N Sathiya Moorthy
Tamil National Alliance (TNA) chief ministerial candidate for the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) elections in Sri Lanka, Justice C V Wigneswaran, could not have said it more candidly and categorically. It is a strong and unwavering indictment of the Tamil Nadu political class, who have often been accused of indulging in competitive cry-wolf on the ‘Sri Lankan issue’, without any relation or concern for the sufferings of their ‘umbilical cord relations’ across the Palk Strait.
“In Tamil Nadu, our problems have been taken to be the ball to be playued in the tennis court between two or three parties, the retired Justice of the Sri Lankan Supreme Court told ‘The Hindu’ (Friday, 13 September 2013), the Chennai-based Indian daily, at Jaffna, the seat of the Northern Provincial Council. A clear-headed, no-nonsense non-politician who has been specifically chosen to be the TNA’s chief ministerial candidate precisely for the same reason, Wigneswaran was obviously ticking off the Tamil Nadu politicians for what is often perceived as playing dirty politics with the lives and livelihood of their Sri Lankan brethren, whose cause they have been claiming to fight for within the State and across India, particularly with the Union Government at distant Delhi.
Alluding to the ‘tennis ball’ comparison, Justice Wigneswaran said further: “They (Tamil Nadu politicians) start hitting the ball from one side to the other, and it is we who get hit by that…. When politicians in Tamil Nadu say separation is the only solution, the Sinhalese masses – many sections of which fear that the Tamils would collaborate with India and form a separate State – get annoyed.”
Going by The Hindu report, Wigneswaran said, “We get affected by what is being said there,” emphasising that the emotional rhetoric only made Tamils in Sri Lanka more vulnerable. Better still, comparing the Sri Lankan situation to a home where the husband and wife are having a fight, he said, “We will fight, but sometimes we come together. The next-door neighbour must not come and say, ‘You must divorce’. That is not your business.” Instead, Tamil Nadu’s efforts, Wigneswaran said, “must be to see that there was greater responsiveness ont he part of different communities in Sri Lanka than promoting antipathy towards each other.”
Wigneswaran did not stop there. Sri Lankan media reports have indicated that the TNA would win the Northen polls and Wigneswaran would become chief minister. Possibly given this background, Wigneswaran also talked about the fishers’ issue involving Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka’s Tamil areas, including the North, and said, “She (Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa) is very much involved and interested in the welfare of the fishermen in her area.” What he possibly left unsaid was that if and when he became Northern PC Chief Minister, he would likewise be ‘involved an interested in the welfare of the fishermen’ in his area.
Indian fishermen (read: Tamil Nadu fishermen) using big trawlers, The Hindu quoted him as saying, “came fairly early into Sri Lankan waters, caught all the fish and left the local people high and dry. The Sri Lankan and Indian Navies had a role to play in addressing the problem”. It also had to be discussed with Jayalalithaa, he said. She “has a crucial role in addressing the issue of Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters”.
This is not the first time that Wigneswaran has spoken thus. Around the time the TNA launched the campaign for the Northern PC polls, he had said as much to the local media. Yet, appearing in an Indian newspaper such as The Hindu, Wigneswaran’s message this time should be hitting the target-audience, and on issues that the Tamil Nadu politicians have been crying hoarse about, for wrong reasons and in wrong ways.
From among the Sri Lankan Tamil community leaders, Wigneswaran’s is thus by far the most forthright and unprecedented commentary on the attitude and approach of the Tamil Nadu polity on the ‘ethnic issue’ in Sri Lanka. If anything, before him, no Sri Lankan Tamil leader, now or earlier, had even been mildly critical of Tamil Nadu politicos’ approach to the problems of their blood brethren in Sri Lanka.
Truth be told, hardly has there been any known and constant contacts between any section of the Tamil Nadu polity and the TNA, which is acknowledged as the single most influential political party of the Sri Lankan Tamils, particularly in the post-war period. Possibly for reasons now boldly outlined by Justice Wigneswaran, the TNA leadership has often shied away from having institutional contacts with the Tamil Nadu polity.
The logic may have also flowed from the reality that the Tamil Nadu polity hardly had any contact with any of the major political formation in Sri Lanka to be able to influence their thinking and decisions on the ethnic issue back home. Instead, the Government of India as an institution, both directly and more so through the Indian High Commission in Colombo and also the Sri Lankan High Commission in New Delhi, has been maintaining contacts with not only the Sri Lankan Government but also with all political parties and groupings of various ethnic and ideological hues.
More importantly, the TNA in particular seemed shy of getting caught in the cross-fire of ‘competitive pan-Tamil politics’ in Tamil Nadu, without their own knowledge and consent. The party leadership thus seemed wanting to steer clear of the controversies and inevitable branding of the kind that had alienated the LTTE from large sections of the Tamil Nadu polity when the late M G Ramachandran was the AIADMK Chief Minister of the State.
Though the ‘Sri Lankan Tamil cause’ may not have overly or overtly suffered under the short-lived successor-Government of DMK Chief Minister M Karunanidhi in the late Eighties, the ‘Rajiv Gandhi assassination’ did mark a cold period in Tamil Nadu’s relations with the Tamil leadership in Sri Lanka. Things improved only after the exit of the LTTE and the death of outfit leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, in May 2009, or so it seems.
In the post-LTTE era, the Tamil political and social leadership back in Sri Lanka seemed even more uncomfortable about the way in which the polity in the south Indian State seemed to have used, misused and abused the ‘ethnic issue’ to try and settle electoral scores in Tamil Nadu. They also seemed to have understood the alienation that such a course would entail with the rest of India, whose sympathy and support they would require to flag their cause with the Sri Lankan Government time and again – and also with the international community, at appropriate times, at appropriate venues such as the UNHRC, Geneva.
Justice Wigneswaran’s frank and strident comments since his nomination as the TNA’s chief ministerial candidate should be seen as the view of the larger Tamil society and intellectuals in Sri Lanka, on his way to adoring the political cap. If there have been any political contacts between the TNA and some political parties in Tamil Nadu, during and after ‘Eelam War IV’, it has only been at a personal level, below the surface – and not at the institutional or organisational level, in either case.
In the past, no TNA leader, while in Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu (on occasional but personal visits) or elsewhere, has commented publicly on what they expected and needed from their umbilical cord brethren from across the Palk Strait. Their appeals have been directed at the Government of India and the rest of the international community, apart from the Diaspora Sri Lankan Tamils. Seldom have they addressed the Tamil Nadu Government or the Tamil Diaspora from India, now working or settled outside the two ountries.
Wigneswaran is the first to do so, and his is the voice of the future TNA political administration in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka – if and when the TNA won the PC polls on 21 September. Even for argument’s sake, the TNA’s status as the political Opposition in the Northern Province cannot be denied, now or pos- poll, should the TNA fail to make the electoral grade, whatever the reason and circumstances.
Unasked, unanswered questions
In this background, two questions need to be asked, but have seldom been asked, or answers found for them. One, if the TNA’s position is as outlined by Justice Wigneswaran for a good measure, who or what was the source of information for the Tamil Nadu polity while framing their policies and protest programmes centred on the ethnic issue, war and violence in neighbouring Sri Lanka. Whether it’s from TNA or other sources, seldom has the Tamil Nadu’s divided polity cited any credible and creditable source for their information, granting that the analyses and the consequent demands on the Indian Government in New Delhi being theirs.
As the post-war ‘competitive pan-Tamil politics’ over the Sri Lankan ethnic issue in Tamil Nadu has shown, different political parties have been known to have constantly shifted their goal-posts, at times almost on a daily basis, as if on cue. These demands have often been seen as reflecting the mood and methods of certain volatile sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora, who are divided overall other than on the common issue of forming a ‘separate State’, one way or the other.
As may be noted, most demands of the Tamil Nadu polity on the Centre have focussed on issues and methods leading to a ‘separate State’ in Sri Lanka. In the post-war era in particular, the TNA as a responsible political player in Sri Lanka, is not known to have made any such demand on the Sri Lankan State, majority Sinhala polity, or the international community.
Conversely, they have stuck to the old-world, pre-war Tamil demand for ‘internal self-determination within a united Sri Lanka’.Even the more recent, controversial TNA manifesto for the Northern Provincial Council did not talk about a ‘separate State’ or even a ‘UN-mandated referendum’, which is the flavour of the new UNHRC season in Tamil Nadu. Party parliamentarian M A Sumanthiran’s rebuttal statement of the criticisms to the manifesto, if anything, reaffirms the TNA’s commitment to a political solution within a ‘united Sri Lanka’.
The second question flows from the first. The Government of India having recognised the TNA as the majority voice of the Sri Lankan Tamil people in the island-nation for constant interactions and mutual consultations on the ethnic issue, should it allow itself to be influenced by stray political voices from the south Indian State, which do not derive from the legitimate Tamil voices in Sri Lanka, but from the ‘separatist voices’ of the divided Diaspora community of Sri Lankan Tamils?
This is not to rule out other voices of the Tamil-speaking peoples in the island-nation, representing the Sri Lankan Tamils, the Tamils of Indian Origin and the Muslims. There is no denying the continued existence of a meddling voice of the ‘Tamil nationalists’ of the Fifties vintage and later in Sri Lanka, particularly in the urban North. Theirs again has been the voice of the Diaspora but not necessarily of the war-victims.
Neither has spoken much about the day-to-day affairs of the war-victims, but only about their political rights. This has been the case with the TNA, too. Should it be elected to power in the North, the TNA should and would have to reset some of its politico-administrative priorities, to address the immediate concerns of the suffering people who may have voted them to power in the first place. It would be a learning-curve for every TNA politician, PC member and Minister in particular, they having had no interaction or engagement with the powers-that-be on the socio-economic requirements of their people when the LTTE was ruling the roost.
In conclusion, the question also arises if India should allow itself to be influenced by the ‘separatist voice’ of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora, as reflected by the Tamil Nadu polity from within the Indian Union? Or, should New Delhi be guided by the TNA, which it has engaged with for long, whenever and wherever India feels the need for ground-level inputs on the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka, to engage with the Government in Colombo, and the international community, wherever and whenever required. The immediate issue would be the level of Indian participation in the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of State Meeting (CHOGM), scheduled to be held in Colombo in November. Orchestrated voices have been coming up from southern Tamil Nadu for the Government of India in general and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to boycott the summit, to register India’s protest at the Sri Lankan Government’s alleged unwillingness to resolve the ethnic issue in all its form and content.
Needless to point out, no such demand has come up from the TNA. It is unlikely that any such demand would come up from a TNA administration, or a TNA-controlled PC in the North, should the party win the upcoming polls, as has been predicted across the board. If anything, the TNA manifesto and Justice Wigneswaran’s observations have indicated only internal processes within Sri Lanka to resolve the ethnic issue internally, and within a ‘united Sri Lanka’.
The Government of India has not recognised the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora in anyway. For their part, the Diaspora voices, wherever and whenever heard has been ‘separatist’ in nature. By seemingly heeding to any reflected voice of the kind from Tamil Nadu, New Delhi may also be seen as conferring unintended legitimacy on ‘separatists’ on the Sri Lankan Tamil milieu. If anything, India, despite the change of political leadership at the Centre over the past few decades, has always stood by ‘united Sri Lanka’ and a political solution to the ethnic issue ‘within a united Sri Lanka’.
Justice Wigneswaran may have also had a message for the Sri Lankan Government, and sections of the Sinhala polity that have dubbed him a ‘Tamil hard-liner’ and painted him with the same brush that they had used to paint the LTTE in the past. The TNA’s manifesto, despite denials and explanations to the contrary, may have helped matters, however.
Yet, the self-styled ‘Sinhala nationalists’, both within and outside the Sri Lankan Government, need to comprehend the Wigneswaran line of thought on the ethnic issue, wholly and wholesomely. They cannot deny the existence of an ‘ethnic issue’ in the country. Nor can they delude themselves into believing that all was well with the exit of the LTTE. The very same Sinhala voices that had claimed that there was no more scope for any Tamil militancy after the exit of the LTTE have started speaking differently, since.
It is still a political problem, and the solution also needs to be political in nature. Military defeat may have been the way to bring around the stake-holders to the negotiations table, but political, the issue still is. By clarifying the position viz Tamil Nadu, including on the sensitive ‘fishermen issue’ (on which too other TNA leaders have seldom spoken), he has shown where his heart and mind, brain and intellect lie.
By referring to ‘ivory tower’ existence in the past, which reference also he made to The Hindu, he has also indicated where immediate work needed doing if and when the TNA came to elected power in the North. It is no secret that ‘Sinhala nationalism’ is as much a potent political past-time in Sri Lanka as ‘pan-Tamil nationalism’ has been in Tamil Nadu. The Governments in Colombo and New Delhi, independent of the political hue, need to appreciate the changing ground-realities in the Northern Province, and proceed accordingly – not, otherwise.
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation)