In the era of popular protests, the ongoing protest by college students in Tamil Nadu does not come as a huge surprise. For the past few days, students from many colleges in big cities and small towns have been holding placards, shouting slogans, and going on hunger strike relays, demanding justice for perceived war crimes in Sri Lanka, against civilians during the final phase of the Lankan government’s war with the LTTE in 2009.
Although the protestors are demanding various things -- on Wednesday, regional satellite channels aired the demands of a few students wanting a separate Tamil Eelam (state) – the primary demand is that the Lankan government should be made to acknowledge excesses committed in its ethnic war (final phase) against the Tamil Tigers.
Experts say the widely circulated Channel 4 images of what appears to be the brutal killing of the 12 year old son of the killed LTTE chief V Prabhakaran, as well as the death of thousands of civilians caught in the ‘no fire zone’ , and the fact the UN Human Rights Council meet is underway have together helped trigger the students’ protest.
In a state where various political parties have always played the Tamil card, when it comes to the decades-old ethnic conflict in Lanka such an uprising would always be treated with the suspicion that it could have been orchestrated by vested parties.
However, experts do not see the hand of any single party behind the current unrest. “It appears to be a spontaneous one this time. Eight students of Loyola College, Chennai, announced an indefinite fast last Friday, and from there it has simply spread, specially to the districts,” says an observer. “The student community in the state has been in the forefront of massive protests in the past as well,” he adds.
The last time the student community filed behind one another in a huge way was in the 1960s, during the anti Hindi agitation. “When the Centre sought to impose Hindi as the sole official language the entire students’ body erupted in protest, since they felt the move would keep them out of UPSC and other competitive exams, and ruin their job prospects, ” recalls S Murari, senior journalist and an expert on Lankan affairs.
“By February 1965, the protests had spread to all the districts, and it soon spun out of control. A police SI was killed, as were several students, before the Nehru-government gave an assurance that Hindi would not be thrust as the only official language, and the protest was withdrawn,” he adds.
However, the current unrest and popular sentiment on Lankan war crimes is nowhere near the revulsion which swept which across the state in 1983, says Murari. This was the first phase of the Lankan Tamils issue. Thousands of people died in the conflict, and an exodus of lakhs of Lankan Tamils began. This was unprecedented, and there was widespread sympathy, just as there had been sympathy even deep down south Tamil Nadu for the 1971 massacres in Bangladesh. Many displaced Lankan Tamils made Tamil Nadu their home. The seeds of the Lankan Tamil diaspora were sown and flourishes even today.
Experts also say the Lankan issue generated national headlines when the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was active between 1987 and 1990, trying to broker a peace agreement between the Lankan Tamil separatists and the Lankan government. The agreement sought to nudge both parties towards equal rights for Lankan Tamils, which has not fructified till date, but continues to be a contentious issue.
Which is also one reason why the student community is justifying its protest.
Meanwhile, wanting a more discernible and tangible change, political parties from Tamil Nadu have managed to raise the issue of Lanka in the Parliament. Ahead of the general elections next year, where forging electoral allies will be a major exercise among national parties, the Lankan issue is kept simmering, and the students’ agitation adds a little more spice, say experts.
Whether the Centre examines the issue at length or not, it cannot ignore it entirely as a local issue, say observers. “It is always a challenge for the central government to balance electoral politics and diplomatic engagement, but with both China and Russia unwilling to come down heavily on Sri Lanka, India has to hit the right stride,” says an expert.
Protesting students however say they want to see justice being delivered, and are confident heir voices will be heard.
Picture: Tamil activists and supporters of DMK party hold placards and protest against Sri Lanka’s alleged wartime abuses near the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission (SLDHC) in Chennai on Tuesday, March 5, 2013. (Image credit: AP)