Sri Lankan President, Mr. Maithripala Srisena visited India from 13 to 15 May 2016 to talk to his counterpart, India’s Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, choosing India for his first state visit after being elected early last year. Soon after, Prime Minister Modi became the first Indian prime minister to make a bilateral visit to Sri Lanka in 28 years. In May 2016, Tamil Nadu was in election mode, as elections to the State Assembly were scheduled for 16 May. In the results announced on 19 May, Ms Jayaraman Jayalalithaa, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu created history by becoming the first incumbent Chief Minister to return to power in the state since 1989.
There is a seamless connection between the two events because the woes of Sri Lanka Tamils is the grist of Tamil Nadu political discourse from the time of Sri Lanka’s infamous anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983. Regardless of what was happening in Sri Lanka’s never ending conflict, for Tamil Nadu politicians, Prabhakaran’s armed struggle for Tamil Eelam was the focus.The latest assembly election was no exception though the Sri Lanka Tamil issue was on a lower priority in the campaign, presumably because the Tamil Tigers have been defeated and Mahinda Rajapaksa, the man who defeated them was no more in power. But it did not make a difference to some parties like the Naam Tamizhar Party, known for its strong devotion to Prabhakaran, which campaigned with his posters on display. Ms Jayalalithaa was more specific; speaking at an election rally in Tiruchi she said she would continue to work for ushering in a separate Tamil Eelam to enable Tamils to live with full freedom and self respect.
The Tamil Nadu chief minister’s statement created a flutter among Sinhala political and nationalist lobbies across the Palk Straits. However, answering a media query, President Sirisena brushed aside its importance, pointing out the context of the election campaign in which it was made. He said one need not get exercised over it as generally politicians were known for making a number of statements during elections. That is true, but the Tamil Nadu chief minister, affectionately named ‘Amma’ by her devoted followers who fall at her feet, is known for making good of her election promises. Her campaign was spun around this USP. This time also she did just that: immediately after swearing in, she signed a slew of orders to deliver the goodies she had promised to the people. But the question is, can she deliver on her promise to continue to work for creating an independent Tamil Eelam?
In a way, President Sirisena’s contention was correct; Sri Lanka formed only a small part of the Tamil Nadu chief minister’s rhetoric, her virulent focus being on the DMK and her bête noir Karunanidhi, its leader. Her statement on Tamil Eelam was in the context of her accusation of the DMK leader betraying the interests of Tamils not only in the state but also in Sri Lanka. Apart from speaking in support of Tamil Eelam, Ms Jayalalitha also said her party would press the Centre to provide dual citizenship to Sri Lankan Tamils in Tamil Nadu so that they could get employment opportunities easily. She added that Sri Lanka Tamils living here should be repatriated with their full consent, only after complete normalcy and full protection was ensured for them back home. At the political level, Sri Lankan Tamil polity is not looking for support for Tamil Eelam from Amma. Typical was the reaction of Sri Lanka’s Tamil National Alliance (TNA) spokesperson and MP Sumanthiran to Amma’s statement. He appreciated her for the emotional support for Tamils and hoped she would turn it to promote the Tamil cause in a constructive way. He added that the Lankan Tamils no longer demand a separate Tamil Eelam but want a political solution in line with their expressed aspirations in a united Sri Lanka.
Not all Sri Lanka Tamil parties vocalised their stand on Tamil Eelam because they have been thriving on the issue. But in TNA, it is Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) with the largest following that calls the shot. Despite pulls and pressures within, TNA is a little more pragmatic and seems to have accepted the political reality after the defeat of LTTE. However, Northern Province chief minister CV Wigneswaran who is in power with TNA support does not share the TNA’s view. He feels the sincerity of the Sirisena government to do justice to Tamils is suspect. He was apparently elated with the Tamil Nadu chief minister’s statement.
Ms Jayalalithaa’s reply to the Northern Province chief minister’s letter of congratulations on her victory indicated how she was likely to take up the Sri Lanka Tamil issue further. Thanking him for the good wishes, she said she would continue to make efforts to ensure justice is done to “Sri Lankan Tamils of the Northern Province, through the government of India.” So the iron lady, known for her shrewd political understanding, knows the way the cookie is crumbling in India-Sri Lanka relations ever since both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Modi came to power almost at the same time. The writing on the wall is clear: Tamil Nadu’s power play that had shackled India’s Sri Lanka policy in the past is gone. Prime Minister Modi’s BJP won a majority in parliament in 2014 elections just as Sirisena did with a promise of yahapalanaya (good governance) and equitable treatment for Tamils who voted him to power. Both the leaders are rewriting their narratives and synergising their strengths to build better relations, for the mutual benefit of their people.
Amma is in a unique position to give a positive tweak to Tamil Nadu’s negative discourse on Sri Lanka that has lost its relevance. The immediate problems of Tamils are survival: food, a place to live and making a living. And that includes thousands of widows and 12,000 Tamil youth, who had followed their leader into the war and have been freed now. As the Tamil Nadu chief minister has promised, she can bring back dignity to their lives by a few things that are within her realm. A few ideas that come to mind are opening up the engineering colleges which have few takers to Sri Lanka Tamils on the same fee structure as our students; evolve a holistic plan with industrialists to invest in Tamil areas to start businesses that provide gainful employment to thousands of educated students and women. These actions would add to her popular image of doing what she promised. And that would bring back the smile on the faces of Sri Lanka Tamils and people of Tamil Nadu would feel they were contributing meaningfully to their brethren in distress.
Col R. Hariharan, a former MI officer, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), from 1987 to 90. A version of this article was earlier published in the Deccan Chronicle, June 8, 2016.