From ‘Immolation’ to my Epitaph for Neelan Tiruchelvam

Michael Roberts … This article was originally printed in the Lanka Monthly Digest, September 1999, vol 6:2, pp. 56-57. It was then expanded significantly in some places, while citations and footnotes were added, for its re-printing within the book Fire and Storm. Essays in Sri Lankan Politics, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, 2011, pp. 123-30 — ISBN 978-955665–134-8.

I: In February 1999 a Kurdish nationalist leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was caught by the Turkish authorities. Kurdish refugees in the Western world erupted in protest. In London a young girl Neila Kanteper set herself alight. In Sydney a young lad was caught on camera with petrol can and cigarette lighter as he threatened similar action. As I walked into the local news-agency in Adelaide that week the proprietor[1] waved the picture of Kanteper in flames in front of me and in considerable alarm inquired how anyone could take such an extreme measure. He could not ever take such a step, he said. His remarks gain in significance from the fact that they were unsolicited and had not been preceded by prior conversation. I was in a hurry and did not explore matters further, but I conjecture that his bewilderment stemmed not only from the method of death by fire, but also from such terminal commitment to a collective cause. The question, therefore, is whether in similar circumstances an act of martyrdom involving death by hand-gun would produce the same level of astonishment. Relatively speaking, death by gun seems to be so much more acceptable to the Western world than death by flame.

II : During the dark days after the Soviet Union had closed down the push for greater Czechoslovak autonomy under Alexander Dubcek in 1968-69 by invading the country in collaboration with their stooges, on 26 January 1969 a young philosophy student at Charles University in Prague named Jan Palach committed a dramatic act of self immolation in Wenceslas Square, a site of considerable significance in Czech mythology. Palach had been jilted by his girl friend[2] and his personal depression matched that of Czech patriots.

Whatever the mix of motives impelling Palach, there is no doubt that his self-immolation was a premeditated political act. Though he deployed what was an alien method of protest, he chose Wenceslas Square as his grand stage, a site that was not only a hub of public assembly suitable for theatrical advertisement, but also one which embodied Czechoslavakia’s foundational past, thus a sacrosanct place of the same order, say, as Trafalgar Square and the Statue of Liberty for their respective countries.

Palach became an instant patriot hero. As he took three days to die, important individuals, among them the dissident playwright Vaclav Havel,[3] visited him as he lay dying. At least four others emulated his modus operandi of self immolation-in-protest in the days that followed. The day of his funeral, 25 January, became a “day of national mourning” and the event drew large crowds. He was deemed a martyr and compared to Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1415.[4]Considerable agitation occurred thereafter through much of Bohemia and Moravia, but, unlike South Vietnam, a regime change was not generated: indeed, Dubcek and the reformists were quickly displaced. Authoritarian repression won out. However, dissident action in subsequent decades often centred upon the day of his death and the eventual challenge to the authoritarian Communist order in 1989 mobilised around his memory when external conditions in the Soviet Union opened the door for transformative challenge. Much later, when Czechoslavakia had discarded the Soviet embrace and local Communist yoke, they renamed the Square for Red Soldiers in front of the Philosophy Faculty of Charles University as “Jan Palach Square.”[5] It is such evocations over the long-run that make Palach’s ritual suicide an effective rite of witness and protest.

Much later, when I was taking an interest in this case study on one occasion in Adelaide I met a Czech lady who had fled her homeland together with her husband, a former political prisoner, a few months’ before Palach immolated himself in political protest. They had, she said, been at a refugee camp in Austria when they heard of Palach’s act. Though on the same side of the fence as Palach and those who developed the subsequent legend, this couple’s immediate reaction had been one of horror and shock. It was against their beliefs. She was referring, I believe, to the Catholic faith and its injunctions against suicide. Palach, then, had reached beyond local cultural ideas to the global order – and more specifically derived his inspiration from the acts of self-immolation committed a few years earlier by a few Vietnamese Buddhist monks protesting against Western imperialism.

III: These Vietnamese had been nurtured in a cultural setting of Buddhist ethics that encourages reflections on nature’s decay (for instance, the mal pūjāva or flower offerings common to Buddhist worship). In contrast to many North Western and Central European practices, moreover, it is probable that funerals in most Buddhist lands are proclaimed in public thoroughfares through flute, drum and decoration (for that is the practice in Sri Lanka). Again, it is conventional for dead persons to be cremated in the Theravada Buddhist countries as well as Hindu India.

Cremation is not usually favoured in Islamic countries. Indeed, the fellahin peasants in the Egyptian locality in which Amitav Ghosh resided were absolutely aghast when they learned that Hindus cremated their dead (see In an Antique Land). To follow the notions of the Sufis in Delhi among whom Arthur Sanitos conducted his research, the question a good Muslim would raise would be: how could the spirit of a cremated person sleep in peace? Would not the spirit be forced to wander? Thus informed, and without the benefit of expertise in Kurdish culture, I conjecture that the Kurdish protesters who played with fire were drawing on a globalised repertoire of symbolic death rather than their own special practices. I cannot say how the Kurds of the diaspora or the Kurds in their homelands would have responded to these political acts of martyrdom through self immolation, but I suspect that they would not been bemused or horrified — because their commitment to Kurdishness and the idea of a jihad could accommodate this variant practice.

IV: When Indira Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi in 1984 at least ten people either committed suicide or attempted suicide, in several cases through immolation (Hindu 3 Nov. 1984). These numbers only add up to a minute handful within the context of India’s demographic millions. But these instances, definitely acts at the extreme end of the scale of sorrowful response, occurred in the Dravidian south of the country. There is no evidence from north Indian newspapers to contradict this supposition. They point to a depth of emotional commitment to idols in the southern part of peninsular India that is not matched further north. This opinion gains support from the incidence of suicide and self-mutilation (by chopping off limbs) that took place when MGR, the famous Tamilian film idol and politician, suffered a stroke in October 1984 as well as three years later when he died on 24th December 1987.[6]

Though contemporary circumstances must be an important component in any efforts to clarify such action, I believe that a powerful cultural strand of complete devotion to Hindu gods has been nourished for centuries in the Tamilian south in ways that promote such possibilities. Such themes are found in the Cankam (pronounced Sangam) poetry of the period 250 BC to 250 BCE. They are also inscribed in the folk classic known as the Periya Purānam produced by Cekkilar, apparently a Cola courtier, during the twelfth century CE. The Periya Purānam presents stories about 63 Tamil Saiva saints whose devotion to Siva inspired fierce sacrificial acts against their loved ones as well as themselves.[7] In brief, the “emotional intensity of anpu” (or love) among the saints impelled them “far beyond normal moral boundaries” to an “excess of blood and death” – an excess that is said to have pleased Siva because it embodied total devotion.[8] It is my thesis that such groundings have been among the factors that have enabled the Tamil Tigers to develop practices of martyrdom that sustain suicide bombers as well as cyanide suicides by combatants taken captive.[9]

V: The point of these global excursions on my part is to suggest that political self-immolation would not generate the same degree of horror among the generality of readers in such countries as Vietnam, Japan, Rajasthan, Kurdistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia and Tamilnadu as it did in Australia. The sense of repulsive fascination and horror certainly runs through some of the accounts in the Australian newspapers on the 19th February-and-thereafter that described Nejla Kanteper’s self-immolation in London. I suspect, therefore, that such sentiments of bemusement and distaste were pretty widespread through much of Australian society. Some Australians, I further suspect, would express antipathy to such practices and argue that migrants should not insert the struggles of their homelands into Australian society. In a few instances such thoughts may even be extended to attack the idea of multiculturalism.

Such lines of thinking, I claim, are not attentive to the nostalgia and depth of sentiment for their homelands aroused among some migrants (but not among all) by the experience of migration. This has not only been true of people from “strange lands,” but of migrants from Latvia, Estonia. Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and other European countries. One could step further back in time and argue that it was as true of the Anglo-Celtic migrants who conquered and settled Australia by force of number in the nineteenth century. Many Irish migrants certainly did not discard their loyalties or their antipathy to the English. One cannot expect people to leave their sentiments behind them. Nor can the migrants of the contemporary world jettison their cultural practices lock stock and barrel, when they reach Australia, even as they must accommodate themselves to the laws of the Australian state. A political act of suicide in public does break the law, but it is usually an act that does not harm others physically. And it is to the Australian newspaper’s creditthat its reports on the 19th February 1998 highlighted the emotional commitment of the individuals concerned and indicated, though not quite in these words, that the acts of self-immolation were courts of last resort. As James Scott would say, they were (and are) weapons of the weak.[10]

VI: With death, one’s own death, by cyanide capsule one enters another realm. In the case of the Tigers it is part of the cult of martyrdom that has been built up as a binding force by its leadership. The initial exemplary act of cyanide suicide was that of Ponnadurai Sivakumaran on June 1974, well before the Tigers were in existence.[11]That act signaled his desire to protect his little cell of revolutionaries as much as his commitment to Eelam. It made him an immediate culture hero. A statue was immediately erected in his honour in the Jaffna Peninsula and he has subsequently been incorporated into the LTTE pantheon of māvīrar (great heroes).[12] But, as we know, suicide has been taken by the LTTE beyond protective defense to the realm of smart bomb and assassination job. Here, in this terrain, it is anything but a weapon of the weak. Rather it is an instrument of state, of terror, of cold-blooded killing. Where the victims are moderate parliamentarians and mediatory figures serving the Tamil cause in the manner favoured by SarojiniYogeswaran and Neelan Tiruchelvam, the heroes and martyrs are the victims.[13] In the circumstances in which the Tamils of Sri Lanka are placed today in the 1990s (and the situation is different from that of the 70s and 80s) such victims are the brave ones, far braver than the fighters on both sides with guns in hand. Mrs Yogeswaran I did not know. Neelan was a friend and a colleague-in-arms. This is my epitaph to Neelan, friend and Tamil Lankan martyr.

[1] Guy Tippet, whose son Ben served recently in 2008 as baggage-handler for the Sri Lankan cricket team on tour in Australia on behalf of Australia Cricket.

[2] Information communicated personally by Andrew Lass, who was an university student at that time (when we met at the Triple A meetings in Chicago in late 1991).

[3]Havel was repeatedly arrested during the 1970s and 1980s and served several years in prison for his dissident activities. By the 1980s Havel was the undisputed unofficial leader of the Czech human rights movement. In November 1989 he formed a new opposition group, Civic Forum. Later in in February 1993 Havel became the President of the CzechoslovakRepublic after the Communist and Soviet yoke had been removed.

[4] Kurt W. Treptow,“The Winter of Despair: Jan Palach and the Collapse of the Prague Spring,” in Treptow, From Zalmoxis to Jan Palach. Studies in East European History, Boulder: East European Monographs, 1992, pp.127-28.

[5] S. Pfaff and G Yang, “Double-edged Rituals and the Symbolic Resources of Collective Action: Political Commemorations and the Mobilization of Protest,” Theory and Society, 2001, vol. 30 pp. 539-87 and Treptow, Winter of Despair, p. 128. Wenceslas Square was obviously too sacrosanct for its name to be altered.

[6] In addition to the 22 who immolated themselves or cut off their limbs, over 100 are said to have attempted self-immolation in late October 1984. when MGR eventually died on 24 December 1987 31 of “his desolate followers” are said to have so grief-stricken that they committed suicide (M. S. S. Pandian, The Image Trap, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1992, pp. 17-18).

[7] The Periya Purānam was an expression of the bhakti movement in India, wherein “the devotee’s purity of intent [was] far more important to god than technical correctness of ritual forms” (Norman Cutler, Songs of Experience. The Poetics of Devotion, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987: 8).  Bhakti is “a theology of embodiment,” where one’s devotion is “embedded in the details of human life” (Karen P. Prentiss, 1999 The Embodiment of Bhakti Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 6). My understanding of this text in its context (and subsequently) has been assisted by the clarifications sent by Darshan Ambalavanar of Toronto.

[8]  Dennis Hudson, “Violent and Fanatical Devotion among the Nayanars: A Study in the Periya Purānam of Cēkkilār,” in Alf Hiltebeitel (ed.) Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees, Delhi: Manohar, 1990, pp. 375-405. On vannanpu or “violent love,” also see C. Vamadeva, The Concept of Vannanpu, “Violent Love in Tamil Saivism with Reference to the Periya Purānam, Uppsala: Uppsala University Religious Studies, 1995.

[9] This thesis was initially essayed as “Filial Devotion in Tamil Culture and the Tiger Cult of Suicide,” Contributions to Indian Sociology 1996, vol. 30, pp. 245-72.

[10] In Weapons of the Weak, YaleUniversity Press, 1985. it is commonplace today for those in “terrorist studies” to stress that suicide bombers are usually deployed by forces that are in a situation of military asymmetry.

[11] For details, see M. R. Narayan Swamy, Tigers of Sri Lanka, Delhi: Konark Publishers Pvt Ltd. 1994, pp. 25-26, 29 and Roberts, Filial Devotion, 1996, pp. 252-54

[12] Re the struggle around his statue, see National Geographic January 1979, p. 138 and Roberts, “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.

[13] Mrs. Yogeswaran, then Mayoress of Jaffna, was shot and killed by an LTTE assassin on 17 May 1999, while Neelan Tiruchelvam was assassinated by a suicide bomber on 29 July 1999. Previously, Mrs. Yogeswaran’s husband, then a leading member of the Tamil United Liberation Front, had been killed by the LTTE along with A. Amirthalingam on 13 July 1989.


Filed under life stories, LTTE, politIcal discourse, power politics, racist thinking, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, suicide bombing, terrorism, unusual people, war crimes, world events & processes

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