Is the UPA being insensitive to Tamil Nadu? Its politicians seem to suggest so.
On Monday, the minister of state for defence, MM Pallam Raju, said that the training of Lankan defence personnel in India would continue, something the DMK, AIADMK, MDMK, VCK and other political parties in TN have been opposing for months now.
What this issue presents is a rare chance for the UPA to please the highly polarised political heavyweights of Tamil Nadu, but will they grab it?
Will the PM Dr Manmohan Singh intervene, as desired by his numerically powerful UPA ally the DMK?
If Dr Singh does give in to Karunanidhi's demands, then cannot Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa also claim a victory of sorts, since she had made a similar request to the prime minister? Pleasing the Dravidian parties, ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, with a single stroke would be a masterstroke of sorts.
Pallam Raju's statement would have left seasoned politicians with a sense of deja vu.
Analysts say the Centre has never been sensitive enough to seek out the opinion of Tamil Nadu politicians.
In 1964, when the Shastri-Sirimavo Bandaranayake pact on the repatriation of people of Indian origin from Sri Lanka to India was signed, the resettlement was arbitrary, with some members of a family sent to plantations in Tamil Nadu, while others of the same family were relocated to Karnataka or Kerala.
Similarly, in 1974, when Katchatheevu was ceded to Sri Lanka, the DMK had protested strongly against the move in Parliament, saying this amounted to surrendering the traditional fishing areas of the state, but to no avail.
Today, many fishermen from Tamil Nadu ‘stray’ into those Lankan waters to fish, though not with impunity.
Another example of the Centre being insensitive was in 2009, say experts.
At that time, Tamil Nadu politicians were vociferous in demanding an end to the civil war in Lanka, and many politicians maintain till date that the UPA did not do enough.
Now, the Dravidian parties want India to stop the training of Lankan defence personnel, anywhere in the country. The training issue has been simmering for a while now, but came to a boil on Monday after Raju told reporters that "Sri Lanka is a friendly nation and the training will go on".
He seemed not unaware of the sentiments of the Tamil Nadu politicians, but he was quick to add that "sometimes objections are raised by local governments which we have to take into consideration".
The question being asked now is whether consideration would be shown to Tamil Nadu’s sentiments. If so, how?
In July, when the DMK, AIADMK and other political parties raised objections to the training of nine Lankan air force personnel at the Tambaram Air Force base in Chennai, the Centre obliged. They were shifted to the Yalahanka base in Bengaluru.
However, two Sri Lankans, Major Dissanayaka Mohottalalage Vengra and Captain Hewawasam Kadaudage have been undergoing training at the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington in Tamil Nadu since May this year.
In her letter to the Prime Minister, Jayalalithaa had said, "Tamils want action for war crimes against Sri Lanka. We will not accept the training of Sri Lankan airmen anywhere in India".
She added: "This is anti-Tamil and inappropriate at a time when the whole world is seeking action against Sri Lanka for violations in the war."
The decades long ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka ended in 2009, amid allegations of human rights violations in the final stages of the civil war. The Dravidian parties, who have also raised the issue of Lankan Tamils as an emotive one, successfully coerced the Centre to vote against Sri Lanka in the United Nations Human Rights session.
India was the only Asian country to do so. The parties are now hoping that the Centre would say a diplomatic ‘no’ to the training of the personnel as well.
However, political analysts say that as far as the UPA government is concerned, imparting training is a fait accompli (a done deed).
“Both the DMK and the AIADMK are vying with each other over the Lankan Tamil issue, since there are no other issues for them to grapple with ,” an analyst said.
“Strategically, India and Sri Lanka need to have friendly relations since there is a good amount of trade between both the countries, and India Inc would like to ramp up mutually beneficial agreements,” the analyst added.
Another expert on international issues said that with China’s growing influence in Sri Lanka, nothing should be allowed to dilute India’s influence in the region .
“However, it is a fact that Tamil Nadu’s sentiments are not taken into consideration when it comes to Lankan issues. Unlike other commercial issues, where there is a huge amount of money is involved, resulting in stiff opposition to any ingress, be it in Provident Fund, or FDI in retail — there is hardly any emotional connect for those in the Centre," he pointed out.
To some extent, that may explain why the Centre did not seek Tamil Nadu’s opinion before agreeing to train Lankan defence personnel in Tamil Nadu.
However, what is indisputable is that the Tamils in war torn Lanka have still not recovered completely from collateral damage, and while the process of reconciliation is on for the long haul, it should not be very difficult for the UPA to shift the training of the personnel to bases outside the southern states, where a number of Tamils of Indian origin have been repatriated from Sri Lanka. Other columns by the author...Madras Day: Step forward for Namma ChennaiMadras High Court: Are we seeing the wrinkles?Is Chennai not a city for kids?
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Bhama Devi Ravi is a Chennai based journalist