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IDSA COMMENT

Why is Tamil Nadu Against Sri Lanka?

October 01, 2012

The recent developments in Tamil Nadu on Sri Lanka augur misfortune for centre-state ties, which have flared up a bit owing to certain events apart from posting New Delhi a message to no longer ‘neglect’ their views. Sri Lankan military personnel who were undergoing training at Wellington in Tamil Nadu were asked to immediately pack up. The junior Sri Lankan football team that was in Chennai to play friendly matches against the Chennai Customs football team was ordered to return. Subsequently, Sri Lankan pilgrims were attacked and their buses stoned. Finally, there was a protest against the visit of Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa to Sanchi, apart from AIADMK chief Jayalalitha’s petition in the Supreme Court challenging the gifting of Katchatheevu to Sri Lanka.

These political protests against Sri Lanka in Tamil Nadu tend to give the impression of political drama and competitive politics staged by the Dravidian parties. Many arguments can even be made against the state’s parties’ gripe against Sri Lanka, including the attack on Sri Lankan tourists, a highly questionable course of action from the point of view of bilateral relations. Though Tamil Nadu has voiced its concern against Sri Lanka from time to time, the pertinent question is why now? Moreover, why are the protests more boisterous now than before; and for what?

There are many reasons for this. First and foremost, the sluggish attitude of the Sri Lankan government regarding carrying out a meaningful political solution to the Tamil issue, even after three years of the end of the civil war appears to be the main reason for this anti-Sri Lanka campaign. The dislodging of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009 gave rise to hopes that Sri Lanka might just be able to move forward towards a lasting political reconciliation, without citing terrorism as a hindrance. But recent twists and turns in the Sri Lankan political discourse, beginning with the abortive All Party Representative Committee (APRC) to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), point to an anti-climax of the Tamils’ hope.

Nearly three years after the LTTE was routed, Colombo is still far from achieving the promises that were made at the peak of the Eelam War IV, and at the end of the war. In particular, Tamil Nadu deems that the Government of Sri Lanka has failed to stand by its commitment in seeking out a political solution based on devolution of powers under the 13th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution. The avowal at the Sri Lankan Independence Day address, where President Rajapaksa reportedly persisted on home-grown solutions against “relying on imported solutions and utilising foreign influences”, to solve the Tamil problem, is a case in point. It is viewed that the Sri Lankan government has merely pledged its commitment to the political solution or 13th Amendment as a stratagem to deflect Indian involvement and scrutiny over allegations of human rights abuses, particularly in the final stages of the war. Notably, such an assurance also gave New Delhi the excuse to ignoreTamil Nadu’s sentiments on the Sri Lankan issue.

Moreover, Colombo’s utter failure to convince the international community as well as that in Tamil Nadu of its genuine efforts to address the grievances of the Tamil community on the island such as resettlement and restitution of the displaced lands, added to the latter’s boisterous dissent against the Lankans. Allegedly, even after the end of three years of war, Tamils in the northern Sri Lanka are living in “deplorable” conditions, thanks to the presence of High Security Zones (HSZ) and reported “systematic Sinhalisation” in the north and east of the country.1 As the control and distribution of land remains a key political tool, particularly in the Tamil areas, it is alleged that the government has attempted to manipulate the demographics in the Jaffna peninsula2 , though Colombo insists that all Sri Lankan citizens have the right to live wherever they desire.

Finally, the increasing harassment of Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu by the Sri Lankan Navy has also contributed to Tamil Nadu’s anger against Sri Lanka. Between 1983 and 2007, the Sri Lankan Navy's attacks reportedly resulted in the death of 132 Indian fishermen, the destruction of about 300 boats and the detention of about 90 fishermen, apart from hundreds of others who went missing.3 Tamil Nadu has, several times, condemned the actions of the Lankan Navy and even called for an immediate cessation to the attack on the fishermen in the Palk Straits. No wonder, with New Delhi dithering over stopping the misery of Tamil fishermen, Tamil Nadu sees Sri Lanka as an interloper, against Tamil interests. As long as the contest for marine resources in and around Kachchativu remains unresolved, Sri Lanka bashing is unlikely to decline in Tamil Nadu.

With the stage set for the 2014 election, Tamil Nadu is expected to further its campaign against Colombo, even though raising the Sri Lankan issue domestically would not attract any vote bank. However, political demonstrations in Tamil Nadu would continue, unless the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka is addressed.

Dr. M. Mayilvaganan is Assistant Professor in International Strategic and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science Campus, Bangalore.