By Pranay Sharma
The Road To Antipathy
-August 13: DMK-sponsored TESO conference in support of Tamil minority in Sri Lanka held in Chennai
-Sept 2: AIADMK leader and state chief minister Jayalalitha ask Sri Lankan football teams to leave TN
-September 3: Sri Lanka issues travel advisory, asks its nationals to stay away from Tamil Nadu
-September 4: Sri Lankan pilgrims visiting Christian shrines in the state stoned by demonstrators
- September 6: Delhi assures Sri Lanka all steps will be taken to safeguard safety and security of Lankan nationals
Panic-stricken Sri Lankan pilgrims huddled in a convoy of buses with broken window panes and smashed windshields while being rushed to the Tiruchi airport in Tamil Nadu under heavy police security as they flee India—it’s hardly a picture to promote good neighbourly relations and strengthen the credentials of the world’s largest democracy.
In what was a harrowing experience for the 180 Sri Lankan visitors on a pilgrimage to Christian shrines in Tamil Nadu, their buses were attacked by stone-throwing protesters at Kattur on September 4 while they were returning from Velankanni, the site of a popular Christian shrine.
The protesters, from the small Tamil political outfits Naam Tamizhar Iyakkam and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, were angry at the plight of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. But, ironically, among those at the receiving end of their ire were people from the very community with whom they show solidarity—several pilgrims were Sri Lankan Tamils. A day before, at the Poondi Matha shrine near Thanjavur, the visitors had faced another group of angry protesters who demanded their return to Sri Lanka.
“These were supporters of distinctly pro-LTTE fringe groups in Tamil Nadu,” says Prasad Kariyawasam, the Sri Lankan high commissioner to India. “Stunned by the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, they are now resorting to civil disobedience against Sri Lankan interests, assets and nationals in the state,” he added.
South Block, realising the negative publicity the incidents received and the strain it could put on India’s relations with Sri Lanka, was quick to assure Colombo that “all necessary steps” were being taken to ensure the safety and security of Sri Lankan nationals in India. However, what worries New Delhi foreign policy-makers is not so much the fringe group protests, but how the two major political parties in Tamil Nadu—the DMK and the AIADMK—have been fanning anti-Sri Lankan sentiments.
Last week, Tamil Nadu CM and AIADMK chief J. Jayalalitha threw out a visiting Sri Lankan football team from the state after their ‘friendly’ match with a local team. She followed it up by expelling a college football team even before they could play a single match in Tamil Nadu. Her rivals in the DMK, an ally of the Congress-led UPA, have been equally strident in their Lanka-bashing. The DMK has not only supported the demand for ending military training for Sri Lankan army officers in India, but supports other parties’ moves to boycott Colombo.
“The demand for cutting off trade and cultural ties with Sri Lanka by parties in Tamil Nadu should not be seen in isolation; history is replete with incidents where similar methods were used by countries against repressive regimes,” says historian M.S.S. Pandian of jnu.
Demands to cut off cultural and sporting ties, he points out, were also taken against apartheid South Africa in the past, and more recently, against Israel for marginalising Palestinians. According to Pandian, “there is a growing feeling in Tamil Nadu that only a call for boycott of Sri Lanka can force New Delhi to take up the sufferings of the Tamil minority with Colombo more seriously.”
The fate of the Sri Lankan Tamil minority has traditionally found resonance in Tamil Nadu. The state’s politicians had also backed the LTTE for years in their war against Colombo. But all that changed drastically after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination by the Tamil Tigers in May 1991. The LTTE was so stigmatised that barring a few fringe groups no party supported it in public. This was evident during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections when the DMK, an old ally of the Tamil Tigers, chose to be with the Congress-led UPA coalition and refused to turn the bloody, final war between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan army into an election plank.
That position has changed after the telecom scam, in which relatives and close aides of DMK supremo M. Karunanidhi were among the accused. It tarnished the party’s image as it was routed in last year’s state assembly elections. With its ties with the Congress marked more by a strained formality than genuine warmth and no upswing in popularity, Karunanidhi has fallen back on a traditional plank—the Sri Lankan Tamil cause.
Last month, the DMK revived a moribund outfit, Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation (TESO), for a conference that invited supporters from all over the world. A resolution passed there and later submitted to the UN urges that the Lankan Tamil minority be allowed to take the initiative of deciding their future.
On her part, Jayalalitha has also been upping the ante against Sri Lanka to match her DMK rivals to ensure that she isn’t left out in the future if it does turn into a handy political issue. “Bad politics is being played by both parties,” says Gnani, a Tamil political commentator. He feels the DMK-AIADMK policies can encourage the right-wing turn in the state but cannot ensure the welfare of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
“There may be anger against the Sri Lankan government but what purpose is being served by targeting ordinary Sri Lankans? Are they responsible for the government’s policies?” argues Gnani.
In fact, the spike in anti-Sri Lanka feeling, fuelled by parties, comes at a time of robust Tamil Nadu-Sri Lanka ties. There are over 80 weekly flights from the state to Colombo—a marker of enhanced trade, business and people-to-people contact. Sri Lankan officials reject the charge of state bias against their Tamil minority.
They claim the Tamil areas of the island have shown a 22 per cent economic growth in the past year, and that out of the 3,00,000 Tamils who were “internally displaced” by the ethnic war, all but 5,000 have been resettled.
The events in Tamil Nadu have been well-used by Sri Lanka president Mahinda Rajapaksa. The prompt travel advisory issued by Colombo, asking Sri Lankans to stay away from Tamil Nadu, is being seen as Rajapaksa’s attempt to deflect focus from an ongoing teachers’ agitation. The fact that sections of the powerful Buddhist clergy have backed the protests may have made him nervous and desperate to look for a diversion.
“Peaceful demonstrations are part of any functioning democracy,” Kariyawasam says, playing down developments in his country, seen by many as the first major protest against Rajapakse.
The fast-paced developments in Tamil Nadu are making South Block mandarins nervous. India’s recent vote against Colombo at the UN Human Rights Commission had brought strains in bilateral ties.
With increasing Chinese presence in the island, India does not want anything that would push Sri Lanka away. Rajapaksa is scheduled to visit India later this month, and New Delhi hopes both sides would take the opportunity to smoothen bilateral ties. That would work only if politicians in Tamil Nadu are willing to play ball. Will they? COURTESY: OUTLOOK