The developments go back to July when she protested the training of nine members of the Sri Lankan Air Force at Tambaram in Chennai, in a strongly worded letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The training was also opposed by other parties in the state, including the opposition DMK, and New Delhi responded by shifting the airmen to Bangalore. The following month, Jayalalithaa wrote to the Centre again, about two Sri Lankan defence personnel admitted to a nine-month training course in May at the Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, Tamil Nadu. She asked that they be sent back, adding that shifting the troops to Bangalore earlier instead of sending them home displayed callousness. This time New Delhi dug in its heels, saying that Sri Lanka was a friendly country and that the training would continue. A few days later, Jayalalithaa issued marching orders to two Sri Lankan football teams that had come to Chennai to play friendly matches, including one team of schoolchildren. Things came to a head when a group of 184 Sri Lankan pilgrims who had come to Tamil Nadu were attacked on consecutive days by fringe elements, and stones were hurled at the bus that was taking them to the airport to be evacuated on a specially arranged Sri Lankan aircraft.
Jayalalithaa has never been shy of taking a tough stand, but what lies behind the recent aggression? On the face of it, there is the issue of the rehabilitation and restoration of the rights of the Tamils in Sri Lanka after the end of the savage, decades-long civil war between the state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 2009. The Sri Lankan government under President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been criticised in international forums for dragging its feet over rehabilitating its Tamil citizenry, despite promises to the contrary. One view is that Jayalalithaa was merely voicing the sympathy the people of Tamil Nadu felt for their fellow Tamils across the sea and also protesting what they perceive as the Indian government’s reluctance to pressure the Rajapaksa government to do more.
But there is also the trademark one-upmanship between AIADMK and DMK that has to be factored in. “Both parties have been vying with each other to be known as the true representative of the Eelam Tamils,” says writer and political commentator Gnani Sankaran. (Eeelam is “homeland” in Tamil.) DMK, which was in power from mid-2006 to mid-2011 in Tamil Nadu, had been criticised for not convincing the Centre to pressure Colombo to secure the safety of Tamil civilians during the final phase of the civil war in Sri Lanka, especially since the party was an important constituent of the ruling United Progressive Alliance. That was also the height of the 2G spectrum scandal, in which Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi and DMK leader and former telecom minister A Raja were embroiled. Karunanidhi, it was alleged, appeared to be more concerned with what would happen to his family and party members than with the Eelam Tamils.
Perhaps sensing an opportunity, Jayalalithaa, when she came to power last year, moved a resolution in the state Assembly, calling for economic sanctions against Sri Lanka. Then last month, Karunanidhi, in a bid to recapture ground, revived the Tamil Eelam Supporters Organisation, or TESO, and organised a conference in Chennai. This was also a chance for Karunanidhi, condemned to the political wilderness in the state until the next elections, to garner some attention. “The footballers became a target in this game of one-upmanship,” says Gnani.
Opinions on Jayalalithaa’s protests against training Lankan military personnel and her decision to send the footballers home are divided. “I don’t agree with Jayalalithaa’s decision to send the footballers back, and I don’t see why we should object to India training Sri Lanka’s military, either… We shouldn’t push Sri Lanka further into China’s arms,” says analyst and writer Cho Ramaswamy. P Sahadevan, professor of South Asian studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, says the question of these events driving Colombo closer to Beijing does not really arise because the two countries are already very close. “But, at the end of the day, India is Sri Lanka’s neighbour, not China, and they know that.” After voting for the US-backed United Nations Human Rights Council resolution calling on Sri Lanka to investigate and address alleged war crimes during the conflict, New Delhi has been careful not to further antagonise its neighbour.
N Ram, former editor-in-chief of The Hindu, has also criticised the CM’s stance. Others say that while Jayalalithaa was justified in demanding that Sri Lankan troops should not be trained in the state, she should not have objected to friendly football matches. “The Indian government providing training to the same military that is supposed to be tried for war crimes against Tamilians is unacceptable. But cultural and sporting ties need to continue… The footballers who came here were not Rajapaksa’s agents,” says Gnani. DMK organising secretary and member of Parliament T K S Elangovan says his party is not against Sri Lankans visiting Tamil Nadu but is opposed to extending training to the military. Still others feel that even sending the football teams back was not without reason. “In normal circumstances, there is nothing wrong with people-to-people contact, but you should also look at it from the context of a community having been brutally repressed, and the fact that there has been no serious forward movement on reconstruction… There is a hidden anger among Tamilians and Jayalalithaa has tapped into that,” says Father Jagat Gasper Raj, a priest who identifies himself as a sympathiser of the Eelam cause.
In contrast, the attack on the Sri Lankan pilgrims drew near-universal condemnation. Karunanidhi went so far as to blame Jayalalithaa for it, though the harassment was carried out by a group called Naam Tamizhar. Others say the CM created the circumstances for the attack, even if she was not directly involved. “Sending the footballers back emboldened fringe elements like Naam Tamizhar,” says Gnani. In politics, what is not said can be as important as what is, and Jayalalithaa has chosen to remain silent on the attack.
Sri Lanka has responded cautiously. Its government issued a travel advisory in the wake of the attacks. “It is only the fringe groups who are indulging in such acts… There is no hostile sentiment among the people of Tamil Nadu,” says R K M A Rajakaruna, the deputy high commissioner of Sri Lanka in southern India, speaking in slow, measured tones. The football team’s visit, he says, was a people-to-people interaction where governments are not involved. “These events happen in a spirit of friendship and brotherhood… I can’t imagine a situation where such ties do not exist between India and Sri Lanka.” Some reports suggest that Indian fans were heckled when they went to Sri Lanka to watch cricket matches between the countries recently.
Beyond Eelam, one issue that Tamil Nadu has raised repeatedly with the Centre is that of its fishermen being attacked by the Sri Lankan navy for fishing in Lankan waters, beyond the international maritime border. The state government recently stated that there had been 167 incidents of the Lankan navy shooting at Indian fishermen between 1991 and 2011, with 85 Indian fishermen killed and 180 injured. Colombo flatly denies the charges. “There is absolutely no truth in these charges of harassment or even killing; it is just rhetoric by certain elements to tarnish the image of the Sri Lankan navy,” says Rajakaruna. While refuting the charges, Sri Lanka says the large number of Indian fishermen continuing to fish in Sri Lanka’s waters is a real problem. They deny Tamil fishermen in northern and eastern Sri Lanka a good catch. Indian fishermen are also alleged to indulge in bottom-trawling, a practice acknowledged to be destructive for marine life as it scrapes the seabed.
But are these events significant, beyond expressions of sympathy and political point-scoring? Do they herald a revival of the demand for Eelam in Tamil Nadu? “I don’t think so at all,” says Ramaswamy, emphatically. “If Eelam had been such a relevant issue, [MDMK chief] Vaiko would have been the unquestioned leader of Tamil Nadu. Instead, he got 2 per cent of the votes.” Gnani agrees that Eelam was never a significant electoral plank. “Tamilians have a lot of sympathy for Eelam Tamils, but elections have always been fought on local issues. Moreover, the question of Eelam is something that should be decided by people there, not you and I.” Even Father Gasper Raj says the issue is restricted to the political community. An editor of a Tamil weekly, however, speaking on condition of anonymity, says that after the Tigers were defeated a number of pro-Eelam socio-cultural organisations have sprung up in Tamil Nadu out of a collective sense of guilt over the way the war ended.
Another concern is the implications of the latest flare-up for bilateral trade and foreign policy. The first flight to Colombo from Madurai is scheduled to take off on September 20 with a 50-member trade delegation. Tamil Nadu Chamber of Commerce President S Rethnavelu acknowledges that recent incidents have made them apprehensive about the flight.
Some analysts say that the CM’s actions amount to interference in India’s foreign policy, which is “constitutionally and politically, in the domain of the Centre,” says Ram. “Of course states’ sentiments have to be taken into account, but foreign policy cannot be abandoned to the states.” Others differ. “The fundamental guidance for a country’s foreign policy should be its domestic politics. It should reflect our country’s composite culture,” says Sahadevan of JNU.
With all this simmering in the background, the Sri Lankan president will visit India next week, to lay the foundation stone for a Buddhist centre in Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, on September 19. He will also meet President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — which, unsurprisingly, no party is now willing to admit has been at its invitation. The Congress says Rajapaksa comes at the invitation of the BJP, which is in power in Madhya Pradesh, though BJP spokesperson Sushma Swaraj says this is not the case. And while the DMK initially opposed Rajapaksa’s visit, it later backtracked, on the grounds that it is a personal visit. The fact that the visit will take place at all, despite recent developments, is perhaps itself the denouement.