Book excerpt

Karunanidhi and the Sri Lankan Tamil Issue

Print edition : April 09, 2021

Karunanidhi: A Life, by A.S. Panneerselvan.

Excerpts from Karunanidhi: A Life, by A.S. Panneerselvan.

A report in The Hindu, with the headline, ‘M. Karunanidhi: A lifelong warrior for Sri Lankan Tamil cause but misunderstood in the end’, gives an idea of not only Karunanidhi’s long association with Sri Lankan Tamil leadership but also his deep understanding of the Tamil problem in the island, besides the criticisms that were levelled against him. These criticisms, with regard to the question of the Sri Lankan Tamil struggle against Sinhala–Buddhist majoritarianism, are twofold and contrary to each other. The establishments of India and Sri Lanka accuse Karunanidhi of backing the LTTE and the Tamil Nationalists accuse Karunanidhi of betraying the LTTE.

I was a witness to the eventful period between 1984, when the Indian government acknowledged that it was offering military training to various Tamil groups, and 2009, when the LTTE was defeated by the Sri Lankan Army. Many failed to see the refined and nuanced statesman-like approach of Karunanidhi.

Karunanidhi and his party’s support for the Sri Lankan Tamils did not start with the anti-Tamil pogrom and riots of 1983 or Black July, as it has come to be known. Way back, in 1956, the DMK came out with a strong resolution in support of S.J.V. Chelvanagayam and his fight against the Sinhala Only Act enacted that year. Karunanidhi was of the opinion that by ejecting the TULF members from the Parliament through the 6th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution in October 1983, President J.R. Jayewardene had created conditions for the Tamils to consider resorting to the option of armed rebellion. Hence, for Karunanidhi, armed rebellion and the demand for a separate state was a maximalist position akin to Periyar’s politics. Karunanidhi wanted the Sri Lankan Tamils to have a minimum common position, like that of Annadurai, while negotiating for their rights. He did not see the maximalist position as the destination, but as a hard bargaining tool, to ensure that there was no erosion in areas that fell under the minimum common position, and this included language rights, land rights and reasonable autonomy.

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In a meeting in 1990, with the leader of the plantation Tamils, Thondaman, who was also an influential minister in the cabinet of J.R. Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa, Karunanidhi explained his position more clearly. His fallback position was summed up as ‘E-minus and D-plus, plus’. If geo-politics prevented the Eelam from coming to pass (E-minus), then the Tamils should at least secure more Devolution (D++) which went beyond the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. His fine distinction between compromise and conciliation was lost not only on the LTTE and Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian leadership, but also on a wide section of the Indian policymakers. At some level, these three sections got into a stale binary prescription of ‘with us or against us’.

Karunanidhi had a better understanding of the Indian state than both the Tamil militants and the Sri Lankan state. He said it is extremely limiting to look at the concern exhibited by India either in geopolitical terms or the ‘Tamil Nadu factor’. He felt such reductionist readings blinded one from understanding the complexities that guide the functioning of the external affairs ministry in New Delhi. He also rejected the ‘spillover effect’ theory, that the refugee influx from Sri Lanka influences the relationship between the two countries, as also one that had been discarded. He cited two examples—the Dalai Lama and India’s relationship with China and the Chakma tribals and India’s relationship with Bangladesh—to demonstrate this. He said that the ‘spill over effect’ may prove to be an irritant but never destroys the bilateral relationship.

Karunanidhi often asked in private conversations why many political commenters failed to appreciate the logic underlying his arguments for getting the Indian Army out of Sri Lanka. “Peace-keeping is not a military task, and whenever the military has been deployed the civilian government is rarely able to get them back to the barracks. On the other hand we are forced to come up with new acts to defend the forces, when there is little progress on the ground. For instance, in the Northeast we do not see the roll back of the presence of the army. How do we look at the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) which empowers security forces to conduct operations anywhere and arrest anyone without prior notice? The AFSPA has been in force in the Northeast since 1958. If the IPKF was not brought back then, it may have stayed there forever. I am extremely grateful to Prime Minister V.P. Singh and the External Affairs Minister I.K. Gujral for agreeing to my suggestion to bring the Indian Army back without subjecting it to further bloodletting. In peace-building we need a language of fluidity rather than a language of assertion, which flows from the presence of armed forces.”

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Karunanidhi was sceptical of the LTTE’s approach after May 1986, when it launched a bloody war against its fellow Tamil militant group TELO, and its insistence on being seen as the sole militant group in the struggle, achieving its goals through a combination of terror, intimidation and murder. The LTTE not only sought a ban on other groups but was also active in delegitimizing the political leadership of the TULF. Karunanidhi felt that no organization can legitimately claim to be the sole representative of a nation. He said the LTTE’s demand to be the sole representative has actually robbed the group of its perfectly legitimate claim of being one of the major representatives of the Tamils. Karunanidhi called the internecine war, ‘Sagodhara Yudham’ (A Battle Between Brothers) and underlined that it ‘would not lead to liberation but to a situation where we will lose sight of who is our enemy, and what is the purpose of our struggle’.

His repeated attempts to explain the need for a united front to the LTTE were rebuffed because the AIADMK and MGR were willing to back the LTTE as the sole representative of Sri Lankan Tamils. MGR also extended financial assistance to that group. Karunanidhi was deeply worried about the role of the Indian state and the AIADMK at that stage, where each agency of the Indian government had one Sri Lankan militant group under its influence.

The Indian government’s move to train militants in programmes from Dehradun in the north to the jungles adjoining Mettur in Tamil Nadu was taken without the knowledge of the Tamil Nadu government, and Tamil politicians. Karunanidhi was alerted to this fact in 1983 by two senior intelligence officials, after the Black July anti-Tamil pogrom. At that point, the Indian government wanted to send out the message that its Sri Lanka policy was in tune with the political will of Tamil Nadu. Indira Gandhi once again deployed G. Parthasarathy to forge a political consensus between the Government of India and the political parties of Tamil Nadu.

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The training of Tamil rebels started because the United National Party (UNP) government of Jayewardene was the first to open up its economy and invite huge American presence in the Indian Ocean region.

It is important to remember that the popular narrative was that India’s relationship with Tamil militants was established after the anti-Tamil riots in July 1983. But Karunanidhi was already aware that from late 1979 onwards, Indian agencies were working with different groups.

He was the first to fully realize the implication of the 1982 shoot-out at Pondy Bazaar in the heart of Madras. On 19 May 1982, Prabhakaran, accompanied by C. Raghavan, an LTTE member, suddenly came face to face with Uma Maheswaran and his aide Jotheeswaran. Uma Maheswaran, former chairman of the LTTE, had broken ranks with Prabhakaran, and founded another militant group—the People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE). They exchanged fire. The police arrested Prabhakaran, Raghavan and Uma Maheswaran and they were given conditional bail on 6 August 1982. It was the beginning of the fratricidal war by the armed Sri Lankan Tamil groups on Tamil Nadu soil. The bloody toll continued till 19 June 1990, with the killing of thirteen leaders of the EPRLF, including its secretary general K. Padmanabhan, by a killer squad of the LTTE in Chennai.

Karunanidhi had a personal equation with most of the TULF leaders and the founder of the Ceylon Workers Congress, Savumiamoorthy Thondaman, and was keen to seek their inputs in formulating his responses. He felt the LTTE’s viewpoint was narrowly focused on the Jaffna Peninsula, and he needed to know the opinion of the people who lived in other Tamil-majority areas: the Eastern Province and the Central Highlands, with its plantations. This inclusive approach did not endear him either to the LTTE or its influential diaspora supporters.

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Interestingly, Karunanidhi’s approach was carefully edited out from the narrative built by the intelligence agencies as well. From the seventeen volumes of the Jain Commission’s interim report, released on 28 August 1997, we get a glimpse of how Karunanidhi was viewed by the deep state. The often-cited portion of Justice M.C. Jain’s interim report appeared in volume 7, chapter 3, where all the blame is laid at Karunanidhi’s door. It read: “At different periods, the nature and levels of militancy varies and a period came when it assumed an anti-national character and penetrated into the social fabric of the Tamil population . . . the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi would not have been possible the way it materialised without the deep nexus of LTTE operatives with the Tamils in Tamil Nadu and the tacit support from the state authorities and law-enforcement agencies.”

When I was the bureau chief for Outlook magazine, Karunanidhi called Jain’s bluff. “Jain has many glaring, contradicting, motivated statements in his report. For instance, he includes the portions of IB reports which suit his purpose and leaves out those that hamper his theory.” Pointing out the contradictions in the report, Karunanidhi raised these questions: “If the Rajiv government had considered the LTTE dangerous, why did it fail to ban the organization after the IPKF was sent to Sri Lanka? Why is Jain silent about the two meetings between LTTE representatives and Rajiv Gandhi in 1991? . . . The key point here is that at this stage the DMK government was dismissed for our alleged LTTE nexus and the Central government was being propped up by none other than Rajiv Gandhi.”

Karunanidhi felt that the Frontline issue of 29 November 1999 explained the delusion perpetuated by the Jain Commission rather unambiguously. The Frontline article, ‘Tragi-comedy’, documented ‘India’s honourably motivated but schizoid and benighted encounter with Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis’. It read: “The schizoid character of national policy, which took shape under the Indira Gandhi government and was inherited and developed by the Rajiv Gandhi administration, lay in this. On the one hand, the policy promoted a moderate and just negotiated political solution offering substantial autonomy for the Sri Lankan Tamils within the framework of a united Sri Lanka. On the other hand, the policy provided sanctuary to, armed, trained and funded the Sri Lankan militant groups—and especially the LTTE. This was done under the impression that the militant activities would be able to put pressure on the negotiating process and could be controlled by the Government of India to achieve the first objective—with active help from the AIADMK State government headed by M.G. Ramachandran, who was known to be close to the LTTE supremo, V. Prabhakaran.”

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As mentioned earlier, the troubled equation between the DMK and the LTTE went back to 1986, when the DMK hosted the Tamil Eelam Supporters Organization conference and raised money for various Tamil organizations. It managed to bring in a host of leaders to express their solidarity with the Sri Lankan Tamil cause. The prominent participants were: Atal Behari Vajpayee of the BJP, N.T. Rama Rao of the TDP, H.N. Bahuguna of the Lok Dal, Farooq Abdullah of the National Conference, K.P. Unnikrishnan of the Congress-S and Balwant Singh Ramoowalia of the Akali Dal. The DMK wanted to hand over the money it raised during the conference to all the Tamil militant groups and the main political party, the TULF. The LTTE refused to accept the money given by the then Opposition party DMK. The LTTE leadership felt that accepting the money may affect its relationship with the ruling AIADMK. Later, when internal squabbling started in the DMK in the early 1990s, the various magazines owing allegiance to the LTTE not only supported the rebel Gopalsamy but also condemned Karunanidhi for ‘foisting’ his son on the party. What the LTTE and its single-minded supporters failed to see was a simple fact, the winnability of Karunanidhi’s son—he could win in the Assembly elections five times, while Gopalsamy would lose his seat from his home town Sivakasi for the Parliament in 1989 and Vilathikulam for the Legislative Assembly in 1996.

The LTTE did not look at the Tamil Nadu polity as a collective support base and chose to play politics with its political parties. The sanctity of the state was violated repeatedly by the militants and their reckless violence. The moral geography was trespassed in such a manner as to threaten the sociopolitical practices of Tamil Nadu. The ability to strike at will may be a military capability; certainly not a political act of a liberation movement. Karunanidhi, who could tolerate Gopalsamy, a sitting MP, making a clandestine trip to the LTTE’s hideout, without valid travel documents, was not willing to condone the conversion of Tamil Nadu into a killing field. He was further disillusioned with the October 1990 action of the LTTE forcing the Muslims to flee the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. He rightly saw this as an act of ethnic cleansing.

Karunanidhi played a role in facilitating the peace process initiated by Norway, between the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the LTTE from 2000 to 2006. The parties signed a Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) in February 2002 and continued with six rounds of direct peace talks during 2002-2003. More than anyone else, the Sri Lankan government was aware of India’s reservations with the presence of a Western power in the political process within the region. In 1995-96, when Liam Fox, undersecretary of the British foreign and commonwealth office, had assumed the role of a peace negotiator, the process failed to take off because of reservations from the Indian establishment. However, when Karunanidhi heard that there was a consensus in Sri Lanka between the two major political parties—the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the UNP—about the Norwegian initiative, he nudged the Indian government to permit the talks. He said India can always withdraw its support if the Western powers try to overreach in the region. The NDA government led by Vajpayee agreed to make this diplomatic departure due to Karunanidhi’s presence in the NDA.

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Karunanidhi said, “It was the second time George Fernandes and I jointly worked to help the Sri Lankan Tamils. The first was to get the Indian Army out of Sri Lanka in 1990. I knew that for a peace process to succeed, a conducive geopolitical environment was needed. I was also hopeful about the Scandinavian initiative because of the politically active Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora presence in countries like Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.”

To signal some progress in the peace process, LTTE chief Prabhakaran held a press conference in Wanni, Sri Lanka, in 2002. Jayalalithaa, the then chief minister, was outraged by the press meet. She said: “It is outrageous that a leader of a terrorist outfit, responsible for the deaths of millions of people and declared proclaimed offender by an Indian special court, should be allowed to walk free in a friendly nation and lionized by the media. It is shocking and disgraceful.” Jayalalithaa moved a resolution in the Assembly seeking Prabhakaran’s extradition.

A short personal detour is necessary to explain the nuances here. I was the managing editor of Sun News and took a team to Wanni to cover Prabhakaran’s press conference. When I returned to Chennai, Karunanidhi invited me to brief him on what I saw and learnt from my Wanni trip. He made his position clear—no war and a negotiated settlement, which guarantees both peace and justice. He said he would not support the AIADMK resolution as it would wreck the fragile peace process initiated by the Norwegians.

During the course of the discussion, Karunanidhi invoked one of the earliest legal tussles in the Madras High Court over the legitimacy of Arutpa (Songs of Grace), to highlight the distinction between the DMK and the LTTE. ‘Thiru Arutpa’, by Ramalinga Vallalar (1823–74), remains one of the finest explorations of spirituality and its relationship with humanity. The Tamil scholar from Jaffna, Arumuga Navalar (1822-79), launched a blistering campaign against the collection, and called it Marutpa (Songs of Ignorance). The colonial courts were totally at sea and couldn’t resolve the matter. It came to an end with the defence of Arutpa by the respected Saivaite scholar, Maraimalai Adigal, in the early twentieth century. Karunanidhi felt that Arutpa had space for vulnerabilities, frailties, and the body of work was free of judgement on acts of human imperfection. Additionally, he felt that Arutpa represented the core of the Self-Respect Movement. On the other hand, Marutpa was exacting in its standards, where punitive measures were not only considered fair but essential. Karunanidhi felt that the militancy in Sri Lanka was in the Marutpa mode, which robbed it of the ability to see the distinction between conciliation and compromise.

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Karunanidhi favoured neither accepting the LTTE as the sole representative of Tamils nor denying its representational character in defining the politics of Sri Lanka. The governments—both Sri Lankan and Indian—contributed to the idea that the LTTE was only one of the two—either the sole representative or persona non grata. He listed out the instances where the two governments spoke only to the LTTE, undermining the political legitimacy of other Tamil parties in Sri Lanka.

At the 1986 SAARC meet at Bangalore, the then Sri Lankan president, J.R. Jayewardene, acknowledged Prabhakaran as the leader with whom he would like to talk and negotiate. All the other Tamil groups were ignored. Later, when the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of 1987 was signed, the two governments gave importance only to the LTTE in the formation of the stillborn Interim Administrative Council. When the relationship between India and Sri Lanka got strained during the Premadasa regime, he used the LTTE as his main ally and declared that they are the trusted representatives of the Tamils. The early days of President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s first term in office were known for her talks with the LTTE only. Karunanidhi recollects the request from Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 to him as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu to talk to the LTTE and work out a settlement.

Sitting in his election camp house, in Thiruvarur, on 12 April 2011, Karunanidhi looked back on the killings in Sri Lanka, including that of Prabhakaran. “Sri Lankan Tamils have paid a huge price. It disturbs me both emotionally and intellectually when I read Jaffna scholar, A.J. Canangaratna’s observation: ‘The sad fate that the search for a homeland has rendered many of my people homeless is more poignant than any torture and killing’. My concern is to address this question rather than win the appreciation of some diaspora LTTE supporter who forms his opinion based on not the second- but tenthhand sources.”

That was the last extended discussion we had about Sri Lanka.

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