Two years after he moved into the safe sanctuary of India, Velupillai Prabhakaran was asked if he would really be able to achieve his goal of breaking up Sri Lanka and forming an independent Tamil state. Yes, he asserted, we will achieve the goal in our lifetime. If we fail, we will prepare a second generation to pursue the war until our dream becomes a reality.
That was in 1985 when Prabhakaran was a little-known guerrilla living in Madras, now Chennai. His Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was barely known, even to most people in the country where he had taken refuge. Much against his own diktat, he had only a year earlier fallen in love and married a student of agriculture science from Jaffna University.
Over the years, even as India turned against the man and his band it once armed and trained, Prabhakaran remained resolutely wedded to the cause of Tamil Eelam, killing countless Tamils and Sinhalese who came in his way.
True to his word, he carefully groomed a second generation in the very regimented LTTE, carefully picking men and women and training them in the art of warfare that transformed a once rag-tag group into an awesome killing machine. He may have forcefully recruited scores of Tamil children against their will, but he did not spare his son either. After being schooled in Ireland, Charles Anthony, named after a fallen friend of his father, joined Prabhakaran in the impregnable jungles of Sri Lanka’s north for the cause of Tamil Eelam.
Thousands died on both sides of the bitter ethnic divide. Prabhakaran wiped out rival Tamils, took on the mighty Indian Army, blew up a Sri Lankan president, partially blinded another and assassinated a former Indian prime minister who had once handed him a bullet-proof jacket. He did all this—and more—without remorse or mercy. He also groomed the young Charles to take over from him one day. But then his script went wrong; more to the point, the Sri Lankan state tripped him.
On 18 May 2009, Sri Lankan soldiers determined to crush the LTTE got Prabahakaran’s equally chubby son even before the father could be found and targeted. In any case, the 1985 pledge would have made little difference if the son had fallen after the father. In a matter of just a few hours, the Sri Lankan military juggernaut decimated and destroyed without mercy the entire Tamil Tiger leadership—this generation and every generation after that.
Prabhakaran was a product of the times. He was not a born fighter. But growing Sinhalese obduracy turned a once-shy boy, whose school-time hobby was to kill birds and squirrels with a catapult, into a militant. He fled home for good in 1972, killed Jaffna’s mayor three years later, and founded the LTTE in 1976, building it brick by brick. In those days, when Sri Lanka had virtually no army or navy, it was not difficult for him to sail quietly to Tamil Nadu when things became too hot in Jaffna.
The dramatic ballooning of the LTTE into a guerrilla group from 1983 followed his single-minded devotion to Tamil Eelam, without caring for the consequences of his actions.
His decision to take on the Indian Army, and eventually force it to return home, was a turning point in his life. It made him become bigger—even if only in his own eyes. It gave him a bloated ego that convinced him he could get away with anything, including the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. That was his first and biggest blunder.
In the years that followed, even as he became king of all that he surveyed in the north and east of Sri Lanka, he failed to embrace politics. He gave primacy to the gun. That was his other failure. He did not know when to strike a deal. Even when the Norwegians brokered one that handed him federalism on a platter, he turned it down saying it was not enough. The Sinhalese, he would argue, could not be trusted.
In the end, he ended up trusting nobody, except himself and those around him. He produced a navy, an air force and suicide bombers ready to die at his command. But there was no one in the group who could tell him that the world was not willing to accept a Tamil Eelam, certainly not if its guardian was a group that believed in suicide bombings.
The failure to understand this reality led to the terrible death of a man who never got tired of repeating Subhas Chandra Bose’s memorable words that he would shed each drop of his blood for his nation.
Prabhakaran did precisely that.
M.R. Narayan Swamy is executive editor, Indo-Asian News Service and author of Tigers of Lanka and Inside an Elusive Mind, a book on Prabhakaran.
M.R. Narayan Swamy