Kath Noble

Not so quiet on the Indian front

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on March 20, 2013

On the politics of Tamil Nadu and the efforts of its politicians to influence the rest of the country

KarunanidhiIn the third week of the UN Human Rights Council sessions, Karunanidhi played what he hopes will be his trump card. Unless India not only votes against Sri Lanka but also ensures that the resolution includes a commitment to a war crimes investigation, his party will quit the coalition government.

Whether or not he gets what he wants in this instance, he knows that there is a limit to what can be achieved by means of threats alone. Threats couldn’t have persuaded Manmohan Singh to intervene to stop the war in 2009, for example. That’s why Karunanidhi didn’t make any. Instead, he launched a fast that lasted from breakfast until a slightly late lunch, at which point he professed to be completely convinced that the Sri Lankan military had stopped using heavy weapons in the No Fire Zone.

And that was at a time when Karunanidhi was rather more powerful than he is today, having since lost an assembly election rather badly.

Today, to get anything more than a resolution in Geneva, he is going to have to mobilise public opinion.

How easy this is in Tamil Nadu is obvious from the way in which Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa have been competing on Sri Lankan issues of late, and the result is an awful lot of blind hatred. Protests regularly spin out of control – it is not just that they become violent, but that they also pick illegitimate targets, such as Sri Lankan tourists and most recently a monk archaeology student (‘Buddhist monk is roughed up by a group of Tamil nationalists in Tamil Nadu’, Colombo Telegraph, 16th March 2013) and a monk pilgrim (‘Another Sri Lankan Buddhist monk is attacked in Chennai Central’, Colombo Telegraph, 17th March 2013). They are terrorist, albeit so far yet to do any serious damage.

Where this is heading should be a matter of grave concern for New Delhi.

Leaving that aside for the moment, public opinion in the rest of India bears very little resemblance to that in Tamil Nadu – a fact that some people have clearly noted as a problem, judging by their increasing efforts to reach out across state boundaries.

Last week, I was presented with an opportunity to experience some of this outreach in the form of a documentary screening and meeting on ‘War crimes and genocide in Sri Lanka’ at Jawaharlal Nehru University, organised by a group called Students for Resistance in collaboration with the Save Tamils Movement.

The documentary itself was fairly extraordinary.

Almost everything in it was said by nameless, faceless people sitting in unidentifiable rooms in unidentified places. Frankly, they might not even have been Sri Lankan. Whether they were or ever had been in Sri Lanka was also not obvious. Viewers were simply asked to trust the producer, which of course a lot of them did, the audience being almost entirely comprised of young activists.

Readers would eventually be able to judge for themselves, as the video would no doubt find its way onto the internet – it is called ‘Buried Justice’.

Since there was no attempt to present actual evidence, the claims made could go beyond all previous efforts. The number of dead, for example, was inflated to 200,000 in the last few months of the war alone.

Most interesting from the point of view of understanding the provenance of the documentary was the assertion that the LTTE never used force against its own people. One of the nameless, faceless interviewees acknowledged that some people dressed in LTTE uniform did come around when they were hiding in bunkers in the No Fire Zone threatening to shoot them if they tried to get away, but he claimed that they weren’t speaking ‘our Tamil’, implying that they were infiltrators sent by the Army – probably associated with the ‘traitor’ Colonel Karuna.

I noted in my last column the way in which some Sinhalese are pushing conspiracy theories that blame the LTTE for everything bad that has ever happened in Sri Lanka, including the burning of the Jaffna library and even the Black July riots. In parallel – as always – some Tamils are trying hard to absolve the LTTE of responsibility for the crimes that it did actually commit.

As always, it is not clear whether it was the Tamil chicken or the Sinhalese egg that came first.

Far more revelatory than the documentary were the comments by the three speakers – none of whom were from Tamil Nadu – and the response from the audience.

While appalled by what was said to have taken place in Sri Lanka, nobody exhibited any very special concern about it. As one of the invited speakers put it, ‘All states behave like that.’ He also pointed out that ‘similar things’ are happening in India today.

They were interested in the Geneva resolution only to the extent that it could be used to force a war crimes investigation on India too.

In other words, their reaction was very different to that of Western audiences to the much more measured documentary by Channel Four. (No doubt this is because Western governments direct the worst of their violence towards people in places as far away from their constituencies as possible, preferably in countries that their voters can’t even locate on a map.)

Also unlike in the West, a member of the audience expressed surprise at the tremendous amount of ‘information’ that was available. He attributed this to Sri Lanka being a small state that had to accept the presence of NGOs, which are much more strictly controlled and limited in India, and this prompted a discussion on how to replicate the kind of ‘solidarity movement’ that Tamils have established to engage with the wider world. Nobody suggested that what had happened in Sri Lanka was a ‘war without witnesses’, since they believed that they had in fact witnessed an awful lot more than they considered to be the norm in such situations.

As is often the case with young activists, they were sympathetic to the idea of armed uprising. However, they weren’t as hypocritical as many of their counterparts in Tamil Nadu – they were clearly more interested in armed uprisings in their own country than in somebody else’s.

They were also ready to criticise. One of the invited speakers made a point of denouncing the LTTE both for its practice of targeting civilians and for silencing competing voices from its own community.

In addition, a member of the audience who had studied in Tamil Nadu highlighted the futility of talking about the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka while paying absolutely no attention to the way in which Sri Lankan Tamil refugees are treated in India.

The Save Tamils Movement is certainly guilty as charged. I first encountered them during a stint in Chennai in 2011 when I was researching an article about the refugees (‘Stuck, for a generation‘, 31st July 2011), where they demonstrated every interest in discussing my opinion of the LTTE – which had by then ceased to exist – and none at all in anything else.

And the refugees are still in exactly the same condition today.

In Tamil Nadu, none of this matters. The refugees certainly don’t matter, since they are largely from the poorer segments of society, and worse – in the eyes of politicians and their hangers-on sitting comfortably in Chennai – they ran away from the struggle. The crimes of the LTTE don’t matter either.

Frankly, Tamils don’t matter to these people.

I believe that the only thing that really concerns them is the future of Tamil nationalism – more specifically, how the cause of Tamil nationalism can best be advanced while causing the least disruption to their own lives.

Unsurprisingly, the rest of India is not very sympathetic.

Students for Resistance, who are the regular partners of the Save Tamils Movement at Jawaharlal Nehru University, represent the very fringe of student activism, in a campus that is a long way from the centre ground of Indian politics. But even they know better.

What Manmohan Singh decides to do about Sri Lanka must eventually take this into account, whatever Karunanidhi’s games.

This article was published in The Island on 20th March 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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