A crackdown in Tamil Nadu

Print edition : July 20, 2002

Supporting the LTTE, one of the world's most feared organisations, lands MDMK leader Vaiko in jail under the Prevention of Terrorism Act - a draconian law that Vaiko along with other NDA allies supported with enthusiasm.

THE Tamil Nadu police arrested Vaiko, formerly V. Gopalsamy, the leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), on July 11 soon after he flew into the Chennai airport that afternoon after a visit to the United States. The arrest was made under, among other laws, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), which was enacted by Parliament in March with the enthusiastic support of his own party, for his open support of the banned Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Vaiko, the Lok Sabha member representing Sivakasi, was driven in a police van to Madurai, some 500 km south of Chennai, and presented before the Judicial Magistrate in charge, Tirumangalam, around 2-15 a.m. The magistrate remanded him to judicial custody until August 7. Vaiko was taken to the Central Prison, Madurai, and a few hours later driven to the Central Prison, Vellore, about 300 km from Madurai. The arrest of Vaiko and eight other leaders of his party constituted the first significant application of POTA against a non-Muslim organisation or group.

MDMK leader Vaiko being taken to the Vellore Central Jail on July 12.-A. MURALIDHARAN

The MDMK, which was born in May 1994 as a breakaway group of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), is a constituent of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre and has two members in the Union Ministry - M. Kannappan, Minister of State for Non-Conventional Energy Sources, and Gingee N. Ramachandran, Minister of State for Finance.

Contrary to fears expressed by certain quarters, Tamil Nadu seemed to have taken the arrest of the pro-LTTE politician in its stride, and there were no reports of any large-scale popular protests. Even after the arrest, Vaiko and other MDMK leaders reiterated their extremist support of the LTTE in defiance of the overwhelming public opinion in Tamil Nadu.

Earlier, in a statement issued on July 3 from Chicago, Vaiko claimed that neither the threat of POTA nor oppression could browbeat the MDMK and that it would never compromise on its commitment to its principles and convictions fearing oppression. After a meeting of the MDMK executive committee, L. Ganesan, MDMK presidium chairman, said: "Our support to the Liberation Tigers will continue."

Vaiko has a long history of obsessive, overt support, for the LTTE, the terrorist organisation whose long list of horrendous crimes includes the killing of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at Sriperumbudur, near Chennai, in May 1991. Its leader Velupillai Prabakaran is the first accused in the assassination case, and has been declared a proclaimed offender in India. After it assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, the LTTE was banned by the Centre under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, in May 1992. The ban has been extended every two years. The LTTE was categorised as a "terrorist organisation" under POTA after the legislation was passed on March 26, 2002, at a joint sitting of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.

The immediate cause of the action against Vaiko was a speech he made at an MDMK rally at Tirumangalam on June 29. He said at the meeting: "Yesterday, I supported the LTTE. Even today I support the LTTE. Tomorrow, I will continue to support the LTTE. I am not afraid of POTA. I have faced laws even more draconian than POTA."

Vaiko continued: "I repeat... before the people of Tirumangalam. When they (the LTTE) are portrayed as terrorists, I ask, 'Have they indulged in terrorism just for the sake of violence? Or have they taken to arms only for the sake of bringing an era of arms culture? Is there not a big history of sacrifice behind the struggle they have undertaken? How many Tamils were murdered?... It is better to share our concern. It is reasonable to demonstrate our interest in the future of our women. When we take so many steps for their welfare, shouldn't we be strong?" In an atmosphere charged with pro-LTTE sentiment, Vaiko was presented with a tiger doll kept in a glass case. (Tiger is the emblem of the LTTE.)

ON July 2, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa raised the issue in a forceful and effective manner, pointing to the dangerous implications of Vaiko's open and defiant pronouncements supporting the LTTE. She wrote a demi-official letter to L.K. Advani, Deputy Prime Minister and Union Home Minister, bringing to his notice "the audacious and outrageous statements" made by Vaiko at Tirumangalam, "openly professing his allegiance to the LTTE."

She said her government had always made it clear that the LTTE's "cult of terrorism and violence will never be tolerated" in Tamil Nadu. She added that it was after a great deal of persuasion by her that the Union government banned the LTTE in 1992. She emphasised that against this backdrop, Vaiko's "unequivocal statements of support for a banned terrorist organisation cannot be ignored by both the Government of Tamil Nadu and the Government of India."

Jayalalithaa quoted from the text of Vaiko's speech and pointed out that the speech undoubtedly attracted the provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act as also POTA. She stated that her government had "no other option but to proceed against the individual" under both the Acts and "to arrest the individual..." She pointed out that Vaiko was a member of Parliament and the leader of a constituent of the alliance ruling at the Centre. Therefore, she argued, ignoring his speech would make a mockery of the Centre's efforts to take serious and deterrent action against terrorist organisations.

In an evident attempt to convince the Home Minister, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister wrote: "You will appreciate that unless such provocative outbursts are dealt with firmly, with an iron hand, supporters of several fundamentalist organisations such as SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India), Al Qaeda, etc., will get emboldened and may not only resort to similar explicit professing of support to such dangerous organisations, but will also expect the government to remain a mute spectator."

In September 1992 Chief Minister Jayalalithaa wrote to Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao seeking a ban on the LTTE. That was after the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) took out a rally in Chennai, the processionists glorifying Dhanu - the belt-bomb assassin of Rajiv Gandhi - and waving portraits of Prabakaran.

A day after Vaiko's arrest, Jayalalithaa announced that her government would initiate steps to get the MDMK banned. She contended that the MDMK deserved to be banned because its executive committee had passed a resolution that the very purpose of the existence of the party and its participation in the Union government was to support Sri Lankan Tamils. She asserted: "When they are so vocal in their support to a banned organisation, and when they go on obstinately proclaiming that they will not change their stand, and that they will continue to support the LTTE, I think that is something very dangerous which cannot be tolerated. We are going to initiate steps to have the MDMK banned." (Subsequently, in a press release, the MDMK denied that such a resolution had been passed. It also stated that the meeting was of the party office-bearers at the headquarters and not of the executive committee.)

WHILE Jayalalithaa may have her own motives and reasons for bringing up the issue thus, the indefensible nature of Vaiko's open pronouncements in support of the terrorist organisation is clear.

Just prior to and upon his arrest at the airport, the controversial fringe politician put on an unfazed facade. He claimed that the MDMK would not be "browbeaten by her intimidatory tactics" and it would, "by mobilising people's power, throw out Jayalalithaa's fascist regime". But the fact remains that he has reason to be gravely concerned. Vaiko and eight other MDMK leaders were arrested under Sections 21(2) and 21(3) of POTA, Section 13(1) (a) of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and Sections 109 and 120-B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Under Section 21 of POTA, membership in or support of a terrorist organisation as defined in the Act can attract a jail term of 10 years, and fund-raising for such an organisation can attract a jail term of 14 years.

The Section says: "A person commits an offence if (a) he invites support for a terrorist organisation, and (b) the support is not, or not restricted to, the provision of money or other property within the meaning of Section 22."

Section 21(2) states: "A person commits an offence if he arranges, manages or assists in arranging or managing a meeting which he knows is (a) to support a terrorist organisation, or (b) to further the activities of a terrorist organisation, or (c) to be addressed by a person who belongs or professes to belong to a terrorist organisation."

Section 21(3) says: "A person commits an offence if he addresses a meeting for the purpose of encouraging support for a terrorist organisation or to further its activities." According to Section 21(4), "A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years or with fine or with both."

Section 22 (5) says: "A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years or with fine or both."

According to Section 13(1) (a) of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, anybody who takes part in or commits an unlawful activity can be sentenced up to seven years in jail and a fine. Sections 109 and 120-B of the Indian Penal Code deal with abetment and criminal conspiracy respectively.

FOR the past 15 years, Vaiko has been an obdurate supporter of the LTTE and its separatist agenda for Sri Lanka. This was an important reason for his expulsion from the DMK in November 1993. In February 1989, he made a clandestine visit by boat to northern Sri Lanka and met Prabakaran without the knowledge of DMK president M. Karunanidhi, who had just taken over as Chief Minister after a gap of 13 years. This embarrassed Karunanidhi, because the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the top brass of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force in Sri Lanka disapproved of this.

Karunanidhi made public on October 3, 1993, when Jayalalithaa was Chief Minister, a communication he had received from the State Chief Secretary, which said: "The Government of India had come across unconfirmed information that the LTTE have plans of eliminating you (Karunanidhi) in order to promote the interests of V. Gopalsamy (as Vaiko was known then). The Chief Minister has directed that this information be communicated to you directly." The DMK expelled Vaiko from its primary membership on November 11, 1993. The DMK split and Vaiko founded the MDMK on May 6, 1994.

Since its inception, the MDMK has at all its conferences and general council meetings reiterated its support to the LTTE. At its first State conference at Tiruchi held from June 30 to July 2, 1995, the party concluded that the formation of Eelam alone would solve "the Tamil nationality question" in Sri Lanka.

After Jayalalithaa made public her letter to Advani, Vaiko claimed that she was out to arrest him under POTA because she lacked "the democratic culture to tolerate my criticism of the AIADMK government". He had criticised the Chief Minister and her government at public meetings at Pollachi, Madurai and Tirumangalam. He claimed that his speech at Tirumangalam was merely a repetition of what he had said in the Lok Sabha. He argued that he had never said anything that would disturb peace in Tamil Nadu; neither had the MDMK resorted to violence, he said. His party, he said, would also not support any violent activity by the LTTE in Tamil Nadu. A defiant Vaiko declared that he would continue to speak on the same lines "for the cause of the Sri Lankan Tamils".

Vaiko and L. Ganesan offered the bizarre allegation that Jayalalithaa was helping Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga who was "bent upon sabotaging" the ceasefire agreement and the current peace initiatives between the Ranil Wickremasinghe government and the LTTE.

The preventive value of the AIADMK government's offensive surfaced quickly. The arrests seem to have checked pro-LTTE speeches in Tamil Nadu, which used to come from several quarters, and put other political groups such as the PMK, the Tamil National Movement led by P. Nedumaran and the Dravidar Kazhagam (D.K.) headed by K. Veeramani on notice. Their protests against the arrests did not go beyond statements that Vaiko should not have been arrested under POTA for merely making speeches in support of the LTTE. The action has also prevented the DMK from taking any line suggesting softness towards the LTTE.

The BJP too has been unable to come to Vaiko's rescue. (Vaiko, however, took the line that he would not knock on the BJP's door to intervene in the issue.) Advani first took an evasive stand, saying the arrest was a law and order matter and fell in the State's domain. About the Chief Minister's announcement that she would initiate steps to ban the MDMK, he said, "If the State government sends any such proposal, the Centre will think about it."

Other political parties reacted cautiously to the arrest. While they said they did not approve of his obdurate support to the LTTE, they disapproved of the use of POTA. Their leaders said that POTA was a danger to the freedom of expression; however, they pointed out that Vaiko had abused that right.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) put the issue in balanced perspective. Its State secretary N. Varadarajan said in separate statements on July 5 and 12 (before and after Vaiko's arrest), that the CPI(M) had consistently opposed the LTTE's terrorist activities. He pointed out that the CPI(M) and other opposition parties had strongly opposed the enactment of POTA and continued to oppose it, while the MDMK had supported it. Varadarajan said: "The CPI(M) does not support Vaiko supporting the Liberation Tigers. Yet the CPI(M) does not accept the arrest of Vaiko under POTA." He pointed out that it was "amusing" that parties such as the DMK, the MDMK, and the PMK, which supported POTA, should oppose it when it was being invoked. Varadarajan suggested that these parties appeal to the Centre to repeal POTA.

M. Karunanidhi opposed the use of POTA with political motives. During her earlier tenure as Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa had used the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention Act), or TADA, to jail DMK leader Subbulakshmi Jagadeesan and her husband for one year, he said.

R. Nallakannu, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI), and Dr. S. Ramadoss, founder of the PMK accused Jayalalithaa of resorting to the arrests to deflect people's anger at her government on several issues. According to Nallakannu, these issues included the government's bungling on the Cauvery issue, the loss of the kuruvai paddy crop owing to water shortage, and the consequent unemployment of lakhs of farm workers. Dr. Ramadoss said that the Centre had given an assurance that POTA would not be misused, especially with political motives. The arrest of Vaiko violated the Centre's assurance, he alleged.

Arun Jaitley, former Union Law Minister and general secretary, Bharatiya Janata Party, characterised Vaiko's arrest as "unwarranted" especially after his explanation (that the MDMK never supported violence by the LTTE in Tamil Nadu).

Such words, offered in a half-hearted manner, could not conceal the political isolation of Vaiko.

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