By Rajan Philips –
At the governmental level, the late reactions in Tamil Nadu are cheap street theatre that is right up the alley of the two DMKs. At the Tamil social level, the recent protests are a serious development. While the protests will not bring any direct or immediate benefit to the Sri Lankan Tamils, they are a new front of neighbourly detraction which the Rajapaksa government can ill afford to ignore or dismiss as Western aberration.
The ADMK and the DMK are competing to take ownership of the protests, but the protests could turn on them and take out the ageing, feuding and decadent leaderships of the two Dravidian creations that have outlived their purpose by several decades. That would be a Tamil spring of sorts. Far away, in Akbar’s Delhi the Congress-led government is watching the beginning of its end, drifting from one crisis to another. The beleaguered government’s only success in recent months has been the return of the two Italian marines to stand trial in India for the unfortunate incident in the Arabian sea that led to the killing of two Kerala fishermen.
New Delhi has to take much of the blame for the nasty turn of events in Tamil Nadu and for losing the plot in Sri Lanka. While one may not have expected anything better than competing chauvinistic opportunism from the two DMKs, it is necessary to acknowledge that completing the vicious triangle and contributing to the crisis is the Colombo government. The Rajapaksa government won the long war decisively, but equally decisively it turned its victory into cold peace, to borrow the idea from the title of a new book by a fallen-from-grace former plenipotentiary. The real worry for Sri Lanka is that it may not be just cold peace but lost peace.
The implication of the governments in Colombo, Chennai and New Delhi arises from the Tamil question in Sri Lanka and its implications for Tamil Nadu and New Delhi. The mutual implications did not become a political issue until 1977 and started aggravating after 1983. And the current situation is the result of all three governments coming up short in their respective areas of competence, their incompetence in adjusting to new and changing circumstances, and their failure to work cooperatively in areas of overlapping interests to avoid overstepping into areas where they do not belong on their own.
New Delhi’s ineffective interference
New Delhi has tried to have it both ways in trying to justify its interference in Sri Lanka by holding up its accountability to Tamil Nadu, and to explain its ineffectiveness in Sri Lanka by blaming patriotic Sinhalese intransigence. There is more than a modicum of truth on both scores, but there is nothing to explain or justify Delhi’s wild swings in its Sri Lankan policy. First, it fostered Tamil militant groups and then forsook them. It countermanded Sri Lankan military operations in late 1980s, sent its own troops to contain its creations, and twenty five years later secured international cover for the Sri Lankan government’s final war assault. In between, Delhi engineered in Sri Lanka the infamous 13th Amendment, and after twenty five years the Sri Lankan Defence Secretary would rather have it repealed than let the government implement it.
Until 1977, the government and people of Tamil Nadu were nothing more than concerned neighbours to the goings on in Sri Lanka involving the island’s indigenous Tamils and those of Indian origin. The disenfranchisement and repatriation of the latter and linguistic discrimination that mostly targeted the former did not provoke anything more than editorial comments and criticisms in Tamil Nadu. The 1958 riots produced a sharp reprimand by the great Madras Tamil Brahmin Rajaji (Chakravarty Rajagopalachari, one of India’s foremost intellectuals and independence leaders and its first Head of State after independence) that had a stinging effect at that time on Prime Minister Bandaranaike. Sri Lankan Tamils were never on DMK’s separatist agenda that was abandoned in 1962. The DMK that started governing Tamil Nadu in 1967 showed only a lukewarm interest in the Sri Lankan Tamil question. The first mass protest in Tamil Nadu on account of Sri Lanka was the hartal and rally after the 1977 riots. Nothing has been the same since, either in Sri Lanka or in Tamil Nadu concerning Sri Lanka.
The significant development in Sri Lankan Tamil politics after 1977 was its usurpation by militant groups with the LTTE eventually emerging as the exclusively dominant group. While the genesis of this development was entirely Sri Lankan, its subsequent flourishing had much to do with its receptions in Tamil Nadu and New Delhi even though the nature of the two receptions were quite different. For New Delhi’s mandarins the Sri Lankan Tamil groups were ideal guinea pigs for regional super power explorations. It was different in Tamil Nadu. Naturally, the state provided a culturally congenial camping ground to the militants, but they could not have survived beyond a week without clearance from Delhi and Chennai. There was also the unique phenomenon of MG Ramachandran (MGR), who had taken to politics on his popularity as an actor but was quite clueless about his formal duties as Chief Minister. The LTTE’s project gave Ramachandran a real life opportunity to experience the heroism of his movies. It was a deadly confluence of different motivations and circumstances – the militant groups were serious about their goal, but the Indians were in it for the ride and power.
Such a confluence would not have been possible in the decades soon after independence when political propriety and respect for territorial inviolability were paramount. New Delhi’s regional adventurism would have been unthinkable when Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister. And Tamil militants who hobnobbed with MGR would not have obtained even an audience with Chief Ministers of the calibre of Rajaji, Kamaraj or Bhaktavatsalam of the Congress, or DMK’s Annadurai, and even Karunanidhi who in his first stint as Chief Minister was highly respected for his administrative abilities. It needed the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi to drive home the curse of machinating politics and to end the tiger honeymoon in Tamil Nadu. Equally, it took the scale of the Sri Lankan government’s final assault against the LTTE to reignite support in Tamil Nadu for the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
Rising discontent in Tamil Nadu
After the war, as the accredited interface between the Rajapaksa government and the international community, New Delhi managed to displease the former and disappoint the latter. Rather than facilitating goodwill and harnessing efforts to embark on a political solution in Sri Lanka, New Delhi is playing second fiddle in Geneva, in the UNHRC orchestra that now delivers an annual report card on Sri Lanka. New Delhi’s failure has dragged the Tamil Nadu government into unchartered waters and turned the two principal Tamil Nadu leaders Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi into public spectacles. They are out of their depths in asking Delhi to bring about a UN Security Council resolution against the Sri Lankan government. But Jayalalithaa is true to form in banning Sri Lankan cricketers from playing in Chennai, betraying the same intolerant deadly streak that she had previously demonstrated in regard to religious conversion from Hinduism to Buddhism.
But there is more to the developments in Tamil Nadu vis-à-vis Sri Lanka than the antics of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. As I noted at the outset, the social angst in Tamil Nadu is a serious development which is also unprecedented. Although over the top, the poetic outrage of Tamil Nadu’s Meena Kandasamy is symptomatic of the changing mood in Tamil Nadu. Admittedly, the angst and agitations in Tamil Nadu by themselves cannot bring about any change in Sri Lanka for better or for worse. On the other hand, they could be counterproductive in Sri Lanka, where the Defence Secretary did not lose any time in ratcheting up the rhetoric that the new developments in Tamil Nadu are the final argument in favour of repealing 13A rather than implementing it.
At the same time, the governments in Delhi and Colombo can ill afford to ignore the rising discontent in Tamil Nadu if Delhi wants regional peace and if the Sri Lankan government does not want to permanently kill the prospects for genuine and equitable peace in Sri Lanka among all her citizens. The trouble with the Rajapaksa government is its assumption that national sovereignty gives it the right to do anything it wants with its citizens either individually or collectively – be they Sinhalese who do not agree with the government, or Sri Lankans who are not Sinhalese. This may have been possible thirty years ago but not any longer when the Sri Lankan government like every other government is under a global scan, national sovereignty notwithstanding.
After independence, successive governments did what they wanted to do and got away with them. To wit, the violent suppression of worker protests, disenfranchisement of the Tamil plantation workers, internal colonization that altered ethnic electoral mapping, the chicanery of nationalizing and reprivatizing lands while looking after the private interests of those in power, the enactment of one language as the only official language and conferring on one religion the foremost place, the banishment of European and Indian Catholic nuns from national hospitals, the state takeover of schools as nationalization and media-wise standardization of examination scores, the violent suppression of the 1971 youth insurrection and politicization of the judicial process to punish political offenders which ultimately victimized the country’s and the world’s first female Prime Minister … the long list goes on.
The point is also that even though governments were able to execute these measures, every one of them became a matter of permanent political contention. The end of the war put an end to a particular manifestation of many of those contentions but it did not address their enduring substance. They remain to be addressed notwithstanding the war victory. Instead, the government is asking the rest of the world to forget the war and let the country move on, while keeping the country permanently hoisted to the memory of the war victory to keep its support base, and to the machinery of the war to perform day to day government functions. One cannot suck and blow at the same time.