Tipping point

How the Sri Lankan Tamils issue progressively pushed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam into breaking its alliance with the Congress.

Published : Apr 03, 2013 00:00 IST

DMK president M. Karunanidhi with Union Ministers A.K. Antony, P. Chidambaram and Ghulam Nabi Azad in Chennai on March 18.

DMK president M. Karunanidhi with Union Ministers A.K. Antony, P. Chidambaram and Ghulam Nabi Azad in Chennai on March 18.

THE writing was on the wall. The rub was that the Congress failed to see it. Ever since the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a constituent of the ruling United Progressive Alliance led by the Congress at the Centre, revived the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation (TESO) in August 2012, there were enough indications that the DMK would use the Sri Lankan Tamil issue to sue the Congress for a divorce.

With the exit of the DMK from the UPA on March 19 and the resignation of the party’s five Ministers from the Union Council of Ministers over the issue the next day, the Congress is friendless in Tamil Nadu today. There have been widespread protests by students and political parties against the Congress after India failed to bring amendments to the United States-backed resolution on Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meeting held in Geneva on March 21. The amendments suggested by political parties and other organisations would have entailed Colombo facing an international investigation into the Sri Lanka Army’s killing of thousands of Tamil civilians in the last days of its war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009. However, none of the amendments was incorporated into the resolution that was ultimately passed at the UNHRC.

But even before the resolution was passed, DMK president and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi had announced on March 19 that his party would pull out of the UPA and the Union government. He alleged that the Government of India “not only allowed the U.S.-sponsored resolution to be greatly watered down” but “did not consider any of the amendments proposed by the DMK”. Amnesty International had alleged that India was in the “background” of the U.S.-backed resolution being “watered down”, Karunanidhi said. On March 21, he quoted G. Ananthapadmanabhan, chief executive of Amnesty International, as having said: “Mrs. Navanethem Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, had stressed that an international investigation must be conducted into the war crimes that took place in Sri Lanka. The U.S. accepted this and included it in its draft resolution. But the demand for ‘international investigation’ had been removed from the resolution in its final form. Sri Lanka will not come under any great pressure because of this amended resolution. India is also behind the U.S.-sponsored resolution being watered down.” Karunanidhi’s comment was pointed. Ananthapadmanabhan’s viewpoints should be “deeply pondered”, he said.

A series of developments on March 25, 26 and 27 made it clear that the Sri Lankan Tamil issue would occupy centre stage in Tamil Nadu politics in the coming months and that the two rival parties, the DMK and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) headed by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, would use it in their game of political one-upmanship. On March 27, the Tamil Nadu Assembly passed a resolution asking India to stop calling Sri Lanka “a friendly country”. The resolution, piloted by Jayalalithaa, demanded that India take steps to move a resolution in the U.N. Security Council for “an independent, international investigation into the genocide [of the Tamils] and the war crimes that took place in Sri Lanka”, that those guilty of war crimes be brought before an international court and punished appropriately, and that an economic embargo be imposed on Sri Lanka until it stopped “the repression of the Tamils”. Besides, it demanded a “referendum” among the Tamils of Sri Lanka and the Tamil diaspora on the formation of Tamil Eelam, an independent homeland for the Tamils of that country.

Jayalalithaa caught up with the DMK within two days of its executive committee meeting to endorse the decision to pull out of the UPA and passed a resolution asking India to boycott the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to be held in Colombo from November 15 to 17. She also wanted the Commonwealth not to hold the meeting at Colombo. She wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urging him “not to attend the CHOGM and the Leaders’ Retreat” to be held in Colombo. Jayalalithaa also wanted India to press for shifting the venue to some other country. Holding the high-profile event in Colombo “would amount to endorsing the present regime in Sri Lanka, which stands accused of committing genocide, war crimes and ongoing human rights abuses against the Sri Lankan Tamils”, she told Manmohan Singh. She said the regime in Colombo had “clearly violated” the Commonwealth’s central credo of democracy and human rights. “Nations have been suspended from the Commonwealth for far less,” she said.

Heat on IPL Jayalalithaa turned the heat on the Indian Premier League (IPL) on March 26 and it decided that no Sri Lankan player would play in the IPL cricket matches to be held in Chennai, Tamil Nadu’s capital, from April. Earlier in the day, she had written to Manmohan Singh that “in view of the popular antipathy and anger in Tamil Nadu against the actions of the Sri Lankan government, the Government of Tamil Nadu is of the view that the IPL matches involving the Sri Lankan players, umpires and other officials should not be played in Tamil Nadu”. Be it the DMK, the AIADMK, the Communist Party of India, the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), the Pattali Makkal Katchi, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) or the Viduthalai Sirthaigal Katchi (VCK, or the Dalit Panthers), the demands were similar. They were that India should “strengthen” the U.S.-backed resolution by getting incorporated into it amendments that the Sri Lanka Army and the administrators in Colombo had committed “genocide and war crimes” against Sri Lankan Tamils; that “an international commission of investigation” should be set up to probe the allegations of war crimes, genocide and violations of international human rights law; and that this international commission should submit its report in a time frame.

Amendments proposed Earlier, Karunanidhi had spelt out in identical letters on March 16 to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi that he was writing the letter “with immense mental agony and a feeling of having been let down by the Government of India” and he wanted India to take steps to incorporate two amendments into the resolution to be brought before the UNHRC. The amendments should declare that “genocide and war crimes” had been committed against “the Eelam Tamils by the Sri Lanka Army and the administrators” and should “urge the establishment of a credible and independent, international Commission of Investigation in a time-bound manner into the allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity, violations of international human rights law, violations of international humanitarian law and the crime of genocide against the Tamil people”. India should ensure that “the perpetrators of war crimes are punished at the International Court of Justice”, the letter said.

Two days later, Jayalalithaa wrote to Manmohan Singh that in the U.S.-backed resolution “there should be an unequivocal call for a credible, independent, international mechanism to prosecute genocide, war crimes and war criminals, and the accused should stand trial before an international court. This process should be completed within a period of six months and the outcome reported for a special discussion in the 25th session of the UNHRC in 2014.”

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) struck an independent note. Its Polit Bureau, on March 16, asked the Government of India to take the stand at the UNHRC meeting that “the Sri Lankan government should agree to a high-level, credible and independent inquiry on the allegations of war crimes committed during the last phase of the civil war”. The CPI(M) modified its demand on March 27. Instead of a “high-level” inquiry, it now insisted that India and the U.N. should pressure Colombo for an “inquiry by international judges into the war crimes” and those found guilty should be punished.

Students’ protest Led by a newly created outfit called “Students’ Federation for the Liberation of Tamil Eelam”, students now took to the streets in a big way. They demanded a referendum in the Tamil areas of the island on the creation of a Tamil Eelam. Besides, they said, India should accept the resolution passed in the State Assembly on June 8, 2011, and clamp down an economic embargo on Sri Lanka.

The political parties and students were angry that despite their appeals, India had failed to move amendments—written or oral—to the final resolution when it came up for voting on March 21. They were annoyed that India had voted for “a watered down” U.S.-sponsored resolution that merely called upon the Sri Lankan government “to conduct an independent and credible investigation into allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, as applicable”.

Karunanidhi called it a “misshapen” and “useless” resolution. He was anguished that “nothing of what we wanted to be included in the U.S. resolution has found a place” in it. He, therefore, called it a watered-down American resolution.

Two days earlier (on March 19 morning), after receiving credible information that none of the amendments sought by the DMK would find a place in the U.S.-sponsored resolution, Karunanidhi turned the tables on the Congress. He announced that the DMK was immediately pulling out of the UPA and that its Ministers would resign from the Union Council of Ministers. For, “situations had been created that will not benefit the Eelam Tamils in any manner and the DMK continuing to be a partner in the government in the Centre, even after this, will greatly harm the Tamils”, he said. That evening, T.R. Baalu, leader of the DMK Parliamentary Party, met President Pranab Mukherjee and handed over a letter stating that the DMK was quitting the UPA. The next morning, five DMK Ministers, including Karunanidhi’s son M.K. Alagiri, resigned.

On March 21, a raid by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on a score of places including the residences of Alagiri and M.K. Stalin, the younger son of Karunanidhi, in Chennai, over evasion of customs duty on imported cars used by the two brothers’ sons made headlines. The searches, coming within two days of the DMK hiving itself off the UPA, gave rise to accusations that they were made out of political vendetta. The Prime Minister and Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram quickly distanced themselves from the raids.

The DMK had been part of the UPA government from 2004. However, a strained relationship prevailed between it and the Congress following the resignation of the DMK’s A. Raja as Union Minister for Communication and Technology in November 2010, his arrest by the CBI on February 1, 2011, and the arrest of Kanimozhi, Rajya Sabha member and daughter of Karunanidhi.

The rift showed up during the 2011 Assembly elections when the Congress bulldozed the DMK into giving it 63 seats, 18 more than in the 2006 elections. The Congress insisted that it would choose these 63 constituencies as well. But the AIADMK-led alliance routed the DMK-Congress combine and Jayalalithaa became the Chief Minister.

TESO’s revival It was against the background of its frosty relationship with the Congress that the DMK revived TESO, which it had founded on May 13, 1985. As a DMK leader said, Karunanidhi obviously wanted to use the revived TESO as “a weapon” to settle scores with the Congress. Stalin, former Deputy Chief Minister, went about galvanising TESO. Karunanidhi “revived TESO to strengthen the support base to resolve the problems of Eelam Tamils”, Stalin explained. TESO in its present form consists of the DMK, the Dravidar Kazhagam led by K. Veeramani and the VCK headed by Thol. Thirumavalavan. Karunanidhi is its chairman.

TESO began its new innings by organising a conference titled “Eelam Tamils’ Livelihood Rights Conference” on August 12, 2012, in Chennai. It ran into trouble with the External Affairs Ministry objecting to the use of the word “Eelam” in the title. This grated on TESO’s leaders. But the Ministry dropped its objection as fast as it had raised it. It, however, wanted the organisers to ensure that “the conference does not issue any declaration” that questioned “the sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of any foreign country with whom India has diplomatic relations”. Addressing the conference, Karunanidhi alleged that “a systematic Sinhalisation” was under way in the Tamil areas of the island and he wanted India to pilot a resolution in the U.N. that would grant Sri Lankan Tamils the right to decide their political future. Fourteen resolutions were passed in the conference. Stalin and Baalu handed over copies of the resolutions to U.N. officials in New York, the UNHRC official in Geneva and member-countries of the UNHRC.

From then on, TESO has struck a high profile, with Stalin leading its campaign for justice to Sri Lankan Tamils. On February 8, 2013, the students’ wing of the party along with TESO organised a demonstration to protest against Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to India. Hundreds of TESO volunteers, led by Karunanidhi and Stalin, wearing black shirts, took part in the protest. Karunanidhi accused Rajapaksa of attempting to destroy the Tamil culture on the island. TESO then turned its attention towards the Sri Lanka Navy killing fishermen from Tamil Nadu, with Stalin addressing a large gathering of affected fishermen at Rameswaram and Nagapattinam on February 18 and 19.

But what led to a groundswell of public and political anger and triggered widespread agitation by students in Tamil Nadu were three pictures of LTTE leader V. Prabakaran’s 12-year-old son, Balachandran, published in The Hindu of February 19, showing him in custody in a Sri Lanka Army bunker before being shot dead. The first picture shows Balachandran sitting on a bench in a military bunker and looking up anxiously. In the second, he is seen eating biscuits. In the third picture, Balachandran is lying on the ground with five bullet wounds on his chest.

Channel 4 in the United Kingdom, which originally released these pictures, said the first two were taken hours before the boy was shot dead in the closing stages of the war between the Sri Lanka Army and the LTTE in May 2009. These pictures formed part of the evidence in a documentary film, No War Zone: the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka , directed by Callum Macrae. He asserted that the three pictures of Prabakaran’s son were taken by the same camera and indicated that he was killed in custody.

In an op-ed page article “The killing of a young boy”, published in The Hindu on February 19, Macrae said the film would be shown in March in Geneva to coincide with the UNHRC meeting. “The new evidence in the film is certain to increase pressure on the Indian government not only to support a resolution on Sri Lanka and accountability, but also to ensure that it is robustly worded, and that it outlines an effective plan for international action to end impunity in Sri Lanka,” said Macrae.

TESO capitalised on the pictures to put New Delhi and Colombo on the mat. On March 5, its volunteers picketed the office of the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner in Chennai, demanding that it should be shut down. It organised a conference on “The Persecution of the Sri Lankan Tamils” in New Delhi on March 7. TESO invited the Congress to take part in the conference.

Issue snowballs With protests in Tamil Nadu snowballing and anger mounting against the UPA government, which had been perceived as shielding Colombo from being investigated for its war crimes, the Congress realised that the tide was turning against it. That this was happening when the Lok Sabha elections were just a year away made it even more nervous. Congress members of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha from Tamil Nadu, including Union Ministers P. Chidambaram, G.K. Vasan and Jayanthi Natarajan, and Tamil Nadu Congress Committee president B.S. Gnanadesikan met the party’s vice-president Rahul Gandhi in New Delhi in the first week of March. They apprised him of the public opinion in Tamil Nadu, which was against Colombo after the publication of the news of the cold-blooded killing of Balachandran, and the anger at the UPA government. They sought his permission to attend the TESO conference in New Delhi. Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad and several Congress Members of Parliament from Tamil Nadu attended it.

Stalin, who presided over the conference, referred to the “execution in cold blood” of Prabakaran’s son and said the Channel 4 documentary exposed “serious crimes of summary execution, killing, torture and violence against the Tamil fighters committed by the Sri Lankan Army”.

He alleged that Rajapaksa had waged “a genocidal war against the Tamils” and wanted the world community to think about holding “a credible, independent, international inquiry into all the events in Sri Lanka”. He added: “A lasting political solution lies in a referendum.” This was the first time that the DMK had put forth its demand for an international investigation against Colombo into its war crimes against the Tamils on the island. From then on, the demand has held centre stage.

After March 7, things began moving at a rapid pace. TESO’s call for a State-wide bandh on March 12 evoked a partial response. Several political parties stepped up their demand for an international investigation into the “genocide” of the Tamils. What made the DMK suspect the Congress’ motives was the Centre’s reluctance to spell out what stand it would take on the U.S.-backed resolution.

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid kept hedging his bets and said India would take “the best decision” on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC meeting and that he wanted reconciliation and “accountability” on the island. All that Khurshid would again say in the Rajya Sabha on March 15 was that there should be an impartial and “transparent” inquiry into the allegations of atrocities against the Tamils. The Minister’s observations angered Karunanidhi.

Meanwhile, the political atmosphere became volatile with a sharp, assertive statement from Karunanidhi on March 15 that it would become “meaningless” for the DMK to continue in the Union Ministry if the Centre did not meet the DMK’s demand that India move amendments to the U.S.-backed resolution. Karunanidhi justified it by saying that the Union government had taken no steps either on the DMK’s initial demand that India pilot a resolution in the UNHRC seeking an international investigation into the genocide or its subsequent demand that India at least bring suitable amendments to the U.S.-sponsored resolution.

The government at the Centre ignored the DMK president’s threat. Karunanidhi reiterated his demand on March 16. K. Veeramani, secretary, Dravidar Kazhagam, warned “big brother Congress” that it would pay a heavy political price if it failed to see the writing on the wall. But there was no word from the Congress. On March 17, Karunanidhi signalled that he meant business. He told reporters that if the Centre “does not accept our demands, it is doubtful whether our relationship with the alliance will continue. It is certain it will not.”

Congress-DMK parleys The Congress high command hurriedly despatched Defence Minister A.K. Antony, Chidambaram and Azad to Chennai. They held parleys with Karunanidhi and the DMK’s general secretary K. Anbazhagan and other leaders Durai Murugan and Baalu on March 18 evening. Sparks flew in that meeting. The Union Ministers were taken aback when Karunanidhi upped the ante. He demanded that the amendments he had suggested be passed in the form of a resolution in Parliament too and that this resolution be sent to the UNHRC to be incorporated in the U.S.-sponsored resolution.

While a shocked Azad said the DMK could not make new demands, Chidambaram reportedly said the Congress had earned a bad name in New Delhi because of its association with the DMK. This angered Karunanidhi, who retorted that the DMK had paid a heavy price for its continuing alliance with the Congress. He accused Chidambaram and the then External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee of “misleading” him on April 27, 2009, when he went on a “fast unto death”, stating that Colombo had ended the war against the LTTE and that the Sri Lanka Army would not use heavy weapons any more. (Karunanidhi’s fast was to press for a ceasefire between the Sri Lanka army and the LTTE.)

Even as the talks turned turbulent, Azad went to a nearby room and rang up Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary, Ahmed Patel. While Azad did not reveal to reporters in Chennai that Karunanidhi had made a new demand that a resolution be passed in Parliament too, Karunanidhi claimed that the Central team had “assured” him that it would be met.

On March 19 morning, Karunanidhi acted quickly. He announced that the DMK was immediately pulling out of the UPA and the Union Ministry. The Congress was taken aback by this. This was before Chidambaram told reporters in New Delhi that Karunanidhi’s proposed amendments to the U.S.-backed resolution and a resolution in Parliament, and also Jayalalithaa’s letter dated March 18 to the Prime Minister, were “under consideration”.

A puzzled Chidambaram said he did not know what happened “between last night and this morning” so as to bring about the DMK’s decision. Chidambaram described it as a “canard” that India was behind the watered-down U.S. resolution in the UNHRC meeting.

In an angry statement, Karunanidhi blamed the Centre for the dilution of the U.S.-sponsored resolution. He said: “When the Rajapaksa government’s war crimes and genocide have become the subject of international debate, India, which boasts that it is the biggest democracy in the world, not knowing the depth of the issue, its standing aside without realising the consequences or expressing contrary opinion, are tantamount to anti-democratic acts and blocking the path of dharma chosen by Mahatma Gandhi in India and Chelva in Sri Lanka.

If people expected that the Government of India would take decisions in the UNHRC that would warm their cockles, it acted akin to the horse which not only threw off its rider but dug the soil under him…. The DMK is, therefore, pulling out of the UPA and the Union Ministry.” He also ruled out supporting the UPA from outside.

No sooner had the news of the DMK’s exit from the UPA spread than DMK cadres broke into celebration at the party headquarters. They exploded firecrackers, danced with joy and shouted slogans against Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram. Young DMK cadres lined up to present sweets, fruits and bouquets to Stalin. DMK’s youth wing members were happy that Karunanidhi had done now what he should have done in 2008.

Stalin said: “I am as happy as the DMK cadres are. My feelings are akin to what the Tamils all over the world are experiencing now.” Kanimozhi said, “We were disappointed by the final resolution [to be tabled in the UNHRC on March 21]. What was expected was not there. So we had no choice [but to get out of the UPA].”

DMK leader K.S. Radhakrishnan said Karunanidhi decided to walk out of the UPA because the DMK had already paid a heavy price twice. First, it was defeated in the 1991 Assembly elections after the Congress and the AIADMK had spread lies blaming the DMK for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, then Congress president. In 2008/2009, the popular perception was that if the DMK members in Parliament in the UPA government had resigned, India would have been forced to bring about a ceasefire between the LTTE and the Sri Lanka Army, and the LTTE could have been saved from defeat. So the DMK did not want to dilly-dally now, Radhakrishnan said.

Congress leaders admitted that the party high command had “mishandled” the issue and “taken the DMK for granted”. One of them said: “We did not think about the fallout from a political angle. We did not think about its impact during the elections”. He confessed that the Congress, given the emotive appeal that the Sri Lankan Tamils issue has in Tamil Nadu, remained “isolated” in the State now.

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