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Home > India > News > Columnists > M R Venkatesh

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Why New Delhi fiddles when Lanka burns

February 02, 2009

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He died for Sri Lankan Tamils

When I was in high school, the then Tamil Nadu government used to shut educational institutions for a few days as a mark of protest against the genocide in Sri Lanka [Images]. Closing down schools and colleges was supposed to be our 'strategy' of dealing with the Lankan government; our version of 'shock and awe'.

This practice continued even when I was in college. Decades later now my children are in school and as I write this piece, I understand, that the state government is contemplating closure of educational institutions on the Lankan issue. After all, habits die hard.

In the interregnum the state has been witness to several bandhs, strikes and hartals. In fact, at the last count, there has been more bandhs in Tamil Nadu for the Sri Lankan Tamils rather than for the Tamils in TN!

Needless to emphasise, the Sri Lankan Tamil issue has more or less occupied the electoral centrestage since the early eighties when the ethnic crisis erupted in that country. So has it been a part of mainstream Tamil cinema since then. Naturally it has come to occupy the collective psyche of the people of the state.

It may be noted TN is a state where political parties have grounded their appeal on the basis of regional, racial, ethnic, language and of course a separate identity. In fact, certain political parties had taken things so far as to appeal for cessation from India. But that was in the fifties.

It took the sagacious leadership of late Annadurai in the early sixties for the then unified Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam to give up this call. In fact, after the Chinese aggression in the early sixties, the DMK gave up this call and pledged to work for the unity and integrity of India. This remarkable political aboutturn ensured that the DMK (and the breakaway groups) emerged as a potent political force in Tamil Nadu for the next five decades.

Nevertheless, even to this date certain radical groups in TN dream on and are reportedly working for a separate country for Tamils. And for this group a separate Eelam for Tamils in Sri Lanka is the first step in achieving a separate country for Tamils, which would include parts of Tamil Nadu and possibly other countries too!

Therefore, even to this date, for some the Tamil problem in Sri Lanka was meant to be an acid test to these political parties on proving their allegiance to the "cause of Tamils" -- never mind what it actually meant. After all, as someone brilliantly put it, if it is jo bole so nihal in Punjab, it is jo hyperbole so nihal in Tamil Nadu.  

The root of the civil war 

The Sri Lankan constitution (unlike the Indian constitution which guarantees equality to all its citizens) positively discriminates against the minority Tamil population of the island country. This is at the heart of the decades-old ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

Disagreements between the two dominant communities -- the Sinhalese and Tamils -- can be traced to the then PM Bandaranaike's declaration of the "Sinhala Only Act". This language policy is at the root of the present-day conflict and dates back to the independence of Sri Lanka in 1948. Confrontational policies adopted by both sides since then have actually pushed the country to a precipice.

This diffused situation was ripe for several armed groups to emerge and fight for their rights. One of the groups to emerge was the deadly Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. By the mid-eighties this group had virtually eliminated other major Tamil groups and emerged as the sole representative of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

This is where the plot goes awry. As a consequence of this development, many representatives of the Tamil groups ended up working with the Sri Lankan government or simply denounced violence and joined mainstream politics. Either way most of them remain opposed to LTTE's [Images] vision of an independent state.

Nevertheless, the LTTE was seen as a saviour of the Tamil race at least by some in TN. So did some in the Tamil film industry, which over the years has developed a cosy relationship with the LTTE, just as Bollywood has done with the Mumbai [Images] underworld. Crucially, that blurred the distinction between the LTTE and Sri Lankan Tamils.

Using nationalistic sentiment and pandering to Sinhalese demands, successive Sri Lankan governments have been directly and indirectly party to pogroms on Tamils. Caught between a marauding Sri Lankan army on one hand and a merciless LTTE on the other, it was a losing battle for Sri Lankan Tamils right through.

As a tragic consequence of all these, several innocent Tamils were killed there and many more fled the Sinhalese-majority areas, some into neighbouring India. This in short, is the sad, pathetic story of the Sri Lankan Tamils.

W(h)ither Rajiv's vision?

This was in 1987. This continuous flow of refugees from Sri Lanka pitchforked the Indian government into the conflict. It was the visionary leadership of Rajiv Gandhi [Images] who saw the emergence of India as a regional power and thereby sought to play a proactive, positive and decisive role in putting an end to this vexatious issue. The airdropping of food and medicine in June 1987 was a case in point -- India flexed its regional muscle.

This in turn led ultimately to the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord [Images] in July 1987 between Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President Jayewardene. Under this accord, the Lankan government made a number of concessions subject to certain conditions to Tamil demands, including devolution of power to the provinces, a merger of Northern and Eastern provinces and official status for the Tamil language.

India in turn agreed to play a guarantor's role by establishing order in the North and East through a peacekeeping force (IPKF). Militant groups including the LTTE, agreed initially to surrender. Later on the LTTE reneged on its commitment as its realised that the IPKF was in effect a deterrent to its plan of an independent Eelam.

While Sri Lanka brilliantly used the IPKF to settle other internal uprisings within, the IPKF would in the next two years became an unwanted force for the LTTE, Sri Lankan government and of course the Sinhalese majority. But it may be rather captivating for the reader to note that the IPKF was equally the villain of the piece in India -- for some political parties in India as well as our human rights groups.

And in the process, the IPKF, in the absence of role clarity as well as political direction suffered heavy causalities. In the withdrawal of IPKF, the vision of Rajiv of India playing the role of a regional power withered. Crucially, when the IPKF withdrew, the Sri Lankan Tamils lost. 

Politics makes strange bedfellows indeed

It may be recalled that the DMK (which consistently had a soft corner for the LTTE), which was an integral part of the V P Singh-led National Front government, engineered the withdrawal of the IPKF in 1990. Subsequently, the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 fearing that if he was re-elected he would send the IPKF back to Lanka.

Since then, the Congress party held the DMK guilty of having a hand in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. In fact, by 1997, the Congress toppled the I K Gujral-led United Front government precisely on the point that the interim report of the Jain Commission that was probing into the conspiracy angle indicted the DMK.

Mysteriously, the final report was silent on the involvement of the DMK in Rajiv's assassination. Why did the commission indict the DMK in its interim report and keep silent in the final report is one of the most intriguing aspects of Indian politics. 

But more was to follow. In the next six years, that is by 2003, both the Congress and DMK forgot all this and came together to fight the elections and form the UPA government. Further, in an ironical twist, the DMK depends heavily on Congress for support to sustain its government at the state.

Either way, it is amusing to note that both the Congress and DMK travelling together on the same LTTE boat for over five years. Much as it was political expediency that brought these two parties together, convergence this long on this vexatious issue has raised the eyebrows of many political pundits in Tamil Nadu.

One is indeed flummoxed to note that the DMK that repeatedly used to swear to protect Sri Lankan Tamils has been remarkably silent on the liquidation of the LTTE as well as the attendant genocide in Sri Lanka. Therefore, the empty threat of the DMK to pull out of the UPA government has been the butt of much ridicule in TN.

The Congress knows that most of the other Dravidian parties in the UPA are hot air. Perhaps the Congress, notably the wily old fox of Indian politics Pranab Mukherjee [Images], is fully aware of their addiction to power. Like the LTTE, these parties are least bothered about Tamils in Lanka (or India), except of course the hyperbole. 

That explains why local politicians who thundered repeatedly to give their life for the LTTE and Tamil cause have not been able to give up even their government post and the perks associated with it. No wonder, cadres will commit suicide, and leaders will continue to deliver elegy in chaste Tamil.

No wonder Sri Lanka burns, Delhi [Images] deliberately fiddles. That is the power of the unspoken words of the final report of the Jain Commission. 

M R Venkatesh is a Chennai-based chartered accountant. Comments can be sent to mrv@mrv.net.in


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