The Eelam may be a rhetorical excess that is unavoidable in Tamil Nadu’s competitive politics, but the sentiment behind the state’s voice is no different from that of the international community.
Except for Eelam, everything else Tamil Nadu said has been more or less consistent with international opinion that we heard at the UNHRC and elsewhere. Eelam is just a metaphor and the Sri Lankan government could have done a lot by going not even half way to assuage the aspirations behind it.
The resolution in the TN assembly on Wednesday, therefore, is nothing dramatic or new. In an earlier move, the house wanted Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa declared a war criminal, as well as economic sanctions against the island. If the Sri Lankan military had indulged in war crimes, he was indeed responsible. If he is taking a hostile stand, his country is hostile. As simple as that.
Not surprisingly, the response to the assembly resolution and the stand by the Dravidian parties on the issue, has been that of cynicism - particularly in the section of the media that has always spoken for Rajapaksa. However, the charges of political opportunism against the DMK and the AIADMK are certainly justified because they did practically nothing in 2009, when accounts of large-scale civilian deaths emerged from influential world capitals.
At the height of the war, the DMK was an influential ally of the UPA, and the AIADMK a prominent political opponent. Had they been serious, they could have done all that they are doing now. As Sri Lankan human rights activist Nimalka Fernando wrote, had Karunanidhi been serious, he could have significantly changed the situation and prevented a lot of unwanted deaths.
Can he run away from the fact that the UPA was indeed aware of what was going on at the frontline and he did precious nothing?
At the Serendip Festival in Galle three days ago, Sri Lankan defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa repeated his government’s stand that the Manmohan Singh government had always been in the loop during the war.
“President went out of his way to keep New Delhi briefed on developments at all times. In addition, a special bilateral committee was set up at the highest level, including then Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa, Secretary to the President Lalith Veerathunga and myself as Defence Secretary from the Sri Lankan side, and former National Security Advisor MK Narayanan, then Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and then Defence Secretary Vijay Singh on the Indian side. This troika had continuous discussions and ensured that any sensitive issues were dealt with as soon as they arose,” he said in his speech.
If Gotabaya was not lying, the UPA was indeed aware of what was happening. Did the UPA hide it from the DMK? Or didn’t the DMK ask for details? Or did the DMK know what was going on and keep quiet because it was convenient? Had the party been as belligerent as it is now, wouldn’t the outcome have been different?
Meanwhile, what’s more interesting is the new angles that qualitatively affect the complexion of the issue.
One, why should India care if a state is peeved - or why should Indian foreign policy be dictated by the sentiments of a single state?
Two, it’s not just Tamils who have ethnic links with India, but also the Sinhalese because their roots are in Odisha and hence India should bat for them too. Since they are the majority, India should bat more for them!
Three, mixing politics and cricket isn’t fair. Why should Sri Lankan cricketers be dropped from the IPL matches in Chennai because just one state has problems?
As we argued earlier, the point that India should not care for Tamil Nadu’s sentiments while deciding on its foreign policy is wrongly premised because it’s the states that make India and not the other way round.
Since independence, India’s federalism has evolved significantly wherein the people, politics and aspirations of the states drive the country. All that one sees as India is an aggregation of its states - whether it is their economies, development or the living conditions of people.
Contemporary India, as a political state, itself reflects this evolution. In such a context, speaking of Indian interests taking precedence over the interest of Tamil Nadu is against the very idea of India. In such a case, southern states can ask India not to have any animosity with Pakistan.
But it doesn’t work that way, does it? Then why only Sri Lanka?
When Indira Gandhi planned an operation in Mauritius to protect Indian interests, did anybody object and say that it was a Bihari issue? Going a bit back in history, did anybody have a sectarian view on Bangladesh? More recently, did Tamil Nadu say that Farakka was just Mamata Bannerjee’s problem?
Now the second question of ethnic connections.
It looks like an extension of the first argument. If the first attempt was to marginalise Tamil Nadu sentiments as sectarian, this one is to polarise people by bringing in an angle that even the Sinhalese never claim to be proud of.
Whether it’s by default or design, bringing in the Odisha angle is to weaken the Tamil argument and use it as a counter-weight to Tamil Nadu’s pressure. Probably, there is a political design in this argument since it has been raised by some retired foreign policy hawks.
Third, and the most trivial, is the IPL.
Reportedly, Sinhala nationalists are furious that the Sri Lankan players cannot play in Chennai. However, they should be happy that the Lankan players got away lightly - they haven’t been excluded from the tournament and denied all that delicious cash.
Compare it with the desperation of the Pakistani players who also do not mind the easy cash that the tournament gives. What have they done to be excluded? Going by Tamil Nadu’s argument, Sri Lanka has killed more Indians than Pakistan did - reportedly the Sri Lankan forces have so far killed about 500 unarmed Tamil Nadu fishermen.
Sri Lanka should be happy that its players can still play in other parts of India. It’s another aspect of Indian federalism that the Sri Lankan ultra-nationalists will not understand.
Despite a groundswell of adverse international opinion against Sri Lanka since 2009, (very rarely the UN - in this case UNOHCHR - asks for an independent international investigation against a democratic national government. Equally rare is the demand by the head of an UN organisation for such an investigation)the UPA government’ stand has been extremely dubious. When read with Gotabaya’s 25 March speech, one is compelled to suspect the UPA government’s complicity.
Most probably this collusion with Delhi is at the heart of Sri Lanka’s dismissiveness of Tamil Nadu. Its politicians, proxies and even the high commissioner in India have called Tamil Nadu's politicians and people names. Reportedly, Gotabaya even threatened people from Tamil Nadu. Sri Lankan journalist Nilantha Ilangamuwa wrote that Gotabaya has warned that “maximum penalties will be invoked on Tamils coming from Tamil Nadu, in retaliation to Sri Lankans being attacked and harassed in Tamil Nadu.”
Whether the report is true or not, the government of India hasn’t uttered a word.
In this context, Jayalalithaa’s assembly resolution in fact points to an aspect that the UPA government and retired intelligence and foreign affairs officials refuse to acknowledge - Sri Lanka is not India’s friend because it’s hostile to Indians, if people from Tamil Nadu are Indians. Add China and Pakistan to the equation, the evidence of hostility is unequivocal.
More over, the recent anti-Muslim campaign by the Buddhist fundamentalists in the county, with the open support of Gotabaya, shows that Sri Lanka is also a Buddhist fundamentalist autocracy, where human rights, civil liberties, free speech and the right to choose one’s belief come at great personal risk.
The Sri Lankan Tamil issue, therefore, is not just an ethnic issue concerning the people of Tamil Nadu, but a man-made human rights disaster that the world is concerned about.
That’s precisely why a number of non-Tamil rights activists in the island are risking their lives and asking tough questions. Some of them have disappeared, some fled overseas, many have been tortured, and some even killed.