Nothing describes the life and times of Velupillai Prabhakaran better than the title of one of the concluding chapters of MR Narayanaswamy’s book on the LTTE, the world’s most dreaded terrorist outfit until decimated by the Sri Lankan armed forces with its leader in the third week of May 2009. ‘Prabhakaran: from catapult killer to dreaded insurgent’ is the title of the 67th chapter in a book of 72 chapters (with a detailed Introduction, with background and updates). As the author has mentioned in the head note to the said chapter, and fellow journalists would acknowledge the practice, it was an ‘embargoed’ obituary of the LTTE founder and chief, written a month or so earlier, when a bloody conclusion to the island-nation’s three decades of ethnic war stared Prabhakaran at his face.
It’s sad in a way that things came to such a pass but it also meant that Prabhakaran never really grew up from being a young boy targeting squirrels and birds with a catapult into a mass-leader capable of statesmanship, which alone could have brought him anywhere close to his political goal, and peace and prosperity to the people he claimed to represent, exclusively. If in between he displayed ruthlessness and cunning, they were aimed not at solving the problems of the Tamil-speaking people in Sri Lanka or even to stabilize a non-State politico-administrative entity that he managed to carve out within the Sri Lankan State. They were used only for resurrecting his ruthless ways after circumstances would have forced the LTTE to buy peace for a time – and in the process, losing the trust and respect of the international community, and the appeal to the local masses. In the process they end up loathing him and his men as much as the Sri Lankan Government did – and as much as his adversaries, real or imaginary, designated or otherwise, feared him. If India finds extensive mention whenever reference is made to the LTTE, in this book or in any other context elsewhere, it is because leaving out New Delhi and Tamil Nadu out of contemporary Sri Lankan history would have been like staging the ‘Macbeth’ without the King of Denmark.
Narayanaswamy is no stranger to the study of LTTE and Prabhakaran. As he mentions in the book, he has been following the terrorist insurgent group with conventional military capabilities, when he wrote that post-dated obituary of Prabhakaran, for 25 long and bloody years. Earlier, he had penned an exhaustive book on the LTTE’s history (‘Tigers of Lanka’, 1994) and an unauthorized biography of Prabhakaran, too (‘Inside an Elusive Mind’, 2003). Barring a brief encounter with Prabhakaran in the latter’s formative years in Chennai; the author does not claim any familiarity with the LTTE supremo. Yet, considering the fact that the LTTE could not challenge Narayanaswamy on the facts that he had cited, and incidents and instances he had mentioned, often quoting those who did not want to be named, fearing deadly reprisal, would go to show the depth of his research and the credibility of his efforts.
This book is no different from the other two in those departments. But it is a collection of Narayanaswamy’s news reports and analyses, penned contemporaneously, for newspapers, magazines and scholarly journals. Written often with the international reader in mind, what with Narayanaswamy working for a news agency like the IANS as its New Delhi bureau chief, each of these ‘pieces’ also provide an adequate backgrounder for the uninformed reader, and at the same time gives in-depth insights on the facts and circumstances that the report relates to. For the same reason, it is also a ready reckoner of sorts to the LTTE’s concluding years (2003-09), covering the period since the Norway-brokered cease-fire began showing signs of tottering on the altar. It is a bed-time story-teller in a way because the pithily-written chapters of two or three pages make for stand-alone reading that is racy because of the lead-character, informative and inspiring – as to how not to make a total failure of what to at least most Sri Lankan watchers looked like inevitable victory at one time.
Prabhakaran’s problem, and thus that of the LTTE and also the larger Tamil community in Sri Lanka, owed not only to the successive failures of the Sri Lankan State adversary but mainly to the foolhardiness of the LTTE’s own making. It tasted early victories through both conventional war and not so conventional suicide-bombings and other acts of terrorism. However, after the crudity of the Sri Lankan security forces in the seventies and the eighties had rendered post-facto justification, unjustified, the LTTE forgot that the other side was also learning from its mistake and was capable of learning strategy and tactics, and acquiring morale and methods.
It was thus that a once ceremonial 15,000 State Army in the eighties had grown as much as close to 15 times by the time the war was reaching the end-game. During the interregnum, the Sri Lankan Armed Forces had become the most battle-hardened troops in the whole of South Asia and even afar, the Government having acquired the necessary equipment and weapons, and also facilitated modern training and intelligence-gathering methods to its men. In contrast, the LTTE was losing battle-hardened commanders in their tens and hundreds to infectiously self-imposed martyrdom and also trained cadres to internal feuds led by a surviving senior commander like Karuna.
The hot-and-cold LTTE policy at peace-making and the consequent mistrust that it entailed in the Sri Lankan state and the international community, coupled with the intransigence of its overseas Diaspora underwriters, who had nothing to lose back home, all meant that the outfit had to fight for longer years without an end-game or exit-game on the board. This only led to forcible recruitment of ‘child soldiers’, who became increasingly ill-trained and even less motivated than their earlier generation, who had their contemporary heroes starting with Prabhakaran – but who were now caught up with running an outfit that was overgrown for a non-state actor, political negotiations that they were least serious about and in self-governance, in which area they lacked depth and knowledge. All of this only contributed to the international community de-riding the outfit even more and distancing itself from the organization when the inevitable began staring at their faces. Suffice it to point out that even a full year after the end of the ethnic war and the exit of the LTTE, the Sri Lankan armed forces continued to dig deep into the Vanni jungles, to recover the cache of sophisticated arms that the LTTE had collected over the years, but did not have trained men to use them or able commanders to lead them, when they would have the need to use them the most.
Apart from all that has been said and that will be said about the LTTE, the lessons from its failure could come to haunt future strategies of insurgent movements. They do not have the luxury of time available to the State, nor are they able to command the resources that are available to the State, in any situation of the kind that the LTTE saga has become in Sri Lanka. Insurgency thus, could only be a tactic and tool, for the insurgent group to negotiate with a State player from a position of relative strength. Internationalizing issues of the kind that the LTTE championed alongside moderate Tamil groups from Sri Lanka too comes with a baggage of complementary responsibilities, which most insurgent groups are incapable of delivering, owing to structural deficiencies and intellectual inadequacies that they tend to develop over time.
The script, as written by Prabhakaran decades ago, when he designed the LTTE’s emblem with 33 bullets around, or perhaps encircling, a ferocious tiger, thus came to an end 33 years later. In his latest book, Narayanaswamy has brought out the sum and substance of the saga in his simple style that makes it appealing to scholars and laymen alike.