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 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,” &


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

       com & http://

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

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.

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