Eelam demand: Tamil Nadu leaders are playing with fire

by Mar 28, 2013

Politics in Tamil Nadu is sliding fast down the slippery slope of competitive Tamil sub-nationalism. The resolution passed by the Tamil Nadu Assembly on Wednesday, demanding that India move a resolution in the UN Security Council for a referendum for a separate Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka, is the result of a dangerous game of political one-upmanship among the Opposition DMK and the ruling AIADMK - and smaller fringe groups that feed off a fanatical Tamil identity. It has the capacity to recoil on the Sri Lanka Tamils, who find that their genuine demand for political devolution within the Sri Lankan Constitution has been hijacked by diaspora politics and the short-sighted political games being played in Tamil Nadu.

Moving the resolution in the Tamil Nadu Assembly, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa called for a referendum among Tamils living in Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. The Assembly adopted the resolution unanimously through a voice vote. In addition, the resolution demanded, among other things, that the Centre impose an economic embargo on Sri Lanka until the "suppression" of Tamils was stopped and those responsible for "genocide and war crimes" faced an international investigation.

The fact that it was Jayalalithaa who moved the resolution for a Tamil Eelam referendum says much about the distance that she has traversed across the spectrum of Sri Lankan Tamil politics in recent years, evidently in order to stay one step ahead of the DMK, which withdrew its support to the UPA government on just this issue. This is the same woman who, when the Sri Lankan Army's war against the LTTE was at its peak in 2009 (and there were reports of large-scale civilian casualties), remarked that civilian deaths was an inevitable consequence in a war (more here).

Tamil Nadu politicians are ratcheting up ethno-linguistic passions. Reuters

Tamil Nadu politicians are ratcheting up ethno-linguistic passions. Reuters

The demand for a referendum on Eelam - visualised as a separate Tamil homeland for Sri Lankan Tamils - represents a dangerous ratcheting up of the rhetoric in the context of the recent vote at the United Nations Human Rights Commission on a resolution demanding a credible investigation by the Sri Lanka government into the deaths of civilians in the tail end of the decades-long war.

What started off as a genuine demand for rehabilitation of Sri Lankan Tamils, and a measure of political devolution for them, in the face of the intransigence of the Sinhala chauvinist Sri Lankan government has rapidly spiralled into the open parade of ethno-linguistic sub-nationalism in Tamil Nadu, with little or no concern any more for the genuine interests of the Sri Lankan Tamils. In that sense, competitive Tamil politics  within Tamil Nadu has become a perpetual motion machine that operates independent of the felt needs of Sri Lankan Tamils today.

It is a matter of supreme irony that the moderate voices of Sri Lanka Tamils have been drowned out by all this inflammatory rhetoric from within Tamil Nadu - in the same way that the moderate leaders of the Sri Lankan Tamil cause were snuffed out in the 1980s and the 1990s by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

As Sankaran Krishna, a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii notes (here), it would be naive on the part of Sri Lankan Tamils to repose faith in parties like the DMK and the AIADMK, which are merely competing to "out-Thamizh" each other.

The demand for a sovereign and independent Tamil Eelam, as Tamil historian Dr AR Venkatachalapathy points out (here), emerged only in the 1970s, and its apparent overlap with the Dravidian movement within Tamil Nadu was exploited by Tamil nationalist fringe groups in Tamil Nadu. "Over the last couple of decades," notes Venkatachalapathy, "these groups have used Sri Lanka to champion a proxy Tamil nationalism which has certainly not helped the Sri Lankan Tamil people and might have positively harmed their interests."

The Eelam demand, he observes, has given a handle to forces inimical to Sri Lankan Tamil interests to depict the entire struggle and the support for it from Tamil Nadu as anti-national in character.

As this writer has argued earlier (here), Sinhala chauvinism - manifest in the repeated denial of the legitimate demands of the Sri Lankan Tamils and validated by a succession of agreeements - holds the island-nation a captive to history. It is a story of "broken promises, linguistic chauvinism, mutual distrust - and all-round treachery." And it is the Sri Lankan government's failure to seize the chance for reconciliation offered by the defeat of the LTTE that has recoiled on it - and is dragging it even today to the court of international opinion where it routinely - and justifiably - gets slammed.

But, in equal measure, the diasporic dream for a Tamil Eelam has proved a curse on the Sri Lankan Tamils, as I noted here. The renewed chant for a Tamil Eelam is a dog-whistle to the basest ethno-linguistic nationalist sentiments that continue to fester beneath the surface in Tamil Nadu, which politicians pander to. It manifests itself, for instance, in the blunderbuss threat of Tamil Nadu's "secession" from the Indian Union on grounds of Tamil pride  (more here). That such an empty threat should be held out in this day and age points to the absence of moderation in the Tamil political discourse.

In reviving the Tamil Eelam bogey, politicians across the spectrum are playing with fire. The tragedy is that for all their claims to speaking up on behalf of Sri Lankan Tamils, they are caught up in a game of competitive sub-nationalism that is longer concerned about the effect that their fiery rhetoric will have in worsening the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils. And with every passing day of more extremist rhetoric, they are cramping the space for diplomacy and policy action that can work to protect the Sri Lankan Tamils' genuine interests.

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