The ministry of external affairs allowed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagham (DMK) to hold a pro-Tamil Eelam meeting in Chennai on Sunday on the condition that it did not issue any declaration or outcome that questioned the sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of any foreign country with whom India has diplomatic relations, namely, Sri Lanka.
Interestingly, on the eve of the rally, the DMK had already backed down from its much-vaunted declaration of supporting an independent state for Tamils in Sri Lanka, or Tamil Eelam.
In a letter to External Affairs Minister S M Krishna, dated August 10, secretary of the Tamil Eelam Supporters Organisation (TESO), Hasan Mohamed Jinnah’s conciliatory tone was notable.
“The word Eelam only means the historical name of Old Sri Lanka. This can be found in Sangam Tamil literature. The theme of the conference is only to plead for rehabilitation and resettlement, equity, justice and protection of human rights of the Sri Lankan Tamils who were affected by the war,” the TESO secretary said.
The DMK was not calling for the ethnic division of Sri Lanka, MEA sources said, pointing out that it had got a written clarification in this regard. Having at first disallowed the DMK from using the word “Eelam” in its conference title — knowing well the fallout it would have not only on the India-Sri Lanka relationship but also on the Tamil community within Sri Lanka — the MEA revoked its own ban after it received the TESO letter.
Meanwhile, with the Congress party refusing to associate itself with its coalition ally on this matter, the DMK’s efforts to get other alliance partners, such as Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party and Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference, also drew a blank. Only Ram Gopal Yadav of the Samajwadi Party and Ram Vilas Paswan of the Lok Janashakti Party arrived in Chennai to support the DMK’s pro-Tamil Eelam call.
Until the last minute, however, the DMK and the AIADMK were trying to outwit each other, each of them hoping to be perceived as the real leader of Tamils worldwide. AIADMK leader
J. Jayalalithaa didn’t ban the rally outright, but asked the police to consider the law and order implications of such a large crowd; of course, the police forced the rally to move to a conference hall at the Anna Arivalayam, the DMK headquarters in Chennai.
But hours before the meeting was to start, the Madras High Court stayed the Chennai police’s decision, allowing the DMK to return to the much more spacious grounds it had first thought of.
Whatever the political outcome of the DMK meeting, it has certainly served to highlight not only the difference of opinion between the DMK and the Congress on Tamil Eelam, but also the interesting congruence of interest between the ruling Congress party and the opposition BJP on India’s relationship with Sri Lanka.
It was none other than Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) senior leader Sushma Swaraj who, leading a delegation of Indian parliamentarians to Sri Lanka in April — in the wake of India voting against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March — who told journalists in Colombo that the Mahinda Rajapaksa government must implement the recommendation of its own commission of inquiry into the civil war against the Tamils that ended with the killing of LTTE leader Prabhakaran in 2009.
“The LLRC is Sri Lanka’s baby,” Swaraj said, referring to the government’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission that had frankly indicted it on several counts for its treatment of the Tamil minority community.
Swaraj, who represents Vidisha constituency in Madhya Pradesh (which receives the largest number of Buddhist prilgrims from Sri Lanka every year) was articulating the general concern in New Delhi on Colombo’s unwillingness to follow through with its own commitments on its Tamil minority.
Swaraj pointed out that the LLRC was not formed by the international community, including India, but by Sri Lanka. Instead of implementing it, the government had further created a parliamentary committee to look into its recommendations, thereby diluting its own statements of intent.
The seeming realignment of interest between the Congress and the BJP on Sri Lanka is significant, considering the Centre had come under some pressure from its DMK ally to vote against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council.
If the Congress and BJP can sustain their Sri Lanka strategy, they could press the Rajapaksa government to implement the several laws the government has passed in favour of an egalitarian country. Sri Lanka’s Universal Periodic Review is coming up at the UN in November, when the country must show its commitment to universal human rights, and India, along with Spain and Benin, have been tasked by the UN to oversee Colombo.
India is also keen on applying the salve, which is why it is sending the Kapilvastu relics, “fragments of Lord Buddha’s bones” ,to Sri Lanka later this month, where they will have the status of a visiting head of state.
Clearly, too, the Rajapaksa government is feeling the heat, which is why his two brothers — Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa — along with presidential secretary Lalith Weeratunge are expected in Delhi on August 24.
At stake is one of India’s most important relationships, fraught with political, strategic and commercial implications. If Delhi and Colombo can succeed in finding the middle path, in Buddha’s wake, they could together reinvent their future.