The Incredulity Towards Metanarratives and the Logic of Counterinsurgency

June 4, 2014


By Karthick Rm

“In a besieged fortress, all dissidence is treason.”
-St. Ignatius of Loyola

Ever since Lyotard famously described the postmodern condition as “incredulity towards metanarratives”, it has become fashion in the academia to obsess over micronarratives and particularities. The endless discussions over race, gender, sexuality are considered “subversive” while debates on universality, questions of the proletariat, or nationalism, or state power for oppressed nations are considered “undemocratic” or “totalitarian”.

Observers among the Indian radical left would be familiar with how sections of the Indian intelligentsia are fine with approving indigenous rights and lamenting about the suffering of poor tribals, but are not fine with these very people organizing under a Party’s discipline, who are all for cultural tolerance towards Kashmiris, but won’t support Azadi, who would denounce racism against the Nagas or Manipuris in North India, and would also denounce the right of these nations to self-determination. Hard questions always scare liberal hearts, just as grand thoughts unnerve Lilliputian minds. The following essay, taking the case of Eelam Tamils’ struggle for national liberation, seeks to show how the proliferation of micronarratives assists the logic of the counterinsurgent state.

The counterinsurgent and micronarratives

It is nice to say “This is not the only view” or “All societies are pluralistic” or “No struggle is a monolith” and so on. Any sophomore can say this. But those who view, as did Lenin, insurrection as an art, would know that an insurgency is fundamentally a Manichean struggle where either the narrative of the insurgent wins or that of the counterinsurgent wins. One needs to deduce from Lenin’s dictum “the question of power is the fundamental question of revolution” [1] that establishing a dominant narrative is fundamental to the ascendancy of a revolutionary insurrection.

Why is this important? The initial advantage lies with the counterinsurgent who has the repressive and the ideological state apparatus at his disposal, and, even if he allows space for micronarratives (women’s rights, children rights etc), it is his political metanarrative of state that pre-exists and posits a challenge to the insurgent who wants a radical breakthrough with the existing apparatus.

Insurgency requires creation of an active minority and command over passive majority. For this, the insurgent needs a metanarrative that binds the insurgent minority and civilian majority into a singular collective. In the Eelam Tamils’ case, though there were several insurgent groups in the 80s, it was only the LTTE slogan that captured the popular imagination. “Tigers thirst for Tamil Eelam homeland” was popularly identified as “Tamils thirst for Tamil Eelam homeland”. The crucial thing about the insurgent narrative is that it should provide the civilian majority a sense of who we are, who we are not, and who we are up against. ‘We’ are Eelam Tamils, ‘We’ are not Sri Lankans, ‘We’ are against the unitary Sri Lankan state.

On the other hand, counterinsurgency (COIN) requires annihilation or total paralysis of the active insurgent minority and subjugation of the passive civilian majority. A law of an effective COIN, says expert David Galula, is to find “the favourable minority, to organize it in order to mobilize the population against the insurgent minority.”[2] Sowing dissension in enemy ranks is an age old law of war. The Arthashastra calls it bheda and calls on a king to instigate rebellion against enemies while suppressing those against him. When perfected, it can become maya too, or leaving the enemies in a state of illusion.

In military action, the Sri Lankan (SL) state found its ‘favourable minority’ in paramilitary groups, and in the ‘post-conflict’ scenario it is also trying to recruit Tamils as low-level entrants into the army. [3] However, while the repressive apparatus of the SL state found its ‘favourable minority’ in these foot soldiers, the ideological apparatus of the SL state found its ‘favourable minority’ in those who claimed that the LTTE’s Tamil nationalist narrative did not represent all Tamils. These include thinkers from the Colombo elite, academics, journalists, artists, novelists and ‘dissident’ Tamil intellectuals. It should be no surprise that several of these elements also found and continue to find generous monetary and other support from the Indian and Western establishments.

David Kilcullen, a contemporary COIN expert whose “Twenty-Eight Articles” are an appendix to the US “Tactics in Counterinsurgency” Field Manual 3-24.2, writes about the importance of alternative narratives:

“Exploit a “single narrative.” Since counterinsurgency is a competition to mobilize popular support, it pays to know how people are mobilized. In most societies there are opinion makers—local leaders, pillars of the community, religious figures, media personalities, and others who set trends and influence public perceptions. This influence, including the pernicious influence of the insurgents, often takes the form of a “single narrative”: a simple, unifying, easily expressed story or explanation that organizes people’s experience and provides a framework for understanding events. Nationalist and ethnic historical myths, or sectarian creeds, provide such a narrative…To undercut their influence you must exploit an alternative narrative, or better yet, tap into an existing narrative that excludes the insurgents.” [4]

The reason why Islamist insurgencies tend to have a high survival rate, especially when the counterinsurgent is a non-Muslim, is because of the binding ‘fanatical’ narrative that the religion provides in differentiating the insurgent’s population from the forces of the counterinsurgent. Some aspects of this are covered in Frantz Fanon’s brilliant essay “Algeria Unveiled”. Though the aid such Islamist movements get from neighbouring powers plays a huge role in their success, often to the detriment of the more progressive movements (for instance, the Iran-backed Hamas marginalizing the PFLP), the Islamist narrative of these insurgencies has deep significance in shaping internal dynamics. And it is this potency of Islamist insurgency that has compelled Western military minds to invest extensive research into finding an Achilles Heel.

On the other hand, secular movements like the Tamil nationalist movement, or the PKK, NPA, FARC for that matter, are more prone to dissent being sown owing to the very nature of their secular structure. One should also note that these insurgencies, apart from their secular nature, have had an acute sense of the class question and/or have been insurgencies that have been paradigm-setting in military history, consequently provoking the attention and ire of global establishments. It is, as Nietzsche says, one is punished best for one’s best virtues.

Conscious and unconscious assistance to COIN tactic

COIN works well when it has agents to assist in consciously. But its real success is when it has agents who assist it unconsciously. The conscious agent is often identifiable. He explicitly disputes the universal status of insurgent narrative and pushes for the consideration of alternative particularistic narratives which undermines that of the insurgent.

There were Tamils who claimed that the LTTE was North-centric and did not represent the East. The Karuna and Pillayan renegade factions were a result of this narrative. For instance, when Karuna broke from the LTTE in March 2004, his chief allegation was that the LTTE did not represent the interests of the East. In a similar fashion was the Tamil-Muslim divide created, by narratives tapping on the particularist communal identity of the latter, leading to a series of unfortunate events which includes expulsion of Muslims from Jaffna and likewise Muslim paramilitary groups like the ‘Muslim Homeguards’ collaborating with a genocidal Sri Lanka Army in committing numerous atrocities on Tamils in the East.[5]

There were and unfortunately still are those who put forth the narratives of ‘Tamil minority rights’ and a ‘pluralistic’ Tamil identity politics – the discourse that Tamils were a minority in Sri Lanka who deserved constitutional safeguards, maybe even pushed to the extent of internal self-determination within a united Sri Lanka, as opposed to the Eelam Tamil nationalist narrative that the Eelam Tamils were a sovereign nation who were entitled to external self-determination and the creation of the state of Tamil Eelam. These produced collaborators Neelan Tiruchelvan, the liberal intellectual who was bargaining with the Sri Lankan ruling class for federal rule, and Lakshman Kadirgamar, who was firm in his denunciation of the potential of Eelam Tamil nationalism and who also played a key role in the banning of the LTTE in the West.

Some Tamil intellectuals played the caste card against the LTTE, denying the latter’s spectacular achievements towards the annihilation of caste. [6] Though this was negligible in the Eelam Tamil context considering that the Tigers had the popular support of all castes, certain influential sections of Tamil Nadu’s intelligentsia, especially those affiliated with the revisionist CPI(M) or ‘independent’ postmodernists, tried and continue to try to falsely project the Tamil Eelam liberation struggle as a movement of dominant castes. This is largely in compliance with the Indian state’s agenda to diffuse popular support for the Tamil Eelam struggle in its political rear base, Tamil Nadu. Likewise, there is a coordinated disinformation campaign in the diaspora to try to create caste fissures and character assassinations of Tamil nationalists, in collusion with the Sri Lankan intelligence and other external intelligence agencies. The military repercussions of the caste question within Eelam Tamil nationalism are clear, with the occupying Sri Lankan Army engineering caste clashes in Tamil areas in the post-2009 scenario. [7] It is also worrying that certain Tamil writers and academics in the island, Tamil Nadu and abroad, who may or may not have the best intentions, have fallen for this COIN game hook, line and sinker and are obsessing over caste divisions instead of finding ways to bring about unity. [8] This, again, is a subversion of the liberation struggle’s metanarrative.

And there was the criticism of the movement’s narrative from some feminist quarters. To those like Rajini Thiranagama the LTTE’s “patriarchal authority” did not represent all Tamil women, whereas to Radhika Coomaarasamy, the women in the LTTE were mere “cogs in the wheel”, with both emphasising the need to return to an essential peaceful quality of the Tamil woman. The ramifications of such perspectives in the context of COIN have been perspicuously articulated by Gautam Navlakha in a recent article on Sanhati, which must be cited at large here:

“Actually the number of studies and research focusing on women as an extension of counter insurgency pacification policy is quite impressive. Such efforts single out woman and essentialise their experience; in reality, the entire society is affected – some more, others less – but no one remains unscathed. So intellectuals come in handy to provide additional inputs to military suppression by advocating a nuanced policy shift which pits women’s experiences and concerns as more or less diametrically opposite to that of men or places them at a distance from the struggle/conflict, which can then be exploited for purposes of pacification. In the process, there is downplaying (if not glossing over) of how counter-insurgency operations target women, uses their vulnerability for sexual gratification and blackmail, and their humiliation as a deliberate policy of war. This dynamic is rarely captured because those who work in the service of the State lack the capacity to fully grasp the social reality which is formed by war.

Conversely in revolutionary warfare, this issue acquires acuity. Here, men as well as women participate, each motivating the other. Therefore, tricks meant to create divisions/fissures among rebels, by trying to single out women and/or the scholarship that places women as intrinsically attuned to peace etc, stands exposed as being a lot of hot air. What is the point? Simply that revolutionary warfare, in varying degree no doubt, have specificity and enormous capability to overcome and/or break divides which class-caste-community divided society considers “natural”.” [9]

The unconscious agent of COIN does more or less the same thing which the conscious agent does. While the latter deliberately undermines the insurgent narrative to defend the existing or a better version of the state structure, the former does it thinking that he represents best what he believes is his constituency. Now, with this type of a discourse, it is implied that Tamil nationalism is not all-encompassing and that special interest groups, like say, women, some particular region, sexual orientation, religion or caste, needs to form an autonomous narrative of its own. Now when the claim for adequate representation is linked to the metanarrative, that Tamil nationalism needs to accommodate the interests of such groups for it to be more egalitarian and dynamic, then and only then does it have a salutary practical effect. When it seeks to be autonomous, when it divorces itself from the primary contradiction between the Tamil nationalist metanarrative and the Sri Lankan state, it only ends up fracturing a resistance movement against genocide, even if the proponents of these narratives might not have intended to do so.

Psychologist Hussein Bulhan argues that when conditioned to prolonged and systemic oppression, the oppressed become agents of their own oppression, engaging in destructive behaviour against their self and their own people. He further explains “The search for security in conditions of oppression, the quest for personal harmony in circumstances of social violence, or the wish for private success at the cost of betraying collective aspirations require little originality and risks because such efforts accept the status quo of oppression as immutable. Freedom requires new courage, new vision, and new commitments.” [10]

Those intellectuals advocating reconciliation with the Sinhalese are promoted by powerful establishments. The academic researching minority studies, or caste among the Eelam Tamils, or Tamil patriarchy, finds generous funding in the West. The feminist working for women’s rights and the humanitarian working for children’s rights in isolation gets access to the resources of well networked international NGOs. The novelist and poet who write about the plurality of identities and interests are given special place at literary festivals. All of these men and women, though they may have no formal association, are united by their disbelief in the possibility of success of Eelam Tamil nationalism and hence they seek to survive using whatever alternative narrative that would help their lives. These are the children of despair. None of these men and women has the courage, vision, or commitment of those men and women who stood up to the artillery, chemical weapons, and cluster bombs for well over 30 years, defying a genocidal state and its international abettors. Those were the truly free. These are the condemned, who are in perpetual paranoia of their fellow Tamil, because they know that they have betrayed her.

Their intentions are irrelevant. Intentions do not matter in a liberation struggle – only effects do.

Psychological fascination with micronarratives and the proliferation of ‘suffering pornography’

The belief in a micronarrative, whether it is cultivated or unconscious, stems from a disbelief in the emancipatory potential of the metanarrative. Of course, there are monetary and other benefits for subverting an insurgency. But the real reason is the human quality called despair, the promotion of which is the cornerstone of every psychological war waged by the oppressor. Among Eelam Tamils, this is an inevitable result of exposure to over 60 years of protracted genocide.

Another disturbing phenomenon, which is intimately connected to the above, is the proliferation of, what I would call, ‘suffering pornography’ – literature, poetry, personal histories, movies, documentaries and so on that highlight the pain of the oppressed after subtracting the political context. Humans have for long had a perverse fascination with suffering, which is why some of the greatest works in history have been tragedies. The portrayal of pain as an aesthetic object attracts as much as that of pleasure. With market capitalism, suffering, with faces, sights, sounds, blood and gore, is yet another product that finds good many takers. In the post-2009 period, Tamils saw a series of documentaries, books, reports, personal narratives etc. that focused solely on torture, sexual violence, migration, separation, and so on. The narratives of crying Tamils, dying Tamils, starving Tamils, fleeing Tamils, abused Tamils sold well. But the metanarrative of heroism of the fighting Tamils, of Eelam Tamil nationalism, was something that the market could not accommodate.

Now while some might argue, not without some merit, that these tales of suffering brought greater publicity to what was happening in the island of Sri Lanka to the world, often the effect that these sort of portrayals have on the psychology of the oppressed is more negative than positive. In a time of brutal genocide, a narrative that fails to provide hope in the Tamil nationalist project of emancipation only nurtures despair about the future. The abundance of stories of pain and suffering induces masochistic tendencies among the oppressed, wherein they are content to lament and cry, and worse, to seek pleasure in pain. This is in line with Freud’s brilliant observation that masochism is the destructive instinct directed inwards, which also has a strong touch of eroticism to it. [11] These do not lead to collective catharsis. They only cause psychological self-mutilation.

The brutal events of May 2009, a slaughter hitherto unheard of Tamil history, were undoubtedly a shock that hurt the core of a Tamil’s psyche. An amount of despair was inevitable, even among those with indomitable will. However, while those with the stronger will, greater political consciousness and commitment, were able to recover, the weaker and vacillating elements engaged in behaviour that was self-destructive. Narratives of pain and suffering that do not inspire hope further encourage such behaviour. This, again, is a success of the oppressive system.

Suffering pornography ends up giving a larger-than-life, omnipotent image to the oppressor and induces fatalism among the weak elements among the oppressed. Convinced by heart that they have no possibility of defeating the oppressor, they set out to finding real or imagined flaws among the oppressed and their best representatives. Since he has reduced himself to the level of individual experience, he believes that the Tamil fighters are so too, and judges them on the basis of caste or region. Since she finds the patriarchy of the Sinhala state to be an unchallengeable power, she directs her ire towards Tamil patriarchy. His story of flight from the island subtracts from it the desire for retrieval of his occupied homeland because he has internalized defeat. Such men and women cannot see the big picture anymore and become useless, if not harmful, to the struggle.

In a normal circumstance, such persons should be pitied. It is only because of the harm they cause others and the movement at large that they need to be ideologically opposed. It needs to be understood that a traitor to a movement is not someone who was born bad. It is often someone who capitulates to despair, swims in a defeatist mentality, fails to see the larger question, and presumes that he has a better chance of surviving working for the oppressors than for the oppressed. By the effects of his actions, he is always one who denies or subverts the metanarrative.

It can be acceptable for dissidents and lovers of unrestricted freedom of criticism to empathize with Antigone who broke the secular laws of her nation owing to her emotional sense of duty towards her traitorous brother. Insurgents, however, must stand with Creon who sacrificed all so that his besieged nation might prevail.


[1] VI Lenin, “Left-Wing Childishness and the Petty-Bourgeois Mentality” in Lenin: Selected Works, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977, p. 446

[2] David Galula, Counter-Insurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966, p. 77

[3] A detailed analysis of how US Army War College award winner Maj. Gen. Udaya Perera has used military rule in the Tamil homeland to engineer social divisions can be seen in this article : “Sinhala military operates US-trained ‘counterinsurgency’ in Jaffna

[4] David Kilcullen, “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency”, in Tactics in Counterinsurgency, FM 3-24.2, Washington, April 2009, p. C6-7

[5] While there is an opinion that the collaboration of Muslim paramilitaries with the Sri Lankan Army happened after the expulsion of Muslims from Jaffna in 1990, in fact, the Sri Lankan Military, with assistance from the Mossad, used Muslim paramilitaries early in the 80s itself. For more on how the particularist Muslim identity was exploited by the Sri Lankan state, see analyst Nadesan Satyendra’s “Tamil National Struggle and the Muslim Factor”. Likewise, for a more contemporary perspective on the Tamil-Muslim relations, see academic ARM Imtiyaz’s interview.

[6] Dr. N. Malathy, who worked with the Peace Secretariat of the Tamil Eelam de facto state and who was a key member of the North-East Secretariat on Human Rights, has documented the extent to which caste consciousness broke down under the LTTE rule in her work, A Fleeting Moment in My Country: The Last Years of the LTTE de facto State. (New Delhi: Aakar, 2013). Also read Eelam Tamil diaspora academic Athithan Jayapalan’s article “LTTE and the Annihilation of Caste

[7] “SL military machinates caste, anti-diaspora violence in Jaffna villages” .

[8] The interested reader might also want to have a look at military analyst and late TamilNet editor Sivaram’s set of essays on ‘Tamil Militarism’ where he explores how the colonial powers used the help of native elites and foot soldiers to crush uprisings of Tamil martial castes and also on the use of colonial ethnography to criminalize them.

[9] Gautam Navlakha, “Ambush amplifies a struggle

[10] Hussein Abdilahi Bulhan, Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression, New York: Plenum Press, 1985, p. 127

[11] Sigmund Freud, Civilization, Society and Religion, New York: Penguin Books, 1985, p. 311

No Comments »

Leave a comment