Looking Across The Palk Strait

by N. Sathiya Moorthy

  • There is no such record of Tamil Nadu politicians visiting Sri Lanka
  • The fact is that Tamil Nadu politicos do not know Sri Lanka
  • Karunanidhi’s command, though firm during a short span, was short-lived
  • The LTTE propagandists too are on the hunt for a successor to hold aloft that crown

Jayalalithaa Jayaram, Alfred Duraiappah and Muthuvel Karunanidhi

With the none-too-unexpected death of Jayalalithaa Jayaram, Chief Minister of the South Indian State of Tamil Nadu, a section of the Sri Lankan politico-strategic community may have once again returned their gaze across the Palk Strait. It’s as if to see whether they are looking for solutions for the nation’s domestic problems, or for justification(s) for not being able to do so. Neither is the case, however.

Of course, there are bilateral concerns involving the Indian neighbour in which Tamil Nadu has a stake. It’s mostly confined to the fishers’ issue.

On Sri Lanka’s ‘national issue’ centred on power-devolution and political reconciliation, post-war, Tamil Nadu and the State’s politics have no real role to play. It was so in the past, it would remain so in the future.

It’s unclear if the government’s decision for President to send a delegation to pay respects to Jayalalithaa was a stand-alone affair. It involved matters of protocol. It possibly also set a precedent. The Joint Opposition did not lag behind. To the extent that the Sri Lankan Government/State and the majority Sinhala politics have mourned Jaya’s death in form and content, it sets a healthy trend.

It may be a first welcome step in Sri Lanka’s India equations involving Tamil Nadu. To draw a Tamil Nadu parallel, it’s like Jaya’s ruling AIADMK and rival DMK parent bringing back some of the forgotten civility to the State’s politics and political relations.

DMK’s emerging leader M. K. Stalin and half-sister Kanimozhi visited Jaya in hospital and also paid their respects when her body was lying in State. Breaking the ‘rationalist Dravidian’ political jinx of the past decades, two senior AIADMK leaders were ‘assigned’ (by whom?) to call on DMK supremo M. Karunanidhi when he was more recently hospitalised for a lung condition.


No different 

To expect the TN politicos to react favourably to any Sri Lankan gestures or overtures of the recent kind, if at all, could thus take time. Ethnicity apart, Sri Lankan leaders and people have been visiting Tamil Nadu, as the rest of India, on work, worship or whatever, all these centuries and generations.

There is no such record of Tamil Nadu politicians visiting Sri Lanka. Even their occasional tourist instinct died with the advent of the ‘ethnic issue’, war and violence. For the record, only MDMK’s Vaiko and VCK’s Thol Thirumavalavan, among the senior politicos, are the only ones known to have travelled, but their travels were off-the-record.

Thirumavalavan along with DMK’s Kanimozhi and T. R. Baalu did visit the country as part of an Indian parliamentary delegation post-war, to assess the post-war situation. It was a one-off affair, and they ended up taking a lot of flak for the same, once back home. No Tamil Nadu leader has since ventured to travel to Sri Lanka since.

The fact is that Tamil Nadu politicos do not know Sri Lanka. They know the Sri Lankan Tamil realities, politics and society, even less. The LTTE propaganda machine fed them with selective information, and for a generation, Tamil Nadu has lived on the same. Their consequent arguments are uni-focussed and unilateral. It’s nothing more, nothing less.

The TN politico assumptions vis-à-vis the ethnic issue across the Strait is based on ignorance, over which the LTTE built a super-structure for ‘em all to live on and live off. It’s no different in Sri Lanka. As much as the Sri Lankan Tamil community and polity since the days of ‘Eelam War IV’, feeding on the LTTE, Sinhala hardliners too have chosen to take occasional pot-shots at India and the Government of India, using Tamil Nadu as a shoulder to fire from.


‘Competitive’ politics

There is no guarantee that the recent expressions of social civility between the two Dravidian majors in Tamil Nadu is going to be followed by a series of mutual give-and-take steps and meeting of minds, where they are all able to make unified initiatives on a variety of issues involving the State’s position in the Indian scheme and/or the sentiments of the people and the politicos.

Right now, not just the ‘Big Two’ in Tamil Nadu politics, but even peripheral pan-Tamil parties and groups are all tied down to competitiveness of an unhealthy kind. It’s not just on the ethnic issue, but it definitely includes the ethnic issue, as well. If there is going to be a change-of-tag or unity of purpose within Tamil Nadu, post-Jaya, it will only be for greater consolidation of the State’s views, not weakening of the same.

A weakened ruling party in the absence of the charismatic Jayalalithaa would only try to prove to its cadres and the larger masses that the existing/emerging leaderships are as strong as her in matters involving the interests of the State and its people. They may not be seen as being as forceful as her, but they cannot afford to be seen as weakening without her. For, the DMK and other political rivals would seek to make a mince-meat of the present-day rulers, if only they would show up a chink in their armour.


Holding the crown

In the contemporary socio-political history of world Tamils, and not just those in India or Sri Lanka, DMK’s Karunanidhi had emerged as the ‘leader’ of the larger community by default. Even the little non-literary competition ceased when the AIADMK founder and Chief Minister, M. G. Ramachandran, MGR, died. Having been born in Kandy, MGR had a greater acceptance among the Tamil-speaking populations in Sri Lanka, owing also to his film popularity earlier.

Karunanidhi’s command, though firm during a short span, was short-lived as well. The emergence and ready acceptance of LTTE’s Velupillai Prabhakaran meant that he would usurp the title-place in the Tamil community across the world, without having to challenge Karunanidhi, or take him on, en route.

Post-war and Prabhakaran’s exit, the LTTE Diaspora with its strategic propaganda machinery needed a fall-guy for their own mistakes, and a new icon. Karunanidhi and Jaya readily fitted their bill(s). That Jaya between the two Tamil Nadu supremos was harsher on the LTTE, and by extension the ‘Sri Lankan Tamil cause’ did not matter to ‘em.

Jaya had also faltered along the line from what her late political mentor, MGR, had laid down on the ethnic issue. Neither did that matter to the LTTE propagandists. They were looking at the future not the past – and rightly so. Their peripheral prop-ups had fallen by the way side in successive elections in Tamil Nadu, be it to the State Assembly or the national Parliament, alone mattered to them.

Ever ready and even more eager to take on Karunanidhi in whatever, and seeing competition only in him and none else, Jaya also seem to be showing signs of weakness in her unwavering opposition to the LTTE. She would not condone the LTTE but began condemning successive Sri Lankan Governments of the day, and the Sinhala political class, on every other issue that she thought would show up in brighter light than on the previous day, to the larger global Tamil community.

It suited the LTTE propagandists’ agenda and purposes very well, if only over the shorter term. They sang their praise during election-time in Tamil Nadu, celebrated her victory, prayer for her health when in hospital, and mourned her death, all of it without fail.

Now, the LTTE propagandists too are on the hunt for a successor to hold aloft that crown, whether or not the hands that hold it have a head above them, to fit the same. The hunt is on, and there is going to be competition, both from the Sri Lankan Tamil community, and their Indian counterparts in the matter – with the SLT Diaspora, too, joining the fray, now or later.



All of it would take time. In the interim, the future course of Tamil Nadu politics needs to be known and understood in perspective. More importantly, the immediate course of the Sri Lankan politics of power-devolution, political reconciliation and Constitution-making are all going to be in focus. They could well be the deciding factor, one way or the other.

But the immediate and permanent approach in Sri Lanka should be to look inside for solutions, and not outside for problems that are the very own creations of the nation. It’s unable and/or unwilling to shed. It may sound a self-satisfying self-delusion for Sri Lanka to blame the Indian neighbour, for instance, for the ‘creation’ of the LTTE, 13-A and the induction of IPKF.

The LTTE under an earlier name had killed Jaffna’s Tamil Mayor Alfred Duraiappah as far back as 1975 whereas the Indian interest began only after the ‘anti-Tamil’ pogrom of 1983. Good neighbourliness apart, the horrifying episodes of the pogrom meant that India did not want a repeat of the ‘Bangladesh situation’ – as against the delusion that it wanted to create one in the immediate Indian Ocean neighbourhood.

Weapons-training for the Tamil youth in Sri Lanka (however unjustifiable it may be) and ‘Operation Poomalai’ were meant in India’s self-defence, if only to ensure that the trickle-down effect of ‘refugee arrivals’ in large numbers did not impact on the society, demography and polity in Tamil Nadu in particular. It had happened in the case of Bangladesh refugees.

India continues to house about a hundred thousand Tamil-speaking refugees from Sri Lanka. It has no problem continuing to keep them and treat them as well as its own population. But the pressure, if any, on the Tamil polity owes also to the presence of refugees.

They had begun with tell-tale reportage of Pogrom-83, shaking the conscience of every human who was/is not inhuman. Their Tamil Nadu brethren were no exception. The ethnic element got injected into the discourse with identification to the common identities much later.

The 13-A was designed to ensure political reconciliation in Sri Lanka, and not otherwise. India got involved early on, and before the IPKF induction. Once it had happened, India did not wait to send the IPKF, but only at the specific request of the Sri Lankan Government of the day, not otherwise. The IPKF quit when the Government wanted it to go back – whatever its mission and accomplishments till then.


Staying out…

Be it ethnic issue, Eelam War-IV or ETCA negotiations, these are bilateral concerns involving the Government of Sri Lanka and the Indian counterpart, as institutions, not individuals. Even on the fishers’ issue, where Tamil Nadu has a stake, the negotiations are still conducted by the Governments at the Centre. Tamil Nadu has the presence in the negotiations-table, not the decision-making authority.

Nothing explains it better than the Katchchativu issue, where successive Governments in India at the Centre have reiterated the 1974-76 agreements. With Jayalalithaa not in the picture, and Karunanidhi all but withdrawn, the fate of their pending petitions on India reclaiming the island-citing, constitutional and procedural flaws, remain to be seen. At least, Jaya’s petition in the Supreme Court of India, filed in her personal/political capacity may have become infructuous with her death.

On Katchchativu, the Indian Constitution has clearly apportioned the authority to the Union of India, and not to any State Government. The two national Governments have also clarified that there was no ‘territory’ to be transferred from one to the other. What was done instead was the demarcation of the international maritime boundary line (IMBL) for the first time on mutual convenience. If Katchchativu thus went to Sri Lanka, the Government of India has said, “So be it.”

On the related fishers’ issue, Tamil Nadu has got real livelihood stakes. There again, the Government of India has a very defined position, independent of the political party or leadership in power. More importantly, the TNA ruling the Northern Province and is the official Opposition in the national Parliament, is as firm as the Colombo Government in letting Tamil Nadu fishers in.

If any, all factions of the TNA and all sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil polity are united only on the fishers’ issue, and are on the side of the Sri Lankan State. It’s not so even on the more compelling aspects of the ‘ethnic issue’, power-devolution and political reconciliation.

The Tamil Nadu fishers are well aware of the changing course of political waters across the Palk Strait, but not the polity. The latter is not unaware of the TNA’s different and differentiated stands and strands when compared to that of the LTTE. If anything, all sections of the TNA are united not on the solution, or on the procedural aspects, but only on wanting the Tamil Nadu polity to stay out.


Inviting Naidu

Ahead of the second anniversary of the ‘National Unity Government’, the Sri Lankan leadership has reportedly invited N. Chandrababu Naidu, Chief Minister of another south Indian State of Andhra Pradesh, to be the chief guest. For the first anniversary, former Indian High Commissioner and ex-Governor of the east Indian State of West Bengal, Gopalakrishna Gandhi, donned the attire.

Gandhi was a career bureaucrat whereas Naidu is a career politician, and it’s a purely political event that the Government leadership in Colombo is now hosting. It’s anybody’s guess how proper it would be for the Sri Lankan parties, under the prevailing circumstances, invite an Indian politician of Naidu’s position, to what essentially is a political function.

It’s more so at a time when political Sri Lanka is going through a churning process, in the form of Sinhala political realignment that is refusing to take any final shape, and more so when the nation is negotiating a new Constitution with itself – with no goal or end in sight. ‘Progress’ is a term good to hear from Naidu, yes, he being an achiever of kinds in India, but his visit could neither be the beginning, nor the end of anything beyond a chief ministerial visit from a friendly neighbour.

If the leadership thought that inviting Naidu is a one-off affair, it’s of no use. If it thought that it’s an attempt to diversify contacts with India, going beyond and leaving behind Tamil Nadu, it’s again the kind of politico-diplomatic strategy that the erstwhile Mahinda Rajapaksa regime envisioned and began implementing – but with no possible and plausible end-game in mind. It would be no better now.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@gmail.com)


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