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New factors open India's door to the Tamils

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Image courtesy Daily Mirror

Last month saw an important milestone in India – Sri Lanka relations.

After 15 years of avoiding any official contact with pro-LTTE actors, India made a prominent and pointed political gesture: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met formally for 45 minutes with leaders of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Sri Lanka’s Tamil largest party, known for its support for the Liberation Tigers.
Though issues of mutual concern were discussed, the symbolism of the meeting arguably mattered more than the substance.
In the past five years, many countries involved in Sri Lanka have met with the TNA – and indeed met directly with the LTTE also.
But since the banning of the LTTE in 1992, when the organisation was officially blamed for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi, India has strictly avoided contact with pro-LTTE actors.
India also distanced itself from the Tamils’ struggle and difficulties.
Even after the Norwegian peace process commenced in 2002, India refused to get involved.
First Delhi declined the LTTE’s request to provide a venue for talks (interestingly citing opposition to the idea from Tamil Nadu’s then AIADMK-led government).
Then India turned down requests by the other Co-Chairs – the US, EU, Japan and Norway – to join them in fashioning a solution to the conflict. Instead India took an ‘observer’ position.
Some saw India’s coolness as an emotional reaction. Delhi, it was argued, was being held back by its historic and unpleasant experience with the Tamil question.
Others suggested India’s reticence stemmed from a reasoned decision to refrain from being pulled into yet another failure in Sri Lanka. Given their close and multi-layered experience with the island’s conflict, Delhi was sceptical that the Norwegian peace process could succeed.
Against these foils, there has been considerable speculation over the significance behind the ‘very warm and positive’ meeting with the TNA.
This is especially so because both the Indian Prime Minister and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi, declined to meet the TNA during an earlier visit in October.
One line of reasoning suggests there is now a fundamental shift in India’s stance on Sri Lanka, i.e. towards a more energetic espousing of the Tamil cause.
While there has been some speculation – espoused mainly by some rosy-eyed Tamils – of a 1980s-style return to Indian involvement, there is little evidence to support such a view, with Indian officials going out of their way to stress that India does not see a ‘direct’ role on the island.
Others see the Singh-TNA meeting as an irrelevancy with respect to India’s policy towards Sri Lanka. They argue that the meeting was driven purely by local factors in Tamil Nadu and the need to ease public pressure on Karunanidhi.
However, this view discounts the two-way relationship between Delhi and the Tamil Nadu and the considerable extent to which the centre can dictate the state actions and sentiments, especially with regards to matters entirely within the purview of the centre, like foreign relations.
Indeed, Karunanidhi’s oft-stated assertion that the “policy of the centre is the policy of Tamil Nadu” underscores this reality.
This view also fails to give due importance to India’s understanding and nuanced use of symbolism in politics.
Well versed in subtle signalling, the Indian establishment would not have been unaware of the powerful signal that is sent by a meeting between its top political leadership and a party that espouses the LTTE as the sole representatives of the Tamil people
In fact, the reality lies somewhere in between the two extreme interpretations. India’s present actions with regards Sri Lanka and the island’s Tamils are being shaped by many factors, including the political forces at play in Tamil Nadu.
While not the sole driver of changes in the central government’s stance, the rising pro-Eelam sentiment in India’s southern state cannot be dismissed.
While there has always been an undercurrent of sympathy in Tamil Nadu for the Sri Lankan Tamils and even a measure of support for the LTTE, the assassination of Rajiv Ghandi in 1991 made advocacy of the Eelam cause, Tamil militancy and the LTTE, singularly unacceptable, especially at the centre.
But over the recent past, events in Sri Lanka, developments in Tamil Nadu and even shifts in India’s role in global politics have compelled Delhi to reconsider the self-imposed limitations on its policy options.
Undoubtedly, the regret over the Rajiv Gandhi killing and the IPKF episode expressed by the LTTE ideologue Anton Balasingham in mid 2006 played an important part in this regard.
But equally important are the changing ground conditions in Sri Lanka and the increasing access to first hand information about the grim reality in the Northeast.
Nearly five years after a ceasefire agreement was signed the island is back at full-scale war.
And 2006 has seen a return to the military’s deliberate targeting of civilians, including children in schools (such as Mullaitivu) and Tamil population centres (such as Sampoor and Vaharai) and economic embargos on large swathes of the Tamil-dominated North.
The horror of all this has been delivered directly to the international community by the Tamil media – print, electronic and internet – which has expanded dramatically in the past few years.
The people of Tamil Nadu are also in the audience. The proliferation of Tamil vernacular media has given new force and urgency to long-standing sympathy there for the Sri Lankan Tamils.
Renewed suffering in the island’s Northeast is thus outweighing the shackles of history. And the resultant changes in Tamil Nadu are dramatic.
For example, while the AIADMK was strongly anti-LTTE for over a decade, party leader Ms J. Jayalalithaa, then Chief Minister, pointedly refused to meet newly elected Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse during his last visit in December 2005.
Jayalalithaa and the AIADMK subsequently contested the 2006 elections with the stridently pro-Eelam MDMK as partner.
But the Eelam cause itself was not a contested point of friction in that election: all Tamil parties were espousing it. Although the AIADMK grouping lost to the DMK-led coalition, local issues decided that outcome.
Indeed, Karunanidhi’s DMK has also begun to espouse a more pro-Eelam line, reflecting the mounting anger in Tamil Nadu that the Sri Lankan military is getting away with killing innocent Tamils in the name of fighting the LTTE
Established parties like the DMK and AIADMK, concerned only with their long-term political fortunes, take carefully calculated positions on contentious issues.
In this regard, the fiery advocacy of the Eelam cause and the LTTE on public platforms by Karunanidhi’s daughter and a potential future leader of the DMK, Ms Kanimozhi, is significant.
She is also amongst the increasing number of Indian Tamils calling on central government to play a more active role in Sri Lanka instead of watching impassively as the situation deteriorates.
Notably she is also calling on Delhi to forget the past acrimony with the LTTE.
But this ‘pressure’ from Tamil Nadu’s political leadership is also reinforcing Delhi’s own irritation with the Rajapakse government’s defiance of their wishes.
As Indian analysts are bluntly pointing out, President Rajapakse, having taken charge of a military and economy revitalised with international support, is single-mindedly pursuing a military strategy to crush Tamil aspirations, not just the LTTE.
And having failed to co-opt India into supporting his project, Rajapakse has sought to ensure India remains inactive and moribund while he pursues it anyway.
Moreover, Rajapakse has deliberately snubbed India on several key points.
Repeated Indian requests not to target Tamil civilians and to seek a negotiated settlement are being contemptuously ignored amid an indiscriminate ‘broad front’ conventional war.
Furthermore, in stark contrast to India’s explicit and repeated wishes, President Rajapakse has de-merged the NorthEastern province, undoing the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord.
While the Co-chairs urged President Rajapakse not to alter any standing constitutional structures ahead of a political solution, India went much further: Singh personally raised the issue twice with President Rajapakse, saying the de-merger would undermine the search for a lasting solution and urging him to desist.
But the Rajapakse government swiftly proceeded with the de-merger – indeed, going further by trifurcating the region rather than simply separating the two provinces.
The Sri Lankan move is seen as it was meant: a slight to India.
The shifting stances in Delhi can therefore be interpreted as part of India’s new efforts to constrain the Sri Lankan government.
This line of analysis suggests that India’s formal invitation extended to the TNA last October, including the highly publicised possibility of a meeting with the Indian Premier, were meant as a cautionary signal to Sri Lanka.
But President Rajapakse did not react positively (indeed he did the reverse, escalating the military campaign in the Northeast and punishing the Tamil populace even further).
Apart from this embarrassing public defiance of Delhi, the brutality of the Sri Lankan onslaught further enraged public sentiments in Tamil Nadu.
It is therefore no accident that a strident pro-Eelam, even pro-LTTE, rhetoric has emerged in Tamil Nadu since October.
It is arguable that there is tacit approval from the central government for Tamil Nadu’s political leaders and community actors to express such views.
Not only does this give vent to local sentiment, it provides a compelling and plausible context in which the Indian government can explore even radical options vis-à-vis Sri Lanka.
It should be remembered that India’s involvement in Sri Lanka in the early 1980s was driven mainly by a desire to contain the government of President J.R. Jayawardene.
Not only was his contempt for the Tamil undisguised, so was his scorn for India’s authority (hence the pro-Western leader’s monicker ‘Yankee Dickie’).
The Rajiv Gandhi factor was a brake on Indian action on Sri Lanka for many years. But, at the same time, no subsequent Sri Lankan leadership was so openly defiant of India’s regional authority or Delhi’s political and other interests.
Until President Rajapakse.
Now, India is once again being compelled, reluctantly, to contain rampant Sinhala nationalist forces in the island.
All of this is coloured by a key new development: India’s strategic self positioning, which has seen the world’s largest democracy move beyond a focus on South Asia and seek a role on the global stage.
Sri Lanka occupies a very different position in this new vision: a regional irritant instead of a major concern.
With bigger interests and ambitions to pursue, India is no longer prepared to let the shackles of its prior history in Sri Lanka constrain its actions.
What India wants is a pragmatic path to its ultimate goal for the island: not just an end to violence, but a stable solution that will ensure that the Tamils are not constantly fending off Sinhala aggression.
While the meeting between the Indian Prime Minister and the TNA is by no means indicative of a strategic shift in India’s thinking, neither can it be dismissed as of no consequence.
Rather, it suggests that options hitherto frozen out by past history are being explored anew.
In short, India has opened the door to the Tamils again. What happens next depends to a considerable degree on the coming ground realities in the Tamil homeland.

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