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May 9, 2000
LTTE hoist by its own petard
As a college student in Chennai, the sudden influx of Lankan Tamils into the college was not really commented upon -- after all, they look the same, dress the same, even if their Tamil is a little singsong -- till the pogrom by the Lankan army hit the headlines. Those were the days, my friend, when Tamil Nadu rose as one man. In the vanguard of any such uprising, peaceful or otherwise, has to be the student ranks, and we did our mite. Took out rallies, held black-badge demonstrations, shouted slogans till our throats ran dry. Our hearts, as was the entire state's, was with the people of Yazhpaanam, called rather oddly Jaffna in English. If Eelam became our Palestine, Jaffna was our Wailing Wall.
Tamil pride, which does not need any kindling to flare up and which is a combustible product, was burning bright. The refugees who fled the atrocities back home were feted as they landed in Rameswaram. Tamil Nadu was the land of their ancestors, which they had left behind, and this was homecoming for at least a part of the Tamil diaspora.
The not-too-wealthy state opened its heart and treasury for its compatriots. Given the strength of Tamil sentiment, the Centre could not but step in, furtively at first through training camps for wannabe soldiers and more actively later. It is a different matter that these men and women, boys and girls, were to give the very same Indian Army that trained them a bloody nose later, but the consequences of living by the sword were not realised by a prime minister who specialised in living on the razor's edge. She had, of course, become a veteran at playing with fire, be it in Punjab or in Eelam. The former claimed her, and the latter her only surviving son.
Fade-out 1983. Fade-in 2000.
Eelam is once again in the air, and Jaffna the epicentre. Gone, however, is the public empathy. Tamils are still fighting Sinhalese, and blood is still being spilled in the jungles of Venni and elsewhere in Sri Lanka. Fifteen years is all it has taken for Tamil Nadu to realise that a neighbour's war cannot become one's own. Late realisation, Sonia Gandhi would be justified in saying, but then Tamils are not known for thinking with their heads when it comes to things Tamil.
In the meantime, plenty of water has flowed into the Palk Straits. A domineering prime minister seeking a global role dabbled in waters too deep for a political novice and paid the price with his life. The southern state, once a haven of peace, fell victim to the gun culture as those who came as refugees and state guests abused their hospitality and carried their internecine warfare into Tamil Nadu. May 1991 changed all that.
One politician was against all that happened. You may revile her as corrupt, you can accuse her of having misused her official position, the courts in fact will rule on her having amassed wealth as chief minister. But Jayalalitha had the guts, and foresight, to oppose the Tamil Tigers at a time when they were seen as the saviours of Tamil culture and pride. May 1991 proved to the people of Tamil Nadu how right she was, and how wrong they were.
Which explains how indifferent Tamil Nadu was to the fall of Jaffna in 1995. And hardly ebullient about the Tigers' chances of reclaiming the city now.
The political establishment has seen the writing on the wall. Thus we have M Karunanidhi backing the Indian government's attempts not to meddle in troubled waters. And even V Gopalaswamy, whose heart bleeds for the LTTE, is surprisingly moderate.
For the Indian government, notably its head the prime minister, the temptation to interfere in what is strictly not your business must be overpowering. This is the same urge that brought the invincible Americans to their knees in the jungles of Vietnam; the same impulse that made Rajiv Gandhi sacrifice Indian lives in Jaffna.
But Vajpayee, a seasoned politician who has had the privilege of watching any number of prime ministers bungle and stumble from his vantage point on the Opposition benches, will not play ball. Expatriate Tamils may still be aroused by what is happening in north-eastern Sri Lanka, but for the large numbers scattered in India, it is life as usual.
I daresay that part of this emotional turning away from Eelam has to do with the degeneration in Tamil Nadu during the heyday of the war for Jaffna. The other reason could be the deteriorating situation in our own backyard, Kashmir. The insurgency there, to recall, flared up from a subterranean feeling of resentment into open warfare against the Indian State in 1989, much after Eelam dominated Tamil psyche.
The feeling was one of déjà vu. Training camps in Pakistan? But that's exactly what we were doing for the LTTE. Pakistan's support for the Kashmiri terrorists who we simply call militants? Again, how dissimilar is that to what India was doing, extending moral and financial support to the Tigers in their war against the Sri Lankan State?
How come Indian real estate was so precious while we were willing to abet the dismemberment of a neighbouring, not-too-unfriendly state? These were questions that lay dormant for a long time, till May 1991, when we saw a former prime minister being blown to smithereens by a human bomb.
Blown to smithereens in a manner made so familiar in our neighbourhood by the very men whom our own army trained to become killing machines. If the images from Sriperumbudur were hard to digest, it was harder for native Tamils to digest that the movement they backed with their hearts would ultimately turn on their own.
Nine years after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, it is perhaps time to acknowledge that in his death, he redeemed himself. That with his life, he gave back Tamilians their sense of perspective.
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