COLOMBO: The late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s involvement in the Sri Lankan Tamil issue began almost immediately after she joined the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and became its propaganda secretary within a year in 1983.
It was in the later part of 1983 that over 1 lakh Sri Lankan Tamil refugees poured into Tamil Nadu, pushed out by the anti-Tamil riots in Sri Lanka in July that year. Sensing a great political opportunity to whip up pro-Tamil sentiments, the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) led by M Karunanidhi took the lead in organising support for the beleaguered Sri Lankan Tamils. This left AIADMK leader and Chief Minister M G Ramachandran with no option, but to join the Eelam Tamil bandwagon as staying away from it would have been politically suicidal.
The party was galvanised and the new propaganda secretary Jayalalithaa was the public face of a pro-active AIADMK on the Sri Lankan issue.
But once the public fervour died down, the Indo-Sri Lankan issue was taken over by the Central government and Jayalalithaa totally ceased to have a role in the matter. A firm believer in non-violence, she was shattered by the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991. She rode the anti-LTTE and anti-DMK wave in the elections that followed and became Chief Minister in 1991.
By 1991, Tamil militancy and the counter-measures taken by the Sri Lankan Navy in the Palk Strait had revived the Kachatheevu issue. Tamil Nadu fishermen, who were suspected of aiding the LTTE and other Sri Lankan Tamil militants, were shot by the Lankan Navy leaving many injured or dead. Jayalalithaa blamed the transfer of Kachatheevu to Sri Lanka by two treaties in 1974 and 1976 for this as Tamil Nadu fishermen contended that they were being attacked nearKachatheevu, around which they had a right to fish as per an understanding between India and Sri Lanka. The Lankan Navy, on the contrary, argued that Tamil Nadu fishermen were intruding well beyond Kachatheevuand poaching in Lankan waters.
But Jayalalithaa stuck to her guns, and got the State Assembly to pass a resolution seeking the “retrieval” of Kachatheevu as it had been handed over to Sri Lanka disregarding historical antecedents and without consulting the stakeholders in Tamil Nadu and circumventing Parliament.
The Kachatheevu issue also helped her browbeat Karunanidhi. To prove her superior credentials as a defender of Tamil Nadu fishermen’s rights, she had approached the Supreme Court in 2008, something Karunanidhi had not even considered.
Successive Central governments (and of course Sri Lanka) have held that the Kachatheevu issue had been settled in 1974 and 1976 and that there could be no going back. But Jayalalithaa kept the issue alive as the fishermen continued to contend (against scientific evidence) that they do not cross Kachatheevu, where they have “traditional right” to fish.
However, Jayalalithaa had tried to divert Palk Strait fishermen from shallow water trawling to deep sea fishing and sought about Rs 1,055 crore from the Center for the switch over. In the absence of Central funds, she had started a project worth Rs 51 crore on her own.
Meanwhile, arrest of Tamil Nadu fishermen continued to be arrested, forcing Jayalalithaa to write to the Centre for strong action against Sri Lanka.
Lankan Tamils issue
Jayalalithaa got involved in the Sri Lankan Tamil political issue only in 2011 when a post-war humanitarian crisis in Northern Sri Lanka drew international attention. The treatment of the 3 lakh war displaced persons in camps and charges of war crimes levelled by human rights organisations and the UN began to draw the attention of politicians in Tamil Nadu. On coming to power in 2011, Jayalalithaa proactively got the State Assembly to pass a resolution seeking economic sanctions against Sri Lanka and action against Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and others “war criminals”.