Is trouble brewing for Lanka across the Palk Strait?

Is trouble brewing for Sri Lanka across the Palk Strait with the Tamil Nadu firebrand Jayaram Jayalalithaa, poised to resume charge as Chief Minister of the South Indian state? With her back in the saddle in Chennai, would the Sri Lankan Tamil issue, lying dormant in Tamil Nadu since her incarceration in a corruption case in September last year, be re-kindled? Or are there mitigating factors which could ensure peace in the region?

One major reason for her stoking the fires of the Sri Lankan Tamil issue will be the Tamil Nadu State Legislative Assembly elections due in April 2016. In the past, elections had been a reason for bringing this issue to the fore. In 2013, a year before the Lok Sabha (Central Parliament) elections, Tamil Nadu saw a rash of ugly agitations and brazen State Legislative Assembly resolutions on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue.

Jayaram Jayalalithaa – back in the saddle.
Pic: ANCL library

The 2016 State Assembly elections will be a hard fought one with the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) trying its level best to dent the presence of Jayalalithaa’s All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) in the Assembly, if not defeat it. At present the AIADMK has 150 MLAs in a House of 234 elected seats.

The DMK, which had taken the issue of Jayalalithaa’s possessing disproportionate assets to the courts and had fought tooth and nail for 18 years, has already declared that her acquittal by the Karnataka High Court was unfair, and that an appeal to the Supreme Court is being contemplated.

In this, the DMK has the full backing of the Karnataka government’s Special Public Prosecutor, B.V. Acharya, who has publicly stated that the High Court’s calculation of her assets was wrong. According to him, there had been a disproportion of 76 percent in her assets. But the High Court had said that the disproportion was 8.2 percent, which was less than the Supreme Court-set permissible disproportion limit of 10 percent.

Acharya has asked the Karnataka government, the prosecutor in this case, to appeal to the Supreme Court. With the court case likely to come up again, Jayalalithaa will have to show the electorate that, despite the case, only she is fit to rule and look after the interests of the Tamils of the State and Sri Lanka.

This is where the Sri Lankan Tamil issue comes in handy. She would not only try to show what she had done in the past, but take up the issue strongly in the run up to the elections. Tamil Nadu is already in an election year with the polls due in April 2016.

What she did in 2013

In March 2013 Jayalalithaa called for a referendum among Sri Lankan Tamils for the formation of a ‘Separate Eelam’ (Tamil land) within Sri Lanka.

“The referendum should be conducted among Tamils in Sri Lanka and other displaced Tamils across the world. A resolution could also be adopted in the UN security council in this regard,” she told the State legislative assembly.

The Assembly also adopted a resolution, unanimously, urging New Delhi to slap an economic embargo on Sri Lanka till the ‘suppression’ of Tamils is stopped and those responsible for ‘genocide and war crimes’ face an international probe.

Moving the resolution, Jayalalithaa said the ongoing students protests were reflective of her government’s initiatives on the Sri Lankan issue even as she requested them to withdraw the stir and attend classes.

Betraying the importance of the issue in her struggle for political supremacy with DMK leader M. Karunanidhi, Jayalalithaa said that Karunanidhi had ‘double standards’ on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue. An Indian Premier League (IPL) team owned by Karunanidhi’s grand-nephew, had two Sri Lankan players, she pointed out.

Kalanithi Maran’s Sun Group had bought the Hyderabad team – Sunrisers – in 2012, retained Kumar Sangakkara as skipper and paid a whopping $675,000 for all-rounder Thisara Perera, she said.

Launching a tirade against the Centre and the DMK, she alleged that both had ‘failed’ to ensure a ceasefire in 2009 when hostilities were at the height in Sri Lanka. She charged Karunanidhi with adopting ‘duplicity’ on the issue and said people were aware of it.

Jayalalithaa asked New Delhi to move amendments to the US-backed resolution on Sri Lanka over war crimes “against the Tamils” in the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC). “Don’t just support the US-backed resolution on Lankan Tamils issue at UNHRC, but strengthen it through suitable amendments,” she urged.

To keep its end up on the Tamil issue, the DMK withdrew support to the Manmohan Singh government at the Centre. It wanted India to vote for the US-backed resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC and adopt a similar resolution in the Indian parliament. The DMK had 18 MPs in the Lok Sabha at that time.

Two thousand and thirteen also saw a rash of strikes and attacks against Sinhalese visiting Tamil Nadu. Buddhist monks were attacked at a railway station in Chennai and at a Hindu temple in Thanjavur.

A bus load of Sri Lankan Catholics visiting Velankanni church was also stoned. Thiru Nadesan, a Tamil married into the family of the then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa was not allowed to worship at Rameswaram.

Aging DMK leader Karunanidhi. Pic: courtesy

Professors attending seminars in Tamil Nadu, military officers undergoing courses in the military academy at Ooty and even school boys who had come to take part in a football tournament in Chennai, were asked to leave. Sri Lankan cricketers were not allowed to play in matches in Tamil Nadu.

There were calls for shutting the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission in Chennai. All this was because New Delhi was not listening to her, Jayalalithaa declared. Her power grew after the April 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when her AIADMK won 37 out of the 39 seats up for grabs in Tamil Nadu.

Mitigating factors

However, while there could be a repeat of all this, given the fact that elections are only a few months away, and politics is a no-holds barred game, there are some mitigating factors now in play.

Firstly, there is the possibility of the Supreme Court’s overturning the Karnataka High Court’s verdict in the disproportionate assets case. If that happens, she will have to go back to jail to serve the four-year sentence given by the Special Court judge, Michael da Cunha, in September 2014.

Admittedly, the opposition DMK is weak with an ageing Karunanidhi at the helm; the Congress is split; the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state is yet to make a mark; and the other groups are still bit players.

But Jayalalithaa has to take into consideration an anti-incumbency factor creeping in. Since her ouster in September last year, there has been a halt to government activity on the development front and a policy paralysis has characterized the top rungs of the government. She would have to work overtime getting the state policy planning and administrative machinery moving.

This may result in the Sri Lankan Tamil issue getting a lukewarm rather than a full blooded endorsement.

The second difference between 2015 and 2013 is that the government at the Centre in New Delhi under Narendra Modi is not weak as it was under Manmohan Singh in 2013. Modi’s road roller majority in the Lok Sabha has made those habituated to making radical demands such as Mamata Banerji of West Bengal, think twice before challenging the Centre. Jayalalithaa too might be circumspect.

Northern fishermen

The third mitigating factor is the changed scenario in Sri Lanka, where in place of the belligerent regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa, there is one with an accommodative spirit. The Maithripala Sirisena government has shown its willingness to lend an ear to the Tamils’ grievances.

It has returned hundreds of acres of land to the Tamils and has replaced a military man by a civilian in the post of Governor of the Northern Province.

Fourthly, there a change in the fishing issue too. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran have taken up the cause of the North Sri Lankan fishermen whose livelihoods have been ruined by ‘bottom’ trawlers from Tamil Nadu poaching in their waters.

Jayalalithaa cannot press the cause of Tamil Nadu fishermen without harming the North Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen, who are now backed by Sri Lanka’s Tamil nationalists.

She has to be more circumspect in her demands and accommodative in her responses. Fifthly the Tamil Diaspora has softened its stand on the Sri Lankan government since the advent of Maithripala Sirisena. The British Tamil Forum has said that the scenario in Sri Lanka now is ‘breathtakingly fresh’.

And in a statement issued to commemorate May 18, the day LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran died, Fr. S.J. Emmanuel President of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) has said: “The new government and the progressive forces from all communities are identifying some root causes which ruined the country in the past and are able to identify the fundamentals of a peaceful coexistence of all.”

And lastly, the United States is with the Sirisena government in its endeavors and it is likely that it will not raise the Sri Lankan war crimes issue at the UNHRC in September.

The US is confident that the Sirisena government means well and will do what it can to meet the Tamils’ demands and meet their aspirations. Therefore, Jayalalithaa may well lie low and keep the anti-Sri Lanka sentiment in check, using it only as an election gimmick to keep the DMK in check while ensuring that no serious harm comes to Sri Lanka.

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