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'It makes sense for us to secede from India'
In a nondescript area on the outskirts of Erode town in Tamil Nadu is the one-room office of the Vishala Tamil Nadu Party.
The VTNP is one of the many political parties, fringe nationalist organisations and extremist groups that have mushroomed in Tamil Nadu in the last few years. Tamil nationalism is what binds them together.
Their demand? An independent homeland for the Tamils comprising Tamil Nadu and the Tamil-speaking parts of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Sri Lanka.
They put forward three names for their dreamland: Vishala Tamil Nadu, Dravida Nadu or Tamil Desam.
After sandalwood smuggler Veerappan kidnapped Kannada film star Dr Rajakumar, VTNP convenor Nagaraj Manikandan has distributed hundreds of leaflets containing the brigand's now-famous charter of 10 demands.
"Our cause is the same. It makes sense for the Tamils to demand a separate homeland. It makes sense for us to demand secession from India," says Manikandan.
In March, the intelligence agencies had reported to the M Karunanidhi government that separatist and extremist groups were sprouting in the state. A report identified a few of such as potentially dangerous: the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army, Tamil Nadu Retrieval Troops, Tamil Nadu Liberation Force and Vishala Tamil Nadu Party.
The government, however, chose to ignore the warning. The outfits, it ruled, were not a security threat to the state.
But on the night of July 30, when Veerappan kidnapped Dr Rajakumar, the authorities realised it was not the sandalwood smuggler but certain extremist outfits that were holding Tamil Nadu and Karnataka to ransom.
According to Tamil Nadu Director General of Police F C Sharma, the drama has prolonged because "Tamil extremists have joined hands with Veerappan."
"We are not writing off these Tamil ultra outfits as impotent groups. A few of them have been active across the state," he says. "Their new hero is Veerappan."
MORE than the extremists, it is the legitimacy that a few political parties have given these groups that is bothering the government. The prominent parties that have demanded a separate homeland are the Pattali Makkal Katchi and Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam.
The PMK and MDMK, headed by Dr S Ramdoss and V Gopalaswamy respectively, are very much part of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's coalition government. What sets apart these two from their alliance partners are their ideological belief in Tamil nationhood, subdued demand for the secession of Tamil Nadu, and the vociferous call for a separate homeland for Sri Lankan Tamils.
PMK leaders in Erode, Salem, Coimbatore and Sathyamangalam today openly support Veerappan and extremist outfits like the TNLA and TNRT. The police point out that some of the TNRA-TNRT members are former PMK members.
"So it is easy for PMK to join hands with these groups covertly," says a senior police official.
The PMK also supports Veerappan and has been demanding amnesty for him.
These days PMK leaders cajole Veerappan's wife Muthulakshmi to contest the state assembly election due next year.
"PMK leaders have approached me. I have told them I cannot stand for election without my husband's permission," says Muthulakshmi. "Then they told me their party wants Veerappan to contest the poll if he comes out and is granted amnesty."
R Arul, president of the PMK's youth wing, is of the opinion that there is nothing wrong in advocating Veerappan's candidature.
"If the Samajwadi Party can field Phoolan Devi, why can't we ask Veerappan to contest?" he asks.
To Arul and his ilk, a separate homeland is only fair. "But we are not for any extremist or revolutionary movement to attain it," he clarifies.
PMK leaders argue that the demand is a fallout of the Dravidian movement that swept Tamil Nadu for decades. But critics say the Dravidian movement was not about secession.
"It was a movement for social liberation rather than secession. The demand for the secession of Tamil Nadu or the whole of South India is an absurd and ridiculous proposition," holds Mani Shankar Aiyar, Congressman and member of Parliament from Tamil Nadu.
The Dravidian movement, according to Aiyar, was about political empowerment. "So people like Ramdoss who demand secession and a new Tamil homeland should be ousted from the coalition government. His party should be de-recognised," he urges.
Tamil Maanila Congress president G K Moopanar, for his part, claims that Veerappan and other Tamil extremists have grown under the shadow of "secessionist leaders like Ramdoss and MDMK president Vaiko".
"Political parties like PMK and MDMK are largely responsible for the growth of extremist outfits," comments Moopanar. "In fact, Veerappan's charter is identical to the booklet that PMK released some time back."
MDMK leader V Gopalaswamy, in the forefront of the secessionists, feels there is no other option but separation.
"It is the persecution of the Tamils in Sri Lanka that is largely responsible for the demand," he said.
Vaiko, said to be close to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam that has been fighting the Sri Lankan government, claims the influx of Sri Lankan refugees to Tamil Nadu has further strengthened the demand for a homeland.
As political parties debate the demand, the resurgent Tamil extremist outfits continue to grow. In fact, such groups have been growing in Tamil Nadu for the last two decades under the LTTE's guidance and training.
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