Saturday, March 30, 2013


By Swapan Dasgupta

The silly blow-hot-blow-cold games involving the Congress and the Samajwadi Party have, perhaps naturally, agitated the political class and prompted endless speculation over the timing of the next general election. The political turbulence has affected the capital markets and given rise to fears that the sense of drift which has affected economic decision-making will make a mockery of Finance Minister P.Chidambaram’s attempts to talk up the economy and prevent a further loss of investor confidence.

The concerns are real but the Congress-SP spat pales into insignificance compared to the larger implications of the one-upmanship games that are beginning to plague Tamil Nadu. The past week has witnessed a deliberate attempt by both the AIADMK and DMK to up the ante over the Sri Lankan Tamil issue. The Tamil Nadu Assembly has passed a resolution pressing the Centre to harden its stand against Sri Lanka, view it as an unfriendly country and insist on a referendum in the Tamil-dominated provinces. A spate of orchestrated demonstrations throughout the state has led to Sri Lankan cricketers having to opt out of the IPL matches in Chennai; and the MDMK leader Vaiko has demanded the prosecution of Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India on charges of sedition for a purported email that suggests that the island nation has historical links not merely with the Tamils but with the people of Orissa and Bengal.

To view these developments as bouts of seasonal madness that affects different parts of India at the onset of summer is, of course, tempting. In a more serious vein, however, the developments in Tamil Nadu are more ominous and need to be viewed far more seriously.

For a start, there is a blurring of lines between human rights and political aspirations. I don’t think there is anyone in both Delhi and Colombo who can deny that the last phase of the civil war in 2009 was particularly grim and bloody. However, it is also conceded that excesses were committed by both sides, and not least by the LTTE which gambled on being able to extract a cease-fire by using Tamil civilians as human shields. The meddlesome human rights industry in the West may like to paint the civil war as a one-sided offensive by the state but those familiar with Sri Lanka know that the real forces of darkness were led by V.Prabhakaran.

Whether four years after the conflict, a so-called independent inquiry into human rights abuses will resolve anything is a matter of debate. If such an inquiry helps in the larger process of ethnic reconciliation it would be welcome. However, if it becomes an instrument for the surreptitious political rehabilitation of the fascist LTTE, it must be avoided.

In any case, the issue of “war crimes” is about the past. What is more relevant at the moment is the larger question of the political accommodation of the Tamil minority in the Constitutional structure of Sri Lanka. This is a problem that has dogged Sri Lanka since its Independence in 1948 and has been complicated by the somewhat irrational paranoia in the Sinhala community over a ‘federal’ Constitution. Equally, there has been a lot of intransigence on the part of the Jaffna Tamils—a privileged community during British rule—which has veered from provincial autonomy to secessionism. The Jaffna Tamils have pressed for the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces as the ‘Tamil homeland’, something that it totally unacceptable to the Muslims and Sinhala people of the Eastern Province. Today, they are pressing for the full implementation of the 13th amendment which gives the Northern and Eastern provinces exceptional autonomy, including control over education and land. Colombo’s hesitation is based on its reluctance to transfer full police control to the provincial governments.

The wariness is understandable since there is still insufficient confidence in the ability of the Tamil National Alliance to prevent the LTTE from regrouping. Four years is still too little a time to be absolutely certain that the one-party Eelam the LTTE espoused and even succeeded in translating into reality for some time, has been totally uprooted.

What is clear is that the debate over the 13th amendment is an internal debate of Sri Lanka. It is of no business of either India or other members of the UN. Yes, New Delhi can privately encourage the Sri Lankan Government to hasten the confidence-building process. But ultimately it is for a democratic government in Colombo to grapple with the problems posed by differentiated citizenship.

The recent agitation in Tamil Nadu, bankrolled in many cases by those who earlier sponsored the LTTE, have a clear purpose: to transplant the remnants of a defeated secessionist movement in Sri Lanka into India. There is a calculated attempt to suggest that the rest of India doesn’t care about Tamil interests and that Tamil Nadu must chalk its independent foreign policy route, if possible with the Centre’s help and if necessary independent of New Delhi. Those who made Eeelam their life’s only mission now see opportunities to link Jaffna and Chennai in a common endeavour.

We are witnessing, for the first time since the Dravidian movement abandoned separatism after Independence, an attempt to sow the seeds of a new separatism that links Northern Sri Lanka, the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and the overseas Tamil diaspora. The threat can’t be left to acquire a menacing dimension. 

Sunday Pioneer, March 31, 2013

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