the Buddha are surrounded by disciples and followers in many temple wall-paintings; and it is known that chiefly journeys in Sinhalese kingdoms past were invariably pirivarāgena.

Where such practices pertain to the head of state, that is to President or Prime Minister, the Asokan Persona has one additional ingredient denied to, say, a head of department. At the apex the Persona not only embodies concentrated power with all the force of legitimised authority, but is also vested with the aura of sacredness. In brief, the position combines the roles of Pope and King (or Queen) with an Asian twist. Righteousness envelopes the person and his (her) acts. It follows that challenges from below are likely to be deemed to be unrighteous (or unpatriotic), a form of heresy.

Disturbing Thoughts
One does not need to be a Newton to conclude that what the Sri Lankan President gives as constitutional gift, he can withdraw too. Or his successor can. Ergo, it follows that constitutional transformation must also curtail the existing presidential powers. Is this likely? The short answer is: rivers do not flow backwards. In effect, any scheme of reform is vulnerable and on shifting sand.

Add to this the character of the two main parties: the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party. Neither have internal democracy. Worse still, whispers from around suggest that elections in the past decade or so have been widely marked by intimidation, vote-rigging, denial of voting rights by clerical acts and all manner of chicanery. If these tales are valid, once we set them within the context of over-centralized organizational practices of the Asokan type, what we have in Sri Lanka is a form of democracy that is riddled with caverns and dungeons.

A Critical Issue: Part-Whole Relationships
Such concerns aside, many have welcomed the President’s parliamentary address on Tuesday 19th May. His symbolic deployment of a few sentences in Tamil was, indeed, as innovative as welcome. His dismissal of ethnic identity as irrelevant was also applauded widely.

This assertion was concomitant with an emphasis on the overwhelming importance of two categories of being in Sri Lanka: those patriotic (rata ādhara karana aya) and those unpatriotic (rata ādhara nokarana aya). Rata ādhara nokarana aya was used in the sense “un-Sri Lankan” – that is, in the manner “un-American” in Yankee-speech. For this reason, it is feasible to interpret the argument in dark ways as a warning to critics of the government.

I prefer, here, to dwell on the benign reading of this viewpoint as a rejection of the pertinence of ethnic identity and thus of ethnic differentiation. But I do so in order to argue that such a contention is beset with pitfalls and lacks substance.

For one the President’s stirring message was (and continues to be) contradicted by popular depictions of the triumphant war as a re-enactment of the Dutugemunu Elāra episode in Sri Lanka’s history, a trope now for indelible Sinhala-Tamil conflict. The President himself catered to this understanding by garlanding a statue of Dutugemunu a few days later.

As problematically, at the celebration honouring the war heroes on Friday 22nd May, the President spoke of the jātika kodiya, sinha kodiya (national flag, Sinha flag) in the same breadth. In this critical conceptualization a part of Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese people, is equated with the whole of Lanka. This ideological act of merger is presented in taken-for-granted manner, thus, insidiously and powerfully.

Let me clarify the relationship of part to whole via a comparative excursion that addresses the relationship between the concepts “England” and “Britain” and thus English” and “British”. Let me focus on this issue over the long period 1688 to 1945, a period when the British Empire was built up and sustained.

England was the central force in the regional and institutional complex that came to be known eventually as Great Britain. In the result it was common in the 19th and 20th centuries for English persons to use the terms “English” and “British” as synonyms. I have evidence of General Hay MacDowall (as Scot a name as you can get) doing the same thing unthinkingly as he sat atop Kandy in 1803. Since the Scots and the Welsh benefited immensely from British strength and expansion it would seem that they went along with the taken-for-granted hegemony of England within Britain. Thus, while ‘roaming in the imperial gloaming’ some Scots accepted English dominance – till recent decades when their nationalism has sharpened and taught new generations of English persons not to equate “England” with “Britain”.
I shall return to this facet, the incorporation of whole by part, within the Sinhala mindset at the concluding moment in my essay. But I must also explain why the President’s benign emphasis is impractical and lacking in substance. This calls for an excursion into the foundations of ethnic identity and patriotism, a complex subject that can n only be clarified incompletely in brief comment.

Identity and Patriotism
Endowed with speech and memory, human beings classify the world around them. Vernacular language schemes develop in the course of human interactions with different others in contiguous space. These relationships are inter-subjective and self-referential. Labels define “Us” in distinction from named “Others.” Though boundaries are not watertight and few peoples are totally homogeneous, the transgression of boundaries, say, by boy-girl affairs, sometimes generates an emphasis on the sanctity or worth of a group. Needless to say, the cluster of factors and practices that sustain the boundaries of named groups over an extended period of time can vary from place to place and, in any specific case, can alter over time.

Family and familiar locality is often of central significance in the nourishment of loyalty to group and its associated territorial space. Thus, in most instances a Sri Lankan’s patriotism to his island entity is built upon local experiences and sentimentalities. I conjecture that President Rajapakse’s Lankan patriotism is founded upon his love for his gama (village) and his pride in being a Ruhunu kollek (a lad from the Ruhunu South). My own profound Sri-Lankanness is built upon deep sentiments around the Fort of Galle, my life-memories around my alma mater, St. Aloysius College, and such beautiful landscapes as Peradeniya Campus and its Hantane Range.

To erase such pillars and familiar roots in any individual’s memory-bank is both impractical and silly. Likewise one must allow for the fact that among many individuals their Sri-Lankan-ness has been generated through their ethnic identity as Burgher, Malay, Sinhalese, Tamil et cetera. In other words, a pyramid of ethnic and other identities can strengthen patriotism and nationalism.

The Sri Lankan cricket team in the 1940s onwards was bolstered by the likes of a Sathasivam, a Heyn or a Coomarawamy. When Sri Lanka faced Tamilnadu (or Madras CA) for the Gopalan Trophy from the early 1950s, the Tamils of Sri Lanka faced up to the “Other” as sturdy “Ceylonese” to a man. The tragedy of Lanka’s history is that so many Sri Lankan Tamil patriots of yesteryear were led (for reasons I cannot tackle here) to discard their Lankan-ness and adopt a separatist Eelam identity or to discard their island roots altogether.

On these solid grounds of sociological theory, therefore, I assert that Sri Lanka today has to recognize that its patriotic identity “Sri Lankan” must be built upon a confederative principle that recognises the existence of several communities as well as three nations within the entity Lanka (Ceylon). The three nations are the Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims. The communities are the Malays, Burghers, indigenous Väddās, Colombo Chetties, Borahs, Sindhis, Parsees and Memons.

For this pyramid of loyalties and sentiments to be sustained, it is imperative that the Sinhalese=Sri Lankan equation must be undermined and split asunder (witness the manner in which the English=British equation has disintegrated in the last 40 years). A scheme of constitutional devolution directed by goals of appeasement is obviously vital to such a process. But my argument here points to the vital need for ideological work that seeks to undermine the hegemonic swallowing of the Sri Lankan whole by its Sinhalese part.

This is not an easy task. Constitutional fiat cannot transform minds, especially entrenched mindsets. Categorical subjectivity is a hard nut to crack. Multiple strategies are required. Let me suggest one that is designed to work over two generations.

Briefly, my intent is to develop hyphenated categories of self-identity. By that I mean such labels as “Italian-Australian” and “Greek Australian,” labels that are deployed in Australia both as self-referential terms and as pertinent descriptions of a third persons.

Towards this end I would like to see the process of creating identity cards, driving licenses and census enumeration organized in terms that have it as said that all citizens are “Sri Lankan;” and, within that premise, for the forms to have separate boxes with the following categories for each person to tick (or have ticked): Vädda Lankan, Sinhalese Lankan, Burgher Lankan, Borah Lankan, Sindhi Lankan, Tamil Lankan, Parsee Lankan, Malay Lankan, Colombo-Chetty Lankan and, last but not least, Samkara Lankan (mixed descent).

The latter category is particularly important. For one, it is a step that gives equal place to matrilineal ancestry and thus enhances female rights. For another, it will register the important phenomenon of hybridity that is otherwise lost in the political weight carried by census enumeration. There are a significant number of Sinhalese-Tamil marriages even today, especially in Colombo District and in the low-country plantations districts; taken together with the mixes between other communities, it would not surprise me if the category Samkara amounts to anything between 7 and 10 per cent of the total population of Sri Lanka. If this conjecture is valid, then the Tamils, Muslims, Samkara and other tiny communities will add up to almost thirty per cent of the total population.

But the point of this proposal is not primarily devoted towards marking and assessing relative demographic clout (the census is not politically-neutral). The goal is to reform and transform the categories of self-identity so that hyphenated thought takes root and destroys the insidious incorporation of the whole, Sri Lanka, by the majoritarian dominant part, Sinhalese. My suggestion is quite fundamental. It will call for political imagination for the rulers of the land to accept it.



Posted in SACRIFICIAL DEVOTION IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE on May 9, 2009 by galleonroberts

 by Michael Roberts, 28 April 09

This essay was drafted in Sri Lanka on the 27/28th April at a stage where I had no access to the latest internet news on those two days. It was then submitted to Frontline (on assignment) and has now appeared in issue No 26/10  that appeared on 9th May. The focus is on the events within and alongside the last LTTE redoubt beside Nanthi Kadal Lagoon between the 19-23 April when roughly 110,000 Tamil “civilians” (including some hardcore Tigers as well as recently conscripted auxiliary soldiers) streamed across to the government side of the battlefront. Obviously the processes at play in the period before that also come into the picture, whereas te events after 24 April do not. Even at several leagues distant the escape of so many said to be held hostage by the LTTE was a heart-warming development for those with empathetic anxieties about the plight of the civilians proper. This marvelous outcome inspired my article. It is a critique of those who continue to espouse the demand for a ceasefire from both parties (as distinct from those agencies who have asked the LTTE to cease firing and to lay down arms). Their position is deemed both simpleton and utopian. However unintentionally, such a demand is also partisan in its impact. This criticism can be augmented by adding a simple hypothetical note of a post facto kind: Let’s assume that a ceasefire of a month’s duration had been applied from, say, the 17th April. Would that have assisted the Tamil civilians? While assuaging the hearts of those Lankans and internationalists who had been insisting on such a ceasefire, whom would it have aided most, the Tamil civilians or the LTTE network in Lanka and abroad? What would the 110,000 Tamils who struggled out of the LTTE prison on foot say about the strategies of the humanitarian exorcists peddling the ceasefire mantra?


With the LTTE cornered and restricted to a tiny patch of isthmus beside Nanthi Kadal Lagoon ever since 6 April, the world has witnessed a menagerie of world leaders playing the game “throw egg on my face.” 

    On 22 April Hilary Clinton told the world that “a terrible humanitarian tragedy” was taking place in Sri Lanka and demanded a halt in the fighting so that “we could secure a safe passage for as many of the trapped civilians as possible.”

    Remarkably, for a superpower leader with access to up-to-date information Clinton appears to have been some 48 hours behind breaking events: namely, the escape of some 107,000 Tamil “civilians” (doubtless including Tiger cadres who had given up the fight) from their hell-hole situation after a commando operation carried out by the Sri Lankan army on the night of 19/20th April. Alternatively, one must conclude that Clinton read this miraculous tale as something that spelt a humanitarian disaster — hence my use of the egg metaphor.

    She was not alone. Various world leaders, the UN and its agencies and some human rights organizations reiterated the call for a ceasefire that they had been parroting for months as a solution to the hard realities around the LTTE’s end-game. It is this mantra that I challenge here.

    Let me stress the marvelous character of the outcome. As I arrived in Sri Lanka on 17th April, I told Kumari Jayawardena that the ground situation facing the army was labyrinthine. I could not, I said, see how they could move forward without generating disastrous death rates. Yet, today, we know that the commando operation was one for the text-book: it resulted in relatively few non-combatant deaths and created a path for streams and streams of Tamils to cross lagoon and beach over the next 2-3 days, roughly 110,000 making this little epic journey. This, for me, was better than the tale of Moses crossing the Red Sea. It was both elevating and saddening.

  It was distressing because of the condition some of these people displayed so starkly on camera, bespeaking the privation they had undergone in the immediate past. Indeed, as one or two died of dehydration or starvation while being bused or airlifted by the military to the nearest hospitals in Vavuniya, one knew, now, why the people of Thāmilīlam had turned their back on Eelam and the LTTE.

    Reports from journalists such as Murali Reddy confirmed that this existential plight had been aggravated by the draconian measures taken by the LTTE during the last two months or so. Again, the facial expressions of those prepared to speak (in Sinhala) on camera constituted a message in itself: “may a pox befall the house of Pirapāharan and the Tigers” was what visage proclaimed. Kannaki had arisen again.

    These outspoken Tamil individuals would surely be among those who would cast rotten eggs at Hilary Clinton! Perhaps we should not be surprised at Clinton’s insouciance. Nor am I surprised by the pantomime, a Dance of the Seven Veils, being performed at the electoral platforms in Tamilnadu. In similar fashion Sri Lanka’s democratic process has often revealed how vote-gathering inflames ethnic passions. The LTTE’s demise has sparked off an upsurge of pan-Dravidian sentiment (an issue demanding specialist treatment). The shameless exploitation of this current by Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi seems par for the course in populist politics.

   But how can Tamil dissidents who are fully aware of the character of the LTTE also fall into the same simpleton stance: namely, believing that ceasefires will help a “trapped people?” Take Nirmala Rajasingam’s passionate appeal in the Independent newspaper in Britain on Friday 24th April. While denouncing the LTTE for its “atrocities” and asserting, validly, that the “LTTE’s exclusivist Tamil nationalism and extreme militarism have led the Tamil community to this political dead-end,” Rajasingam also insisted that the government’s claim that there were few civilian casualties “defy reason,” and spoke of “huge civilian losses through indiscriminate fire.”

    Indeed, she began her essay with these words: “The world has watched aghast at the level of bloodshed and the horrific plight of the civilians who have now been under siege for months.” She seems to have been accepted as an authority by the Economist of 23 April (Anon 2009a) which has another anonymous article on “Dark victory,” which notes unequivocally that “in its rush to exterminate the Tigers—partly in justified fear of their skill at manipulating foreign opinion—the army has shown a cruel disregard for Tamil civilians crowding the battlefield” (Anon 2009b).

   But what exactly is the count of those “civilians” killed as against those who have fled the coop in the last 5-6 months? An UN report dated 24 April estimated the death toll among civilians as 6,432, with those injured being estimated as 13,946. These figures must be qualified by two sets of facts: (a) they include individuals who stepped on LTTE mines and those shot by Tigers (or killed by suicide bombers) as they fled; and (b) a few of these civilians would be new conscripts who had not been issued with uniforms.

    Our adjectives must be relative. So, let us place these numbers in comparative context beside the figure of 175,714 people who reached the government lines by 24 April, with roughly 68,000 having escaped before 20 April and 107,000 in that remarkable moment between 20 and 23 April.

    The dead 6432 make up roughly four per cent of those who have survived. Add the injured, some 13,000 according to the self-same UN report, and one has 20,000 casualties [caused by both sides] set against roughly 170,000 freed. While the figures are not to be laughed at, the death score is not “huge” while talk of “extermination” by Rajasingam’s accomplice, Dark Victory, displays mind-boggling bias and/or credulity.

    So what we see here from Rajasingam is an emotional outburst from a Tamil heart. That is understandable. But, here, the combination of inaccuracy (re the large number of deaths on 20-23 April – not true according to Reddy) and stridency in her outburst suggest that it is a voice of someone who has been imprisoned in a medieval monastery for centuries and has no awareness of the devastating power of modern weaponry (or medieval crusades for that matter). If there had been no restraint at all in the army offensive during the past six months, I can assure her that we would have had a death toll in the 30-50,000 range. As caveat let me stress that this claim does not mean that there was no cavalier bombing and artillery fire on some occasions.

    But the more immediate issue NOW is this: given that between 15,000 to 50,000 “civilians” are still trapped within the remnant LTTE patch of 5-6 square kilometres is the demand for a “humanitarian pause” (that is, “ceasefire” in ethical clothes) presented by concerned agencies a pragmatic course that will aid the Tamil people in Rump Eelam?

   This is not a novel issue. Strident NGO and human rights voices demanded a ceasefire from January 2009 onwards. It prompted my initial essay on “Dilemmas at War’s End: Thoughts on Hard Realities” in mid-February 2009. So, we have before us a conundrum that has been faced over 4-5 months. In addressing the dilemma now, we can benefit from the experiences in this period.

    But to fully grasp the ramifications we must (A) understand the ultra-nationalist ideology of the LTTE and (B) undertake a brief historical summary that delineates previous peace-talk failures as well as the steps leading to this present Eelam War Four (see TIMELINE below).

Tiger Ideology

Here I am in agreement with Rajasingam in her characterization of the LTTE as “militaristic” and fascist. Fuller elaborations have been provided recently in cyber-space and a capsule version suffices here.

    Every LTTE fighter takes an oath to sacrifice “life and soul” to the talaivar Pirapāharan and the cause of “Tamils’ freedom.” This gifting of life as weapon, or uyirayutam, secured widespread admiration among the SL Tamil people from its inception in 1982/83 because it bespoke the quality of arppaNippu (dedication). The LTTE’s capacity to withstand the IPKF (1987-89) and then the SL government forces from 1990-2000 compounded this admiration. From then on the LTTE was widely regarded by many Tamils as their best bulwark against Sinhala domination.

    From late 1989 the LTTE took the innovative step of burying all its dead, the māvīrar, in tuyilam illam (resting places) — sites considered “holy.” This martyr cult not only served to inspire and mobilize support, but also legitimized the LTTE. As one poem in a Tiger publication presented matters “the martyr sacrifices himself for the whole by destroying the I” (Hellmann-Rajanayagam 2005: 134).

    Thus, the LTTE embodied the philosophy of ultra-nationalism that has been such a pernicious force in the contemporary world, pernicious because it encourages wars in which “human bodies are sacrificed in the name of perpetuating a magical entity, the body politic” (Koenigsberg 2008:  42).

    Both Nazi Germany and imperial Japan were prime instances of this philosophy. The fascist Japanese regime of the 1930s and 1940s “inculcate[d] in the minds of the people the idea that all the Japanese, but especially the soldiers-to-be, must sacrifice their lives for their country” (Ohnuki-Tierney 2006: xiii). “You are nothing, your nation is everything,” said Hitler on one occasion (Koenigsberg 2009: 13). This leads Ecksteins to the conclusion that in Nazi thinking “the individual was the nation…. The nation had been telescoped into the dynamic individual” (1989: 195, emphasis his).

   In encouraging and enforcing an exodus of people from the Western half of the Jaffna Peninsula in late 1995 and now, again in late 2008/09, in effecting a similar programme for the peoples of the northern Vanni, the LTTE was adhering to its self-conviction that Pirapāharan, the Tigers and the people were one.

   Before evaluating the recent dilemmas posed by this strategy, it is wise to consider the temporal steps that brought about this situation. This Timeline is relegated to a Box (see TIMELINE below). One of the lessons emanating from this process is the fact that whenever war resumed after a period of talks/ceasefire, at points B, F and Q/R in our Timeline, it moved to a higher pitch of weaponry and death than previously. That is, escalation of death and destruction was the end result of each failed ceasefire.

   As clearly, one significant development during Eelam War Four was the stage when the overwhelming superiority in manpower and weaponry available to the GOSL began pushing the LTTE into retreat at points U, V, W and X, that is, from roughly April 2008. Under extreme pressure, the LTTE repeated the strategy they had adopted in Jaffna in late 1995: in metaphoric terms one can say they became “sharks who took the sea with them.”

    While some do-gooders and government spokesmen claim that this was a coercive step, that verdict is as uncertain as it is doubtful. As Murali Reddy has noted, the Tamil people distrusted the government and looked up to the LTTE. In effect, there is strong support for my contention that a substantial proportion of the migrant body was attached to the Eelam cause and the Tigers – at least initially.

     This was an exodus of biblical proportions. However, no one knew the exact proportions. As the mass of people were squashed into smaller portions of Tigerland the UN, NGOs, and other human rights activists became understandably anxious about the prospect of large-scale deaths in the furnace of war. Agitated voices peddled figures ranging from 250,000 to 400,000 in definitive tone. The compassionate goal of human care was not balanced by any ‘care’ of caveat. Propagandist goal and frenzied voice ensured that their picture was a prophecy of doom with maximal figures for maximal impact. These figures were the platform for strident demands that both parties in this vicious war should agree to a ceasefire and do so immediately. The blame game usually pointed equally at both parties to the conflict.

   The ethics promoting such claims without any qualifying caveats regarding the numbers quoted was one aspect that I questioned in my Dilemmas essay (Roberts 2009a). But that was a minor quibble. The main issue raised then in February 2009 was embodied in a simple question: “how would a ceasefire [implicitly a bilateral one] help the body of civilians in the immediate future if they continued to remain in Tigerland by choice or under duress?” My question was then backed up by the simple note that a resumption of war would find the civilians in similar danger. Or, one can add, in the light of past experience, in even greater danger.

   Supporting this critical question was a clarification of the character of the LTTE state and its ideology together with a series of pictures that graphically revealed the LTTE’s extensive programme of mass mobilization and paramilitary training for its civilian population from the year 2007 at the very least.

   One did not need to be a rocket scientist to conclude that an authoritarian command state such as the LTTE would value its civilian mass as a source of new conscripts and a labour pool, as well as a source of some food supplies (however inadequate) sent – what weird generosity – by the GOSL because the government considered them citizens and not Eelam Tamils. But as critical was the fact that the civilians on the one hand and the outsider prophecies of doom about their fate on the other together provided the LTTE with a large stack of bargaining chips. Always bold in their militarism, the Tigers hoped to gamble their way to a peace table with this body of people-chips. It is this bargaining power as much as the “human shield” they provided for Tiger fighters that I consider to be the main reason for this brilliant, if callous, policy of people-exodus.

   None of these considerations were addressed by the bevy of voices directed against my original article by both Sinhalese human right activists and Tamils. The moral high ground of future political ends, and the doom awaiting the downtrodden Tamil mass in Tigerland, subsumed reasoned response to my central questions. Not one person indicated how they could persuade the LTTE to release the civilians. Instead both my critics, the UN and its agencies, human rights activists and Tamil dissidents such as Rasalingam have continued to press for “ceasefire” as if it will save the Tamil civilians’ thosai for the days to come.     

    Even though two unilateral government ceasefires (of admittedly short duration) produced no beneficial results and only led to a military setback for GOSL in the first instance (circa 31 January) “ceasefire” remains a mantra in many circles. No thought is given to the long-term and fundamental issues attached to a continued military stalemate. It is as if the shout of “Ceasefire” will provide some form of Immaculate Salvation to the civilian mass within the LTTE fold. But I, for my part, do not have such faith in divine intervention.

    No one has challenged subsequent articles where I explained my readings of LTTE ideology and why they would expect the civilian mass of Eelam Tamils to “come die with us” — as one IDP who got away told a reporter some time back (Roberts 2009c). Thus guided, I even feared that the LTTE and people would indulge in a devotional pact of mass suicide in the manner Japanese at Saipan and Okinawa. Thus far, thankfully, that conjectural fear has been shown to have no foundation. I am pleased that I was wrong.  In the conditions of privation they have been forced to undergo in the last 2-3 months the Tamil peoples of the exodus have revolted against the LTTE and voted with their feet (or boat in a few cases).

    It would be far too harsh to say they have moved from frying pan to stove. Their conditions now are a distinct improvement of welfare from their state in the last few months. But internment camps and second class status together do not comfort make. It remains to be seen whether the Government will seize the moment and convert sullen Tamil ‘citizens’ into normal complaining citizens of the variety one finds everywhere.



Abbreviated History in Point-Form

A. Peace Talks 1989-90.
B. June 1990: Eelam War Two begins after LTTE launches surprise move against police stations in north and east.
C. Late 1994 Presidential Elections sees Chandrika Kumaratunga elected on a peace platform.
D. Jan-April 1995 Peace talks.
E. Mid April 1995: mini-Pearl Harbour sees 2 gunboats sunk in Trinco by LTTE frogmen.
F. April 1995- late 2000: Eelam War Three.
G. Early 2001: New UNP government of Ranil Wickremasinghe signs CFA with LTTE.
H. 10 April 2002: Pirapāharan & Balasingham hold grand media event for world press at Kilinochchi.
I. Peace talks at different venues were held from December 2001 to 2004: with key points being (a) Sattahip, Thailand, 16-18 Sept 2002; (b) Oslo, Nov. 2002; followed by the Oslo Declaration of 5 Dec. 2002 – all confirming LTTE’s de facto demi-nation status.
J. 2001-04: Wickremasinghe’s policy of consumer materialism begins to penetrate the fun-starved terrain of Tigerland and some Tiger cadres display a fondness for the “good life” – a process that frightens Pirapāharan no end.
K. Late 2002/Early 2003(?): When Balasingham, Tamil Chelvam and Karuna return with the Oslo principles for a political settlement that secures what can be called “pragmatic Eelam,” namely, autonomy for the north & east within the Sri Lankan state (Roberts 2002a, b, c), Pirapāharan goes off the deep-end and tears up the document. Thus, against the sentiments of his leading advisors Pirapāharan directs the LTTE to prepare for war – a course I can confirm from my findings in the course of a visit to Jaffna and Kilinochchi in late November 2004 (sources cannot be divulged).
L. April 2004 et seq: Karuna defects and the Eastern Province is swept by faction firefights. The LTTE emerges as winner, but is clearly weakened as a result.
M. 26 Dec. 2004: tsunami decimates Sea Tigers and delays LTTE plans.
N. 12 August 2005: Kadirgamar is assassinated as the preliminary step in the LTTE policy of assisting Mahinda Rajapakse and the UPFA to win the Presidential election – thereby removing a potential PM and a dangerous Tamil foe.
O. Dec. 2005: Mahinda Rajapakse scrapes in as President with the abstentions of Tamil voters serving as one factor influencing his victory and the support of the JVP and JHU as another factor. Thus, by early 2006 one has two sets of hawks facing each other, the ultra-nationalist Tamil Tigers and the chauvinist UPFA regime, the one totalitarian and the other restrained by electoral demands, but leaning towards extra-parliamentary methods.
P. Late 2005: intifada tactics by the LTTE in Jaffna Peninsula West where the GOSL is seen as an “occupying army.”
Q. 6 August 2006: Māvil Aru intervention by LTTE sees undeclared war breaking out in Trincomalee District. This moment eventually escalates into full-scale war on all fronts although the major focus is the Eastern Province. So we have Eelam War Four.
R. 2007: the GOSL forces gradually prevail in the east: with (a) the capture of Vakarai on 19 January 2007 and (b) the final ascendancy at the Toppigala redoubt on 11 July 2007 marking two central victories. After Toppigala Tiger power in the east is confined to isolated units in the deep jungle.
S. 2007: over the course of the year the Navy intercepts and destroys 10 LTTE supply ships in international waters (with the aid of Indian intelligence networks)
T. Early 2008: the army begins to chip away at the LTTE frontline defences in Mannar District while threatening them on all other fronts as well.
U. May-November 2008: army breakthroughs see the LTTE lose control of the north western coast, severely weakening their supply lines from India.
V. Late-2008: the LTTE is squeezed in by a three-pronged pinzer from south, west and northern edge above Elephant Pass
W. 1/2 Jan. 2009: The strategic Paranthan junction town falls to army and the LTTE abandons its capital Kilinochchi.
X. 25 Jan. 2009: The military HQ of the LTTE at Mullaitivu is captured.
Y. 2008/09: as the LTTE withdraws in orderly fashion at different stages during the moments U to X in the Timeline Box, it persuades and/or forces the Tamil people to move with the LTTE into the remaining Tiger territories.

Anonymous 2009a “The Sri Lankan army could turn triumph into disaster unless it shows restraint”

Economist.com, 23 April 2009, http://www.economist.com/opinion/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13527659.

Anon 2009b “Dark victory,” Economist.com, http://www.economist.com/displayStory.cfm?story_id=13527366

Ecksteins, Modris 1989 Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, New York: Anchor Books.

Hellman-Rajanayagam, Dagmar 2005 “ ‘And Heroes Die’: “Poetry of the Tamil Liberation Movement in Northern Sri Lanka,” South Asia 28: 112-53.

Koenigsberg, Richard A 2009 Nations have the Right to Kill. Hitler, the Holocaust and War, New York: Library of Social Science.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko 2006 Kamikaze Diaries. Reflections on Japanese Student Soldiers, University of Chicago Press.

Roberts, M. 2002a “The many faces of Eelam,” Daily Mirror, 8 August 2002.

Roberts, M. 2002b “LTTE’s ideological retreat,” Sunday Observer, 13 October 2002.

      Roberts, M. 2002c “LTTE pragmatism: at two moments” Lanka Monthly Digest, May 2003

Roberts, M. 2009a Dilemma’s At War’s End: Thoughts on Hard Realities,” http://www.groundviews.org, 10 Feb. 2009 and Island, 11 Feb. 2009.    

Roberts, M. 2009b “Dilemmas at Wars End: Clarifications & Counter-Offensive,” www. groundviews.org, 17 Feb. 2009. 

Roberts, M. 2009c “Suicidal Political Action,” in four parts, www.transcurrents.com, from1 April onwards.  

Roberts, M. 2009d “LTTE and Tamil People,” in four parts, www.groundviews.org from circa 21 April.


[LETTER ONE from Richard Koenigsberg, dated Mon, May 4, 2009]
Dear Michael,
           Really enjoyed your article, “LTTE and People III: Nationalism and Living Religion:” Your most concise statement so far.
You state that LTTE is not “unique in its sacrificial emphasis,” and that you will soon embark on a “comparative excursion in search of further insights into the phenomenon of nationalism.” 
           Thank you for citing my work on World War I as providing insight into this relationship between nationalism and sacrificial death. I hope you don’t mind if I work through a few of my ideas on this topic in this note. You don’t have to agree with me, but perhaps my reflections will set the stage for your own “comparative forays (qualified analogues) in an essay to follow.”
           I’ve come to the conclusion that we are dealing with a single underlying dynamic: a relationship between sacrificial violence and devotion to a sacred ideal. The word “fungible” has come up in relationship to my theory of collective violence. I won’t try to define this word, but what is being suggested is that while the OBJECTS to which people may devote themselves are interchangeable, the mechanism through which people prove their devotion to the object is constant.
           One may embrace a country (such as Great Britain), or an ideology (such as communism), or a God (such as Allah), but what is constant is how people prove the truth or reality of these entities, namely by killing and dying in their name. The fundamental dynamic is sacrificial, although a smokescreen is placed above everything by pretending that the fundamental dynamic is aggression.
           In addition to asking one’s own people to sacrifice their lives, leaders of nations and ideologies (and religious men attached to a God) also ask OTHER PEOPLE to die in the name of their country or ideology or God. One proves the greatness of one’s ideology by compelling other people to die in its name. 
           The best statement of this fundamental dynamic comes from Ali Benhadj, a revolutionary Islamist leader from Algeria: “If a faith, a belief, is not watered and irrigated by blood,” he says, “it does not grow. It does not live.” Principles, Benhadj says, need to be reinforced by “sacrifices, suicide operations and martyrdom for Allah.” Faith is propagated by “counting up deaths every day, by adding up massacres and charnel-houses.”
           I think that the dynamic Benhadj articulates lies at the heart of the history of civilization: Collective forms of violence function to bring into existence some sacred ideal, be it the idea of a nation, an ideology, or God. The point is that it doesn’t matter WHAT the concept is. And it doesn’t matter if we conceived the idea as “good” or “bad.” The idea may be “Hitler and Germany” or “freeing the slaves.” In any case. a constant sacrificial dynamic is operative. 
            This why historians constantly write about the numbers of people killed in relationship to a given war or episode of genocide. These numbers testify to the “historical significance” of the nation or ideology in the name of which the killing and dying occurred. There’s a direct relationship between the number people killed and the “significance” of an event in history (unlike gravity’s inverse law). 
            How ugly this all is: the human creation and attachment to “history” as a testimonial to the significance of various ideas, ideologies and entities. Life may be a tale “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” but mass-murderers and the historians who keep their names alive seek to pretend that the sound and fury is eminently meaningful. The sound and fury testifies to the REALITY OF THE EXISTENCE OF THE IDEA OR ENTITY IN THE NAME OF WHICH ALL THE KILLING AND DYING HAVE OCCURRED. The logic is: Surely human beings cannot have killed and died in the name of nothing. That for which we have died and killed must be real. 
            Thus it would appear that a common dynamic links violence, death and belief, regardless of the cultural context. Human beings seek to confer power upon the ideologies that they embrace by making sacrifices in their name. Ideologies become real for us when they are “irrigated by blood,” that is, to the extent that human beings are willing to die and kill for them. Surely we assume, an idea for which thousands or hundred of thousands have died must be valid. Death and bloodshed–the sound and the fury–persuade us that our sacred ideals signify something; that they possess reality.
            Have you begun to write your paper on comparative forms of nationalism/sacrifice? When do you expect to complete it? Where do you plan on publishing it?
Best regards,
Richard Koenigsberg
P. S. Yes, after a while, “relentless privation with little reward” leads one to abandon attachment to sacrificial fantasies that only cause “suffering in the body of a people.”
[LETTER TWO from Richard Koenigsberg, dated Mon, May 18, 2009]
Thanks very much for these.
    You say, “I even feared that the LTTE and the people would indulge in a devotional pact of mass suicide in the manner of the Japanese at Saipan and Okinawa.”
    That’s precisely what occurred in the case of Nazi Germany. Please see my paper POLITICAL VIOLENCE AND THE CONCEPT OF COLLECTIVE PSYCHOPATHOLOGY at http://www.ideologiesofwar.com/docs/rk_collective.htm This is one you have not previously read.
    Perhaps “losing” a war or “surrendering” means that the victorious side PREVENTS THE OTHER SIDE FROM ACTING OUT ITS SUICIDAL FANTASY. 
    You note that an “escalation of death and destruction was the end result of each failed ceasefire.” The greatest number of deaths for Nazi Germany occurred in 1945 AFTER HITLER AND THE GERMAN LEADERSHIP KNEW THAT THE WAR ALREADY HAD BEEN LOST. This was Hitler’s fantasy from the beginning, based on his attraction to the plays of Wagner: Götterdämmerung, world destruction. 
    Of course, people don’t often see this because they buy into the fantasy of “rationality” and “winning” and “male aggression.” It’s all a delusion. We live in the midst of a collective delusion.
Best regards,
Richard K

[LETTER ONE from Richard Koenigsberg, dated Mon, May 4, 2009]


Dear Michael,


           Really enjoyed your article, “LTTE and People III: Nationalism and Living Religion:” Your most concise statement so far.


You state that LTTE is not “unique in its sacrificial emphasis,” and that you will soon embark on a “comparative excursion in search of further insights into the phenomenon of nationalism.” 


           Thank you for citing my work on World War I as providing insight into this relationship between nationalism and sacrificial death. I hope you don’t mind if I work through a few of my ideas on this topic in this note. You don’t have to agree with me, but perhaps my reflections will set the stage for your own “comparative forays (qualified analogues) in an essay to follow.”


           I’ve come to the conclusion that we are dealing with a single underlying dynamic: a relationship between sacrificial violence and devotion to a sacred ideal. The word “fungible” has come up in relationship to my theory of collective violence. I won’t try to define this word, but what is being suggested is that while the OBJECTS to which people may devote themselves are interchangeable, the mechanism through which people prove their devotion to the object is constant.


           One may embrace a country (such as Great Britain), or an ideology (such as communism), or a God (such as Allah), but what is constant is how people prove the truth or reality of these entities, namely by killing and dying in their name. The fundamental dynamic is sacrificial, although a smokescreen is placed above everything by pretending that the fundamental dynamic is aggression.


           In addition to asking one’s own people to sacrifice their lives, leaders of nations and ideologies (and religious men attached to a God) also ask OTHER PEOPLE to die in the name of their country or ideology or God. One proves the greatness of one’s ideology by compelling other people to die in its name. 


           The best statement of this fundamental dynamic comes from Ali Benhadj, a revolutionary Islamist leader from Algeria: “If a faith, a belief, is not watered and irrigated by blood,” he says, “it does not grow. It does not live.” Principles, Benhadj says, need to be reinforced by “sacrifices, suicide operations and martyrdom for Allah.” Faith is propagated by “counting up deaths every day, by adding up massacres and charnel-houses.”


           I think that the dynamic Benhadj articulates lies at the heart of the history of civilization: Collective forms of violence function to bring into existence some sacred ideal, be it the idea of a nation, an ideology, or God. The point is that it doesn’t matter WHAT the concept is. And it doesn’t matter if we conceived the idea as “good” or “bad.” The idea may be “Hitler and Germany” or “freeing the slaves.” In any case. a constant sacrificial dynamic is operative. 


            This why historians constantly write about the numbers of people killed in relationship to a given war or episode of genocide. These numbers testify to the “historical significance” of the nation or ideology in the name of which the killing and dying occurred. There’s a direct relationship between the number people killed and the “significance” of an event in history (unlike gravity’s inverse law). 

            How ugly this all is: the human creation and attachment to “history” as a testimonial to the significance of various ideas, ideologies and entities. Life may be a tale “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” but mass-murderers and the historians who keep their names alive seek to pretend that the sound and fury is eminently meaningful. The sound and fury testifies to the REALITY OF THE EXISTENCE OF THE IDEA OR ENTITY IN THE NAME OF WHICH ALL THE KILLING AND DYING HAVE OCCURRED. The logic is: Surely human beings cannot have killed and died in the name of nothing. That for which we have died and killed must be real. 

            Thus it would appear that a common dynamic links violence, death and belief, regardless of the cultural context. Human beings seek to confer power upon the ideologies that they embrace by making sacrifices in their name. Ideologies become real for us when they are “irrigated by blood,” that is, to the extent that human beings are willing to die and kill for them. Surely we assume, an idea for which thousands or hundred of thousands have died must be valid. Death and bloodshed–the sound and the fury–persuade us that our sacred ideals signify something; that they possess reality.

            Have you begun to write your paper on comparative forms of nationalism/sacrifice? When do you expect to complete it? Where do you plan on publishing it?


Best regards,

Richard Koenigsberg


P. S. Yes, after a while, “relentless privation with little reward” leads one to abandon attachment to sacrificial fantasies that only cause “suffering in the body of a people.”




[LETTER TWO from Richard Koenigsberg, dated Mon, May 18, 2009]


Thanks very much for these.


    You say, “I even feared that the LTTE and the people would indulge in a devotional pact of mass suicide in the manner of the Japanese at Saipan and Okinawa.”


    That’s precisely what occurred in the case of Nazi Germany. Please see my paper POLITICAL VIOLENCE AND THE CONCEPT OF COLLECTIVE PSYCHOPATHOLOGY at http://www.ideologiesofwar.com/docs/rk_collective.htm This is one you have not previously read.


    Perhaps “losing” a war or “surrendering” means that the victorious side PREVENTS THE OTHER SIDE FROM ACTING OUT ITS SUICIDAL FANTASY. 


    You note that an “escalation of death and destruction was the end result of each failed ceasefire.” The greatest number of deaths for Nazi Germany occurred in 1945 AFTER HITLER AND THE GERMAN LEADERSHIP KNEW THAT THE WAR ALREADY HAD BEEN LOST. This was Hitler’s fantasy from the beginning, based on his attraction to the plays of Wagner: Götterdämmerung, world destruction. 


    Of course, people don’t often see this because they buy into the fantasy of “rationality” and “winning” and “male aggression.” It’s all a delusion. We live in the midst of a collective delusion.


Best regards,


Richard K


Posted in SACRIFICIAL DEVOTION IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE on April 24, 2009 by galleonroberts
In the previous essays within this cluster I have dwelt on the dedication to cause displayed by the Tamil Tigers and identified various inspirations or conditioning factors: namely, the Cankam poetry, the warrior tales from Indian history, the embodied practices of self-punishment exercised by religious devotees and the ‘everyday’ acts of surrogate sacrifice that are integral to Saivite Tamil life ways. It was noted that the LTTE leaders marshaled and deployed symbols associated with these practices in the course of their propaganda and indoctrination work. Such processes sacralized the project of Eelam, rendering it “holy.”

    But I surmise that in this work of propaganda the Tiger leaders made their choices as true believers. Their selections gained energy (a) from the context of threats posed by the government of Sri Lanka, (b) the subjective engagement of the leaders themselves in the practices (e. g. māvīirar liturgies) they espoused; and (c) a self-belief in the virtue of their goals, a conviction that was, indeed, entrenched to the degree of dogma. An implicit force that facilitated a responsive reception of their work of inculcation was the medium of Tamil and the overarching ‘parasol’ provided by the concept of Tamilttay, or “Mother Tamil.” In consequence there was a fruitful interflow between people and cultural producers.

    The argument, then, is that patriotic sentiments bound LTTE leaders, their cadres and the SL Tamil people in both the territories they controlled in the period 1990 and 2008 (Tigerland in short-hand) and those outside their immediate reach within Lanka and abroad.

    From early-mid 2008, as we all know, the overwhelming superiority of men and armaments deployed by GOSL forces, now working far more intelligently that in the 1990s, began to take effect. The LTTE forces were rolled back by this juggernaut both northwards to Pooneryn and then eastwards towards the shores around Mullaitivu. Thus threatened, indeed, probably from way back in 2007, the LTTE increased its range of conscription. In this policy it was exercising its legitimate rights as a de-facto state — though it has been infringing modern restraints by incorporating children (that is, in my book, those under 15 years) into its ranks.

    An army does not consist of fighters alone. The catering corps, the supply corps, engineering corps, etc are essential cogs in a complex machine. It is probable that the new LTTE recruits, especially middle-aged men and women, had minimal combat capacity and mostly worked in these critical support services, especially the work of constructing bunds and ditches.

    It is also evident that due to the exigencies of context and retreat these new conscripts did not wear uniforms. Though these elements were (are) by any definition part of the LTTE army, I chose to call them “auxiliaries” for this reason – the full meaning in implicit intent being “auxiliary soldiers” (Roberts 2009a and 2009b). It also follows that the “civilians” in the shrinking space of Tigerland were continually reduced in number by this ongoing process of recruitment.

     That said, there is no doubt that a significant number of “civilians” who had been induced and/or coerced into an exodus by the LTTE were under severe threat to life as a result of the furnace of war and the bombardments by state artillery and aircraft. While the numbers circulated in, say, early 2009 by NGOs, Tiger spokespersons and media outlets everywhere have clearly been overblown, the fact of potential catastrophe was undeniable.

    But, equally undeniable, in my argument is that the LTTE was the primary agent behind this awesome and critical scenario. From a military and pragmatic point of view the LTTE policy of the sharks (themselves) taking the sea of people with them was a strategic move that was (and is) as brilliant as ruthless. It set up an unprecedented scenario in the history of warfare. This strategic innovativeness had its flip side. In creating conditions that invited the GOSL forces to create civilian carnage in the process of their advance, the LTTE was enacting a “war crime” as both Kumar Rupesinghe (Sunday Island, 5 April 2009) and Rohini Hensman (2009) – neither of whom are Sinhala Buddhist extremists, indeed, anything but – have asserted.

    On a priori grounds we can conjecture that the Tigers have adhered to this heartlessly brilliant strategy because (1) the “civilians” provided a labour pool and a source of news recruits; (b) restrained the GOSL forces in some measure (but not completely) by serving as a protective screen; (c) providing a mass of potential war-victims whom the LTTE propaganda machine could use effectively so that the civilian body became a bargaining resource towards a potential political ‘settlement’ that would enable the LTTE to remain as a major player in Sri Lanka itself; and (d) providing a source of food and medical supplies because the GOSL were ready to send such goods via ICRC channels even in the midst of demonic warfare – a  “weird” phenomenon in the estimate of a Welsh-Aussie historian with whom I play tennis regularly (though apparently this is quite normal for human rights activists).

    My present set of essays, complemented by those in the transcurrents site, has attempted to emphasise another factor that impacted on the LTTE’s policy of enforcing a peoples’ exodus: the LTTE’s ultra-nationalist ideology of regarding the Tamil individual and the Tamil people-nation-state as ONE, inextricably bound to each other in ways that demanded the gifting of self – uyirayutam, or “life-(gifted)-as-weapon” – for the collective. So, self-negation in this instance is deemed a form of fulfillment, rather like an arduous pilgrimage or rolling on the ground for miles in the course of a meaningful religious festival invoking a deity’s beneficial power.

                                    *          *          *          *          *          *

There has been just a touch of this type of excess in the course of the agitation mounted by Sri Lankan Tamils in migrant circles beyond Sri Lanka, though the protests also replicate the energy and practices of mass political agitation on behalf of a wide variety of causes, say, anti-G20, anti-nuclear, green environmental issues, anti-Israeli atrocities, et cetera, witnessed in agitations during the modern era.

    Viewed in sum, the protests in Toronto, London, Sydney and other venues have all been fierce; indeed, they have bordered on the hysterical. The frenetic character of these responses is compounded by some of the commentary from pro-Tiger spokespersons entering responses in various web sites. The vision is Manichean: it is the GOSL that is responsible for the potential catastrophe, the LTTE has no hand in the producing the setting.

    The tunnel-vision is further compounded by gross exaggeration: the government is said to be pursuing a policy of “genocide.” This is, of course, an emotive and powerful slogan, bound to catch media attention, and, more vitally, stir other Tamils, both Sri Lankan and from elsewhere. No thought is given to the fact that the scales of civilian death bear no comparison with the figures surrounding the ‘exemplary’ victims of genocide in the recent past, namely, the Jews of Europe in Hitler’s time, the Khmer under Pol Pot and the (mostly) Tutsi people of Rwanda in the 1990s. That such a profligate use of the term for smaller figures of victimization belittles the large-scale massacres and is a form of unintended defamation of these peoples is not a concern among those who wield this propaganda weapon. But, as the general thrust of my essays anticipates, such rhetorical excess is to be expected from ultra-nationalist thinking in its crisis moments.

     We need, however, to reflect on the conviction with which these one-sided, Manichean perspectives are voiced by Tamil migrants, sometimes young first or second generation students. They seem to be genuine in their views. I take them at face-value. Their expressions reveal both authenticity and depths of anguish. But their tunnel-vision and bloated exaggerations also bear the imprint of dogma rooted in nationalist sentiment and wholly partisan dedication to cause.

     This degree of commitment has, as we know, also witnessed dedication to privation in the course of their lengthy protests (e. g. overnight vigils). Such vigour, of course, is a universal aspect of protest agitation. Some greenies, for instance, chain themselves to trees in the path of logging work. But among the Tamils on behalf of LTTE and people today one has seen a specific “Asian” (and thus Tamil) touch, viz., the tactic of hunger fasts – though these have not yet been taken to the ultimate point pursued by Tilīpan and Annai Pūpati.

   A fast is just one method of protest suicide. In the medieval practice of “navakandam, (or avippali)” described by Sivaram, “a warrior … slice[ed] off his own neck to fulfil the vow made to korravai – the Tamil goddess of war – for his commanders’ victory in battle;”[1] while Jayabarathi’s description of this act and its preceding rites contends that it was protest against an unjust act by a king or the marking of unjust humiliation.[2] Varnakulasingham in Geneva and a few Tamils in Tamilnadu and Malaysia took one of these paths of protest: a majestic death by fire. They negated their being in this world as a gift in aid of the Sri Lankan Tamil struggle and the Tiger firmament. That is why I began the first set of articles in transcurrents with Varnakulasingham’s action and attention to the appreciative response that it generated among Tamils in Britain (2009c).

   All along, and as I began the second cluster of essays on 2 April, I had no doubt that the Tiger fighters would mostly fight to the bitter end (an easy prediction that).  But I was beginning to consider, with awe and apprehension, the possibility that we might witness some mass suicides among the pro-LTTE civilians remaining on the coastal fringe north of Mullaitivu. This was before the military debacle suffered by the LTTE at Aanandapuram (Jeyaraj 2009). That may have reduced the scale of possibility, but the end-point of war has not yet been reached, so ….

   In all such thoughts I have been informed by my desultory knowledge of the suicidal Japanese resistance and acts of mass suicide that occurred during World War Two. The brief comments in my “Preamble” now require some summary clarification of that setting by drawing upon a few instances. That requires another article on that topic, one that will serve as a long footnote to my principal focus.

    But it is appropriate to conclude this article with details of a Japanese protest suicide that bears comparison — in broad terms that admit difference too — with the acts of Chinnasāmi (in Tamilnadu January 1964), Varnakulasingham, Tilīpan and Annai Pūpati. That is the case of seppuku by Yukio Mishima.   

    Mishima is (was) the pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka, one of Japan’s greatest novelists and a right-wing extremist steeped in the samurai traditions. On 25 November 1970 he led a tiny private army and seized the headquarters of the Japanese Self-Defense Force in a hopeless enterprise which was the precursor to his protest act: namely, standing on a balcony and reading a manifesto advocating rebellion and, then, in theatrical gesture, committing seppuku – an act against self that was capped, literally, by a compatriot chopping his head off.

    Significantly, though Mishima’s political philosophy has been described as “essentially Nietzschean and nihilist” (Starrs 1994: 94, 6-9), there seem to have been strands of Zen thinking in his perspectives. His novel Yūkoku (Patriotism) centred on an abortive rebellion of an extreme right-wing group of military officers on 26 February 1936. In brief, Mishima was a fascist or, in Asian terms, a chauvinist (rather akin to Gunadasa Amarasekera on the Sinhala side and, perhaps, Pudhuvei Rathnathurai on the Tamil side).

     As pertinent to this instance is the fact that Mishima’s The Way of the Samurai is an appreciative commentary on the Hagakure, the famous eighteenth-century text written by Zen priest Jocho Yamamoto, which is widely regarded as an embodiment of the bushido code. Cast as a critique of modern society, The Way of the Samurai contends that the Hagakure is “a living philosophy that holds that life and death [are] the two sides of the same shield” (quoted in Moeren 1986: 109-10). Thus, in effect, Mishima celebrated a powerful theme in Buddhist-influenced Japanese aesthetics and philosophy, namely the “transcience of life,” an understanding encoded in popular culture by the image of falling cherry blossoms (Moeren 1986: 107, 111) — which, as Ohnuki-Tierney has revealed (2002), were a powerful metaphor for the kamikaze pilots.

    Fascist he was, but Mishima also lived by his dogma: he implanted his body, so to speak, within the texts inscribed by his pen.



Hensman, Rohini 2009 “Who is Responsible for the Civilian predicament in the Wanni?” Daily Mirror, 18

    April 2009, p. 49.

Jayabarathi, S. “Self-sacrifice or Navakantam,” http://www.geocities.com/Vienna/Choir/4262/


Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2009a”Top Tiger leaders killed in a major debacle for LTTE,” http://www.transcurrents.com, 6 April.

Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2009b “Theepan of the LTTE: Heroic Saga of a Northern Warrior,” Daily Mirror, 11 April 2009.

Moeren, Brian 1986 “The Beauty of Violence: Jidaigeki, Yakusza and ‘Eroduction’ Films in Japanese Cinema,” in D. Riches, ed., The Anthropology of Violence, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 104-117.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko 2002 Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms and Nationalism. The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History, University of Chicago Press.

Roberts, M. 2009c “Dilemmas At War’s End: Thoughts on Hard Realities,” http://www.groundviews.org, 10 Feb. 2009 and Island, 11 Feb. 2009.    

Roberts, M. 2009d “Dilemmas at War’s End: Clarifications & Counter-Offensive,” http://www.groundviews.org, 17 Feb. 2009.  

Roy Starrs, 1994 Deadly Dialectics. Sex, Violence and Nihilism in the World of Yukio Mishimo, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.


 [1] Sivaram cites the Kalingathu Parani as his authority. The latter is “a work which celebrates the victory of the Chola king Kulotunga and his general Thondaman in the battle for Kalinga [and] describes the practice in detail” (Lanka Guardian, 1 June 1992).

[2] S. Jayabarathi, “Self-sacrifice or Navakantam,” http://www.geocities.com/Vienna/Choir/ 4262/ navkantha.htm.


Posted in SACRIFICIAL DEVOTION IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE on April 23, 2009 by galleonroberts

Michael Roberts,

5 April 2009


The emergence of the LTTE was an outgrowth from Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism. Tamil nationalism in its turn was an outgrowth from SL Tamil communitarianism in the centuries prior to 1949/50, the moment when an explicit theory of nationality was presented in a sustained manner (Roberts 1999). Note, however, that Tamil nationalism in the period 1949 to the 1970s was a “sectional nationalism” nestling within “Ceylonese nationalism” (Roberts 1979a, 1979b).

   Tamil nationalism turned secessionist in the 1970s for reasons that have been widely canvassed in the historical literature and which do not need reiteration here (Wilson 2000; Sabaratnam 2001; De Votta 2004; Wickramasinghe 2006: 171-99, 252-301; Roberts 2007). The LTTE was among those who advocated such a goal, working initially with loose affiliation to the TULF. In the late 1970s and early 1980s radical socialist vocabulary figured prominently in LTTE propaganda – to a degree that even captivated some Indian media outlets. But we now know that the LTTE was quite fundamentally nationalist and that its socialism was largely veneer (though its anti-caste credentials were certainly sustained).

   The circumstances of secretive underground activity and war rendered its structures authoritarian. Once a de facto state was established from 1990 this feature developed into a totalitarian one-party state of fascist character (Manikkalingam 1995), albeit one that probably enjoyed considerable popular support. In other words, the ideology of the LTTE was ultra-nationalist, which is to say “chauvinist.” In effect they were a mirror image of the Sinhala chauvinists who were an important force in the political dispensation that the Tamils and the LTTE confronted from 1976 onwards – Sinhala chauvinists (encompassing Christians as well as Buddhists) who were a multi-stranded ‘front’ who secured ascendancy in southern politics in late 2005 with the election of the Rajapakse regime (partly courtesy of LTTE strategy).

   In contrast with the Sinhala extremists (and also the other Tamil fighting groups) the LTTE, as I have argued (2009c, 2009d), explicitly committed their personnel to gifting their lives in self-negating manner as a means towards their goal of Eelam. This measure of dedication (arppaNippu) secured the admiration of many SL Tamil people.

                                    *          *          *          *          *

The introduction above sets the stage for a comparative excursion in search of further insights into the phenomenon of nationalism, especially in its ultra form. The point here is that the LTTE is not unique in its sacrificial emphasis — at least in broad terms.

    An emphasis on sacrifice on behalf of the nation, with idioms drawn from a Christian lexicon, was pervasive among most of the European countries participating in the First World War. The heroic acceptance of potential death by so many males was preceded by the euphoria expressed when war was announced and the fanfare surrounding marching bodies of troops as the public in all major cities on both sides of the war acclaimed their patriotism (Koenigsberg 2008: 65; Ecksteins 1989: 197, 306). Even in the distant antipodes Australians joined the war effort with pride and trumpet: they wanted to show the world that they were worthy of nationhood by proving their worth in a “baptism of fire” (Toowoomba Chronicle, 30 April 1915 and Argus, 8 May 1915).

    In a slashing denunciation Richard Koenigsberg argues that “nationalism is a living religion” (2008: xiii). This theme meshes with Bruce Kapferer’s critique: the “nation,” he says, “is created as an object of devotion and the political forces which become focused upon it are intensified in their energy and passion. The religion of nationalism [shrouds] the political in the symbolism of [a] “higher” purpose …” (1988: 1). In this manner, he adds, nationalism can be “among the most liberating, but also the most oppressive … political energies” of our time.

    How true, one can immediately say with a sigh, this comment is for the story of both Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms in Sri Lanka over the last fifty years! But there is a further, critical embellishment in Kapferer’s work: he stresses that the “political nation [as] the object of devotion [can assume] messianic and proselytizing dimensions” (1988: 136).

    This dimension, the apocalyptic strain in LTTE ideology, has come to the forefront in the last six-to-eight months as the Tigers, so successful previously as conventional army, have been pushed into retreat and been besieged in their shrinking territorial spaces in the face of vastly superior numbers and armaments deployed by the government forces. They have responded not only with what must count as one of the most remarkable defensive retreats in the annals of modern warfare — given the degree to which they are outnumbered and outgunned; but also by persuading and pressing the Tamil peoples (those not conscripted) of the northern Vanni to move with them in an enforced exodus of near-biblical proportions.

    Indeed, if one of the reports from the governments propaganda engines can be believed, some Tamil “civilians” who have managed to evade this demand or to escape from the Tiger fold have reported that the LTTE leaders urged civilians to “come die with us (the LTTE fighters)” [see http://www.strategypage.com/qnd/srilank/articles/20090305.aspx%5D. This specific news item emanates from government sources. While such reports must normally be regarded with extreme caution, this demand is precisely the type of action that my studies of LTTE ideology would have led me to anticipate. Indeed, the role of the kuppi and the manner in which it is treated as “a friend” (Roberts 2009a), as well as the extraordinary degree of dedication (arppaNippu) to cause revealed by so many Tigers over the years, is rooted in the same body of thought, an ideological corpus of ultra-nationalist sentiment with apocalyptic strains.

    While revealing similar strands to ultra-nationalism elsewhere, that of the Tigers and Sri Lankan Tamils nevertheless carries threads that are region and country specific. The veneration of Pirapāharan and the devotion to cause drawing inspiration, as I have indicated earlier (Roberts 2009c), from the warrior motifs in the Cankam poetry was meshed with the devotional energy of the bhakti religious movements of southern India. These orientations have also drawn sustenance from the practices of surrogate sacrifice that are commonplace in Tamil Saivite worship (Roberts 2005).

    Likewise, the pervasive practices of propitiatory offerings to deities and the attendant fulfilling of vows lead a few Tamils to indulge in extreme forms of self-punishment (e. g. rolling on the ground for miles, fire-walking) at festivals. While the numbers who resort to such self-flagellation may be small at any one festival, they add up to a significant minority over any one year. Such demanding acts of devotion, moreover, occur in the midst of a teeming crowd that exhorts and acclaims those pursuing such acts of ascetic mortification. The mass energy displayed by devotees at a Vel festival or Amman water-cutting ritual simply cannot be captured in words.

    To those of us who are agnostic or of secular orientation, such devotional fervour is perhaps as awesome as puzzling-strange. We may also be encouraged in our scepticism by (a) the findings of anthropologists who tell us that, just occasionally, vow-makers and devotees turn nasty and curse the very deities they venerate because calamitous happenings have not been prevented; or (b) by reading Robert Knox’s statement about 17th century Sinhalese villagers in the highlands whose fortunes had turned bad: “I have often heard them say, give him no sacrifice, but shit in his mouth, what a God is he” (1911: 132). Such stray counter-notes may even induce us sceptics-cum-outsiders to exclaim in ironic parody: “praise be to the lord (simple l).”

    Again, we outsiders may be comforted by the thought that the religious fervour displayed at a Kumbha Mēla, a Badrakāli Festival or a high moment at Lourdes is not a threat to other people. Our awe may gather volume and develop into distaste when a body of 909 devotees commit mass suicide in the manner of the People Temple, a Christian evangelical sect that made Jonestown into a horror story on 18 Nov. 1978. Awe turns into antipathy, however, when religious movements take up an explicitly political project in the manner of the Hindu Sangh Pariwar forces in India or Al-Qaida worldwide. In the face of such forms of explicitly religious nationalism (or “fundamentalism”), ironic parody of the type essayed in the previous paragraph is as puny as disingenuous.

    But, just as the odd devotee turns on the deities and curses them, it would appear that there are some civilian Tamils of the recent exodus who have turned their backs on the LTTE. Just the other day an “elderly man wearing a grimy T shirt and sarong and clutching a single bag” after he had struggled out of Tiger territory told (presumably via a translator) a Daily Telegraph reporter named Nick Meo, “angrily,” that “the people do not like the Tigers any more.” “They are trapped by them and they are scared. They want the Sri Lankan army to rescue them” (Island, 3 April 2009).

    This man was furious and his sweeping generalisation must be immediately modified. Patriotic sentiments have a capacity to capture the commitment of civilians as well as fighting cadres in ways that involve the fusion of self within collective – a topic that I will be elaborating upon through comparative forays (yes, qualified analogues) in an essay to follow. This is a capacity that cloistered intellectuals such as Shanie of the Notebook (Island, 28 March 2009) simply cannot comprehend. Nationalism is a powerful powder and there will be several true believers among the remnant civilian Tamil population hemmed in with the remnant Tigers. But relentless privation with little reward has also, quite clearly, reaped its little revolts among a suffering body of people.




Ecksteins, Modris 1989 Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, New York: Anchor Books.

De Votta, Neil 2004 Blowback. Linguistic Nationalism, Institutional Decay and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka, Stanford University Press.

Kapferer, Bruce 1988 Myths oif state, Legends of People, Washington: Smithsonian Instituion  


Koenigsberg, Richard A. 2009 Nations have the Right to Kill. Hitler, the Holocaust and War,    

     New York: Library of Social Science¸

Manikkalingam, Ram 1995 Tigerism, Colombo: a pamphlet.

Roberts, Michael 1979a “Meanderings in the Pathways of Collective Identity and Nationalism,” in M. Roberts (ed.) Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, pp. 1-90.

Roberts, Michael 1979d “Problems of Collective Identity in a Multi-Ethnic Society: Sectional Nationalism vs Ceylonese Nationalism, 1900-1940,” in Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in Modern Sri Lanka, Colombo: Marga Publications, pp. 337-60.

Roberts, Michael 1999 “Nationalisms Today and Yesterday,” in Gerald Peiris and S. W. R. de

    A. Samarasinghe (eds) History and Politics. Millennial Perspectives. Essays in honour of  

    Kingsley de Silva, Colombo: Law and Society Trust, pp. 23-44.

Roberts, Michael 2006b “The Tamil Movement for Eelam,” E-Bulletin of the International

    Sociological Association No. 4, July 2006, pp. 12-24.

   Roberts, Michael 2009a “Suicidal Political Action I: Soundings,” http://www.transcurrents.com &

       http:// sacrificialdevotionnetwork.wordpress.com/

    Roberts, Michael 2009c “Suicidal Political Action III: Imperatives,” www. transcurrents.

       com & http:// sacrificialdevotionnetwork.wordpress.com/

Roberts, Michael 2009d “Suicidal Political Action IV: LTTE Power & Popular Support,”

       www.transcurrents.com & https://sacrificialdevotionnetwork.wordpress.com/

Sabaratnam, Lakshmanan 2001 Ethnic Attachments in Sri Lanka: Social Change and Cultural

    Continuity, London: Palgrave.

Wickramasinghe, Nira 2006 Sri Lanka in the Modern Age. a History of Contested Identities,

     Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications.

Wilson, A. J. 2000 Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, London: Hurst and Company.


Posted in SACRIFICIAL DEVOTION IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE on April 22, 2009 by galleonroberts

Michael Roberts

2 April 09


During the halcyon years of the LTTE, besides Māvīrar Nāl on 27 November, the Tigers conducted nine other māvīrar or tiyaki ceremonies every year. These were, on the one hand, subjectively meaningful engagements and, on the other, political propaganda. I have argued that the māvīrar rites — within the context of past grievances and memories, as well as the sufferings of war — contributed substantially to the support for the LTTE project among SL Tamil peoples residing in the territories under their authoritarian sway (Roberts, “Suicidal,” 2009 c, d).

    The māvīrar ceremonies included the deployment of pictorial imagery, whether as backdrop scenes, pandals, billboards or sculpture. The Tamil cultural heritage has been nourished for centuries by the colourful (sometimes florid) artistic expressions produced by specialists, known in English-Tamil as scenekāra, usually drawn from pupillary lines of kalaignan or siththirakkalagnan. The scenekāra usually painted the backdrop scenes for the lively dances and folk theatre known as kūttu (kuththu) that was a vital pillar within Tamil life ways.

    The LTTE deployed these artistes in their activities, while at the same time encouraging their own personnel to develop their capacities in both traditional fields as well as modern modes of ideological transmission – as Trawick’s empirical material from the Eastern Province reveals from time to time (2007). Thus, DVDs, cassettes and videos supplemented kūttu in the propaganda activities of the LTTE.

   So did music, a mode of communication that is integral to folk theatre. Martial, lyric and lament (oppāri pattu) music was pervasive during the days leading up to Māvīrar Nāl; while DVDs and cassettes have been produced and disseminated widely in order to glorify the achievements of the Tigers. A well-known virtuoso in musical composition named Kannan was among the artistes contributing their skills to these new productions – in ways that were highly innovative in the opinion of the Leftist poet, Ponnampalam (my interview in Dec. 2004).

    Among outside observers the standard response to the argument that the LTTE had considerable support among the Tamil residents in the north and east is to refer to “brainwashing” and “indoctrination.” This is an interpretation that concentrates on instrumental manipulation by powerful leaders. Insofar as my essays have spoken of “deployment,” this viewpoint has been accepted. But I stress here that I only accept it in part, presenting it as one factor among others.

    Where I object to the indoctrination thesis is with its claim to catholicity, that is, I question the full stop introduced after the viewpoint is presented. The theory renders a quarter-truth into the only truth. It also treats all followers as cultural dopes, mere plasticine in the hands of leaders, to a degree that I cannot accept (indeed, I wonder if the same observers will not consider all Catholic devotees who attend mass every Sunday or all Buddhist devotees at Poson as brainwashed robots).

     I have a third objection to this thesis. It places the leaders outside the cultural symbols and political grievances they deploy. In opposition I hold that the Tiger leaders were not in outer space, but working from within their experiential cultural milieu. Their force of voice, choice of symbols and own individual practices developed from speaking as true believers.

    Thus, in counterpoint, I insist that the māvīrar ceremonies were not simply staged manipulations by opportunistic leaders. I believe that there is deep emotional investment in their comrades among the LTTE leaders themselves. Pirapāharan wept when Sellakili died in action on 23 July 1983. He fasted for one day every year prior to the moment marking Shankar’s death (Schalk 1997). Schalk presents a perceptive contention when he conjectures that at twilight every 27th November since 1989, Shankar “is made a collective focal point for re-experiencing the mourning experience of Velupillai Pirapākaran” (2003: 400).

    The LTTE cadres continuously affirmed their commitment to their goal via reference to their fallen. For instance, once the practice of burials was initiated circa 1989 the final rite of planting saw those present reciting the following phrase as a troop fired guns in the air: “Now we have lost you. But in the place of the gap you have created, we will follow the path you have taken and we will achieve Thamilīlam” (information from S. Visahan). In brief, a profound current of subjective self-affirmation among its personnel has been one facet of the ‘martyrology’ and mass state liturgies that the LTTE has developed as a means of motivation, mobilization and legitimization of cause. If my outsider-voice does not carry conviction, then readers should digest DBS Jeyaraj’s powerful essay on the topic of Māvīrar Nāl (2006).

    Thus, on these grounds I argue that the Sri Lankan Tamil peoples’ homage to the dead on 27 November every year since 1989 has been a gathering of strength and an act of renewal. This set of practices respects, remembers, legitimizes, transcends and inspires. As such, the ceremony has been a binding moment between the Tigers and the people in Tigerland (and beyond one can add).

                                                *          *          *          *          *

By late 1990 the LTTE were widely admired by SL Tamil people because of the manner in which they had withstood the massive IPKF forces and because they were seen as bulwark protecting them from a threatening SL government. As Dayan Jayatilleke told a BBC team in late 1991, Pirapāharan was “a living legend” (BBC, 1991).

    Our evaluations of the relationship between SL Tamils and the  LTTE regime-cum-leader are best served by attending to the four broad constituencies among the latter in the period 1990-to-2008: (A) those in Tigerland; (B) those in occupied territory in the north, that is within the Jaffna Peninsula and in Vavuniya North; (C) those in Colombo and the Sinhala-majority regions; and (D) migrants abroad.

     The point here is that the Tamil people in Tigerland were fully alive to the severity of the LTTE regime and the limitations on free speech. But they were also caught in a structural pincer: between a rock (the LTTE) and a hard place (the government of Sri Lanka, or GOSL). In this bind I conjecture that even SL Tamils who had reservations about the LTTE preferred their ethnic own, that is, the Tigers, to the GOSL In partial contrast, I surmise that many Tamil migrants in the diaspora were not experientially versed in the difficulties of the LTTE regime. Thus, many were (and still remain) far more starry-eyed about the talaivar Pirapāharan and his LTTE than those subject to LTTE rule (thanks here to Devanesan Nesiah for stressing this). Just the other day some Tamil dissidents from the diaspora who had been brought to Lanka by GOSL to review the IDP situation and mediate political compromise were asked whether Pirapāharan was a hero in migrant circles. Their response was honest: “To some, he is a divine figure, as someone who had come to save Tamils. According to Hindu belief, there are Avathara pursusha, someone born to defend and save them. This image has come in [that is, taken deep root] and it will be very difficult to get rid of it” (Daily News, 6 April 2009).

    Subject to these caveats, let me provide evidence of the awe in which Pirapāharan was held by the people within the regions commanded by the LTTE. To begin with a note by Anita Pratap, one of the few journalists to have interviewed Pirapāharan several times: “the Tiger credo has two parts – to fight for Eelam and to be loyal to Pirabhakaran till the last breath. By the time training is over, young Tiger recruits venerate Pirabhakaran. It is a carefully orchestrated indoctrination” (2001: 102, emphasis mine). Yes, indoctrination again! Pratap’s emphasis on indoctrination carries the imprint of the instrumentalist reasoning that dominates our world today. It should be qualified by Pratap’s own emphasis on the devotional regard for Pirapāharan as a brother (annai) with god-like qualities among LTTE personnel of all ranks and ages (Pratap 2001: 102-04 & 70-72).

    One should note too that several female fighters in the Batticaloa region described Pirapāharan as “beautiful” and “a man of goodness, intellect, sacrifice” (Trawick 2007: 68, 81, 183). From her intimate interactions in 1997/98 and 2002 Trawick is led to this verdict: “The adoration of Prabhakaran is in line with the adoration (bhakti, pattu) offered to many human beings who are perceived as harbouring something divine, whether it is great musical talent, rhetorical power or the strength to keep a family together” (2007: 81).

    This veneration was voiced even more forcefully at higher levels of LTTE officialdom. Brendan O’Duffy’s interviews with senior Tiger leaders at Kilinochchi in May 2003 “reinforce[d] the [evidence of] mythic reverential perceptions of the leader.” Indeed, Sanappah Master insisted that “he and others considered Prabhakaran as ‘God become man’.” (2007: 265). Elsewhere at the grass roots among the Tamil people one has the instance of an old lady who was found in the ghost town of Sampur in late 2006 as the Sri Lankan army marched in; she had been abandoned by her sons and was carrying a photograph of Pirapāharan. She called him “Ishwara” (Jayasuriya 2006). For Tamils, Ishwara denotes Lord Sīva (though in northern India the term stands for “the One and the Supreme God”). 

    In other words, our materialist, rationalist and instrumental reasoning must be diluted by attentiveness to experiential life and the sentimental chords that can bind leader and follower, while yet nourishing and animating patriotism – sometimes to the point of ultra-nationalist excess.




BBC 1991 “Suicide Killers,” in Inside Story Documentary Series, late 1991

Jayasuriya, Ranga “Military gains which went obscure,” Sunday Observer, 29 Oct. 2006.

O’Duffy, Brendan 2007 “LTTE: Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Majoritarianism, Self-

  Determination and Military-to-Political Transition in Sri Lanka,” in Marianne Heiberg, Brendan

     O’Leary, and John Tirman (eds.) Terror, Insurgency, and the State. Ending Protracted Conflicts, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 257-87.

Pratap, Anita 2001 Island of Blood, New Delhi: Viking.

Roberts, Michael 1999 “Nationalisms Today and Yesterday,” in Gerald Peiris and S W R de A

    Samarasinghe (eds) History and Politics. Millennial Perspectives. Essays in honour of  

    Kingsley de Silva, Colombo: Law and Society Trust, pp. 23-44.

Roberts, Michael 2006b “The Tamil Movement for Eelam,” E-Bulletin of the International

    Sociological Association No. 4, July 2006, pp. 12-24.

   Roberts, Michael 2009a “Suicidal Political Action I: Soundings,” http://www.transcurrents.com &

       http:// sacrificialdevotionnetwork.wordpress.com/

   Roberts, Michael 2009b “Suicidal Political Action II: Ponnudurai Sivakumāran,” www.

      transcurrents.com & https://sacrificialdevotionnetwork.wordpress.com/

   Roberts, Michael 2009c “Suicidal Political Action III: Imperatives,” http://www.transcurrents.com

      & http:// sacrificialdevotionnetwork.wordpress.com/

Roberts, Michael 2009d “Suicidal Political Action IV: LTTE Power & Popular

       Support,” http://www.transcurrents.com & http://sacrificialdevotionnetwork. wordpress.com/

Schalk, Peter 1997a “Resistance and Martyrdom in the Process of State Formation of Tamililam,” in Joyce Pettigrew (ed.) Martyrdom and Political Resistance, Amsterdam: VU University Press pp. 61-84.

Schalk, Peter 2003 “Beyond Hindu Festivals: The Celebration of Great Heroes’ Day by the

     Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Europe,” in Martin Baumann et al. (eds.)  

      Tempel und Tamilien in Zweiter Heimat, Wurzburg: Ergon Verlag, pp. 391-411.     

Trawick, Margaret 2007 Enemy Lines. Childhood, Warfare and Play in Batticaloa, Berkeely: University of California Press.


Posted in SACRIFICIAL DEVOTION IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE on April 21, 2009 by galleonroberts

Michael Roberts

13 April 2009


This set of essays on “LTTE and Tamil People” submitted to GROUNDVIEWS is a sequel to the four articles on “Suicidal Political Action” reproduced in http://www.transcurrents.com from 2 April onwards. Both sets of essays are interconnected and involve a measure of repetition because they are set out as separate articles. All of them are a product of a comparative survey that I embarked on about five years ago: namely, reviewing the cultural ingredients which have motivated the projects of the jihadists (holy warriors) and mujahideen (fighters for cause) on the one hand and, on the other, the kamikaze and the karumpuli (Black Tigers) after – and this point has to be stressed — these forces had been generated by specific politico-military situations in particular contexts.

   In all three instances notions of honour figured strongly in the inspirations for what we might regard as suicide for political cause (though the Japanese did not deem it as suicide, but defined it as “killed in action” – Ohnuki-Tierney 2006: xvi-vii). Fine-grained analyses of each arena may conceivably find differences within this broad commonality of a honour code, but I have not addressed that issue. Rather, I have focused on the conceptions of selfhood (that is, the category “person”) in each field. In my tentative thesis the jihadists, in keeping with the characteristics of all the Semitic religions, attach a greater degree of autonomy to the individual (here gendered male) than among the peoples of South Asia and East Asia where hierarchical notions have permeated societal interaction for centuries.    

    Within the Indian universe governed by the multi-stranded corpus we identify today as “Hinduism,” moreover, selfhood is informed by theories of substance. Thus, each individual is seen to be made up of particles and can, as individual, become a particle in another entity. This is the working out of the holographic principle, where the part also embodies the whole. Thus, while there are numerous named goddesses all over India and Sri Lanka, they are understood to be emanations of the one single Goddess. Some ardent devotees undertake arduous pilgrimage journeys in order to secure a fusion of self, however temporary, with the deity presiding over the holy destination. Indeed, some deities in the Indian lands are deified humans. The māvīrar have this potential prospect – though I am not contending that this objective was in their thoughts when they fought for the LTTE and Tamils, but am rather pointing to subsequent possibilities. Be that as it may, self-negation, or transcendence of one’s being, through fusion of self in ultimate endeavour has been one facet of the Tiger endeavour.

     While the principle of self-negation seemed to be an important element in the inspirations for the Japanese “tokkōtai” (special attack) operation — [that is, the kamikaze as we label the project today] that was initiated by the Japanese military leaders in October 1944, my initial readings suggested that a nihilistic strain was more pronounced in this setting when placed in comparison with LTTE fighters. I was led to this idea by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s emphasis on the nihilist aesthetics permeating some of the diaries maintained by a few young kamikaze pilots (2006: 17; plus her 2002 book); and by the a-moral stress on the equivalence of “Life” and “Death” in the strands of Zen teaching adopted by right-wing Japanese patriots in the 1930s and also incorporated within the military’s Field Service Code during World War Two (Victoria 2003, 2004, 2006). However, in conversation in Adelaide in December 2008 Brian Victoria argued that in the Japanese case of self-sacrifice (both military and civilian) during the war there was a fusion of self in higher cause.

     As background facts, note that during the process of imperialist expansion initiated by the fascist Japanese regime from the 1930s, the state “managed to promote and inculcate in the minds of the people the idea that all the Japanese, but especially the soldiers-to-be, must sacrifice their lives for their country” (Ohnuki-Tierney 2006: xiii). The “state dictum” for soldiers was that they must “never be captured by the enemy” (2006: 5). “Even where entire corps of Japanese soldiers faced utterly hopeless military situations, the soldiers were told to die happily. The policy led to the infamous mass suicides (gyokusai) on Atttu, Saipan and Okinawa islands and elsewhere culminated in the tokkōtai operation” (2006: 4).

    The degree of coercion and voluntary participation among the civilians who committed suicide by grenade, leaping off cliffs or other means at Saipan and Okinawa remains a contentious subject. But there is no disputing the fact that the Japanese soldiers demonstrated admirable courage in hopeless battlefield situations just as the Tiger fighters have done in recent weeks (Jeyaraj 2009a, 2009b).

    The contentious thesis here, then, is that within the ultra-nationalist mind-sets within the Japanese and Tamil arenas, the person — the individual — becomes subordinate to Cause (capital C), that is, to country, people and nation-state (or state-to-be, viz., Eelam). To put it in different words, once the LTTE secured the commanding heights in the struggle for cutantiram (liberation), the Sri Lankan Tamil Individual and the Collective, Tamil Eelam, have been regarded as one.

    This reading of LTTE ideology informed my interpretation of the exodus activated – seemingly by a combination of persuasion and coercion -vis a vis the Tamil peoples of the northern Vanni from late 2008 as the Tigers were forced to retreat. It also directed my essays on Dilemmas in January/February (2009a 2009b).

  Thus guided, I was convinced that the LTTE would not allow the civilians a choice, especially since the latter also provided a labour pool, a source of foodstuffs from the supplies sent by the government of Sri Lanka via the ICRC and a political bargaining chip (a stack of chips really). It followed that the LTTE would not agree to a ceasefire or if they did so (as occurred eventually when in dire straits around 22 February), they would not lay down arms. In other words, the civilian mass would be one of the ‘bunds’ in their fortress situation, a bund they could never forego (a) because this bund of people was vital to the survival of Eelam as cause and (b) because total sacrifice was deemed to be the duty of one and all.

    In their moral anguish the human rights activists of compassionate heart took little note of this powerful element in the firmament embracing the northern Vanni. None of them spelt out the means by which the LTTE could be persuaded to release the people in their besieged territory (as pointed out in one comment in groundviews). Take Lionel Bopage’s first response in groundviews to my first Dilemmas article: “there is an urgent need for the involvement of an international body such as the UN, to create a safe passage to affected civilians and ensure their protection.” The peremptory demand bears an evangelical strain: an expectation of some miraculous happening through the agency of the UN or some other international outfit. Even with my limited expertise in the field of international affairs, this seemed to be a utopian anticipation: the UN machinery is quite cumbersome, while the global politics bearing on penetrations into the sovereign territory of nation states is labyrinthine (as events proved).

   I wondered to myself at that point if some of the leading activists would offer to make up a team that would combine with LTTE sympathisers of the diaspora, say, the Editor of the Tamil Guardian, in order to helicopter into LTTE territory under a white flag organised by local ICRC personnel; and there, in that forlorn context, attempt to persuade the Tiger leadership to lay down arms and abstain from any bargaining demands (the other object of the LTTE exodus exercise). “Let the people go” voiced by personnel who are not enemies could have been a powerful appeal. If such a successful emergency intervention had taken place at that point, then, of course, I would have been pleased to eat all my words.

     Dilemmas focused on the immediate situation in early February 2009. As Bopage knows well, I remain firmly committed to “a political solution which genuinely devolves power to address the issues that gave rise to the war in the first place” (Bopage’s words immediately after the part-sentence that I have quoted). Arguably, though of course debatably, the military defeat of the LTTE may facilitate that process, if — a big IF this — Sinhala triumphalism and the chauvinist forces within the governing coalition do not climb to reigning position.

    Political devolution and a process of development that equalises job opportunities for the people of north and east are both integral to such post-war goals. This urgent project of the immediate future must enshrine the fundamental rights of Tamil, Muslim and all other citizens of Sri Lanka in ways that do not render them subject to the whims of new elected governments and all-powerful Presidents. The Sri Lankan Tamil peoples’ struggle for dignity and self-determination from the 1950s, after, all, did not seek this status as a gift from the Sinhalese, but as the rights of citizens of Sri Lanka. The principle of a consociation of nationalities within the Sri Lankan nation, or a “new form of confederative alliance that gives scope to the majoritarian force of the Sinhala nation without subsuming the Tamil nation and Muslim community” (Roberts 2000b), a principle that rejects the subordination of whole (Sri Lankan) within part (Sinhalese), must, as I have insisted consistently (Roberts 2000c, 2002, 2008a, b and c), be a pillar in this new scaffolding.

   The nature of the possible political settlement in the coming months is not the issue I raise here. That vital focus has already been signalled by GROUNDVIEWS in its appeal for suggestions on the subject (see one note by me – Roberts 2009e). Important suggestions have been presented by web-articles by Rajan Philips, Dushy Ranetunge, et cetera. As self-evident, the terrain I cover in the two sets of articles addresses (A) the cultural ingredients conditioning and motivating the sacrificial dedication to cause demonstrated by the vast majority of Tiger fighters — not just  the karumpuli; (B) the relationship between the LTTE regime and the Tamil people in the lands they ruled; and (C) the degree of coercion and/or popular participation in the exodus activated by the LTTE in the northern Vanni in late 2008 when the Sri Lankan army juggernaut got rolling and the LTTE mounted what must, in military terms, be considered a magnificent retreat in the circumstances.

     Ironically, some GOSL spokesmen and some human rights agencies/activists seem to be agreed in their conclusion that the Tamil peoples of exodus were “forced” into moving with the retreating Tigers. This, in my view, is a sweeping generalisation. The fact that some 65,000 of these civilians have struggled out of Tigerland in the past three months is not proof of the government contention as generalisation.

    That is to read the present into the past of, say, August-November 2008. We must allow for a change of minds. And I insist that the relationship between LTTE regime and people between 1990 and mid-2008 had some symbiotic strands and participatory faith/hope/ oneness. The kudumbum (māvīrar familie) and the kinfolk of active LTTE cadres had stakes in the regime – rather like the soldier families settled on Saipan by the Japanese state. In both instances I refuse to believe that all the civilians had no agency and were mere ciphers responding to the dictates of the command state when they joined in the exodus in Sri Lanka or jumped en masse off Banzai Cliff in Saipan in mid-1944. Readiness to negate one’s being for the higher purpose of an ultra-nationalist cause is a possibility that I present as counter-point to views that treat all the people as corks on water. This is a question, a quarrel really, about agency.



Bopage, Lionel 2009 “Colombo, English, Human Rights, IDPs and Refugees, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics,” http://www.groundviews.org, mid-February.

Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2009a”Top Tiger leaders killed in a major debacle for LTTE,” http://www.transcurrents.com, 6 April.

Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2009b “Theepan of the LTTE: Heroic Saga of a Northern Warrior,” Daily Mirror, 11 April 2009.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko 2002  Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms and Nationalisms, The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History, University of Chicago Press.

Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko 2006 Kamikaze Diaries. Reflections on Japanese Student Soldiers, University of Chicago Press.

Roberts, M. 2000b “History as Dynamite,” Pravāda, vol. 6, no. ?,  pp. 11-13. Also published in the Island  Special Millennium Issue, 1 Jan 2000, pp. 43-44.

Roberts, M. 2000c “The Sri Lankan Identity,” Lanka Monthly Digest, November 2000, vol 7: 4, pp. 43-44.

Roberts, M. 2002 “Hyphenated Identities,” Lanka Monthly digest, August 2002, pp. 129, 131.

Roberts, M. 2008a “Split Asunder: Four Nations in Sri Lanka,” www.groundviews.org, 13 January 2008.

Roberts, M. 2008b “Addressing the Nations of Sri Lanka,” in www.groundviews.org, 27 January 2008.

Roberts, M. 2008c “Issues for Tamil Nationalism: Revisiting Publius,” http://www.groundviews.

    org, 24 March 2008.

Roberts, M. 2009c Dilemma’s At War’s End: Thoughts on Hard Realities,” http://www.groundviews.org, 10 Feb. 2009 and Island, 11 Feb. 2009.    

Roberts, M. 2009d “Dilemmas at Wars End: Clarifications & Counter-Offensive,” http://www.groundviews.org, 17 Feb. 2009.    

Roberts, M. 2009e “The Needs of the Hour,” http://www.groundviews.org, 1 April 2009.

Victoria, Brian D. 2003 Zen War Stories, London: Routledge.

Victoria, Brian D. 2004″The Ethical Implications of Zen-related Terrorism in 1930s Japan,” AAR Zen Seminar, San Antonio, November 2004.

Victoria, Brian D. 2006 Zen at War, 2nd edn. New, York: Weatherhill


Posted in SACRIFICIAL DEVOTION IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE on April 10, 2009 by galleonroberts

by Michael Roberts

(this was first published at http://www.transcurrents.com)

My previous essays have scrutinised the factors and ingredients that directed suicidal action for political cause among Tamil peoples (Roberts 2009a, b, c). Special attention has been directed towards the LTTE project. Here it is critical to recall that all Tiger fighters bind themselves to suicidal action, not just the Black Tigers.

     Committed to armed struggle from the 1970s and initially working underground, the LTTE was necessarily a centralised organisation with a top-down command structure. To expect anything other than a dictatorship, with Pirapāharan at the apex, in the 1980s and 1990s is to assume a position utopian. But the LTTE also moved decisively towards a monopoly of the violent path among Sri Lanka Tamils (SLT). In April-May 1986 they ruthlessly eliminated the TELO Eelamists and thereafter proceeded to strangle or eliminate the other Tamil fighting groups as well as the TULF. They also deployed Black Tigers to eliminate leading figures in those forces deemed inimical to their interests, among them Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991.

    The LTTE was able to secure ascendancy over the other SLT militants in part because of their extensive sea-faring networks and their early development of a brown-water navy under the guidance of Captain David and then of Soosai (both with roots in VVT). These links also contributed to a logistical capacity to bring in supplies through an international shipping company flying under Pan-Ho-Lib flags. That arm was just one limb in the ramified links that rendered the LTTE into a transnational corporation by the 1990s if not earlier.

   By mid-late 1989 they had shown the Tamil people that they had the capacity to keep the 100,000-to-130,000 force IPKF at bay. By mid-1990 they had outmanoeuvred the Sri Lankan government and set up the rudiments of a de-facto state controlling most of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. By then, too, they had the makings of a conventional army and were able to fight the GOSL forces on many fronts, both conventionally and in guerrilla fashion.

    In this hot war the dialectical principle postulated by Mao Tse Tung came into play: “there is a unity in any contradiction.” As with the more free-flowing engagements of the 1980s, there were many atrocities against civilians (usually an unambiguous category at this point) by both sides in the 1990s, especially in the Eastern Province. Though outnumbered, between 1991 and 2000 the LTTE achieved a series of striking battlefield triumphs at Pooneryn, Mullaitivu, Puliyankulam, Kanakarayankulam and Elephant Pass. With the exception of a handful of cases, moreover, the Tigers never took prisoners: all captured and wounded GOSL personnel were killed (ABC documentary, “Truth Tigers,” 15 May 2002). It is probable that some such killing occurred on the GOSL side as well.

   In the territories controlled by the LTTE – Tigerland in short, in differentiation from Sinhalaland – the LTTE regime was draconian, especially for those suspected to have links with the EPRLF, PLOTE et cetera (e. g. UTHR Bulletin No. 5). The severe character was revealed in late 1995 when the GOSL forces broke out of their beachhead at Palaly and proceeded to conquer the western two-thirds of the Jaffna Peninsula, including its revered symbolic centre, Jaffna town. In a brilliant military step the LTTE enforced an exodus, in effect taking the sea of people with them as they made a tactical withdrawal to the northern Vanni.

    Anecdotal evidence from several of those subject to this enforced shift from their familiar locale indicates that the enforced exodus was widely resented by some SLT people subject to this privation. In time many of them returned – presumably with LTTE acceptance because the re-population of the western parts of the Jaffna Peninsula enabled the Tigers to (a) tie more GOSL forces down within this area; (b) encouraged the SLT people in that part of the Peninsula to regard the GOSL command as an “occupation army” and (c) permitted the LTTE to sustain an underground government with a capacity to tax the people as well as mount occasional attacks.

   During the period 1996-2008 the LTTE seems not only to have secured the loyalty of many Tamils in this “occupied area,” but also, quite remarkably, managed to induce a “collective amnesia” whereby those who had cursed the LTTE during the exodus of 1995 now blamed the whole act of migration on the GOSL forces (I cannot cite sources here because of security concerns).

    Writing from afar and in surmise, I would say that this shift in popular attitudes towards the LTTE regime is not surprising. The criticisms directed at the LTTE (in sotto voice) in late 1995 were context-specific and did not necessarily amount to any approval of the opposing regime (even though Chandrika Kumaratunga had been received with rapture when she visited the area during the peace negotiations earlier in 1995). Few Tamils would have forgotten the policies of discrimination that had generated the Eelam struggle some decades back. Nor could they forget the terrors directed against Tamils in the south in mid-1977 and July 1983.

     Again, the capture of Jaffna town and the triumphalism displayed by the government forces on that occasion was heart-wrenching to many a Sri Lanka Tamil person, whether migrant or resident. Such reactions, therefore point to a fundamental force linking people to regime: what I call “Tamilness,” something that had even wider pan-Tamil dimensions embodied in the concept of “Tamilttāy” namely, “Mother Tamil” (Ramaswamy 1997). In other words I am referring to Tamil patriotism founded upon culture and language and amenable to affiliations with a named territory — in this instance the area deemed to be “the traditional homelands” of the SLT.

    “Tamilness” here refers to Sri Lankan Tamil patriotism. Insofar as leading SL Tamils had proclaimed their community to be a “nation” from 1949 onwards, this ideology had climbed to the political heights available to a modern nationalism (Roberts 1978 and 1999). The right of self-determination underpinned the demand for a separate state postulated at Vaddukoddai in 1976.

   The LTTE was, now in the 1990s, at the forefront of this nationalist thrust. In the result, by the late 1990s they were able persuade even the remnant TULF elements to accept them as the “sole representative of the SL Tamils.” Along one dimension one can say that this was a prize wrested by sheer power and intimidation. But, along another overlapping dimension, it is clear that it was a product of success. The military victories of the LTTE were a source of pride to many a Tamil. Like the German Liberals who bowed before Bismarck in the year 1870, the Tamil parliamentarians decided to worship at Pirapāharan’s feet.

    The Tiger victories had been garnered in part by the LTTE’s organisational capacities. But they also were self-evidently due to the bravery of their soldiers, both male and female. Standing out were those who had fallen in battle, the māvīrar. Their self-negating sacrifice was admired.







    The LTTE exploited this resource to the full. From 1990 through to the 2000s they incrementally built up the annual commemoration of their fallen fighters into a massive logistical exercise and ceremony where the Tamil people mourned and yet celebrated these losses, thereby transcending grief in the interests of a higher purpose. My visit to Jaffna and Kilinochchi in November 2004 and conversations with the late Joe Ariyaratnam (reporter) revealed how the fortnight-long activities leading up to Mavirar Nal on 27 November involved a multi-media evocation of sacrifice-for-cause. Popular participation was massive. Through this means a community of suffering tinged with pride was generated.

    This brief visit, then, confirmed what anyone could have logically expected to be the outcome of years of propaganda by an efficient organisation working within the context of war and the memories of past grievances: there was considerable popular support for the LTTE in Tigerland. A brief dialogue in Sinhala with a visiting Tamil businessman and one of the proprietors at a cheap guesthouse in Jaffna Town (where I was residing) suggested that such strands of support extended to people in the occupied lands of the Peninsula as well. For the proprietor to remark “apit koti” — as spontaneous unsolicited response to a story of Tiger sacrifice in the Eelanādu — spoke volumes (Roberts 2005b: 77-78 ).   


    To be partial to the LTTE within circumstances threaded by Tamil patriotism in the sense Tamilttāy suggests to me that those wholly or partially oriented to the LTTE and its achievements would also be supportive of its quest for Eelam, a demand favoured even by moderate parliamentarians from 1976. This does not preclude other considerations in the attachment to LTTE and/or place. Nor does it mean that some Tamils in these regions were not ambivalent about the LTTE or even silently opposed.


Pongu Thamil Pageant at Vavuniya, 2003 - Courtesy of www.TamilNet.com

Pongu Thamil Pageant at Vavuniya, 2003 - Courtesy of http://www.TamilNet.com



    It is difficult enough in functioning democracies, even with sociological and/or opinion surveys, to assess why and to what degree people support a particular government. It is well-nigh impossible to speak for the people within an authoritarian regime that restrains and punishes dissent. But, subject to this cluster of qualifications, I still hold by one of the contentions3

 within my article Dilemmas I, namely: that the “semi-juridical status” secured by the LTTE during the early 2000s, both within Sri Lanka and in the international sphere, rested in part upon “the support of many – but not all – Sri Lankan Tamils” (“Dilemmas,” 2009h). I abide by this claim in opposition to a counter-assertion by Devanesan Nesiah to the effect that “there is no such wish [for Eelam] prevailing in the majority of the population, what is sought is internal self-determination” (2009).


    Nesiah’s contention, it seems to me, is a perspective favoured by a small body of Protestant Vellalar Tamils. It discounts the investment in the struggle for Eelam by so many young Tamils, whether Saivite, Protestant and Catholic, fighting under the tiger emblem of the LTTE. Nesiah seems to cleave to a rational outlook and assessments based in either/or terms. In contrast I give weight to the power wielded by the cultural symbols and political grievances that animate nationalism; and thereby render leaders and people extreme. At the furthest end of this nationalist extreme is the sacrifice of self as soldier and cases of suicidal political action. Sivakumāran, Tilīpan, Annai Pupati and Varnakulasingham are among those who join the māvīrar as testimony to its inspirational force.


Billboard shrine for Annai Pupati at Junction in Eastern Province, 19 March 2004 - Courtesy of www.TamilNet.com

Billboard shrine for Annai Pupati at Junction in Eastern Province, 19 March 2004 - Courtesy of http://www.TamilNet.com





Nesiah, Response, http://www.groundviews,org, 19 February 2009.

Ramaswamy, Sumathi 1997 Passions of the Tongue: Princeton University Press.

Roberts, Michael “Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka and Sinhalese Perspectives: Barriers to Accommodation,” Modern Asian Studies, 1978, 12: 353-76.

Roberts, Michael 1999 “Nationalisms Today and Yesterday,” in Gerald Peiris and S W R de A

    Samarasinghe (eds) History and Politics. Millennial Perspectives. Essays in honour of Kingsley de Silva, Colombo: Law and Society Trust, pp. 23-44.

Roberts, Michael 2005b “Saivite Symbolism, Sacrifice and Tamil Tiger Rites,” Social Analysis 49:  67-93.             

Roberts, Michael 2009a “Suicidal Political Action I: Soundings,” http://www.transcurrents.com & http://www.sacrificialdevotionnetwork.wordpress.com/

Roberts, Michael 2009b “Suicidal Political Action II: Ponnudurai Sivakumaran,” http://www.transcurrents.com & sacrificialdevotionnetwork.wordpress.com/

Roberts, Michael 2009c “Suicidal Political Action III: Imperatives,” http://www.transcurrents.com & https://sacrificialdevotionnetwork.wordpress.com/

Roberts, Michael 2009h “Dilemmas at War’s End: Thoughts on Hard Realities,” February 2009,  in http://www.groundivews.org