Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Tamil Nadu

MOPE – a Tale of Two Diasporas

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 28 2016

Colman's Column3

Susan Sontag: Perhaps too much value is assigned to memory, not enough to thinking.

Shedding Blood in Every Generation

Four years ago, I posted a lengthy article on Groundviews which was prompted by a statement in May 2011 by MDMK chief Vaiko in Tamil Nadu. He said that the war for Eelam was not over; Prabhakaran was not dead and would emerge from hiding at the right time. According to Victor Rajakulendran, the LTTE remained a shining example, a “good history,” for all Sri Lankan Tamils to follow. For a very small number of Irish people the leaders of the Easter 1916 Rising remain a shining example. In her new book, The Seven, about the seven members of the Military Council who made the decision to rebel in Dublin, Irish historian Ruth Dudley Edwards, concludes: “By courting death for a cause that had no popular support, were the Seven different to Bobby Sands and his comrades who committed suicide by starvation? Or from the jihadis who these days joyously sacrifice themselves in suicide bombings? They shared a sense of their own absolute moral superiority as well as an ambition to achieve some kind of immortality”.

Choosing Martyrdom

Ruth Dudley Edwards quotes words of Yeats written in 1939:

Some had no thought of victory

But had gone out to die

That Ireland’s mind might be greater,

Her heart mount up on high;

And yet who knows what’s yet to come?

For Patrick Pearse had said

That in every generation

Must Ireland’s blood be shed.


In my Groundviews article, I asked: “Did Prabhakaran ever ask those who are shown in the horrific Channel 4 images if they wanted to be martyrs? Was there a referendum on martyrdom, a focus group?”


Unhappy Land of Heroes

Liam Kennedy, Emeritus Professor of Economic History at Queen’s University, Belfast, recently published a collection of essays entitled Unhappy the Land. That phrase comes from Bertolt Brecht: “Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes”. The subtitle to Professor Kennedy’s book is The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? The acronym MOPE has been used a lot since Kennedy first introduced it in what Ruth Dudley Edwards called “a good essay at the very end of a book containing lots of boring economic history”. Professor Kennedy writes: “It is hard to overestimate the role of self-delusion in in Irish history, whether as a force animating colonial ‘reformers’ in the seventeenth century or Sinn Fein activists in the twentieth”. Self-delusion is not confined to the Irish.


Unhappy Land?

Did Ireland suffer from exceptional disadvantages? Kennedy thinks not  “…the island of Ireland, when viewed comparatively, was favourably circumstanced in terms of soil, climate and biological conditions”. Professor Kennedy contends that no major war was fought on Irish soil after the seventeenth century. With the exceptions of Switzerland and Iceland, “it is difficult to think of any major European society which has enjoyed the degree of isolation Ireland enjoyed from the immediate depredations of war”. During the last three centuries, there have been no major invasions of Ireland. Unlike most Europeans, the Irish have never experienced military conscription. “During the most brutal century that Europe has ever known – the twentieth- Ireland escaped relatively unscathed”.

Some might point out the number of Irishmen who perished in the First World War. About 210,000 Irishmen, all volunteers, served in the British forces during World War One and 35,000 of them died. Others might draw attention to the deformation to the Irish psyche caused by being next door to England and being subsumed into the oppressive British Empire.

A Happy Land?



As an economic historian, Professor Kennedy confidently states that Ireland was among the fastest growing economies in Europe at the time of the Easter Rising. Apart from slow growth in particular sub-periods such as 1932-38 and 1951-59, “Over the twentieth century as a whole, the growth performance of the Irish economy has been close to the western European average and well ahead of eastern Europe. The Irish Republic and Northern Ireland today rank among the richest regions in the world in terms of income per head”.

Professor Kennedy also challenges received wisdom that the introduction of the Penal Laws at the end of the seventeenth century repressed the religious rights of the majority Catholic population of Ireland. Kennedy contends that after 1715, the Penal Laws were fiercer on the statute book than in practice. By the 1790s, Catholics and dissenters in Ireland enjoyed freedom of worship, Catholic churches and dissenters’ chapels dotted the Irish countryside and a state-subsidised national seminary for Catholic priests was founded at Maynooth. At the same time, there was vigorous persecution of religious dissent on the European mainland.

The nineteenth century saw the uninterrupted progress of the Catholic Church in Ireland as it developed a vast infrastructure of churches, presbyteries, convents, monasteries, bishops’ palaces. Perhaps most important was clerical control of the school system with funding from the British state. Clerical education and clerical appointments were free of state control. As a child, I used to enjoy the rousing hymn Faith of our Fathers. Whatever the words of that hymn might claim, Irish people, from the 1740s, were able to worship without fear of “dungeon, fire and sword”. Kennedy says that at a deep level “there was the image-world of Christianity and its symbolic representation of pain, sorrow and exile – universals of the human predicament – which could be exploited selectively to colour the Irish collective experience”. Patrick Pearse was a master of this. After Ireland became independent the church’s power reached totalitarian proportions.


Emigration has been seen as a downside, a drain on the economy, depriving the nation of its bright ambitious young. Professor Kennedy sees a positive side. The Irish have unlimited freedom of exit and have enjoyed privileged access to two of the highest-wage economies in the world – North America and Britain.

Large-scale emigration began after the Famine and it did not take long for the victims to become victimisers. The New York riots of 1863 (as featured in Scorsese’s film The Gangs of New York) were called the Draft Riots because of protests against conscription into the Union army in the Civil War. In fact, they were race riots carried out by Irish immigrants, the children of the Famine, who feared competition in the labour market from emancipated black slaves. At least 119 were killed in an orgy of lynching and arson.

One of the Seven, Tom Clarke, lived in America and revelled in the atmosphere of grievance and heroic struggle that Irish Americans propagated. He expressed a virulent hatred for blacks. As Ruth Dudley Edwards puts it: “Irish Americans would take the narrative of exceptional Irish victimhood to extreme levels of narcissism, self-pity and absurdity and feed it back to republicans in Ireland in what became a malign circle”.

The Politics of Grievance

Sound familiar? In the same way, genuine grievances of Tamils living in in Sri Lanka get subsumed in the exaggerated claims of genocide uttered by sections of the Tamil diaspora.

Professor Kennedy does not deny that Ireland suffered injustice. “It would be an act of denial… to fail to acknowledge that Irish history is replete with instances of persecution, of evictions, of famines. These form part of a European historical experience that was, time out of mind, brutal, bloody and oppressive. One does not have to go all the way with Hobbes to conclude: the past is not a pleasant place”.

However, he sees the ever-present danger of keeping historical resentments alive. “The library of past and present wrongs, including those of an economic nature, were articulated in a continuous present tense that seemed to give historical depth and legitimacy to newly-minted notions of nationalism”.

Bosnia provides a warning. The horrors of the 1990s came “out of a hate-filled history of victimhood. The sadism of the moment was clouded by the rhetoric of the centuries”. Let us not dwell on self-delusion about “800 years of oppression” or deal with perceived grievance by more bloodshed.


The Tamil Question in Sri Lanka Part 2

This article was posted on The Agonist on May 6th, 2010


The rise of Tamil separatist militancy.


Most Tamil militant groups began life as student organisations. In 1970,  Ponnuthurai Satvaseelan formed the Tamil Students League. The Tamil Youth League was founded in 1973. The General Union of Eelam Students was founded in London and gave birth to the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students,  from which split the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Front, which, in turn, became the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP) which currently has one of its members, Douglas Devenanda as a government minister. The EPDP has a paramilitary wing.
Before 1987, India provided training for the armed militant groups, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) and People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE).

There were about 30 other minor groups.

In 1972, a group of students formed a militant group called the Tamil New Tigers (TNT). One member of this group was Vellupillai Prabakharan, who was born in Jaffna in November 1954. On July 27 1975, the former mayor of Jaffna, SLFP politician Alfred Durayappah, was assassinated. Prabakharan later claimed that he had fired the fatal shot.

The TNT became the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and by means of murder and intimidation became the dominant Tamil separatist group in Sri Lanka. Separatist militancy was further fanned by the anti-Tamil riots, which followed the 1977 general election, in which the UNP came to power. The LTTE were proscribed in 1978, by which time most of its rivals had been eliminated.

Colonel Karuna (nom de guerre of Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan) the leader of LTTE forces in the Eastern province broke with Prabakharan in 2004 to form the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP). The aim of this grouping was to challenge the dominance of the northern Tigers around the leadership of Prabhakharan and to defend the special interests of eastern Tamils. There was a split even in this breakaway group and rivalry between Karuna and a former child soldier Pillayan (nom de guerre of Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan) led to some fatalities. Pillayan became leader of the TMVP and when government forces won control of the Eastern province and he was sworn in as Chief Minister of the province on May 16, 2008. At a disarmament ceremony in Batticaloa, on March 9 2009, the TMVP handed over its weapons to the Sri Lankan army. Pillayan said, “We tell the government and the international community that we have given up arms because we believe in democracy.” Also on March 9, Karuna joined the ruling party Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and accepted a ministerial portfolio.

Tamil homeland

The call for a separate Tamil nation in the north and east of the country was not feasible because 70% of Tamils in Sri Lanka live outside the area claimed as a homeland. The land claimed as Eelam was not exclusively Tamil except where the LTTE had carried out ethnic cleansing to drive out Sinhalese and Muslims.

When discussions were taking place on an Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, Lloyd George complained that he could not stop De Valera banging on about Cromwell. In more recent negotiations on Northern Ireland, Jonathan Powell made the same complaint about Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams. The Sinhala and Tamil nationalists who comment on my articles are armchair warriors and amateur historians who like to teach me lessons in ancient history.

The origins of the”Jaffna Tamils” are shrouded in myth and legend. Such myths play an atavistic role in helping an ethnic group form a sustaining identity. These fictions can turn poisonous and lead to delusion and death. In Sri Lanka, the Jaffna kingdom, which existed in the north and some parts of the east from the 13th century to the early 17th century, has provided the foundation myth of a Tamil homeland, Eelam, which was the Tamil Tigers’ leader Prabakharan’s justification for sending women and children to their deaths.

Many historians have challenged the foundation myths, with their emphasis on ancient animosities between Tamils and Sinhalese. A Sinhalese, Professor CR de Silva, has argued that the Tamil king Elara had much support from the Sinhalese and that Buddhism in the north did not suffer under his rule. A Tamil scholar, Devanesan Nesiah has argued that the two communities had enjoyed friendly co-existence over many centuries and that hostility was a political construct that was kept alive by the Sinhalese leadership and used from time to time for political purposes.

The territory claimed by the LTTE as their sovereign nation of Tamil Eelam covers the Northern and Eastern provinces. The Jaffna Kingdom, also known as the Kingdom of Aryacakravarti, only covered the Northern Province. The kingdom lasted from 1215-1619 CE. The kingdom’s independent existence ended when the Portuguese defeated King Cankili II.

The origins of the kingdom are obscure and still the subject of controversy among historians. Among mainstream historians, such as K.M. de Silva, S.Pathmanathan and Karthigesu Indrapala, the widely accepted view is that the Kingdom of Aryacakravarti began with the invasion of a previously unknown chieftain called Magha, who claimed to be from Kalinga in modern India. He deposed the ruling King Parakrama Pandu of Pollonnaruwa with the help of his soldiers and mercenaries from the Kalinga, modern Kerala and Damila regions in India.

For a brief period, in the early to mid-fourteenth century, the Aryacakravarti kingdom was the chief power in the island of Sri Lanka and other kingdoms were subordinate to it. However, the kingdom was eventually overpowered by the rival Kingdom of Kotte, around 1450.

The Tamil separatists’ claim to the Eastern province is mainly based on a document called “the Cleghorn minute”. Hugh Cleghorn was a Scottish professor of history and part-time secret agent. He helped the British oust the Dutch by buying off a force of Swiss mercenaries manning the Dutch fort in Colombo. He was rewarded with 5,000 pounds and the post of Chief Secretary of Ceylon under the first British Governor, Lord North. The two did not get on and North was soon referring to him as ”that madman Cleghorn”. Cleghorn resigned after 15 months in 1800. The minute on the basis of which separatists claim the north and the east refers to two different nations occupying the island of Ceylon from ancient times, with the Malabars (Tamils) occupying the north and east. Tamil separatists always omit the last sentence in which Cleghorn says the Sinhalese originate from Siam. Critics say this howler invalidates the rest of the minute.

Jaffna District, which is the Tamil heartland, was once home to some 5,500 Muslim families before the LTTE expelled them allowing them only hours to leave. “At five o’clock the LTTE announced for us to come immediately to the Jinnah grounds. The LTTE leader told us that within two hours, all the Muslims must leave the [Jaffna] peninsula,” said Mohammed Yassin.

There are large numbers of Muslims and Sinhalese in the Eastern Province who would not accept a Tamil state. Even eastern Tamils grew tired of dominance by northern Tamils and broke away from Prabakharan. Former Tigers Karuna and Pillayan joined the central government.

Whatever about the myths, the Jaffna Tamils and their ancestors have undoubtedly lived on the island for at least 1,500 years and cannot justly be regarded as alien newcomers or ”blow-ins” as we say in Ireland .

July 1983 and the aftermath.

The immediate cause of the long and bloody civil war was the events of July 1983, ”Black July”. Over many years there had been incidents where ill-disciplined police or military had carried out savage reprisals, rather in the manner of the Black and Tans in Ireland, on innocent Tamils. July 1983 was a paradigm shift in terror. Thirteen soldiers were killed by the LTTE. Anti-Tamil riots ensued and lasted for ten days with property being destroyed and up to 3,000 people being killed and 200,000 displaced.

From President Jayewardene’s residence, shops could be seen going up in flames but no curfew was called and police disappeared from the streets. Marauding gangs armed with axes and cans of petrol went around Colombo with electoral rolls identifying Tamil homes and businesses. The inhabitants were doused in petrol and set alight.

A Norwegian woman tourist recalled seeing a mob setting fire to a bus with about 20 Tamils inside it. Those who climbed out the windows were pushed back in and the doors were sealed while they burned alive, screaming horribly. In another incident, a mob chopped two Tamil girls aged 18 and 11 with knives; the younger girl was beheaded with an axe, the older one raped by 20 men and then doused in petrol.

These horrific events left an indelible mark on the Tamil psyche. Atrocities were perpetrated on innocent Tamils all over the country and many fled to the north for refuge. Those who could afford to fled abroad, from where they provided ongoing financial support for the LTTE.

There were also reports of incredible courage shown by selfless Sinhalese people trying to protect their Tamil friends and neighbours and even strangers.

The Sri Lankan government did nothing to counter the prevailing impression that it had connived in the slaughter. At a time when it was imperative to appease the Tamil people if there was ever to be any faint hope of keeping them happily within the nation, parliament enacted the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which required all members to disavow separatism. Sixteen TULF members vacated their seats and left a vacuum which was filled by the TNA.

Michael Roberts, a Sri Lankan historian and anthropologist looked back on these events from the perspective of 25 years: ”The militant movement for separation gathered thousands of new Tamil recruits and a rejuvenation of commitment among most SL Tamils, as well a wave of support in international quarters. Sri Lanka also received pariah status on the world stage.”

July 1983 was, indeed a turning point for Sri Lankan Tamils and for Sri Lanka. In the immediate aftermath many fled to Tamil Nadu, where those of a militant tendency were trained and armed by the Indian government. Many who might not want to engage in violence themselves fled to Canada, Australia and Europe. Many of them prospered and supported the armed struggle vicariously by providing funding. Many Tamils who remained in Sri Lanka were disillusioned at the futility of trying to defend their interests by peaceful means within the existing state apparatus.

The LTTE proved efficient at destroying any other Tamil groups that threatened to undermine their dominance. Elements of the international community were able to build a false picture of the LTTE as romantic freedom fighters.

In Tamil Nadu, where thousands of Indians took to the streets to denounce Sri Lanka and to call on Indira Gandhi to do something about what they called genocide. She came to a decision that would have lasting consequences including the death of her own son.

Training Camps in India.

Sri Lankan Tamil militants had been getting training abroad since 1975. A Sri Lankan Tamil called Eliyathambi Ratnasabapathy (Ratna for short) living in London, organised study groups at his Wandsworth home on the guerrilla struggles then going on in various countries. He had links with the PLO and arranged training from them in Lebanon in the use of firearms. There were survival courses and training in a variety of guerrilla tactics. Douglas Devananda, now a minister in the Sri Lanka government complained: ”We were asked to wear boots 24 hours a day. They gave us plenty of cheese and oranges but there was no rice.”

In 1981, retired Indian army officers had helped set up training camps around Madras in Tamil Nadu and trained around 30 men from the TELO and the LTTE.

Tamil youths were flocking to the militant groups for many reasons. One strong reason, according to MR Narayan Swami, Prabhakaran’s biographer,  was, ”a strong rumour had begun to circulate in Tamil areas. India, the giant of south Asia, which so many Sri Lankan Tamils regarded as their cultural motherland, was ready to accept, train and arm young Tamils willing to fight for Eelam.”

Tamil Nadu governments had long provided a haven for Tamil separatist militants from Sri Lanka. The central government under Indira Gandhi connived in this and tolerated the existence of bases and training camps in other parts of India. The origins of these bases go back to before the riots of 1983.

Mrs Gandhi was at odds with Junius Richard ”˜Dickie’ Jayawardene, Prime Minister and later Executive President of Sri Lanka, as he reversed Mrs Bandaranaike’s attempts to establish a socialistic command economy and turned Sri Lanka towards liberal free-market economic policies. The two neighbouring leaders also disagreed about foreign policy, especially Afghanistan and the Falklands. Mrs Gandhi also regarded Dickie as too pro-Western”. He allowed a Voice of America station in Sri Lanka and opened up Trincomalee harbour to Western commercial interests.

Indira Gandhi decided that she would give Tamil militants the support of the Indian government and of the Indian secret service, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Word soon spread through the north of Sri Lanka that Mrs Gandhi was prepared to train and arm Tamil guerrillas and hundreds of young men and women left their homes to travel to Tamil Nadu.

Training began in Dehra Dun in Uttar Pradesh in September 1983. Subramanian Swami said that training was carried out at a RAW base at Chakrata north of Dehra Dun. That area was selected because the high mountains and military establishments provided cover for what was going on. From then on hundreds of Sri Lankan Tamil boys travelled by train from Madras to New Delhi and then on to Dehra Dun by trucks and buses. One group was detained by Indian police, who had not been appraised of what was going on, before leaving Tamil Nadu. The police took their names and addresses before RAW intervened.

PS Suryanayarana, in his book, The Peace Trap, quotes Tamil Tiger leader Prabakharan as saying that he first met RAW officials in Pondicherry but did not specify a date. According to MR Narayan Swamy, Prabakharan’s biographer, between 1983 and 1987, RAW trained 1,200 Sri Lankan Tamils in the use of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, self-loading rifles, and 84mm rocket launchers and in laying mines. Some were also given training in diving and under-sea sabotage.

Arms deliveries to various groups began in 1984 and went on almost up to the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement in 1987. India persistently denied in public that it was training Sri Lankans and disavowed any aim of splitting up the Sri Lankan state. There was comprehensive coverage in India Today of training camps in India and reports appeared in western newspapers in April 1984.

General Vernon Walters, an emissary of the Reagan administration, informed the Indian government on two visits, in 1983 and 1984, that he had evidence of the training camps. He produced photographs and the addresses of Sri Lankan militants living in Tamil Nadu.Former Sri Lankan national security minister, Lalith Athulathmudalali, has said: ”By 1986, Indian diplomats privately admitted that RAW was training people”.

However, India had no real interest in the separatist cause. Douglas Devananda has said: “We realised that they were only trying to use us in their game plan.” Sources in all Tamil groups now assert that India’s motive was to teach Colombo a lesson for being too pro-Western.

It was widely rumoured that Mrs Gandhi was planning to emulate Turkish action in North Cyprus and actually take over at least part of Sri Lanka by military force. Shankar Rajee says an Indian Army officer told him: ”we need a scout force to lead us. You are not going to do the real fighting but be prepared.”
By 1985 the numerical strength of the Tamil militants would have equalled that of the Sri Lankan armed forces. The LTTE’s main bases were at Salem and Madurai.

Delhi Accord

Indian facilitation led to talks in Bhutan in 1985 between the Sri Lanka government and representatives of various Tamil groups. There were no positive results but further talks brokered by India led to the Delhi Accord, which set out a framework for ethnic reconciliation and devolution of power to the provinces. The TULF went along with this but the other Tamil groups were reluctant and eventually TULF had to withdraw their assent.

Despite the accord between the two governments, sporadic ethnic violence continued in the north and east of Sri Lanka and the Indian government made little serious effort to stop its territory being used as a base for Tamil militant activity. Rajiv Gandhi found his options limited because the Sri Lankan Tamil separatist groups all had their supporters among government and opposition parties alike in Tamil Nadu. However, none of these parties were able to keep the peace among the rival Sri Lankan factions.

Part of the accord with India was that Sri Lankan forces in Jaffna would stay in their barracks. The LTTE took advantage of this to mine the roads leading to the barracks and convert makeshift barricades into concrete bunkers. The Sri Lanka army could only be supplied by air and the LTTE effectively took control of Jaffna. The LTTE also set about eliminating their Tamil rivals and attacking soft Sinhalese targets to the embarrassment of the government forces that seemed unable to stop them.

As the Sri Lanka army improved its equipment and training and got help from Pakistan, India reverted from mediation to attacking Sri Lanka’s human rights record. The Sri Lanka government had treated the Delhi Accord as ”a reasonable basis for negotiation and settlement” but India was now condemning the Sri Lankan government’s efforts to combat terrorism at the same time as India harboured those threatening to overthrow the Sri Lankan state.

In 1986, there were three months of complex negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and the TULF. The outcome was a set of proposals sent to India in September. There was an obstacle in that Tamil groups in general pressed for a single provincial unit joining the northern and eastern provinces as a single Tamil ethno-region. The Sri Lankan government were against this because of strong Sinhalese, and Muslim, opposition to the idea of the east as a predominantly Tamil region. By conceding the east, the government would allow its electoral base and stability to be eroded.

The main difficulty, however, was that these complex considerations were taking place in a fantasy world. It was akin to the British and Irish government having civilised discussions with each other and the Ulster Unionists and the Social and Democratic Labour Party, while it was the Provisional IRA and the Ulster Volunteer force bombing and kneecapping people.

William Clarance of the UNHCR put it thus: ”Essentially, the Accord was an agreement between the two governments, deciding over the heads of the Sri Lankan Tamils, the shape of their political future.”

The Indian and Sri Lankan governments were keen to deal with the TULF as the main representative of Tamil opinion in Sri Lanka but this was divorced from reality. The TULF had voluntarily exiled themselves in Tamil Nadu, thereby effectively cutting themselves off from Sri Lankan Tamils. The LTTE had filled the vacuum left by the TULF. The LTTE was determined to accept nothing less than a separate state of Eelam and were not prepared to recognise the lead role of the TULF.

Rajiv Gandhi’s dilemma now was how to persuade the Tamil separatists to accept what he believed to be a workable framework for an honourable peace. The LTTE alone refused to accept. For the first time the Indian government tried to impose restrictions on the LTTE’s activities in Tamil Nadu. Amid rumours of a unilateral declaration of independence, Sri Lankan forces tried to clear the north and east of LTTE fighters and largely succeeded with the rebels fleeing to the Jaffna peninsula.

Indian Peacekeeping Force

The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was signed on 29 July 1987. When Rajiv Gandhi was inspecting a guard of honour prior to leaving Colombo for India in July 1987, a Sinhalese naval rating struck him a heavy blow with his rifle. This symbolised the resentment of many Sri Lankans at India’s interference.

The intention was to use the might of the Indian Army to bring a swift end to the ethnic conflict in the north and east of Sri Lanka. India blithely expected the LTTE to hand over its arms to the IPKF but the Tigers refused to go beyond a token handover and firmly resisted IPKF efforts to disarm them. The LTTE was as ready to fight the Indians as it was to fight the Sinhalese.

The Indians at first sent 10,000 troops but unexpected resistance from the LTTE led to an increase to 100,000, some estimate more.

The Tamil Tigers fought the Indians and the Sinhalese were not happy about the Indian intervention. Even the cabinet was split, with Prime Minister Premadasa opposed to it as was security minister Athulathmudalali. The Marxist Sinhala nationalist party the JVP were bitterly opposed as were many Buddhist monks.

Sri Lanka accused India of violating its sovereignty and international law by sending the Indian air force to drop food supplies on Jaffna. The Tamil Nadu chief minister, MG Ramachandran made a well-publicised gift of $3.3 million to the LTTE.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Premadasa had been opposed to the accord from the outset. When he succeeded Jayawardene as president in December 1988, tensions between Sri Lanka and India increased. Premadasa saw the removal of the IPKF as essential to restoring order to the south after the bloody JVP uprising because the Sinhalese nationalist JVP traded on bitter opposition to Indian interference.

Withdrawal was completed in March 1990. Over 1,000 Indian soldiers had been killed and over 2,000 wounded. The financial cost to India of its intervention in Sri Lanka was put at around $1.25 billion.

The cost was, in fact, far higher. Rajiv Gandhi’s mother was the architect of India’s interventionist policy. He oversaw its intensification and he paid the ultimate price. On 21 May, 1991, Rajiv Gandhi attended his last public meeting at Sriperumbudur, about 30 miles from Madras in Tamil Nadu. He was campaigning for the Congress candidate for the area. At 10.10 p.m, a female Black Tiger called Thenmuli Rajaratnam, known as Gayatri or Dhanu approached Gandhi and greeted him. She bent down to touch his feet in the traditional Hindu expression of respect and detonated an explosive belt tucked under her dress containing 700 grammes of RDX. The assassination was caught on film through the lens of a local photographer, whose camera and film were found at the site. The cameraman himself also died in the blast but the camera remained intact.

Judge Thomas of the Supreme Court of India ruled that the killing was carried out because of the personal animosity towards Gandhi of LTTE leader Prabakharan. Four of the conspirators were sentenced, in their absence, to death. Sri Lanka’s President Premadasa was assassinated by the LTTE in 1993.

The Indian Position Today

In more recent years, Tamil Nadu state governments have failed to give unconditional support to the LTTE. This has allowed the Congress Party, in power in Delhi since 2004, to take a more hostile position to the separatists. The Tigers lost the image of responsible negotiators they had tried to cultivate during the period of the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA).

Radar equipment has been supplied by India to the Sri Lankan government. India’s secret service has discreetly provided intelligence, particularly naval, and training for pilots and radar operators.

The Indian government is now acting as a moderating broker and discussing with the Sri Lankan government the importance of reconciliation and a just settlement for Sri Lankan Tamils. Discussions focus on the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lanka constitution, which, it is hoped, will provide opportunities for a federal solution to Tamil grievances.

May 6th, 2010

New Chief Minister for Tamil Nadu (Well, not very new).

Hillary Clinton met Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jeyaram Jayalalithaa for an hour on July 20. The US Secretary of State congratulated Jayalalithaa on her electoral victory in the April 13 assembly polls. Clinton invited Jayalalithaa to visit US which would enable Americans to know about the great achievements of Tamil Nadu.

The distinguished Sri Lankan historian Kingsley de Silva has written that Sri Lankan Tamils are a minority with a majority complex, whereas the Sinhalese are a majority with a minority complex. Sinhala may be the language of the majority in Sri Lanka but it is not spoken anywhere else in the world except this small island (about the size of West Virginia). Although Tamil is the language of 11% of the population of Sri Lanka, there are 62 million Tamil speakers just across the Palk Straits in India. There has  always been a great deal of movement between the north of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu, including a lucrative smuggling trade. Tamil militants, fighting for a separate state of Eelam, among whom the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) became dominant, saw the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu as a safe haven. For India’s central governments, fractious Tamil Nadu had long been a problem and the conflict in nearby northern Sri Lanka threatened  to have a destabilizing effect on the polity of the Indian nation, with Indian citizens in Tamil Nadu supporting the Sri Lankan separatist militants.

Vinod Mehta wrote in Outlook India about politics in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu:  “The main players in politics are movie stars or connected with the making of movies. Reality in Tamil Nadu politics is cinematic — larger than life and utterly bogus.” The elections in April 2011 brought  in a new Chief Minister for  Tamil Nadu after  Congress Party allies the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagem)   were beaten by the AIADMK (All India  Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagem ) .

Jeyaram Jayalalithaa, has been Chief Minister before. She was the long-term mistress of MG Ramachandran (MGR) , another movie star turned Chief Minister. She started out as a singer and movie actress.

In 1972, MGR left the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagem)  to form his own party the  ADMK  (Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagem). In 1977 he became the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. He remained as chief minister till his death in 1987.  His party is now known as All India  Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagem

MGR with Indira Gandhi.

Here are some pictures from my private collection. I bought them from a street vendor in Madurai but did not know who was in the pictures. I now believe them to feature the young Ramachandran.

In the 2009 election Jeyaram Jayalalithaa was beaten in the vote for for Chief Minister by DMK’s Muthuvel Karunanidhi, a long-time rival of MGR. Karunanidhi also began his career  in the Tamil film industry. He was a screenwriter. Whatever MGR did for the Sri Lankan Tamils was not enough for Karunanidhi. Both saw the Eelam campaign in terms of their own electoral advantage in Tamil Nadu. Tamil groups courted them but the Tamil people of Sri Lanka suffered as a result of being pawns in their game.

Convincing evidence that the Tigers were finding a haven in Tamil Nadu was provided in August 1984 when a section of Madras International airport was accidentally blown up by explosives being transferred by Sri Lankan Tamils from Tamil Nadu to Colombo for the purpose of destroying the aircraft of the Sri Lankan national airline. Twenty-four Sri Lankan passengers were killed in the transit lounge. Some of the culprits were arrested but some escaped from India with the connivance of Indian officials and at least one secured refugee status in London.

In 1982, LTTE leader Prabhakaran, then aged 27 and in exile in Tamil Nadu after the murder of the Mayor of Jaffna, was arrested in Madras. Tamil Nadu politicians, including   Karunanidhi, who was leader of the opposition in the Tamil Nadu legislature at the time,  persuaded Indira Gandhi not to extradite Prabakharan to Sri Lanka.  Sri Lankan Inspector of Police Rudra Rajasingham, a Tamil, went back to Colombo without his captive. On August 6, a Madras court released Prabhakaran and ordered him to stay in Madurai. He later escaped to Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka and continued his terror campaign until his death in May 2009.

When he was chief minister, Karunanidhi was implicated in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, although he later became a valued supporter of widow Sonia Gandhi’s Congress Party. The Jain Commission investigating the assassination named Karunanidhi. One of the accused, Ranganath, said Chandraswami,  a tantric cleric,  was the godfather who financed the killing. Congress withdrew support from Karunanidhi . Jain had asserted in the interim report that the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi would not have been possible without the “active connivance and support of the Tamils of Tamil Nadu.” Jain says it is for this reason that he felt the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M Karunanidhi should have been among the politicians who were questioned by the Special Investigating Team. During the latter stages of the Sri Lankan government’s campaign against the LTTE in 2009, Karunanidhi called for a cease-fire and announced a “fast until death”. This turned out to be more like a fast from breakfast to lunchtime.

Jayalalithaa was Chief Minister from 1991-1996, and then again in 2002-2006. Karunanidhi was Chief Minister from 1969-1976, 1989-1991, 1996-2001, and 2006-2011. The two parties have alternately allied themselves with the Congress Party. They’ve both tried to hold parties like the Congress and the Hindu nationalist BJP to ransom come national election time.

Tamil Nadu has been electorally volatile. But the pendulum swings have been between two alliances led by the DMK and the AIADMK that have little political differences between them. Both are state parties from the same populist block, but are separated by harsh and spiteful personal rivalries at the leadership levels. It is this rivalry and the hunger for power and privileges, and not political principles or ideology, that determine which alliance either party would be part of at the national level and which alliance either party would lead in the state election.

Accordingly, and with rational opportunism, the DMK and AIADMK have formed marriages of convenience with both the Congress and non-Congress national parties. And when they are on the winning side, they get to share ministerial spoils in the Central and the State governments.

Whatever about the swings of the pendulum, the DMK has, according to Mahesh Rangarajan in the Times of India, never been so much in the doldrums. “It has been quite a fall for a chief minister who first held office  when Nixon was president of the USA, Mao Chairman of the Communist Party of China”. The DMK is down to 23 members in the legislature. The voters have given their verdict on Karunanidhi  giving so many prominent positions to members of his own family.

The election was fraught with several issues with varying implications for the multiple caste and local communities that make up  Tamil society in South India. Tamil Nadu encompasses  some of the more advanced industrial and service sectors in India as well as  rural areas suffering  drought and poverty.

India’s endemic corruption is old news , but the scandal over the underpriced licensing of 2G telecommunication spectrum has implicated the Congress Party and its coalition partner DMK nationally as well as in Tamil Nadu. At the centre of the scandal is a DMK politician, Minister of Communications Andimuthu Raja, a lawyer  of Dalit origin . He  is in jail awaiting trial. The scandal, reportedly the biggest in India’s corruption history costing the treasury over $40 billion, involves Raja, members of his family, other DMK and Congress politicians, bureaucrats, and businesses.
What is the import of Jayalalithaa’s landslide victory  for Sri Lanka? Before the 2009 election,  Jayalalithaa  became shrill in her opposition to the Sri Lankan military operation against the LTTE. “In the event of a government favourable to me coming into power, I will send Indian troops to Sri Lanka and create a separate state of Tamil Eelam.”

My colleague on Lakbima News, Malinda Seneviratne, wrote: “Will Tamil Nadu politicians let Sri Lanka be? No. Sri Lanka is what makes rhetoric spicy. Noises will be made. Loud noises. The bottom line is, for all the factoring-in of the Tamil Nadu Factor, Delhi does what Delhi thinks is best for Delhi when it comes to Sri Lanka. Back here, in Sri Lanka, it’s nothing more than ‘more of the same’.”

A senior Sri Lankan official said that had Tamil Nadu exerted pressure on the LTTE the Oslo-arranged cease fire could have been saved. “Unfortunately those who shed tears for the Tamil speaking people here turned the other way when the LTTE quit the peace process in April 2003 and stepped up hostilities leading to war in August 2006”.

Speaking on her own channel, Jaya TV,  after her election victory, Jayalalithaa said that it was India’s responsibility to ensure a “dignified and honourable existence” for the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Although Jayalalithaa urged the Indian government to act against President Mahinda Rajapaksa for, what she called, war crimes and genocide of Sri Lankan Tamils, the government of Sri Lanka is keen to work with the new administration. External Affairs Minister  G L Peiris sent the newly-elected Chief Minister a congratulatory letter. A ministry  official emphasized the importance of having a dialogue with the Tamil Nadu administration for the benefit of the Tamil-speaking people of Sri Lanka.

Former cabinet minister & current senior Presidential adviser Milinda Moragoda has been given the task of winning over Jayalalithaa by President Rajapaksa. Moragoda is a personal friend of Chandrababu Naidu the chief of the Telugu Desam party in Andhra Pradesh. Naidu is also close to Ms Jayalalithaa.

Hillary Clinton and Jayalalitha had a long conversation over the current situation in Sri Lanka. They agreed  the need for greater progress towards reconciliation, said Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake, a former ambassador to Sri Lanka. “We hope that there’s going to be greater progress towards reconciliation. The meeting sort of comes in the context of this recent film, the Channel 4 documentary that’s gotten a lot of attention around the world, including here in the United States… More broadly, they  talked about how there needs to be greater progress towards reconciliation and that really, the government should redouble efforts to reach an agreement in their dialogue with the Tamil National Alliance on all of the key issues of concern to Tamils inside Sri Lanka.”

Julie MacLusky

- Author and Blogger -


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