Map of Sri Lanka: iStock
Map of Sri Lanka: iStock

On September 20, Tamil Nadu’s ruling All India Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) declared that the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Congress party were responsible for the genocide in Sri Lanka and demanded that the DMK and Congress be tried as “international war criminals.” The AIADMK’s charge was dismissed by the DMK as blatantly political as it was made immediately following the allegation of “corruption” within the ruling party.

AIADMK’s apparent rationale for raising the issue of war crimes and genocide at this point in time was based on so-called “revelations” by former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Earlier in September, during his visit to India, Rajapaksa had wanted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to renew the “abiding friendship” forged between Sri Lanka and India during the final war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This seemed enough for the AIADMK to remind the people of the DMK‘s complicity in the atrocities committed during the war as it was then a major ally of the ruling Congress party at the center.

Indeed, there is much to suggest that the Sri Lankan regime was guilty of war crimes and even genocide. The report by the UN Panel of Experts Report had estimated in 2011 that the number of civilians killed was around 40,000. In her book Still Counting the Dead Frances Harrison, a former BBC journalist, had identified war crimes that included luring civilians into so-called “safety zones” and then deliberately bombing these areas. Sri Lanka’s war crimes were also exposed by No Fire Zone, an Emmy-nominated feature documentary released in November 2013. In its report dated September 29, the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) had identified the use of cluster bombs by the Sri Lankan air force, also a war crime.

Pointedly ignoring that the invitation to Rajapaksa had been extended by Subramanian Swamy, a senior MP of the Bharathiya Janatha Party (BJP) ruling at the center, Tamil Nadu’s head of the BJP, Tamilisai Soundarrajan, weighed in, saying that the DMK and Congress had committed war crimes.

The inclination of Tamil Nadu’s politicians and political parties to evoke the plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamils to gain political mileage is nothing new

This, in turn, has evoked a sharp reaction from the DMK, prompting its spokesperson KS Radhakrishnan to question why Prime Minister Modi had welcomed Rajapaksa, widely regarded in Tamil Nadu as the perpetrator of war crimes committed against Sri Lanka’s Tamils.

The inclination of Tamil Nadu’s politicians and political parties to evoke the plight of Sri Lanka’s Tamils to gain political mileage is nothing new. Both the AIADMK and the DMK, the major political parties, have routinely exploited this issue to gain political support.

Before its implosion following the untimely death of its charismatic leader, Jayalalithaa Jeyaram, the AIADMK had established itself as the champion of Sri Lanka’s Tamils. The AIADMK was able to obliterate the DMK in the May 2011 State Elections because it was able to accuse the DMK of being complicit in the massacres in the final stages of the war in 2009. In June 2011, the Tamil Nadu Assembly, now dominated by the AIADMK, adopted a unanimous resolution seeking the imposition of economic sanctions against Sri Lanka. Again in 2013, Tamil Nadu’s assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a separate state for the Tamils of Sri Lanka. In the 2014 General Elections, the AIADMK swept the polls, winning 37 of the seats with another regional party also with strong Tamil nationalistic leanings securing another seat. The BJP was able to secure just one seat in Tamil Nadu in an election where it had performed exceptionally well India-wide to form a government on its own right.

It was clear Tamil Nadu was marching to a different beat driven by the massacres of fellow Tamils in Sri Lanka. The AIADMK was determined to continue cashing in on it

It was clear Tamil Nadu was marching to a different beat driven by the massacres of fellow Tamils in Sri Lanka. AIADMK was determined to continue cashing in on it. Consequently, in September 2015, a resolution was sponsored by AIADMK at the state assembly characterizing charges against Sri Lanka as “war crimes and genocide.” The 2016 state elections justified the AIADMK’s stance, helping it beat its rival and defy the trend in Tamil Nadu since 1984 of voting out the incumbent party. But in recent times the AIADMK has largely ignored the situation of Sri Lanka’s Tamils. Instead, it has been consumed by its internal issues and dealing with its political unpopularity. Rajapaksa’s visit and his remarks implicating the former Congress-led Indian government in the final stages of the war against the Tamils had provided AIADMK with some ammunition to fight the DMK.

The AIADMK of 2018, unlike when it was under the leadership of Jayalalithaa is a weak party riven by internal squabbles.  As such it is forced to rely on the patronage of the BJP government at the center. There is wide speculation that it may form a coalition with the BJP to contest the 2019 General Election. Should that prove true, AIADMK will be constrained in appealing to Tamil nationalistic sentiments given the contest between Hindutva and Tamil nationalism in Tamil Nadu.

This would leave the DMK free to exploit these sentiments by focusing on its past when it was a strong champion of the “Tamil Eelam” cause. This includes its chief M Karunanidhi’s refusal to receive the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) upon its return, having failed to disarm the Tamil Tigers. Karunanidhi’s boycott of the IPKF was on the grounds that the IPKF had during its “peacekeeping” mission in Sri Lanka “killed thousands of innocent Tamils and raped Tamil women.” Notwithstanding his past record, the same Karunanidhi’s failure to prevent the massacre of Tamils in Sri Lanka in 2009 is likely to haunt the party. But with the demise of Karunanidhi and many Tamil nationalists in its ranks, the DMK may well be able to counter this particular disadvantage.

The stance of the major parties has been largely opportunistic. But, since May 2009 there has been a qualitative difference in the sentiments in Tamil Nadu. Whereas prior to the “genocide,” the support for Sri Lanka’s Tamils was more in sympathy, the sentiments now are fuelled by the conviction that these fellow Tamils need to be rescued and the perpetrators punished. The Dravidian political parties can no longer treat the issue simply as a factor in their political calculations. They are obliged to act on their promises should they wish to continue their domination of Tamil Nadu politics as they have in the last six decades.

Ana Pararajasingham is an independent researcher focusing on political developments in the South Asian region with particular emphasis on geopolitical developments impacting Sri Lanka and India. He was director of programs with the Switzerland-based Centre for Just Peace and Democracy between 2007 and 2009.

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