As the Jayalalithaa government jails fringe figure P. Nedumaran under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, pro-LTTE elements find themselves hopelessly isolated among the people of Tamil Nadu.
THE arrest of P. Nedumaran, president of the Tamil Nationalist Movement, and the demand by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa made to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee to remove Union Minister M. Kannappan, are two clear signals. They are signals that there will be no let-up in her government's moves against supporters of the banned Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). As in the case of Vaiko, the general secretary of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), Nedumaran was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) for making speeches in support of the LTTE at public meetings. Vaiko was arrested on July 11 at the Chennai airport for his observations at a public meeting at Tirumangalam near Madurai where he made it plain that his support to the LTTE would continue.
The Union government proscribed the LTTE in May 1992 under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for its involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1991. LTTE leader V. Prabakaran is the main accused in the assassination case and has been declared a proclaimed offender. The LTTE has been proclaimed a terrorist organisation under POTA.
The police arrested Nedumaran on the night of August 1 from his home in Mylapore, Chennai. The arrest came in the wake of a speech he made at a public meeting in Chennai on April 13. He had announced that he would not be cowed down by Jayalalithaa's threat to use POTA against supporters of the LTTE. Nedumaran was produced before the Designated Judge for POTA, L. Rajendran, who remanded him to judicial custody till August 28. Nedumaran was lodged in the Central Prison, at Cuddalore, about 200 km from Chennai. As he was being taken into custody, he said that if he was being arrested for trying to bring about unity among Tamils the world over, he would gladly accept it. He added: "The Tamil Nadu government has given me this reward for supporting Sri Lankan Tamils... I will continue to support the LTTE."
The April 13 meeting, organised by a forum called the Tamil Clarion Call, was held in the backdrop of Prabakaran's April 10 press conference at Kilinochchi and Jayalalithaa's subsequent threat to use POTA against LTTE supporters. At her initiative, the Assembly passed a resolution on April 16 demanding that the Indian Army be sent to Sri Lanka to capture Prabakaran with the help of the Sri Lankan Army and that he be extradited to India to stand trial in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case.
Addressing the meeting, Nedumaran said: "We are being threatened that the National Security Act and POTA will be used against us. We are not new to repressive laws and spending time in prison." He demanded that the Tamil Nadu government permit A.S. Balasingham, Political Adviser to the LTTE supremo, to receive medical treatment in the State. This was after Jayalalithaa firmly opposed such a suggestion. Just as the meeting got under way came the news that J. Shahul Hameed, who sold Nedumaran's books on the LTTE including one entitled Tamil Eelam is Becoming Red, was arrested on charges of sedition. The police then registered a case against Nedumaran.
A DAY after Nedumaran's arrest, Jayalalithaa wrote to Vajpayee demanding the removal of Kannappan from the Union Ministry because he was "fanatically supporting an organisation" that had been categorised as a terrorist organisation under POTA. She listed the series of public meetings and press conferences in which Kannappan had declared support to the LTTE. She asked the Prime Minister whether a Union Minister could violate the law and support a banned organisation openly. She pointed out that a Minister took the oath not only to uphold the integrity of the country but also to discharge his duties in accordance with the Constitution and the law.
The letter led to speculation whether Kannappan would be arrested. An unfazed Kannappan asserted: "I will legally meet it if I am arrested." He argued that there was no logic in the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister's demand for his removal because the MDMK was only giving "moral support" to the LTTE. "We are not supporting the LTTE's activities in India. We are not asking for arms to be supplied to it," he asserted.
Nedumaran's arrest and the demand for Kannappan's removal made several Opposition parties allege that Jayalalithaa was misusing POTA to muzzle the Opposition and to divert people's attention from her government's failures on many fronts. The Chief Minister's efforts to portray herself as a fearless opponent of the LTTE and a strong proponent of the country's integrity have made the MDMK, the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Dalit Panthers and the Tamil nationalist groups accuse her of undermining the unity of Tamils the world over and sabotaging the current peace process between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.
Nedumaran, who was a Congressman in the 1960s and 1970s, began supporting the LTTE from 1983. He visited the Tamil areas in Sri Lanka in 1981, 1985, 1987 and 1990, and also met Prabakaran. He has written books on the Sri Lankan Tamils' struggle. He led a campaign to reduce the death sentences awarded to four of the accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. Later, along with some Tamil nationalists, he played a key role in the release of Kannada film actor Rajkumar who was abducted by forest brigand Veerappan.
Nedumaran also played a leading role in the launch of an organisation called the World Tamils' Federation in Chennai on July 21. In an obvious reference to Vaiko's arrest, Nedumaran then said that the Sri Lankan Tamils' struggle should not be belittled for political ends. At the meeting, Sri Lanka's Non-Cabinet Minister for Community Development, P. Chandrasekaran, created a stir when he said that "thousands of Vaikos and Nedumarans" should be moulded and persons with Tamil nationalistic feelings, akin to theirs, should be fostered. Chandrasekaran argued that the Sri Lankan Tamil problem was not an issue confined to the LTTE or Prabakaran but affected the lives of 35 lakh Tamils. Chandrasekaran said: "No leader can speak of world Tamils without mentioning the Sri Lankan Tamils." He appealed to Chief Minister Jayalalithaa to release Vaiko and Nedumaran and thus "falsify the view that her actions are born out of her failure to understand this reality".
Nedumaran was reportedly planning, after meeting Vaiko in the Vellore Central Prison on July 24, to challenge Vaiko's detention under POTA. Asked about the possibility of himself, PMK founder Dr. S. Ramadoss and the Dalit Panthers leader R. Thirumavalavan being arrested under POTA for their support to the LTTE, Nedumaran replied: "It is good. We will also go to jail and take rest there." The next day, Jayalalithaa announced that her government was examining the speeches made at the inaugural meeting of the World Tamils' Federation for any pro-LTTE slant in them. When Nedumaran was arrested under POTA, it was for a speech made on April 13 for which a case had already been registered.
On August 8, the Tamil Nadu police searched the residences of Vaiko and Nedumaran. The MDMK party headquarters and the houses of other MDMK party functionaries held under POTA, were also searched.
Some political observers speculate that although Jayalalithaa has consistently opposed the LTTE after it assassinated Rajiv Gandhi and also worked hard for its proscription, the arrests and the demand to sack Kannappan were part of a political plan. The MDMK is a constituent of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre, spearheaded by the Bharatiya Janata Party. The MDMK has two members in the Union Cabinet, including Kannappan and Gingee N. Ramachandran (who is the Union Minister of State for Finance). The BJP claims to be firmly opposed to the LTTE. The speculation is that the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister is trying to create a wedge in the NDA by raising the issue of support to the LTTE, and if possible, manoeuvre the MDMK's exit. Then the AIADMK, if it so decided, could work its way into the NDA, and in the process engineer the exit of the DMK.
Since the arrests concerned the support extended to the LTTE, the BJP could neither actively oppose nor support the action. "She wants to embarrass the BJP by these actions," an informed observer noted.
Several political leaders, including DMK president M. Karunanidhi, State secretary of the Communist Party of India R. Nallakannu, and Dr. Ramadoss are convinced that the arrests are meant to cover up the AIADMK government's failures on several fronts. The State government's finances are in a mess. Several decisions of the Education Department have been reversed with the same speed with which they were taken. The cheap liquor scheme, which was introduced to prevent illicit liquor deaths, was abandoned. Hundreds of small-scale industries have closed down. Thousands of handloom weavers are jobless after the AIADMK government stopped the 'free sari and dhoti' scheme. When the DMK opened gruel centres for the hapless weavers, it embarrassed the Jayalalithaa government no end. Her partymen, as a counter-measure, arranged "biriyani" feasts for the starving weavers. Her handling of the Cauvery issue lacked finesse. Drought has begun to stalk the State. Politically, she has no significant allies at the moment.
However, by using a newly available draconian law against fringe elements in Tamil Nadu's politics - those who express extremist support for a banned terrorist organisation - she appears to have seized the initiative. The arrested leaders are politically isolated, pursuing a hopelessly unpopular cause. In fact, the Congress(I), the Tamil Maanila Congress and the Janata Party have enthusiastically supported the action taken against Vaiko and Nedumaran. Supporting the LTTE has never been more unpopular in Tamil Nadu politics than it is today.