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The Rediff Interview/MDMK leader Vaiko
'Sri Lankan Tamils want a separate nation'
November 27, 2006
Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Vaiko is known for two things -- his penchant for switching alliances on the eve of elections and his fearless support to the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Vaiko -- V Gopalaswamy Naidu -- was born in 1944 in Kallingapatti village of Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu. He is an agriculturalist turned lawyer who got interested in politics.
His fiery speeches attracted crowds and his unflinching support for the Tamils in Sri Lanka against the perceived onslaught of Sinhalese culture has made him popular in the state.
He entered the Rajya Sabha in 1978 and has been member of the Upper House for three terms. He has also been elected to the Lok Sabha twice. In Parliament whenever he stands up to speak, he attracts attention with his straight talk and sometimes emotional speeches.
Always attired in a black stole, he says, 'till social justice is achieved for the exploited classes', he will keep wearing it.
Vaiko is criticised as a hawk by some experts for raising his pitch whenever the Sri Lankan government pushes the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on the back foot. Many experts believe that Vaiko's politics hardly leave space for Indian diplomacy to manoeuvre the Sri Lankan peace process to India's benefit.
That Vaiko does not think so is clear from the first part of his interview with rediff.com's Managing Editor Sheela Bhatt.
How do you read the situation in Sri Lanka today? What are the factors behind the current escalation in violence?
You will have to go back to the root of the problem. Ever since the British left the island in 1948, Sinhalese started treating Tamils as second rate citizens. They were denied basic legal rights. The first act of discrimination came immediately after independence when they disfranchised one million Tamils.
In the 1950s Tamils fought for minimum rights. Their demonstrations were met with state violence. In 1956, the Sri Lankan government brought the Sinhala Only Act (which declared Sinhala to be the only official language) and Tamilians were relegated to second position. They introduced the standardisation theory. That insisted that a Tamil child should have 60 per cent marks while for Sinhalese children, 35 per cent was enough to get admissions in colleges. More or less, it was like Apartheid in South Africa. In the 1960s they started decimating symbols of cultural identity of the Tamils. In 1957 and 1965 the Sri Lankan government entered into two agreements with Tamils. S J V Chelavanayakam represented the Tamils and Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike was from the government side. In 1957, before the ink could dry the agreement was thrown into the dustbin by Bhandarnaike.
Again in 1965, the Tamils were cheated and the agreement was not implemented.
In 1970s, a brutal crackdown took place, Tamil women were raped, temples were demolished and extra-judicial killings and detentions became the order of the day. The Tamil youth realised that unless they fight they won't get the basic rights. The armed struggle of Tamil youth is the contribution of the Sinhala government's racist attitude.
But times have changed, so why not look forward?
To understand that we have to look at the history of the island country. The island had two nations, Sinhala and Tamil. Both had separate kingdoms before the Dutch came. Before 1947 also they never lived together. In 1970s Tamils realised that they will always second rate citizens. They wanted a sovereign independent Eelam. Sinhalese leaders refused any kind of sovereign rights and asked Tamils to live within the territory as one country. Then, Chelavanayakam, the great Sri Lankan Tamil leader challenged the government during the Parliament election. He said, "I will go to the people to raise the plank for a separate Tamil Eelam. If Tamils want to live within the territory they will vote against me."
In the elections, around 90 per cent voters were with Chelavanayakam. It was the referendum which proved that Tamils want a separate Eelam. Along with 14 Tamil MPs, Chelavanayakam went to Parliament and brought a resolution for a separate Tamil Eelam. Then, changes took place swiftly. In 1976, on the historic day May 14, Chelavanayakam convened all Tamil groups under one banner in Vaddukoddai. The famous declaration of Eelam was drafted and adopted by the Tamil United Liberation Front. It's a beautiful resolution. After the declaration, when the election came in 1977, the TULF on the plank of a separate Eelam contested and won all the seats in Tamil majority areas. Sri Lankans Tamils wants a separate country. Why do Americans and Indians try to preach Tamils of Sri Lanka? Who are they? People will decide if they want to separate or not. Czechoslovakia took the decision over the table and decided to separate. In East Timor, a referendum was conducted. Bangladesh was carved out with the military help of India. Tamils of Sri Lanka want a separate nation why should America or India dictate?
Montenegro could become independent when 52 per cent voted for a separate country.
Here 99 per cent of Tamils want a separate Eelam. Even now, under the supervision of United Nations let a referendum take place.
But is the LTTE and its violence defensible?
In mid-seventies, the New Tigers -- that's the original name of LTTE -- was started by Velupillai Pirabhakaran. As the LTTE grew, in 1981 the Sri Lankan government unleashed a reign of terror. The great Jaffna library was burnt down. Many precious Tamil books were burnt and lost. I must mention that then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi was alert and was against allowing the Americans to enter the island for strategic reasons. India was aware that American eyes were focused on Trincomalee port. It's a natural harbour and some consider it more important than Diego Garcia. It's important for the Americans. Indira Gandhi didn't want Americans to enter Sri Lanka. She helped Tamil groups. The Indian Army trained the Tamils on behest of Indira Gandhi. In those days I was very close to the Tamil groups. Even the LTTE was given training. Not only in south India, even in five places in north India training was given.
In 1983, the Welikade massacre took place inside a prison in which 56 Tamils inmates were killed in cold blood. Then in the same year there were terrible anti-Tamils riots.
That shook the entire Tamil Nadu. It reached a boiling point. The then Tmail Nadu Chief Minister M G Ramachandran said everybody should wear black shirts to protest. I also took up a fast to protest the atrocities. All leaders came to support us. On August 14, 1983, I ended my fast on the request of some national leaders. On August 16, Indira Gandhi said in a speech in the Rajya Sabha said that what is happening in the island is genocide of Tamils.
In 1984, Indira Gandhi's last speech in the Rajya Sabha was in response to my calling attention motion. In my speech, I told her, 'you have created Bangladesh, you protected the Bengalis. Now, you have to save the Tamils. You create Tamil Eelam and you will be worshipped for the generations to come!' That was my most emotional speech. To that, she replied, 'I share his concerns. Tamils are the original inhabitants of the North and East of the island.' These are her words that the Tamils are the original inhabitants. The second wave of Tamil immigrants came during the British period when they were taken as labour. Those Tamils were of Indian origin but the first category were original inhabitants.
After the speech, I went to Mrs Gandhi. I thanked her and said, "Madam, we are grateful to you for your kind observations. You can create Tamil Eelam as you created Bangladesh."
She said, "How can it be? Tamils are scattered in other parts like plantations and in the south. They will get killed if any military action is taken."
I told her, "Madam, you could have a blueprint, you could evolve a strategy of creating Tamil Eelam and as well as protecting Tamil workers. The strategy can be worked out."
As we were talking, other ministers came closer so I stopped. Then, she said, "You have to co-operate with me, instead of getting excited over the issue."
After two days the House was adjourned. And, in October 1984, she was assassinated.
It was the biggest tragedy for the Tamils. They lost a saviour. When she died, every house in Jaffna hoisted a black flag. They undertook a procession to express condolence and were fired upon by the Sri Lankan security forces. They asked the Tamils in Sinhalese, 'Will your mother come and rescue you?'
Indira Gandhi had a vision. During the 1983 riots, she deputed senior people to get a first hand account. Then foreign minister P V Narsimha Rao and senior diplomat G Parthsarthi, who had cabinet rank, went to Colombo. Rao made a statement in both Houses on his visit to Sri Lanka. Indira Gandhi knew the issue but when new prime minister Rajiv Gandhi came, a new set of bureaucrats too came in and they totally misread the situation to him.
Don't miss the second part of the interview tomorrow
The Rediff Interviews