New Internationalist

Should martyrdom ever be glorified?

2013-09-27-tibet.jpg [Related Image]
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.

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  1. #1 Christine 27 Sep 13

    Beautiful article Mari..
    To me martyrdom is not giving up of one’s life .. martyrdom is working towards a cause.. and being there for the cause – struggling alongside the cause – until there is a voice heard and the cause is recognized. Mother Teresa is a Martyr .. now that is someone who is a model for martyrdom.
    No point leaving taking a life.. and several other lives.. causing a string of destruction – of loss of family members and loved one. There is nothing worse than losing someone you love dearly – heartbroken. What good will come out of that. Its sadness and despair multiplied.
    I put it down to illiteracy – and stuff like this happens among the poor when hardship is a way of life! This just adds to is. Where is the martyrdom.. I don’t see the point!

  2. #2 Noella de Souza 27 Sep 13

    Just thinking of all our farmers who commit suicide because of their countless debts.

    How does it help ? The debts are not waived for their wives and children who continue with the burden of having to pay back. If anything,this martyrdom is another major stumbling block the family has to deal with.

  3. #3 ludwig pesch 28 Sep 13

    Thanks, Mari, for yet another insightful and compassionate piece! This kind of news are always beyond my comprehension, as much as yours as we mercifully aren't facing the horrors that constitute the climate in which a phenomenon as this can grow into a cult. The ’diabolic’ side is all too rarely pointed out, nor the cowardice of the facilitators of suicide missions, just as indifference, even cynicism of governments who use the sensationalist news coverage for their own ends.

    As for the misguided individuals, it is likely though that a lethal compound of personal misfortune and public causes that makes them go beyond the point of no return and meticulously follow a plan of action; a course that in better circumstances could be recognized if not halted in time. As you rightly say, they could accomplish so much more if staying alive, as some others have proven. If given a chance.

  4. #4 Josette 30 Sep 13

    It is so true what you write, Mari. These ’martyrs’ would have meant so much more alive! And would those ’leaders’ who are inciting these young peole to offer there life for ’the good cause’ realise what the consequences are? Are they able to live with those thoughts???

  5. #5 david cohen 01 Oct 13

    Mari Marcel Thekaekara has written about martyrdom with such sensitivity that I hope that the blog is read widely in Palestine. These are people who battle Israeli occupation as I do in the US with many American Jews and Israelis who also oppose that occupation and fight it wherever we can.

    You cannot spend much time in Palestine or Israel and not meet somebody whose family member, or friend, or family member's friend, has been killed by bullets, bombs or explosives from rockets going off in Palestine or bombs exploding in restaurants as they did in Israel.

    Those horrible, and needless deaths, those severely scarring emotions, too often lead to revenge. A person carries a bomb, kills others who are innocent and kills oneself. Young woman or young man needlessly die, often manipulated by others.

    Mari's words provide a sad dirge for the tragedy and permanent sadness of it all.

    David Cohen
    Washington, DC
    October 1, 2013

  6. #6 derkka sijad habbib 18 Nov 13

    i hate people that use martyrdom it takes no skill to rack in the kills. mix martyrdom with a m230 granade launcher and you have a class a noob

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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