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Delhi responds to Tamil Nadu strings

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Just four weeks after winning a bitterly fought election, Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapakse began, on December 27, a four-day visit to India, a crucial ally in his government’s efforts to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

One of the main objectives of Rajapakse’s state visit, analysts said, was to bring India decisively into the Sri Lankan peace process alongside the others in the powerful quartet – the United States, European Union, Japan and Norway. The visit was also aimed to enhance the newly elected President’s personal standing, given the close links that his predecessor, Chandrika Kumaratunga and archrival in the election, Ranil Wickremesinge, have with Tamil Nadu’s leadership.

With its 65 million Tamils who harbour sympathies for fellow Tamils in Sri Lanka, the public endorsement by the political establishment the India’s southernmost state is vital if the new President is to challenge perceptions of Sinhala chauvinism. As a consequence, a meeting with the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Ms. Jeyalalitha Jeyaram, was also high on Mr. Rajapakse’s agenda.

The visit, however, did not exactly go according to plan. Firstly, India declined Mr. Rajapakse’s offer to become more actively involved in Sri Lanka’s peace process. Secondly, the scheduled meeting with Ms. Jeyalalitha was not only cancelled but quickly became caught up in humiliating controversy.

Initially, Ms. Jeyalalitha was supposed to travel to New Delhi to meet with Mr. Rajapakse. But just two days before his arrival in the Indian capitol, it was announced that she would, in fact, not fly to meet him there. Instead, the President would have to travel to Tamil Nadu if he was to secure a meeting. It was diplomatic blow, a breach of appropriate protocol for a state visit by a national leader.

Nevertheless, according to a report in the Times of India, a ‘neutral’ venue – a five star hotel in Chennai was arranged for the meeting on Friday, December 30th. However, a report in a Tamil Nadu daily newspaper, Thinathanthi, on Thursday quoted India’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman, Navtej Sarna, as saying that the meeting had been cancelled due to conflicting schedules. The Chief Minister, it appeared, was now not available on the day and the President – who had a “full schedule in Delhi” did not have an alternative date.

Notably, however, the paper went on to highlight plans by rival parties to Ms. Jeyalalitha’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazakham (AIADMK) to stage demonstrations to protest Mr. Rajapakse’s planned visit to Tamil Nadu and raised questions as to whether rising Tamil antagonism to Rajapakse, the Sinhala nationalists’ candidate of choice, was the real cause for the cancellation.

The paper also noted that a ‘Eelam Tamils Protection’ conference had been organized by local supporters of the Sri Lankan Tamils’ cause that Friday. In particular, the conference organizers were keen to express their outrage Tamils were still being targeted by Sri Lankan security forces. The conference had deliberately been scheduled to coincide with Rajapakse’s state visit.

The event, as it transpired, was attended by many heavy weights from Tamil Nadu’s political spectrum, including Dr Ramadoss, founder-leader of Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), Mr. V Gopalasamy, General Secretary of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, (MDMK), and Mr. Veeramani, general secretary of the Dravidar Kazhagam, as well as a large number of ordinary people. The event signaled that, despite doubts about its salience to local politics, the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils was still very much a concern to Tamils in Tamil Nadu. In particular, it was still a potential political mobilizer.

The issue here is that the coalition of Tamil Nadu parties of which the PMK and MDMK are important members is itself an important member of the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition that is ruling India.

Mr. Veeramani, addressing the conference, ridiculed Mr. Rajapakse’s visit: “every time the Sri Lankan government experiences difficulty in handling the Tigers, they come running to Delhi for talks and say to the international community that India is on their side. How can we as Tamils stay silent when the Sri Lankan government continue their unjust to Eelam Tamils – our brothers and sisters?”

Dr Ramadoss told the conference that “the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka has been left to continue for so long. We should be supporting the Eelam struggle. There are sixty two million Tamils are in support of Eelam Tamils and we should always openly show our solidarity!”

Later, Mr. V Gopalasamy, a prominent supporter of the LTTE, emphatically declared: “Tamils’ emotions can never die and by labeling us as LTTE supporters, the other side of the struggle has been hidden for so long – that is the truth and justice behind the Eelam struggle”. He further went to list atrocities inflicted by the Sri Lankan government on Tamils there, including the burning of the Jaffna Library and the 1983 pogrom.

Retorting to India’s official statements that Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity must be assured in any solution to that country’s ethnic question, Mr. Gopalasamy sardonically noted: “it is the people of Sri Lanka who should decide whether Sri Lanka should stay as a single territory or not, and countries such as India have no authority to make such calls”. He argued that if this is the case then India should have spoken against the split of East Timor from Indonesia in 1999 too.

Meanwhile, on January 2, it was reported that the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) led Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA), which also includes the local Congress party, several Dravidian parties like the PMK and the MDMK and the Left parties will formally kick off its campaign on January 18 for the coming Tamil Nadu Assembly elections.

The Sri Lankan question is, even here, part of the mix to be contended with. Mr. Karunanidhi, DMK president, declared, for example, that “on MDMK and PMK’s demand that the Centre should not sell arms to Sri Lanka, the leaders of these parties have had discussions with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.”

“As far as the DMK was concerned, the party always toed the line of the Centre on foreign policy,” Mr. Karunanidhi said. But the party was firm, he declared, that Sri Lankan Tamils should not be “tortured on any account.”

The PMK, according to other local reports, had strongly opposed any move on India’s part to take over Norway’s role in the Sri Lankan peace process. A resolution to this effect was adopted at the party’s high-level executive committee and general council meetings, which were presided over by PMK founder-leader Dr S Ramadoss.

From the recent Tamil Nadu political developments, it is clear that Ms Jeyalalitha, who has openly attacked the Liberation Tigers on many occasions and has never shown any sympathy towards the sufferings of the Sri Lankan Tamils, was forced to compete for local nationalistic credibility.

It was quite clear a meeting with Rajapakse could have been used against her party, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazakham (AIADMK) by her political opponents and that this could seriously damage her chances in the coming election - especially since Rajapakse’s close allies include the Sinhala chauvinist party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

The timing of the meeting was also tricky: it was widely felt that Tamils were being targeted and subjected to violence in the North and East of the country by the Sri Lankan armed forces particularly after Rajapakse took office.

The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister therefore prudently cancelled the meeting with the Sri Lnakna President – thereby reaping some kudos for her strong stance to boot.

There are other potential sources of friction between Chennai and Colombo. One is tension over fishing, acutely highlighted on January 8 when Sri Lanka gunboats again fired on Tamil Nadu fishermen near Kachatheevu Island in Palk Straits.

According to a press reports, an infuriated Ms Jayalalitha has written to the Central government, asking Delhi to ‘lodge a strong protest’ with Colombo against the Sri Lanka navy’s “indiscriminate and murderous attack on poor fishermen.”

The complex of relations between Colombo and Delhi and Delhi and Chennai turns on the fact that Tamil Nadu parties are crucial allies for any party that intends to take power in Delhi. The present Congress-led coalition, includes the DMK, MDMK and PMK. Tamil Nadu politics thus has a not insignificant impact on the policies undertaken by the central government.

For instance, the scrapping, in September 2004, of the Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act (PoTA), a piece of anti-terrorism legislation enacted by the Parliament of India in 2002, was largely due to the pressures exerted by few of the coalition parties, particularly the MDMK.

Tamil Nadu political analysts suggest Rajapakse’s visit was badly timed and orchestrated. Firstly, the Sri Lankan government failed to sense the mood of the populace in Tamil Nadu prior to his tour. Secondly, instead of raising his profile in the international arena, the tour has instead undermined his standing, particularly given the clumsy diplomacy around it. Thirdly, it has helped to underscore to the same international audience, the potency of Tamil sentiments, particularly in relation to the Sri Lankan Tamils. Fourthly, and perhaps most crucially, it has also demonstrated the extent to which the policy options available to India’s central government are closely tied, via coalition politics, to prevailing sentiments amongst Tamil Nadu’s people.

The lessons are not likely to be lost on observers of and protagonists in Sri Lanka’s conflict. Despite Colombo’s assertion the ethnic question is an internal matter, President Rajapakse’s first state visit abroad has revealed it is anything but that.