M. Karunanidhi: A lifelong warrior for Sri Lankan Tamil cause, but misunderstood in the end

He advocated a separate Tamil Eelam, but was careful not to encourage any attempt to stoke separatist sentiments in Tamil Nadu.

Updated - November 28, 2021 08:32 am IST

Published - August 07, 2018 10:42 pm IST

Ardent Supporter: S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, centre, with M. Karunanidhi in Madras on February 22, 1972.

Ardent Supporter: S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, centre, with M. Karunanidhi in Madras on February 22, 1972.

It is the misfortune of some leaders that public perception, based on their recent actions and political positions, tends to overshadow their long history of engagement with an issue. It is so with M. Karunanidhi, who was an outspoken champion of the cause of the Sri Lankan Tamils for five decades, but whose perceived “inaction” in the final days of the civil war in the island nation in 2009 stuck to his reputation during the sunset of his life.

To his legion of supporters, Mr. Karunanidhi was ‘Tamil Inaththalaivar’ or, ‘the leader of the Tamil race’. He wore the appellation with some pride in the prime of his political career, but not many believed in it in the end. Much of the hatred and disdain that he suffered came after May 2009, the month that saw the demise of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, its leader V. Prabhakaran and Mr. Karunanidhi’s own reputation as a lifelong supporter of the Tamil cause.

It was somewhat unfair as he was not only a friend of many Sri Lankan Tamil leaders, but also commanded much respect from Tamil federalist politicians. He was one of the few Indian leaders who had empathy for the plight of the Tamils across the Palk Bay, as well as deep understanding of the political problem underlying the ethnic conflict.

While many may differ with him for advocating a separate Tamil Eelam, he had made it amply clear that he primarily stood for a just solution for the Tamils.

 M. Karunanidhi during an indefinite fast over the Eelam war, in Chennai on April 27, 2009.

M. Karunanidhi during an indefinite fast over the Eelam war, in Chennai on April 27, 2009.


Mr. Karunanidhi was wont to remind his detractors that it was he who moved a resolution at the DMK general council at Chidambaram in 1956 condemning the ‘Sinhala Only’ policy in Sri Lanka. He knew S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, considered the father of the Sri Lankan Tamil movement, and was close to A. Amirthalingam, leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front. The DMK was in the forefront of organising protest rallies in Tamil Nadu after anti-Tamil violence in Sri Lanka in 1977 and 1983. Shortly after the 1983 riots, Mr. Karunanidhi and DMK general secretary K. Anbazhagan gave up their membership of the State Assembly in protest.

A feature of the post-1983 situation was that Tamil militant groups began operating through offices in Madras. While the LTTE was seen as favoured by the then Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran, the Tamil  Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) was believed to have the DMK’s patronage. Mr. Karunanidhi formed the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation (TESO) and organised a massive national conclave in Madurai in May 1986 to highlight the Tamil demand for self-determination in Sri Lanka. It was a broad-based political platform.

Leaders who participated included A.B. Vajpayee, H.N. Bahuguna, Subramanian Swamy and N.T. Rama Rao. It was during the conference that he had first-hand experience of the fratricidal war between various Tamil militant groups. The LTTE started a massacre of TELO cadre in northern Sri Lanka, and Mr. Karunanidhi issued a personal appeal to the LTTE representative at the conclave to spare the life of TELO leader Sri Sabaratnam. The Tigers paid no heed and went on to kill him, along with most TELO members, in the next few days. He never forgot this incident and often mentioned fratricidal killings as one of the reasons that ‘Tamil Eelam’ was not achieved.

Against the IPKF

Mr. Karunanidhi was a bitter critic of the decision made as part of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of 1987 to send peace-keeping troops to Sri Lanka, and because of his strident condemnation of alleged atrocities by the IPKF, he was accused of being anti-national.

When he returned to power in 1989, there was a change of guard at the Centre. The National Front government, of which he was a constituent, asked him to get in touch with the LTTE leadership to find a solution to the Tamil question. The withdrawal of the IPKF from Sri Lanka was also complete around this time. He vehemently denied allegations that the Tigers were having a free run during his regime.

The LTTE utilised the favourable circumstances that prevailed in Tamil Nadu to entrench itself as a covert group and plan the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. The Karunanidhi government was dismissed just two years into its term on January 30, 1991, on the ground that it was encouraging the LTTE. Four months later, the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in Tamil Nadu.

In his subsequent terms as Chief Minister (1996-2001 and 2006-11), Mr. Karunanidhi gave no quarter to LTTE sympathisers, often cracking down on overt expression of support to the organisation. From time to time, he went back to the theme of a separate ‘Tamil Eelam’ being the only solution to the problem. In 2000, while being a partner in the Vajpayee government, he advocated a ‘Czechoslovakia-model’ solution, whereby Sinhalese and Tamils could peacefully part ways just as the Czech and Slovakian people did a few years earlier.

After 2006, there was a revival of hostilities in Sri Lanka even in the midst of a ceasefire. As the war escalated in 2008-09, he was often caught in a dilemma as critics began to ask whether he was doing enough to save the Tamils from decimation. Being in power brought with it severe political limitations and he had to accept the word of the Congress-led regime at the Centre that it was doing its utmost to get Sri Lanka to minimise civilian casualties.

However, he also realised that it was not possible to get the Sri Lankan government to call off the war at an advanced stage. He went on a sudden fast early one day in April 2009, only to call it off in the afternoon, after the Centre said it had got an assurance from Sri Lanka that major combat operations were over. However, the war would go on until the LTTE was decimated in the middle of May and its leader Prabhakaran was dead. Mr. Karunanidhi would later explain that he could not be blamed if Sri Lankan troops continued with their operations as he had called off his fast only under the impression that the war was over.

From thereon, Mr. Karunanidhi joined the global chorus demanding an international investigation into the alleged war crimes in the last stage of the war. In 2012, he revived TESO and asked for a referendum to decide whether Tamils should be given a separate state, citing the examples of Kosovo, Montenegro, East Timor and South Sudan.

Mr. Karunanidhi had to live with a curious image dualism for the better part of his last few years. Detractors accused him of being pro-LTTE, while Tamil nationalists used to look for evidence in his words and deeds that would render him vulnerable to the charge of “betraying” the cause.

‘Immense contribution’

Mr. Karunanidhi’s supporters, however, believe that his contribution to the Tamil cause has been immense. He may have advocated a separate Tamil Eelam, but he was careful not to encourage any attempt by pro-LTTE elements in Tamil Nadu to stoke separatist sentiments here. He had special concern for Sri Lankan Tamil refugees staying in Tamil Nadu, and sanctioned welfare schemes for them. In 2006, he ordered a special review of the conditions prevailing in the camps and followed it up with funds to renovate dilapidated tenements.

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