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 kin-ethnics 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. The resettlement of Tamils has been slow and humiliating; there has been no movement on provincial autonomy; and there are genuine fears that, as has already happened with the Eastern province, the demographic balance of the North will slowly and irrevocably be changed. ‘War tourism’ brings southern Sinhalese visitors to various battlegrounds to commemorate ‘victory’ in the North even as the graves of Tamil militants and others are being paved over. The military continues to be an overbearing force in the North and even relations between Buddhists and Muslims — hitherto a relative non-issue in Sri Lanka — are worsening. If anything, far from being magnanimous in victory, the Rajapaksa regime is further distancing Sri Lanka from a narrative of pluralism and ethnic cohabitation.
The protests of students and other sections of civil society in parts of southern India and especially Tamil Nadu are heartening. Some of these are clearly independent of the rent-a-crowd antics of political parties and tap into genuine outrage at the impunity of the Rajapaksa regime. The widely publicised photographs of 12-year-old Balachandran taken just before and after his brutal killing whilst in custody seem to have galvanised a number of people into action. There remain serious questions about the sustainability of such protests and of any impact on government policy. Certainly, the Indian government will not want to set any precedents in this matter of an international inquiry, and any overt pressure on the Rajapaksa regime would only further inflame Sinhalese intransigence. The incentives for strong and quiet advocacy of the Tamil cause by Delhi are hard to discern at the moment. Yet sustained pressure from civil society groups on normative grounds may be the best one can do for now. In the meanwhile, for Sri Lankan Tamils, ignoring the theatrics of fair-weather friends like the DMK may be the sensible thing to do.
(Sankaran Krishna is a professor of political science at the University of Hawaii in the U.S. — Krishna@hawaii.edu)
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