November 27th 1989 was the day on which the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE)first observed its annual “Maaveerar Naal” or Great Heroes Day (GHD). The LTTE and its leader Veluppillai Prabhakaran are no more after the military defear of the tigers in May 2009. Yet the Great Heroes Day(GHD) continues to commemorated on a low scale in different forms by tigerish elements.
Nowadays Nov 27 is being propagated as the “Thamizhar Theseeya Ninaivaenthal Thinam” or Tamil National Remembrance Day. Several Tamil political parties claiming to espouse Tamil nationalism – aided and abetted by sections of the Tamil media – have been engaging in the political game of commemorating the “Maaveerar Naal”(GHD) as “Ninaivaenthal Thinam”(Remembrance day). Tamil politicians lead a team of volunteers to clean up cemeteries in advance , make speeches on Nov 27th and thereafter light lamps to commemorate the “lives of those who gave up their lives” for the Tamil people.
Such efforts have hit a roadblock this year. The Government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in a pre-emptive strike got the Police to obtain court orders in the Tamil areas of the North and East and prevent the event being held publicly . These moves were resisted by the Tamil political parties through legal means. The Attorney – General sent special legal teams by helicopter to several places where the Police moves to seek bans were being contested by Tamil legal eagles.
The main argument of those proposing to conduct commemorative activities was that people especially family members had a right to mourn their dead kith and kin. The state accepted this in principle and said there was no objection to persons mourning their loved ones in a private capacity at their homes or by holding religious ceremonies in places of worship.However there should be no glorification of the LTTE which had been proscribed as a terrorist organization in Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, USA, Canada, UK and the European Union. As such no public ceremonies on a mass scale should be held anywhere particularly in the special cemeteries for deceased members of the LTTE.
Almost all the different tribunals hearing the related cases ruled that no public event celebrating the LTTE should be held. However people were free to mourn their loved ones or honour the memory of dead tiger cadres privately in their homes and places of worship.With these judicial rulings the matter ended on a conciliatory note . A joint appeal was publicly announced on behalf of Tamil political parties requesting people to observe the remembrance day in their homes by lighting lamps and torches at the appropriate time.
The irony in this was that ordinary people did not demand a public spectacle. It was the Tamil parties who politicised matters by staging annual events publicly. Now they were calling upon the people to commemorate the day at home whereas the people would always have done that as a matter of course if these parties had not tried to play political stuntmanship in the first place.
The current controversy over the November 27th event has once again evoked great interest in what is known as “Maaveerar Naal” or Great Heroes Days. This writer has been inundated with queries from many readers about the event relating to its background and history. Some want to know whether this is a LTTE event or a Tamil national event.The evolution and growth of the “Maaveerar Naal”(GHD) is a topic on which I have written extensively in the past. However I shall focus on it again this week relying on my earlier writings.
Sathiyanathan Alias Shankar
A little history first! The first ever LTTE member to embrace death in combat was Sathiyanathan of Kambarmalai a northern village adjacent to Valvettithurai, the birthplace of Prabakharan, its leader. Sathiyanathan alias Shankar also known as Suresh died on November 27, 1982 at 6.05 pm. Shankar was a childhood friend of Prabakharan and one of his earliest recruits. Incidently, the Sea Tiger special commander Thillaiambalam Sivanesan alias Soosai was married to Shankar’s sister.
Shankar had gone to a residence in Navalar Road, Jaffna, when 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. Later Shankar’s condition deteriorated and another senior LTTE member Thalayasingham Sivakumar alias Anton master who later represented the Tigers at the Thimphu talks undertook a perilous, clandestine journey by boat along with the injured Shankar to Tamil Nadu to procure urgent medical assistance for the latter. This was in the pre1983 period when the LTTE had very few resources, including even wireless communication equipment.
Leaving the grievously injured Shankar in a safe house at Kodiaakkarai, on the coast, 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 Uma Maheswaran at Pondy Bazaar in Chennai (then Madras). Thanks to the help rendered by Pazhaniappan Nedumaran, who was then a member of the Tamil Nadu Legislative assembly representing Madurai West, Shankar was brought to a Madurai farmhouse belonging to Nedumaran for medical treatment.
Despite treatment, Shankar’s condition worsened to a point of no return. Shankar died in Madurai 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 latter ever wept in public. Death in combat of a cadre whether immediate or subsequent was a new phenomenon to the LTTE on that day.
“Great Heroes Day”
Seven years later, in 1989, around 600 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 on behalf of the Sri Lankan government. Thanks to the understanding arrived at between the LTTE and then President Ranasinghe Premadasa, a ceasefire had been declared on September 21, that year.
A withdrawal of Indian troops had been announced in principle. 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. The LTTE leader was 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 27 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 1990s of the last century 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 aspects of paying homage to its fallen heroes.
There existed in the martial tradition of the Tamils a concept known as Nadugal Valipaadu which literally meant worshipping the planted stone. Tombstones were erected at the graves of great heroes fallen in battle. These were honoured regularly through special Panegyric rituals.The classical Tamil literary works of the Sangham era are replete with references to this Nadugal Valipaadu concept.
The decline of Tamil dynasties along with the advent of Moghul and Nayakkar rule followed by 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.
“Maaveerar Thuyilum Illangal”
Now the LTTE went back to the roots of the Tamil martial culture and revived its most potent symbolic and ritual form. The LTTE established several cemeteries called “Maaveerar Thuyilum Illangal” (abodes where the great heroes slumber). Each of the departed cadres was marked by a single tombstone. In most cases, the actual body of the dead cadre was not buried at the spot. Most bodies of dead cadres — if and when recovered — were disposed of with honours at the area of combat itself. While these tombstones were laid out in neat rows, a pavilion commemorating them collectively with names and relevant dates was also constructed.
From 1991, the entire week from November 21-27, was declared as Great Heroes Week. Interestingly the birthday of Prabakharan was November 26. Since this day was now within the Great Heroes Week more importance was attached to it. Utilising its control of the north and parts of the east during the 1990-1995 period to the maximum , the LTTE conducted elaborate demonstrations and events as part of observing the “Maaveerar Naal” and “Maaveerar Vaaram” (Great Heroes Week).
The week culminated in a grand function on the 27th at a special location attended by Prabakharan himself. With the passage of time, the GHD 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 annual great heroes day address by the LTTE leader began to assume great significance and importance over the years. Since Prabakharan was quite reclusive and shunned direct media exposure the GHD appearance became one of those rare occasions where he interacted with the public.
The annual speech was also considered to be something akin to a policy statement by the LTTE. It was dissected by analysts to ascertain what the LTTE leader envisaged for the immediate future. In later years, Prabakharan did not deliver extempore but read from a carefully prepared text usually written by LTTE political adviser Anton Stanislaus Balasingham alias Bala annai.
The GHD observances were multi-faceted and diversified. The highlight of the ceremonies was the lighting of candles and torches by those assembled.While people holding these flickering lights lined up and formed an illuminated corridor, a glowing torch was brought in relay form by LTTE cadres in similar fashion to that of the Olympic games.
Flame of Sacrifice
The flaming torch was then given to the chief guest who then lit a large eternal flame known as “Eegai Chudar” (Flame of sacrifice) at the Memorial monument. This was followed by the lighting of a myriad lamps and torches making the occasion a festival of lights. Several senior LTTE figures were chief guests at different ceremonies.The flames at various memorials were lit by senior tiger stalwarts.
The premier ceremony however was at the site in which Prabakharan himself participated. A newly constructed memorial was the usual venue. After the LTTE flag was hoisted a display demonstration by selected squads from various units of the LTTE was held. A march past was held after which Prabakharan accepted the ceremonial salute. Prabakharan then began his address at 6. 05 pm the time that Shankar breathed his last. The speech was usually about 30 to 40 minutes.
Prabakharan thereafter accepted the flaming torch brought in relay form and went on to light the premier flame of sacrifice. After observing two minutes of silence along with the massive crowd in attendance, the LTTE leader garlands a picture of Sathiyanathan alias Shankar, the first great hero. Thereafter the LTTE leader accompanied by other Tiger members lit the small lamps and placed flowers before the pictures of martyrs.
The LTTE by nurturing this cult of martyrdom achieved many things. It provided those cadres among the living a bond of affiliation with their departed comrades. The cadres got a feeling of reassuring comfort that he or she too would be honoured in similar fashion when dead. The LTTE cadres had fought and died in the belief that posterity would remember and honour their memory and martyrdom.
The GHD observances provided 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 were gratified that the loss of their loved one has not been in vain. The emotive content of GHD observances also motivated other youths to join the LTTE. The spectacle also inspired the general population in continuing to appreciate the LTTE sacrifices and render support.
This then is the history behind the GHD significance. So great was the importance attached to the day that the LTTE opened a special office in Kilinochhi to handle the event as well as affairs concerning dead LTTE cadres and families. A retired educationist Pon.Thiyagam was in charge of this office.
Such has been the significance, relevance and importance of the Great Heroes Day to the LTTE in the past that any suspicion of a potential revival of the practice in Sri Lanka sends alarm bells ringing in security circles.
What must be taken note of is that the LTTE never commemorated or mourned the loss of Tamils who belonged to other Tamil militant movements. The sectarian LTTE did not regard others as fallen heroes. Only LTTE cadres were given that recognition. Families of dead cadres belonging to other movements were not allowed to mourn their loved ones publicly. They could only mourn in secret.
What is disgusting about the politics of mourning adopted by some Tamil political parties is is the scale of political hypocrisy! The LTTE now hailed as “Great Heroes” has in the past killed hundreds of Tamils who belonged to the constituent partners of the past and present TNA configuration. The TNA, as a single political entity, is yet to publicly mourn their comrades and colleagues slain by the LTTE. Yet some TNA leaders display no qualms about celebrating fallen Tigers as great heroes.
What is perhaps worse is the deceitful manner in which Tamil political leaders and sections of the media foster the myth that November 27 is a date of overall Tamil sorrow and that Maaveerar Naal is a day of national mourning for the Tamils. If people want to mourn or commemorate fallen LTTE fighters they certainly can do so but they should do it honestly instead of proclaiming dishonestly that they are engaging in a Tamil national remembrance day. If the Tamil politicians are genuine they should observe a national day of mourning for all Tamil fighters and victims of the war instead of confining it to the LTTE alone. The Tamils do have the right to mourn their dead. It will be strengthened further if it is truly for ALL victims instead of SOME.
Objecting to GHD being depicted as a Tamil day of mourning does not mean that Tamils do not mourn the loss of their loved ones. They do! The Tamils have lost those dear and near to them in the communal violence of 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983. They have suffered innumerable losses in many forms during the long years of the war. There cannot be a single Tamil living who has not suffered the loss of a loved one during the years of violence and war. What is unacceptable, however, is the deception to depict the “Maaveerar Naal” as a day of universal Tamil mourning. It is a gross distortion of the truth to state that the “Maaveerar Naal” of the LTTE is a day of National mourning for the Tamils of Sri Lanka.
The conduct of the Tamil parties who portray themselves as being politically “moderate” adds to the threat perception of the State regarding the GHD. Unlike the Maithripala Sirisena -Ranil Wickremesinghe Govt, The Gotabaya presidency and Govt came to power on a platform of national security. As such the Rajapaksa regime is acutely sensitive to what it perceives as “creeping tigerization”. Although the LTTE is no more an entity in Sri Lanka and the Great Heroes Day event is only a puny caricature of what it was earlier, the Gota Govt does not want to take any chances.
The Rajapaksa regime is aware that tiger elements within the global Tamil Diaspora have been trying to foment violence in the Island by paying money to some former tigers and their fellow travellers in Sri Lanka. The objective was to revive political violence.At least eight such attempts have been documented since the war ended. Fortunately most of them were detected on time and effectively thwarted. Yet such attemps are likely to continue.
Furthermore there are concerns that powerful Western nations may utilize this “Diaspora tiger ” factor and de-stabilise Sri Lanka by promoting violence to punish Colombo for its alleged pro- Chinse leanings. As such the Govt is wary of suspected creeping tigerization and wields the big stick against seemingly innocuous events which could help promote an LTTE revival indirectly.
Of,For and By the Tigers
Notwithstanding brazen efforts by vested interests to depict “Maaveerar Naal” falling on November 27, as a day of general Tamil mourning, let me conclude by reiterating that the so-called “Great Heroes Day” – now being depicted falsely as the Tamil National Remembrance Day – is not and has never been a national day of Tamil mourning. The “Maaveerar Naal” was an intensely conducted partisan event “of the Tigers, for the Tigers and by the Tigers”. Let there be no mistake about it.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an Updated Version of an Article written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of November 28th 2020. It can be accessed here: