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New Delhi Should Have Anticipated The Growing Disquiet In Tamil Nadu

by G. Parthasarathy

A major lesson that the Manmohan Singh Government has learnt in recent days is that the warm and friendly Delhi-Colombo relationship cannot remain unaffected by the dynamics of Colombo-Chennai equations. Significantly, some of Sri Lanka’s most astute officials are appointed as Colombo’s Deputy High Commissioner in Chennai. If people in Punjab get outraged by Sikh children in France being prohibited from wearing turbans in schools, it is unrealistic to expect that relations with Sri Lanka can be conducted smoothly if Tamils in Sri Lanka, who have strong familial, emotional and cultural ties with their fellow Tamils in India, are perceived to be suffering, or persecuted.

Political parties in Tamil Nadu inevitably have links with one or another Tamil group in Sri Lanka. New Delhi itself has maintained links with several Tamil leaders, political parties and in the past, even with militant outfits in Sri Lanka.

Attitudes in Tamil Nadu towards the LTTE changed when it provoked a conflict with the Indian Peace-Keeping Force in Sri Lanka in 1987 and thereafter engineered the brutal assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991. In Mr Karunanidhi’s third term as Chief Minister, the LTTE was given a free hand to enter and establish havens in Tamil Nadu. But what is not well known is that till the IPKF was compelled to act against the LTTE in Sri Lanka, Mr Karunanidhi was one of the LTTE’s strongest critics for its role in assassinating his protégé — the founder leader of its rival, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation — Seeri Sabarathinam.

The LTTE and its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran were, in fact, protégés of Mr Karunanidhi’s archrival, the then Chief Minister MG Ramachandran. MGR, however, was angered by Prabhakaran’s obduracy and when I met him in 1987, while he was convalescing in Baltimore, on instructions of the Prime Minister, he expressed his understanding of Rajiv Gandhi’s compulsions in ordering the IPKF action.

New Delhi should have anticipated the growing disquiet in Tamil Nadu, where the LTTE still has an effective propaganda machinery, when the Sri Lankan Army was preparing to crack down on the last LTTE stronghold in Killinochchi, in the Island’s Northern Province. While the LTTE does use innocent Tamils as human shields, the fact remains that since 2005, when the ethnic conflict escalated, 20,000 Tamils have fled to India as refugees and about 500,000 have been displaced internally. The European Union has voiced its concerns about these developments.

But what New Delhi has failed to do is to explain to people in India that while it sympathises with civilians caught in the conflict, it also recognises that the LTTE and particularly its leader, Prabhakaran, have no inhibitions in deliberately using civilians as human shields and that with the defection of its key military commander Karuna in the Eastern Province, the LTTE is isolated both internally and externally.

People in Tamil Nadu cannot support an organisation that is designated as a terrorist group by 31 countries, including India, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and 27 members of the European Union. Prabhakaran is responsible for the assassination of one President (Ranasinghe Premadasa), one Prime Minister (Rajiv Gandhi), nine Sri Lankan Ministers including the island’s most prominent Tamil, former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, and 18 prominent Tamil political and Parliamentary leaders. They include popular figures who could challenge Prabhakaran within the Tamil community, like TULF president Appapilai Amirthalingam, Sam Thambimutu and human rights activist Neelan Tiruchrelvam.

Prabhakaran started his career by assassinating the Tamil Mayor of Jaffna, Alfred Duraiappan, in July 1975. One important reason why the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987 could not be implemented was Prabhakaran’s refusal to allow any role for anyone other than those he wanted in the interim administration — an approach MGR disapproved of.

When the DMK Government gave some elbow room to the LTTE in Tamil Nadu, Prabhakaran responded by assassinating Padmanabha, the general secretary of the rival EPRLF in Chennai — an action that resulted in EPRLF leader Varatharaja Perumal having to seek political asylum in India. The Manmohan Singh Government failed to highlight these issues while seeking public support in Tamil Nadu.

Speaking at the all-party meeting in Chennai on October 14, and recalling the assassinations of TELO founder Seeri Sabarathinam and EPRLF leader Padmanabha (by the LTTE), Mr Karunanidhi made it clear that it was “fraternal wars” caused by the LTTE in the past that had proved to be a major setback for the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka. He regretted that “the present situation we are facing in Sri Lanka is due to the fraternal wars of the past”.

The DMKs’ patriarch, whose party was routed after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination and who led the UPA to a resounding victory in Tamil Nadu by capturing all 40 seats in the 2004 election, was signalling that while he recognised the excesses of the LTTE, he wanted New Delhi to spare no effort to end the killing of innocent civilians in Sri Lanka. Interestingly, while Opposition leader J Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu also vows to protect the interests of Tamils in Sri Lanka, she has shown by her past actions in that she is fully cognisant of larger national interests in dealing toughly with the LTTE.

Unfortunately, influential sections of the leadership in Sri Lanka appear to believe that with the LTTE in retreat they can ignore the issue of guaranteeing a life of dignity, equality and honour for the Tamil population. New Delhi has to persuade both the Sri Lankan Government and public opinion in Tamil Nadu that while it is determined to back the Sri Lankan Government in dealing with the psychopathic Prabhakaran, it expects early implementation of the 13th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution which guaranteed devolution of power to the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka, while urging that measures that former President Kumartunga proposed in 1997 on the issue should be taken into consideration.

As major aid donors like the USA, European Union and Japan have similar views, it should not be difficult to forge an international consensus on these lines. Moreover, with agreement reached with Sri Lanka on the vexed issue of fishermen from Tamil Nadu crossing the international maritime boundary, a major irritant causing ripples almost daily in the State appears to have been addressed. (ENDS)

[G.Parthasarathy is a former ambassador and joint secretary of India's external affairs ministry]