The ethnic strife in Sri Lanka has always been an emotive issue in Tamil Nadu. The persecution of the minority Tamil population has evoked a spontaneous response many times. Political parties call for bandhs,people go on fasts and,in extreme cases,immolate themselves. All the leading politicians have played the Sri Lanka card to suit their convenience. There are leaders like Vaiko ( MDMK) who till recently refused to accept LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakarans death. Vaiko has been steadfast in his support for the LTTE and the demand for a separate Tamil state,Eelam.
With the Sri Lankan armys decisive victory over the LTTE in 2009,the issue was expected to fade away in the state. However,the stories which have trickled in about human rights violations by the army,especially during the last phase of the war,such as the killing of civilians,eliminating Prabhakaran,his family and his soldiers,even when they wanted to surrender,and the continuing intimidation and detaining of Tamils have stoked the emotional fires.
The need to do something to help Sri Lankan Tamils has gained momentum in the last two-to-three months. The DMK has revived the TESO ( Tamil Eelam Supporters Organisation),which it floated way back in 1983,although a separate state for Tamils is no longer an option. The publication of Prabhakarans 12-year-old sons bullet-ridden picture and no clear-cut denial from the Sri Lankan government that it was behind the assassination has upped the ante considerably. It has now reached a crescendo with all Tamil Nadu parties,including the Congress,demanding that India back the US in bringing out a resolution against Sri Lanka asking it to categorically implement the recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC). Sri Lanka has not bothered to do so despite India and other countries voting in favour of a resolution censuring the islands government last year in Geneva at the UN Human Rights Council.
India has been traditionally against country-specific resolutions. It is unlikely to back a US-sponsored resolution demanding accountability. What goes unsaid is that India does not want such resolutions brought against it regarding Kashmir or the Northeast. India also has to worry about Chinas growing influence in the island nation. With the ethnic crisis,the full trade potential between the two countries has never been fully exploited. The prime minister has been calling for a national reconciliation in Sri Lanka. This is not enough to calm down Tamils. The feeling in Tamil Nadu is that the Centre has always ignored its sentiments. It did not bother to broker a peace agreement between the Tamils and the Sri Lankan government. It was Norway which took the initiative and not India.
Every political party in the state is now intent on outdoing each other in proving their loyalty to Sri Lankan Tamils. Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa,who can always be trusted to make a dramatic gesture,called off the 20th Asian Athletics Championships scheduled to be held in Chennai in July,saying Sri Lankan players have no place in the state. The irony is that she was the only leader who never hid her disapproval of the LTTE and Prabhakaran and who took a consistently hard line against them. The DMK recently sponsored a conference of TESO which was attended by the Congress.
Subsequently,the party has accused External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid of defecting to the enemy camp and advising Sri Lankan officials. It will be interesting to see if the DMK would take the extreme step of withdrawing from the UPA. Will its ministers in the Central cabinet step down?
The rhetoric is expected to get stronger with the parties focussing on the upcoming parliamentary elections. Competitive populism is at an all-time high. No party wants to be seen as keeping quiet. It might be a closely fought election in the state if the DMK,Congress and Vijayakanths DMDK( which won more votes than the DMK in the last assembly elections) came together. This is expected to be a strong alliance. Jayalalithaa has said that her party will face the elections alone and win all 40 seats. She is riding a popularity wave after the Supreme Court judgment on Cauvery. The opening up of corporation canteens for the urban poor in Chennai has also been much appreciated.
Going by past experience,the Sri Lankan Tamil crisis,whatever strong emotions it has evoked,has never affected the election outcome in the state. During the last parliamentary elections,which took place barely a week after the LTTE was defeated,Vaiko and his party were wiped out in spite of drawing large crowds. There are several months before the elections. Will the current overwhelming sympathy for Sri Lankan Tamils and the anger against what is seen as an inept Centre turn out to be a gamechanger this time?
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