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May 29, 2000


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Eelam Unease

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

India Today issue dated May 29, 2000In 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.

At Gumudipoondi -- 50 km north of Chennai -- the Sri Lankan Tamil refugee camp has an air of solemnity and urgency. There is a mass prayer for Eelam, the Tamil homeland that now seems within the realms of possibility. And frenzied preparations to house 160 of the 400 refugees who have just arrived in Mandapam.
The effect of the LTTE's military success across the Palk Straits is palpable in the camp. For the first time since their arrival in 1998 the refugees freely discuss the LTTE and the emerging Eelam.
"We want to go back. We are soon going to have a homeland," says Chandra, one of the out-of-work youth huddled together under a shade. For news of Eelam, Chandra and his friends rely only on a radio broadcast from London. "We listen to it twice a day." Eelam, according to him, is already at hand. "Pirabhakaran is just taking time to announce it."
The mere mention of Eelam invites a litany of complaints. "We lived with dignity in our country. We have no dignity here. We cannot even go to Chennai. This place is like a prison," says a young Tamil. The refugees are expected to be inside the camp by 6 p.m. "We cannot put up posters hailing the LTTE. We cannot even burst a cracker. We are continuously suspected to be militants," complains another. Ironically, these youngsters were packed off to India because their families did not want them to join the Tigers.
Not everyone in the camp share the disdain of Chandra and his friends for life in the refugee camp. In fact, people who moved into the camp a decade ago view it as an opportunity. "The LTTE won't get a single recruit from here," says former TULF leader S.C. Chandrahasan -- who now runs the Organisation for Eelam Refugee Rehabilitation (oferr). "We have made people aware of the need to educate themselves so that they can help their homeland when they return."
Nineteen-year-old Jaya bears Chandrahasan out. She has completed high school and is hoping to join the ranks of 450 students from the 133 refugee camps spread across Tamil Nadu who are already receiving higher education under a special quota. She wants to be an engineer to "rebuild Eelam". "I am studying for my country," she says. "That will be my contribution to the cause."
Her family of five lives on a cash dole of Rs 150 per head each fortnight and subsidised rice at 57 paise a kilo. The subsidies on the 65,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees cost the exchequer Rs 15.5 crore per month.
Jaya has no memory of her home in Jaffna; she has been in India since she was eight. Yet she is emotionally charged when talking of Eelam. She believes the LTTE will secure her homeland. So does her mother Muthulakshmi, who fled Sri Lanka with her four children in 1990 to avoid being human fodder for the LTTE. "If we had stayed a little longer, we would have joined the LTTE," admits Jaya. But she is in no hurry to return to the island, confident that Eelam will wait for her.

Lakshmi Iyer

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."

Truth is usually the first casualty in a war. Especially if the Government clamps a blanket censorship of news from the war front, as Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga has done ever since the LTTE launched a major assault to recapture the Jaffna peninsula last fortnight. While every day the Tamil Tigers speak of a string of victories on their websites, the Government spokesperson scoffs at such claims and instead reels out figures on how the Sri Lankan armed forces have held their own in the battle for Jaffna.
Yet, as the Tigers continue their relentless attack -- appropriately called Ceaseless Waves -- on key army positions in Jaffna, the Government's desperation is palpable. Even though the 25,000 soldiers stationed in the North far outnumber the LTTE's 7,000 fighters, the Government is not taking any chances in view of the low morale of its troops. With India flatly refusing to either intervene militarily or sell weapons to Lanka, Kumaratunga hurriedly sent her officers to seven countries to shop for arms. Israel, after Lanka restored diplomatic relations with it, offered to sell four Kfir ground attack aircraft, but said they could be shipped only by the second week of June. With the delay in the arrival of fighter jets, the Government sent a "crisis purchase" team to Pakistan and the Czech Republic to acquire multi-barrel rocket launchers (MBRLs) and 120mm artillery guns.
Meanwhile, with reports of the LTTE having reached the outskirts of Jaffna town, the Lankan Government appears to have requested India to at least provide psychological support to its beleaguered forces. India responded by conducting a naval exercise around the Tamil Nadu coastline abutting Jaffna. The Lankans then invited K.P.S. Gill, the former director-general of Punjab Police, to advise them on combating the LTTE's terrorism. And General Rohan Daluwatte, the army chief, dashed to Bangalore to reportedly discuss strategy with Indian Army commanders in the south. The move was apparently designed to send confusing signals to the LTTE. But with the Indian Government maintaining that there was no question of a military intervention, the visit has left everyone confused, even as the battle for Jaffna enters a decisive stage.

-Roy Denish in Colombo

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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