*Prabhakaran’s Death and the Politics of the Double

It is reported that when the Americans captured Saddam Hussein, one of the first questions that arose in their minds was whether their captive was the ‘real’ Saddam. Their captive, over intense questioning, denied that he had ever manufactured his double. But I suspect that the rumor of Saddam’s double will never entirely disappear, not even after many books have been published, each purporting to give the true and real story of Saddam. The question of the ‘real’ Saddam has many more layers than the Americans can imagine, and one must begin with the question of how real Saddam was to his subjects. He led a shadowy existence, one might say: by his own confession, for fear of his life, long before the American invasion of Iraq, he moved from one spot to another and rarely slept in the same bed twice. So, even when he was not being hunted, he lived the life of a fugitive. Saddam also imagined himself as a Saladin, a Haroun Rashid, even a Hammurabi. When Saddam denied that he had a double, he meant it in more than the literal sense. What is a double to one with multiple identities?

With the death of Prabhakaran, the question of the double will doubtless come up again. Men such as Prabhakaran are always believed to have a double: the mythography of the ‘spectacularly evil one’ can entertain no other outlook. The double is supposed to confound the opponent; but the double is also a sign of the evil one’s moral turpitude, a clear sign of the fear in which he lives. If the villain plots to have his double, his opponents are even keener that he should have one – as if that were a vindication of their moral superiority.

I have read on Tamil diaspora websites that the LTTE denies that Prabhakaran has been killed by the Sri Lankan armed forces. The man who has been identified as Prabhakaran is, according to his supporters, his double. And it would not be surprising if the LTTE were to produce a photograph or two of Prabhakaran purporting to establish that he is alive, most likely watching with bemusement his body being displayed before TV audiences.

Prabhakaran’s supporters and his detractors are, then, equally invested in the idea of the double. For many of Prabhakaran’s supporters, the will to believe that it is his double that is being displayed is the last desperate act of fealty. It may be well and good to believe that your hero is immortal, but for the present the imperative is to deny the fact of his death and claim that the struggle is alive. For his opponents and detractors, the double points to the moral cowardice of Prabhakaran. The cowardly leader sends others to their death, but has a morbid fear of plunging into death himself. That the idea of the double, however, need not be so utterly compromised or morally vacuous is amply demonstrated by Kurosawa’s film Kagemusha, “The Shadow Warrior.” Set in medieval Japan, the shadow warrior or impersonator, none other than a common thief, plays the part of Lord Shingen, whose death is to be kept a secret for three years. With great skill, the kagemusha creeps into Shingen’s skin and begins to play the part so well that he himself is confounded about his own identity. As Shingen, he keeps the enemies at bay; and when, towards the end, his fall from a horse reveals his ‘real’ identity to others and he is dismissed from the royal household, the members of the clan begin to perceive that the man they had taken to be a mere double was the fount of their reality. With the double’s ignominious departure, the Takeda clan changes course and is sent to a crushing defeat. The kagemusha himself becomes a martyr – but martyr to what, one might ask?

7 thoughts on “*Prabhakaran’s Death and the Politics of the Double

  1. Hi professor,
    Although some dictators like Saddam Hussein had doubles, they were still captured and finally executed. Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tamil Tigers was also murdered by the Sri Lankan army. Having a double helps one to hide their identities, but in more temporary way. The followers of leaders who have doubles deny that their leaders have been captured in most cases. Doubles also show the cowardice of leaders, in addition to them wanting to hide their identities. The other doubles are like martyrs since they are mostly killed due to their resemblance to a certain dictator. Followers or the general public should accept the defeat of their leaders especially when biological information has been provided.


    • The pieceI wrote was more of a brief philosophic reflection on the idea of the ‘double’. Sometimes it helps not to read things too literally. The ‘real’ Prabhakaran was simultaneously both too real and, in a fashion, ‘unreal’. Anyhow, if taken in a literal sense, we should wonder about the fate of those who are assigned to be doubles of dictators, emperors, and the like. I think it would make for a fascinating study.


  2. This idea of a double seems like a possibility when thinking about Prabahakaran’s elusiveness. For someone who rarely showed himself, an idea of a double may seem appealing. However, a double, as you pointed out, would be a sign of weakness. This fear of death perpetuated by the existence of a double would have been evident in the manner which Prabahakaran would define himself as a leader. Prabhakaran refused to appear in front of the press after early 2000’s. He would only give speeches and take photos from remote locations. If Prabhakaran truly felt he was embodying the principles of his people, then would he not take a stand with his people, rather than hiding by himself?


  3. I think admitting a revolutionary leader has been killed causes some people to think the side on which the leader deceased leader fought is weakened and susceptible to subversion, which is quite interesting. A lack of leadership does tend to cause movements to breakdown.


  4. Hello professor,
    In most cases, it is dictators who are found to have doubles. This helps them to hide their identities since they fear for their lives. For instance, Saddam Hussein used to move from one place to another to avoid being caught or identified by anyone. Apparently, having doubles is a clear sign that one lives an evil life. This is why it is the dictators who would have doubles in most cases. In the case of Prabhakaran, I think he was killed by the Sri Lankan army. This is despite the fact that his followers never accepted it. Even though dictators have doubles, it does not really protect them and safeguard their security. This is because they are captured even when they have doubles.


  5. Hi professor,
    For dictators like Saddam Hussein who actually had doubles, it was difficult to capture them. In order to get to know who the real Saddam was, it would be better if the American people had biological information such as DNA. I don’t think just observing how Saddam was to his subjects would be a proper and dependable way to ascertain that the real person was captured. Having led a shadowy experience, it was quite difficult to know whether or not the real Saddam had been captured. A person who has a double would definitely deny it since he/she wouldn’t want anyone to know the truth about it.


  6. Dear Professor,
    The dual motive of an evil individual plotting to construct a double was a thought-provoking read as I have not considered the philosophical implications underlying this issue. Before this read, I have previously thought about this matter that creating a double was a mere tactical move to deceive the opponent but thinking that there is a lot more to be understood, as you have stated “It may be well and good to believe that your hero is immortal, but for the present the imperative is to deny the fact of his death and claim that the struggle is alive”. The duality of fear and superiority, so say the vulnerability of the creator of the double, is important to be understood by the opponents but also the supporters.


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