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Sign of the Times in Tamil Nadu

by TamilNet, September 17, 2007

Although the activists failed to make the crossing, their protest was well planned and had drawn the support of parties and figures representing a wide spectrum of the political mainstream in Tamil Nadu.

None of the local or national parties in Tamil Nadu opposed or criticised the TESCC’s declared intent to enter Sri Lanka.

The TESCC’s efforts have also been successful in generating further publicity and political attention for the Eelam issue.

Veteran Tamil Nadu activist Pazha Nedumaran’s attempted crossing of the Palk Straits in a bid to deliver emergency relief to Sri Lanka’s Tamils was thwarted last week when he and hundreds of volunteers were arrested. Whilst the attempted crossing and its ‘failure’ has been dismissed, especially in Sri Lanka’s south, as a stunt by mavericks on the fringe of Tamil Nadu’s politics, the event has both highlighted and boosted resurgent support in the south Indian state for the Sri Lankan Tamils’ cause.

Pzha. Nedumaran and his parti members

Nedumaran began his protest fast last Wednesday after he was arrested, along with 300 volunteers from the Tamil Eelam Supporters Coordination Committee (TESCC) as they attempted to cross the Palk Straits at Nagapittinam.

On Saturday he called off the fast after Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi wrote to him assuring that all steps would be undertaken to ensure that the relief supplies reach the Sri Lankan Tamils.

Whilst media reports in Sri Lanka have generally interpreted the attempted crossing as a failure in light of the early arrests of Nedumaran and TESCC activists, who have been portrayed as maverick figures of the political fringe attempting an illegal entry into Sri Lankan waters, the impact of the event in Tamil Nadu has been quite different.

Although the activists failed to make the crossing, their protest was well planned and had drawn the support of parties and figures representing a wide spectrum of the political mainstream in Tamil Nadu.

None of the local or national parties in Tamil Nadu opposed or criticised the TESCC’s declared intent to enter Sri Lanka.

The TESCC’s efforts have also been successful in generating further publicity and political attention for the Eelam issue.

Indeed, the events surrounding the attempted crossing and the responses from other political actors in Tamil Nadu to the TESCC’s humanitarian efforts reveals a great deal about the place of the Eelam issue in Tamil Nadu politics.

Furthermore, these events and reactions suggests that Tamil Nadu’s press, which routinely covers the Ealam issue in neutral or even hostile tones, is not a good indicator of popular sentiments – sentiments which Tamil Nadu’s parties are well aware of.

Pzha. Nedumaran and his parti members

The TESCC, an umbrella group comprising a number of Tamil organisations, had collected relief material worth Rs. 1 crore ($2.5 million) for Tamils living under Sri Lankan government imposed embargoes in the north eastern areas of the island.

After repeated attempts to deliver the humanitarian supplies through the official channels of the Indian Red Cross failed, the TESCC declared in August this year it would cross the Palk Straits itself to deliver the aid.

Even as it organised the crossing, the TESCC openly acknowledged that the act would be illegal and the probability of arrests.

The TESCC’s main objective in courting arrest was to raise awareness in Tamil Nadu of the humanitarian crises facing Sri Lanka’s Tamils and to keep the Eelam issue firmly in the public eye.

TESCC volunteers attempted the well - publicized crossing after travelling across Tamil Nadu and holding public meetings to explain the intent of their protest.

Volunteers from the TESCC were divided into two groups, with one group led by Nedumaran, traveling from Trichy to Nagapattinam while a second group proceeded from Madurai to Rameshwaram to attempt the crossing to Mannar.

While addressing a public meeting at Thanjavore, en route to Nagapattinam, Pazha Nedumaran made it clear that the volunteers expected to be arrested.

"We know what will happen to us. But we are ready to make any sacrifice to save Sri Lankan Tamils," Nedumaran said.

Some analysts said the publicity of mass arrest was the TESCC’s central objective.

They referred to Mahatma Gandhi’s flagrant violation of the Colonial ‘Salt Laws’ which prohibited Indians from mining salt – an activity deemed a British monopoly. In the famous 1930 ‘Salt March’, Gandhi led a group of Indians to the salt plains at Dandi to mine salt in defiance of the laws. They were all promptly arrested, triggering widespread anger and a civil disobedience campaign.

It is not accidental, analysts said, that Nedumaran and the TESCC were using the language of ‘civil disobedience’ to describe their planned crossing when publishing it.

What is notable about the event, therefore, is how Nedumaran and the TESCC have also won support from parties across the Tamil Nadu political scene.

Parties like the MDMK, PMK and the Dalit Panthers of India, that are known for their solidarity with the Eelam Tamils took part in the TESCC’s efforts.

Although small, these parties play an active part in politics both at the State and Union level. The PMK is a member of India’s current United Front Government and holds the important Health Ministry.

Similarly, the MDMK was a member of the previous BJP led ruling coalition, the National Democratic Alliance.

The Dalit Panthers of India represents a new and important force in Tamil Nadu politics and is currently supporting the DMK government in the Tamil Nadu State Assembly.

Significantly, the TESCC protest and Nedumaran’s fast also drew vocal support from a number of major local and national parties.

Alongside the Tamil Nadu Parties, national parties like the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the formerly ruling BJP expressed their solidarity Nedumaran. His protest also received support from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) CPI-M, well known for its stand against Tamil Eelam.

State CPI-M secretary N Varadarajan in a statement urged the Centre to allow relief material to be sent to the island Tamils.

The veteran CPI leader R Nallakannu, state CPI secretary D Pandian and BJP leader and former Union minister S Thirunavukkarasar, besides some Tamil scholars and film directors, also visited Nedumaran during his fast.

The MDMK, PMK and DPI were actively involved in the TESCC’s event.

While the Madurai campaign was launched by PMK leader Ramdoss, the Tiruchirappalli campaign was launched by MDMK leader Vaiko. DPI General Secretary, Thol Thirumavlavan received the group traveling to Nagapittinam while the second group was received in Rameshwaram by the Indian National League leader Basheer Ahamad.

The Indian National League is an all India Muslim based political party that is beginning to have an important presence in Tamil Nadu, entering into coalition agreements with both the DMK and the AIADMK.

The fluid coalition politics of Tamil Nadu has meant that there is no simple line dividing the parties on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue.

The PMK and the MDMK, have both joined coalitions headed by leading parties and arch rivals AIADMK and the DMK.

Although the AIADMK, particularly its leader J. Jeyalalitha has a reputation, especially in Sri Lanka, as being strongly anti Eelam, in the 2006 state assembly elections stridently pro-Eelam MDMK contested as part of the AIADMK led coalition.

The DMK led coalition during the 2006 State Assembly elections included the INC, CPI and the pro-Eelam PMK.

Importantly the Dravida Kazhagam, the intellectual source of all the Dravidian parties and the moral guardian of the Dravidian movement as a whole, has been an active advocate of the Eelam Tamil issue.

Senior members of the highly respected DK have led agitations and protests against the Sri Lankan government’s treatment of the Tamils there.

Paradoxically, while political parties which have been vocal in their support of the Eelam issue are part of the Tamil Nadu political mainstream, the press coverage of the Sri Lankan conflict is generally either neutral or unabashedly pro Colombo.

The coverage of the Sri Lankan conflict by The Hindu, an important south Indian English language paper, is generally recognised to have a strident anti Eelam bias.

And even whilst not so openly biased, the mass circulation Tamil language dailies tend to take a neutral or slightly pro Sri Lankan government position on their reporting of the war.

This discrepancy between the sentiments towards the Eelam issue on the street and press coverage is, according to by south Indian political analysts, an accepted part of the political landscape.

As one analyst put it, ‘everyone knows that what actually happens in Tamil Nadu and what gets reported in the Tamil Nadu press are two different things.’

The Tamil Nadu press reporting of the Eelam Tamil issue is widely thought to be influenced by both political and economic pressures.

The politics of the press, as much as the politics it reports is a favourite topic of politically literate conversation amongst both the middle classes and at the ubiquitous and popular tea - shops.

Tamil journalists say fear of breaching India’s anti terrorism legislation was important in checking the tone of their reporting on Eelam-related issues.

Interestingly, reports of local journalists being paid handsomely by EPDP leader Douglas Devananda to adopt an anti Eelam bias are regularly heard. The paramilitary leader makes regular private visits to Chennai and operates out of five star hotel suites, some journalists say.

Despite the press coverage, the Eelam issue continues to be live in south Indian politics stemming from what analysts say is widespread sympathy for the suffering of the Sri Lankan Tamils.

In December 2005, the then Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jeyalalitha cancelled a meeting with the newly elected Sri Lankan President Rajapakse who was on his first official tour to India.

According to sources close to the AIADMK leadership, the meeting was cancelled with a view to the forthcoming Tamil Nadu State Assembly elections in May 2006; it was felt that meeting the hard line Sinhala nationalist President would not play well with the Tamil Nadu electorate.

Political parties in Tamil Nadu have often found it difficult to ignore public sentiment on the Eelam issue.

In August 2006, when the Sri Lankan Air Force bombed the Chencholai children’s home in Sri Lanka, killing 52 school girls and wounding 129 others, the Tamil Nadu state assembly, reflecting widespread public anger, passed a resolution condemning the act as ‘uncivilized and inhumane.’

With no official reaction elsewhere in the world, some Tamil observers noted the similarity in reactions to the 1983 anti Tamil pogrom. The event provoked widespread protests in Tamil Nadu amidst complete silence from the rest of the world.

The DMK has also been publicly supportive of the Eelam Tamil cause. Then Mozhli, daughter of the DMK chief minister Karunanidhi and currently Rajya Sabha member was vocal in the protests against the Chencholai massacre.

DMK leader and current Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi, as the then leader of the opposition, visited Vaiko, the leader of the MDMK, in November 2002 while he was serving a prison term charged with making speeches supportive of the banned LTTE.

Senior MDMK sources say Karunanidhi’s visit was intended to demonstrate sympathy with the MDMK stance on the Eelam issue.

Then recently, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister sent a warm note of condolence to Adele Balasingham, wife of Anton Balasingham after the LTTE Chief Negotiator and Political Strategist’s demise in December 2006.

The widespread support from mainstream political parties extended to Pazha Nedumaran and the TESCC protest last week reflects the importance of the Eelam issue in Tamil Nadu.

Their attempted crossing of the Palk Strait unveils the complex relationship between Tamil Nadu politics and the Sri Lankan conflict.

Whilst successive Sri Lankan governments have focused exclusively on building a good relationship with the press, it is the suffering of island’s Tamils that underpins sympathy and support in south India.

It is in that context the attempted crossing should be understood. The event has heightened sentiments in Tamil Nadu around Colombo’s denial of food and other emergency supplies to the Tamils of Sri Lanka.

Conversely, the high profile agitation in Tamil Nadu is serving to ameliorate what many Tamils see as their deliberate isolation by the rest of the international community.

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