By N. Sathiya Moorthy*
In an unprecedented move, Sri Lankan Tamil political parties have written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the Cauvery-centric attacks on their Indian Tamil brethren in the neighbouring state of Karnataka. Some partners in the mainstay Tamil National Alliance (TNA) are signatories to the letter, but neither TNA Leader of the Opposition in parliament, R Sampanthan, nor Northern Province Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran, are among them.
Observing that Tamils of Karnataka have been undergoing “immense suffering”, the letter expressed confidence about the ability of the governments of India, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to act in concert to ensure their safety and security, and also those of Kannadigas in Tamil Nadu. They appreciated the efforts being taken by the governments of India, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to contain the violence and restore normalcy.
Reflecting the low-profile nature of the initiative, the signatories as a team handed over the letter to A Natarajan, India’s Consul-General in Jaffna. In the ordinary course, a higher-level team would have met with High Commissioner Y K Sinha or other senior officials at the Indian embassy in Colombo. Whether it was a deliberate decision on the part of the TNA leadership, or it reflects the re-emergence of fissures within the Alliance is too early to say.
If none of the senior-most leaders of the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK), which is the mainstay of the TNA, is a signatory, some party leaders did affix their stamp. Yet, it’s unclear if they had the moderate leadership’s say-so, or acted on their own volition, as has been the case on other occasions, too.
The other TNA partners that signed the letter included those of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO), all TNA partners. From among them, EPRLF’s Suresh Premachandran is the party head, and PLOTE’s D Sidharthan is also a TNA member of the nation’s Parliament.
Significantly, former central minister and Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP leader, Douglas Devananda, MP, is a signatory and was also present at the CG office. As the major Tamil party, the ITAK-TNA is not favourably disposed to Devananda and the EPDP. The LTTE was also believed to have made several attempts on Devananda’s life. Having stayed on the right side of the government party in power in Colombo through the last two decades of the war, he has lately been appearing in some of the public functions of President Maithiripala Sirisena, though not admitted into either the ruling combine or the government at the centre.
The signatories to the letter also include the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF), but even more so the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). Once the umbrella organisation of all moderate Tamil political parties, the TULF lost ground first to the LTTE, and alongside to the TNA, too. Post-war, post-LTTE, many irreconcilable yet personality-oriented differences seem to haunt their coming together, though TULF is now a very poor shadow of its original self.
What makes the initiative even more interesting, if not equally significant, is the presence of a moderate Tamil leader, ‘Maravanpulavu’ Sachithananthan, as the ‘spirit’ behind the move. Having identified with the larger Sri Lankan Tamil-Hindu cause in recent years, the New Indian Express quoted him as saying that “it should be the bounden duty of the Tamils of Sri Lanka to express concern over the plight of the Tamils in Karnataka, as the Tamils of the state had supported the Tamils of Sri Lanka when this community was under attack”.
While the support and backing of Tamil Nadu polity and at times people to the Sri Lankan Tamil cause is well-known and documented, too, this is possibly the first time that any political party or group has so very openly come out in support of what remains an ‘internal affair’ of India. There is no denying that the current initiative has nothing to do with the Sri Lankan government or the elected TNA administration in the Northern Province, not even of the party, per se.
In context, successive governments in India have been sensitive to similar ‘initiatives’ by neighbourhood nations and/or political entities and leaders, to flag their purported concerns on Indians in other parts of the country. Jammu and Kashmir is only one, though significant, example. Yet, Tamil Nadu is one demonstrable example of the mainstreaming of one-time ‘separatist’ political entity through the post-Independent constitutional and electoral processes.
The current Sri Lankan Tamil political initiative and the sensitivity attaching to it assume greater significance, considering the not-so-infrequent peripheral reference to the cause of ‘Greater Eelam’. It’s a farther cry even from the LTTE’s ‘Eelam cause’ in the past, but it still has marginal/marginalised sympathisers, though not outright supporters, on either side of the Palk Strait and also among counterparts in the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora.
Significantly, though on another plane, the Tamil parties, including the TNA, have been taking a stand independent of Tamil Nadu brethren’s concerns on the ticklish ‘fishing issue’. In the post-war scenario in Sri Lanka, the TNA has acceded to prevailing Tamil fishers’ mood in the North and East, condemning the Indian counterparts’ use of destructive bottom-trawlers in their ‘traditional waters’. That the SLT fishers’ ‘justifiable’ line coincides with the official position of the government in that country does not help matters.
Seeking to internationalise the issue, but not having to go to international judicial or quasi-legal fora like UNCLOS, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera recently called for a ban on bottom trawling, in a Washington conclave. Speaking at the ‘Our Ocean 2016 conference’, he said that Sri Lanka was committed to combating ‘Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU)’.
Taking off from where his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has left in parliamentary interventions since returning to power in 2015, Minister Samaraweera referred to the European Union (EU) imposing a ban on fish exports from Sri Lanka, citing IUU fishing concerns. The ban lasted 15 months, and was lifted only in April this year. Over the past one-and-half-plus year, senior TNA parliamentarian, M A Sumanthiran, too, has moved a bill on converting an existing Executive ban on bottom-trawling in Sri Lankan waters into a legal ban, through a parliamentary law.
Even more recently, Sri Lankan President Maithiripala Sirisena told India’s Minister of State for External Affairs M J Akbar, ahead of the UN General Assembly session at New York, on the “concerns” of his nation and its Northern Tamil fishers “about the damage caused to the sea and marine resources” by their Indian counterparts. He reiterated the call for a negotiated settlement, involving the fishers from the two countries. It’s another matter that such efforts in recent years have not yielded any results. Incidentally, Sirisena also reportedly talked about violence in Jammu and Kashmir, and said “violence should be dealt with patience and dialogue is the only way to find solutions to such issues”. He had earlier expressed his grief over the Uri killings to Prime Minister Narendra Modi over phone.
The message was and is clear, what with Sri Lankan academics too calling for third-nation export-ban on “IUU fishing by Indian fishermen” in the Palk Bay. From the Indian side, attaching to the fishers’ issue is not only the ‘historic’ livelihood concerns of the Tamil Nadu fishers in their ‘traditional waters’, but also the ‘Katchchativu issue’. Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, first, followed by DMK predecessor, M Karunanidhi, have both challenged the twin bilateral agreements of 1974 and 1976, in the Supreme Court. Successive governments at the Centre have however stood by the agreements and the consequent UNCLOS notification.
Prima facie, the SLT parties concern for the Tamils in Karnataka and the fishers’ row are significantly different issues. The former could even be a reflection on the off-again-on-again internal differences within the Tamil polity in Sri Lanka, and on the weaklings in the TNA wooing new allies outside of the Alliance, if only to irritate the ITAK leader.
Thus far, none of the TNA members have had the courage to walk out and face elections on their own. But should there be a future split in the Alliance, in whatever form and whenever, ‘fishers row’ could be one such issue where ‘competitive Tamil politics’ may surface in Sri Lanka as ‘competitive pan-Tamil politics’ in India has been, for decades now. Should it end up leading to an across-the-Strait political alignment/re-alignment of whatever kind, it’s a cause for concern now as much as then. It does not matter if and when it happens
*N. Sathiya Moorthy is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent on: [email protected]