Of course, Colombo´s writ of sovereignty runs in all parts of the island, at least in legal terms. But the reality is that the writ is under severe threat from sections of the Tamil people, who have been alienated from a united Sri Lankan ethos for quite a while. Discrimination amounting to oppression was what led the Tamils to demand a separate state in the first place, in the beginning through non-violent means, later and till today via a concerted armed struggle.
Eelam is the ancient Tamil name for the island of Sri Lanka. Modern Tamil separatism, however, is confined to the territorially contiguous Tamil-dominated Northern Province (96 percent Tamil) and the Tamil-majority Eastern Province (42 percent Tamils). The Tamil Eelam demand is for a sovereign secular state encompassing both these provinces, which amount to 29 percent of the island´s territory and 62 percent of its coastline.
Interestingly, although speculation about the imminent birth of Tamil Eelam is rife amidst friend and foe of the LTTE alike, the Tigers themselves have given no overt indication about proclaiming a separate state. It is highly unlikely that the LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabakharan would attempt a unilateral declaration of Tamil Eelam at this stage, primarily for three reasons. Firstly, the LTTE has gained ground only in the north and it is yet to expand its control over the east, where the strategic harbour of Trincomalee is situated, The demographic structure of the east, its terranean links to the Sinhala provinces, and the fact that military personnel from the north would be redeployed here, make the prospect of LTTE hegemony over the east somewhat problematic.
Secondly, despite its recent successes in conventional warfare, the LTTE is as yet a guerrilla organisation that has yet to prove its capability of retaining the territory acquired In the final analysis, the boundaries of a state are defined by its military capacity to prevent aggression. Thirdly, the international environment is not conducive for the declaration of an independent state. The Tigers may have accomplished magnificent military feats, but they are yet to achieve much on the geo-political and diplomatic fronts. With no country expressing support for Tamil Eelam, including the two who matter most, India in South Asia and the US internationally, clearly opposing such a division of Sri Lanka, the LTTE realises that the declaration of Eelam at this juncture would be ill-advised and counterproductive.
Three strands in India
In spite of these considerations against Tamil Eelam, the perception that such an independent state is nearly upon us has triggered off a political controversy or monumental proportions within the larger neighbour to the north. The Indian reaction can be summed up in three broad categories. One line of thought is for the birth of Tamil Eelam, and its recognition and support by India. Needless to say, these proponents are openly supportive of the Tamil Tigers. A second school of thought wants New Delhi to intervene diplomatically and help bring about a peaceful settlement, which would not only ensure the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka, but also equal rights and protection for the Tamils. There is some variance of opinion within this rank about the LTTE—some want New Delhi to accommodate the Tigers, others want them excluded. (To recall, India officially proscribed the LTTE as of 14 May 1992, following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi at Sri Perumbudur in Tamil Nadu on 21 May 1991. On 14 May this year, the ban was renewed for a further two years.)
The third strand of Indian thought is profoundly hostile towards the LTTE. While expressing lip service to the concept of equality for the Tamils, the proponents of this viewpoint want India to involve itself unambiguously in the annihilation of the LTTE. Sinhala hawks, too, subscribe to this elimination agenda, but without wanting to help usher in Tamil rights. Those in India who seek New Delhi to go after the LTTE, do so on the grounds that the birth of Tamil Eelam would pose a long-term threat to he unity of India, meaning that it would foster "a movement towards secession in its Tamil Nadu state. The Sinhala hardliners are only too willing to exploit this fear, to urge New Delhi fight the Tigers. The Sinhala chauvinists, if anything, have been historically consistent in pursuing this line, more so now that they find themselves at a dead end after having continuously responded to Tamil grievances and aspirations through the use of repressive force. Knowing the repercussions of a deteriorating ´Sinhala´ army, these elements want India to do its dirty work.
Tamil Nadu is the Indian state closest to Sri Lanka, and is home to 55 million Tamils who share a common heritage with the Sri Lankan Tamils. Thus a sovereign Tamil state in Sri Lanka, goes the argument of so many Indian analysts, would mean the stoking of separatist fires in Tamil Nadu for a Greater Eelam—a strong enough case then for the Indian army to tervene and crush the Tigers. But these vocal armchair warriors are not even aware of the Jaffna environment, as betrayed by statements ike "we must bomb the LTTE positions in the jungles of Jaffna". (Jaffna is not wooded.) It is not entirely a coincidence that most Indian hardliners on this issue are from states other than Tamil Nadu. In fact, they tend to be mostly from North India, far from the killing fields, joined to be sure by a few from the south who are not really enamoured of the LTTE, and seek its end.
The apprehension that the creation of Tamil Eelam would encourage Tamil Nadu to secede and merge into a pan-Tamil state is, if anything, too futuristic. Those Indians who argue for Indian military intervention all tend to accept that the Tamils of Sri Lanka have been victimised for years, and are in need of urgent help. But, most interestingly, their prescription is not a separate state of Tamil Eelam under the LTTE, rather the crushing of the Tamil armed struggle in India´s interests. They ignore the fact that the Tamils live within a united Sri Lanka, not out of their own free will, but out of compulsion.
Before the Sri Lankan Tamils are asked to sacrifice their democratic aspirations on the dubious altar of Indian unity, it would be prudent to examine the validity of the fears expressed about Tamil Nadu´s secession. One can understand the motivations and compulsions of Sinhala hardliners when they stress this aspect, but it is puzzling to find Indian commentators dwelling on this. Such paranoia can only mean that these analysts have neither understood the basis of India´s own unity, nor the transformed nature of Tamil nationalism in India. They also seem oblivious to the strong undercurrents of Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism and its aspirations, as also the differences between Tamil Nadu Tamils and Eelam Tamils. Unlike Pakistan, independent India opted for secularism as its core value—multi-religious, multi-linguistic and multi-ethnic in its dimensions. And despite the tensions and prophesies of doom, India has flourished as a united country. When linguistic problems arose in India, the device of language-based states helped alleviate them. The most vibrant separatist movement to emerge within India was in Tamil Nadu, or Madras as the state was known then. This Dravidian separatist movement was propelled by anti-Brahmin, anti-North Indian notions.
But when China attacked India in 1962, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) led by CN Annadurai demanded that his party be included in the "roll call of honour" to defend India. Subsequently, the DMK also realised that its "Dravida Nadu" cry, while eliciting some support, would have to be abandoned if it were to win the state elections. Besides, the other Dravidian states of Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, remained un-enthused by the Dravidian ideology. The DMK that had 15 seats in the 1957 assembly elections, won 50 in 1962, after it tore down the secessionist plank. Rather than be opposed to it, Tamil nationalism found it easier to assert itself under the aegis of Indian unity.
There were times when the Tamil identity reasserted itself with vehemence, as when the Centre decided to impose Hindi on the state in 1965, triggering a mass agitation headed by the DMK. Two years later, in 1967, the DMK rode the crest of a wave to capture power in the state, and went on to adopt Tamil as the state language, along with English. The state also changed its name from Madras to Tamil Nadu. (Two years ago, Madras city itself underwent a name-change, and is now ´Chennai´.) In recent times, rather than any exclusive Tamil sovereignty, the DMK has been seeking regional autonomy. Moreover, the political parties of Tamil Nadu are now important players at the Centre, with the power to make or mar governments. The current Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance has eight ministers from the state.
Tamil Nadu´s is thus the unique case of a state with a once-flourishing separatist movement having metamorphosed into a powerful votary of national integrity. The state has come a long way from the days when people would immolate themselves for the cause of ´Mother Tamil´. Economically, Tamil Nadu is taking good advantage of being part of India, what with the computer revolution and the opening up of the economy. Indeed, it would seem that the Tamils of Tamil Nadu are quite willing to bask under the Indian sun.
Against this background, there is nothing that can be done with the fear of Tamil Nadu seceding from the Indian state in the wake of an Eelam in Sri Lanka, but to dismiss it. The half-baked assertion by many non-Tamil commentators that the "simple" demonstration effect of Tamil Eelam would incite the Tamil Nadu Tamils to opt for it, is arrogantly puerile and indicates nothing but a misplaced sense of ethnic superiority — by individuals who view Tamilians as "mindless morons" who "thinks with their blood". Neither do these analysts seem to understand that little Tamil Eelam would not be able to entice or absorb Tamil Nadu, numerically and geographically. Moreover, it is hard to imagine the culturally richer Tamil Nadu willing to accept Tamil Eelam leadership when it comes to its own future, much as the head will not be wagged by the tail.
Likewise, neither does it seem likely that if ever Tamil Eelam becomes a reality, those at its helm would seek to promote secessionism in Tamil Nadu. The Sri Lankan Tamils know only too well that any untoward provocation by them would prompt India to move in and perhaps even annex the nascent state to prevent longterm consequences. Besides, the new state will be heavily dependent on India, which will be its ´protector´. The Hindu-Tamil heritage will make Tamil Eelam India´s staunchest ally in the region. After a debilitating armed struggle that has sapped all their resources, the Sri Lankan Tamils, known for their common sense and pragmatism, would hardly opt to waste their energy promoting a separatist struggle in Tamil Nadu against all-powerful India. Also, the Sri Lankan Tamils, numbering at a maximum of about three million, would prefer to retain their identity across the Palk Straits rather than be subsumed within the larger mass of 55 million Indian Tamils. To be realistic, then, while a Tamil Eelam would continue to have cultural, social and economic bonds with Tamil Nadu, a political union does not seem possible.
The evolution and growth of Tamil nationalism in Tamil Nadu and in Sri Lanka have taken different paths and cannot be compared. In Tamil Nadu, it was based on issues of social justice with heavy overtones of casteism. When avenues of redressing them through affirmative discrimination became available, the separatist tendencies were enfeebled. An irony in Tamil Nadu is that the very same elements who protest against ethnic quotas in higher education for Tamils in Sri Lanka, are enthusiastic supporters of caste-based quotas in Tamil Nadu. Also, there was no discrimination against Tamils in India as in the case of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Tamil´s cry for secession developed as a reaction to Sinhala hegemonism.
Furthermore, in spite of linguistic and ethnic affinity, the Sri Lankan Tamils have never subscribed to the Dravidian ideology. Their political development was different, and rooted in the prevailing context within their island. At no point have the Sri Lankan Tamils ever considered a merger with Tamil Nadu or the arger India seriously. A Greece-Cyprus enosis was never on the cards. Another point of interest is that the Sri Lankan plantation Tamils or those of recent Indian origin, have never opted to throw in their lot with the indigenous Sri Lankan Tamils. There is a convergence of interests, but never a total oneness of interest. All these subtle nuances of the ethnic attributes of the Tamil people seem lost on those (of the ´north´) seeking to label all Tamils as being part of one monolithic mindset.
It cannot of course be denied that developments in Sri Lanka would have their impact on Tamil Nadu. The emergence of Tamil Eelam would certainly arouse Tamil pride in the state. This, turn, would fuel some amount of Tamil chauvinism. When the courts vetoed the state government´s efforts to make Tamil the sole medium of instruction in Tamil Nadu, Tamil scholars lamented openly that while "Eelam Tamils were on the verge of establishing a state, Tamil Nadu Tamils could not even get their children educated in Tamil". There are also other Tamil Nadu grievances, such as the refusal of neighbouring Kerala and Karnataka states to share river waters equitably with it; the sustained efforts of Kannadiga chauvinists to prevent the installation of a statue for the great Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar in Bangalore; and the violence perpetrated against Tamils in the border areas of their state by extraneous elements.
These issues of Centre-state relations and inter-state rivalry have caused resentment in recent times, leading many Tamils to question the concept of a united India. However, these are passionate outbursts lacking serious intent. The birth of Tamil Eelam will certainly make the Tamil Nadu Tamils more assertive of their Tamil-ness and may inculcate a militancy in their interaction with others, but it is extremely unlikely that secessionism would be fomented.
There is indeed a secessionist line of thought within the state, but these represent a negligible group of "toothless" separatists excited by the LTTE, and are vicariously releasing their dormant sentiments by supporting the Tigers. Stimulated by Tiger successes, these elements have become emboldened to put out posters and issue pamphlets on behalf of the Tamil cause. Using the supposedly harsh verdicts delivered at the Rajiv Gandhi murder trial as a rallying point, these sections have managed to whip up some extremist opinion.
While not denying that in Tamil Nadu there is indeed a lot of interest and pride over the exploits and successes of the LTTE, one must also keep in mind that there is also another large and powerful segment that is resentful of the LTTE and Tamil Eelam. Developments such as the LTTE fighting against the Indian army, and the killing of Rajiv Gandhi, have to a great extent queered the pitch for the Tigers in Tamil Nadu. There was no major reaction in Tamil Nadu when the exodus of 1995 occurred and the Tigers moved out of Jaffna peninsula.
Another point to consider is that whenever they deemed it appropriate, the powers in New Delhi have created an impression that they are bowing to the dictates of Tamil Nadu, when actually they were doing nothing of that sort. For example, the help provided to the Tamil militants in the pre-1987 period, was a deliberate central government decision, even though it was passed off as an act to assuage Tamil Nadu´s concern. This became obvious when Tamil Nadu found it unable to prevent the IPKF from battling the Tigers just a few years hence. At the present juncture, too, New Delhi´s hands-off policy has only a little to do with Tamil Nadu´s pressure, and more to do with enlightened national selfinterest. This point needs to be understood in Colombo as well, where the Sinhala perception is that Tamil Nadu´s pressure has constrained India from helping it militarily.
A blunder by the LTTE in the early years, perhaps not totally unavoidable, was that it allowed itself to get embroiled in the political undercurrents of Tamil Nadu. The Tigers found the Dravidian separatists and ideologues of great assistance, for they provided money, shelter and propaganda support. A consequence of this was that the Eelam struggle was perceived to be a part of the anti-Brahminism of the Dravidian ideology. But in the Sri Lankan reality, there is a total absence of anti-Brahminism among Tamils. This unfortunate identification of Tamil Eelam nationalists with anti-Brahmin elements in Tamil Nadu only helped alienate the Brahmin elite all over India, and Tamil Nadu in particular. The constant anti-Brahmin venom spouted by LTTE journals overseas made matters more difficult. This estrangement of the. Indian Brahmin elite, the most influential segment of national Indian society, is the biggest handicap faced by the LTTE in wooing India.
Even though Tamil Nadu is arguably insulated against separatist tendencies presently, the ongoing conflict and the Indian government´s acts of omission and commission arouses extreme reactions in Tamil Nadu. Wrong moves by the powers in New Delhi fuel hawkish sentiments in Tamil Nadu at times. A case in point is the symbolic breaking of a TV set by the present Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi to signal his protest against what he called false propaganda by Doordarshan television to malign the Sri Lankan Tamils in 1988. Karunanidhi also refused to welcome the Indian peace-keeping force on its return home after "killing my Tamil brethren", in 1990. More recently, when stories of India supplying arms to Colombo began appearing in the Indian press, Karunanidhi threw a tantrum saying fellow Tamils were going to be hunted down. This, and other developments, indicate that allowing this problem to fester will certainly have some impact, but not serious enough to foment secession.
The anxiety to prevent fragmentation ofstates in the interest of South Asian regional stability, is a legitimate concern. But it has to be remembered that no majoritarian regime can continue to oppress a minority segment on the basis of numerical superiority. Post-colonial tensions within the boundaries of states defined in pre-colonial times can only be resolved through creative new arrangements. If the unity and territorial integrity of states are inviolable, then the structure of those states should, if necessary, be imaginatively modified to accommodate as much internal autonomy as possible. If secessionism is to be prevented the aspirations of a nationality wanting to secede should be realised within the parameters of an associative structure. The nation-state has to be reinvented.
Under these circumstances, the best possible course for India would be to mediate in the Sri Lankan situation to bring about an amicable settlement. That would help douse secessionist tendency in that country, if any. It would also help subdue political passions in Tamil Nadu. New Delhi has already signalled its preparedness for this role. India will step in if requested by Sri Lanka as well as the LTTE. The need of the hour is for India to seize the opportunity if and when it arises.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
The archive: 25 years of Southasia
flickr / The US Army
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