Rarely does one openly witness the dilemma of a government’s defence of itself unfolding as a counter-perspective, as was seen over the recent historical narrative about the travails of the ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka and India’s response to it.
When P. Chidambaram, Union Finance Minister and senior Congress leader from Tamil Nadu, sprung a surprise in Chennai on November 30 with a pro-active leap to pull his party out of the deep woods of ‘misperceptions’ over the Sri Lankan Tamils issue, it was this predicament that came to the fore, even as its ringing political overtones were unmistakable. The event, where some other senior State Congress leaders were more conspicuous by their absence, even seemed to exceed Mr. Chidambaram’s initially stated intent that it was a sober soul-searching forum.
A Conference got up at short notice on the theme, “Livelihood rights of the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Indian Government’s stance” by Mr. Chidambaram’s supporters, may have partly helped the State Congress to retrieve itself from the negative categorisations that the national party has been long subjected to by the ideologues of the Dravidian movement for several years running. But more importantly, it seemed to open up an uncluttered channel for the first time in recent years to de-emotionalise the issue at the State level.
Barring the May 1991 elections in the immediate aftermath of India’s former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination on Tamil Nadu soil, Sri Lanka’s protracted ethnic crisis has hardly had any direct impact on electoral outcomes in Tamil Nadu in recent years for all the ‘umbilical cord’ metaphor passionately invoked by the pro-Tamil political parties and a fringe group of Tamil nationalists. Yet, Mr. Chidambaram’s uphill task looked unenviable, seeking to make a larger political point in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls with a hope to free this discourse from the clutches of competitive politics, so paradigmatic of Tamil Nadu these days.
Despite several other critical issues affecting the electorate here — erratic power outages, see-sawing petrol and diesel prices hitting the poor more, growing middle class anger over governance issues and so on — any election bhaashan (speech) would be ritually incomplete sans the Sri Lankan Tamils. This structural strand has turned thorny for the Congress as two serious charges continue to be thrown at the grand old party: 1. The Congress has ‘betrayed’ the Tamils cause, and 2. The Congress-led UPA Government at the Centre has done nothing or very little for the rehabilitation of the internally displaced Tamils in Sri Lanka after its armed forces decimated the Tamil terror outfit Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009.
Compelled to demolish these two myths that have given the Congress an ‘anti-Tamil’ image, the party’s senior leader set out on a Euclid-like exercise arguing cogently from a few incontestable premises. The result may or may not be a geometrical proof, but Chidambaram was certainly targeting to shrink the Tamil nationalists’ space for an eternal pro-Tamil Eelam (separate Tamil State) plank. When the Congress distanced itself from an initiative by pro-Tamil groups led by P. Nedumaran to erect the Mullivaikal Memorial near Thanjavur, dedicated to the Tamils “massacred by the Sri Lanka Army” in the final phase of the civil war in 2009, as it showcased an implied pro-Tamil Eelam agenda, egged on by the Tamil Diaspora.
While Mr. Chidambaram made no mention of this latest development, he made clear that any ‘emotive approach’ will neither help to heal the wounds of the Sri Lankan Tamils, nor help resolve their livelihood problems nor fulfil their long-standing political aspiration for equal rights and dignity on par with the majority Sinhalese. India has to doggedly pursue “a reasoned approach with diplomatic sagacity”, given that Sri Lanka was a sovereign state and also that “we too do not accept separate State demands in India, whether it be from Nagaland, Manipur or Kashmir”, he argued.
Stating that ensuring due rights to minority groups in any society required a lot more understanding and political wisdom, Mr. Chidambaram reiterated that the Rajiv Gandhi-J.R. Jayewardene Accord (of July 1987) between India and Sri Lanka was still the best deal the Tamils there could hope for within a democratic framework, ‘‘something on which we all laid great store for ending the agony of the Tamils”. This was to be implemented through the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, though subsequent Governments there had reneged on it, the most glaring instance being the de-merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, he noted.
Coming down on the present Rajapaksha Government’s bid to “dilute” the 13th Amendment despite his “promise of 13th Amendment Plus”, the Congress leader swore by Rajiv Gandhi’s name to assert that India would unwaveringly continue its efforts to “see that the 13th Amendment is implemented in full”. Holding of elections to the Northern Province that ushered in Justice C. V. Vigneswaran as its elected Chief Minister was an important first step. But, “we must continue to engage with Sri Lanka, whether it was to get the 13th Amendment implemented, devolving powers to the Tamils, enabling their economic betterment or stopping the attacks on our Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy”, Mr. Chidambaram emphasised, adding, “any boycott of Sri Lanka” will be of no help to anyone.
In the same breath, Mr. Chidambaram was emphatic that India would continue to press for a “comprehensive and truthful investigation into the genocide and war crimes” against the hapless Tamils during the last stages of the civil war in Sri Lanka, a probe “which is also seen as credible by world powers” and will not rest until the guilty are brought to book. The Union Finance Minister also listed out in minute detail the various types of assistance the Indian Government had rendered for resettling and rehabilitating the internally displaced Tamils in Sri Lanka in the last four years, adding, “it will continue”.
It was in this backdrop that the central Government ‘rightly’ decided that Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, will not go to the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet (CHOGM) in Colombo while sending a delegation led by External Affairs minister Mr. Salman Kursheed, an approach, he explained, that balanced the concerns of the political parties in Tamil Nadu and the Assembly resolution over the ‘war crimes’ issue on the one hand, and the need to continue to positively engage with Sri Lanka on the other.
Mr. Chidambaram’s elaborate one-hour defence of the Indian Government’s approach to the Sri Lankan Tamils issue subtly rolled out multiple political objectives for the domestic setting as well. The ‘inclusiveness’ this approach entailed was something ‘only a Congress Government in Delhi could do’, as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was the first to stoutly oppose any resolution in Parliament earlier this year that sought to strongly come down on the Rajapaksha regime for its tardy progress on reconciliation and rehabilitation issues concerning the Tamils.
If that was Chidambaram joining issue with the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, Mr. Narendra Modi, on a different front, the Congress leader with a touch-and-go reference to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhaga (DMK) patriarch, M. Karunanidhi, was also keeping the poll alliance door open for the DMK. The latter had snapped its ties with the ruling United Progessive Alliance (UPA) in March 2013 over the same issue in the wake of a U.S. resolution then at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Interestingly, with the DMK’s general council to meet in Chennai on December 15 to discuss its strategies for the coming Lok Sabha polls, Mr. Chidambaram skirted other issues pilloried as contentious by the major Dravidian parties, including the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), which oppose any cooperation with Colombo like training Sri Lankan armed forces personnel at Indian defence establishments.
At the other end, by solidly debunking the anti-Tamils charge laid at the Congress’ doors by the Dravidian parties, Mr. Chidambaram also obliquely laid the pitch for a possible new Congress-led alliance, inclusive of the actor Vijayakant-led Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) in Tamil Nadu, in the run-up to the 2014 polls, hoping it could take away the sting from an emotively polarised discourse on the island-Tamils issue in Tamil Nadu.