It began with a headline, one that got Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa to send an angry letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and almost torpedoed India-Sri Lanka ties. On August 1, an article appeared on the Lankan defence ministry website, blaming Jayalalithaa for her “tantrums” and for writing frequent letters against Sri Lanka to Modi. The headline that got her upset went: “How meaningful are Jayalalithaa’s love letters to Narendra Modi?”
“Tamil Nadu Chief Minister may learn sooner than later that Narendra Modi is not a puppet to dance to her tantrums or threats. She should not attempt to embarrass Mr Modi by her unjustified outbursts,” read the article that was pulled the same day it appeared. A day later, the Lankan government offered an unqualified apology to Modi and Jayalalithaa.
So what were the letters Jayalalithaa was writing and what were her “outbursts” about?
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Of the 24 letters she wrote since Modi took charge on May 26 and until her response to the headline, 12 related to Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu fishermen who stray into Lankan waters. She wrote about the “prolonged detention” of fishermen by the Lankan navy, the “destruction” of their boats and equipment, the dispute on the maritime border and the denial of visas to UN investigators probing alleged war crimes.
The first letter, written on June 1, two days before her first meeting with Prime Minister Modi in Delhi, was to demand the intervention of the PMO to secure the release of 33 Indian fishermen arrested that day. It concluded: “May I look forward to early action?” In that letter, Jaya also blamed the “passive and immobile policy paralysis that characterised the approach of the UPA government” and how her previous efforts to settle the fishermen issue had been ignored by the Centre. On June 4, the PMO replied, seeking the Tamil Nadu government’s “cooperation” to settle the issue by releasing Lankan fishermen in prisons.
The prompt response would have gladdened Jayalalithaa, for she had expressed her annoyance with Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh, to whom she had written 139 letters and whom she accused of maintaining a “stoic” and “apathetic” silence on attacks on fishermen from the state.
On June 19, she wrote to Modi, “As a reciprocal gesture of goodwill, we have released all the Sri Lankan fishermen who were in our custody.” But she lamented that the previous night, the Lankan navy had taken into custody 46 Indian fishermen and 11 boats. “May I request your immediate personal intervention in this matter?” she wrote.
The same day, she sent another letter, seeking help in securing the release of seven nurses from Tamil Nadu stranded in Iraq. These nurses were among the 46 later freed.
It’s not clear if the PMO under Modi replied to each of Jayalalithaa’s letters, but she wrote more as the arrests continued. On June 19, a boat and seven fishermen from Nagapattinam fishing base were apprehended off the east coast of Sri Lanka, and on the night of June 23, 11 Indian fishermen were arrested and three boats seized and taken to the coast of Kankesanthurai in Sri Lanka. The next day, Jayalalithaa wrote to the PMO, asking it “to take up the issue at the highest level to secure the release of all the 64 Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu who are in Sri Lankan custody along with their 38 boats and arrange for their immediate repatriation”.
On July 2, she registered her protest against a counter-affidavit filed in the Madras High Court in which the the Ministry of External Affairs said the maritime boundary between India and Sri Lanka was a settled matter. “I was appalled and shocked to read newspaper reports relating to this matter,” Jayalalithaa wrote. But the chief minister gave the Modi government the benefit of the doubt: “Perhaps this counter-affidavit had been prepared and approved by the earlier UPA government and the matter was not brought to your personal attention.”
On July 24, she wrote her 21st letter, against India’s decision to refuse visas to the UN Investigation Committee probing alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. She said the Centre’s decision is “a bitter disappointment to the people of Tamil Nadu who are determined to ensure that the Sri Lankan regime is held to account for its heinous acts …”
Besides Sri Lanka, the issues she took up with the PMO related to the state administration, a demand for Tamil as an official language and her protest against the Centre’s decision to celebrate Sanskrit Week.
It’s over the last 15 years that chief ministers in Tamil Nadu have taken to writing letters to voice their concerns. During his five-year tenure, DMK leader M Karunanidhi, too had written to Manmohan Singh but since the DMK had its men in the Manmohan cabinet for the most part of the UPA’s rule, Karunanidhi didn’t have to write too frequently. Earlier, they mostly sent messengers to Delhi. At one stage, politicians in Tamil Nadu even took to daylong fasts to protest against the Centre, with chief ministers M G Ramachandran, Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi all having joined in.
An AIADMK leader said, “A letter directly faxed or mailed to the PMO is always more effective. The Press Information Bureau ensures publicity for these letters. Besides, they document the CM’s efforts in taking up issues.”
The letter Jayalalithaa wrote to protest the article on the Lankan defence ministry website was her 24th. “The visual rendering on the homepage of the official website just above the link is highly objectionable as it depicted both the Prime Minister of India and the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in a very trivialised, derogatory and disrespectful manner…The added visual image…is clearly aimed at denigrating the elected leaders of India, the world’s largest democracy, and particularly a 66-year-old woman political leader of many years standing…” it read.