Tamils across the globe have engaged in acts of fasting, marches, sit-ins and formed human chains to voice their opposition to Sri Lanka’s genocidal war and demonstrate their solidarity with the suffering of Eelam Tamils. Acts of self immolation, in the midst of these other protests from the standard repertoire of modern politics, may at first sight appear fanatical and imbued with a certain irrational excess.
However, these acts are not as exceptional and unusual as the might at first appear and have a resonance with iconic acts of protest from the twentieth century as well as Tamil cultural understandings.
Critical to understanding the meaning of self immolation as political protest and the resonance it appears to have amongst the wider Tamil anti genocide movement are the notions of voluntary suffering and a willingness to sacrifice for a higher ideal or for the greater good of the whole.
The political activism of Monhandas K. Gandhi, popularly known across south Asia as Mahatma Gandhi, exemplifies the relationship between political protest against oppression and injustice and THE voluntary acceptance of suffering as a form of self sacrifice for a wider good.
Gandhi’s practise of non violence can be seen as incorporating two important conceptual elements. Firstly the idea of ahimsa – of doing no harm – which stems from an appreciation of the equal moral value of the other. The second important element is the voluntary acceptance of suffering by the protestor as a means of appealing to the conscience of the oppressor without harming him / her.
When Congress activists willingly and without resistance accepted the blows of the colonial police, they were trying to demonstrate to colonial officials, the Indian public and the British public the injustices of British colonial rule in India.
This tactic was used with great effect by Gandhi in 1930 during the famous salt march when he walked along with volunteers to the sea at Dandi and publicly performed the then illegal act of making salt. Before setting off on the march, Gandhi informed the Viceroy, Irwin of his intentions and noted that he would be courting arrest in breaking British laws.
Through accepting the punishment of breaking an unjust law, Gandhi and the many thousands of volunteers who followed his example hoped to demonstrate the oppression and violence contained in the British monopoly on the production and distribution of salt.
In this and other similar acts of fasting or the self conscious courting of police repression and violence, Gandhi and anti colonial activists willingly accepted suffering not for personal gain but in order to promote a wider good, that is the possibility of Indian self rule.
The acts of political protest, often communicated through what have become iconic images of Gandhi fasting and unarmed protestors beaten down by police charges had a strong resonance with the mainly rural and illiterate population of India. The voluntary acceptance of suffering and self sacrifice has long been part of a tradition of exemplary protest that is also included in day to day practices.
In the Tamil speaking areas the earliest forms of literature from Sangham corpus describes many such acts of exemplary protest. The later Saivite literature also recounts tales of devotees who willingly undertake acts of suffering to prove their faith.
The intertwining of non violence and exemplary suffering is also apparent in many day to day forms of social interaction in south Asian cultures. These acts are particularly associated with women who often deploy non violent forms of protest within a domestic context as a means of appealing to the conscience of those who have transgressed norms.
A classic incident in the lives of many south Asian families is that of a woman who protests the wrongful behaviour of a partner or child by refusing to eat. The logic of these incidents, which are now regularly portrayed in television dramas and the cinema, involves the woman willingly accepting the suffering of hunger as a means of appealing to the conscience of those who have transgressed familial norms and expectations.
Whilst the south Asian cultural landscape made it especially receptive to the Gandhian message, the twentieth century is littered with iconic acts of political protest through exemplary suffering from many different parts of the world.
During the Vietnam War there were several acts of self immolation by Buddhist monks and nuns protesting the United States’ massively destructive military campaign in Vietnam.
These acts of public and violent self sacrifice appealed to the moral conscience of the United States population and the wider world by demonstrating in an urgent way the suffering caused by the United States’ actions in Vietnam.
Similarly in 1913, the Oxford educated Suffragette Emily Wilding Davidson threw herself under the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby to protest the British establishment’s refusal to grant women the right to vote. As she ran onto the racecourse facing certain injury and probable death she was heard to shout ‘votes for women’ - a demand that was known to be resolutely opposed by the king.
Acts of exemplary suffering have an important place in the Tamil struggle as means of resisting the Sri Lankan state’s genocidal programme. During the ill-fated Indian occupation of the Tamil speaking areas Thileepan and Annai Poopathi undertook fasts unto death as a means of provoking the conscience of the Indian establishment and drawing attention to the suffering of the Tamil speaking people.
The most recent acts of self immolation have taken place in a period of exceptional suffering for the Eelam Tamils. Although Sri Lanka’s genocidal programme has deep mythical roots and a contemporary history that begins with political independence in 1949, it is only in the last few months that the state has pursued the annihilation of the Tamils with such public abandon.
In the aftermath of the anti Tamil pogroms that took place between 1977 and 1983, Eelam Tamils abandoned their attempts to engage the Sri Lankan state and directed their protests to the international community, the west and India in particular. The Tamils no longer regard the Sri Lankan state as a moral interlocutor with whom dialogue is possible and their efforts are now solely directed at the conscience of outside powers.
The global Tamil anti genocide movement has placed the moral imperative of responding to the humanitarian catastrophe in the Vanni firmly on the shoulders of the international community. The intensity and momentum of the protests reflect the crisis that is now facing the Eelam Tamils and these acts of self immolation are intended capture the moral urgency of the situation in the Vanni.
The leadership of the Tamil resistance has, along with other Tamils, a nuanced response to acts of exemplary suffering as a means of resisting the Sri Lankan state’s genocidal programme. The LTTE, whilst understanding and appreciating these acts for their moral intent, has argued that the Tamil struggle would benefit more from the continued participation of those who feel so acutely the moral imperative to respond to the Tamils’ suffering.
The global Tamil response to the most recent acts of self immolation have taken a similar tone. Whilst these acts are understood as forms of exemplary suffering and self sacrifice undertaken in response to the humanitarian crisis in the Vanni, Tamils echo the LTTE’s argument that the movement as a whole would benefit more from the continued participation of all anti genocide activists.
The Sri Lankan state’s nakedly genocidal campaign in the Vanni has created a unified sense of urgency amongst Tamils across the world. Whilst Tamils cannot distance themselves from the exemplary purposes and sacrificial intent of the recent acts of self immolation, the movement cannot afford to loose the committed and continued participation of any activist who feels the imperative of making the world listen.