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Protest and Policy

The "Virtual Community" of Tamils

"The steady exchange of people, ideas and culture between the people of Tamil Nadu and Tamils around the world has built a virtual community, an imagined community of Tamils, to be seen not as a nation or as a territorial community, but as a cultural community," says Dr. A.R. Venkatachalapathy. He was invited by The Hindu Centre to respond to a set of questions following the eruption of the anti-Lanka agitations in Tamil Nadu.

Is there an authentic Eelam narrative in Tamil Nadu since 2009?

Since 2009, there has not been even a single unilinear or monolithic Eelam narrative in Tamil Nadu. The first response to the end of the civil war and the annihilation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was one of disbelief as few believed that the LTTE would or could be militarily defeated. The LTTE was thus a victim of its own image of invincibility. The myth that one section holds that Velupillai Prabhakaran is still alive stems from this disbelief. That the final days of war coincided with the parliamentary elections and the subsequent formation of the UPA - II government gave some pause to the emergence of a new narrative.

The first few months following the LTTE debacle was attended by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government and M. Karunanidhi’s desperate bid to shore up his lost image as the leader and protector of Tamils worldwide. The MP’s delegation to Sri Lanka and the World Classical Tamil Conference were a part of this move. So one crucial element of the narrative has been the loss of legitimacy suffered by the DMK and M. Karunanidhi. The Congress party’s historical image as a formation opposed to Tamil interests was solidified in this process. Evidently, the Congress was a millstone that took the DMK with it in the 2011 elections. It is this perception that is behind the DMK’s ultimate step to quit the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) earlier this month.

The Tamil press has consistently reported on Sri Lanka. A dominant element in this reportage is the confirmation of the Sri Lankan state’s malafide intentions vis-à-vis the Tamil people. Three periodicals – Ananda Vikatan , Junior Vikatan and the daily Dinamani immediately before, during and after the war – rode the wave of this perception. Even a cursory reading of the reports would indicate the popular inability to come to terms with the defeat of the LTTE, and the anger against the Sri Lankan state for its treatment of its Tamil citizens. There have been extensive reports of the plight of the Tamil people in the Sri Lankan government’s rehabilitation measures. The pro-China tilt of Sri Lanka, and the attendant dangers for India’s geo-strategic interests, has been stressed.

A disproportionate share of attention (measured by the yardstick of actual strength on the ground) has been cornered by Tamil nationalist fringe groups, who have occupied the space opened up by the elimination of the LTTE, the perpetrators of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, for the articulation of views unable to find a voice since 1991. The shift in Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa’s stand – to take up the Tamil cause in a bid to undermine the legitimacy of the DMK and M. Karunanidhi – has radically altered the playing field.

The UN resolution provided the proximate cause for the simmering discontent in Tamil Nadu to boil over. There has been a steady current of resentment against the Sri Lankan government, and the way the UPA government has provided support to Sri Lanka. The documentation provided by international agencies such as the Channel 4 documentaries, the books such as Gordon Weiss’s Cage and Frances Harrison’s Still Counting the Dead have given a new dimension to what were seen as only pro-Eelam propaganda.

But the protests are still largely inchoate. There are no clearly defined objectives or aims. Now that the UN session is over and the state government is beginning to take a tougher stance, the student protests will die inevitably. But the roots of discontent will remain.

Has the Mullaivaikal incident and the delayed rehabilitation of the Tamil refugees had real resonance in Tamil Nadu? When Prabhakaran was killed and the LTTE wiped out, there did not seem to be much reaction in Tamil Nadu, so why has the anger over Sri Lankan Tamils come back?

There were at least 17 self-immolations in Tamil Nadu in the months leading up to May 2009. The self-immolation of K. Muthukumar, a journalist, in January 2009, made a deep impression on the Tamil public mind.

The singular absence of an outburst in the wake of the bloodbath – contrary to the threat of some Tamil nationalist leaders that ‘rivers of blood would flow’ if the least harm were to befall Prabhakaran – can be adduced to the following factors. Firstly, the LTTE was a victim of its own image of invincibility, an image bolstered by smaller political forces like Vaiko, P. Nedumaran, Seeman and others who still maintain that Prabhakaran is alive. M. Karunanidhi, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, made clever use of this: when asked to comment on the death of Prabhakaran, he cited Nedumaran’s denial. Another aspect to the containment of the situation was the role played by the then DMK Government – for which the UPA government and the Congress in particular should be eternally grateful to the DMK. Karunanidhi’s self-cultivated image as the leader of Tamils was exploited to deflect the mounting protests even though by the end of 2009 that image had worn thin.

Who are the authentic voices with influence in the Tamil Nadu discourse on the Sri Lankan Tamil question?

Here it might be appropriate to examine what Tamil Eelam means in the Tamil context. Tamil Eelam means different things in different discourses. In the mainstream English discourse, Tamil Eelam is secessionist, with a clear political, territorial, nationalist and sovereign dimension to it. In the Tamil popular discourse, however, Tamil Eelam encompasses a whole range of things of which an independent sovereign state for Tamils is only one part, perhaps a very crucial part. In the Tamil imaginary it has to do with cultural sharing, and evokes a social resonance, and an emotional response – a distinction not be lost sight of. And even within the Tamil imaginary there are various shades of opinion. There is an entire spectrum of Tamil opinion, ranging from fringe Tamil nationalist groups to the other end of the spectrum encompassing moderate and liberal views.

Is there a relationship of the Eelam concept to the larger ongoing Dravidian movement?

Tamil identity politics has a complex history, and it is necessary to trace its trajectory before analyzing its relationship to Eelam. Tamil identity politics has its intellectual genesis in the work of 19th century European Orientalists, and the rediscovery of the Tamil classics by Tamil scholars. This coalesced with the non-Brahmin movement that emerged in the first decades of the 20th century. The non-Brahmin movement had at its core an antagonism to the social base of Indian nationalism which was exploited by the British. What was essentially an upper-caste and elite movement was radically transformed by Periyar in the 1920s. The ideology was radicalized, and its social base was vastly expanded to encompass the large mass of middle and lower castes. With the split in the movement spearheaded by C.N. Annadurai and the formation of the DMK the movement joined the mainstream of electoral politics. However, popular misconception notwithstanding, the Dravidian movement was never primarily a secessionist movement. Periyar’s articulation of secession – whether for a separate Tamil Nadu in 1937-1939 or for Dravidastan in the years leading up to 1947, or when he subsequently revised his position to once again ask for a separate Tamil Nadu in the 1950s – was always a contingent demand and not an absolute one. (Periyar always raised the issue of secession in relation to the lack of power for the backward classes and lower castes. If the Indian Union came in the way of the aspirations of the shudras he said that he would demand secession. How else would K. Kamaraj have agreed to rub shoulders with Periyar for over a decade, from 1954 to 1967?) Hardly ever did the Dravida Kazhagam (DK) or DMK actually launch an agitation for a separate state. The DMK saw the Chinese aggression in 1962 as a godsend to have a face-saving way of dropping the secessionist demand.

It is important to note that the intellectual resources for Tamil identity politics were shared by Tamil Nadu and Eelam. But a crucial element was missing in Eelam. Sri Lankan Tamils could never identify themselves with the (dominant) non-Brahmin component of the Dravidian movement, nor endorse the radical social reform programme championed by Periyar.

The demand for a sovereign and independent Tamil Eelam emerged as a demand only in the 1970s and should not therefore be confused with the Dravidian movement.

Tamil nationalist fringe groups in Tamil Nadu have, however, exploited the apparent overlap. Over the last couple of decades, these groups have used Sri Lanka to champion a proxy Tamil nationalism which has certainly not helped the Sri Lankan Tamil people and might have positively harmed their interests. It has given a handle to forces inimical to Sri Lankan Tamil interests to depict the entire struggle and the support for it from Tamil Nadu as anti-(Indian) national in character.

Is Eelam still a goal or would devolution under the 13th amendment address the alienation?

The annihilation of the LTTE has left a political vacuum. In the decade preceding the July 1983 pogrom there were many contending political forces in Tamil Sri Lanka – from the moderates to the many groups of armed militants. The systematic elimination of all such forces by the LTTE has resulted in the absence of a formation to articulate the grievances of the Sri Lankan Tamils in a language comprehensible to the international community. The sad absence of a spokesman like, say, A. Amirthalingam, a senior leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) or a jurist such as Neelan Thiruchelvam is particularly missed. The TULF leaders had a consummate understanding of the global situation, and had a good command over diplomatic language to articulate legitimate Tamil interests within a framework of international affairs and geo-strategic interests.

Another aspect is the confusion created by Tamil nationalist fringe groups in Tamil Nadu. We are in a strange situation. All the voices that we hear are from those outside Sri Lanka –Tamils in the diaspora and various shades of opinion in Tamil Nadu. The Tamils in Sri Lanka themselves seem to have no voice.

The Eelam Tamil diaspora is strongly committed to an independent Eelam. In the present context where democratic rights of the Tamils in Sri Lanka is stifled and dignified existence is a question, their views cannot be ascertained.

Until all the Tamil people are rehabilitated, those in illegal and interminable detention tried, war criminals punished, and the demilitarization of the traditional Tamil homelands is complete, it would be merely of academic interest to discuss the political future of Eelam Tamils. This might be inconvenient, but this is nevertheless the reality.

Are the people of Tamil Nadu really connected to the Sri Lankan Tamils or is it a creation of political parties desperate for issues to rally masses?

The current student protests is only the tip of the iceberg: there is little doubt that the people of Tamil Nadu are really connected to the Sri Lankan Tamils. The political parties are only making capital out of this strong undercurrent of empathy and concern.

The chasm that had developed between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka after Independence began to be bridged after 1983. The steady exchange of people, ideas, cultural artefacts, etc., has been transformed by the digital information technology. The role of the Tamil diaspora has to be discussed separately. But suffice to say they have spearheaded the fashioning of a shared culture between Tamils in India and the dispersed Tamil community across the world.

The mental universe of many a thinking Tamil would be seriously impoverished without the poetry of a Cheran or the prose of an A. Muttulingam. It is this formation which has seriously undermined the DMK’s credibility and its professed claim to be the protector of Tamils. It is also this complexity which makes it difficult for the State government to control the student agitation gripping the state. This new formation is a virtual community, an imagined community of Tamils, to be seen not as a nation or as a territorial community, but as a cultural community. To mistake it for a political community or even a social community may be to completely miss the point. Perhaps that’s why the arena of the last conflict, Mullivaikkal, will be a permanent scar on the Tamil psyche.

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