Originally Published 2011-06-30 00:00:00 Published on Jun 30, 2011
With two resolutions in as many days relating to neighbouring Sri Lanka, both moved by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, the Tamil Nadu Assembly has revived complex pan-Tamil issues nearer home, with consequences flowing from across the world.
TN Assembly resolutions and strengthening pan-Tamil perspectives
With two resolutions in as many days, and both relating to neighbouring Sri Lanka, the Tamil Nadu Assembly has unwittingly sought to introduce elements that were absent so far in the bilateral relations. More importantly, the two, moved by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa as private members resolutions, have triggered a chain reaction, reviving in the process complex pan-Tamil issues nearer home, with consequences flowing from across the world.

Considered by some as a fall-out of alliance competition than compulsions, the first resolution related to the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka. The resolution called upon the Centre to work towards bringing to book those charged with 'war crimes' in the aftermath of the ethnic war. It also called for rehabilitation of the Tamil IDPs, a just political solution to the ethnic issue, and sanctions against Sri Lanka, in the process. The resolution was more in tune with western initiatives and at variance from the known thinking of New Delhi.

The second resolution called upon the State Revenue Department to implead itself in a Supreme Court petition moved by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, when in the Opposition, relating to alleged procedural lapses in the handing over Kachchativu islet to Sri Lanka, as part of the international maritime boundary line (IMBL) agreement signed by the two countries in the mid-Sixties. The resolution, as also the court case, is closely linked to fishing by Tamil Nadu fishermen in Sri Lankan waters. The fishing issue has larger and long-standing implications for bilateral relations than possibly the ethnic issue, whose solution lies in Sri Lanka.

"Whatever be the resolutions that were passed in the Assembly," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,  in an interaction with select newspaper Editors subsequently, said that he found the Chief Minister "fully conscious of the complexities and the realities of managing this (bilateral) relationship." "I raised this matter with her the very first time. What she asked of me was moderate," the Prime Minister said, obviously referring to Jayalalithaa calling on him after assuming office as Chief Minister for a third term, and the State Assembly had passed the two resolutions. "Our challenge is to keep the Tamil Nadu Government on our side," he said.

Though scheduled in advance, the periodic visit of the Indian troika, comprising National Security Advisor (NSA) Shivshankar Menon, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and Defence Secretary Pradeep Kumar, was preceded by the NSA calling on Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. That was after the State Assembly had passed the two Sri Lanka-linked resolutions. As coincidence would have it, the troika's Colombo visit was followed by the Chief Minister calling on the Prime Minister, which again was to have been expected after Jayalalithaa had returned to power. Yet, the coincidences were given a political meaning in some circles in India, and at times in Sri Lanka, too.

Governor's address

The two Assembly resolutions came within a week of Governor Surjit Singh Barnala's customary address to the inaugural session of the post-poll Assembly. It confined reference to the rehabilitation issue, and stressed the fact that more needed to be done. There was no reference to other aspects of the ethnic issue, or to Kachchativu.

Leading the electoral alliance led by her AIADMK, Jayalalithaa had touched upon the 'Sri Lankan issue' and the fishermen's problems at various points while traversing the State. The exit of the MDMK and the absence of the PMK and the VCK in the AIADMK-led alliance had meant that the combine did not take extreme positions on such ticklish issues. The mood of the CPI partner in the matter often got cancelled out by the presence of the CPM, which had distinct views on the subjects concerned.

The two resolutions have thrown up many questions. The one on the ethnic issue referred to sanctions against Sri Lanka. It did not raise the question - and, hence did not have to answer it - if sanctions would ease the miseries of the Tamil population in Sri Lanka, particularly in the war-ravaged North, or would worsen it. After having got the Assembly to pass the resolution, which also referred to 'war crimes' in strong terms, Jayalalithaa in her meeting with Prime Minister Singh asked for a delegation of Tamil Nadu legislators visiting Sri Lanka to study the ground situation for themselves. The contradiction in the approach was striking.

The Kachchativu resolution, it is believed, was aimed at ameliorating the situation of the Tamil Nadu fishermen, who have often complained about harassment by Sri Lanka Navy (SLN), for violating the territorial waters. If the idea behind the resolution was to pressure the Sri Lankan Government, it could produce only opposite results. Using the Kachchativu cause to impress upon the Centre, the need to persuade Sri Lanka on the issue too cannot be expected to serve the purpose. Nor does Kachachativu solve the woes of the Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu, whose issues are more complex, and oftentimes self-inflicted.

Return of pan-Tamil idioms

The weeks after the Assembly resolutions have witnessed an increase in the activities - and local media reportage - of pan-Tamil groups identified with the 'Sri Lanka Tamil cause' in general and the LTTE otherwise, in Tamil Nadu. Saturated already with an over-dose of Sri Lankan Tamil information and propaganda, the Tamil media has been emboldened in the light of the Assembly resolutions, to report details of pan-Tamil political activities and speeches with increasing regularity.  Traditional sections of the pan-Tamil local media that had fought shy in the past seems to have changed their approach now.

Already in the race are pulp magazines and other news publications for an increasing share of 'Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora' readership for their web editions. They had often been joined by sections of the Tamil filmdom, which now has a larger global viewership in overseas screening, in the Diaspora. Unlike in the past, and as is applicable to the larger Hindi-viewing Indian Diaspora but for different reasons, the Tamil filmdom has commenced simultaneous overseas release of new films along with the limited Indian/Tamil Nadu release. The cash-box is tinkling, yes, but there had also been reported incidents of film-makers wanting their stars to protest in favour of the suffering Tamils in Sri Lanka when the latter were reluctant. In the weeks after the Assembly resolutions, a group of Tamil film actors, both men and women, called on the Chief Minister, outlining an action plan to stage an industry protest in the matter. The venue could either be Chennai or Delhi, newspapers quoted them as saying.

Pan-Tamil issues and their reach

Unlike understood, there are different streams of pan-Tamil issues dominating the discourse in the State. The ethnic war did not influence the electoral pattern in Tamil Nadu in 2009, when MDMK leader Vaiko lost his parliamentary campaign. The ruling Congress-DMK combine at the Centre and the DMK Government in the State had taken a lot of flak from pan-Tamil elements, nearer home and afar. That did not influence the election results even at the height of 'Eelam War IV' in Sri Lanka. The continuing consternation of the average Indian to the Rajiv Gandhi assassination was a cause. So was the ability of the Centre and the State and also the respective leaderships to keep the 'ethnic war' from the electoral discourse.

Today, the presence of a large number of educated Tamil Diaspora from India, working in the midst of their Sri Lankan Tamil brethren overseas, have had a perceived 'taste' of Sri Lanka without LTTE. Their limited knowledge of, and acquaintance with the ground realities in Sri Lanka, where the Tamil polity as divided even more, has not helped matters. Their constant IT-era communication with family members back home and their say on matters external, derived also from the traditional South Asian dependence on the earning member(s) is a complex factor that needs to be studied and understood.

Prior to the conclusion of the ethnic war and the exit of Prabhakaran, sections of the Indian-origin Tamils across the world had fallen for the LTTE charm. For long, individual elements in the South African Tamil community had been involved in LTTE's gun-procurement and smuggling operations. 'Eelam War-IV' saw larger numbers congregating in city centres in South Africa, Malaysia and elsewhere, in support of the LTTE, and the larger Tamil cause. A pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Member of Sri Lankan Parliament, Eezhavendan, went on an indefinite fast in a South African town. He drew a substantial crowd of Indian-origin Tamil sympathisers.

The consternation of the IOTs at 'mother India' that had not done anything for them even after Independence was/is palpable. In turn, their support for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause also had a contemporary element of anti-India posturing, which emanated from their disconnect with the polity and society in native Tamil Nadu. While the IT era had thrown up connectivity, they do not have anyone in India to connect to. Neither did/do have anyone in Sri Lanka from the local community of 'Indian-origin Tamils' or Upcountry Tamils. In the past, such connectivity might have mobilised the IOTs across the world to fight their Sri Lankan counterparts' battle against Statelessness and disenfranchisement since the late Forties. Ready identification with their ethnic identity thus became immediate identification with the cause of the 'Sri Lankan Tamils' in Sri Lanka. In their calculations, as also those of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora, Tamil Nadu with its 80-million Tamil population, should remain the fulcrum, to be commissioned at the appropriate and more favourable times.

Rivers of Tamil Nadu's worries

In the immediate context of Tamil Nadu, the continuing river water disputes with all three neighbouring States -- Cauvery water dispute with Karnataka, the Mullaperiyar dam-height row with Kerala and the more recent Paalar river dispute with Andhra Pradesh -- have at times come to acquire an ethnic interpretation in Tamil Nadu.  All three issues relate to the denial of irrigation water for Tamil Nadu farmers, respectively in the South and Central, interior South and the North, and thus have a wide geographical spread within the State. In the case of Karnakata and Kerala, the respective State Governments have failed to honour the rulings of the Supreme Court, and the consequent inability of the Centre to protect the 'legitimate interest of Tamil Nadu' is seen as the inherent impossibility instituted into the Indian State scheme.

Sections in Tamil Nadu also see all this as anti-Tamil in character. Considering that at the time of Independence and Constitution-making, and even subsequently, 'separatist tendencies' had remained in the Tamil-speaking areas of the then Madras Presidency, later christened as 'Part-A Madras State', the present-day predilection of the Union in matters of water-sharing involving Tamil Nadu and its neighbours get a historic and political twist in the State. It needs to be recalled that slain brigand Veerappan had flagged pan-Tamil demands for freeing Kannada matinee icon Rajkumar from captivity. That was in the late Nineties. Known pan-Tamil militants were in his company at the time, had had guided the negotiation processes, it was said.

Running parallel to the domestic issues and inter-mingling with them from time to time are larger issues of pan-Tamil concerns, particularly the 'Sri Lankan issue', war and violence. Over the years, the victimised Tamil community in Sri Lanka has struck an emotional tie-up with sections within Tamil Nadu, owing mainly to the 'umbilical cord' connection, attributable to the geo-historic past. The more immediate contributing factor involved the continuance of the ethnic violence and war in Sri Lanka over decades, and their consequent impact on the psyche of sections in the State. Likewise, the protests by People of Indian Origin (PIOs) in Malaysia in the latter half of the last decade, coinciding with 'Eelam War-IV' in Sri Lanka, under the HINDRAF banner, had a strong pan-Tamil presence and essence to it. At one stage, the Sri Lankan Government even dubbed the pro-labour, pro-democratic movement in Malaysia as an LTTE operation. The host Government, for its own reasons, readily acknowledged it as such.

The mainstreaming of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) through the democratic, electoral process under the constitutional scheme, and its consequent assumption of political power in 1967 was a water-shed not only in the contemporary history of India. It was more so in relation to the contemporary pan-Tamil history of the times, where the DMK had advocated 'separatism' for full 15 years after Independence. The democratic process had fully absorbed the 'separatist' past of the DMK, and the breakaway AIADMK, since birth in 1972, has been projecting itself as a 'nationalist' force. That cannot be said about the MDMK, the second major breakaway party carved out of the DMK, but most pan-Tamil groups that are seen and heard today have an independent, and apolitical birth, wedded to a pan-Tamil ideology, sympathising with the cause of the Sri Lankan Tamils and supporting the LTTE, even after military elimination of the one-time terror outfit with a conventional fighting power.

There is nothing to suggest as yet that the pan-Tamil political movement, however strong in its criticism of the Centre, and also the (erstwhile) State Government of then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi has taken anti-national initiatives. Nor are their indications about anti-national militancy creeping into the creed. Yet, considering some of the recent events across the Tamil-speaking areas in the country, there is an urgent need for keeping the protests as peaceful, democratic, and pan-national in the larger Indian context. Unexplained and at times unresolved incidents involving attempts to derail trains in various parts of the State over the past couple of years have not flagged as much concern in Government circles as they should have. In a more recent incident in Tamil-speaking Union Territory of Puducherry, a woman suffered grievous injuries after opening what turned out to be a 'parcel bomb' received purportedly through a courier agency.

Most attempts to derail trains are attributed to some mischief-makers, whose motives are not linked to pan-Tamil ideology in anyway. The 'parcel bomb' incident was attributed to family disputes. Yet, the fact remains that in a State where emotions run deep, the tendency to derail trains - historically seen as a symbol of the Indian State in general and the Centre in particular - and easy availability of explosive material and the technology to make parcel bombs out of them, sends out a weird signal. The authorities need to be alive to the scope for abuse. After all, if the 'virtual world' of 'Trans-national government of Tamil Eelam', floated after the conclusion of the ethnic war in Sri Lanka and the exit of the LTTE, has to have a re-birth, it needs a territory. It cannot but be in the North and/or East of Sri Lanka. What better place to re-launch a movement in this regard and inevitably involving insurgency in the place of LTTE-driven terrorist methods, than Tamil Nadu - and in the process? What better way then, to keep the pot boiling in Sri Lanka than increasing the heat in neighbouring Tamil Nadu?

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

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.