Addressing Two Angry Tamils: Heat, Distortion, Truth, Fact, Mendacity and Eternal Enmity

Michael Roberts, Courtesy of Colombo Telegraph where it appeared on 6 March 2012 under a different title 

Whenever my articles have been posted on web sites, I have generally not engaged those readers who have inserted comments. Unlike Dayan Jayatilleke, I do not have the energy to participate in what often turn into dog fights. Besides, the blog format is not conducive to lengthy clarifications of the article type. It would also be difficult in many instances to defend myself without adopting a pontifical tone that would be self-defeating.

However, my presentation of “Victor Rajakulendran’s Tirade at the Exposure of Pirapaharan’s Admiration for Hitler” in the web outlet Colombo Telegraph drew extended comments of a political character from two Tamil gentlemen that induce me to respond at length in a measured manner for the benefit of the audience-at-large. This is called for because the ideological positions they adopted[i] are of considerable significance, so much so that they have been displayed prominently as separate items in my thuppahi web site.

Let me stress here neither their comments nor my present article can be fully comprehended without a reading of my previous article “Inspirations: Hero Figures and Hitler in Young Pirapāharan’s Thinking;”[ii] and the preceding companion piece involving the work of Ganeshan Iyer, namely, “Military Training in the German Nazi Mould amidst Internal Dissension in the early LTTE, late 1970s,” translated by Parames Blacker.[iii]

Kathiravan and Thanga are clearly Tamils of the diaspora who are explicitly committed to the cause of Thamilīlam and its pursuit by the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE) and its affiliates. In my reading they are hard core Tamil nationalists and are strongly committed to the Tamil Tiger legacy. It is precisely because of this commitment that their lines of thought call for analysis. In pursuing this work of decoding I am not seeking to convert them. In my conjecture both are incorrigible ultra-nationalists.

I do not think these two individuals are idiosyncratic. While there will undoubtedly be a wide spectrum of views among the Tamil ultra-nationalists residing abroad as well as in Sri Lanka, it is my surmise that some of the contentions presented by our duo represent beliefs that are held by a fair proportion of the Tamil ultras. That is why the thoughts expressed by the two are as significant as they are alarming.

Kathiravan: Reading the Present into the Past

Kathiravan presents a historical interpretation that is probably widespread in Tamil circles and even adhered to by Tamils of relatively moderate political disposition today. Through his rhetorical question-statements, he holds that the “Tamil people in Sri Lanka…lived in the island as a sovereign people governing a defined territory in the north-east of the island prior to the advent of colonial powers.” This is a claim that is as erroneous as it is misleading.

For one it involves a reading of the present into the past by deploying the concepts of sovereignty and self-determination prevailing today into a past era in Asia which was directed by different notions of statehood. Guided by such scholars as SJ Tambiah (1976, 1985), one must attend to the character of such states as (a) centre-oriented entities that allowed for fluctuations in centre-periphery relations and (b) which took incorporative forms based on the mandala model, a form of rulership that I have called “tributary overlordship” (more or less the same as the concept of “ritual sovereignty” mentioned more briefly by CR de Silva: 1995a: 11).[iv]

Within such a context satellite states and little chieftains could maintain localized dominion as long as they symbolically acknowledged superior cakravarti figures through rites of homage and periodic payments of tribute known by such terms as däkum, panduru pakkkudam and kappan. Within the entity known as Siri Laka, Sīhaladvīpa, Heladiv, Ilankai, et cetera in the centuries thirteen to eighteen, the kingly figure at the apex of this loose, incorporative form of dominion was the Sinhala king at the various capitals at Dambadeniya, Yapahuva, Gampola, Kotte, Sitavaka and Kandy respectively from the 13th to the 19th century. This ideological sovereignty, however fitful and subject to question at times, was supported by the pervasive power of the Sīhaladīpa concept in the political, literary and folk traditions of the Sinhala-speaking peoples (Roberts 2004: 60-64, 70-84).

The Jaffna Peninsula in the extreme north became the centre of a sub-kingdom peopled mostly by Tamils after an invasion by a Cola satrap (provincial governor) named Māgha in the thirteenth century. This little domain appears to have become a bone of contention fought over by the Cola, Pandya, Vijayanāgara and Sinhala powers during the course of the next three hundred years. Its greatest moment was under the dynasty founded by the Pandyan satrap, Arya Cakravarti, in the mid-fourteenth century, when the Kingdom of Yalppānam expanded its capacities by force of arms and extracted tribute from the people of the western coast down beyond Colombo.

Nevertheless the Madavala inscription of 1359 records a treaty between the Arya Chakravarti dynast, Martandam Perumal and King Vikramabahu III (whose capital was Gampola) where Martandam remains a “perumal” in contrast with the “Chakravarti Svamin,” that is, Vikramabahu (Paranavitana 1961; Somaratna 1975: 41-48). This is a telling sign of the symbolic hierarchies that organise overlordship and political authority.

There is no contesting the fact that around 1431 the forces Parakrama Bahu VI of Kotte (1411-66) under Sapumal Kumara invaded and wrested control of Yalppānam from the overarching dominion established there in previous decades by the Vijayanagara Empire (KM de Silva 1981: 87-89). Sapumal Kumara eventually became King of Kotte as Bhuvenaka Bahu VI (1469-77) in fractious and contested circumstances. Whether the sub-kingdom of Yalppānam remained under the domination of Kotte and acknowledged its suzerainty in the period thereafter, that is from 1489-1619, remains uncertain. However, the Portuguese historian Fernao de Queiroz, who compiled his seventeenth-century chronicle from multiple sources, presents a clear-cut picture of vassalage.[v] So too does Philip Baldeaus (1996, orig. 1672) in the same century. If any specialist historian can indicate why we must not pay heed to such sources, or can provide evidence on the practices of the Tamil elites commanding the northern peninsula that suggest otherwise, this conclusion will have to be re-visited.

The Jaffna Peninsula is just one zone. More critical for our interests is that amorphous area known in those days as the Vanni, a huge swathe of territory that extended from the Pooneryn-Puttalam coast in the west across to the east and then southwards to the Panama area.[vi] One facet of Kathiravan’s alarming imperialism is the conviction that the Tamils residing in the eastern littoral of the island were part of the segment known as Yalppānam.

While the data is fragmentary and sometimes circumstantial, in broad sweep it seems that the local chieftains known as vanni rajavaru, vanni unnähē or vanni ranno were generally subject to the overlordship of the Sinhala capitals for much of the period extending from the 13th to the 17th centuries. After the decline of the Polonnaruva civilisation Parakramabahu II (1236-70) encouraged dignitaries from Malavara and other parts of India to colonise depopulated areas.[vii] Such interventions occurred in subsequent centuries as well and led to the entry of peoples described as Malala, Demala Hetti, Telangana Hetti and Mukkāru – some of whom presented dakum panduru to the Sinhalese king sponsoring the project.[viii] While the Mukkāru (Mukkuvar) were initially in the Puttalam area, they were transferred to the east coast at a much later date.[ix] Such acts indicate that wide-ranging authority was exercised by some Sinhalese kings.

Though Indrapala distinguishes between “Tamil Vanniyas” and “Sinhalese Vanniyars” when referring to these little kings,[x] one should qualify this emphasis by allowing for hybridity and bilingual capacities. DGB de Silva’s essay points towards princely interaction and intermarriage among the Vanniyars (1996) – though the Mukkāru (Mukkuvar) people from Kerala seem to have kept themselves distinct, while yet becoming indigenized over time as a Tamil caste in the societal scheme of things along the eastern coast.

CR de Silva indicates that the Vanniyars of the east coast acknowledged their allegiance from Kotte to the ruler of Senkadagala, namely the King of Kandy, in the sixteenth century (de Silva 1995a:15).  Again, in the seventeenth century Rajasinha II of Kandy assembled units from such places as “Tirukkovila” and “Kottiarama” for his wars with the Portuguese; while the detailed descriptionswithin Donald Ferguson’s The Earliest Dutch Visits to Ceylon indicate clearly that the little kings along the coast of Batticaloa were subjects of the King of Kandy.[xi] Spilbergen’s visit in 1602 as etching

Thus one can say that most of the vanni rajavaru in the eastern, north-central and north-western portions of the island seem to have nodded their heads in vassalage and allegiance to the Sinhala capital most of the time during the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries. Whether those in the northern parts encompassing the present Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts did so is an issue I leave open.

The Dutch readily slotted themselves into this scheme of things so that they could secure rights of cinnamon collection within the territories directly commanded by the King of Kandy. They caressed the King of Kandy with high sounding epithets and gifts which in effect amounted to tribute; while many a Governor referred to himself as “the king’s most faithful and humble servant” and their fort as “the king’s castle at Colombo.” (Roberts 2004: 79).

Needless to say, this is a brief glimpse of a complex topic. Readers should refer to both my book Sinhala Consciousness (2004) and that by Alan Strathern on Kingship and Conversion in Sixteenth–Century Sri Lanka (2007) to gain fuller information on the situation in the 16th to 18th centuries. For the 13th to 15th centuries the general texts are those by Pathmanathan, Liyanagamage and Somaratna, but all three were written in the British empirical tradition and implicitly informed – and thus misled — by modern bureaucratic understandings of the concept “rule.” Nor did they they have the benefit of recent work by HAP Abeyawardena (1998), DGB de Silva (1996) and Obeyesekere’s (2010) on the kadaimpot and other palm-leaf manuscripts.

History-writing as well as archaeological inquiries are a battleground in contemporary politics so that Kathiravan’s obiter dicta on history is intimately connected to the reasons he presents for the rise of Tamil militancy in the latter half of the twentieth century through questions hurled at me (in accusation of neglect). Some of these contentions, such as the reference to the violence directed against Tamils in 1958, 1977 and 1983, and the several occasions in the past where leading Ceylonese statesmen reneged on agreements made with Tamil leaders, are quite valid (Roberts 1978 and 2006b). I have myself alluded to these factors in essays devoted to analyses of the political process in broad sweep; while my “Agony and Ecstasy” (1994) is a personal and literary protest condemning that obscene act, the pogrom against Tamils residing in the south in July 1983 — a political crime carried out by some Sinhala chauvinists (both government functionaries and people) that proved wholly counterproductive to the Sinhala people as well as Sri Lankan society.

Kathiravan does make a significant point in arguing that the “Tamil people” have declared their attachment to the goal of self-determination at every general election since 1977 – significant as long as one enters one or two caveats relating to the Malaiyaha Tamils of the plantation areas on the one hand and, on the other, to the Tamil people in the eastern littoral. However, to present this as a legitimate claim that can be translated into an autonomous unit by some magical writ is a fanciful notion that reveals his extremism.

The political sentiments of the SL Tamils (in their variety) have to contest the electoral terrain with those of the SL Muslims (in their variety), those of the Malaiyaha Tamils (in their variety) and those of the Sinhalese (in their variety) They have also to be addressed according to demographic distribution in space. Insofar as self-determination is linked to territorial claim the specific delineation of the so-called “traditional homeland” by the Tamil leaders since 1949 is a dubious claim based on the arbitrary delimitation of provincial boundaries by the British in the nineteenth century and does not accord with the linguistic distribution that existed then[xii] or, as we saw, the political history of the eastern districts and the northern Vanni areas in the centuries thirteen to nineteen.

No doubt my claims will be contested, but they are adequate to indicate that Kathiravan is being quite simple-minded. That, then, is the problem with hard core nationalist ultras: they are one-eyed in ways that erase complexity and tailor the discussion to their agenda. Like many firebrand ultras (both Sinhala and Tamil alike) they also tend to play man not ball – the “man” in this instance being myself. Kathiravan’s touch of sneer is magnified by a demand that I should have addressed “the fundamental causes” of the conflict.

I have in fact done so elsewhere and, indeed, saw the chasm coming in the mid-1970s (Roberts 1978 & 2006b). His ignorance on this point is excusable. What is inexcusable, but typical of extremists, is the misreading of my essay on Pirapāharan’s admiration for Hitler and Germany. I explicitly focused therein on the intellectual inspirations for Pirapāharan’s militancy and consistently referred to “young Pirapāharan.” The clear enunciation of this narrowed focus is simply by-passed by Kathirivan because of his passion for the cause.

From this misreading he leaps to the accusation that “historians keep barking about terrorism.” Since I have consistently avoided the use of this term in my writings, such a charge is aggravating. However, Kathirivan’s aggressive presentation of Tamil grievances and the affirmation that he will only invest “in the Tamil homeland” when it has autonomy/independence undermines his subsequent posture as a person seeking “genuine reconciliation.” To my mind this reeks of mendacity.

Thanga: Prabhakaran is now “part of the Tamil psyche

Thanga replicates Kathiravan in his tone of disparagement and his distorted understanding of the political dispensation in the centuries before the advent of the Portuguese colonial forces. The sneer is directed at both Ganeshan Iyer and myself.

Thanga’s admiration for Pirapāharan is so great that he cannot see the significance of having new information from a fellow-fighter who was the first LTTE treasurer as well – seconded as it is by information provided by another early Tiger fighter, Rāghavan. The specific concentration on the “young Pirapāharan” in my writing is simply dismissed from his purview. The inclusion of Hitler among the several heroes and currents of ideological inspiration motivating the youthful Pirapāharan is downplayed by insisting that Pirapāharan was a voracious reader and was inspired by Indian and Tamil epics.

These facets have been also highlighted by other writers such as Narayan Swamy, Sivaram and Jeyaraj, so Thanga is not inserting much that is new, though some of the details he provides on the influence of the historical novels penned by the Tamil writer Kalki are a useful embellishment. However, his analytical reasoning is quite fallacious. The influence of such heroes as Bose, Napoleon and Alexander the Great (as well as Guevara) does not mean that Hitler was unimportant in Pirapāharan’s thinking. Taken together Iyer and Ragavan’s presentations enable one to pinpoint those aspects of German history under Hitler which Pirapāharan admired: namely, the military training methods of the Wehrmacht and Hitler’s commanding status as supreme commander with unsullied dictatorial authority. Such inspirations from the history of Nazi Germany in Pirapāharan’s thinking seem quite strange when the LTTE is compared with other insurgencies and liberation movements of the past fifty years. As far as I am aware no leaders of modern liberation campaigns had even a passing fancy for Hitler.

Pics from C’bo Telegraph

Pics by Shyam Tekwani

Thanga also insists that Pirapāharan was firmly secular in his political orientation. There certainly are grounds to support such a contention, but there are also some indications that qualifications have to be tacked unto any such emphasis. For one, there is evidence that Pirapāharan was guided by astrological numerology in avoiding major decisions on certain days and in the disposition of frontline bunkers (Pratap 2001: 87; Siemon-Netto 2002). Secondly, when a shipment of arms secured from Lebanon was landed secretly in Tamilnadu in 1984, thereby reducing the LTTE’s dependence on India[xiii] and giving the LTTE an edge over the other militant Eelamist groups, Pirapāharan “tonsured his head as a mark of thanksgiving to the Hindu gods [and] quietly traveled to the pilgrim town of Palani to pray at the hill temple of Murugan, his favorite deity” (Narayan Swamy 2003: 110).

Thanga’s eloquent intervention indicates that he is a devotee of Pirapāharan and the Tiger cause. Thanga tells us that Pirapāharan is now a major subject of hero worship in Tamil magazines, books and cinematic fare in Tamilnadu. That has been confirmed for me by Tamil journalists from that region; but they have indicated that Tamilnadu society and politics are quite complex and that those politicians who play the Tiger card do so for personal reasons[xiv]  and, in any event, have relatively limited support. Thus Sathiyamoorthy stresses that a burgeoning readership “does not automatically translate into the reader becoming a Prabhakaran worshipper or even follower” (email dated 3 March 2012). Therefore, Sinhalese ultra-nationalists should not be too concerned about the Tamilnadu Tiger spectre (though I am afraid that they too tend towards incorrigibility on issues such as this).

Nevertheless Thanga has a point: Pirapāharan is the equivalent of a god in some (limited) circles in Tamilnadiu. More vitally he is akin to a god among sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora (as I indicated in my article without Thanga’s aid). Thanga’s central thrust, one that everyone should take seriously, is this:

“The question whether Prabhakaran is alive or dead is immaterial. Prabhakaran is part of Tamil history and part of Tamil psyche. He will be remembered by generations and generations to come. Liberation movements never die with their founders.”

True, very true. With people like Thanga and Kathivaran around, this deified attachment to the cause of an independent Tamil state in Sri Lanka and the perpetuation of a propaganda war against Sri Lanka will persist for quite a while. This hostility will extend to those who speak up for aspects of Sri Lankan society and politics (for example Dayan Jayatilleke) or those who are seen to denigrate Pirapaharan. So, Raghavan, Iyer and Roberts have ventured into the unthinkable. They have cast unacceptable aspersions upon “a brave, selfless and dedicated leader who lived by example.”

What is more this leader, the talaivar (Führer), was a “leader who never slept on a mat or used a pillow!” He was, in other words, in the line of Tamil ascetic heroes, a man to die for, a man to follow, a man whose cause one must pursue in the same dedicated fashion. War! War! Tamililam is not dead. War! War!

We should not laugh at such persons. They are as dogged and dedicated as they are extreme. They are deadly serious. Yes, deadly persons Pirapaharan died for.



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[i] See

[ii] See It seems to me that neither Kathiravan nor Thanga have read my essay on Pirapaharan’s admiration for Hitler and Nazi Germany. Or, if they have, they have not understood its parametres or arguments fully.

[iii] See Note that both these items also appeared in Colombo Telegraph under different titles.

[iv] Roberts, Sinhala Consciousness, 2004: 59-64, 70, 75-84, 86-87, 123-24, 159.

[v] Queiroz 1931: 32, 48-49.

[vi] See Roberts 2004; 11, 14, 28, 43 57 & 70-78 for documented references to the Vanni.

[vii] DGB de Silva 1996: 157-58, 168, 171.

[viii] Abeyawardena 1991: 19; Abeyawardena 1978: 21, 158; and DGB de Silva 1996.

[ix] DGB de Silva 1996: 166-67, 169, 173, 180.

[x] Indrapala 1970: 123-26. Liyanagamage (1968: 86, 128) also refers to the “Sinhala maha vannin.”

[xi] Roberts 2004: 74, quoting the Rajasiha Hatana and Ferguson 1998: 120, 89, 92, 104, 114, 130.

[xii] On this critical issue see GH Peiris 1991, 1994 and 1999. Peiris presents his analysis with an xplcit caveat: “within the limits of colonial census data” (personal communication). Also see Roberts, Narrating Tamil Nationalism, 2005: 14-20.

[xiii] Between August 1983 and July 1987 the Indian government and the state authorities of Tamilnadu actively supported and sponsored the several Eelamist fighting forces. They established military training camps for most of them. The LTTE had at least 11 batches trained at such camps, some of which were run by the LTTE themselves. It is widely believed that TELO was the group most favoured by the Indian authorities. However, TELO and other groups such as PLOTE were totally dependent on India for its arms and ammunition. Pirapāharan had the foresight and the connections  to secure his own lines of armament

 [xiv] For background, see Krishna 1999 and Ranganathan & Rodrigues 2010.


Filed under citizen journalism, communal relations, cultural transmission, Eelam, historical interpretation, Hitler, life stories, LTTE, military strategy, politIcal discourse, racist thinking, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, Tamil civilians, Tamil migration, Tamil Tiger fighters, terrorism, truth as casualty of war

9 responses to “Addressing Two Angry Tamils: Heat, Distortion, Truth, Fact, Mendacity and Eternal Enmity

  1. Tissa Wije

    Thank you Dr Roberts for the mostinformative article. A friend of mine who was resident in Potuvil for some time remarked on the extremely long names of Sinhala folks living inthat area that bare Kandyan origins. They make a bare minimum livelihood, mostly by chena cultivation and timber felling. He thought they were the ones who escaped British massacres 1818, 1848 etc by running away. THere is no land routeconnecting Jaffna to TRincoorto Batti and Panama. Any mass movementofpeople by land must have been recent as there are no roads along the East coast – but there have been see transport folks coming from Malaca and Oman. Sinhala writer Martin Wickramasinghe started working life in the ’20s as a clerk for a Sinhala traderin Batticaloa. He recalled the difficulties for trade for Sinhala folks at the time.

  2. chandre dharma-wardana

    Consider the following quote from the article:
    “Tamil people” have declared their attachment to the goal of self-determination at every general election since 1977 – significant as long as one enters one or two caveats relating to the Malaiyaha Tamils of the plantation areas on the one hand and, on the other, to the Tamil people in the eastern littoral. However, to present this as a legitimate claim that can be translated into an autonomous unit by some magical writ is a fanciful notion that reveals his extremism

    The TULF secured a majority in the North, but not in the East. It is quite conceivable that Amirthalingam and JRJayawardena could have forged some resolution of the political problems, if Amirthalingam had lived. But the TULF leaders were assassinated by the Tamil extremists. So they, and in particular the LTTE, cannot claim the mantel of legitimacy that Amirthalingam had via the electoral process, in the Northern province,
    but not in the East or among the MalaiahTamils (i.e., in the hills).
    It is this fundamental distinction between the North and the East that finally surfaced with Karuna breaking off from Prabhakaran, in the Malaiah Tamils remaining relatively aloof from the conflict. This distinction is one of “varige”, “varna”, or caste.

    Further more, although there were many elections and changes of government in the south during the period of the conflict, there were no elections or open discussion of the legitimacy of the Tigers who were connected with the land-owning Tamils who ruled the largely under-prevailed Vanni Tamils (who did not own land).

    Hitler at least had at least one mock election as well as constitutional crafting to justify his power.

  3. m

    The honesty of your post can be judged by the fact you translate talaivar as Führer, Your disingenuousness only shows why Prahakaran was so popular — just as the terrible economic conditions of the 30s prompted Germans to turn to Hitler.

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  7. You will find some fascinating points in time in this write-up but I don’t know if I see all of them heart to heart. There may possibly be some validity but I’ll take hold opinion till I look into it further. Very good write-up , thanks and we would like a lot more! Added to FeedBurner as properly

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