Seeking the Roots of Tamil Tiger Dedication: A Journey

Michael Roberts

I began this research engagement via my interest in ethnic violence in Sri Lanka and my  study of the 1915 anti-Moor “riots” when at Peradeniya University in the 1970s. Neelan Tiruchelvam revived my interest when he invited me to attend Conference in Kathmandu in the late 1980s and to present my thoughts on the 1915 pogrom–invariably undertaken in the light of the July 1983 pogrom directed against Tamils.

At this point I decided that I had to break free of my immersion in Sri Lankan material and needed to gain comparative insights by looking at secondary literature on racial violence in USA directed at Blacks and at “communal violence” and “riots” in India. A short-term Research Fellowship at Teen Murti in Delhi in 1995 provided me with the data and experience for this route.  The newspaper material on the Anti -Sikh violence in Delhi and the north in 1984 after Mrs Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards was especially thought-provoking (and has recently fed into two articles on “Anguish as Empowerment” and “Kill Any Sikh“).  Anguish …leading to Riot Violence, 1984

To my surprise I discovered that a few Tamil people – just a handful — had committed sympathetic suicide in the south. This struck me as quite odd and suggested that deep veins of devotion were nourished down south among the Tamilians.This led me to begin a journey that sought to decipher the roots and inspirations for the sacrificial devotion of the Tamil Tigers (a trip that has led to numerous articles  in the period 2005-13). My first exploration in this field was a draft essay entitled “Individual Subjectivity and Collective Being in the Indic World: Funerals, Insults, Pogroms, and Suicidal Acts.” It eventually took a slightly different shape and, after the standard refereeing process, entered the public realm within Contributions to Indian Sociology (Vol 30, Issue 2, 1996) as “Filial devotion in Tamil Culture and the Tiger Cult of Martyrdom.” This article can be downloaded at

From top left clockwise: Sivakumaran, Shankar, Annai Pupathi, Malathi, Miller, and Tilipan — maaveerar in the LTTE pantheon because of death in battle or fast unto death or suicide strike (in Miller’s case) .. with Sivakumaran’s case of suicide by cyanide being prior to the formation of the LTTE and serving as inspiration for the Tiger code of honour

 Pirapaharan pays homage to the Black Tiger dead. every 5th July

I present the ABSTRACT and Bibliography below.

The popular responses to the first instance of cyanide suicide in the Jaffna Peninsula, that of Ponnadurai Sivakumaran in 1974, highlight the value that is accorded to devotional sacrifice in Tamil culture on both sides of the Palk Strait. The circumstances of Tamil dissatisfaction with Sinhalese society and the state apparatus provided an ideal scenario for the crystallisation of this emphasis. The LTTE have seized the opportunity and built up a cult of martyrdom as a mobilisational device, cementing force and precise weapon. Such instrumental usages should not obscure the likelihood that, among the Tiger leadership, the cyanide vial is both instrument and faith.

Speculatively it is suggested that the varied expressions of Tamil sentiment in northern Sri Lanka during the 1960s and 1970s-before the Tigers secured their dominance—will reveal an emphasis on filial devotion in ways which draw on Caizkam and bhakti traditions. The article therefore draws attention to certain continuities in the popular folk cults in Tamil lands—traditions which provide a seedbed of evocative symbols that, in specific contexts, can impel, or be made to impel, individuals in sacrificial directions.

The essqy argues that the understanding of such subjectivities and these essentialising moves among the Tamil militants requires a measure of essentialisation in our approaches. It elaborates this view through a critical review of Pandian’s instrumental and semiotic analysis of the MGR phenomenon, a review which enables the author to introduce the hermeneutic approach of the early Taussig and his own subjectivist emphasis on the manner in which some Tamils merge their being with that of the icon of their hearts, be it MGR, Eelam or Prabhakaran.

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Vol 30, Issue 2, 1996

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