A setback for ethnic conciliation

Published : Aug 14, 1999 00:00 IST

India's guarded response to the heinous killing of Neelam Tiruchelvam is suspicious and points to a pro-LTTE wave in the BJP-led coalition.

THE assassination of Neelan Tiruchelvam, the towering Sri Lankan public intellectual, is a serious blow to the cause of democracy, peace, federalism, healing of ethnic rifts, and political decentralisation - not just in that country, but in all of South Asia. The revolting method used to kill him - typical of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, with a suicide-bomber hurling himself at Tiruchelvam's car - points to the logical course that mindless, obsessive, rabid ethno-nationalism takes, indeed is bo und to take, in this region. It highlights the menace to Sri Lanka and India from the LTTE, with its single-minded, murderous determination to wipe out all dissent. No other group in South Asia has better deserved the appellation "Pol Potist". There are many lessons for India in Tiruchelvam's assassination and New Delhi's response to it.

Tiruchelvam was a spendid example of the scholar-activist; he was Sri Lanka's best-known fighter for human rights, who dedicated his life to ending the ethnic crisis that had taken a particularly vicious turn 16 years ago. No one did more than him to hig hlight the need for ethnic healing on the international plane.

Tiruchelvam played many unique roles. A Tamil, he formed a vital bridge between the ethnic minorities and the Sinhala majority. A constitutional lawyer, he was architect of the boldest package of political devolution and decentralisation South Asia has e ver seen. An intellectual, he personified the highest level of refinement to be found among engaged scholars in South Asia. A political strategist, he showed a remarkable ability to combine theory with activist practice.

Tiruchelvam was without doubt the most powerful dynamo of pluralist and democratic ideas in Sri Lanka's peace process. It is precisely this function, not his status as a (nominated) Member of Parliament, nor his membership in the moderate Tamil Un ited Liberation Front (TULF), that put him high on the LTTE's list of enemies. The role he played was anathema to the LTTE's sinister militarism and its total opposition to peace, reason and conciliation. The LTTE assassinated not just a political oppone nt, but a fount of ideas, creativity and original thinking. Tiruchelvam's Sri Lanka project, which envisioned a society based on inclusion, sharing, diversity, openness, protection of minority rights, while still observing universal rights, was the polar opposite of the monolithic, fear-based, ruthlessly regimented Eelam that the LTTE wants.

It was perhaps a mere coincidence that Tiruchelvam's assassination took place during the anniversary of "Black July", the terrible anti-Tamil riots of 1983. During this period, a number of LTTE suicide-bombers ("Black Tigers", grotesquely revered in that group) reportedly infiltrated into Colombo and also Tamil Nadu, and renewed their threat to the lives of Sri Lankan Tamil MPs. Tiruchelvam's killing could also be intended to send out a hostile message just before President Chandrika Kumaratunga introdu ced in Parliament constitutional amendments for devolution of power. At any rate, the LTTE has again announced, in the only language it understands - that of violence - that it will brook no opposition nor allow the flourishing of political tendencies t hat question its monopoly to speak for all Sri Lankan Tamils. They should be either with the LTTE, that is, its yes-men or apologists; or against it. Those against it are traitors to be eliminated, incinerated.

Neelan Tiruchelvam was a threat to the LTTE not because he represented a rival mass base in Sri Lanka's North and East - which he did not - but only in the sense that he stood for ideas which it found loathsome: freedom, peace and democracy , federalism, pluralism and secularism, respect for differences of opinion and dissent, and for consultation and negotiation.

Tiruchelvam straddled many worlds: the realm of moral and political theory; deep reflection on democracy; conflict resolution; rigorous work on constitutional and legal reform; parliamentary debate on major issues; down to practical political activism an d advocacy. He was readily at home in Sri Lanka and in India, in the courts of Colombo or at Harvard university, at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (of which he was co-director), or in Parliament lobbying for equality of opportunity. He was e xtraordinarily well-read, extremely broadminded, modernist and liberal, and yet rooted in his own culture and traditions. His personality is best described as that of the Renaissance person.

Tiruchelvam thought big. He looked into the future. He formulated his politics in universalist terms, yet could make it immediately relevant and accessible to his people. Although rooted in ideals, it was practical. Tiruchelvam's commitment to emancipati on could be seen in all his work. He could argue spiritedly for minority rights and transcend the limitations of ethno-centrism. His perspective was fundamentally internationalist, unconstrained by ethnic limitations, narrowness of vision or language, an d was always contemptuous of ignorance and insularity.

Tiruchelvam was a rare human being who rose above the stereotypes of victimhood and oppression, through which it is easy for a member of a minority group to get trapped in a mental ghetto. He resolutely refused to give any legitimacy to revenge and irred entism, to the politics of retribution, even though he fully recognised the fact of systemic oppression of and discrimination against minorities. His was a voice of reason which compelled attention, and inspired scholars, activists and political leaders all over South Asia.

Tiruchelvam was not just a thinker and theorist, nor only a doer. He was that rarity among talented scholars: an institution-builder. He set up the ICES (probably the most prestigious institution of its kind in South Asia, and one of the finest centres o f excellence in the world), and the Law and Society Trust. He was also intimately involved in initiatives like the Human Rights Task Force, the Official Languages Commission, the Human Rights Commission and the Office of the Ombudsman. He pioneered the j oint monitoring of elections in neighbouring countries - Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal - by citizens' groups. He broadened popular vision. He planned and organised some of the most exciting conferences, seminars and talks ever held in South Asia.

Tiruchelvam created networks and structures of like-minded people and institutions, which could fuse energies to produce tangible results. When I met him last, he was busy planning a non-Sinhalese language publishing venture in Colombo. Acutely aware tha t book publishing - in the proper institutionalised sense of the term - is poorly developed in Sri Lanka, he thought of getting the ICES to collaborate with an Indian publisher to set up a Sri Lankan venture which would develop indigenous capabilities an d tap resources from both countries.

Tiruchelvam combined great humility with immense personal charm. He was soft-spoken, but without false modesty. He was not given to hyperbole, melodrama, or strong words. But he did not pull his punches when that was necessary. He was secure enough withi n himself to admit to his limitations and faults; for example, his liaising role in the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka accord, and his naive belief - soon revised - that it would work. He was always open to ideas.

Tiruchelvam was an enlightened and committed friend of India, who did much to promote intellectual exchange and mutual learning.

Reactions from many Indian sources to his death, however, failed to fully appreciate this. The Ministry of External Affairs, for instance, described him as "a member of the Sri Lankan Parliament, an eminent lawyer and distinguished leader of the TULF". T his trivialises the man. A national daily virtually reduced his significance to that of a mere mediator in the 1987 accord, and one who assisted G. Parthasarathy, the architect of India's Sri Lanka policy. This is a parody of this remarkable intellectual 's burning commitment to equality and non-coercive relations between states.

Crucially, the Ministry's response failed to mention the LTTE's "suspected" or "alleged" involvement in his assassination. The Ministry's spokesperson during his July 30 briefing first read out a prepared statement, but then, following a call from a coll eague, "clarified" that he was speaking "in response to a question", thus suggesting the matter did not deserve a suo motu statement. Even the United States, no exemplar of rectitude, issued a strong statement naming the LTTE as a "foreign terrori st organisation", responsible for "the killing of non-combatants and civilians".

If New Delhi wanted to convey to the Sri Lankan public its refusal to take a clear stand on the LTTE, indeed its pusillanimity, it could not have done better. Its mealy-mouthed condemnation was rooted in more than excessive caution. It came on top of a n umber of signals from the Vajpayee government which distressingly suggest a soft line (and more) on the LTTE.

Consider the following: George Fernandes has long been an enthusiastic LTTE supporter or sympathiser. In late 1997, he announced plans for a highly controversial pro-LTTE public convention in New Delhi, to which the Home Ministry objected. (The LTTE is a banned organisation in India following Rajiv Gandhi's assassination.) Fernandes nevertheless went ahead and held it on December 14 on the spacious lawns of his Delhi bungalow. The "International Convention for Solidarity with the Eelam Tamils of Sri Lan ka" was attended by delegates from Sri Lanka, southern Indian States, Australia and France.

The delegates openly supported and praised the LTTE and resolved to work for the lifting of the ban on it. "No matter what the obstacles are, we will hold similar State-level conferences. We are ready to face any consequences," Fernandes said. "The basic purpose of this convention is to make the people of India aware of Tamil Eelam and making them a part of their struggle.... Their (the LTTE's) cause is just...." The convention passed a resolution asking the Sri Lankan Government to withdraw its Army fr om the Tamil areas, stop human rights violations, and solve the ethnic problem politically while recognising that "the LTTE represents the Tamil people". It also asked for the abolition of the Jain Commission, inquiring into Rajiv Gandhi's assassination.

In July 1998, under Fernandes' instructions, the Defence Ministry ordered the Indian Navy not to intercept ships suspected to be carrying arms for the LTTE and other groups through Indian waters. Three such ships were let off. Indian forces downgraded th eir patrolling of the Palk Straits. "The Tigers are able to get whatever Tamil Nadu can supply. The coastline is very porous," The Hindustan Times said.

On March 11, the Navy allowed gun-runners aboard the 500-tonne MV Mariamma to escape and dump their cache at sea. This followed a sudden change in interception plans after the vessel was tracked by reconnaissance aircraft.

Fernandes became the chief patron of the Fund-raising Committee for Protection of Tamils, set up to help the accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. He quit the post after joining the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, but the committee's cha irman P. Nedumaran said that he "continues to be associated with us in this cause" and is also "the convener of another outfit formed to express solidarity with Tamil Eelam."

On November 29, 1998, a number of Central Ministers, including L. K. Advani, Fernandes and Ramakrishna Hegde, attended the wedding of the son of coalition partner and Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) leader Vaiko. Present were LTTE leader V. Prabakaran's father Velupillai, and Kasi Anandan, a suspect in the Rajiv Gandhi case. Several pro-LTTE speeches were made at the reception.

To quote Indian Express, "Kasi Anandan is said to have stated that the couple should beget tiger-like kids..." Eelavendan, another Eelam campaigner, hailed Vaiko as the 'firm pillar' of the Tamil Eelam movement. He added, "There is nothing for us to feel shy about. Vaiko is a big source of strength for the Eelam movement...." But what raised several eyebrows at the function was MDMK MP A. Ganeshamoorthy's speech. Stating that Vaiko had a grandson by the name of Prabakaran, Ganeshamoorthy reported ly told the gathering that Prabakaran and Vaiko were the only saviours of Tamils. Vaiko, when contacted, said, "I am also a staunch supporter of Eelam."

Now, the MDMK is not just another party in the country. It is the BJP's most vital and stable partner in Tamil Nadu, qualitatively more loyal than the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) or the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), and with fewer options than either. It has since moved into a more influential position within the coalition. This must be seen in conjunction with numerous reports of increased LTTE activities in Tamil Nadu.

In Sri Lanka itself, many Tamil organisations and individuals have taken their cue from statements and related political signals from India. According to media reports, some have not mustered the courage to condemn Tiruchelvam's assassination or blame th e LTTE for it. This is a big setback for ethnic conciliation and peace, and a sign of the success of the LTTE's terror tactics.

In the early 1980s, what was called the "Madras factor" - pro-Eelam political opinion in Tamil Nadu - got India involved in the Sri Lankan quagmire. India armed, trained and funded Tamil groups. When it found that some of them were not amenable to contro l, it turned against them. It coerced Sri Lanka into the 1987 accord, courting resentment. This was the high watermark of Independent India's foreign policy ambitions, which collapsed disastrously within a year. Today, there is no official Indian support for Eelam militants. But there are growing fears that the BJP-led coalition has sympathies for, and a secret agenda involving, the LTTE. Its response to Tiruchelvam's killing has only strengthened these fears.

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