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July 17, 2000


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E-Mail this story to a friend G Parthasarthy

Tamil Nadu and the Sri Lankan crisis

It was a warm and sunny morning in October 1987 when I first met the ailing MGR at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where he was convalescing and preparing to return to Chennai. It was an odd mission for a foreign service official to undertake. Rajiv Gandhi directed me at the Commonwealth summit in Vancouver to proceed to Baltimore and brief MGR in detail about the circumstances leading to the IPKF operations against the LTTE. The chief minister had been notably silent about the IPKF clampdown and there were emerging signs that political opposition was being aroused in Tamil Nadu to the IPKF mission.

MGR listened patiently to my explanation. He made two salient points. Firstly, that he felt that the Government of India had been overgenerous in giving the LTTE a rather overbearing role in the proposed Interim Administrative Council. He felt the EPRLF deserved a larger representation. Secondly, that I should tell the prime minister he would support him in whatever action the prime minister deemed necessary in the national interest in Sri Lanka. He added that he had no doubt that the prime minister would do whatever was in the best interests of the Tamils. While MGR kept his word and the otherwise pro-LTTE elements in the state administration were directed to fall in line, his political compulsions were such that he did not personally ever attack the LTTE.

The July 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Accord conferred substantial rights to the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. Such extensive devolution of powers had not been envisaged in earlier accords like the Bandarnaike-Chelvanyakan Pact or the Annexure C Plan of 1983. The Union government made a concerted effort in Tamil Nadu to explain how the legitimate rights of the Sri Lankan Tamils had been addressed and guaranteed under the accord. The extensive devolution of powers to the provincial assembly and the chief minister and the place of honour given to the Tamil language were highlighted.

People in Tamil Nadu also understood that the continuing ethnic conflict was undermining the country's national security interests because of the growing involvement of outside powers. There was also a widespread acknowledgement in Tamil Nadu that after having agreed to abide by the accord in a speech in Sudumalai, Prabhakaran had sought to undermine it, primarily because of his aversion to participating in democratic elections. His inclination has always been to seek absolute power through the bullet rather than the ballot.

The IPKF's operations in Sri Lanka became a non-issue within a few months. During a prolonged campaign in 1988-89 for elections to the state assembly, no public sympathy was manifested for the LTTE. No political leader espoused the cause of the LTTE during the election campaign. The resounding victory of Karunanidhi and the DMK in these elections was achieved largely because of his superb organisational skills and his image as an extremely capable administrator, best suited to give the people of the state a responsive administration. A few months later, in November 1989, the Congress-AIADMK alliance swept the polls in Tamil Nadu in the parliamentary election, even as the IPKF continued its operations to disarm the LTTE and persuade it to return to the path of democratic politics.

These events need to be recapitulated primarily because no government in New Delhi can evolve and conduct policies towards the Sri Lankan ethnic crisis without taking public opinion in Tamil Nadu into account. But at the same time, New Delhi will go wrong if it erroneously believes that posturing by a few political activists extolling the LTTE in any way represents mainstream public opinion in Tamil Nadu.

There are sections of Tamil youth not only in Tamil Nadu, but even in countries like Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore that take pride in the phenomenal courage of the young cadres of the LTTE. But actions of the LTTE like its role in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and in eliminating eminent Sri Lankan Tamil leaders like Amrithalingam, Sivasithambaran, Neelan Tiruchelvam and even Prabhakaran's own deputy and his most brilliant field commander Mahatya, have produced both revulsion and apprehension in Tamil Nadu about the gun culture and intolerance of Velupillai Prabhakaran.

There is therefore a need now more than ever, to draw a clear distinction in the minds of people in Tamil Nadu between our championing of the legitimate aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils on the one hand and the personal interests of the paranoiac and indeed psychopathic Prabhakaran on the other.

It would be a mistake to presume that the interests of all Tamils in Sri Lanka and elsewhere necessarily coincide. The Tamils in Jaffna show a degree of disdain and even contempt for the interests of the 'Plantation Tamils' in southern Sri Lanka. The 'Plantation Tamils' as they are known, have their own political leaders, who realise their future lies in Sri Lanka developing into a healthy, pluralistic and tolerant society. They fear the disruptive and secessionist role of the LTTE and its frequent resort to violence, as they would be amongst the first targets of a Sinhala backlash.

The interests of the southern Tamils would be best served with remunerative prices and open markets for their tea and other plantation crops. Yet, Tamil Nadu was one of the states that raised objections and demanded quota restrictions on the import of Sri Lankan tea when the Indo-Sri Lanka free trade agreement was being negotiated. Any chief minister of Tamil Nadu naturally has to safeguard the interests of the tea estate workers in the Nilgiris rather than their Tamil compatriots in southern Sri Lanka.

President Kumaratunga has now joined hands with opposition UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe in finalising proposals for the devolution of power to the Tamils. It is only natural that on issues like the unit of devolution and land there will be need for further discussions to address Tamil concerns and aspirations. But it should be made clear to the LTTE that a refusal to end violence and negotiate on the basis of these proposals will lead to its further isolation. Mr Jaswant Singh has very deftly dealt with recent developments even as he has made it clear that there can be no compromise on the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.

While India does not have the same security concerns as it did in the Cold War days about the role of external powers in Sri Lanka, it cannot afford to be sanguine about the increasing military involvement of powers like Pakistan and China in the Island. If the LTTE remains recalcitrant, we will have to supplement the assistance already announced by Mr Jaswant Singh with more active support to the Sri Lankan government. The naval blockade of LTTE maritime supply routes should be tightened and the aerial reconnaissance assets of the IAF made available to the Sri Lankan armed forces. Finally, we should honour the commitment we made at the highest level in 1987 and discard our present inhibitions on military training and arms supplies to Sri Lanka.

India naturally has an interest in the travails and tribulations of the long-suffering people of Jaffna. An effort should be to draw a clear distinction between our interest in their welfare and our distaste for the terrorist and fascist ways of the LTTE. The time has come to arrange, in consultation with the Sri Lankan government, for relief supplies of food, medicines and other essential items to be provided by us to the people of Jaffna through Kankesanthurai and Palaly. This, more than anything else, will warm the hearts of people in Tamil Nadu and create pressures on the LTTE for a mutually acceptable political settlement to the ethnic crisis in a friendly neighbour.

G Parthasarathy

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