Killing Rajiv Gandhi: Sacrificial Metamorphosis?

Michael Roberts


Preamble: Journals use Abstracts in order to provide readers with a distillation of the argument in an article. Where theoretical concepts are deployed, this presupposes that readers have some familiarity with the literature. Faced with the summary below, some readers of transcurrents may rush to the conclusion that this essay is featured by abstruse and esoteric nonsense.

After all, what does “transvaluation” connote? I derived the concept from SJ Tambiah’s Levelling Crowds. I understand it to refer to the re-working and transformation of pre-existing ideas and/or practices in meaningful ways that carry weight; and thereby sustain both continuity and change within the specified cultural/political arena. This is my interpretation of the term and it may well be challenged or refined by other scholars versed in the anthropological literature.

Having identified a problem area via one illustration, let me stress that this article is not replete with such academic terminology. It is mostly filled with empirical detail about the LTTE’s killing operation. This attention to detail encompasses cultural specifics.

Many of these particulars will be meaningful to those familiar with the Hindu faith and its devotional activity. Those nominally “Hindu” and all those from other faiths who are adamantly secular and/or materialist in orientation may be puzzled by the weight I attach to these specifics. Hopefully, this emphasis will pose a challenge to their mode of thinking.

Finally, let me stress that my essay expressly notes that it is presenting “a speculative argument that cannot be empirically substantiated” (p. 29 of full article). This may come as a shock to those readers, such as the blogger “Belle” commenting on one of my articles in recently, who seem to think that the social sciences should not indulge in surmise. Such a perception seems to believe that the world of scholarship should only deal with “facts” and definitive conclusions of the sort demonstrated in laboratories. This is a rigid schoolmaster’s view of the humanities or what, in academic jargon, will be read as a “positivist” form of thinking.

Dhanu & Sivarasan wait with Kokilavani on right





Kokilavani reads poem, while Dhanu –head in foreground–awaits her moment


Set within the context of the Sri Lankan Tamils’ liberation war dominated by the LTTE, this article clarifies the motivations behind Pirapāharan’s decision to eliminate Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 in order to pre-empt his election as Prime Minister. The details on the LTTE’s intricate killing operation under operational commander Sivarāsan sets the scene for a focus on facets of the attire adopted by suicide bomber Dhanu. Saffron-green outfit, kanagambaram in hair and sandalwood-pellet garland may have been directed by pragmatic reasoning. But circumstantial contentions also point towards cosmic reasoning. Taken together with the kill team’s preceding supplications to the god Ganapathi at a temple in Chennai, these indications suggest that Dhanu’s explosive transformation into ash was geared towards a transvaluation of self in the cycle of rebirth. Information on Hindu practices taken from the researches of Mines, Fuller and Tanaka amplify the significance of the details deployed during this operation as supplements to plastic explosives, ball-bearings and suicide vest.



transvaluation; enchantment; assassins; Hindu substances; Tantric encirclement



This article will appear in Vol. 1, Number 1 of South Asian History and Culture. GO To

South Asian History and Culture, Volume 1 Issue 1 2010


A torn performative dispensation: the affective politics of British Second World War propaganda in India and the problem of legitimation in an age of mass publics
William Mazzarella
Pages 1 – 24
Killing Rajiv Gandhi: Dhanu’s sacrificial metamorphosis in death

Michael Roberts Pages 25 – 41
Chastity and desire: representing women in Jainism
Manisha Sethi
Pages 42 – 59

Aestheticizing labour: an affective discourse of cooking in colonial Bengal
Utsa Ray
Pages 60 – 70

Experiencing terror online
Maya Ranganathan
Pages 71 – 85

The Indian Supreme Court and the quest for a ‘rational’ Hinduism
Ronojoy Sen
Pages 86 – 104

Representing story: shaping memory in Western India
Jayasinhji Jhala
Pages 105 – 124

Intimations of modernity in South India
David Washbrook
Pages 125 – 148

Review Essays

Identity and violence: the illusion of destiny, by Amartya Sen
New York, Norton and Company, 2006, 224 pp., ISBN-10: 0393060071
Dipesh Chakrabarty
Pages 149 – 154

Nationalizing the body, the medical market, print and daktari medicine, by Projit Bihari Mukharji
London, Anthem Press, 2009, 351 pp. (hardback), ISBN 1-84331-315-4
Burton Cleetus
Pages 155 – 159

Buddhist stūpas in South Asia: recent archaeological, art-historical, and historical perspectives, edited by Jason Hawkes and Akira Shimada
New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2009, 346 pp., Rs. 895, ISBN 0-19-569886-X
Ahmed Sohaib
Pages 160 – 164

Book Reviews
Sharmistha Gooptu;  Adnan Farooqui;  Ajay Gudavarthy;  Anuradha Kumar;  Ashley Tellis;  Badri Narayan;  M. N. Rajesh;  Mohammad Sajjad;  Rakhee Kalita; Tabir Kalam
Pages 165 – 189

Carol Breckenridge (1942–2009): a tribute
Dipesh Chakrabarty
Pages 190 – 192

SOUTH ASIAN HISTORY AND CULTURE has just been launched and I consider it a privilege to be part of the inaugural issue. This journal is guided by a body of south Asian specialists, namely David Washbrook, Boria Majumdar, Sharmistha Gooptu and Nalin Mehta. It is published under the banner of TAYLOR & FRANCIS. Its prospectus runs thus:

Two fundamental ideas lie at the very heart of this journal. One is to tap into the wave of interest in South Asian studies across the world. The second is to provide a platform for writing of high intellectual, aesthetic and imaginative standards which is easily accessible to the informed and interested academic and also, at times, the general reader. The discipline of cultural studies has added a new dimension to our understanding of societies, particularly in India, but as a number of scholars have noted the discipline remains hemmed in with self-referential coding which sometimes makes it difficult to access, even for specialist academics in related fields. This journal sets out to break disciplinary boundaries and produce research that will be of value across several registers. For this reason, we have on our editorial board, not just professional academics but also prominent practitioners from the region.

This journal will be based on the highest academic standards of thorough and meticulous research for creating new knowledge but additionally it will open a space for those academics who also consider themselves writers, i.e., have an eye for aesthetics and the craft of writing. In recent times independent writers like William Dalrymple have produced intriguing new studies of South Asia combining the best tools of research with the craft of writing. Such scholarship has largely sprung up from outside formal academic structures and academic forums have largely failed to provide a systematic platform for such writing. This journal will consciously access this nature of scholarship and initiate synergy between research from within academia and that from outside the formal academy. The journal also aims to integrate the brand of activist scholarship that is emerging is South Asia in relation to new fields such as human rights, minority rights and sexuality studies. The idea is to try and achieve a truly multidisciplinary journal on South Asian history and culture, focusing on a series of list-heads under which the established (e.g. economic history, politics, gender studies) and more recent disciplines will interact and enmesh with each other.

A significant concern for this journal is to focus across the region known as South Asia, and not simply on India, as most ‘South Asia’ forums inevitably do. We are most conscious of this gap in South Asian studies and will work to bring into focus more scholarship on/from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan.

A key focus will also be to include fields, which even the most prominent publishers in South Asia have not tried to develop in an integrated manner. For instance, research on film, media, photography, sport, science, medicine and environment has generally been published in niche journals, which rarely speak to the larger historical mainstream. This is a serious impediment in generating comprehensive knowledge fields, an issue this journal will try to address.

In addition to general issues we will bring out special issues, thematic collections based on priority subjects outlined above, to be done by guest editors with their particular areas of expertise.

South Asian History and Culture

New to Routledge for 2010; Volume Number: 1;

Frequency: 4 issues per year;  Print ISSN: 1947-2498

Online ISSN: 1947-2501

Editorial Board

Academic Editors
David Washbrook – University of Cambridge

Boria Majumdar – University of Central Lancashire, UK

Sharmistha Gooptu – South Asia Research Foundation, India

Nalin Mehta – La Trobe University, Melbourne

Book Review Editors

Manisha Sethi – Jamia Milia Islamia University, New Delhi, India

Babli Sinha – Kalamazoo College, Michigan, USA

Consultancy Board

Dipesh Chakrabarty – Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor, Department of History, University of Chicago, USA

Robin Jeffrey – Professor Emeritus, ANU, Canberra, Australia.

William Mazzarella – Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago, USAAshis Nandy – Center for Developing Societies, New Delhi, India

Samita Sen – Centre for Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University, Calcutta, India

Brian Stoddart – former Vice-Chancellor, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

International Editorial Advisory Board

Ishtiaq Ahmed – University of Stockholm, currently Visiting Professor, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore

Arun Bandyopadhyay – University of Calcutta

Sudeshna Banerjee – Jadavpur University, Calcutta, India

Chandrima Chakraborty Assistant Professor of English and Cultural Studies, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada

Subhas Ranjan Chakraborty – Presidency College, Calcutta, India

Assa Doron – ANU, Canberra, Australia

Tanweer Fazal – Jamia Milia Islamia University, New Delhi, India

Meghna Guhathakurta – Executive Director, Research Initiatives, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Kama Maclean – UAE University, Al Ain, United Arab Emirates

Projit B. Mukharji – Assistant Professor, Dept. of History, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada

Aswin Punathambekar – University of Michigan, USA

Arvind Rajagopal – Associate Professor of Media Studies, NYU, USA

Jayanta Kumar Ray – Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, Calcutta, India

Michael Roberts – University of Adelaide, Australia

Sanjay Seth – Goldsmiths College, London, UK

Nira Wickramasinghe – University of Colombo, Sri Lanka


Filed under cultural transmission, historical interpretation, Indian Ocean politics, life stories, LTTE, suicide bombing, war crimes, world events & processes

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