Friday, March 22, 2013

A Scapegoat for Political Games

By Swapan Dasgupta

Since issues and ‘causes’ are most often a fig leaf for other hard-nosed calculations, there is an understandable reluctance to take the formal pronouncements of political parties at their face value. This is particularly true of the Dravidian parties of Tamil Nadu. Although the main Dravidian parties trace their political ancestry to the pre-Independence Justice Party and the anti-Brahmin social movement launched by E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, there is precious little in their present day actions to suggest that they are guided by lofty ideas. Having alternated control of the state government since 1967 and having become stakeholders at the Centre since 1996, Dravidian politics has conveyed an unmistakable impression of being guided by venality alone.

Given this backdrop, it is hard to completely discount the suggestion that the DMK’s dramatic withdrawal from the UPA last Tuesday morning—a move that has left the Congress completely at the mercy of two Uttar Pradesh-based parties who can barely tolerate the sight of each other—was guided by a touching concern for the plight of the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Had that indeed been the case, the DMK (which always had a soft corner for the separatist Eelam movement) would have exercised its clout to force India to join other Western countries in 2009 and press for a cease-fire across the Palk Straits. True, DMK chief M.Karunanidhi did go on a symbolic fast to highlight his concern over the military elimination of the dreaded LTTE. But it is an open secret that despite nominal appeals for restraint, New Delhi was not unhappy that the LTTE was roundly vanquished and its leader V.Prabhakaran eliminated.

Yes, there was some concern at the high civilian casualties during the final stages of the bitter civil war. At the same time, New Delhi, through its bitter experience of the IPKF misadventure, knew very well that LTTE showed scant respect for the Geneva Convention and other rules of military engagement. The use of civilians and particularly children as a human shield was a recurring feature of the LTTE’s military strategy. Indeed, the reason Prabhakaran’s last stand turned out to be such a bloody affair was precisely because the LTTE had gambled on the fear of collateral damage forcing the Sri Lankan army to stall. If Colombo refused to blink, it was due to a corresponding realisation that it was confronting one of the most brutal and fanatical armies ever raised. Those familiar with Ian Kershaw’s The End, a masterly study of the final five months of the war against Nazi Germany in 1945, will see parallels with what happened in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka four years ago.

Of course, the term ‘human rights’ hadn’t entered the vocabulary of international politics in 1945—a reason why the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Poland and erstwhile Czechoslovakia has been erased from Europe’s collective memory. In any case, the application of human rights to a regime that organised the Holocaust would have been laughable.

Likewise, the invocation of human rights to a dispensation that combined brutality with unwavering fanaticism and which controlled the Tamil areas through efficient intimidation seems as out of place today as it would have in Germany 1945. There has been a brutalisation of Sri Lanka ever since the civil war began in 1983. But the hardening of the Sri Lankan military—which used to be a ceremonial force—is in direct proportion to the blood-thirstiness of the LTTE. The efficacy and wisdom of Tamil separatism in Sri Lanka may occasion legitimate debate. But there can be no debate over the fact that the LTTE personified evil.  

The irony is that the pundits in New Delhi and the political class in Tamil Nadu are fully aware of the real face of the LTTE and even the danger it posed to India. It is relevant to recall the LTTE’s calculated, cold-blooded murder of Rajiv Gandhi during the election campaign of 1991. It is also pertinent to refresh public memory of the Congress Party’s dissociation from the United Front Government of I.K. Gujral in 1998 after the Jain Commission reported the cosy relationship between the DMK and LTTE. True, the imperatives of coalition politics may have forced the Congress to enter into an alliance with Karunanidhi’s party after 2004. But domestic expediency is no reason to forget the past entirely, particularly the unhappy chapters relating to the manner in which Prabhakaran did a Bhindranwale on a cynical regime.

There are a lot of forces and individuals who were responsible for Sri Lanka’s nightmare years. The Bandaranaike family cannot escape responsibility for triggering the process of ethnic polarisation in 1956; other Sinhala politicians cannot disown their roles in the marginalisation of moderate Tamil politicians; and even the Buddhist clergy had a role in stoking a regressive majoritarian outlook. But among those responsible was also India. Would the LTTE have emerged as a force had it not been for New Delhi’s covert support?

Finance Minister P.Chidambaram has sought to send a “resolute” message to Colombo. Perhaps President M. Rajapakshe could do with some softening. But will New Delhi show the same resolve in attacking China for its treatment of its Tibetan minorities? Is Colombo being targeted because it is a small player? Are the principles of ‘constructive engagement’ determined by the electoral calculations of Tamil Nadu? Let’s not make Sri Lanka a scapegoat for the political games we play at home. 

Asian Age, March 22, 2013

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