Alarm bells

Published : May 18, 2007 00:00 IST

Fisherfolk protest against the killing of fishermen off the Thoothukudi coast, at Threspuram beach in Thoothukudi on March 30.-N. RAJESH

Fisherfolk protest against the killing of fishermen off the Thoothukudi coast, at Threspuram beach in Thoothukudi on March 30.-N. RAJESH

The ammunition seizures and the murder and kidnap of fishermen bring back bad memories of the LTTE's pre-1991 presence in Tamil Nadu.

THE recent developments relating to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have raised serious security concerns on both sides of Palk Straits - in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan ethnic issue has always cast a shadow in Tamil Nadu. The people of this southern State have not forgotten the violence let loose by the LTTE between 1989 and 1991. The recent spate of seizures of arms, weapons, ammunition, explosives and umpteen consignments of deadly raw materials for the manufacture of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by the Tigers have added to their fears. The Union government is also under pressure as Indian shores are being used by a terrorist organisation to continue an armed struggle in a neighbouring country.

Perhaps the most important seizure in recent months was an explosives-laden boat captured by the Coast Guard off Point Calimere on February 13. Its booty included an AK-56 assault rifle and an explosives-packed jacket that reminded people of the LTTE suicide bomber who assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at Sriperumbudur on May 21, 1991. Where was this boat headed? What was it doing off the Cuddalore-Nagapattinam coast? Was another suicide mission in the offing? If so, where? Was the LTTE only using Tamil Nadu to source its requirements or was it also planning to perform another major operation on Indian soil? Such questions remain unanswered.

Equally shocking for the people of Tamil Nadu was the news that five Tamil fishermen were killed in mid-sea and a dozen fishermen, including one from Kerala, were kidnapped by the LTTE. It was only after six full weeks after the mid-sea murders that Director-General of Police D. Mukherjee revealed that the Sea Tigers were behind both incidents. "If the Tamil Tigers can do this to the coastal fishermen, who have been their allies for over two decades, what will they not do to India?" says a former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) officer, who has worked for years on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue and studied the functioning of the LTTE. In his opinion, the LTTE is "quite desperate" and is collecting arms, ammunition and materials vigorously for another offensive. The display of its air wing, albeit with light aircraft, may be another signal of what lies in store.

The Tamil Nadu Police and Central agencies would not have unearthed these lurking tentacles of the LTTE but for a road accident near Madurai a few months ago, involving a vehicle carrying rocket shells and ball bearings allegedly intended for the LTTE. Investigations revealed some links. Central Intelligence agencies have sent out periodic warnings to the State police and government about the activities of the LTTE and the support extended to them by some political parties and fringe groups in Tamil Nadu. But it was only after this accident that the State police and administration sat up.

Godowns stocked with ball bearings, scrap metal, aluminium ingots, rocket shells, boosters, explosives, arms and ammunition and trucks carrying these materials were seized in a matter of months from different parts of Tamil Nadu - notably from Madurai and the other southern districts. According to the State Police, seven cases were registered on these incidents and the `Q' branch has begun a detailed investigation. At least 64 persons were taken into custody at various stages and a network of operatives was unearthed. This network includes Sri Lankan Tamils (suspected militants) and fishermen in Ramanathapuram, Thoothukudi, and neighbouring coastal districts who have links with the Sea Tigers and the LTTE transport system.

The nexus between coastal fishermen and the LTTE is more than two decades old. Pre-1983, the link was between Sri Lankan and Tamil fishing communities through inter-community marriages and cultural ties. But after the genocide of 1983 and the LTTE's "liberation struggle", smuggling and commercial operation started. Hundreds of fishermen fell into the dragnet of the Tigers and indulged in smuggling provisions, clothes and medicines, transporting injured cadres, and even storing weapons, arms and ammunition meant for the LTTE. It was only after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated that a determined effort was made to cleanse Tamil Nadu of the LTTE and end the smuggling activities. With the passage of time, the smuggling of provisions, clothes, diesel and petrol resumed. During the attempts to initiate a peace process and "talks about talks" in the island, these activities ceased to some extent. But the Sri Lanka armed forces' drive in the past two years to contain the LTTE's military prowess has obviously forced the terrorist group to revive its activities in Tamil Nadu.

The end of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) rule in Tamil Nadu, during which efforts were made to contain pro-LTTE elements and their activities in the State by invoking the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) against a host of people, including political leaders, marked the beginning of the glorification of the LTTE and a propaganda campaign in its favour. Fringe groups that were previously under the scanner began a pro-LTTE campaign calling upon the Indian government to stop all assistance to the Sri Lankan government, and intervene to restore peace in the island nation.

Central Intelligence officials are worried that some Tamil Nadu political parties that are part of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre are strong supporters of the LTTE. In addition to the vocal and influential Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), and its close ally, the Viduthalai Siruthaigal (the Dalit Panthers of India), which have openly supported the LTTE, sections in the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) took a soft line on the LTTE until recently. Vaiko, whose Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) was part of the UPA until recently, is a votary of Tamil Eelam. Only after veteran politician and five-time Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi declared in the State Assembly that there was no room for the LTTE in the State and expressed shock over the involvement of Tamil Tigers in the murder and kidnap of Tamil fishermen did the decibel level of the pro-LTTE propaganda reduce. Taking the high moral ground, AIADMK leader and former Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has accused the DMK of taking a "soft line" on the LTTE and said, "This approach poses a grave threat to Tamil Nadu and it is highly condemnable."

Unfortunately, in Tamil Nadu politicians and political parties appear to be unable to make a clear distinction between the cause of the Sri Lankan Tamils and the LTTE's agenda. Though the LTTE was at the forefront of the earlier phase of the ethnic struggle, Tamil politicians have turned a blind eye to the murder of Tamil leaders of the North and East in Sri Lanka by the LTTE. While the LTTE has always wanted to drum up emotional support for its cause in Tamil Nadu, it has paid little heed to repeated appeals to end the fratricidal war and focus on the rights of Tamils in the island.

If Tamil Nadu and its political leaders do not realise the dangers of allowing the LTTE and its front organisations, including the fringe groups in the State, to continue their clandestine activities on Indian soil, another crisis will be inevitable. At a time when New Delhi has urged its neighbours - Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal - not to allow militant groups operating in India to use their soil, India cannot allow the LTTE to use Indian soil against Sri Lanka. What options are there before the Tamil Nadu government?

A senior Intelligence Bureau official, who has visited Tamil Nadu to review the situation, said: "The State police, with the assistance of the Central Intelligence agencies, the Indian Navy, the Coast Guard and the Coastal Security Group, should launch a determined crackdown on the LTTE, its support groups and all their clandestine activities in Tamil Nadu and adjoining areas. A joint inspection of the coast should be undertaken by the Indian and Sri Lankan Navies. The Coast Guard must step up its surveillance in shallow waters and the identified landing spots of the LTTE. The network established here must be smashed."

He went on to say that the Government of India must take a clear line on the LTTE and avoid allowing regional allies in Tamil Nadu to dictate the nuances of the policy on Sri Lanka. New Delhi must extend logistical and technical assistance to Sri Lanka to meet the heightened threat from the LTTE's sea and air wings, he said.

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