Running the Gauntlet in Academia: The Case of “Selfless Sacrifice” — A Rejected Article

Michael Roberts

20 24 LTTE tuyilam illam at Vadamaratchchi, November 2004 —Pic by Michael Roberts ….

Preamble I: The wide-open facilities of the cyber world have not only promoted citizen journalism, but also encouraged personnel outside academia to pen articles on complex topics. Needless to say, these vary greatly in quality. That is true within academia as well: journals vary in their depth and quality … and even within reputed journals some weak and/or horrible articles pass the vetting process.

Since visitors to web sites may not be aware of the review process within academic journals, let me clarify matters from my own experiences as an author as well as my editorial roles at various moments for Modern Ceylon Studies (1970s at Peradeniya University) and Social Analysis (1979-1990s at Adelaide University).

Journals specify the format and other requirements for articles submitted to them. When one arrives, this submission (article plus abstract) is sent to referees with the author’s name kept hidden. Most journals select two or three referees for each article; but I am aware of a reputed American journal that used as many as five or six during the late 20th century.

When the referee reports reach the Editor, s/he takes a decision whether (I) to accept the submission, (II) to reject it, or (III) to request a revision in the light of specific aspects of the referees reports. The referees reports are usually sent to the author, but without their names being disclosed.

What happens, you will ask, if Referees A and B take diametrically opposite views with A enthusiastic and B strongly negative? That is where the editorial judgment becomes critical. When I was an Editor such outcomes were usually considered a positive in favour of the submission as provocative. I encouraged the author to revise the article in the light of specific aspects of B’s rejection which I carefully pinpointed [in effect negating some aspects of B’s report]. I also believe that journals that used a multitude of referees were/are playing safe and encouraging mediocrity — for Academia is as diverse as subjective and referees are fallible.

On occasions in the past I have also been asked to referee an article –invariably relating to Sri Lanka. In doing so it has been my practice usually to ask the Editor to reveal my name, especially if my report suggests rejection or major revisions. This is a personal preference because I believe an author needs to know where the commentary is coming from. Without the context provided by the referee’s authorial background, it is not easy for someone to respond to their suggestions or to rebut them for the benefit of the Editors.

While I have rarely been utilised as a referee during the past ten years, I was flabbergasted when one report sent recently with such a request for my name to be released to the author (not a Sri Lankan) was turned down by an Editor. S/he refused to reveal my name when sending my highly critical report on this article on Sri Lankan affairs. The Editor’s stance arose from a fiat imposed on the journal by its reputed publication house. To my way of thinking, this is absurd bureaucratic rigidity. It does not facilitate “close-quarter engagement.” It is best if one knows whom one is boxing against. I did not wish to be a hidden boxer — the more so if my report was a knock-out punch.

Preamble II:

During the years 2003-09 I composed a number of essays on the commitment to cause displayed by the members of the Liberation Tigers of Thamil Eelam, a bond that I have described as “sacrificial devotion” in implicit criticism of the widespread denigration of “suicide bombers.” Several were drafted during my elevating sojourn at the Centro Incontri Umani at Ascona in Switzerland in 2007 and have appeared at various points of time thereafter, with one[1] appearing after several revisions as recently as 2014 in Social Analysis vol. 58/1.

“Selfless Sacrifice” was sent to a top-rung journal in 2007 and was rejected by its editors on the foundations of reports from two referees. It was verbally accepted by the editor of another journal who was an acquaintance; but this decision was either shelved or the essay fell through the gaps in their shelves.

On reflection I have decided to present it in the public realm, warts and all.It has now appeared in Colombo Telegraph with its original title “Selfless Sacrifice and Living Gods among the Tamil Tigers.” It has also been placed in my own web site with the title “From Godse and Gandhi to the Selfless Sacrifice of Tamil Tigers.”

Three reasons guided me in thus inflicting upon the cyber-world an article that two of my peers considered flawed.

    1. Though it reiterates themes and some details that appear in some of my other essays,[2]“Selfless Sacrifice” also has motifs that are different and contains details that have not been deployed elsewhere.
    2. The pictorial illustrations are as striking as significant. I also believe that the cyanide suicide in 1974 of Ponnudurai Sivakumāran, a lad who was not a Tamil Tiger, deserves greater attention because it was one inspiration for Velupillai Pirapāharan’s adoption of cyanide capsules as a defensive weapon in the LTTE campaign for Tamil liberation. This inspiration and emphasis, moreover, has been contextualised and emphasised by beginning the essay with the persona Mahatma Gandhi and his killer, Nathuram Godse. Such juxtapositions are a form of analogic extension or analogic argument.
    3. Since I am functioning as my own editor and utilizing a web page, the number of pictorial inserts is not restricted by editorial fiat or publication costs.
    4.       Last but not least, I can educate the public by indicating to all and sundry WHY this article did not pass muster in a reputed academic journal. The reports of the anonymous Referees A and B are presented here.   The reply that I sent to the Editors of the journal concerned is also presented (with some editing) to the readers. It was a rebuke though one that did not ask for any re-consideration or expect any. My response was partly informed by the fact that I could figure out whom one of the Referees was. Since he was an explicit supporter of the Tamil cause and had a particular reading of the māvīrar activities, the editorial decision to use him as a referee, in my view, had generated a conflict of interest. In brief, it was an editorial blunder.The same article — with its original title — was posted by Colombo Telegraph a week back. Since I am often subject to character assassination in that outlet readers are encouraged to study the reactions therein for their edification.      

Readers who are unaware of the review/vetting processes deployed within Academia will now, hopefully, comprehend how standards are sustained. What you see with “Selfless Sacrifice” is a failed essay, an outcome many academics face from time to time. The Referees’ reasoning and the stark evidence of my unchanged article not only reveal a rigorous process, but also can serve as a learning curve for budding writers seeking to enter the portals of good academic journals.

The reply that I sent to the Editors of the journal concerned is also presented (with some editing) to the readers. It was a rebuke though one that did not ask for any re-consideration or expect any.

Readers now have the wherewithal to evaluate this reaction on my part — set within the context of the rejected article which has been presented unchanged.

Michael Roberts

** The same article — with its original title — was posed by Colombo Telegraph a week back. Since I am often subject to character assassination in that outlet readers are encouraged to study the reactions therein for their edification.                                                                               

Report from Referee A

Unfortunately I cannot recommend a publication of this paper.1. The paper is a compilation of old research. There are no new achievements gained through philological or anthropological work or through theoretical considerations.2. There is no distinction and separation between the LTTE as a source for the LTTE and supporters as a source for the LTTE. The LTTE is made responsible for what the supporters say. This neglect causes the author to conclude that the LTTE turns its fighters into gods. What does the LTTE say? In this connection the author should have taken up the concepts of teyvīkap piṟavikaḷ. This requires knowledge of Tamil.3. The bibliography and the footnotes are not done according to any scientific system.4. The transliteration is a blend of different systems. The author should either use the Tamil Lexicon system with diacritics (Veluppiḷḷai Pirapākaraṉ), the same system without diacritics (Veluppillai Pirapakaran) or an Anglicised phonetical system without diacritics (Veluppillai Prabhakaran). The author has given Velupillai Prapāharan, Prabhākaran. The author has also added an outdated system from the 19th century. This blending has affected quotations from other authors. The quotations have become distorted. Fonts for diacritics are available in every Unicode font. There is no excuse for not using diacritics according to the Tamil Lexicon system.5. There are serious factual mistakes. Iśvara at note 37 in this context is not Brahmā, but Civaṉ. The reference to Wikipediainstead of using a Tamil source shows the level of competence and ambition of the author. – The LTTE use of natukaḷ does not refer to divinities of blood and power (p. 9). It refers to those who are just commemorated by name in contrast to those who are buried whose graves are called camātis. These are administrative labels to classify funeral sites. The author takes the term out of the factual contextual use.6. Associating Gandhi’s killer with the LTTE due to alleged and constructed phenomenological similarities is unclear.7. As the author does not know Tamil he/she is dependent on translations which he/she cannot check and correct. Natukaḷ does not mean ‘hero stone’ (p. 8). It means ‘risen (planted) stone’.9. The gossip about Chandrakantan on p. 14 is unethical and should not be published in a serious journal.

Report from Referee B

This article puts together some useful historical information about the LTTE.

The beginning is promising. Notes and references need to be carefully checked and cleaned up. There are some errors in titles of references cited, for instance. In general, the religious aspects of LTTE ideology and presumed practice have been discussed at length in scholarly literature – e.g. in works by Dagmar Hellman-Rajanagam, Michael Roberts, Peter Schalk and others. From this writer’s point of view, the religious aspects have been overstressed. It is hard to see what new insights are offered by this article. Also, hard to see what makes the article anthropological – it might do better in a journal of religious studies. Maybe too flippant and dismissive at some points. Why “tamil-speak” instead of just Tamil language? Recommendations – clean up endnotes and refs, develop a cogent and original interpretation/ analysis of the data presented, take a more serious tone. This is an article submitted to an important journal. But some real work and thought into it.

Michael Roberts to Editors of Journal XY, September 2007

Dear [names]Reference the decision re my submission conveyed by Z at some point in July when I was on vacation and not in a position to respond immediately: let me address these comments to the Editorial staff rather than the Referees. I do not wish you to pass them on to the Referees; nor do I expect a change of view on your part. Given the number of manuscripts competing for places it is conventional for Editors to ditch those that suggest controversy or weakness [I was an editor myself for ten years in the 1980s though my policy was rather different when controversies loomed]. I will refer to the Referee’s report dated 6 May as A and that of April as B.

  1. A’s negative report is overwhelmingly directed by a pedantic assessment threaded by positivism. The focus on a bibliographical scheme that is “not scientific” (A3), a mix of transliteration systems (A4) and the points about natukal (A 5 and 7 – also see my challenging note below) are wholly pedantic and directed by a fetish for ORDER. The issue is whether these minor infelicities render the argument incomprehensible to any reader who is not governed by such an obsession.
  2. The more substantive point (A1 a as well as B) that the article says nothing new is questionable. For one B cites my own work as part of the cluster that has covered this arena. This essay is an extension out of my own work (2005a & b, 2006a & b and now 2007)[3] addressing an anthropological audience that is mostly unaware of the recent work on the subject (some of which is in journals catering to political scientists and security analysts). Be that as it may, it is an extension and embellishment that expands my direct confrontation with Schalk on the one hand and on the other challenges the many political scientists, journalists, etc (e. g. Robert Pape, Gambetta, etc) who present the LTTE as “secular” [concept undefined and taken as standard]. One aspect of my embellishment was the interpretation of the world promoting the assassination work of Godse, killer of Mahatma Gandhi, an individual who paradoxically ‘shared’ some of the same inspirational Hindu currents of thought as Gandhi. In brief, my argument of juxtaposition utilises analogic reasoning. In his comments (A1 and especially the note A6), Referee A has failed to understand this work of analytical extension – which one can consider to be of theoretical import (though maybe not high theory). The key point is in the quotation “I must reduce myself to zero” (Gandhi) that highlights Hindu/Indian forms of selflessness that has provided one of the cultural foundations for the political practices juxtaposed together in this essay. This does not render the practices wholly similar of course and on page 14 [of the typewritten manuscript] some differences are underlined.
  3. B’s dismissal of my essay is directed by a preference for a materialist emphasis (“the religious aspects have been overstressed”). For [your journal]to take this leaning as a negative factor is rather strange – to put it mildly.
  4. B also considers the essay more suited to “a journal of religious studies.” That comment suggests a Cartesian interpretation of disciplines and a rather restricted view of anthropology. If the symbols and expressions I refer to (including O’Duffy’s ethnographic data) and the concepts of sakti and darshan that are central to my argument [of cultural underpinnings that go against the contention that the LTTE is a totally secular organisation] are not anthropological, then, what is? …..
  5. Referee A’s other substantive points are that I do not know Tamil, that I do not distinguish between the LTTE itself and their supporters, and that I do not concentrate on the issue: viz, “what does the LTTE say?”. In brief, A’s emphasis is on the textual and s/he glosses over the imprint of the visual iconographic and aural poetic media (in the latter realm note that Hellmann-Rajanayagam’s translation [2006] of some LTTE poetry is immensely helpful). The images accompanying my text are of critical significance for this reason. Secondly, A argues for a distinction between the LTTE productions and that of their supporters. I challenge this Cartesian and positivist methodology. The supporters range in measure, but some — both abroad and in Tamil-majority districts — are staunch supporters. They participate wholeheartedly in Māīirar Nal or Heroes Week in late November, a massive logistical exercise within the latter region (Roberts 2005a). This is an exercise in mobilisation and legitimization where Tigers and staunch supporters interpenetrate and inspire each other. To draw a sharp line between the two is poor methodology of a positivist kind. Thirdly, A’s contention that I do not incorporate LTTE statements is demolished within the article itself: I quote Pirapaharan himself (p. 10), the fighter-become cameraperson, viz., Gajaani (p.14) and the statements made by leading LTTE administrators in Kilinochchi to O’Duffy (direct ethnographic evidence: pp. 13-14).
  6. B is also unhappy with what s/he considers to be a “flippant” writing style and the use of such a phrase as “Tamil-speak.” The latter note is a case of making a mountain out of molehill; and, if reluctantly, I am forced to work up another mountain: (a) Would I criticise an article that uses the standard, ponderous phrase “Tamil language”? No. (b) “Tamil-speak” is both an aesthetic preference and an interpretive signal on my part. It encompasses both written and spoken forms of cultural transmission and highlights the oral. Indeed, elsewhere in a pamphlet (2002) entitled Trimming the Printed Word [itself a re-working of chapter 2 in my book Sinhala Consciousness] I mount a criticism of the overemphasis on print in writings influenced by Benedict Anderson and within some strands of Cultural Studies. (b) As for flippancy, I read the style that I adopted as pungent and one that carries verve, but, then, I am biased and must rely on other opinions for a final judgment.
  7. Referee A also challenges my translation of natukal and insists that it means “planted stone.” Strictly speaking it does. But see my statement: “There were precedents in Indian and Tamil heritage: sannyāsin, heroic defenders of a village, victims of gross violations who have committed ritual suicide and women of sati, all such personnel had been buried in what were known in India as viragal or natukal,that is, “hero stones” or “planted stones.” Several of these stones became “divinities of blood and power” with the typically fierce and ambiguous character of guardian deitiesIt is viragal that means hero stone. BUT in the Indian literature (Rajam, Sekkar, Sontheimer, Bayly) viragal and natukal are treated as overlapping entities. Indeed, refer to a previous sentence on my part: “that all should be planted as natukal valipādu or ‘hero stones worthy of worship’ ” (Jeyaraj 2006).” In brief, there are numerous authorities in my support. What we see here then is a strict etymological stance – hence my depiction of Referee A as pedantic and positivist.
  8. Referee A also says that the “gossip about Chandrakanthan” on page 14 is unethical.” Well, this line was backed by footnote 39. In its original form this footnote included the following expansion: “I had turned up a day earlier [at a conference organized by Geneva Call that was directed against the use of land mines] and had circulated a flier advertising my pamphlet on Narrating Tamil Nationalism, a flier designed for market purposes that referred to Chandrakanthan’s chapter within A. J. Wilson’s book as “a paen of praise” for the LTTE leader. When a gentleman in a dog collar accosted me at the buffet line, I was taken by surprise till I saw his name tag. Subsequently, I worked out that he had seen the flier and not the article—where, in fact, I stress that his evidence on this issue is empirical data of great significance. It was Chandrakanthan’s eulogistic tone and the sins of omission in his chapter that had drawn sharp criticism not the empirical facts on this point.” ….. This segment was omitted within my submission in keeping with your [strict] guidelines. But even without the aid of this elaboration, the moral position taken by Referee A is untenable and would disable much ethnographic data of an anthropological kind. END


Bayly, Susan 1989 Saints, Goddesses and Kings. Muslims and Christians in South Indian Society, 1700-1900, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Chandrakanthan, A. J. V. 2000 “Eelam Tamil Nationalism: An Inside View,” in A. J. Wilson, Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism. Its Origins and Development in the 19th and 20th Centuries, London: Hurst and Company, pp. 157-75.

Hellman-Rajanayagam, D. 2005“ ‘And Heroes Die’: “Poetry of the Tamil Liberation Movement in Northern Sri Lanka,” South Asia 28: 112-53.

O’Duffy, Brendan 2007 “LTTE: Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Majoritarianism, Self-Determination,and Military-to-Political Transition in Sri Lanka,” in Marianne Heiberg, Brendan O’Leary, and John Tirman (eds.) Terror, Insurgency, and the State. Ending Protracted Conflicts, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 257-87.

Roberts, Michael 2002 Modernist Theory: Trimming the Printed Word: The Instance of Pre-modern Sinhala Society, Colombo: International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES)

Roberts, Michael 2004 Narrating Tamil Nationalism. Subjectivities & Issues, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications [a review essay reprinted from South Asia, 2004].

Roberts, Michael 2005a “Saivite Symbolism, Sacrifice and Tamil Tiger Rites,” Social Analysis 49: 67-93.

Roberts, Michael 2005b “Tamil Tiger ‘Martyrs’: Regenerating Divine Potency?” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 28: 493-514.

Roberts, Michael 2006a “Pragmatic Action & Enchanted Worlds: A Black Tiger Rite Of Commemoration,” Social Analysis 50: 73-102.

Roberts, Michael 2006b “The Tamil Movement for Eelam,” E-Bulletin of the International Sociological Association, No. 4, July 2006, pp. 12-24.

Roberts, Michael 2007a “Suicide Missions as Witnessing: Expansions, Contrasts,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, vol. 30 (10): October 2007, pp. 857-88.

Roberts, Michael2007b “Blunders in Tigerland: Pape’s Muddles on ‘Suicide Bombers’ in Sri Lanka,” Heidelberg Papers in South Asian and Comparative Politicsavailable athttp://hpsacp.uni-

Roberts, Michael 2009 Confrontations in Sri Lanka: Sinhalese, LTTE and Others¸ Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications.

Roberts, Michael 2010 Fire and Storm. Essays in Sri Lankan Politics, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications.

Settar S. &G. D. Sontheimer 1982 (eds.) Memorial Stones, Dharwad: Institute of Indian Art History.

                                    SUBSEQUENT PUBLICATIONS of DIRECT RELEVANCE

BBC 1991 “Suicide Killers,” Documentary series.

Iyer, Ganeshan 2012a “Military Training in the German Nazi Mould amidst Internal Dissension in the Early LTTE, late 1970s,” trans by Parames Blacker, in military-training-in-the-german-nazi-mould-amidst-internal-dissension-in-the-early-ltte-late-1970s

[Iyer, Ganeshan] 2012b “Ganeshan Iyer’s Book launched in Toronto: Pics,” http;//’s-Book-launched-Toronto-Pics,”

Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2006 “No Public Speech Ceremony for LTTE Chief This Year?” 26 November 2006,

Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2007 “Succession Stakes in LTTE: After Prabha Who?” www., 22 December 2007.

Jeyaraj, D. B. S. 2008 “Liberation Tigers at Thirty-Two: Whither the LTTE,”, 6 May 2008.

Mahindapala, H. L. D. 2009 “How Prabhakaran went down in Nanthi Kadal – the last battleground,” 10 July 2009,

Ragavan 2009a “Interview with Ragavan on Tamil Militancy (Early Years),” /2009/02/16/interview-with-ragavan-on-tamil-militancy-part-I/

Rajasingham, Narendran 2009 “Rise and Fall of the LTTE — An Overview,” Sri Lanka Guardian, 7 Feb. 2009,

Roberts, Michael 2010b “Hitler, Nationalism, Sacrifice: Koenigsberg and Beyond…Towards the Tamil Tigers,”

Symbolic Postscript: A Terrible Violence

Roberts, Michael 2010c “Self Annihilation for Political Cause: Cultural Premises in Tamil Tiger Selflessness,” in Roberts, Fire and Storm. Essays in Sri Lankan Politics, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, pp. 161-201.

Roberts, Michael 2010d “Dilemma’s at War’s End: Clarifications and Counter-offensive,” www., rep. in Roberts, Fire and Storm, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publications, pp. 275-87.

Roberts, Michael 2010e “Killing Rajiv Gandhi: Dhanu’s Metamorphosis in Death?” South Asian History and Culture, 1: 25-41.

Roberts, Michael 2011a “People of Righteousness march on Sri Lanka,” The Island, 22 June 2011 and

Roberts, Michael 2011b “Death and Eternal Life: Contrasting Sensibilities in the Face of Corpses,” 29 June 2011,

Roberts, Michael 2011f “The Tamil Death Toll in Early 2009: A Misleading Count by Rohan Gunaratna,” 23 November 2011,

Roberts, Michael 2012a “Inspirations: Hero Figures and Hitler in Young Pirapāharan’s Thinking,” Colombo Telegraph, 12 February 2012, http://thuppahi.… rep. in TPS: Essays, 2014: 69-89.

Roberts, Michael 2012b “Velupillai Pirapaharan: Veera Maranam,” 26 November 2012,

Roberts, Michael 2014 “Encompassing Empowerment in Ritual, War & Assassination: Tantric Principles in Tamil Tiger Instrumentalities,” in Social Analysis, sp. issue on War Magic ed. by D. S. Farrer, in press.

Roberts, Michael 2011 “Ideological and Caste Threads in the Early LTTE,” draft essay.

Ross, Amanda 2010 “Sleeping with the Enemy, Tekwani lived with the Tigers,” UPI Next, 16 Nov. 2010,


[1] Roberts:  “Encompassing Empowerment in Ritual, War and Assassination. Tantric Principles in Tamil Tiger Instrumentalities,” Social Analysis, 2014, 58: 88-106.

[2] Notably in Roberts 2005, 2006a, 2006b, 2007a and 2010

[3] Also see Roberts 2007b, 2009 and 2010.


Filed under authoritarian regimes, citizen journalism, cultural transmission, historical interpretation, Hitler, Indian traditions, life stories, LTTE, martyrdom, Muslims in Lanka, nationalism, politIcal discourse, power politics, prabhakaran, propaganda, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, teaching profession

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