Buckling under pressure

Print edition : December 13, 2013

A rail blockade at Coimbatore Junction on November 12 by Tamil activist groups pressing for India's boycott of the CHOGM in Colombo. Photo: S. SIVA SARAVANAN

Tamil Nadu political parties, including sections of the Congress, force the Prime Minister to skip the CHOGM in Colombo.

IN the latest stand-off between the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and the political parties in Tamil Nadu on the Sri Lankan Tamils issue, what stood out was the unusual step of four Union Ministers of the Congress from Tamil Nadu and Puducherry in telling Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that he should not attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo. The Ministers who did so were P. Chidambaram, G.K. Vasan, Jayanthi Natarajan (all from Tamil Nadu) and V. Narayanasamy (from the Union Territory of Puducherry). Backing them was Defence Minister A.K. Antony. Opposed to these Ministers were External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, Minister of State for Commerce E.M. Sudarsana Natchiappan, also from Tamil Nadu, and State Congress Committee president B.S. Gnanadesikan.

Political calculations obviously weighed with Chidambaram, Vasan, Narayanasamy and Jayanthi Natarajan when they took the stand that Manmohan Singh should not attend the summit. The Union Ministers unambiguously told the Prime Minister that “the sentiments of the people of Tamil Nadu were against his attending the CHOGM”. It would not be easy for the Congress, which has no allies in Tamil Nadu at present, to face the coming Lok Sabha elections, the Ministers told him. They feared that their party would get even more isolated if he were to go to Colombo.

Vasan was forthright in his views about how strong the “sentiments of the people of Tamil Nadu” were on the Sri Lanka Army’s killing of Tamil civilians and why the Prime Minister should not go to Colombo. Vasan reminded Manmohan Singh that Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa was not prepared to help the Tamils despite the war on the island getting over. “We [India] are giving so much of aid to Sri Lanka. But Rajapaksa has not devolved power to the Northern Tamil province. He has diluted the 13th amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution. He wants to treat the Tamils as second-class citizens. The Congress will be isolated from the people of Tamil Nadu if you go to Colombo to attend the CHOGM,” Vasan reportedly told the Prime Minister.

Political parties in Tamil Nadu demand that Colombo should face 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 and that those responsible for the war crimes should be punished. The issue had erupted in a big way in Tamil Nadu in February and March this year with a series of protests by students and political parties against the Centre when India failed to bring amendments to the United States-backed resolution against Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meeting held in Geneva on March 21. These political parties and organisations wanted India to bring amendments to the resolution that would have forced Colombo to face an international investigation into its killing of Tamil civilians in May 2009. The issue was serious enough for the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), then a partner in the UPA government, to walk out of the UPA in March 2013. On receiving credible information that India had incorporated none of the amendments sought by the DMK in the U.S.-sponsored resolution, the party’s president and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi announced on March 19 the DMK’s pull-out from the UPA and the resignation of DMK members from the Union Council of Ministers. This left the Congress in Tamil Nadu bereft of friends and allies. On March 21, India voted for “a watered down” U.S.-sponsored resolution which merely wanted Colombo “to conduct an independent and credible investigation into allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, as applicable”.

The issue has returned to centre stage and the DMK is fully on the offensive against the Congress. The Prime Minister’s decision not to attend the CHOGM in Colombo and delegate External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid hardly mollified political parties in Tamil Nadu, be it the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the opposition DMK, the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and so on, who were united in their demand that India should boycott the CHOGM. Karunanidhi had insisted that “even a twig from India should not go to Sri Lanka”. He had also warned the Congress on October 31 that “after all this opposition, if the Congress Core Group were to decide that either the Prime Minister or somebody representing India will take part in the conference at Colombo, then that party [the Congress] will have to face the consequences”.

The Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation (TESO), with Karunanidhi as its chairman, pilloried the Congress for its decision to send Khurshid to Colombo. What helped Karunanidhi to fire a fusillade of grapeshot at the Congress was British Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to Jaffna during the CHOGM and his commiserating with the suffering Tamils there, his promise to “shine a light on the chilling events” of May 2009, and his serving of a virtual ultimatum on Rajapaksa.

TESO resolution

A TESO resolution pointed out that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, who had no direct links with the Sri Lankan Tamil issue, had thought it fit to express such strong views on Colombo’s war crimes against the Tamils. Besides, the Prime Ministers of Canada, Mauritius and Trinidad had declined to attend the CHOGM in Colombo, citing Colombo’s human rights violations. But the decision of India, which had the liberty and duty to speak up for the island’s Tamils, to send Khurshid to take part in the CHOGM “cannot be justified in any way”, the resolution asserted. India’s decision not only hurt the entire Tamil community but was tantamount to India giving a shoulder to “Rajapaksa who wants to destroy the Tamil race”, the resolution added. TESO wanted Parliament to pass a resolution demanding an international investigation into Sri Lanka’s human rights violations and war crimes against the Tamils of the island.

If Manmohan Singh had not taken part in the CHOGM in deference to the sentiments of the people of Tamil Nadu, why did he not mention it in his letter to Rajapaksa, Karunanidhi asked Manmohan Singh. Even China, which was friendly towards Colombo, wanted the island’s government to take steps to protect human rights. “But did our External Affairs Minister, who went to Sri Lanka, ever speak out?” asked Karunanidhi.

The ruling AIADMK also seized on the issue to put the UPA government on the mat. In less than three weeks, the Tamil Nadu Assembly passed two resolutions, first on October 24 and then on November 24, asking India to boycott the CHOGM. The Assembly passed the resolution unanimously on October 24, with all the parties, including the Congress, backing it. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, who piloted the resolution that day, accused the Centre of showing not even an iota of respect to the sentiments of the people of Tamil Nadu on the issue. The resolution said: “India, respecting opinion and sentiments of the people of Tamil Nadu, should totally boycott the Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka. There should not even be a token representation on behalf of India.” It further said India should “take steps to suspend Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth till Colombo took steps to ensure that Tamils lived freely and on equal terms with the Sinhalese”.

Dr S. Ramadoss, PMK leader, attacked the resolution on the grounds that it did not spell out any action plan. In the past, the Assembly had passed two resolutions—one demanding an economic embargo on the island and another demanding a referendum amongst the Tamils on the creation of Tamil Eelam. But the Centre took no action on the resolutions, he said. Ramadoss, therefore, wanted Jayalalithaa to head an all-party delegation to meet Manmohan Singh and pressure him to fulfil the demands made in the latest resolution. Then came the Congress’ decision on November 9 that the Prime Minister will not go to Colombo but Khurshid will represent India in the meeting. This prompted some parties to call for a “rail-roko” agitation on November 12.

Angered that the Centre had given short shrift to the October 24 Assembly resolution, the AIADMK government announced, giving short notice, that the Assembly would meet again on November 12. The Assembly’s only agenda on that day was to pass a resolution again, reiterating the earlier demand that India should have nothing to do with the CHOGM in Colombo. The November 12 resolution rued that the Centre, contrary to the demands made in the earlier Assembly resolution on October 24, had decided to send a delegation headed by Khurshid to attend the CHOGM. India’s decision was tantamount to its “accepting and recognising the inhuman acts of the Sri Lankan government”, it said. Besides, it would enable the island’s President to become the Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth for two years, the resolution said.

Congress, Communist Party of India (Marxist), PMK and Puthiya Tamilagam legislators, who supported the October 24 resolution, did not take part in the voice vote on November 12. While the Congress legislators opposed the resolution, the CPI(M) members said there was no need for a second resolution when the Assembly had already passed a similar one on October 24.

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