SUICIDAL POLITICAL ACTION II: PONNUDURAI SIVAKUMĀRAN

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

Within the Sri Lankan context the ‘invention’ of self-abnegating devotion for cause among the Sri Lankan Tamils was not the work of either Pirapāharan or the LTTE. The initiator was young Ponnudurai Sivakumāran, a student member of a tiny cell (one that does not seem to have had a name) of budding resistance fighters in the early 1970s. Sivakumāran carried some cyanide and instructed his comrades to point to him if ever they were arrested. When he himself was cornered by the police on 5 June 1974 after a failed assassination attempt, he swallowed the cyanide in order to protect his comrades (Note 1). His was the first case of defensive suicide for cause, that cause being Thamilīlam, or Eelam in contemporary usage. This was prior to the formal birth of the LTTE in May 1976.

It was a path-breaking episode. Sivakumāran’s funeral, a cremation, in his home village of Urumpurai (mostly Vellalar caste and with high literacy) became an expressive moment, an outpouring of intense grief and anger, the stuff of dramatic politics. Popular action decreed the day to be a one of hartal, that is, a strike and demonstration of protest where all shops were closed and no work was done. Massive crowds journeyed to Sivakumāran’s home village. So too did venerable Tamil leaders, many of them lawyers of note. There, within the feverish fervour aroused by untimely death, these leaders were subject to assault by slippers wielded by angry young men (Note 2). Being “slippered” is the ultimate in insults within Asia. It is a slap that proclaims a heinous transgression. The victim is deemed to have no moral ground. He must cop his fate silently (Roberts 1985).

Clarified in terms understandable to those in the West one could say that the slippering of Tamil leaders was the equivalent of leading American Congressmen being spat upon in public with impunity, thereby being branded as ‘animals’ beyond the pale. But within Tamil history this act of symbolic punishment — there in Sivakumāran’s natal place — is significant in heralding the immediate future. The restive and violent young men were preparing, as we know with the advantage of hindsight, to oust their older, moderate parliamentary leaders.

Sivakumāran had also set the stage for altruistic self-sacrifice. He was likened to Kattabommān, a recalcitrant chieftain who was hanged by the British in southern India in the 1790s and subsequently resurrected in modern Tamilnadu as a “freedom fighter.” What is more, a statue was immediately erected in his honour by the people of the Jaffna Peninsula and thereafter a symbolic struggle occurred around this icon as the Sri Lankan army knocked it down– repeatedly after it was rebuilt (Note 3).

Sivakumāran’s sacrificial act seems to have inspired young Velupillai Pirapāharan and he began to carry cyanide from early one, perhaps the late 1970s or early 1980’s (surmise from his interview with BBC, 1991). The LTTE was both secretive and careful in its induction of personnel into the fighting cadre. Even in mid-1983 their core of fighters numbered around 27 to 35 men, certainly no more than 50 (Note 4). At some point around then the decision had been taken that all the fighters should commit themselves to biting the kuppi if they were in danger of being captured. This commitment was concomitant with the oath that they reiterated when formally inducted into the force: “The task (or thirst) of the Tigers (is to achieve) Motherland Thamilīlam” (Schalk 1997: 64, 74). A statement variously attributed to Kittu and Pirapāharan displays the goals behind such a technique:

It is this cyanide which has helped us develop our movement very rapidly. Carrying cyanide on one’s person is a symbolic expression of our commitment, our determination, our courage… As long as we have this cyanide around our necks we have no need to fear any force on earth! In reality this gives our fighters an extra measure of belief in the cause, a special edge (Note 5).

Initially from 1983/84 to 1987 the kuppi was a defensive tool. It was only after debate that it was adopted as an attacking weapon from 5 July 1987 onwards. The first strike was at a battlefront. Indeed, it is probable that most LTTE suicide strikes have been in battlefront contexts on sea and land (Hopgood 2005). However, those that have attracted world-wide attention have been their dramatic and devastating strikes in Colombo and elsewhere. Many of these have been rightly deemed atrocities because they embraced civilians.
As in other countries where suicide attacks have occurred, the recourse to such tactics has usually been a “weapon of the weak” – in the sense that suicide attacks are deployed by a party that is in a situation of military asymmetry in resources. However, in the story of Sri Lanka’s war the LTTE has found suicide strikes to be useful even after they had achieved a condition of approximate military stalemate. Suicide bombers are low-cost precision weapons and there is no restriction on their deployment. All that one requires is motivated men and women backed up by good organisation. Such resources the Tigers have had in full measure.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Hopgood, Stephen “Tamil Tigers, 1987-2002,” in Diego Gsmbetta (ed.) Making Sense of Suicide Missions, Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 43-76.

Narayan Swamy, M. R. Tigers of Sri Lanka, Delhi: Konark Publishers Pvt Ltd., 1994
Roberts, Michael “‘I Shall Have You Slippered”: The General and the Particular in an Historical Conjuncture,” Social Analysis, 1985, 17: 17-48.

Roberts, Michael “Filial Devotion and the Tiger Cult of Suicide,” Contributions to Indian
Sociology, 1996, 30: 245-72.

Sabaratnam, T. 2003 et seq Pirapaharan, http://www.sangam.org/index_orig.html, serialised book on web.

Sahadevan, P. 2006 “Fighting for the Tamil Eelam: The LTTE’s Commitment to Armed Struggle,” in N. de Votta & P.

Sahadevan, Politics of Conflict and Peace in Sri Lanka, New Delhi: Manak Publications, pp. 298-343.

Schalk, Peter 1997b “Historicization of the martial ideology of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE),” South Asia 20: 35-72

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.

 

NOTES

(Note 1) Details from M. R. Narayan Swamy, Tigers, 29; my conversations with VIS Jayapalan; and Sabaratnam 2003 et seq, chap. 7: “The Cyanide Suicide.’ See Roberts ‘Filial Devotion and the Tiger Cult of Suicide’, Contributions to Indian Sociology 30 (1996) pp. 252-54 & 261-62 for an earlier account.

(Note 2) Narayan Swamy, Tigers, p. 29.

(Note 3) The flier depicting Sivakumāran with kingly headdress and sword on rearing horse in the manner of Kattabommān was kindly supplied by S. Visahan of the Tamil Information Centre in London (also once a class mate of Sivakumāran’s). For the statue, see picture by Raghubir Singh in the National Geographic, 1979, p. 138. Also see Schalk, ‘Historization,’ p. 61; M. R. Narayan Swamy, Tigers, 1994, p. 46n4 and M. Roberts, ‘Filial Devotion,’ p. 254. Note that the statue of the old Tamil stalwart, Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, was also knocked down by army personnel. Subsequently, statues of ancient, revered Tamil poets as well as Gandhi were also disfigured.

(Note 4) Personal communications from S. Sivadasan, 1 August 2005 and K. Sivathamby, August 2005.

(Note 5) This statement is attributed to Pirapāharan in The Hindu of 5 Sept. 1986 as quoted in Sahadevan, ‘Fighting,’ p. 315; but it is repeated word for word by Kittu (Krishnasamy Sathasivam) when he provided Peter Schalk with a recorded interview in London on 30 March 1991 (Schalk, ‘Resistance,‘ pp. 76, 83).

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