By J Jeganaathan
Tamil Nadu is becoming a political hot spot for notorious reasons. The state witnessed several untoward incidents recently that have not only pricked Indo-Sri Lanka bilateral relations but also raised concerns about the current trajectory of ethnic politics in Tamil Nadu and its impact on India’s foreign and security policy. A group of Sri Lankan citizens on pilgrimage to Tamil Nadu were recently attacked and threatened by deranged mobs at various places and were eventually forced to leave the state. This incident occurred after the government of Tamil Nadu rebuked the Union government for providing military training to the Sri Lankan armed force personnel at various military academies across the country a week earlier.
As a result, a batch of Sri Lankan Army cadres undergoing military training at the Officer’s Training Academy (OTA) in Chennai and Wellington Staff College in Ooty were subsequently relocated to other states. Even the Sinhalese sports persons are not immune to the state government’s ire, which ordered their immediate eviction. On the whole, Sinhalese are unwelcome in Tamil Nadu and any goodwill measure by the Union government vis-a-vis Sri Lanka would arouse the indignation of the people of Tamil Nadu. It is quite obvious that the Tamil Nadu factor constrains Indo-Sri Lanka relations. But the way in which the factor is now playing out is unique and noteworthy.
Why this murderous rage against the Sinhalese? And what is wrong in Tamil Nadu? This article explores these questions in light of the heightened ethnic feelings in the state.
Why the Sinhalese are unwelcome in Tamil Nadu
The answer is simple: the brethren’s enemy is our enemy. This is an inherent political reasoning within Tamil Nadu which has not abated despite many turning points such as the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. It would be erroneous to assume that the Rajiv Gandhi incident completely severed the umbilical cord between Tamils on both sides. Rather, Sri Lankan Tamils continued to enjoy sympathy from their brethren in Tamil Nadu if not material and political support. However, recent developments indicate the revival of explicit political support from Tamil Nadu for the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils, if not directly. For instance, the ruling AIADMK party criticised Sri Lanka overtly and even passed a resolution that beseeched the Union government to impose economic sanction against GoSL. DMK too revived its age-old policy instrument, Tamil Eelam Supporters Organisation (TESO) vis-a-vis Sri Lanka. Besides this mainstream opposition and hatred against Sinhalese, there are many fringe Tamil national groups that mushroomed at the end of the war in 2009, such as Naam Tamilar Iyyakam led by the director turned activist, Seeman. Indubitably, these forces have been sweeping the sentiments of Tamils by invigorating brutal memories of the past and injustice done to the victims.
It appears both the people as well as the ruling government of Tamil Nadu are negatively affected by the brutal end of the ethnic war in 2009. People are outraged by the Government of Sri Lanka’s (GoSL) war crimes and human rights abuses committed to their brethren across the sea. Even after three years the memories of war are very much alive in their minds. Thanks to the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora and some Tamil nationalistic political groups, the issue has gone viral through the flashing of brutal images and videos clips of war on the social media. Thanks are also due to political parties of all Dravidian strands who whip up people’s sentiments time and again for their electoral gains, but never stand together. What is more surprising in this melee is the hostile attitude of the state government towards GoI on this issue.
Nip it in the bud before it turns monstrous
India seems very soft on Sri Lanka and is even trying to strengthen bilateral ties without realising the psychological impact of the war in Tamil Nadu. The obvious reason for India’s soft approach towards Sri Lanka is the China factor – a triumph card to balance India’s interest often induced by the Tamil Nadu factor. It is ingrained in the psyche of the people of Tamil Naidu that the Congress-led Union government abetted the war crimes and human rights abuses in Sri Lanka by supporting the GoSL during the final phase of the war. The Sri Lankan Navy’s atrocities against Tamil Nadu fishermen and the Union government’s latent response to their cry further reinforced their woes. What has happened in the last couple of weeks is nothing but a paroxysm of rage of some vested Tamil radical groups.
While making any policy decision on Sri Lanka, New Delhi seems to underestimate the popular sentiments of Tamil Nadu and overlooks its undercurrents. The mainstream media too presents it as a periphery issue. For example, when fishermen are attacked in the Gulf of Kutch or elsewhere by the Pakistani Navy, the media reports it as ‘Indian fishermen attacked’, but if the same incident happens in the Palk Strait with the Sri Lankan Navy, they are referred to to as Tamil Ndau fishermen. Are they not also Indians? If the current political trend in Tamil Nadu over the Sri Lankan issue, in which anti-governmental sentiments are overwhelming, is not addressed with greater sensitivity and an inclusive approach, it will slowly succumb to ultra Tamil national forces that are awaiting an opportunity to revive the separatist movement.
Research Officer, IReS, IPCS
email: [email protected]