Originally Published 2011-09-24 00:00:00 Published on Sep 24, 2011
The revival of caste and community-based issues in Tamil Nadu (like in Paramakudi and Koodamkulam), the non-resolution of inter-State river water disputes and Sri Lanka-related concerns could added up to the problems of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa.
Pan-Tamil politics on the boil again?
Two episodes in as many weeks and the traditionally backward southern Tamil Nadu is restive all over again. The police firing on Dalit protestors that claimed six lives in caste sensitive Paramakudi, followed by the mass-protest against the Kudamkulam atomic power project, where the Roman Catholic Church in three southern-most districts took the lead, were pointers to the nebulous nature of the socio-political circumstances and the law and order situation in what has always remained a sensitive region for long. Coupled with these are the unresolved 'Mullaperiyar row' with neighbouring Kerala and the unending Cauvery water dispute involving Karnataka, not to forget the fishermen's row and the ethnic issue relating to neighbouring Sri Lanka, and the picture is still only taking shape. For, in between, there was this little publicised 'class row' involving traditional fishermen and boat owners on the one hand, and the boat owners and their paid fishers on the other, all of which meant that there was greater cause for concern than already.

Clearly, the protest against the Kudamkulam plant involved a larger issue and wider participation. Yet, the fact that the protests have been revived after a decade or so, when the first unit of the plant is ready to be commissioned in months' time has not gone unnoticed. The protests had been there when the project was conceived and early work was on at the plant site. They were allowed to die a natural death, but have since been revived, with the blessings and open participation of the Church on both the occasions. The latter's concerns are a little more than its concern for the lives and livelihood of its parish members. There are others leading parallel but converging movements whose religious identities have not come in the way. Given the subterranean forces that are work across the State just now, there is always the danger of the protests being given a ethnic/chauvinist turn before long, and questions are asked if the lives of Tamil villagers around Kudamkulam were so cheap for the Centre to risk them. For now, however, the visit of MDMK leader Vaiko and DMDK founder Vijaykanth to the protest site, and the external support offered by the likes of PMK's Ramadoss and 'Naam Tamizhar' party chief Seeman, have stayed short of espousing such a line.

The 'rationale' is not far to seek. With the Kerala Government deciding to go ahead with its proposals on the Mullaperiyar dam and Karnataka not 'doing justice' to Tamil Nadu on the Cauvery front, despite clear-cut directions from the Supreme Court, pan-Tamil groups in the State have been trying to re-introduce the traditional North-South divide plank. The latter had been pushed to the background after the one-time separatist party in the DMK mainstreamed itself in the Sixties and acquired elected, democratic power in 1967. This has since been followed by the two Dravidian majors, namely, the DMK and the AIADMK, and peripheral pan-Tamil parties like the MDMK and the PMK, participating in power-sharing arrangements at the Centre, since 1989, and at times dictating terms to the major partners in the ruling combine. The present-generation pan-Tamil groups in the State and their leaders have been seeking to tell the people that those parties has had only a personal or political agenda, and did not use their partnership at the Centre, to promote the cause of the State in any which way.

This argument is being extended to include the higher judiciary in the country, where it is often argued that their hauling up of individual political leaders from Tamil Nadu in corruption cases did not tantamount to protecting the legitimate interests and of the State, its interests and population on broad-spectrum disputes of an inter-State nature. The same is said of the Centre even more vociferously, as the Cauvery water dispute and the Mullaperiyar dam row remains to be on the agenda book without early disposal, as indicated by the Supreme Court years ago. Unacknowledged by most, such a line is getting increasing currency at the individual's level with each passing day, the message at times driven home by the NRI members in the Gulf and elsewhere, of whom almost every family/village in Tamil Nadu has at least a few. Suffice is to point out that it was this influence that was among the deciding factors in Elections-2011, when Tamils overseas felt ashamed by the scale of the media expose involving ruling DMK party and its leaders in the State. This has since acquired the potential to be expanded to cover even larger issues like the larger 'Tamil cause', for which the Sri Lankan ethnic cause provides the much-needed anchor.

It is in this background that the State has a greater and more serious concerns about the turn of events involving the Sri Lankan Tamil cause and the course that it has been travelling since the conclusion of the ethnic war in the island-nation over two years ago. Somewhere along the line, the State's political class has been able to dovetail the separate fishermen's row involving Tamil Nadu fishermen and the Sri Lankan State/fishers with the ethnic issue, violence and war in that country. In power, successive Governments have found it an unrewarding experience but once out of power neither of the two 'Dravidian majors' want to retain that dividing line. Over time, if the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka were to return to old ways of drift and rift, leading to violence and militancy, insurgency if not terrorism, Tamil Nadu would have become the unwilling yet unavoidable fulcrum of many such activities. Unlike in the past, when Tamil militancy took its roots in Sri Lanka in the Seventies, Tamil Nadu's population would have taken strong positions, that support possibly to be rocked only by the same getting directed at the Indian State or the Tamil Nadu rulers, for reasons justified or not-so-justified. Yet, the peripheral group could have attained the kind of momentum to go 'auto'.

Tamil Nadu is in an unenviable position. The economy is booming, there is a greater and larger interest in the overseas investor to embrace the State more than in the past. Over the past decade, the State has been able to make an image-redo, from an agriculture economy to industrial/service economy, but the facts are still otherwise. This means that a large section of the population is still dependent on rain and irrigation, for which there are natural and man-made constraints. The former is in the form of poor and unpredictable rains in most years. The latter is attributed to disputes like Cauvery water row and Mullaperiyar controversy. Issues emanating from Sri Lanka and involving the island-nation only add to the ethnic angle even more. There is also the larger Tamil population of Indian origin in countries as far as South Africa and as near as Malaysia, who feel cheated by their 'mother land' after the British colonial ruler had bundled them off to far-off lands as indenture labour. In the 'IT era', when the Tamil settlers in those host nations have also acquired certain political identity and financial muscle, the chickens may come home to roost. If the Sri Lankan Tamil cause could be the focus and provide the lead, Tamil Nadu, and through it the Indian State, could be the target. What shape and turn it could take in the coming years and decades may be too early to predict.

In a State where the northern districts have traditionally provided foot-soldiers for all non-religious militant causes, the loss of credibility of political leadership, though based on divided caste identities, is bad enough. Such loss of credibility, if only over time, has been amply demonstrated by the results in successive elections. This in turn could now cause the emergence of 'faceless leaders', projecting issues and concerns of a peripheral or empirical nature. The State system, which has always been on a fire-fighting mode, is not trained and equipped to decipher and address before it became too late. That pot is already on the boil, though on low fire. The revival of caste and larger community-based issues like in Paramakudi and Koodamkulam, both in the South and after about a decade, and the non-resolution of inter-State river water disputes, and Sri Lanka-related concerns could be added problems for the new Government of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa that has been in office for about four months now. Yet, these are also not issues that could be resolved through judicial probes (Paramakudi) or Cabinet resolutions (Koodamkualam) or Assembly resolutions (Sri Lanka-related issues). Such moves either amount to passing on the responsibilities or putting off a solution to another day. They all require a closer and a more look - where time cannot wait.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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