Lanka vote: Revival of Tamil chauvinism is ruinous

Like worms crawling out of the woodworks, linguistic chauvinists in Tamil Nadu are stepping out to hijack what started off as a protest against Sri Lanka's failure to address human rights abuses against its own Tamil citizens. In the run-up to the upcoming vote at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, there have been a spate of reports of attacks on Sri Lankan tourists and businesses in Tamil Nadu.

On Saturday, a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk was assaulted by members of a radical Tamil grouping at the famed Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur; the monk is an archaeology student with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), and had travelled to the temple town in southern Tamil Nadu on a study tour along with other students (more details here).

On Monday, another Sri Lankan Buddhist monk was assaulted as the train in which he was returning to Chennai, as part of a tour group that had been to Bodh Gaya on a pilgrimage, was pulling into Chennai. Three unidentified persons, who had been waiting for the train to arrive, clambered on board, and assaulted him (details here).

Likewise, the Madurai office of a low-cost airline that offers flight services to Sri Lanka has in recent days been ransacked.

Tamil chauvinists are cynically muddying the waters in Sri Lanka. PTI

Tamil chauvinists are cynically muddying the waters in Sri Lanka. PTI

All this comes at time when the political temperature in Tamil Nadu is being ratcheted up in the lead-up to the UNHRC vote.  Even mainstream political parties are whipping up Tamil chauvinistic sentiments ostensibly in the cause of the Sri Lankan Tamils;  fringe groups on the extreme have used the prevailing charged atmosphere to fish in troubled waters to advance their own political legitimacy.

All this is self-defeating for the larger cause of Sri Lankan Tamils. Such attacks on Sri Lanka individuals and business interests in Tamil Nadu have the capacity to backfire on India, and compromise any leverage that Indian may have over the Sri Lankan government in getting it to abide by its commitments on devolving political power to the Sri Lankan Tamils in the island's north and east.

At the political level, of course, the same linguistic chauvinism finds expression in the DMK's threat to pull out its Ministers from the UPA government if India did not work to introduce amendments incorporating harsher language critical of Sri Lanka in the US-led resolution at the UNHRC. The DMK's pressure tactic is of course fair political game at the broadest level, but the specifics of its demands are much less acceptable. The DMK, for instance, wants the killings of Sri Lankan Tamil civilians in the final days of the war against the terrorist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to be declared a "genocide".

The Sri Lanka government, which feeds off Sinhala chauvinism, has of course made its case worse for itself by its failure to address the genuine demands of Sri Lanka Tamils for devolution of political rights even four years after the LTTE was wiped out.  Particularly in the light of recent sensational allegations of the circumstances in which LTTE leader V Prabhakaran's son was killed - evidently not in combat, as the Sri Lankan Army has claimed, but in cold blood and at point-blank range - its steadfast refusal to act on its own Commission's findings of human rights abuses and its denial of political autonomy to Sri Lanka Tamils has served to whip up political passions in Tamil Nadu.

Yet, for all of the Sri Lankan government's perfidy over the decades, and the Indian government's responsibility to hold Colombo to account on its commitment to devolve political power to its Tamil citizens, the DMK's demand for the invocation of the word 'genocide' is a silly proposition that will only recoil on the Indian government (if it takes it up, which it won't).

As Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy and former diplomat G Parthasarathy (who has worked extensively on the Sri Lanka Tamil issue, right from the mid-1980s) noted in a CNN-IBN panel discussion on Monday,  the DMK's political posturing over the UNHRC vote is meaningless. "If you go around adding words like genocide, people will laugh at you," Parthasarathy said. Added Swamy: "If India pushes for such things, India will be totally isolated." In his estimation, the Sri Lankan Tamils want devolution of power - and "they care a damn about this human rights resolution."

In any case, notes Parthasarathy, the UNHRC resolution, even if it is adopted, is useless and "will be forgotten in a week". The only UN agency that can take meaningful action against the Sri Lankan government is the UN Security Council, where China and Russia have a veto and will likely block any direct criticism of Sri Lanka. Which puts all this huffing and puffing within Tamil Nadu in the proper context. Even the  shrill hectoring tone of DMK member of Parliament TM Selvaganapathy on the talkshow could not mask the DMK's political compulsions in so blatantly playing the Tamil chauvinist card.

The real diplomacy that India can pursue, and which will benefit Sri Lankan Tamils, is to secure relief aid for them and nudge the Sri Lankan government into devolving power to the island's Tamils. And any leverage that the Indian government has in order to secure those policy objectives will be lost by Tamil hotheadedness - which finds expression in the attacks on Sri Lankan individuals and business entities in Tamil Nadu.

The Sri Lankan issue is a very complex one, and there is plenty of blame to go around on all sides over the past 70 years or so. On the Sinhala chauvinist Sri Lankan government's part, it has failed to seize the opportunity provided by its military victory over the ruthless LTTE to foster a sense of reconciliation among the Tamil civilians, and has pointedly refused to address the charges of human rights abuses in the final days of that war. The Indian government too was driven by Tamil chauvinistic sentiments in the 1980s and  shamefully supported the LTTE, which in turn decimated the moderate Tamil voice  - and then assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Political parties in Tamil Nadu have repeatedly played politics and postured with the Sri Lankan Tamil iAnssue to advance their interests without fundamentally helping the Sri Lankan Tamils. And fringe parties are staging guerilla attacks to muddy the waters to inhibit rational decision-making.

Any decision that the UPA government may take on the UNHRC vote - and there is a compelling case for it to vote against the Sri Lankan government as a pressure tactic - must be made without the shrill voice of Tamil chauvinists jamming the radio signal. Their hotheadedness has done the utmost damage to the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils over the decades. The worms that are even now crawling out of the woodworks of linguistic chauvinism should be swept aside.

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