The Tamil nationalist paradox

Firebrand Tamil nationalism is on the wane in Tamil Nadu

Updated - November 23, 2022 01:56 am IST

Published - November 23, 2022 12:15 am IST

MDMK leader Vaiko releasing the book ‘Priyanka-Nalini Sandippu’ by Nalini Sriharan, a convict in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, in Chennai on November 24, 2016.

MDMK leader Vaiko releasing the book ‘Priyanka-Nalini Sandippu’ by Nalini Sriharan, a convict in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, in Chennai on November 24, 2016. | Photo Credit: M. Vedhan

The campaign for the release of seven convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case was nearly the fulcrum for various Tamil nationalist parties, leaders and organisations in Tamil Nadu. And yet, the success of these efforts after years seems to have taken the edge off the politics of these parties, given the mixed public reaction to the release of the convicts.

The six convicts released this month did not receive the warm welcome that the first of the freed convicts, A.G. Perarivalan, received from Chief Minister M.K. Stalin in May. Clearly, the strong criticism that Mr. Stalin faced then, from his allies and sections of the civil society, tempered his response this time. Leaders of both the DMK and the AIADMK claimed credit for the release of the convicts, but desisted from celebratory public appearances with them.

Soon after the release of the convicts, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK)’s Vanni Arasu was seen feeding sweets to one of them, for which he faced public censure. VCK founder and Chidambaram MP Thol. Thirumavalavan also recently met one of the convicts, Ravichandran, at the party office. When asked by a TV channel whether he thought this was morally appropriate, he said, “It will not give such a wrong message. I don’t believe he is a culprit... Actually, he was victimised by law and bureaucrats.”

Reactions seem to indicate that people believed the political call for the release of the convicts after nearly three decades in jail on humanitarian grounds as being morally justifiable, but not the celebration of the convicts. While it could be argued that Perarivalan, who went to jail at a young age and over whose guilt there were doubts cast by no less than a member of the investigation team, received genuine support from various political circles and sections of the public for his release, the same cannot be said for the other six convicts.

The impact of Tamil nationalist parties was pronounced in Tamil Nadu throughout the civil war in Sri Lanka. These parties were instrumental in changing the narrative in the State after 2009, the year the war ended, as successive governments began supporting the demands of the Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka. However, the Tamil nationalist space has been shrinking ever since mainstream Dravidian parties, the Left, Dalit parties and smaller players began to find themselves on the same page on the question of addressing core Tamil nationalist demands. These include demanding an international independent investigation into the war crimes by the Sri Lankan armed forces and the release of the seven convicts. The demand for a referendum on a separate Tamil Eelam also had support among most mainstream parties.

While Tamil nationalist organisations have identified with one of the two mainstream Dravidian parties, the Seeman-led Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK), which has always contested alone, seems to have had an impact on young voters. Mr. Seeman’s politics is about defining the primary contradiction in Tamil Nadu as one between Tamils, the majority linguistic group, and ‘Other’ minority ‘non-Tamil’ groups. Mr. Seeman has sought to position the NTK as the only ‘Tamil’ party that cares about Tamil interests. He posits former LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran as the party’s guiding force and argues that only a leader with Tamil origins and a truly ‘Tamil nationalist’ party, as opposed to Dravidian parties with “non-Tamil roots”, has the legitimacy to wield political power in the State.

Despite facing opposition from other Tamil nationalist groups for espousing a version of Tamil nationalism that posits non-Tamils as ‘Others’ in Tamil Nadu, the NTK has a vote share of 6.8%. Its critics argue that Tamil nationalism should be ‘inclusive’ and not alienate oppressed non-Tamil speaking communities; and that an ‘exclusionary’ Tamil nationalism can only be compared to the RSS’s brand of politics. To this, Mr. Seeman has responded, “Anyone can live in Tamil Nadu, but only a Tamil must rule”.

With the BJP attempting to find a footing in the State, Tamil nationalist parties cannot be concerned only with the demands of Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka; they will also have to fight for federalism within India and for the protection and assertion of Tamil cultural identity, among other things. Despite taking progressive decisions such as giving more tickets to Scheduled Castes, religious minorities and linguistic minorities in elections, the NTK has still not won a seat and will face a litmus test in 2024. In a sense, that will also be the litmus test for Tamil nationalism as a political way of life in the State.

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