Political tension

Published : Feb 27, 2009 00:00 IST

M. Karunanidhi, DMK chief and Chief Minister.-R. SHIVAJI RAO

M. Karunanidhi, DMK chief and Chief Minister.-R. SHIVAJI RAO

WHEN the executive committee of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which rules Tamil Nadu, met in Chennai on February 3, the mood in the State was sombre. On that day, several newspapers had published on their front pages, reports on the bombing of the childrens ward of a hospital in Pudukudiyiruppu in Mullaithivu district of Sri Lanka, resulting in the death of many children and adults.

Since October 2008 opposition has built up in Tamil Nadu to the bombing of Tamil areas by the Sri Lanka Air Force and the artillery barrage by the Army. Political parties organised a series of demonstrations demanding that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre put pressure on Colombo to bring about a ceasefire. Lawyers, college students and schoolchildren, too, organised agitations in January 2009. On January 29, Muthukumar, 26, set himself on fire in Chennai, accusing the Centre of becoming blind to the Sri Lankan Tamil issue.

The DMK, which is a constituent of the UPA, leads the Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA) in Tamil Nadu, of which the Congress is a constituent. In the end of January, the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Dalit Panthers of India (DPI), the Tamil Nationalist Movement and others formed an umbrella organisation called the Sri Lankan Tamil Protection Movement to press for a ceasefire and to drum up support to protect the islands Tamils.

These parties were sore that New Delhi did not take up with Colombo the ceasefire issue. They alleged that Tamil Nadus demand did not figure in New Delhis talks with Colombo when External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon visited Colombo in January.

The DMK, led by its president and Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, had been consistently asking for a ceasefire and was hurt that the Centre had not responded to its pleas. The Sri Lankan Tamil Protection Movement called a bandh on February 4 but the DMK government termed it illegal, citing a Supreme Court order.

The call received a mixed response. While buses, trains and private vehicles operated, shops remained closed in some parts of the State. The call evoked good response in Kanchipuram, Tiruvallur, Cuddalore, Vellore and Villupuram districts where the PMK and the DPI have influence. DPI leader Thol. Tirumavalavan alleged that the Sri Lanka Air Force dropped internationally banned cluster bombs in Tamil areas.

Much to the disappointment of the Tamil Protection Movement, the DMK executive, meeting under the chairmanship of Karunanidhi, firmly signalled that it had fallen in line with the Congress-led governments stance on the issue. It resolved to set up a Sri Lankan Tamils Welfare and Rights Forum to press for a ceasefire and find a solution through democratic methods to the ethnic conflict.

Another resolution demanded that the Government of India take immediate steps to find a political solution to the conflict within a stipulated time frame, with full devolution of powers and autonomy to the Tamil areas in the north and east of the island. Colombo should cooperate in this, the resolution said.

A couple of days earlier, the DMK had toyed with the idea of withdrawing its Ministers in the Union Cabinet to signal its unhappiness over New Delhis failure to secure a ceasefire. When the DMKs representative, former Union Minister Dayanidhi Maran, met Congress president Sonia Gandhi and informed her about the DMKs plan to pull out its Ministers, the latter declined to accept it, informed sources said. According to these sources, she also shot down a proposal that the Ministers would resign but the party would continue to support the Manmohan Singh government. During the meeting, she was briefed about the machinations of the PMK to drive a wedge between the Congress and the DMK.

The clearest indication of the DMK toeing the Congress line came when Finance Minister K. Anbazhagan declared in the Assembly on January 29: [O]nce a party comes to power, it can only discuss in a limited way the internal problems of another country with that country[and that too] we can emphasise [our position] in a discreet manner.

Anbazhagan was responding to CPI legislator V. Sivapunniyams question about the DMKs stand in the context of a rift between the Congress and the DMK in the wake of Pranab Mukherjees visit to Colombo on January 27. Anbazhagan added: [Sri Lankan President Mahinda] Rajapaksa has agreed not to bomb the safety zones [where the Tamil civilians should gather] So there is room for an assessment that Pranab Mukherjee had duly taken up the issue [with Colombo] that Tamil civilians should not be harmed. This is what this [DMK] government wants to express in this House.

Anbazhagan faulted the LTTE for not responding to the 48-hour ceasefire declared by Colombo.

We are neither for the LTTE nor against it. Our standpoint is that the Sri Lankan Tamil issue should be resolved, he said.

The reasons for the DMK toeing the Congress line are not far to seek. The Sri Lankan Tamil problem has been a sensitive issue for the Congress since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1991. (India proscribed the LTTE in 1992.) It is a sensitive issue for the DMK as well because the DMK government, led by Karunanidhi, was dismissed by the Chandra Shekhar government at the Centre in January 1991 on the allegation that it was passing on sensitive information to the LTTE.

In the past few months, the DPA has become truncated with the exit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the CPI. In a hasty move, which it later rued, the DMK had earlier shown the PMK the door. The CPI(M) and the CPI are now with the rival camp led by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), in which the MDMK is already a partner.

With Lok Sabha elections round the corner, the DMK is desperately short of allies. It has with it only the Congress, the DPI and the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) now. So there was no way the DMK would have distanced itself from the Congress however emotive the Sri Lankan Tamil issue might have become.

Besides, the DMK government is dependent on Congress support for its survival. From October 2008, the plight of Tamil civilians in northern Sri Lanka started dominating the political scene in Tamil Nadu, with the CPI, the DPI and the PMK organising agitations. Worried that other parties had hijacked the issue and angered by allegations that the DMK was sleeping over the issue, the party organised several protests demanding a ceasefire. The DMK government convened an all-party meeting on October 14, in which various parties decided that their members of Parliament would resign if the Centre did not clinch a ceasefire in the Tamil areas by October 29.

However, on October 26, Mahinda Rajapaksas brother, Basil Rajapaksa, flew to New Delhi and met Pranab Mukherjee. A joint statement said the two sides agreed that terrorism should be countered with resolve. In effect, this meant that New Delhi would fully back Colombo pursuing the Tigers. Then Mukherjee met Karunanidhi in Chennai and asked him not to precipitate a crisis for the Union government. Karunanidhi readily agreed. But Mukherjee made it clear that there would be no ceasefire. The Congress served a warning: it would withdraw support to the DMK government if the DMKs Union Ministers resigned.

The Assembly passed a resolution on November 12, 2008, demanding a ceasefire and Karunanidhi led an all-party delegation to meet Manmohan Singh on December 4; the Prime Minister promised to send Pranab Mukherjee to Colombo; and Karunanidhi appealed again on December 27 with tears in his eyes for a ceasefire. Despite all this the hostilities between the Sri Lankan security forces and the LTTE continued, and Pranab Mukherjee had yet to fly to Colombo.

An exasperated Karunanidhi said on January 20: Whatever may be the reasons for Pranab not going to Colombo, they could have been revealed. Or what would be the appropriate time for him to go could have been discussed [with us]. This not happening is painful to the State government. Karunanidhi was also hurt that even the details of Shivshankar Menons visit have not been disclosed.

Meanwhile, the MDMK, the PMK and the CPI started training their guns on the DMK. MDMK general secretary Vaikos refrain was that it was India that was executing the war against the LTTE on behalf of Sri Lanka by providing it with military assistance and intelligence. The Sinhala war to exterminate the Tamil race is a conspiracy plotted by the Government of India, Vaiko alleged.

CPI national secretary D. Raja also attacked the Centre for providing military assistance and naval intelligence to Sri Lanka. On January 12, PMK founder Dr S. Ramadoss, DPI leader Thol. Tirumavalavan and Dravidar Kazhagam general secretary K. Veeramani met Karunanidhi and pressed him to use his good offices to bring about a ceasefire. However, Tirumavalavan, an unambiguous supporter of the LTTE, went on an indefinite fast on January 15 at Maraimalai Nagar, about 50 km from Chennai.

He did not inform the Chief Minister about it, but Ramadoss seemed to be in the know of it. Tirumavalavans demands were that New Delhi should pressure Colombo to declare a ceasefire and Colombo should begin talks with the LTTE.

Tirumavalavans fast led to sporadic incidents of violence in some areas, in which State-owned buses were burnt near Madurai, Tindivanam and Puducherry. When he called off his fast on January 18, Ramadoss suggested that the next phase of the agitation, lasting 10 days, should paralyse Tamil Nadu.

He added: The agitation should stun the world and lead to a ceasefire in Colombo. This is my personal viewpoint. He suggested that Karunanidhi himself could lead an agitation. He wanted the Chief Ministers decision to shake the country.

Separately, AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa predicted that before the year was out the DMK would be out of power and the AIADMK would be the ruling party.

Karunanidhi saw a link between Ramadoss suggestion and Jayalalithaas prediction, and alleged that a conspiracy was afoot to topple the DMK government. Informed DMK sources said the party high command suspected that the PMK had instigated Tirumavalavan to go on a fast to embarrass Karunanidhi. What did Tirumavalavan achieve by going on a fast? Nothing. He was merely made a scapegoat, said a DMK leader.

In the DMKs assessment, the PMK was using Tirumavalavan to drive a wedge between the Congress and the DMK. The relations between the Congress and the DPI are strained because the DPI makes no bones about its support for the LTTE.

The DMK leader alleged that an influential section of Congressmen had never reconciled to the alliance with the DMK and were working to break it. The DMK high command also suspected that the PMK was making common cause with this section of Congressmen.

As if to echo the DMKs fears, Congress legislator Peter Alphonse alleged that there was a plot to weaken the Congress and topple the DMK government using the Sri Lankan Tamil issue.

It was no surprise, therefore, that Karunanidhi, at the DMK executive committee meeting, accused Ramadoss of trying to create enmity between him and the Centre.

News pouring in about the death of Tamil civilians in bombing raids by the Sri Lanka Air Force, and the Tamil media highlighting them with pictures, fuelled protests by students and lawyers in Tamil Nadu. College students in the cities and towns boycotted classes and burnt Mahinda Rajapaksas effigies. A few students declined to receive their graduation certificates at the convocation.

Students of the Government Law colleges in Chengalpattu, Salem, Madurai, Tiruchi and Chennai were in the vanguard of the agitation demanding that the Sri Lanka Army stop targeting Tamil civilians and that India stop providing military assistance to Sri Lanka. Schoolchildren took out processions demanding a ceasefire.

Lawyers struck work indefinitely in Chennai, and in several towns they blocked trains. A branch of Bank of Ceylon in Chennai was attacked. To quell the gathering momentum of students agitations, the government ordered the closure of all colleges and students hostels.

The situation came to a head when Muthukumar set himself on fire in front of the Central government complex, Sastri Bhavan, in Chennai. In a letter, he appealed to law college students to expand their agitation to all colleges. Muthukumars funeral attracted a few thousand students. Stones were thrown at DMK legislator V.S. Babu when he went to Muthukumars residence to convey his condolences. Muthukumars family rejected the State governments solatium of Rs.2 lakh. Karunanidhi, saddened by these, appealed to people not to politicise the youths sacrifice.

The DMK faced more heat when the MDMK, the PMK, the CPI and the DPI criticised Governor Surjit Singh Barnalas address to the Assembly on January 21 for not demanding a ceasefire in Sri Lanka.

On January 23, the Assembly passed a resolution, melodramatically titled Alas, the Tamil race in Sri Lanka is being destroyed a final appeal to the government. Karunanidhi, who moved the resolution, said, We expect that this appeal should not be ignored. There should be a ceasefire today, followed by a political resolution [of the conflict] and then peace should prevail.

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