Big Brother’s conundrum
The string of victories claimed by the Sri Lankan armed forces in recent weeks against the LTTE has paradoxically left the Indian government smug and worried at the same time. Smug at the prospect of their bête noire Velupillai Prabhakaran and his ‘boys’ finally being vanquished, but worried about the impact that the overrunning of the LTTE could have on the political scenario in Tamil Nadu, with general elections in India just a few months away.
It was thus a sensitive mission for Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon as he visited Colombo on 15 January to discuss what was officially pitched as “various issues of bilateral interest” with President Mahinda Rajapakse. Arriving just 6 days after the capture of the strategic Elephant Pass in the Jaffna Peninsula by the Sri Lanka Army, Menon was in the capital to support the Sri Lankan government’s war efforts, while also expressing worries about the worsening condition of displaced Tamil civilians in the conflict zone. In a clear public-relations exercise, Menon handed over a token consignment of medicine to senior presidential advisor and Member of Parliament Basil Rajapakse, as part of the humanitarian assistance by India to the people stranded in the northern conflict area. Over 500,000 Tamil civilians are now believed to have been displaced due to the last few months of fighting in the north, where, barring the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), all other independent observers and human-rights organisations have been denied access.
According to diplomatic sources in New Delhi, one of the issues that Menon discussed with President Rajapakse was the fate of Prabhakaran. Though he is wanted in India for his role in the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian government understandably would prefer him not to be either captured or killed in the run-up to the next general elections, slated for around April 2009. Such an eventuality would be potentially explosive among Tamils in India. Recent reports from Sri Lanka, though unconfirmed, suggest that Prabhakaran may have already left the country by sea for an unknown destination, fleeing from the last stronghold of Mahumalai, where the Tigers at the time of writing were holed up and awaiting the army’s final assault. If this proves true, it would certainly be convenient for nearly everyone involved, as it is thought that the Sri Lankan government too would prefer an evacuation by Prabhakaran.
In India, the past several months has seen almost the entire spectrum of political and civil society in Tamil Nadu gripped by demands for an end to the war in Sri Lanka, with vocal demands for Indian intervention of some kind. While this demand was initially raised last October by smaller political groups in the state, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government of M Karunanidhi subsequently raised the stakes by threatening to withdraw support for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in Delhi over the issue, putting the stability of the government at the Centre into question. A diplomatic statement of concern about the fate of Tamil civilians, human-rights violations and so on was issued by New Delhi to placate its allies in Madras, and the matter subsided somewhat.
In recent weeks, however, with the fall of one LTTE stronghold after another in the Jaffna Peninsula, political emotions on the issue of atrocities against Sri Lankan Tamils have heated up again. With an eye on the next general election, the ruling DMK government has stepped up its rhetoric once more, and asked External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee to hold talks with the Colombo government to “stop the genocide”. In addition, groups such as the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) of S Ramadoss, an erstwhile ally of the DMK, have organised street protests, while Thol Thirumavalavan, leader of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (Dalit Panthers) went on a ‘fast-unto-death’ in mid-January, sending his party cadre into an emotional frenzy. He termed the visit to Colombo by Menon “a drama”, and demanded direct intervention by New Delhi to end attacks on Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka.
More radical Tamil nationalist groups have also joined the fray. The Tamil Desiya Iyakkam (Tamil National Front) led by Pazha Nedumaran, for instance, has lambasted both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi for their “failure” to honour the sentiments of the people of Tamil Nadu on the issue of Sri Lankan Tamils. “They are only engaging in lip service in order to satisfy the Sinhalese regime in the island nation, and their attitude shows that they have never taken the issue of ethnic Tamils seriously,” Nedumaran said. On the occasion of Prime Minister Singh’s visit to Madras on 8 January, more than 750 members of the Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam (PDK) and other Tamil outfits, under the banner of the Tamileela Viduthalai Adharavalar Orunginaippu Kuzhu (United Front of Supporters of Tamil Eelam), demonstrated in the city, despite a ban on public protests. They also made a showing of black flags to protest what they called New Delhi’s step-motherly treatment of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
While such posturing by political groups in Tamil Nadu on the Sri Lankan conflict is not new, the recent demonstrations have involved a much wider cross-section of the populace, ranging from Tamil movie stars and producers to software engineers and housewives. “There is a growing feeling among the ordinary people of the state that New Delhi is either completely ignorant, indifferent or even hostile to the interests of the Sri Lankan Tamils,” says V Anand, an IT professional in Madras actively involved in raising awareness about the plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamils.
Over the decades, the varying history of patronage, manipulation, interference and incompetent handling of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka by successive Indian governments has only strengthened suspicions in Tamil Nadu about New Delhi’s intentions. The fact is, during the early 1970s, New Delhi blatantly armed, financed and sheltered various Tamil militant groups; when things got out of control the following decade, it sent in troops to ham-handedly pacify them. During the 1990s, following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE, India cracked down hard on all Tamil nationalist groups – both home-grown and foreign – that were operating on its soil.
Dissent from within: Pazha Nedumaran at a protest in Madras, 13 December 2008
In recent years, New Delhi seems to have largely washed its hands of the Sri Lankan issue. But there remains widespread belief in Tamil Nadu that the Indian government, while keeping a low profile, is in fact secretly helping Colombo in its attempts to crush the Tamil resistance. The Tamil nationalists in Sri Lanka have been quite unhappy that India has provided training facilities to Sri Lanka Army officials in Dehradun and elsewhere. India is also said to have helped Sri Lankan forces build radar installations, and the word is they have even been manned by Indian military personnel.
Allegations of even more significant military involvement also abound. “Indian intelligence agencies like the Research and Analysis Wing were involved in the breaking away of the eastern faction of the LTTE under Colonel ‘Karuna’, by paying huge sums of money,” says Dhyanchand Carr, a longtime observer of the Sri Lankan conflict based in Madurai but who has spent considerable time in the Jaffna Peninsula doing relief work among displaced Tamils. The defection of the Karuna faction to the Sri Lankan government side in March 2004 dealt a severe blow to the LTTE, and is one of the reasons attributed for the organisation’s weakening and subsequent military losses.
Observers also point to the growing Indian business interests in Sri Lanka in recent years as an indication that there are also economic reasons for New Delhi’s covert support for the Colombo regime against the Tigers. Apart from being Sri Lanka’s main source of imports for a variety of commodities, Indian investments in the automobile and tourism industries has been significant, with big players such as Ashok Leyland, Tata Motors and Bajaj Auto having set up shop on the island.
Given the ups and downs experienced by the Tamil Tigers in their nearly three decades of war with the Sri Lankan government, their total defeat at this point is by no means certain. If it does happen, however, and if that defeat is seen as something achieved with the help of the Indian government, then New Delhi will be far from rejoicing. Rather, it will be bracing for trouble to brew on its own soil. There exists a real danger that the defeat of the LTTE, instead of subduing militancy, could actually help it to cross the Palk Strait into Tamil Nadu.
Apart from the compulsions of competitive electoral politics in the state, there also exist real Tamil nationalist sentiments in India within a small but growing section of the population.
To begin with, the DMK, though in and out of power over the past three decades, has a consistent record of supporting the southern Tamil nationalist cause, given its own roots in the movements from the 1940s and 1950s, when it championed the Tamil language and Dravidian ideology. Over the years, notably after its government was dismissed in 1991 for allegedly giving the LTTE a free run in Tamil Nadu, the DMK has been careful to keep its support at the level of rhetoric, while suppressing extremist movements on the ground when in power. Though the main opposition in the state, the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK) led by former Chief Minister Jayalalitha, is supportive of the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka, it is strongly opposed to the LTTE and has called for the arrest of all those supporting the Tigers in Tamil Nadu. Jayalalitha seems to harbour personal enmity against the LTTE, probably due to a suspected assassination plot against her during the 1990s, which has been blamed on the group.
Among the newly added champions of the LTTE has been the Tamil Nadu unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is fervently attempting to establish a toehold in the state. The Tamil Nadu BJP has called for a lifting of the ban on the LTTE in India, which has been in place since 1992. The LTTE too, in its desperation for support in India, is believed to be wooing the BJP, even projecting itself as a ‘Hindu’ force in Sri Lanka fighting the ‘Buddhist’ Sinhala majority. Some MPs with the Tamil National Alliance, the largest Tamil bloc in the Sri Lankan Parliament, have been travelling around India in recent months meeting with Hindu rightwing leaders, seeking their support and highlighting damage that has been done to Hindu temples in the Jaffna Peninsula during the recent offensive by government troops. Two leading Hindu groups in India – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) – have already declared their support to ‘Hindu Tamils’ in Sri Lanka.
Among the major left parties, the Communist Party of India (CPI) has been more supportive of the Tamil militant movement in Sri Lanka than its larger counterpart, the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The latter’s position is closer to that of the Congress party. In mid-January, D Pandian, the secretary of the CPI in Tamil Nadu, was quoted by the Tamil media as saying, “No one can fight for a cause for a period of 30 years without the support of the people. Therefore, one cannot dismiss the LTTE away as mere terrorists.”
The LTTE also has the support of far-left groups in Tamil Nadu. Many of these have long advocated for armed revolution, and see in the LTTE a role model of sorts because of its prowess in guerrilla warfare. The People’s War Group, now called the CPI (Maoist), had links with the LTTE during the 1980s and 1990s for procuring arms and training in improvised explosive devices. Other far-left factions have also taken up the Tamil nationalist cause with enthusiasm and, though small in number, could play a significant role if the Sri Lankan Tamil cause finds greater support in Tamil Nadu. While a crackdown against such groups followed the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, there are still diehard members spread across various organisations in Tamil Nadu.
In general, support for the LTTE in Tamil Nadu is widely justified as being the only alternative before the island’s Tamil population in their long fight for democratic rights and an independent homeland. The periodic sectarian riots against Tamils, colonisation of Tamil land by Sinhalese farmers, restrictions on Tamils from getting into higher education and jobs, the imposition of Sinhala as the only official language, and the lack of representation of Tamils in the police and military – these are often referred as examples of the oppressive conditions facing the Tamil population in Sri Lanka. Needless to say, the piggybacking on the grievances of Sri Lankan Tamils to stoke Tamil chauvinist sentiments with an eye on electoral gains is bound to backfire on Tamil Nadu’s mainstream political parties. And New Delhi’s attempts to run with the Tamil hare and hunt with the Sinhalese hounds will only make matters worse, as it would be seen as being insincere in trying to find a just solution to the long-running Sri Lankan conflict.
~ Satya Sivaraman is a writer, journalist and video filmmaker based in New Delhi.