The Union Government has finally made up its mind. India will participate in the Commonwealth Head of Governments Meeting (CHOGM) that is scheduled later this week in Sri Lanka. In a concession to Tamil chauvinists, who demanded that the summit be fully boycotted, India would be represented not by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh but by the (equally incompetent) Minister for External Affairs Salman Khurshid. Countries that are situated in the developing world host such major international summits mostly due to the symbolic significance and associated assertion of political mojo. Meaningful gain from such summits is like prosperity in a socialist state or power in Manmohan Singh’s hands. Everyone has to pretend that it exists or the whole show begins to look rather silly.
For Sri Lanka to host such a summit is of even more importance. The Mahinda Rajapakse led Sri Lankan establishment has weathered stringent criticism and even mild sanctions from West thanks to its less than honorable actions on the field during the civil war. For such an establishment hosting a Commonwealth summit in Colombo implies, at best, international legitimacy for its actions during the civil war and at worst the West’s reconciliation to ground realities in island state.
Domestic politics of Tamil Nadu and India’s Sri Lankan Policy
Tamil Nadu’s politicians did put up quite a bit of drama in the run up to the summit. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha, who has understood that opposing existing rhetorical conventions in Tamil Nadu yields little political dividends in return for tolerating so much noise pollution, has gladly played along with other parties. As a result of all the competitive Dravidian demagoguery, Tamil Nadu legislative assembly has passed resolutions that amidst other things demand that Prime Minister should not go to the CHOGM 2013 summit and persuade the Union Government to initiate efforts to hold a referendum for an independent Tamil state carved out of Sri Lanka’s Tamil majority provinces. This, as Douglas Noel Adams would say, has annoyed a lot of people.
Tamil Nadu, a single state, virtually dictating the foreign policy of a twenty eight state union is sure to raise eyebrows across the country. And when parties in Tamil Nadu are seen batting for ethnic separatism in a neighboring country, and when it is understood that the ethnicity, for which a separate state is being sought is the same as that of the troublemaker state, annoyance turns into irritation and insecurity.
Since the dominant political movement of the Tamil Nadu has a history of flirting (albeit not seriously) with separatism and has in the past rejected out of hand any suggestion of a linguistic imposition from the north the irritation quickly turns into resentment. And to make matters worse a Prime Minister was in the past assassinated by LTTE in the very state that lobbies for these separatists. The horrendous conduct of the separatist movement, hijacked by megalomaniacs, quickly reinforces all negative perceptions.
It must be admitted that the selfish behavior of Tamil politicians, imposing their view on foreign policy by ultimatum and all the above described historical contexts, have made for extremely disastrous PR within India. They have lost any pocket of goodwill that existed for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause within non-Tamil constituencies by boorish, deceitful conduct in holding the union government to ransom.
If the course of action that Tamil politicians demand were to be made in earnest and holding the interests of the poor Sri Lankan Tamil supreme over their petty, pecuniary and electoral interests then bad PR may be excusable. However all that Tamil politicians have done for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause has been treachery, wilful deceit and in some cases imposing their delusions of Tamil nationalism on the Sri Lankan Tamil cause.
Such lowly, clever by half behavior saw its peak during the closing phases of the Sri Lankan civil war. Karunanidhi in what can only be described as a Janus faced, sly, low-cunning, duplicitous and dishonest act staged a half-day fast demanding that the Union government intervene and prevent civilians from dying in the Sri Lankan war. This was when the Sri Lankan army had defeated most of LTTE’s defenses and thousands of civilians were trapped by both the belligerents in a very small area. Everyone cried hoarse about how continued fighting will lead to untold number of civilian deaths within this area. Karunanidhi, who began his fast by declaring his willingness to become a martyr in the bloody conflict, called off the whole drama before it was too late for his next meal on the flimsy excuse of a phone call from the Prime Minister. This fast, holding the world record perhaps for being the shortest political fast, is but one episode in the long saga of theatrics and demagoguery that has characterized Dravidian politics on Sri Lanka.
If Tamil parties have completely sabotaged any goodwill in the rest of the country, those seeking to drive India ‘closer to Colombo’ are guilty of letting their prejudices get the better of them instead of a diligent, dispassionate analysis of the situation. After all, when it comes to affairs of State one must be able to cut through the chaff instead of being distracted by it. Some months before when the question of India voting against Sri Lanka’s interests in a United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution arose heated debates ensued centered around India’s role in Sri Lanka. It is time to revisit that debate and look at some of the objections of those that are hostile to India playing an important role in the island nation’s ethnic conflict.
The first objection is that it is India’s national interests that must be held supreme in dictating policy and no concern for Sri Lankan Tamil interests can supersede that. There exists the curious specimen of a proposal for a Nehruvian Panchsheel like mutual non-interference from within the otherwise Nehru-baiting right wing. Curiously this is an argument never used when discussing Pakistani Hindus. The next objection which is a variant of the first is that India needs to placate and cultivate good relations with Colombo notwithstanding the conflict because Colombo will play China against India if New Delhi is not being nice to the island state.
All of these are arguments that can be turned on their heads and applied with equal force to make a case for India’s interference. It is in India’s interests that a bloody ethnic conflict is brought to a close without the destruction of legitimate political rights of the Sri Lankan Tamils by the victorious, overwhelmingly Sinhalese Buddhist establishment. Another civil war or insurgency, so close to Indian shores, is not desirable. Colombo’s willingness to play Beijing against New Delhi drives home the point that Colombo does not have any sentimental attachment towards New Delhi.
Only hard-nosed realpolitik based diplomacy aimed at giving India enough leverage over post-war affairs in the island guarantees India’s interests and that leverage cannot be obtained by embracing Colombo’s views on Tamil interests. Admittedly, a fine sense of balance is necessary but neither pro-Tamil voices nor naysayers of India’s interference have demonstrated it.
Bogey of separatism in Tamil Nadu
The second sets of objections are around the question of risking ethnic and linguistic separation so close to India’s borders. This concern that Tamil Nadu may revive Dravidian separatism, couched in other terms, arises mostly out of conflating Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism with the short-lived, much hyped Dravidian Tamil nationalism. The Dravidian Tamil Nationalism had its genesis in antagonism towards Brahmins and soon towards Hinduism itself. In complete contrast to this the Sri Lankan Tamil nationalist movement originated in the Hindu Shaivite reform movement led by the likes of Arumuga Navalar.
Any cursory study of the two distinct Tamil nationalist movements would show that, though exhibiting dangerous similarities, the two nationalist movements originated and evolved largely independent of each other. To be sure one was influenced by the other but to think of the two as same is a folly. If the worry is that Tamil Nadu would suddenly be encouraged by the success of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka then the only response is that such a fear does not warrant a response since it so out of touch with ground realities.
The state, which is being suspected of being susceptible to Tamil separatism, voted Rajeev Gandhi’s party and its allies overwhelmingly giving them all 39 Lok Sabha seats in the elections after the former Prime Minister was assassinated. Even when the IPKF was fighting their co-ethnic separatist LTTE in Sri Lanka the populace of Tamil Nadu voted for the alliance that was responsible for sending troops to Sri Lanka giving it 38 out of a total 39 Lok Sabha seats in the 1989 general elections. So much for Tamil separatism spilling over from Sri Lanka!
The third set of arguments made against Indian intervention is that Dravidian parties and cottage-industry NGO types represent Sri Lankan Tamil separatism and that they are not earnest players. This argument is ‘strengthened’ by largely fanciful accusations such as LTTE’s alleged links with the ‘church’ (evidence of this in the LTTE’s practice of burying its dead instead of burning the dead!) and assorted ‘western’ conspiracies. Such views originate in reaction to theatrics in Tamil Nadu and even at the national level. Much as there is merit in not lending credibility to Dravidian parties India cannot abandon its interests in Sri Lanka because we do not like chauvinists in Tamil Nadu making a living out of the conflict. We must respond to the conflict not to the clowns who claim to represent ‘the cause’.
What about the terrorist activities of LTTE and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi?
The LTTE is dead now and rightly so. All LTTE leaders, irrespective of their participation in the assassination, have been killed by the Sri Lankan army. India may even have the satisfaction of having enabled this through crucial inputs to the Sri Lankan armed forces. In electoral verdicts, which may be safely construed as indicators of public support to sympathizers of separatism, the general populace of Tamil Nadu has always indicated its rejection of terrorism and extremism. Therefore, what is being sought is neither the revival of an LTTE like organization nor extremist separatism. To cite LTTE’s terrorism even after the organization has been obliterated, its cadre and leaders eliminated, is to indicate a tendency to view past events as factors permanently deciding our future course of action.
In discussing a course of action in Sri Lanka one of the most important considerations ought to be the conditions and rights of Sri Lankan Tamils. Not the Dravidian rabble-rousers. Not the NGO cottage-industry types and most certainly not the imagined fears of those unwilling to study existing realities. Yet, if any common ground is to be found between those Tamil parties that are aggressively taking up the cause of the Sri Lankan Tamils and those that are quite openly pro-Colombo it is that neither exhibit any symptoms of earnest sympathies for Sri Lankan Tamils.
The Tamils of Sri Lanka can in their own right stake a legitimate claim of being a branch in the grand banyan tree that is the Indic civilization.
There exists a gate at the grand Sri Rangam temple in South India which is named as the Aryabhattal Vaasaal, named in honor of Brahmins from Kashmir who were martyred there in one of the many raids of Muslim invaders. This is an anecdote that we would no doubt relate to and claim as evidence of our India’s grand cultural unity. The links that Kashmiri Brahmins share with the Brahmins of Sri Rangam is not so different from those of the links that connect Indian Tamils and Sri Lankan Tamils. Should we not then recognize the same cultural unity that we share with the Sri Lankan Tamils with whom we have had close relations in religion, trade and matrimony? What stops us from extending our embrace is that Sri Lankan Tamils is that they live outside the borders of the modern Indian state.
But that is to assume that the genesis of the modern Indian nation-state lies in the constitution of 1950 and boundaries drawn on maps alone. We must recognize that the Indic identity transcends India’s borders. Even Nehru would agree:
“India is a geographical and economic entity, a cultural unity amidst diversity, a bundle of contradictions held together by strong but invisible threads.”
The invisible threads that connects one Indian to another also connects all of us to peoples living in the peripheries of Indic civilizational boundaries. The same cultural unity that binds us into a nation within India’s boundaries extends, albeit to much lesser degree, to those living outside India but belonging to the very same religion, speaking the same language and belonging to the same ethnicity.
In many respects India is the mother state. It is the largest political entity of all that remains of our past from the Sindhu-Saraswati civilization. If we are to act true to our own view of India we must behave like a mother state – embracing, nursing and nourishing the smaller political entities in our periphery and the peoples that look to us.
Both the Tamils and Sinhalese peoples of Sri Lanka claim Indic origins. We cannot turn away and pretend that the ethnic conflict that devoured many thousand children that belonged to the grand Indian family is of no concern to us. But given our disastrous interventions in the past and for anything meaningful to be accomplished we must first acknowledge India’s role, overcome mutual prejudices and chauvinism. Perhaps then we will be able to build for ourselves a polity worthy of energizing a grand civilizational state of ancient origins.