Neither the cause nor the notoriety of the dreaded Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was known to most people outside Sri Lanka until the unspeakably barbaric assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at the hands of a young suicide bomber in 1991. Gandhi was campaigning for what appeared to be a significant bid for a political comeback in Sriperumbudur in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
The savage nature of the murderous attack shocked millions in India and elsewhere. While I was never a great enthusiast of the dynastic and cultist worship accorded to the Nehru clan in India, and believed strongly in the need for a vibrant multi-party democracy in the country of my birth - I was simply horrified by the tragic event, to many reminiscent of the fate of John F. Kennedy 28 years earlier.
My deeply held liberal and progressive views naturally lead me to sympathize and identify with people struggling for human rights and justice anywhere in the world. Hence, nominally, I would feel solidarity with Sri Lankan Tamils in terms of any violation or repression of their rights as a minority community within that island nation. Yet, the completely irrational and unconscionable attack upon the former Prime Minister of India, purportedly for having authorized the deployment of an Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in the latter part of the 1980s, permanently damaged the profile of this ruthless outfit and its autocratic leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, in my mind.
Thus, while I am seriously guarded vis-à-vis the obscene use of the words “terrorism” and “terrorist” by fascist and imperial entities, Prabhakaran and his band of seemingly merciless killers appeared to fit those descriptions rather well. In fact, the dark and inhuman nature of this outfit became further reinforced in the years that followed. In 1993, the Sri Lankan President, Ranasinghe Premadasa, was assassinated by a suicide bomber in Colombo. Both the Gandhi and Premadasa murders were seen as retribution for the peace accord signed by the governments of India and Sri Lanka whereby the Tamil militants on the island had been directed to disarm in exchange for partial autonomy.
Growing up, I always had a great sense of respect for the culture of southern India, which I believed to be rooted in great erudition and learning, combined with an austere, nonviolent tradition. Some of the great figures of my childhood came from that culture - Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, a world renowned philosopher; C.V. Raman, a Nobel-winning physicist; Srinivasa Ramanujan, a legendary mathematician; M. Visweswaraiya, the great civil engineer; M.S. Subbulakshmi, the musician - and the list could go on and on.
It is from the above exalted sense of veneration for the deep and nurturing culture of the South that I became particularly aghast at the notion that a group of Tamils could embrace violence and mass killing of such magnitude and ferocity. It went contrary to my long-held perception, which, tragically, I have had to revise in recent decades w.r.t. other ethnic groups of great culture, such as a sizable segment of the Jewish people in Israel vis-à-vis Palestinians. It has become clear to me that violence and hatred are so deeply ingrained in the human psyche that race or culture cannot guarantee their eradication. It is with the intent of rescuing humans from these frightful demons within their nature that exemplars such as Tagore and Gandhi struggled all their lives from a higher plane.
When the government of Sri Lanka began their (apparently) final onslaught against the LTTE in recent months, like many, I, too, felt that perhaps finally the day of reckoning was at hand for a violent cult that had devaluated human life, even amongst its own people. However, when the news started to pour in towards the end that Prabhakaran’s son and a number of his close associates had been killed by the military that the humanity within me could not help but feel a measure of sorrow at the carnage. The human capacity to exact revenge, retribution and vengeance never fails to amaze me. Some might have difficulty fathoming anyone having even the remotest sympathy towards someone irredeemably vile in their view. However, I do not see these matters as entirely black and white. And this is especially so when a group, however flawed or even diabolical, is identified with the cause of an oppressed people. I have far less difficulty branding, say, Western imperial invasion and genocide of millions of innocent human beings around the world using the power of its military might as irretrievably evil.
I have also noticed in the recent past the relative lack of coverage of the phenomenal events in Sri Lanka in the Western media, including even liberal and progressive websites and sources. One would think that the seeming demise of a notorious outfit such as the LTTE, which many also believe to have had tactical links with other violent networks such as al-Qaeda, the LeT, and so forth around the world- would generate some interest. Other than Amy Goodman at Democracy Now!, few others have taken up this powerful news story.
For all its ignominy, the LTTE had the dubious distinction of being one of the most lethal rebel outfits in the world. I recall myself and other friends occasionally remarking, in jest, back in the 1990s, that the IRA rarely, if ever, successfully carried out an operation, while the LTTE rarely, if ever, missed. Indeed, as a small band of ruthless outlaws, the LTTE may well have been unmatched in the world.
As many have remarked, uncontrolled celebrations in Sri Lanka in response to the alleged death of Prabhakaran (even though an LTTE spokesperson seemingly denies his loss) may well be premature. Much as I observed about the culture of southern India, or of the Jewish people, I also have great difficulty believing that the Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka are in fact Buddhists, given the recent history of events there. I find the history shocking because my recent readings about political turmoil in that nation have made me aware of the extent of violent political retributions that have drenched that country’s recent history with blood. There seems to be a long history of political killings there, quite independent from the LTTE. Premadasa himself appears to have violently squelched or eliminated political opponents. This is as far from Buddhist principles as one can imagine.
Hence, celebration for a peaceful tomorrow in Sri Lanka may indeed be premature. Suppression of a violent uprising, even a misguided one, does not eliminate or make right a fundamental wrong, or a glaring social ill. It is from this perspective that I have difficulty accepting the views in a Times of India Op-Ed that post 9-11, no populist/separatist movement can succeed against a determined government. First of all, there is a tendency, sadly within India and also elsewhere, to attach undue importance to the significance of 9-11 as a watershed event. As often, this is a hallmark of U.S. exceptionalism. Truly, nation after nation around the world suffers violence and terror for a variety of reasons. Some of the terror is in fact clearly state-sponsored.
The tragedy of 9-11, or America’s seemingly endless, violent reaction to it, does not necessarily attach some special status to it. To declare that populist movements have no option other than to accept the status quo, or meekly expect justice or magnanimity from tyrants and oppressors, is to literally strangle all the noble impulses of human nature to stand up against injustice, discrimination and cruelty. True peace will not be restored in Sri Lanka until the legitimate grievances of all its minorities are adequately addressed.