by N Sathiya Moorthy
It is heartening to note that after a series of incidents where visiting Sri Lankans were at the receiving end of mob attacks, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has promised that her Government would ensure the safety and security of the common man from the island-nation in the south Indian State.
It was even more heartening that former Chief Minister and Opposition DMK supremo M Karunanidhi had earlier drawn the distinction between in his party’s oppositioin to the Sri Lankan State and its political leadership on the one hand, and the average Sri Lankans, including those from the majority Sinhala community, on the other, who come visiting to Tamil Nadu and other south Indian States, ad infinitum, for a variety of reasons.
Karunanidhi, who had earlier unwittingly called the ‘TESO conference’ in Chennai, in which the solitary Sri Lankan participation was that of a Sinhala political lightweight, who again pressed the idea of a ‘united Sri Lanka’, also exempted Sri Lankan sportsmen, whom the Jayalalithaa Government had sent packing home, alongside the attacks on Christian pilgrims and cultural troupes.
All these incidents had prompted official reactions from the Sri Lankan Government at the time. Irony, yet it was true. In a very limited way, the Sri Lankan Government could not have asked for more.
A week after it had been called upon to defend itself against a ‘travel advisory’ issued by the UK for those citizens wanting to travel to Sri Lanka, the latter was issuing one of its own. It was one in a series western Governments have become habituated, and at times obsessed with – not to ensure the safety and security of their people travelling in ‘conflict areas’ across the world. Over the years, it has become a diplomatic tool targeting nations and Governments in times of conflict.
The Sri Lankan Government’s recent advisory for citizens wanting to travel to and in Tamil Nadu may have also changed the course of the discourse on the larger subject of ‘ethnic issue’ and the Indian element in the discourse. There is, however, no denying the attacks on, threat against, Sri Lankan citizens travelling in Tamil Nadu.
The ‘direct action’ in this case, as against the ‘indirect appeals’ made by the polity and the Government in Tamil Nadu, made through the instruments of the Government of India as in the past, have other consequences, but none of them life-threatening.
The irony does not stop with the travel advisory. Amnesty International, which has thus far criticised only the Sri Lankan Government for events and episodes relating to the ethnic issue in the country, has turned its attention to Tamil Nadu, instead. Independent of what the Sri Lankan Government and other critics across the world may have to say about the objectivity and impartiality of international human rights NGOs like the Amnesty, for the south Indian State to get notice for the wrong reasons has not gone unnoticed, either.
In the past, the Tamil Nadu Government in particular and the Government of India have come in for international acclaim for their hosting of the Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka in camps put up across the State. ‘Competitive Dravidian politics’ may also have contributed to successive Governments in Tamil Nadu addressing the demands and expectations of these refugees, periodically.
For instance, when the rest of Tamil Nadu was reeling under 10-12 hours of power-cut in the recent past – and much of it continues still, to varying degrees – the refugee camps continued to have power-supply, however, limited it be, to begin with.
For most parts, the travel advisory should have been addressing the Sinhala-Buddhist sections of the Sri Lankan citizenry as they used to be the targets of physical assaults and threats on the streets of Tamil Nadu. Now after a recent episode, not only Sinhala-speaking Buddhists, but even Tamil-speaking Christians have become targets.
Either the vandals did not have a clue about what they were doing, or did not distinguish between the Tamils and Sinhalas, or the Buddhists and the rest, any more. Either way, it has consequences going beyond the obvious. Both nations and their Governments need to mull over the same even more.
Ahead of the attacks on the Christian pilgrims, among whom many were Tamils, was Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s directive for the State police to send back a team of school-children playing friendly soccer games with officials of the Indian Customs. This was accompanied by another directive to send back school children on a cultural exchange programme.
The impossibility of the proposition in the Indian constitutional milieu apart, it deviated so completely from the professed arguments of the State’s polity for the Sinhalas to be more sensitive to the Tamils’ needs nearer home, and to Tamil Nadu’s ‘umbilical cord’ sentiments over the ethnic issue.
If anything, the reverse may have become the truth just now. Unwittingly, and possibly unintended, the Tamil Nadu episodes may have translated the post-war security concerns of the Sri Lankan State into security concerns of a totally different kind. Now, individual Sinhala homes across Sri Lanka may have had personal experiences, and consequently personal interpretations to the term.
It could come to haunt the community feelings the same way it affects sensitivities and sensibilities in Tamil Nadu when it comes to equality for Tamils in Sri Lanka.
In the post-war milieu, the Sinhala-Buddhist citizenry may have desired their Government to give the Tamils on the island-nation their due. Their desire may not be as strong any more. Instead, they may have their own anxieties, fears and apprehensions of their own.
The personal episodes may fade away. But the cumulative conscience of the citizenry may divine issues and causes, far removed from the issues on hand. It cannot be helped. In a democracy where the polity is already dictated by their perceptions of the public mood, demonstrative episodes of the kind leave a trail of thought which would be hard to reverse and harder to erase
The overall conduct of the Tamil Nadu polity, with the singular exception of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the CPM for short, has exposed their inadequate understanding of the ground situation in Sri Lanka. Alternatively, it is a reflection of their lack of seriousness and sincerity to the larger ‘Tamil cause’ in Sri Lanka.
If the idea was to have the Sinhalas and other Sri Lankans, both in Government and outside, to understand and appreciate the Tamil sentiments, wherever they emanate, the professed opportunity has been lost.
It will take a lot of time for the Sinhalas as a community and the Sri Lankan administration otherwise to revive the exchange programmes of the kind. It will remain so whether it is coordinated by the Central Governments in the two countries, or undertaken by individuals, whether or not in groups.
Sri Lanka withdrawing the travel advisory is only one thing. Even while back in Tamil Nadu, it will take the travellers a lot of time to readjust to the then existing realities, to be open to discussions and discourses that alone could, and could make mutual understanding of issues and positions possible.
If anything, the reverse will be the truth. The Sinhala community had learnt to forget earlier attacks on their aged pilgrims travelling to Buddhist centres of reverence in northern India. The Government of Sri Lanka did not protest, either. But revived attacks of the kind have taken the ‘message’ from Tamil Nadu, to individual homes in the Sinhala South, from where most of these pilgrims came. It has also taken the message to Christian homes across Sri Lanka, language no bar.
The pressure brought on young students of the prestigious Royal College, Colombo, has consequences for the future, too. It is among many of the prestigious schools in Sri Lanka that have traditionally shaped future politicians, administrative heads and national and international diplomats of Sri Lankan origin would well be remembered for long. Citing past experience of the Tamils in context is not going to help them either, in their future interactions with the Sri Lankan State and the Sinhala polity and society.
The avoidable anxiety that has thoughtlessly been sown in the minds of ‘innocent Sinhalas’ — as there are innocent Tamils — has its consequences. This again, the Tamil Nadu polity seems to have seldom understood, for them to appreciate and act accordingly. The protests against the Tamil Nadu attacks by the Tamil traders of Pettah, Colombo, have a message of their own. Over the medium and long terms, the opportunity to bury the past with the war has also been lost.
Even when the ethnic issue was resolved through mutual agreement between the various stake-holders in Sri Lanka, now or later, the ‘Tamil Nadu factor’ in India’s Sri Lanka policy would be interpreted by interested groups and individuals in Colombo to mean different things from the past. There will be more people in Sri Lanka ready to ‘buy’ those perceptions than in the past.
On either side of the Palk Strait, it only requires ‘media management’ or other propaganda tools to effect such conversions and to practice mind-control of a kind. The ‘innocent Sinhalas’, if not all of them, would then have been on the same page as many of the ‘innocent Tamils’ during the war years – and beyond.
It is here that the clarification statement of sorts from former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi gains some relevance and significance. Going beyond the traditional war of words with Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, for sending off school children and pilgrims back to Sri Lanka, he has also condemned the attacks on some of them on the streets of Tamil Naduby pan-Tamil peripheral groups.
As Chief Minister during the closing weeks and months of the ‘ethnic war’, he headed a Government that did not leave such attacks unaccounted for – or, unpunished, either.
Yet, Karunanidhi should acknowledge to himself that he may have himself sown the seeds of discord in recent times, while in the Opposition. The ‘TESO conference’ that his DMK hosted was in the news continually for days together, and not for reasons intended. The ineffectiveness of the conference proceedings was also reflected in the inability of the DMK organisers to have adequate and meaningful representation from Sri Lanka, particularly from the Sri Lankan Tamil and other Tamil-speaking communities.
The lone speaker from Sri Lanka, a Sinhala political bystander, spoke about equality for the Tamils within a united country and under a unitary Constitution of sorts. It may have tickled other segments of the competitive Tamil Nadu polity on to an unthinking action-reaction mode. They had been known for such political behaviour in the past. Yet, for a State Government under the Union to take such positions is another matter.
Issues, developments and decisions of the Tamil Nadu kind have ways of lingering for long, and strike at the unexpected hour and in an unanticipated way. Paraphrasing the relevant portions of report of the Justice Jain Commission, which was appointed by the Government of India, the then existing political climate in Tamil Nadu was seen as being conducive enough for the LTTE to move around freely in the State and commit the infamy ‘Rajiv Gandhi assassination’, unchallenged until after the event.
The flagged issues may also have consequences for their Tamil brethren in Sri Lanka in arriving at a negotiated settlement with their Government in Colombo, using in the process the good offices and acceptance levels of the majority Sinhala polity and community than may be understood in Tamil Nadu.
Their current efforts at pressuring the Sri Lankan Government in addressing the legitimate Tamil concerns in Sri Lanka could thus be counter-productive, if only they had followed the post-war Sri Lankan discourse on power-sharing, particularly Police powers for Provinces.
The existing Sri Lankan State anxieties involving national security concerns may now be compounded again by a collective concern over the very concept of a unified Centre sharing police powers with the provinces, with no adequate enforcement leverages for that very Centre.
After the not-so-successful and even less meaningful TESO conference, it is time the Tamil Nadu polity consulted the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), or whatever Tamil party they can identify and communicate with in the Sri Lankan/Tamil context, to understand the ground realities in their countries.
The recent events in Tamil Nadu may otherwise have exposed the inadequacies of the Diaspora approach to conflict-resolution and problem-solving, if solving the ‘national problem’ of Sri Lanka in ways that are commonly understood is in their milieu, to begin with.
If nothing else, the clarion call is for the Tamil Nadu polity to know who they are dealing with from within the Sri Lankan Tamil community and polity, why and where from they are doing so, and if it would have the effect desired by the former, and not possibly disclosed to them by the latter.
The comparison may be odious and at times irrelevant too, but the Tamil Nadu parties should take lessons from their fading memories that they were neither consulted, nor kept informed but were walked down the garden-path of Tamils’ misery in Sri Lanka, ahead of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, too.
Maybe, after a time, even the TNA and other sections of the Tamil polity based in Sri Lanka should be asking the same questions themselves. Many, if not all of them, have been favourably disposed towards the Diaspora talk of encouragement, which has however not led them anywhere. A part of the blame should lie at the doorstep of the Sri Lankan Government, which has also taken the TNA negotiations nowhere, thus far.
Otherwise, too, Tamil Nadu parties like the DMK can take lessons from the TNA, for instance, on procedural issues of the international kind – with which the latter is much more familiar with than the Indian polity, as different from the Government, may be acquainted with. The DMK is now keen on taking forward the only ‘effective resolutions’ flowing from the TESO conference, and move the UN on the party’s demand for assessing the Sri Lankan Tamil mood in matters of political solution.
For one thing, no other Tamil group, particularly active and registered political parties in Sri Lanka, have made any such demand. So, there will be the question of locus standi for parties not affected by the ethnic issue, war and violence to approach the UN or any arm of the international body, directly.
Two and as a procedural matter, the TNA, it may be recalled toyed with the idea of going to Geneva ahead of the UNHRC vote in March. Newspaper reports at the time had indicated that the TNA’s decision not to go followed questions about the effectiveness of and need for such an effort when the international community was seized of the matter.
Then, there was also the procedural question of the TNA, being political party or grouping in Sri Lanka, though not under the same name and title, may not enjoy the status of an ‘accredited NGO’ in the UN context, and might be turned away, after all.
In context, what was supposed to be applicable to the TNA may apply to the DMK or any other political party as well. More importantly, unlike the TNA, the DMK is also a party sharing power at the Centre in India, and hence may be considered ‘Government’ in the UN context, for which different rules might apply, after all.
A lot would thus depend on interpretations — and interpretations of the externalised and relatively irrelevant kind is what the Sri Lankan Tamils, and their political representatives negotiating with the Colombo Government can do without, now or ever.
Sure enough, the TNA may not have anticipated that its call and preference for the ‘internationalisation’ of the ethnic issue has consequences that were not intended or even dreamt of in the first place.
That is also how interested parties, concerned as they may be otherwise in the larger ethnic issue, tend to play out their chosen part, on the paths chosen by them. It is no different in the case of ‘international community’, as is commonly understood. The solution to the problem lies in Sri Lanka, and nowhere else.
It was no different in the case of the Tamil brethren from Tamil Nadu, either. It was in his “Heroes’ Day” speech of 2008 that LTTE’s Prabhakaran made his customary appeal to Tamil Nadu and the rest of India for supporting what was essentially a peripheral cause on the Tamil agenda, but enforced through the gun.
Post-war, when the Tamils’ situation in Sri Lanka has vastly improved – though not necessarily to the desired levels – and when there is no appeal of any specific kind from any identifiable Tamil community or political leader residing in Sri Lanka, the developments in Tamil Nadu leave much to be desired in every which way.
The TNA reacted appropriately to the events and episodes in Tamil Nadu. Senior party leaders, Maavai Senathirajaand Suresh Premachandran, said that the episodes of the Tamil Nadu kind were just not on. The last time, he spoke on a Tamil Nadu related issue was when he was in the State, meeting with DMK’s Karunanidhi and explaining the party’s position on the ‘TESO conference’.
The TNA did not attend the conference! What more, the fact remains there are close to 80 flights per week between Colombo and destinations in Tamil Nadu per week. Not all travellers are Sri Lankans or Sinhalas. There are Tamils, too, from both the countries which have personal business of whatever kind to transact. This is a reality that cannot be ignored – and should not be ignored, either!
It would mean that the Sri Lankan Government too would have to withdraw the ‘travel advisory’ sooner than later. That can happen only after Colombo had duly satisfied itself about the safety and security of its citizenry.
The latter, unlike their leaders, whom the Tamil Nadu Government has anyway barred without advance alert – and not for wrong reasons – need to re-imbibe the traditional sense of security that used to be absent in their own environment until not very long ago, but across the Palk Strait. Though the comparison itself is incomparable beyond a point!
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation for which this paper was written)