Just prior to the United Nations Humans Rights Council’s (UNHCR) March 2017 hearings on war crimes committed during Sri Lanka’s civil war, the main political party of Sri Lanka’s Tamils, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), had urged the UN to pressure the Sri Lankan government to expedite its investigations. Instead, the consensus resolution passed on 23 March provided the Sri Lankan government with a further two years to investigate the war crimes. This comes as no surprise because the March 2017 resolution, like all previous resolutions on war crimes committed during Sri Lanka’s civil war, was initiated and backed by the US.
Between 2012 and 2014, the US-backed resolutions in the UN were designed to pressure Sri Lanka, which, under the presidency of Rajapaksa, had become a close ally of Beijing. However, following the regime change that saw Rajapaksa ousted and Wickramasinghe, from the right-leaning United National Party (UNP), appointed Prime Minister, the US changed tack. Thereafter, the resolutions were intended to maintain US influence by placating Sri Lanka’s Sinhala political establishment, which was opposed to the very notion of war crimes.
Ever since Tamil Nadu became aware of New Delhi’s assistance to Colombo during the final days of Sri Lanka’s civil war, it has been on the boil.
New Delhi, which had worked in tandem with the US in ousting the pro-Beijing Rajapaksa, had gone along with the consensus resolution of March 2017, but found it necessary to explain its stance. India’s external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, justifying her government’s role in supporting the March 2017 resolution, told the Indian upper house, the Rajya Sabha, that India’s approach in the UN Human Rights Council was guided by the premise that the protection of human rights can be best pursued through constructive and collaborative engagement, and that its aim is to “protect the interests of Tamils in Sri Lanka”.
New Delhi’s compulsion to explain its position is directly attributable to what can be best described as the “Tamil Nadu Factor”. Two days prior to the passing of the resolution which allowed Sri Lanka a further two years to investigate the alleged war crimes, a demand was made in the Rajya Sabha by Vasudevan Maitreyan from Tamil Nadu’s ruling party, the All India Anna Dravida Munetra Kazhkam (AIADMK), that India should oppose the resolution. Vaiyapuri “Vaiko” Gopalsamy, an Indian politician from Tamil Nadu, described a clause in the resolution, which required foreign jurists, lawyers and rapporteurs investigating alleged war crimes to obtain Colombo’s consent, as the ‘unkindest cut’.
The ruling party in New Delhi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has reasons to be concerned with Tamil Nadu’s sentiments, given that Tamil Nadu is on the cusp of change following the untimely demise of its charismatic chief minister Jayaram Jayalalithaa. Ever since Tamil Nadu became aware of New Delhi’s assistance to Colombo during the final days of Sri Lanka’s civil war, under a congress-led coalition, it has been on the boil. The initial protests in January 2009 involved self-immolations, galvanizing over a hundred thousand people to take to the streets. The protests were led by students from colleges across the state. Although the state government was able to eventually quell the unrest, much of the anger remained. The first political casualty of the suppressed anger was the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the ruling party in the state, which was in alliance with the Congress party in the central government during New Delhi’s assistance to Colombo. At the state elections in May 2011, two years after the decimation of the LTTE, DMK was comprehensively defeated by its rival the AIADMK, which had taken advantage of the suppressed anger.
In June 2011, the Tamil Nadu Assembly, now dominated by the AIADMK, adopted a unanimous resolution seeking imposition of economic sanctions against Sri Lanka. In March 2013, following another state-wide protest by students focusing on war crimes committed against Sri Lanka’s Tamils, the state assembly passed another resolution calling for the establishment of a separate state for the Tamils of Sri Lanka. The AIADMK’s stance paid off at the 2014 general elections, helping it secure 37 of the 39 seats. Although the BJP had swept the polls in most other states, it could secure just one seat in Tamil Nadu. In 2015, faced with the prospect of a UN resolution against Sri Lanka’s war crimes being confined to a domestic investigation instead of the international investigation that had been demanded by Sri Lanka’s Tamils, the AIADMK-led Tamil Nadu Assembly passed yet another resolution calling on New Delhi to support an international probe against those who had committed war crimes. The 2016 state elections vindicated AIADMK’s stance, helping it beat its rival and defying the trend in Tamil Nadu since 1984 of the voting out of the incumbent party.
The protest was the product of Tamil Nadu’s anger at the Indian political establishment for its support of what is perceived by Tamils an act of genocide.
Beginning mid-January this year, the state of Tamil Nadu was the scene of a seven-day-long non-violent protest which ended in violence when police intervened on the eighth day. The protests began, innocuously enough, as a demonstration against the banning of jallikattu, an ancient sport involving the taming of a raging bull. It soon morphed, however, into a state-wide movement attracting tens of thousands voicing concerns over a range of issues. Seemingly over multiple issues, the protest was in fact the product of Tamil Nadu’s suppressed anger at the Indian political establishment for its support to what is largely perceived by Tamils the world over as an act of genocide. This perception was not groundless. In December 2008, the New York-based Genocide Prevention Project had identified Sri Lanka as one of the eight “red alert” countries where genocide and other mass atrocities were underway, and in February 2009, the Boston Globe compared the atrocities taking place to the Bosnian Srebrenica genocide. Then there was the finding by former BBC Correspondent in Sri Lanka, Francis Harrison, that the government had declared safe zones during the latter stages of the war only to gather civilians in one place to kill as many as possible.
Since 2009, all protests—including the last protest in January 2017—were led by students. Should the next leader emerge from the generation that had spear-headed protests forcing the AIADMK to pass resolutions in support of the Tamils of Sri Lanka, the Tamil Nadu Factor may prove to be decisive in shaping New Delhi’s Sri Lanka policy.