|May 29, 2000|
With the ruling DMK doing a flip-flop and the Opposition AIADMK not taking the bait, the reaction to the Jaffna battle in Tamil Nadu remains muted for now
By Lakshmi Iyer in Chennai
In November 1995, when the Jaffna peninsula slipped out of the control of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), then an out-of-power Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) leader M. Karunanidhi led a "black shirt" procession in Chennai. At the end of the month he called a 12-hour bandh that was supported by all political parties, including the ruling All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (AIADMK). The bandh in a limited way had marked the revival of support for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause for the first time after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination in Tamil Nadu.
Curiously, five years later, when the same LTTE is today poised to regain control of Jaffna, Karunanidhi, now the chief minister, has not only distanced himself from Eelam, but also rubbishes the Tigers as the organisation that has killed more Tamils than served their cause.
True, LTTE supremo Velupillai Pirabhakaran was never close to Karunanidhi. But after years of trying to build bridges with the Tigers, the Kalaingar's unwillingness to associate himself with the outfit that has posted significant military successes has stumped political circles. Was the Tamil Nadu chief minister reflecting the mood of the people? Were the Tamils no longer interested in what was happening to fellow Tamils across the sea?
"We are a party in power, we have to exercise power, articulate our views carefully," says state Law Minister Alladi Aruna. Political circles in Chennai, however, linked Karunanidhi's new stance to a Union Government order on May 12 extending the ban on the LTTE for a further period of two years.
Extension of the ban was routine. What was entirely new was the reason cited for such action in the preamble to the government order. According to the order, the ban on the organisation was being extended because the concept of Eelam -- a separate homeland for Tamils -- that it was pursuing could pose a threat to India.
The ban order has unintentionally come to redefine the parameters of the politics of Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu. It has effectively capped competitive mobilisation of public opinion on Sri Lankan Tamil interests by the two major regional parties -- the DMK and the AIADMK. "The factional politics of Tamil Nadu had its impact on the Sri Lankan Tamil groups," says Chennai-based Lanka expert Professor V. Suryanarayanan. "The LTTE has always exploited the competition among the Dravidian parties to its advantage."
In the first four days that it came into existence the ban order had the most debilitating effect on Karunanidhi. It forced him not once but twice to revise the statement he made on the floor of the Tamil Nadu Assembly about Eelam and the LTTE. On May 11, he said the DMK would be happy if the LTTE got Tamil Eelam. The following day he clarified to the press that his statement in the Assembly did not mean his Government would demand creation of Eelam. The DMK, he emphasised, had given up the idea of a Tamil-nation state way back in 1962. The party's founder and legendary leader C.N. Annadurai had formally renounced secessionism after the Sino-Indian conflict. On May 15, Karunanidhi went a step further. In the state Assembly, he rubbished the LTTE for killing Tamils more than furthering their cause.
The ban had such a salutary effect on the AIADMK, the main opposition party outside the Assembly, that it refrained from making an issue of the chief minister's flip-flop. The volte-face was an embarrassment to the DMK allies like the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (MDMK), which have been advocating a proactive Indian role in helping the Lankan Tamils. "Karunanidhi spoke from his heart when he said he would be happy when the Tamil Eelam is formed," explains the lone PMK legislator Dhiran. "That alone is true. Thereafter all that he said was under some duress."
Political circles, however, would like to see a design in Karunanidhi's volte-face. According to them, the DMK leader's about-turn was a device to isolate both the MDMK and the PMK. With the Opposition in disarray, Karunanidhi feels he has no need for the two allies in the Assembly elections due next year. With the AIADMK and the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) unable to reach an agreement on forming a coalition, the DMK appears poised for a re-election.
The ruling party's indifference to the Eelam issue has not dampened the enthusiasm of Tamil chauvinist fringe groups like the Tamizhar Desiya Iyakkam (TDI). The group has been consistently working towards making the LTTE acceptable to the people of Tamil Nadu soon after Rajiv's assassination. It managed to build some public support for the outlawed organisation in its campaign against the death sentences handed out to the 26 accused in the assassination case. It plans to consolidate its gains by kindling public interest in the LTTE's military expeditions.
The public mood in Chennai is understated but not indifferent to the military gains of the Tigers. As Jayakantan, a Sri Lankan student residing at the Gumudipoondi refugee camp, puts it: "My classmates at the arts college have been asking me regularly about the LTTE's gains in Jaffna. They ask me to sing songs of the Tigers."
Ever since the Lankan Tamil crisis peaked in the past one month, Tamil groups like the TDI and the Dravida Kazhagham (DK) have been trying to organise public meetings and mobilise public opinion. They called a meeting in Chidambaram last week. It was banned by the police. "I have moved the court against such bans," says TDI leader P. Nedumaran.
To an extent, the failure of the main political parties to articulate support for the LTTE does affect the efforts of these groups. Dravida Kazhagham's Deputy General Secretary Kali Pungkundran, uncomfortable with the changing stance of the DMK, says, "If the LTTE loses, there is no other alternative to provide leadership to the Tamil cause."
Yet, for Nedumaran it is enough that there is tremendous public interest in news about military developments in Lanka. Barring the Brahmin-controlled press, he says, the language press was faithfully focusing on the events in the island nation. Most newspapers were relying on newly created Eelam websites to inform their readers.
Rajya Sabha member Cho Ramaswamy strongly contests Nedumaran's position. "I challenge (MDMK's) Vaiko and (PMK's) S. Ramadoss to win an election on the LTTE issue." He recalls how Karunanidhi resigned from the Assembly in 1983 in protest against the anti-Tamil riots in Sri Lanka. In terms of electoral support, the most ardent supporters of the LTTE have never been able to get elected to the state Assembly. Nedumaran contested the 1989 elections to the state Assembly on the Tamil Eelam platform, but the electorate decisively rejected him.
Cho points out that barring the 1991 polls, no other election between 1983 and now have been contested on the Lanka Tamil issue. "People are not bothered. If they were, do you think Jayalalitha who is in search of an issue would not rake it up?" he asks. Cho is supported by the BJP state unit President L. Ganeshan, who says that only parties with no mass base are supporting the LTTE. "And that is not a coincidence." As for Karunanidhi's new position on the LTTE, Ganeshan says, "He (Karunanidhi) has crossed the threshold of being a leader. He has become a statesman and he is speaking out of his experience."
All this points to the core question of whether the muted interest in the Lankan problem reflects a weakening of the spirit of Tamil sub-nationalism. "Identity formation is not a static process," explains Suryanarayanan. "It is a dynamic process of social formation. Linguistic identities came to the fore when linguistic states were formed. Now the emphasis on the language is not important." The DMK chief minister himself has now emerged as a champion of English.
Former AIADMK minister S. Ramachandran sums up best the impact of the Sri Lankan developments on Tamil Nadu. He says, "If the LTTE takes Jaffna, the Lankan Tamil issue would not be a problem. As far as people are concerned it would be a settled affair. However, if the LTTE is beaten back from Jaffna, suspicion against India will arise."
For the moment, the projections about the fallout of the developments in Sri Lanka on Tamil Nadu politics may appear exaggerated. All the same, the public mood could change from muted interest to an outcry if thousands of Tamil refugees begin to arrive in the state.
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