With fair-weather friends like th­ese …

The Pak Banker - - OPINION - Sankaran Kr­ishna

IT would be naïve on the part of Sri Lankan Tamils to re­pose faith in par­ties like the DMK and the AIADMK which are com­pet­ing to out'Thamizh' each other. A pho­to­graph of­ten cuts through tonnes of ver­biage and ex­poses the truth. One such pho­to­graph was pub­lished on March 19 soon af­ter the Dravida Mun­netra Kazhagam pres­i­dent M. Karunanidhi an­nounced his party's with­drawal from the United Pro­gres­sive Al­liance government led by Prime Min­is­ter Man­mo­han Singh. It showed a hand­ful of smil­ing DMK cadres out­side party head­quar­ters dis­tribut­ing bright yel­low "lad­dus" as fire­works were set off "cel­e­brat­ing" the party's de­ci­sion.

Why would with­drawal from the rul­ing coali­tion, based on prin­ci­pled dif­fer­ences with the Congress over the Sri Lankan is­sue, specif­i­cally on the mil­que­toast Res­o­lu­tion sup­ported by In­dia at the re­cent Geneva meet­ing of the United Na­tions Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion, be wor­thy of cel­e­bra­tion? Should it not be marked by solem­nity and a com­mit­ment to pres­sure the Cen­tre to do the right thing by the Sri Lankan Tamils? Isn't there some­thing crass about dis­tribut­ing 'lad­dus' when is­sues such as the wan­ton killing of civil­ians, de­nial of rights to a mi­nor­ity, and other weighty mat­ters are at stake?

Yet, it's pre­cisely such op­por­tunism that has marked the ac­tions of the DMK (as well as the All In­dia Anna Dravida Mun­netra Kazhagam, the Congress and other par­ties) when it comes to Sri Lanka. Hav­ing de­cided that al­ly­ing with the Congress in the next elec­tion would prove a li­a­bil­ity, the DMK used the pu­ta­tive short­com­ings of the Geneva res­o­lu­tion that In­dia sup­ported against Sri Lanka as its al­ibi to exit the UPA. If there is one les­son for the Sri Lankan Tamils in such a pho­to­graph, it is this: to re­pose any faith in the sin­cer­ity and good­will of par­ties like the DMK would be noth­ing but naïveté.

At least since the be­gin­ning of Indira Gandhi's sec­ond stint in power start­ing in 1980, one un­ex­am­ined and self-serv­ing fic­tion has un­der­lain much of our for­eign pol­icy to­wards Sri Lanka - the al­legedly se­ces­sion­ist pro­cliv­i­ties of Tamil Nadu. This sim­mer­ing sub-nationalism, it was ar­gued by many in New Delhi, meant In­dia had more than just an idle in­ter­est in Sri Lanka's domestic af­fairs as the fate of the Tamil mi­nor­ity there could have grave im­pli­ca­tions for In­dia's se­cu­rity and in­tegrity given kineth­nics in Tamil Nadu. In­deed, such a logic was used to jus­tify our pol­icy of covertly aid­ing Sri Lankan Tamil mil­i­tant groups or, at a min­i­mum, al­lowed Delhi a de­gree of 'plau­si­ble de­ni­a­bil­ity' sug­gest­ing that if Sri Lankan Tamil mil­i­tants found a safe haven in Tamil Nadu, it was not pol­icy but some­thing be­yond Delhi's con­trol.

An aca­dem­i­cally thor­ough and rig­or­ous ex­am­i­na­tion of the his­tory of the Dra­vid­ian move­ment in Tamil Nadu would se­ri­ously ques­tion such as­sump­tions about Tamil sub-nationalism. One could ar­gue that the very break­ing away of the DMK from the par­ent so­cial move­ment-based Dravida Kazhagam (DK) in 1949 in­dexed a de­sire to en­gage in elec­toral pol­i­tics and work In­dia's emerg­ing fed­eral or­der in favour of the State. This ten­dency gained a pow­er­ful fil­lip af­ter three sig­nif­i­cant events: the cre­ation of lan­guage-based States in the mid-1950s; the ex­plicit pro­scrip­tion of se­ces­sion­ist par­ties in the af­ter­math of the Sino-In­dian con­flict of 1962; and most im­por­tantly the Cen­tral government in­def­i­nitely 'post­pon­ing' the anoint­ment of Hindi as the na­tional lan­guage into the in­def­i­nite fu­ture af­ter the tu­mult over the is­sue in the mid-1960s. Once the DMK emerged as the rul­ing party in the State elec­tions of 1967, the die was cast: there­after, any se­ces­sion­ist em­bers the Dra­vid­ian move­ment may have had were con­fined to its fringes. Af­ter the break­away of the All-In­dia Anna DMK from the DMK un­der the charis­matic lead­er­ship of MGR in 1972, Tamil Nadu pol­i­tics has been a tri­an­gle in­volv­ing the two Dra­vid­ian par­ties and the Congress. Elec­toral un­der­stand­ings with the Congress of­ten paved the way for power in the State As­sem­bly and in­creased clout in the coali­tion gov­ern­ments that pre­dom­i­nated at the Cen­tre.

Other in­te­gra­tive pro­cesses have pow­er­fully but­tressed the con­form­ist or mod­er­at­ing com­pul­sions of elec­toral pol­i­tics in re­cent years, rang­ing from eco­nomic lib­er­al­i­sa­tion and mass me­dia to cricket and con­sumer cul­ture. What this has meant for the two main Dra­vid­ian par­ties in a crowded elec­toral mar­ket­place is fairly sim­ple: they are locked in a com­pe­ti­tion to out'Thamizh' each other to gain dis­tinc­tion and re­tain a brand iden­tity, but mainly in a sym­bolic or rhetor­i­cal sense. Ex­press­ing sol­i­dar­ity and sup­port for Tamil peo­ple and the Tamil lan­guage ev­ery­where be­comes a per­for­ma­tive sta­ple of Dra­vid­ian pol­i­tics. Yet they dare not take up a cause in any sub­stan­tive sense as that might run afoul of the Cen­tre's well-es­tab­lished sovereignty in for­eign af­fairs or strain re­la­tions with the Cen­tral government.

The Congress has hardly been im­mune to the se­duc­tions of ap­pear­ing as the de­fender of Tamil in­ter­ests else­where in its quest to re-es­tab­lish it­self in the State. In the As­sem­bly elec­tions of 1989, it chose to run alone on the plat­form of be­ing the cham­pion of Tamils - both here and there - as proven by the Indo-Sri Lanka Agree­ment of 1987 signed by Ra­jiv Gandhi and J. R. Jayewar­dene. The ISLA re­quired that Sri Lanka recog­nise it­self as a union of prov­inces; the north and east as the ar­eas of tra­di­tional Tamil habi­ta­tion; and that it cede a far greater de­gree of au­ton­omy to all prov­inces. Th­ese and other as­pects of that agree­ment were given ex­ten­sive pub­lic­ity by the Congress dur­ing the cam­paign, and it fea­tured promi­nently in its party plat­form in Tamil Nadu. Ra­jiv Gandhi's mul­ti­ple trips to the State in the run-up to those elec­tions ham­mered away at the idea that the Congress, rather than the Dra­vid­ian par­ties, would be bet­ter at serv­ing Tamil in­ter­ests. That the ISLA also oc­ca­sioned the en­try of the In­dian Peace Keep­ing Forces which were at that very moment en­gaged in a dis­as­trous cam­paign against the Lankan Tamil mil­i­tant groups de­stroyed any Congress ef­forts to present it­self as the saviour of Tamils. The Congress was duly routed in the elec­tions.

The DMK's ex­pe­di­ency over the Geneva res­o­lu­tion comes at a par­tic­u­larly poignant moment in the his­tory of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Pres­i­dent Mahinda Ra­japaksa seems bent on prov­ing the dic­tum that vic­tory is of­ten more cat­a­strophic for a so­ci­ety than de­feat or a stand­off. Far from cap­i­tal­is­ing on the "Ashokan" moment that pre­vailed in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of May 2009, when he could have in­au­gu­rated a new era of na­tional rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and in­te­gra­tion based on eth­nic equal­ity, he has cho­sen to fur­ther con­sol­i­date Sin­hala ma­jori­tar­i­an­ism and per­sonal power.

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