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In the Name of the ‘Tamil’

by Vaishali Basu Sharma - 10 March, 2021, 12:00 331 Views 0 Comment

The connection between Sri Lankan Tamils and their brethren in Tamil Nadu are a major pivot of India and Sri Lanka’s bilateral relations. India’s policy towards Sri Lanka is in support of the unitary status of the Sri Lankan state, but provocative ‘Tamil’ nationalist rhetoric rousing the Tamil Eelam cause during election time becomes the basis of acrimony between the two nations.

‘Tamil’ ethnicity across borders forms a major platform in the political affairs of Tamil Nadu. Every time the state goes for elections parties stumble over each other to project themselves as the saviors of the race. The rhetoric verges on the alarmist, and Tamil Eelam reemerges as a prominent agenda. The perception of what ‘Tamil Eelam’ constitutes itself ranges from –a common cultural and ethnic identity of the Tamil population residing on both sides of the Palk Strait, or as a separate State in Sri Lanka, consisting of people of the Northern and Eastern provinces.  In the final volume of his autobiography, The Presidential Years 2012-2017, former President Pranab Mukherjee stated that the India-Sri Lanka relationship was “greatly influenced by Tamil politics in India, particularly with the emergence of a strong Dravidian party in Tamil Nadu since the mid-60s.” Tamil Nadu will be voting for 234 Assembly constituencies on April 6, and once again tub thumpers for the Eelam are trying to cash on ‘Tamil’ passions.

Emotive Issue Exploited by all Political Parties

The Sri Lankan Tamil problem has always been an emotive issue. But after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in Sriperumbudur near Chennai on May 21, 1991 by Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cadres the Sri Lankan Tamils problem had ceased to be an election issue in Tamil Nadu. It assumed focus around 2008, when the civil war in Sri Lanka intensified. The DMK’s sorry performance in the 2011 elections was in large part due to the ignominy earned by its role in the 2G spectrum license scam. But the armed conflict between Sri Lankans which resulted in the deaths of Tamil people also affected the outcome of the elections. It was perceived that the DMK- Congress, UPA alliance did not make sufficient efforts to ensure a drawdown of tensions in Sri Lanka. The late J Jayalalithaa, a fierce opponent of the LTTE, but while electioneering for the 2009 Lok Sabha polls she made ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka AIADMK’s major plank, accusing the DMK and Congress, of aiding the Sri Lankan military to “kill lakhs of Tamils”, and even promised that the “Indian Army would be sent to the island nation to carve out Tamil Eelam state if her alliance wins all the 40 Lok Sabha seats in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.”

The goodwill that the LTTE lost after the killing of Rajiv Gandhi does not translate into a complete denunciation of the Eelam Tamils. Even today there are several outfits in Tamil Nadu, claiming to fight for the rights of the Eelam Tamils. The “welfare of Sri Lankan Tamils” finds mention in the manifestos of almost every political party. The Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK) headed by Seeman with its rustic “Tamil nationalist agenda,” and passionate advocacy for a separate state for the Tamil Eelam garnered more than Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam vote share in the 2019 general elections.

In the upcoming assembly elections, the cause of ethnic Tamils in Lanka is again emerging as a key agenda. The Congress has always highlighted its concern for the Lanka Tamils despite its collaboration with the Sri Lankan government in the last phase of the war that ended with the killing of LTTE Chief V Prabhakaran. In his address in Chennai on Feb 14, PM Modi said that India has been consistently taking up the issue of the rights of Tamils living in Sri Lanka with the neighbouring country’s government and gave an assurance that his administration is committed to ensuring that “they live with equality, justice, peace and dignity.”

India’s Objective Stance on the ‘Tamil’

Domestic sentiments play a key role in India’s foreign policy stance, which in this case has translated into India striking a fine balance between vouching for the rights of the Sri Lankan Tamils without unequivocally disparaging Sri Lanka. Despite criticism from many analysts India voted in favour of resolutions brought by the US against Sri Lanka for alleged war crimes during the last phase of the civil war. The draft of a critical resolution against Sri Lanka which is scheduled to be tabled at the forthcoming 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council is under circulation. Indian permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, Indra Mani Pandey, significantly noted that the UN report had raised “important concerns” and aspirations of Tamils contributions to Sri Lanka’s unity and integrity. He stated that “We believe that respecting the rights of the Tamil community, including through meaningful devolution, contributes directly to the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka. Therefore, we advocate that delivering on the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil community is in the best interests of Sri Lanka.” In 2012 and 2013 India voted in favour of a critical resolution against Sri Lanka. The vote was no doubt played out for the benefit of optics for the domestic audience.  Prior to the 2013 vote, the DML had withdrawn from the Centre’s ruling alliance remonstrating that India was not doing enough to alleviate the alleged human rights violations of Sri Lankan Tamils. But the current statements are being viewed as possibly the strongest by India. Calling on Sri Lanka to address Tamil aspirations, India said that Colombo should take “necessary steps” through the “process of reconciliation and full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka”.

This time around the matter will become further politicised with the Rajapaksa brothers at the helm of affairs in Sri Lanka. Mahinda Rajapaksa is so unpopular in and evokes so much opposition in Tamil Nadu that former PM Manmohan Singh had to cancel a visit to the island-nation to participate in a Commonwealth meeting in 2013.

Earlier this year in January, during his visit to Sri Lanka, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar raised the issue of Lankan Tamils. It would not be amiss to note that the visit and the statements made may have been timed perhaps with the upcoming Tamil Nadu elections in view. In his recent address to the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) convention in Salem Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said “PM Modi has continuously tried for the Empowerment of Tamil refugees in Sri Lanka. When Modi visited Sri Lanka after becoming Prime Minister in 2015, he also visited the Jaffna area (in Sri Lanka) and became the first Prime Minister of India to do so. New houses were given to about 27,000 Tamil brothers and sisters who had become ‘homeless’ due to the civil war there.” And not to be left behind in championing the Tamil cause, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi accused the BJP and Modi of showing ‘no respect’ to Tamil culture. The BJP as it enters the complex fray of Tamil Nadu, has tactically decided that domestic politics tops international relations with its island neighbor. This spirited advocacy of Lankan Tamils at a time when India’s relations with the current dispensation in Sri Lanka are less than warm, will undoubtedly place further strains on our bilateral ties.  In the meantime, the Sri Lankan government has banned the import of dry fish from India since November 2020, hurting the interests of fishermen in coastal districts in Tamil Nadu whose 15,000 metric tons of dry fish valued at ₹500 crore is lying in warehouses since.

A factor in the Geopolitical Games?

Bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and India are been critical for both countries, and the implication of such close proximity is that developments in each country have bearing on the other. The “politics” in Tamil Nadu remains inextricably entwined with Tamil Eelam. From Sri Lanka’s perspective, the Tamil Nadu domestic politics have unduly influenced India’s actions on Sri Lanka and on the Lankan Tamil issue in a critical manner. On the other hand, Sri Lanka has made little effort in allaying India’s concerns regarding massive Chinese presence in the name of infrastructure development in the island nation. In the geopolitical realities where a belligerent China has exerted undue influence in Sri Lanka, raising security concerns for India ratcheting up the Tamil factor allows us to keep our options open.

Vaishali Basu Sharma
Vaishali Basu Sharma
Author is a Researcher on Strategic and Economic Affairs. She has worked as a Consultant with the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) for nearly a decade. She is presently associated with the New Delhi based think tank Policy Perspectives Foundation. She tweets at @basu_vaishali.
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