Should martyrdom ever be glorified?


Over 100 Tibetans have used self-immolation as a desperate form of protest since 1998. AK Rockefeller under a Creative Commons Licence

A young man named Neelaventhan killed himself today.  I received the shocking news via a series of stunned messages from a dalit network. He committed self-immolation, a horrendously excruciating way of making a political statement. He was determined, nay desperate, to make a point to the government of Tamil Nadu and to India. His demand? To implement a six per cent reservation (an affirmative action Indian policy which gives preferential treatment to historically disadvantaged minority groups) for Arunthathiyars, a sub-caste, treated as untouchable, somewhere at the bottom of the caste ladder, even within the dalit communities in Tamil Nadu.

Many will praise the spirit of self sacrifice which presumably inspired him to become a martyr for his cause and for his people. Yet I consider it a truly terrible, unnecessary tragedy. Mr Narayanan, editor of Paadam magazine, shared my view: ‘Imagine the suffering of his parents, his family, his loved ones and the loss to the larger community. We should not glorify or encourage this kind of martydom.’

Some Sri Lankan Tamils pushed by the Tamil Tigers began the dreadful practice of getting young patriots to become live bombs, blowing themselves and their victims up simultaneously. The mind of a suicide bomber is totally beyond my powers of comprehension. The cults which favour pushing young (or old) people into blowing themselves and other people up are, to me, cowardly and exploitative.

Assuring penniless young people that their families will be financially provided for if they volunteer for suicide bombing missions is, in my view, diabolic. So is the propaganda which causes the entire community to rejoice and celebrate the martyrdom of a jihadist. I’m certain the leaders, the men who brainwash the rank and file at terrorist training camps, would never dream of sacrificing their own lives. They sit like the smug, elitist group they are, far from the frontline, the bombs and the danger and turn young impressionable men and women into cannon fodder.

The trend has caught on among young Tibetans too. Not becoming suicide bombers, thank God, but setting themselves alight to protest the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The first Tibetan self-immolation in recent times took place in Delhi, India, by a Tibetan exile on April 27, 1998. Since then over 100 mostly young Tibetans have chosen the path of self-immolation as protest. There is a comprehensive list given by Tibetan freedom organisations. It makes for tragic reading. The list, some names accompanied by photographs, describes many teenagers, young monks and nuns, a young mother of four children, another leaving behind a now motherless baby. It is so utterly sad.

I wonder if the Dalai Lama could persuade them to stop? Certainly the Chinese government doesn’t care. Whatever is the point then of this exercise in futility? I understand the horror of living under siege, decades, now almost half a century of being occupied by China. But I cannot accept all these young lives quite literally going up in smoke.

Will Neelaventhan’s death by fire cause Tamil dalits to stop their incessant internal squabbling and fight with a united front for dalit rights? I doubt it. Will the Indian government take note? Probably not. Neelaventhan was a committed young activist, passionate about the cause of his Arunthathiyar community. He was doing a wonderful job working with students and young Arunthathiyars to educate, fight injustice and change his society. His life was more valuable than his death. The ultimate sacrifice, giving up his life, will be glorified no doubt. It will produce paeans of praise, perhaps a few pamphlets, public condolence meetings. But in life he accomplished so much more. There was so much more to give to his society. We can only mourn these young people. And hope something changes, somewhere.