Nothing could be more myopic than Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s outburst against the visit of a Sri Lankan school football team to Tamil Nadu and her decision to suspend an official for allowing a match to be played in the government-owned Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Chennai. Her action has harmed the image of the State and tarnished the reputation of India as an open and tolerant society. The reason for the official’s suspension is that he allowed a team from Royal College, Colombo, to play a friendly against a local Customs team at the stadium on August 31. As part of the fallout, the students and coach of a team from another school, Hilburn International College, Ratnapura, which was planning to play against a Chennai school, were sent packing on the Chief Minister’s insistence. It is tempting to see a connection between this hostile act towards innocent schoolchildren and the strident political demands Ms Jayalalithaa and other party leaders have been making in recent weeks that India put an end to its practice of training military personnel from Sri Lanka’s defence services. However, it is one thing to demand the government desist from training soldiers from the island nation and quite another to ask for — and then peremptorily impose — a virtual embargo on sporting and cultural ties with ordinary Sri Lankans.
For quite some time now, Tamil Nadu has been asking New Delhi to act on its Legislative Assembly resolution seeking early rehabilitation of war-displaced Tamils in Sri Lanka and restoration of their rights on a par with the Sinhalese majority. Far from taking note, the Government of India has actively sought to strengthen ties with Colombo, especially after it voted in the United Nations Human Rights Council in favour of a resolution that was critical of Sri Lanka. Popular sentiment in Tamil Nadu is against sacrificing the pursuit of equality, justice and dignity for the Tamils of Sri Lanka to the goal of preserving India’s political proximity to Colombo. Nor can it be denied that the Union government has been insensitive towards public opinion in the State. When the call for an end to military training arose, it merely shifted the Sri Lankan trainees from a facility in Tamil Nadu to another outside and got Minister of State for Defence M.M. Pallam Raju to say the military training could not be stopped since Sri Lanka is a friendly country. However, the Centre’s callous attitude cannot serve as an excuse for irresponsible grandstanding by Tamil Nadu politicians. We are already on a slippery slope. Today a school soccer match has been cancelled; tomorrow the demand will be for a ban on cricketers, tourists and pilgrims from Sri Lanka.