By Col. R. Hariharan
May Day celebrations in Sri Lanka this year saw an unusual sight. R Sampanthan, the septuagenarian leader fighting for Sri Lanka Tamil rights and president of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), standing shoulder to shoulder with the United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, waved a Sri Lanka flag to the cheers of a massive crowd in Jaffna celebrating the May Day.
A few years back Sampanthan would have paid with his life for this act of “indiscretion” when he had to kowtow Prabhakaran and dance to the tune of the leader of the LTTE.
Sampanthan’s act was symbolic of the TNA’s moves to forge a political alliance with the UNP to press home their agenda for securing an equitable role for Tamils in the united Sri Lanka. Sampanthan’s show of unity with the UNP was in keeping with TNA decision taken after some deliberation. Even the two aspirants for the TNA leadership mantle – Suresh Premachandran and Mavai Senathiraja – are reported to have hosted a lavish dinner in Jaffna for the visiting UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.
To quote from Lakbimanews, TNA MP M A Sumanthiran described the first ever joint May Day rally held in the Jaffna district, as ‘a resounding success.’ “We were able to join hands with the people from the South and hold a successful May Day rally in the North. We are also confident that the people of the North and the South would be able to walk together in the future by joining hands with each other. That was the loud message given to the rest of the country and to the world at this rally,” averred MP Sumanthiran. Are the Tamil Nadu leaders hearing this?
The report further said the MP observed that thanks to the Gurunagar May Day rally held jointly by the UNP and his party, they had also been able to highlight the pressing concerns of the Tamil people to the government and the outside world.
He added: “There are many issues that are plaguing the people here. The cost of living is very high and the salaries drawn by the masses are insufficient. There are scores of unemployed youths here, and the resettlement process is still not going ahead smoothly. Despite 3 years having lapsed, the situation in the North is yet to improve. So far the government is stalling in their bid to find a solution to the national issue.”
Sampanthan’s May Day political debut came even as M Karunanidhi, theoctogenarian leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and out of office Tamil Nadu chief minister, was flogging the issue of creating an independent Tamil Eelam as his latest political slogan. It illustrated how far removed are Tamil Nadu political leaders from their counterparts in Sri Lanka in understanding the ground realities in Sri Lanka.
When the Tamil Nadu leader who carries the sobriquet “Kalaignar” (artiste) dusted up the idea of supporting the cause of independent Tamil Eelam recently, in flowery statement he reminded everyone that the DMK had advocated the idea of a separate Tamil Eelam as early as 1983. He said the
DMK general council meeting of on August 27, 1983 had stressed that “a separate Tamil Eelam shall be the only remedy and permanent solution.”
“At a public meeting on the Marina sands the next day,” he said, “if Indian Army entered Sri Lanka to create a Tamil Eelam, the Congress could rule the State and the DMK would not make efforts to come to power for the next 10 years.”
What he forgot to mention was what he and the DMK did for furthering the cause of an independent Tamil Eelam in the 30 years thereafter, in which he was Tamil Nadu chief minister for five times (1969–71, 1971–76, 1989–91, 1996–2001 and 2006–2011).
His statement called for a referendum on Tamil Eelam on the lines of those held South Sudan, Bosnia, Montenegro and East Timor. And he wanted to further the cause of an independent Tamil Eelam through peaceful, democratic means. An astute politician, he must be fully aware of the impracticality of the suggestion as it comes after the failure of an armed struggle for thirty years in which thousands of lives were sacrificed.
So it is not surprising Vaiko, the leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (MDMK) and perennial supporter of the LTTE and Tamil Eelam in Tamil Nadu, questioned the competency of the DMK leader to talk of Tamil Eelam.
One needs to put Karunanidhi’s “independent Tamil Eelam” statements in perspective. The issue is the latest political ploy in his desperate political battles on two fronts: the internal battle of his siblings over leadership succession, and the battle of survival after the rout of his party at the hands of his bête noir Ms Jayalalithaa, leader of the rival All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in the last Tamil Nadu state elections. Otherwise, it is difficult to understand the logic behind his Eelam call now, as it comes thirty years too late.
Even in playing up the Eelam card, the DMK leader is way behind Ms Jayalalithaa. Despite her avowed objection to Tamil terrorism, when news of the plight of Sri Lanka Tamils in war zones and allegations of atrocities committed on them started trickling during the run up to the parliamentary poll in 2009, Ms Jayalalithaa came out in strong support of Indian intervention in Sri Lanka.
She wanted India not only to halt the war, but to help Tamils gain Tamil Eelam. Speaking at a public meeting she said: “If a government that listens to me is formed at the Centre, I will take action for the despatch of the Indian army to the island nation and create a separate Tamil Eelam.” Since then she had been taking the lead in keeping New Delhi under pressure on Sri Lanka Tamil issues, particularly on hauling up Sri Lanka at the UN for alleged war crimes against Sri Lankan army.
However, it should be remembered that the late MG Ramachandran, the founder of the AIADMK and mentor of Ms Jayalalithaa, was the patron of the LTTE in the early days. But he took a hands on interest in the Sri Lanka issue and fully supported Indian intervention after the signing of the Rajiv-Jayawardane accord in 1987, though the LTTE was lukewarm to it.
But much water has flown in the Palk Strait and Kelaniya river since then. Decades of armed struggle waged by one of the world’s deadly terrorist groups led by Prabhakaran has failed. Sri Lanka’s Tamil leaders of ability and charisma have been eliminated in the fratricidal struggle of LTTE. The few leaders left alive have not been able to articulate in one voice either an agenda or leverage their political strength.
Given the changes in Tamil demography and spread within and without Sri Lanka in the last three decades, such unity cannot be expected. But the reality is that even after three years since the war ended Tamils affected by the war are yet to fully enjoy the benefits of peace. They are still undergoing the pains of rehabilitation and reconstruction. An independent Tamil Eelam is far from their minds; their immediate goal is to get back to a life of dignity, and make up for the years lost in the conflict.
The idea of an independent Tamil Eelam itself appears to have been shelved from the minds to Tamils in Sri Lanka. This was amply brought out by Rangarajan, CPI(M), a member of the Indian parliamentary delegation, which had met a cross section of Tamil leaders and war affected people during their recent visit to Sri Lanka. He said no Tamil leader or party expressed support for the idea of Tamil Eelam; on the contrary they wanted to be part of united Sri Lanka.
Somehow Tamil Nadu leaders particularly of the Dravidian parties, in their scramble for scoring political brownie points, appear to be oblivious to these problems faced by Sri Lanka Tamils. Their ideas appear to be frozen in post-1983 situation focused on creating a Tamil Eelam. They seem to think that their prescription for furthering their own agenda is also good for Sri Lankan Tamils. Actually the Tamil Nadu leaders’ pronunciations, which used to command a lot of respect among Sri Lanka Tamils, stand terribly discounted in the Island now because they are losing relevance for them.
The political fulminations on Tamil Eelam erupting from Tamil Nadu serve only the overseas remnants of the LTTE squabbling among themselves to recover their clout among the Diaspora. They also keep alive the Tamil Nadu bugbear in Sri Lanka politics to be effectively used by the ruling coalition and opposition parties in Colombo for their own ends. They provide legitimate levers for the anti-India lobby in Sri Lanka to stoke sentiments inimical to Indian interest.
Tamil Nadu leaders have to study and understand the changes that have taken place in the political firmament of Sri Lanka and adopt suitable strategies if they genuinely want to help Sri Lanka Tamils. If they cannot, they should confine their effort to consolidate and channelize the goodwill of the people in India to help speedy rehabilitation Sri Lanka Tamils affected by the war. Otherwise they will be distancing themselves further away from reality and that is not going to help Tamils of Sri Lanka.
Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies.