Kath Noble

The trouble with Tamil Nadu

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on August 8, 2012

What to make of the upcoming conference of the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation

The 65 million Tamils across the Palk Strait have played a huge role in the Sri Lankan conflict. They make Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority a minority both globally and in the immediate region, and they have become extremely hostile to the Government, which many of them regard as Sinhalese rather than Sri Lankan. They are commonly perceived as a threat to the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. Indeed, there is no doubt that at least some of them have actively supported Sri Lankan militants – Tamil Nadu was once a safe haven for the LTTE, among others. Although many things changed over the course of the war, especially after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, there was always a hardcore calling vociferously for Eelam. Three years after the last bomb exploded, the majority of Indian Tamil politicians continue to talk as though they are on the verge of launching an all-out assault on Colombo.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the resurrection of the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation, whose first conference in many years is to be held in Chennai this weekend, has been greeted with considerable concern in Sri Lanka.

However, simply being worried won’t do.

Karunanidhi’s initiative is motivated – as always – not by any great commitment to Sri Lankan Tamils but by a desire to boost his own position in Tamil Nadu. The DMK and AIADMK have alternated in power in the state since the 1980s, and it is currently Jayalalithaa’s turn in the Chief Minister’s seat. The DMK suffered a particularly crushing defeat in the 2011 Assembly elections, coming third behind Vijayakanth’s DMDK, and it will have to wait four more years for a chance to redeem itself. Meanwhile, its people are being pursued both in the state and by the central government for corruption – Karunanidhi’s daughter is one of several DMK politicians now being prosecuted for their roles in India’s biggest ever scam. His chances in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections look pretty bleak.

Reminding people of the ‘glory’ days of the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation, when he mobilised the masses to force Rajiv Gandhi to reverse the expulsion of Anton Balasingham following the collapse of the Thimpu talks, may help.

What is interesting about recent developments is not Karunanidhi’s motives but the issues on which he has chosen to focus.

First, he has announced that there will be no discussion or resolution on the establishment of a separate state. Either he genuinely believes that the situation in Sri Lanka is no longer that bad or the central government has been able to persuade him to drop or deprioritise the demand.

This is good news. Eelam is no solution to the problems of Tamils in Sri Lanka – it would cost a lot of blood to achieve and even more to sustain, and there has been more than enough bloodshed already.

Making Sinhalese believe that Tamil Nadu or anybody else is ready to intervene to make it happen is also not helpful. Yes, Sri Lanka needs to change and maybe it will not do so by itself. But it is even more likely that any change will be for the worse if people perceive such a threat. When India sent its troops to enforce an agreement a generation ago, the reaction was overwhelming. It would be still more so today, in the aftermath of the military victory over the LTTE. Karunanidhi is doing Sri Lankans of all ethnicities a favour by ruling out talk of a separate state at the conference – he should go further and rule it out altogether.

It is only natural that the demand for Eelam is losing strength in Tamil Nadu. Indian Tamils were never ready to do very much in support of the LTTE, but what they would do was inspired by the ‘romantic’ notion of freedom fighters roaming around the jungles of Sri Lanka in a ‘heroic’ battle against the odds to overthrow the oppressive state. They won’t summon up the same enthusiasm for the TNA, who are after all mere politicians.

If the Government were smart, it would capitalise on this decline in support for a separate state by doing a few simple things to demonstrate that it is willing to accommodate Tamils. For example, it could give up its farcical explanation of why elections to the Northern Provincial Council need to be delayed for another year to update voter lists when local, parliamentary and presidential elections have all been held since the end of the war. It could also forget its other delaying tactic in the form of a Parliamentary Select Committee and get back to negotiations with the TNA on a political solution.

A particularly smart move would be to do a deal with India on the 100,000 refugees living in Tamil Nadu. Karunanidhi is calling for them to be offered citizenship in India, which is only fair considering the length of time many of them have spent in the country – sometimes their whole lives – but the Government should work out a package that makes it genuinely attractive for them to come back to Sri Lanka instead, thereby making it clear to the world that Tamils are not just accepted but actually wanted.

Karunanidhi made this suggestion while noting that it would help to put a stop to human smuggling, which is rife in the camps. This shows that what really interests Tamil Nadu, and what will interest Indian Tamil politicians increasingly in the months and years to come, are problems that affect their own people.

The most urgent concerns India’s fishermen.

Karunanidhi says – as he puts it – the Sri Lankan Navy’s indiscriminate attacks on Indian Tamil fishermen will also be considered at the conference. This was a major issue in the run-up to the 2011 Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, with extensive media coverage both locally and at the national level.

The problem is understood in totally different ways on either side of the Palk Strait. In Sri Lanka, it is believed that Indian fishermen enter Sri Lankan waters illegally because they have exhausted fish stocks on their side of the international boundary due to prolonged use of inappropriate technology, and they are periodically arrested by the Navy, after which they spend a few days in jail before being sent back home, as reportedly happened with 23 Indian Tamil fishermen only last week. Indians, on the other hand, think that fishermen of both countries come and go as they please – a fishing community leader was quoted in the Times of India a couple of days ago saying that Sri Lankans need the tuna in Indian waters as much as Indians need the prawns in Sri Lankan waters – and that the real cause for concern is the Navy, who beat them up and shoot at them, seize their catches and sink their boats.

Undoubtedly there are elements of truth in both versions. Indian journalists have interviewed numerous fishermen from Tamil Nadu who claim to have been attacked by the Navy – a 2011 article in Tehelka claimed that as many as 72 had been killed in the previous six months, with one witness describing how his brother was thrown overboard with a rope around his neck and dragged in circles until he drowned. These fishermen almost always admit that they were on the wrong side of the international boundary, and many are critical of their state government for encouraging unsustainable growth in the number of trawlers operating out of Tamil Nadu, but that is hardly the point.

Recent months have seen some efforts by the two countries to address this issue. However, there is clearly still a long way to go.

Perceptions matter. Consider the 23 Indian Tamil fishermen repatriated last week. They were arrested by the Navy on July 21st, and by July 22nd the entire fishing community of Rameswaram was on strike demanding their release. Due to the incident at the Mannar courthouse, this took longer than anticipated – precisely six days – and they were on their way back to India by July 28th, apparently without having incurred any penalty. Pressure was put on the Government and it delivered. However, it is not in a position to secure the same treatment for Sri Lankan fishermen. Only days after this incident, the Fisheries Ministry announced that it had paid Rs. 925,000 to secure the release of 11 Sri Lankan fishermen in Indian custody since May 15th – they were due to return to Sri Lanka on August 6th, having spent almost three months in prison somewhere in Andra Pradesh. They were accused of the same crime of crossing the international boundary. The difference is that there were no protests.

The Government must obviously ensure that the Navy behaves itself and that accusations of wrongdoing are responded to with the seriousness that they deserve. Doing so is not just the proper course of action – it will also make the Government’s life easier, as it will reduce pressure from the likes of the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation. Karunanidhi may not be very inclined to rebuild the relationship with Sri Lanka, but he has demonstrated that he is willing to be pushed in that direction. To do more, he needs the support of the Government.

Jayalalithaa is not so different.

Meanwhile, it might be wise to avoid sending any more ministers or members of the Security Forces to Tamil Nadu, since in the current climate this is only likely to result in embarrassing retreats, and these incidents only make things worse for everybody.

Tamil Nadu need not be a deadly foe for Sri Lanka. The two states have much in common. Indeed, being just a few kilometres away, Tamil Nadu had better be a friend or at the very least a state the Government can work with. Anything else is dangerous. With the power of regional parties growing in India, the attitudes of Indian Tamil politicians can only become more important as time passes – it would clearly be better for Sri Lankans if they were favourable. This is not just a matter of convenience, to make it easier for Sri Lankans to go on pilgrimmages, although that too would be nice. Sri Lanka’s relationship with its 1.2 billion strong neighbour will be a major determinant of its future, which we all hope will be both peaceful and prosperous.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 8th August 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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