The Rediff Special/George Iype
IT is the Palk Strait the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is interested in this year.
The narrowest passage of seawater between Dhanushkodi, in Tamil Nadu, and Talaimannar, off the Jaffna peninsula, is easily covered by boat or helicopter. The distance is only 32 kilometres.
And it is precisely this that has inspired the LTTE's interest -- or so it claims.
For the uninitiated, the Tamil guerrilla group fighting for a separate homeland within Sri Lanka is planning a fresh round of peace talks with the new United National Party-led government there, headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
And the venue for it? Well, the LTTE would like it in one of the south Indian cities: Chennai, Bangalore or Thiruvananthapuram.
The request has flummoxed the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government and divided political opinion in Tamil Nadu.
The reason the LTTE gives is: Its ideologue and chief negotiator, Anton Balasingham is an ailing 63-year-old. If Balasingham is based in one of the south Indian cities, it would easy for him to travel to the Vanni jungles to consult LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran during the peace talks.
The request, put in through Norwegian interlocutors, also wants New Delhi to provide medical care and protection to Balasingham, and a helicopter for him to move around.
But can the Vajpayee government permit the talks on Indian soil? Political observers say 'no'.
"It would be like opening up Tamil Nadu to the LTTE, which is famous for setting up training camps in the state," said K Ambazhagan, an expert on Sri Lanka in Chennai. "It could revive dormant militant activities among the Lankan Tamils in the refugee camps across the state."
There are some 200,000 refugees in the 129 camps across Tamil Nadu. Also, there are scores of Tamil militants languishing in its jails.
Since the ethnic war broke out in Sri Lanka in 1983, many Lankans have crossed the Palk Strait for refuge in Tamil Nadu. They all look upon Prabhakaran as a hero.
"The refugees are now very frustrated people. If a south Indian city hosts the talks, it would encourage them to come out in open supporting the LTTE," says S C Chandrahasan, president of the Organisation for Eelam Refugee Rehabilitation, the biggest voluntary group working among the refugees.
Chandrahasan gives other reasons for the LTTE request. "They are eager to regain their legitimacy in India," he says. "Also, it wants to ensure that India's involvement in the negotiations with Sri Lankan government becomes inevitable."
Many believe any Indian involvement in such a dialogue could turn out to be disastrous. In the past three decades, India intervened directly in Sri Lanka twice.
In 1971, it helped crush a Marxist rebellion in the island nation. And in 1987, then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi sent in the Indian Peacekeeping Force against the Tigers -- a move that killed over 1,000 Indian soldiers and led to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE in 1991.
Some bureaucrats and politicians, too, read more into the request. They say it is spurred mainly by the wholehearted support the guerrilla outfit gets from some of the political parties that are allies of Vajpayee's National Democratic Alliance coalition government.
LTTE sympathisers in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA include the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam headed by M Karunanidhi and Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam led by Dr V Gopalaswamy. Another Tamil party, the Pattali Makkal Katchi, headed by Dr S Ramdoss, who used to be in the Vajpayee coalition, also supports the cause.
Since the LTTE request, Dr Ramdoss has been carrying out a spirited campaign in its favour. "There is no reason why India should deny the peace talks in Chennai or any other city," he says. "It is the ideal venue considering the fact that India and Tamil Nadu are eager to resolve the sufferings of Tamils in Sri Lanka."
Dr Ramdoss, who attracted attention when his party raised pro-LTTE rallies after a suicide squad killed Rajiv Gandhi, adds it is time India corrected its Sri Lankan policy.
Dr Gopalaswamy, alias Vaiko, agrees. "India should permit the Tigers to hold talks in Chennai. That is the best diplomatic gesture the Vajpayee government can provide to Sri Lanka and the LTTE," says Vaiko, who is considered close to the prime minister.
But the Tamil Nadu government, ruled by the All-India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam of J Jayalalitha, is incensed at the thought.
"We will not allow any LTTE leader to enter any part of Tamil Nadu, leave alone Chennai," AIADMK Member of Parliament K Malaiswamy fumes.
According to Malaiswamy, it was the AIADMK government that rooted out the LTTE from Tamil Nadu during Jayalalitha's rule between 1991-1996.
Bureaucrats too say India cannot afford any truck with the LTTE at this juncture because it is a banned terrorist outfit under the new Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance.
Moreover, when these days the Vajpayee government is engaged in an anti-terrorist campaign against Pakistan, it just cannot roll out the red carpet to the LTTE, an international terrorist outfit, they say.
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