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Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu: Trampling each other's toes

July 10, 2012 14:01 IST

If the two Dravidian parties up the rhetoric it increases the risk of Tamil Nadu becoming a safe haven for Tamil extremism with serious implications for national security. As these developments affect Sri Lanka's internal security, it would kindle legitimate concerns in Colombo, says Colonel (retd) R Hariharan.

Sri Lanka air force personnel who had completed part of their technical training at Air Force Station, Tambaram, Chennai, were taken off the course and sent to Bangalore after Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa raised a hue and cry over their presence in Tamil Nadu. The irrepressible chief minister will no doubt count this as a small victory in her ongoing political confrontation with her bete noir M Karunanidhi of the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham, a favoured partner of the ruling coalition in New Delhi.

This is not the first time the Tamil Nadu chief minister has used the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka to settle scores with the Congress and DMK. (Knowing the mood in Tamil Nadu, I don't know why ministry of defence continues to get entangled in avoidable controversies over such an issue repeatedly.)  Nor it is going to be the last time because the Sri Lanka Tamil issue which was on the sidelines of Tamil Nadu politics has now been brought to centre-stage. With political patronage it is taking strong anti-Sri Lanka overtones.

Since the Eeelam War IV ended in 2009 coinciding with the parliamentary poll, Jayalalithaa has used its adverse fall out on Sri Lankan Tamils as one of the important issues to boost her political space in shaping national affairs -- she wants to have a say in shaping India's Sri Lanka policy although it is in New Delhi's domain. She has demonstrated it in her other actions also: proposing P A Sangma as a candidate in the presidential poll and protesting against the increasing erosion of state's powers by the centre by objecting to the creation of the National Counter Terrorism Centre. By such actions she probably hopes to influence government formation in New Delhi if an opportunity arises after the 2014 parliamentary poll.     

There are four issues in her Sri Lanka agenda on which she wants New Delhi to act: holding of a referendum for creation of Tamil Eelam, international action against Sri Lanka army personnel and political leaders for alleged war crimes against Tamils, pressurise Sri Lanka for a political solution to bring equity to Tamils, and impose economic embargo on Sri Lanka till it complies.

These issues reflect the concerns of the people of Tamil Nadu at the cavalier way Sri Lanka had been handling Tamil affairs in the post-war period. New Delhi's reticence even to discuss these issues in public domain has added to the suspicion that its acts of omission are partly to blame for the plight of Tamils. While diplomacy requires confidentiality, the public has a right to know the government policy with certain amount of clarity.

So these concerns have found widespread sympathy regardless of Jayalalithaa's motives in projecting them. As they have a political relevance, their potential to shape future course of India-Sri Lanka relations should not be under estimated. Equally true is the possibility of some of her demands resulting in Eelam Tamil separatist aspirations spilling over in Tamil Nadu with detrimental impact on India's cordial relations with Sri Lanka.

As these issues fall in the domain of external affairs, New Delhi is responsible for acting upon them. Obviously, New Delhi is faced with Hobson's choice in acting upon her demands as Tamil Eelam issue is not the only ingredient in India's multi-faceted relationship with Colombo. So perhaps New Delhi is trying to nuance its actions to achieve a balance in its approach to various issues.

Although the Centre had over a period of time clarified its stand on most of the issues Jayalalithaa had raised, the overall picture lacks clarity.  By its reluctance to take public into confidence New Delhi has given the impression that the issues she has raised are not serious. The Centre should have confidence in its Sri Lanka policy.

India stands for a united Sri Lanka. It is opposed to the creation of independent Tamil Eelam. So it is necessary for New Delhi to unambiguously clarify its stand to the Tamil Nadu chief minister on this issue. On issues like war crimes, Indian stand is largely based upon international reaction at the UN forums. Probably greater consultation with the state government, periodically addressing Tamils concern in its Sri Lanka policy statements and greater transparency in its reasoning would clear the air.

But the way India has gone about it so far has left everyone, including the Sri Lankans, unhappy. The Centre would do well to work out a game plan on how to handle Colombo as well as Chennai so that its policy is brought to bear upon the concerns of Tamil Nadu while respecting Sri Lanka's concerns on revival of Tamil separatist demand.

Of course, as democratic governments are subject to electoral fortunes there is always fear among political parties in clarifying their stand on various issues. However, imparting clarity on its actions would probably prevent further loss of electoral support for Congress party in Tamil Nadu. In any case it is likely to continue to retain the loyalty of about 12 percent voters who form its core strength. Similarly, the DMK is also likely to retain its core support. So it will be a risk worth taking if both the parties are really concerned about satisfying the concerns of Tamils.

Thanks to Sri Lanka's clumsy and indifferent handling of Tamil concerns in the post war period as well as public concern about war crimes allegations, pro-LTTE elements among the Tamil Diaspora have been given a lease of life to revive the Tamil Eelam struggle. Notable among them is the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam formed by the LTTE's overseas representative Kumaran Pathmanathan in the last days of LTTE. Its objective is to struggle for creating independent Tamil Eelam, ostensibly by democratic means. Led by Visvanathan Rudrakumaran, a US based legal advisor of the LTTE, as 'prime minister,' the TGTE has offices in 12 countries.  

They have made common cause with other Tamil Diaspora groups like the Global Tamil Forum to get the Sri Lankan army war crimes investigated by international tribunal. Their recent successes in preventing President Mahinda Rajapaksa from addressing meetings in UK during his visits have emboldened them to come together on such occasions.

A joint statement issued by the GTF and the TGTE on the occasion of the "Mullivaikkal Remembrance Day" on May 19, 2012 is of special interest to India. They said both the organisations have agreed upon several areas of joint action. The GTF "intends to liaise with other Diaspora Tamil organisations and representatives of Tamil speaking people in Sri Lanka in its efforts to build similar forms of shared understanding." The TGTE for its part "is engaged in building a power base among the world Tamil community, particularly in Tamil Nadu, and with sections of the international civil society."

The TGTE has already shown keen interest in furthering its linkages in Tamil Nadu. In April 2012 the TGTE nominated five persons from Tamil Nadu as "members" of TGTE "parliament." A TGTE Solidarity Centre with Professor Saraswathi Rajendran, a TGTE parliament member as convener, operates in Tamil Nadu.

In a bid to recoup DMK after its assembly poll rout, Karunanidhi has brushed up his Eelam card for political play. He has announced the revival of the defunct Tamil Eelam Supporters Orgranisation organisation formed in 1986 to pursue the Tamil Eelam agenda. Along with Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi and the Pattali Makkal Katchi, the DMK leader proposes to organise a conference of TESO on August 5 at Villupuram with participation from Tamil Diaspora members.

As India's Sri Lanka policy has a larger strategic context, revival of Tamil Eelam issue by both the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu in tandem with Tamil Diaspora efforts, should be a matter of concern not only for Sri Lanka but India as well. The support of Tamil Nadu leaders to Tamil Eelam might only be limited to political rhetoric at present. However, their support legitimises the separatist cause and provides political space to pro-LTTE fringe parties in Tamil Nadu that deify V Prabhakaran.

If the DMK fully activates TESO, its link up with TGTE would be firmed up. This increases the risk of Tamil Nadu becoming a safe haven for Tamil extremism with serious implications for national security. As these developments affect Sri Lanka's internal security, it would kindle legitimate concerns in Colombo. It would become a foil in the hands of anti-India lobbies in Sri Lanka and strengthen Sinhala chauvinism.

Thus both the Dravidian parties need to understand the issues on a broader perspective and control their rhetoric on Tamil Eelam in their slanging matches. The Centre and Tamil Nadu government have no option but to sit together and carefully evolve a cogent approach to separate the issue of concern for Tamils in Sri Lanka from the Tamil Eelam issue.

For such an initiative to succeed both India and Sri Lanka will have to address each other's concerns expeditiously and show some results. Otherwise, the already bruised relations between the two countries would be damaged further. Moreover, Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu will continue to trample upon each other's toes further vitiating the atmosphere, without any benefit to hapless Tamils affected by the war.

Colonel (retd) R Hariharan, a retired military intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90. He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. He blogs here.

 

Colonel (retd) R Hariharan