The growing significance of the ‘great heroes day’
December 2nd, 2005
[Photo Courtesy of HumanityAshore.org]
The first ever Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) member to embrace death in battle was Sathiyanathan of Kambarmalai a northern village adjacent to Valvettithurai, the birthplace of Velupillai Prabakharan its leader. Sathiyanathan alias Shankar was also known as Suresh died on November 27, 1982.
He was a childhood friend of Prabakharan and one of his earliest recruits. Shankar had gone to the Nithiyanandan residence in Navalar Road, Jaffna to warn them of a military crackdown on Tamil professionals and intellectuals suspected of being sympathetic towards the LTTE.
Even as Shankar was communicating with Jaffna University Lecturer Muthia Nithiyanandan and his wife Nirmala an – ex-varsity lecturer now teaching at a leading Girls School, a posse of soldiers surrounded the house. Shankar managed to shoot his way out of the military cordon but sustained serious injuries in the process. The Nithiyanandans were arrested.
The first LTTE death
Later Shankar’s condition deteriorated and another senior LTTE member Sivakumar alias Anton who later represented the Tigers at the Thimphu talks undertook a perilous and clandestine journey by boat along with Shankar to Tamil Nadu to procure urgent medical assistance for the latter. This was in the pre-1983 period when the LTTE consisted only of around 25 to 30 activists and had very few resources including even wireless communication equipment.
Leaving the grievously injured Shankar in a safehouse at Kodiaakkarai, Anton went up to Madurai where LTTE chief Prabakharan and some others were staying then.
This was the time when Prabakharan was confined by court order to Madurai because of his involvement in a broad daylight shoot out with Peoples Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) chief Umamaheswaran at Pondy Bazaar in Chennai (then Madras). Thanks to the help rendered by Pala. Nedumaran who was then a member of the Tamil Nadu Legislative assembly representing Madurai West, Shankar was brought to a farmhouse belonging to Nedumaran for medical treatment.
The weeping leader
The people nursing Shankar in the coastal hideout had ignorantly given a lot of water to quench his thirst. This worsened his condition to a point of no return. Shankar died on Prabakharan’s lap mumbling “Thambi, Thambi” (thambi was the endearing term by which Prabakharan was known in the old days) while the visibly shaken and weeping LTTE leader kept stroking his hair. This was one of the few occasions when the LTTE leader ever wept in public. Death in combat of a cadre whether immediate or subsequent was a new phenomenon to the LTTE on that day.
Seven years later in 1989 around six hundred LTTE cadres assembled at a secret venue in the Mullaitheevu district jungles of Nithikaikulam on November 27. The occasion was the newly proclaimed Great Heroes Day or Maaveerar Naal as known in Tamil. This was the time when the Indian army was fighting the LTTE as a proxy of the Sri Lankan government. Thanks to the understanding arrived at between the LTTE and then President Ranasinghe Premadasa a cease-fire had been declared on September 21, that year.
A withdrawal of troops had been announced in principle. The Indian Parliamentary elections scheduled for December would determine whether Rajiv Gandhi would be re-elected or not. That verdict would in turn decide the fate of the Indian Army in Sri Lanka. The LTTE leader had in the meantime thought of honouring his dead cadres by observing a unique ceremony called Maaveerar Naal or Great Heroes Day.
Proud of the LTTE
The LTTE leader was justifiably proud then of the performance of his organisation in having withstood the onslaught of 132,000 troops of the Indian army. When the Indo-Lanka accord was signed and hostilities ceased the LTTE had lost 632 cadres in battle. When a cessation of hostilities with the Indian army was enforced the LTTE had lost a further 711 cadres.
Prabakharan wanted to recognise their contribution, honour their sacrifices and pay tribute to their memory in a collective manner. What better way than promulgating a special day? Which better day than the date on which the first LTTE member laid down his life? So November 27th it was. The first Great Heroes Day was a restricted affair of which the highlight was a highly emotional address delivered extemporaneously by Prabakharan to his enraptured followers.
The Dravidian culture
The nineties saw the LTTE controlling the greater part of the northern province and substantial pockets in the eastern province. During this period the LTTE developed to a great extent, the ceremonial aspect of paying homage to its fallen heroes. There exists in the martial tradition of the Tamils a concept known as Nadugal Valipaadu which literally means worshipping the planted stone. Until the influence of Aryan-Brahminism pervaded the Dravidian people, the custom in South India had been that of burying their dead. Tombstones were erected at the graves of great heroes fallen in battle. These were honoured regularly through special Panegyrical rituals.
The classical Tamil literary works of the Sangham era are replete with references to this Nadugal Valipaadu concept. The aftermath of the Hindu renaissance period saw Brah- minism becoming dominant and altering a way of life drastically. The decline of Tamil dynasties along with the advent of Moghul, Nayakkar and European colonialism saw the martial tradition among Tamils becoming debilitated. The custom of paying homage to heroes fallen in battle became non-existent in an environment where war was virtually unknown for generations.
Now the LTTE went back to the roots of the Tamil martial culture and revived its most potent symbolic and ritual form. From 1991 the entire week from November 21-27, was declared as Great Heroes Week. Interestingly the birthday of LTTE leader Prabakharan was November 26. Since this day was now within the Great Heroes Week more importance was attached to it. An outpouring of emotion both genuine as well as sycophantic emerged. The focus shifted from Great Heroes Day to the leader’s birthday.
Some even thought that Great Heroes day was to celebrate the leaders birthday. Soon Prabakharan acted firmly and clamped down all festive activity connected with his birthday. The week was for the fallen heroes and the red letter day of that week would only be November 27, the Great Heroes Day. Nevertheless various religious observances are undertaken by followers and well wishers on November 26, seeking divine protection and blessings on the man who now personifies Tamil resistance to Sinhala chauvinist hegemony.
Utilising its control to the maximum of the north and parts of the east during the 1990 – 1995 period the LTTE conducted elaborate demonstrations and events as part of observing the Great Heroes day.
The entire week was full of meetings, religious rituals, processions, exhibitions etc. to commemorate the fallen LTTE cadres. Cutouts, posters and handbills of the departed cadres were distributed widely. Each village was asked to pay homage to those Tigers from their area who were now great heroes. Each school was asked to pay tribute to those of their alumni who had fallen in battle.The three days of Nov 25th, 26th and 27th however are the most important days of Maaveerar Week.
The grand function
The week culminated in a grand function on the 27th at a special location attended by Prabakharan himself. With the passage of time Great Heroes day ceremonies became decentralised. Several observances would be conducted simultaneously but pride of place however was naturally awarded to the one in which Prabakharan participated.
The LTTE also established several cemeteries called Maaveerar Thuyilum Illangal (residences where the great heroes slumber). While the departed cadres were laid out in neat rows of graves marked by single tombstones a pavilion commemorating them collectively with names and relevant dates was also constructed.
The most touching spectacle of the great heroes day observance was the mass participation of family members at these cemeteries and memorial pavilions. Later G. H. D. ceremonies were observed in foreign cities where substantial concentrations of the Tamil Diaspora lived.
Increasing casualty rates
As the ethnic conflict kept continuing the casualty rates also increased. When the first G. H. day was observed in 1989 there were only 1343 martyrs. The tally as of October 20th in 2000 was 16,591. The present figure as at Oct 31st is 17, 903; 263 Black Tigers have been killed so far. The LTTE has lost 237 during three and a half years of ceasefire. This means that more and more Tamil families are suffering the losses of their loved ones and becoming grief stricken.
The event is now mass oriented. This column has witnessed Great Heroes Day ceremonies held overseas as well as films of functions in Sri Lankan Tamil areas. There is no doubt that the sight of grief stricken emotional outpourings over their loved ones by family members is a profoundly moving one. The families of fallen LTTE cadres are called Maaveerar Kudumbangal and are often given preferential treatment in spheres coming within the ambit of LTTE control.
The LTTE by nurturing this cult of martyrdom is achieving many things. It provides those cadres among the living a bond of affiliation with their departed comrades. The cadres get a feeling of reassuring comfort that he or she too would be honoured in similar fashion when dead. The LTTE cadres are fighting and dying in the belief that posterity will remember and honour their memory.
Eternity and immortality
The Great Heroes Day observances provide them with the feeling that by sacrificing their lives they would grasp eternity and ensure immortality. Likewise the kith and kin of the departed souls too are gratified that the loss of their loved one has not been in vain. The emotive content of Great Heroes Day observances also motivates other youths to join the LTTE. The spectacle also inspires the general population in continuing to appreciate the LTTE sacrifices and render support.
The annual great heroes day address by the LTTE leader began to assume great significance and importance over the years. Since Prabakharan is quite reclusive and shuns direct media exposure the great heroes day appearance has become one of those rare occasions where he interacts with the public. The speech is also considered to be something akin to a policy statement by the LTTE.
It is dissected by analysts to ascertain what the LTTE leader envisages for the immediate future. With Prabakharan being the determining factor of Sri Lankan politics for nearly fifteen years, his G. H. D. address is awaited eagerly. At times it is interpreted according to the specific agenda of propagandists. At times the address has turned out to be a damp squib without any new dimension in thought but nevertheless it remains an oration of tremendous importance. Nowadays Prabakharan does not deliver extempore but reads from a carefully prepared text.
Speech over the Internet
After the relocation of the LTTE to the northern mainland of Wanni, Prabakharan makes his annual address from places within that region. The setting up of the LTTE’s own radio station Puligalin Kural (Voice of Tigers) enabled it to be relayed out. With the development of information technology the speech is now relayed simultaneously via Internet. Nowadays the LTTE has its own TV and GHD proceedings are telecast to the world at large from the Wanni.
The emergence of several Tamil broadcasting stations in the western world has created a situation where the speech is heard in Tamil homes throughout Europe, Australia and North America. Likewise the acquisition of various television stations by pro – tiger Tamils enables wide televised coverage too.
A noteworthy feature of Prabakharan’s speeches in recent times is his resonant delivery in well modulated tones. The usual highpitched voice that tends to be squeaky at times is totally absent.
The Great Heroes Day observances were as usual multi-faceted and diversified. The highlight of these ceremonies is the lighting of candles and torches by those assembled. While people holding these flickering lights line up and form an illuminated corridor, a glowing torch is brought in relay form by LTTE cadres in similar fashion to that of the Olympic games. The flaming torch is then given to the chief guest who then lights a large eternal flame known as Eegai Chudar (Flame of sacrifice) at the Memorial monument. This is followed by the lighting of a myriad lamps and torches making the occasion a festival of lights. Several senior LTTE figures are chief guests at different ceremonies.
The flames at various memorials are lit by senior tiger stalwarts. All the ceremonies are attended by members of great hero families who are taken by procession to the various memorials from different spots. Music is played by troupes from different LTTE formations. The different venues are also decorated with pandals.The red and yellow flags are hoisted widely.
Ceremony done in style
The primary ceremony however is at the site in which Prabakharan himself participates. A newly constructed memorial is the usual venue.After the LTTE flag is hoisted a display demonstration by selected squads from various units of the LTTE is held.
A march past is held after which Prabakharan accepts the ceremonial salute. Prabakharan then begins his address. It is about 30 to 40 minutes. Prabakharan thereafter accepts the flaming torch brought in relay form and goes on to light the premier flame of sacrifice. After observing two minutes of silence along with the massive crowd in attendance, the LTTE leader goes on to garland a picture of Sathiyanathan alias Shankar the first great hero.
Thereafter the LTTE leader accompanied by other tiger members also light the small lamps and place flowers before the pictures of martyrs. The visual dimension does not however diminish the importance and significance of the LTTE chief’s address.
The LTTE leader’s Great Heroes address is quite concise and precise with some interesting nuances. It encapsules effectively and vividly the LTTE position and what it hopes to do in the future.
In recent times there is a sideshow in London where the political adviser and chief negotiator Anton Stanislaus Balasingham known affectionately as “Bala Annai” addresses a large Mavveerar Day meeting. The highlight of his speech is an amplification and clarification of the salient aspects of Prabakharans address. What is of interest here is that it is Bala Annai who writes the speech for the LTTE leader. Thereafter he expands on his own creation.
This year the ceremony is to be held within the peninsula at the site of the historic Elephant Pass or Aanaiiravu base complex. Operation Unceasing waves- 3 or Oyatha Alaigal – 3vhas gone down in contemporary military history as an incredible military feat where a comparatively lesser force fought against overwhelming logistical and terraneous difficulties to overcome a superior force.
The Isthmus of Elephant pass linking the peninsula and mainland is of great significance to the Tamil people in a historical, geographical, economic, social, cultural and political sense. Now it has acquired a military dimension too. The LTTE staging its GHD meeting at Elephant pass this year is an event of immense politico – military symbolism.
More important will be the LTTE leaders address. The election of Mahinda Rajapakse as President with the help of hawkish parties like the Janatha Vimukth Peramuna and Jathika hela Urumaya is a watershed. The enforced boycott of that election by the LTTE is also a significant pointer. Mahinda Rajapakse’s election manifesto and Policy speech in Parliament outlines what the Government approach towards the National question is going to be. Now Velupillai Prabakharan will outline the response of the LTTE and what lies in store for Sri Lanka in general and the Eelam Tamils in particular.
Entry Filed under: MinorMatters