The plight of Sri Lankan Tamils continues to be an election issue in Tamil Nadu, but only for the political class and not the voters. It continues to feature significantly in the manifestos of almost all regional parties. This isn’t surprising as several ‘firebrand’ leaders of Tamil nationalism have eked out a political career in the state simply by harping on the issue. The harping hit national headlines in 1987, when the Indian government sent a peace-keeping force to Lanka. Since then, Tamils in the island nation have lived through a civil war, multiple armed conflicts and grave violation of human rights.
Now, India abstaining from a UN Human Rights Council vote on Sri Lanka has sparked political outrage in TN. The DMK and its allies have blamed the ruling parties in the Centre and state. The UN resolution was anyway passed, backed by 22 member states. It decided to collect and preserve evidence of war crimes in the country, committed by the Armed Forces and LTTE. Ahead of the vote, both the Lankan government and the Tamil National Alliance expressed hopes of obtaining India’s support. Later, the foreign minister of Sri Lanka tweeted his thanks to even countries that had abstained from voting—including India.
The outcome summarises the collective failure of regional parties of TN in influencing national policy on Lanka. Electorally too, Tamil nationalism has long stopped paying dividends. It did not help the AIADMK during the 2009 polls, when it highlighted Congress’s failure to prevent the civil war’s escalation. The inordinate delay in the release of Perarivalan and others convicted in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case must also be seen in this light. Parties must find other ways to influence India’s policy on Lanka. The effort to shift the dialogue from New Delhi and Colombo, to also include Chennai and Jaffna, must consider future aspirations of Tamil minorities in Lanka and expatriates in India. It must take into account the demand for justice while working on a roadmap for economic cooperation. Most importantly, reclaiming the debate from fringe groups that continue to sympathise with militancy would be a good start.