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http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/650 Prabhakaran: Powerful symbol of Tamil armed struggle
by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
The evolution and growth of the armed struggle for the goal of Tamil Eelam saw
many Tamil militant groups emerge across the politico-military
horizon. There was a time when nearly 34 outfits-big and small-existed.
Among all these, the single organization that kept the Tamil armed struggle
alive was none other than the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) led
by its charismatic leader Thiruvengadam Velupillai Prabhakaran.
From its de-jure birth on May 5th 1976 to its de-facto death on May 18th the
LTTE under Prabhakaran fought on relentlessly towards its avowed objective of a
separate Tamil state until the very last.
During the emergency period of 1975-77 , Indira Gandhi the Prime Minister of
India was praised to the skies by sycophantic partymen. The Congress president
of the time DK Baruah publicly proclaimed “Indira is India, India is Indira”.
Likewise the same could be said of Prabhakaran and the LTTE too. “The LTTE is
/was Prabhakaran, Prabhakaran is/was LTTE”. The LTTE
leader in a way personified the Liberation tigers. In the process he became a
powerful, vibrant symbol of the Tamil armed struggle.
Prabhakaran was born on November 26th 1954. He was the youngest in a family of
four children. There were two boys and two girls. One of his sisters is in
Canada. The other two siblings are in Denmark. His parents who lived in the
northern mainland, Wanni, are now displaced and in Vavuniya. They are under
His father is Veerasamy Thiruvengadam Velupillai. Prabhakaran’s mother’s name is
Paarvathipillai. Her maiden name was also Velupillai. She suffered a stroke
recently resulting in an arm and hand being paralysed.
Prabhakaran’s family hailed from the coastal town of Valvettithurai referred to
generally as VVT. His father joined the Government clerical service and
eventually became a district lands officer. I think he retired from Govt service
when the late Gamini Dissanayake was Lands minister.
Prabhakaran’s family was of respected lineage in VVT. They were known as
belonging to the “Thirumeni kudumbam” or Thirumeni family. Prabhakaran’s
ancestors constructed the famous Sivan temple of VVT. His father should have
been the chief trustee but declined to be so as he was in govt service.
The LTTE leader’s father was a duty conscientious mild-mannered gentleman well
respected and well-liked. People of VVT used to say that even the grass wouldn’t
get crushed when Mr. Velupillai treads on it. Later many comparisons were made
about father and younger son. In fact the father disapproved of the son’s path
and was not on speaking terms with Prabhakaran for years and years.
The name Prabhakaran denotes the Sun or Sooriyan. Later his acolytes began
calling him “Sooriyathevan” or “Sun God”. Being the youngest in the family he
was called “Thambi” or younger brother. This pet name continued to be in vogue
when he entered militant ranks as he was then perhaps the youngest of all.
Prabhakaran also adopted various names like Mani, Manivannan, Maniam and
Karikaalan. It was the latter nom de guerre that he used mostly during the early
days. Karikaalan refers to Thirumaavalavan of the Chola dynasty that flew the
“Vengai” or Cheeta flag.
Colleagues of an earlier vintage referred to him as “maniyathhar”.
Contemporaries continued calling him “thamby”. In later years young tigers used
to call him “Annai” or elder brother. After a while it became “Thalaiver” or
leader. Formally it was “Thesiya thalaiver” or “national leader”.
Colloquially he would be called “perisu” or the big one.
Prabhakaran studied at different schools in Jaffna, Vavuniya and Batticaloa
because his father was constantly transferred. The schools he studied for many
years were Government College (Now Mahajana) B’caloa and Chidampara College,
VVT. He was not a model student and did not even pass his GCE O’levels.
This does not mean that he was unintelligent or did not possess a thirst for
knowledge. It was due to Prabhakaran being interested in other things rather
than in formal education.
He had a photogenic memory and was an avid reader. He was particularly fond of
reading history-about historical battles and historical figures.
Some of his famous historical figures were Napoleon and Alexander. The Indian
freedom struggle fascinated him. He read the Tamil version of
Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography “Satya Sodhanai” in his early teens but was not
enamoured of it greatly.
His ideal and idol was Netaji or Subash Chandra Bose. Netaji had ideological
differences with the Mahatma about the mode of struggle for independence. At one
stage he disapporoved of Gandhi’s “non-violence” and went on to form the Indian
National Army (INA) to launch an armed struggle against the British.
Subsequently Chandra Bose joined forces with the Germans and Japanese to fight
the British. He died in a mysterious aeroplane accident. Netaji’s famous
pronouncement was “I shall fight for the freedom of my land until I shed my last
drop of blood”. Prabhakaran subscribed to these sentiments whole-heartedly.
Apart from Netaji , Prabhakaran was also impressed by the Sikh freedom fighter
Bhagat Singh who was sentenced to the gallows by the British
rulers.Two freedom fighters from Tamil Nadu also made an impact on young
One was Vaanchinaatha Iyer who shot the Tirunelvely district collector Ashe dead
at the Maniaachchi railway station. When chased by the Police
Vaanchinaathan shot himself. The other was Thiruppoor Kumaran who withstood
heavy beating by the Police but would not let go of the
Bharatmatha flag. He was hailed as “Kodi Kaatha Kumaran” (Kumaran who saved the
Hard as it may be for many to believe there was a quiet, spiritual aspect also
to Prabhakaran. The “Ithihasam” (epic) Mahabharatham enthralled
him. The characters he identified with were Bheema and Karna.
Prabhakaran also read the Tamil translations of Swami Vivekananda’s writings and
speeches avidly. Another spiritual person he looked up to was Thirumuga
Kirupananda Vaariyaar popularly called “vaariyaar”.
is the Mahabharatha that relates the tale of Lord Krishna advising the wavering
Arjuna on the battlefield “kurushetra”. The Pandavas and Gouravas (cousins) had
assembled to do battle but Arjuna hesitates to fight against his kith and kin
and lets slip his bow “Kaandeepam”.
Maranathai Enni Kalangidum Vijaya-Seerkali Govindarajan-Tamil Song mp3]
Lord Krishna then tenders advice to him that each person is destined to fulfill
his or her duty. It was the warrior’s duty to kill his adversary regardless of
kinship. Killing the “body” of the enemy was part of heroic valour. The essence
of Lord Krishna’s lecture is the “Bhagavat Gita”.
Prabhakaran was greatly enamoured of principles enunciated in the Gita. In the
Tamil film “Karnan” based on the Mahabharatha Lord Krishna is played by NT Rama
Rao and Arjuna by Mutturaman. The Gita episode is picturised as a song
Maranathai Enni Kalangidum Vijaya.” This was one of Prabhakaran’s favourite
songs. It’s sung by Seerkali Govindarajan.
[Karnan: Lord Krishna explains his actions-Tamil movie sequence and song]
One person who opined that Prabhakaran had inculcated the philosophy of the Gita
was former Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Jyotindra Nath Dixit. This was
during the time when LTTE was fighting the Indian Army. I could see that Dixit
meant it as a “compliment” when he said this.
On an earlier occasion Dixit told me that of all the top Tamil militant leaders
only Prabhakaran had “fire” in him. This was after Dixit met for the first time
all leaders of the five big groups. Umamaheswaran-PLOTE, Sri Sabaratnam-TELO,
Padmanabha-EPRLF, Balakumar-EROS and of course Prabhakaran-LTTE.
I also recall a conversation in early 1985 with former national security
minister Lalith Athulathmudali. Long before the Indo-Lanka accord of 1987,
Athulathmudali predicted that all the Tamil groups will give up the struggle and
fall in line. But not Prabhakaran, said Lalith then. “He will never compromise
and will die fighting to the last” he said. How True!
Prabhakaran was also fond of reading Tamil novels particularly those with a
historical background. His favourite apparently was “Ponniyin Selvan”
the magnum opus of “Kalki” (R. Krishnamoorthy). This is about Prince
Arulmolivarman who evolved into the great Chola emperor Raja Raja
Cholan. He also liked the historical novels of Akhilan and Chandilyan.“Venkayin Mainthan” and “Kayal Vizhi” by Akhilan and “Yavana Raani”, “Kadal
Puraa” and “Jalatheepam” by Chandilyan were his favourites by
these two. When the LTTE bought its first maritime vessel it was named “Kadal
Puraa” (sea dove) after Chandilyan’s novel.
Yet, the Tamil novel read again and again by Prabhakaran was “Kallukkul Eeram”
(moisture in a stone) by RS Nallaperumaal. It is set against
the backdrop of India’s freedom struggle against the British.
The chief protagonist Rangamani is one who does not believe in Gandhi’s “ahimsa”
mode of struggle and espouses violence as the appropriate
method to liberate India. No wonder then that Praba loved this novel. But there
is a change of heart in the end but for the real life protagonist
there was no moisture in the stone.
Prabhakaran was very much interested in contemporary affairs and international
politics. A former comrade at arms of Prabhakaran,
Thalayasingham Sivakumar alias Anton Master told me how the LTTE subscribed to
“Time” and “Newsweek” those days. Praba would ask
friends knowledgeable in English to translate and explain articles.
In later years when the LTTE developed into a full-fledged outfit, important
articles from magazines and newspapers were translated into Tamil
for Prabakharan’s consumption. Also many books on military affairs and warfare
were translated into Tamil.
As a schoolboy, Prabhakaran like most youngsters of his age was fond of cycling
and playing volley ball and soccer. But he was no sportsman
and preferred to read or watch action films.
He has been ridiculed often for telling an American journalist that he learnt
his fighting techniques from Clint Eastwood movies. But what happened really was
that the US scribe was questioning him whether he had been trained in Cuba. It
was as a joke that Prabha responded citing Eastwood.
Another pursuit in boyhood was the targeting of squirrels, lizards. Chameleons
and small birds with a catapult. As a kid Praba would prowl about areas of dense
vegetation searching for his quarry.
His memory power was legendary. Prabhakaran would remember faces, names and the
last time he had seen someone years ago. His eyes were always sharp and roving
taking in the surrounding area and ever on the alert. His eyes were large and
striking and was teased as “muliyan” (goggle-eye)
Prabhakaran was also a “puritan” in many ways. He neither drank nor smoked and
even advocated sexual abstinence for all in the early days of the movement.
Order and cleanliness was almost an obsession. He was a stickler for discipline.
was always neatly dressed preferring “bush shirts” and short-sleeved shirts. The
bush shirt was helpful as it covered hidden firearms. It is said that even
during the early stages of militancy when there was an acute shortage of funds,
Prabhakaran would wash and iron his few clothes regularly and always maintain a
He was a good cook and also fond of good food. He relished Chinese cuisine.
Prabhakaran was also fond of Pittu, coconut sambol and Fried shrimp. He also
liked Iguana and tortoise flesh. He liked fruits and natural bee’s honey.
Usually LTTE cadres under punishment are assigned duties in the kitchen.
Prabhakaran would encourage cadres to cook saying “only a good cook can be a
He would often cook or help out in the kitchen when at home. A close relative
who visited him once was flummoxed to see the feared guerilla leader busily
scraping coconuts in the kitchen.
Prabhakaran’s attitude and political thinking was shaped by contemporary events
and environment. The gruesome tales he heard as a four year
old child about the 1958 anti-Tamil violence impacted greatly.
One day Prabhakaran’s home had a woman visitor whose legs were scarred by burns.
Upon inquiring the little boy was told that the woman’s home had been set on
fire by a “Sinhala” mob. She had escaped with burns.
Young Praba also heard the famous story of the Brahmin priest in Panadura being
burnt to death in a bonfire and also about the infant thrown into a tar barrel.
All these tales made an indelible impression.
Being a native of Valvettithurai was another factor in making a militant out of
Prabhakaran. VVT had acquired a reputation for smuggling and had a sub-culture
of its own. “Operation Monty” was launched by the armed forces in
post-independence Sri Lanka to check and counter illicit immigration and
This necessitated the setting up of security camps in VVT from the early fifties
of the last century. There was much friction as a result of this hostile,
“alien” presence.This in turn led to a confrontational mood prevailing between
the people and armed forces long before the political crisis escalated in the
It was in this environment that Prabhakaran and a host of other VVT youth grew
up. As Sathasivampillai Krishnakumar alias Kittu and Gopalswamy Mahendrarajah
alias Mahathaya explained to me on different occasions, many youths of their
generation grew up in VVT with anger and resentment towards the armed forces and
by extension the government in Colombo held responsible.
Prabhakaran growing up in this atmosphere got politically motivated in the late
sixties and early seventies of the previous century. This was when former Kayts
MP. V. Navaratnam roke away from the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) known as
Federal Party (FP) in English.
Navaratnam once described as the “golden brain” of the FP formed the “Thamilar
Suyaatchi Kazhagham” or Tamil Self-Rule party in 1968. Navaratnam abandoned the
federal demand as being too little and too late and instead opted for
“suyaatchi” or “self-rule” a euphemism of sorts for a separate state.
There was a pedagogue named Venugopal master for whom Prabhakaran had great
regard and respect. Venugopal master became an active supporter of Navaratnam.
Several students including Prabhakaran became his followers and turned into
ardent devotees of Tamil self-rule.
The Suyaatchi Kazhagham also started a newspaper “Viduthalai” (Liberation
/Freedom). Navaratnam himself translated and serialized “Exodus” the
famous novel written by Leon Uris. It was named “Namakkendroru Naadu” (A Country
of our own) Young Prabhakaran eagerly devoured it and
became hooked on the dream of a country for Tamils.
The Tamil self-rule party was defeated in the 1970 polls. No candidate including
Navaratnam won. But the seeds of self-rule sowed in the
campaign had taken firm root in the heart and mind of “Thamby” Prabhakaran.
With the introduction of standardization in 1970 the student population of
Jaffna began getting radicalized. The Tamil Maanavar Peravai (Tamil students
federation) and Tamil Ilaingar Peravai (Tamil youth federation) were formed. A
series of meetings , processions and rallies were held.
Prabhakaran himself began participating in some of these activities. His first
experience of a protest demonstration was in 1971 when former Posts and
Telecommunications minister Chelliah Kumarasuriar visited Velanai to open a new
post office.Tamil youths staged a black flag demonstration.
Prabhakaran also attended most of the Tamil student and youth activist meetings.
Soon “thamby” began losing interest in meetings and non-
violent agitation.These were too tame for him. Greatly inspired by tales of
Israel’s Hagannah and Irgun, Prabhakaran became firmly convinced
that Sri Lankan state oppression could be resisted only through force.
It was then that Prabhakaran wanted to buy a gun and practise shooting. There
was a notorious “chandiyan” (thug) then in Point Pedro called Sambandan. He sold
guns illegally. When Prabhakaran approached him for one, Sambandan priced an old
pistol at 150 rupees.
Prabhakaran and some like-minded youths pooled their resources and came up with
the princely sum of 40 rupees. Undeterred Prabhakaran sold his gold ring. This
had been given him by his elder brother in law.
As was the custom the younger brother of the bride, Prabhakaran ,poured water on
the bridegroom’s feet when he entered the bride’s house and got rewarded. This
was how he acquired his first firearm.
Prabhakaran began training clandestinely. A retired soldier helped him. By now
the youth was beginning to attract the attention of the Police. When the police
started making inquiries about a “mani” Prabha knew what was in store.
He left home one day to embark on his avowed vocation. Anticipating future
problems Prabhakaran removed and destroyed every single photograph in the house
with his picture.
When the Police caught up with him they could not get a proper picture of him
and had to use only the postal identity card used by Prabhakaran to sit for
In 1982 May, Prabhakaran alias Karikalan and Sivakumar alias Raghavan of the
LTTE had a shoot-out with Umamaheswaran alias Muhunthan and Jotheeswaran alias
Kannan at Pondy Bazaar in Chennai. Prabhakaran was arrested and photographed and
it was only then that Colombo got an up to date photo of him.
Prabhakaran teamed up with some others and formed the Tamil New Tigers.
Apparently some of the old timers like Rajaratnam of Nunaavil had formed a Tiger
group to fight for Tamil rights in the early sixties. This never got off the
Tamil New Tigers
Prabhakaran had begun interacting with Rajaratnam and felt the new movement
should be a “revival” of sorts. Hence Tamil new tigers (TNT).
The acronym TNT was also applicable for the explosive compound
The TNT was led by Thanabalasingham alias Chetty of Kalviyankaadu. When the
Police cracked down and began arresting prominent youth activists, Prabhakaran
gave the slip and crossed over by sea to Tamil Nadu. He was to shuttle back and
forth frequently in the seventies.Prabhakaran was never arrested.
Several other youth groups also emerged and engaged in acts of violence. The TNT
made its mark in July 1975 with the assassination of former Jaffna MP and Mayor
Alfred Durayappah as he was going to worship at the Ponnaalai
Varatharajapperumaal (Vishnu) temple. Four youths including Prabhakaran were
involved in the murder. Later Prabhakaran went on record that this killing was
his “first military action”.
The TNT metamorphosed into the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) on May
5th 1976. The Tamil United Front (TUF) held its famous
Vaddukkoddai Convention nine days later on May 14th 976. It was then that the
TUF became TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front) and adopted
the Tamil Eelam demand formally.
The TULF contested on the separatist platform in July 1977. It won 18 of 19
Tamil seats in the North-East and claimed it had a mandate for Tamil Eelam.
Years later the LTTE was to say it was acting in terms of the TULF mandate.
When Prabhakaran was in the JSC (Grade eight) class one of his textbooks was
“Thirumavalavan”. This was about the Chola emperor Karikalan under whose rule
the “pulikkodi” (tiger flag) had supposedly fluttered proudly from “Imayam
muthal Kumari” (Himalayas to Cape Comorin) . Thus
Prabhakaran was fascinated by Karikalan and the tiger flag.
“puli” in Tamil denotes the tiger but the tiger on the Chola flag was the
“Vengai” or cheetah. It is a far cry from the Bengal tiger on the LTTE
flag now. In any case there are no tigers in Sri Lanka. We have only the leopard
here. But then we have no lions but our national flag has one. In a sense the
rifle-crossed tiger flag was a direct response to the sword-bearing lion.
Prabhakaran known as Mani and Maniam earlier soon took the nom de guerre
Karikalan . When arrested in Pondy bazaar it was that name on police records.
Later Prabhakaran’s wireless codename was HA or Hotel Alpha. This was derived
from Karikalan where Kari became Hari and then HA.
The Chola emperor got the name Karikalan because he was caught in a fire and had
his legs burnt. Karikalan means “dark or black legs”. Prabhakaran too had a
similar experience while experimenting with explosives. There was an explosion
and his legs were burnt. The skin was dark for years. Thus “karikalan” suited
When the LTTE was formed in 1976 Prabhakaran was only its military commander.
The leader and chairman of the five-member central committee of the LTTE was
Umamaheswaran. Praba was also a CC member.
The LTTE fragmented in 1980 and Umamaheswaran formed the PLOTE. The LTTE under
Prabhakaran had a working relationship with the TELO led by Thangathurai and
Kuttimani. In 1981 the LTTE re-grouped under the absolute leadership of
Prabhakaran. Thereafter it was a virtual one-man dictatorship.
Cupid or “Manmathan” struck Prabhakaran with his arrows in 1983-84.
Some displaced undergraduates were on a death fast at the Jaffna university
premises in 1983 september. When the condition of some girls deteriorated the
LTTE broke the fast and abducted those fasting. They were brought to Tamil Nadu.
At one stage four of the abducted girls stayed at the residence of Anton and
Adele Balasingham and used to accompany them to the LTTE office in Indranagar.
The fairest and prettiest of them all was Madhivadhani Erambu. Her father Erambu
was a schoolmaster from Pungudutheevu
During the Indian “Holi” festival people spray coloured powder and coloured
water on each other. Madhivadhani held a bet with her friends and boldly
drenched Prabhakaran with turmeric dissolved water. Praba was furious and
berated her. Madhi started sobbing.
Hours later when the tiger supremo was leaving the office , he found her in a
corner weeping.He went up to her and spoke softly asking her not to cry.
Madhivathani looked up at him with tear-filled eyes. Praba’s heart was pierced.
[..They married in 1984]
Thereafter Prabhakaran began visiting the Balasingham’s frequently. He brought
flowers and sweets for Madhi. Prabhakaran had been a shy, introverted person and
had never mingled with girls outside his family. This was a new experience.
Anton Balasingham encouraged the romance. They married in 1984.
There was a hitch. The LTTE code of conduct tabooed marriage. So the top
commanders were summoned to Tamil Nadu and a Central committee meeting convened.
There a new regulation was introduced enabling those with five years experience
to marry. The Madhi-Praba marriage took place in a temple
with senior tiger commanders including KP in attendance.
They had three children. The eldest was named Charles Anthony born in 1985. He
was named after Praba’s best friend and military commander Charles Anthony alias
Seelan who died in Meesalai, Chavakachcheri.
The next was Duvaraga the daughter born in 1986. She was named after a favourite
bodyguard Mayooran whose real name was Duvaaragan.
The third was a son born in 1997. He was named Balachandran after Madhivathani’s
own brother who also joined the LTTE and died in
The demise of Prabhakaran along with family members and senior commanders marks
the end of an eventful chapter in the long drawn out
struggle of the Tamil people to achieve equal rights in the Island of Sri Lanka.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org