Tamil Nadu politics behind India’s new hardline on Lanka

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The demolition of the memorial built in memory of those killed in Sri Lanka’s civil war led to a protest outside the Jaffna University gate. The crisis was defused by India’s coercive diplomacy


Early this month, when India intervened in what was Sri Lanka’s internal security matter to end a protest campaign outside the Jaffna University main gate, it evoked the memories of the tumultuous phase of India-Sri Lanka relations and New Delhi’s arm-twisting diplomacy in the early years of the separatist war in Sri Lanka.

Those were the days when India’s then High Commissioner J.N. Dixit was acting like a viceroy and India was regarded as Sri Lanka’s public enemy number one, for it sympathized with the separatist cause and covertly and overtly trained, armed and funded the separatist rebels. Given the truism that there is no altruism in politics, India’s interference in Sri Lanka then was essentially national-interest driven and was everything do with geopolitics of the Cold War era and the ruling party’s domestic political exigencies, especially with regard to India’s Tamil Nadu state where there was overwhelming public support for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause. However, India was wary about an independent Tamil state being carved out of Sri Lanka, because it did not want to give a new lease of life to the Dravidian separatist movement of the 1950s and early 1960s in Tamil Nadu.

With Sri Lanka’s then President J.R. Jayewardene accommodating India’s geopolitical concerns in the 1987 Indo-Lanka agreement, India changed its stance and turned its guns against the very rebels it once nurtured. The Rajiv Gandhi assassination in 1991 at Sriperumpudur in Tamil Nadu by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) also enabled India to gradually effect a course correction in its relations with Sri Lanka and fully back the Sri Lankan government’s military campaign against the rebels. 

India’s policy change underscored the expendability of the Tamil cause and the Tamil Nadu sentiments. During the last stages of the war, India stood firm by Sri Lanka despite a massive wave of public protests in Tamil Nadu, urging the Indian government to intervene to save the Tamil people. The Tamil Nadu’s then opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam and other Dravidian political parties staged hunger strikes, which appear, in hindsight, more an effort at increasing their vote bases and winning the assembly elections than any genuine concern for the Tamil people’s plight in Sri Lanka’s war zone.
Revisiting this part of history may enable us to better understand India’s intervention early this month in the dispute arising from the demolition of the memorial Jaffna University students had erected to remember those who died in the 30-year civil war.

The Sunday Times last week in its political commentary revealed the lightning speed with which India’s coercive diplomacy worked, with Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay meeting Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan authorities deciding to build a new memorial with state patronage in the very site the demolished memorial stood. Leave alone a protest, there was hardly a murmur from the so-called ultranationalist groups when the government yielded to Indian pressure.  Their silence confirms that there is more politics than patriotism in their protests and that they are a controlled bunch of mercenaries than saviours of the nation, be it their adamant and irrational opposition to the Muslim’s petition to bury their loved ones who die due to COVID-19 or the move to handover the management of the Eastern Container Terminal to an Indian-company-led consortium.
Coming back to India’s latest intervention in Sri Lankan affairs, the question being asked is why all of a sudden India is overflowing with its love for Sri Lankan Tamils – after remaining stonehearted during the last stages of the separatist war. 

Plausible explanations range from geopolitics to domestic political moves ahead of Tamil Nadu state assembly elections in May. Although Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janatha Party had spread its tentacles to most parts of India and has been scoring electoral successes in several states, it has pathetically failed to have a strong presence in southern states. It was only in recent years that it managed to emerge as a force to be reckoned with in the southern state of Karnataka. But Tamil Nadu and Kerala have proved that in the two states, there is no place for the BJP’s divisive ultranationalist policy.  

The BJP, whose political rise from just two parliamentary seats in 1984 to resounding election victories in the past two general elections is phenomenal, is determined to upend the Kazhakam-dominated politics in Tamil Nadu. And what better time than now to strike when the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam is facing an internal battle between Chief Minister Edappady Palaniswamy and Deputy Chief Minister O Panneerselvam. The crisis is only to be aggravated by next week when AIADMK strongwoman V.K. Sasikala completes her jail term for corruption offences and stakes her claim to control the party. 

Tamil Nadu political analysts say the BJP played a covert role in dividing the AIADMK and using the Paneerselvam’s faction as a BJP B team. The Opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam will be going to the election with its leader M. Stalin being the chief minister candidate. He does not have the charisma his late father Mutuvel ‘Kalaignar’ Karunanidhi had. 

In these circumstances, the BJP is set to make a strong foray into Tamil Nadu politics, by showing it cares for the Tamils. The BJP-led central government and the Tamil Nadu state government are soft on Tamil Nadu fishermen who poach in Sri Lankan territorial waters, using illegal and internationally condemned fishing methods.  
The BJP-led central government’s intervention in the Jaffna University war memorial issue was also part of competitive domestic politics and it came in the backdrop of the demolition of the memorial making headlines in Tamil Nadu with the BJP’s rival political parties scrambling to condemn it.  With its coercive diplomacy, the BJP tried to prove that it is not only concerned about Tamils of Tamil Nadu Tamils but Tamils in other countries also.
India also has another reason to be miffed about since the demolition of the memorial went counter to the peace and reconciliation message its External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar delivered in Colombo during an official visit which came at a short notice.  That it happened a day after Jaishankar left Colombo could be interpreted as a snub in Tamil Nadu was not lost on the BJP.

There is also a geopolitical aspect to India’s coercive or assertive diplomacy during the Jaishankar visit and High Commissioner’s Baglay’s meeting with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in the aftermath of the memorial demolition. The message in India’s intervention points to its readiness to use the Tamil issue as a diplomatic leverage as in the past to dissuade Sri Lanka not to get too close to China.

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