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The BJP’s southern gambit

Illustration by Keera Ratnam / @wavesofcolour

As India, the world’s largest democracy, heads to the polls, much focus has been on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its campaign in Tamil Nadu – a powerhouse state of more than 70 million Tamils. The North Indian party has been intensely campaigning as it looks to expand southwards into an area where it currently holds no seats. Though projections suggest an increase in vote share, it is unlikely to translate into more than a handful of seats - if any. Few in the region see the party as being able to commit to or foster the Tamil people and their interests. New Delhi’s policy on Sri Lanka and its lack of support for Eelam Tamils just a stone’s throw away, demonstrates exactly why.

Under the tenure of local political parties, Tamil Nadu continues to grow at a phenomenal rate, attracting major industry players and global investment. There are ambitious plans ahead that will see it look to lead the country economically. In New Delhi, this has been keenly watched and recognised by the ruling party, which has steadily been building its presence in the southern state. Whilst K Annamalai, the party’s Tamil Nadu head, has been fervently working away at expanding its base amongst Tamils, at home and abroad, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been passionately professing a fondness for Tamil language, culture and history. Yet none of that has translated into tangible action when it comes to protecting the Tamil people.

For years, including under the tenure of the BJP, Tamil Nadu fishermen have been arrested, beaten and even murdered by the Sri Lankan navy. To date, not a single Sri Lankan sailor or government official has ever been held accountable. Modi only recognised this was an issue that mattered to voters far too late, as both the premier and foreign minister Jaishankar riled up controversy over Katchatheevu and the fate of Tamil Nadu fishermen last month. But even after the furore, Sri Lanka’s abuse has continued. Every week more fishermen are being detained, and there has been no further consternation from New Delhi. To Tamils on either side of the Palk Strait, the prime minister’s words seemed empty.

This speaks to a deeper issue of how the BJP’s Hindutva ideology does not resonate amongst Tamils. Not only are a significant number of Tamils not Hindu, but even for those that are, the firebrand expression of Hindu nationalism has little appeal amongst non-Hindi speakers. Instead, it is seen as a vehicle to further North Indian hegemony that will ultimately come at the expense of the Tamil people.

The BJP’s trumpeted Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which is purportedly in place to protect Hindus, is one such example. Though it grants citizenship to many, it glaringly excludes Tamils fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka. Even when Eelam Tamil Hindus are persecuted, as they were in Vavuniya last month, there is radio silence from the BJP. Though the Tamil Eelam struggle has never been centred around religion, for a party that has run on a fanatically pro-Hindu stance, the BJP’s policy rings entirely hollow. Their solidarity does not seem to extend South.

This is not just a BJP issue. Other parties, including Tamil Nadu’s DMK and AIADMK, are guilty of the same dismissal of Eelam Tamil concerns and even of the lives of Tamil Nadu fishermen. Verbose remarks are made, and lengthy letters are written, but little action comes about; from North or South. Any policy that is enacted, particularly from Delhi, instead reinforces the Sri Lankan state. Annamalai, for instance, told a British Tamil audience that he would never forgive the way the then-Indian government behaved during the mass slaughter of Eelam Tamils in 2009 and claimed India’s stance had now changed under the BJP. Yet under Modi, India has abstained at the UN Human Rights Council on resolutions demanding accountability for those very atrocities. Just last week, Delhi was hosting Sri Lankan war criminals in Colombo and looking to sell them even more weaponry. The party’s actions contradict its words.

Indian strategists may feel that the Eelam Tamil issue can be placed on the back burner, particularly given how business interests in the island’s North-East have expanded over the last year. But with elections coming up in Sri Lanka later this year and the whipping up of more Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, there remains a growing prospect of having an even more unreliable, unstable and Indo-phobic Southern neighbour.

With the increasing importance of Tamil Nadu and a burgeoning diaspora, domestically and internationally, Delhi should be building dependent Tamil allies instead. Many at the Tamil Nadu polls would have chosen to vote for those they see as being at the forefront of pursuing their interests and those of their kinfolk in Tamil Eelam. It would be in the interests of all of India’s parties, across the country, to demonstrate concretely that Tamil lives matter.

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