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Creating a cultural divide

Tamils in India and Sri Lanka must shun extremism

  • Vincent D’Souza, Chennai
  • India
  • September 18, 2012
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Why do people in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu immolate themselves, indulge in violent protests and even drive away foreign ministers when it comes to anything to do with Sri Lanka?

The ethnic war on the island nation has long been over. Tamil militancy is a closed chapter. And Tamil Nadu has its own goals and worries to deal with.

Yet, why do some people in that state indulge in some inexplicable acts?

Yesterday, an auto rickshaw driver in the district town of Salem set himself on fire to protest against the visit to India by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa later this week.

Tamil Nadu's political parties, including the ruling AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), have been opposing this visit. They consider Rajapaksa a killer of the Tamils since his government saw the extermination of the Tamil Tigers while thousands of other Tamils are said to have lost their lives.

Recently, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu ordered the expulsion of a Sri Lankan youth football team that was in Chennai, the state capital, to play some friendly matches. She also suspended the officer who had allowed the hiring of a local stadium for a game.

Around the same time, pro-Sri Lankan Tamil groups targeted Sri Lankan Catholic pilgrims who had travelled to the internationally known shrine of the Virgin Mary, locally known as Annai Vailankanni, near Nagapattinam.

The protests were so bad that the pilgrims had to be given police protection and bundled onto the first flight back to Colombo.

Weeks ago, the opposition political party in the state, DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or the progressive party of the Dravidians) organized a huge conference and hosted many human rights and political leaders from several countries to talk about the status of Sri Lankan Tamils on the island.

Do these actions impact on developments in the island?

Save on some issues and occasions, the majority of people in Tamil Nadu have not really shown an interest in the affairs of Tamils living across the Palk Straits that divides India and Sri Lanka.

Tamil Nadu has been a gracious host for the millions of refugees who set up many camps in the state since the early 1980s. People here have not challenged the prolonged stay of these refugees. They did however become alarmed when violence between Tamil militant groups spilled over into Tamil Nadu.

But for all political parties in Tamil Nadu, many a Sri Lankan issue has been embraced, debated, campaigned and championed for at state and national levels.

However, while these issues are raised by these parties to score brownie points or embarrass opponents, they have not impacted much on electoral campaigns.

Also, Sri Lankan Tamils do not put much value on the acts of their brothers across the sea. Even their own political parties, while carrying on a dialogue with Tamil Nadu political groups openly say that one-upmanship and tit-for-tat acts by Tamil Nadu's parties do not help the cause of the island's community.

Unfortunately, the strident acts of fringe parties and groups are creating lots of bitterness. These groups have driven away Sri Lankan ministers here on personal or official tours, caused shutdowns in towns and have begun to attack and drive away sportspeople and pilgrims.

These extreme acts have not gone down well with people in Tamil Nadu. So Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa was quick to say that she asked the footballers to leave to demonstrate the people's opposition to President Rajapaksa. Pilgrims, tourists and sportspeople are welcome, she added.

Every year, thousands of Buddhists and Christians from Sri Lanka visit India for pilgrimages in Tamil Nadu and in the north of the country, where many holy places associated with Lord Buddha are located.

Also, thousands of middle-class Sri Lankans enjoy shopping in places such as Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai.

Indians are one of the largest groups of tourists to the island and cricketing ties are very strong.

So, extremist acts in Tamil Nadu are certainly not getting the support of people in general. These acts only keep the engines of political parties and fringe groups moving.

These extreme political stands have a bearing on how Indian and Sri Lankan governments address bilateral issues.

Of late, these attitudes have changed. India arranged the passage of Buddha relics to the island where millions have been worshipping them across the country. India, too, is happy to host President Rajapaksa now.

One issue that exposes the hollowness of Tamil Nadu's politics is their stand on fishing rights.

Sri Lankan fishermen are now getting back to sea for good, following the civil war, but are challenged by fisher folk from Tamil Nadu who trawled and enjoyed the fish in Sri Lankan waters while the war raged. However, the Tamil Nadu government does not even tell its fishermen that they must stop poaching from these waters and let their brothers enjoy their catch.

Political parties will pick out many issues regarding Sri Lankan Tamils. Fringe groups will get extreme. But most people in Tamil Nadu are unhappy that extreme acts are harming people-to-people relations.

Vincent D’Souza is a journalist based in Tamil Nadu.
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