A more readable and abridged version of this article is published on www.scroll.in
The first political reaction that played out on T.V screens, after the Supreme Court commutated death sentences of three convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case on Wednesday, was from MDMK General Secretary Vaiko. The former Member of Parliament and well known Tamil Nadu politician has been closely involved in the legal case of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassins. His reaction was “This is a great victory and we now appeal for the release of those in jail”. The almost immediate demand for the release of those, whose death penalty was commuted only because of an ‘inordinate delay’ in carrying out the execution, seemed to portray the verdict as an exoneration of sorts.
The very next morning, in Chennai, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J.Jayalalithaa made an announcement that all seven convicts serving a life term in the case would be released and asked the center to respond within 3 days. The political agenda is obvious for Jayalalithaa, DMK chief M. Karunanidhi, Vaiko or every other Tamil politician, aspiring to be the ‘champion of the Tamil cause’. In that quest, it does not seem to matter that these are seven people, who had direct and indirect links to the LTTE and were convicted in a monstrous crime. It was also as if their crime was lesser than those committed by 96 other convicts serving life sentences for over 20 years in jails across the state.
The jubilation with which the commutation was received and the vigor with which the demand for their release is being pursued, has been described as “insensitive” to both the families of those who died with the former Prime Minister and the fact that it was in every way a crime against India. The simple question is what has happened in Tamil Nadu over the last five or six years that such demands are seen as the ‘unanimous wish’ of the state’s political forces? Why is carrying out an execution in such an enormous case so difficult and why should this be any different from the case of let us say an Afzal Guru?
A decade ago, in 2002, Jayalalithaa’s government arrested Vaiko under POTA for making pro LTTE speeches and he spent over a year in Jail. He was later arrested on charges of sedition in 2008 by the DMK government. Several others who sympathized or supported the LTTE, like Pazha Nedumaran, were arrested repeatedly and kept in prison for prolonged periods of time. Ruling forces in Tamil Nadu acted against those who offered support to the L.T.T.E and this was despite their ostensible commitment to the Sri Lankan Tamil cause. The point is that there was a line separating support for a terrorist outfit and sympathy for the Tamil cause. It did not matter that the LTTE was the principal voice of the Sri Lankan Tamils, it was a terrorist outfit and support to it was illegal in India.
That distinction was alsothe corner stone of India’s foreign policy in Sri Lanka. While extending humanitarian assistance and support for a political solution to the conflict, India was categorically against the LTTE. Several Sri Lankan diplomats, on condition of anonymity, have repeatedly insisted that “India’s categorical support was of great importance to Colombo in eliminating the LTTE”. It is also a documented fact that India abetted and aided the creation of the LTTE in the late 1970s and 80s and there is a convoluted and intricate history before and after 1991.There are many hardline activists in Tamil Nadu who shared a deep emotional connect with the LTTE and despite the assassination continued to do so. But, they neither dictated mainstream politics nor foreign policy.
Politics and political decisions in Tamil Nadu had to be both cautious and circumspect while deciding on issues relating to the LTTE or the Rajiv Gandhi case. In the year 2000, the D.M.K government recommended the commutation of death sentence for Nalini Sriharan. She was convicted on charges of providing logistical support to the suicide squad. She was also pregnant at that time and it was after Sonia Gandhi agreed to the commutation on humanitarian grounds that it was given. At that time, the DMK did not take up the case of Santhan, Murugan or Perarivalan, three others who were handed the death sentence. A well know journalist in Chennai added with a touch of humour that “the wounds from the DMK’s indictment in the Jain commission report on the Rajiv assassination case were still fresh and made them more circumspect”.
Things began to change in 2009 and the distinction between support for LTTE and support for Sri Lankan Tamils became one in the state’s political theater. As India was battling out a general election, in Sri Lanka the LTTE was in the last stages of a bloody annihilation by the Sri Lankan army. The DMK was a firm part of the UPA and its chief M. Karunanidhi, on the eve of an election, was under pressure to show that he is not a ‘mute spectator’ to the war in Sri Lanka.
In this backdrop, in an interview to NDTV, Karunanidhi called Prabhakaran a “Good Friend”. It raised several eye brows as Karunanidhi was in an alliance with the Congress. He also went on a sudden fast in Chennai which achieved little. Since 1991 the DMK had maintained a dubious impression of sympathy for the LTTE but, were constrained by the fact that it was unacceptable to Delhi, Indian law and main stream political forces to be seen as sympathizing with a ‘terrorist group’.
Almost as soon as the Indian election results were declared on May 15th, in Sri Lanka news of LTTE Chief Velupillai Prabhakaran’s death began emerging. Since then, all that one has seen in Tamil Nadu is repeated reiterations of the serious allegations of ‘Genocide’ and ‘Ethnic cleansing’ by Sri Lankan forces. Pictures of the LTTE chief's son Balachandran being shot in cold blood or those of atrocities committed by Sri Lankan forces became huge rallying points.
As the sentiment grew strong and horrible pictures from the war became clearer, there was genuine disgust and sympathy for the Tamil plight and those mobilizing that sympathy were groups that were pro-LTTE. One of the known activists, Thirumurugan Gandhi even challenged a TV anchor during a debate and made an outrageous claim that“if you call them terrorists then it is contempt of supreme court”. In their narrative “The LTTE were martyrs and Prabhakaran was the ‘hamlet’”
Jayalalithaa, who had taken a strong anti- LTTE stand till 2009, decided to enter the Tamil cause bandwagon. She challenged Karunanidhi’s position as the tallest figure in that political space and has played that agenda ever since she came to power in 2011. She ensured that Sri Lankan players could not play in Chennai during the IPL, ensured the film Madras Café was not release in Tamil Nadu and now played along in the demand for the release of the seven convicts. An AIADMK leader says “It is a wise political move by Amma, if she did not do it immediately the DMK would have galvanized a campaign for the release and would have taken advantage”.
With the two main Dravidian parties engaged in a race, what was once a fringe group agenda has become dangerous and loud. The DMK was part of the UPA and began exerting pressure on India’s foreign policy. India’s vote against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC and subsequent cancellation of the PM’s visit to Colombo for the CHOGM summit were all Indications of domestic political pressure on India’s foreign policy. The irony is, in many ways, all these demands were dictated by “pro –LTTE elements in the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora”.
While there is genuine anger against the plight of Tamils, experts point out that the narrative has made it “impossible to distinguish between the Sri Lankan Tamil cause and holding a brief for a terrorist group or those convicted in a monstrous crime”. Unfortunately, the main two political forces in Tamil Nadu are happy to play along.
Political parties can dramatize and play along with irrational hard-line voices in their political interest but, the deeper and more dangerous repercussions must not be ignored. There is an attempt at distorting facts and history. It is the responsibility of the two main parties in Tamil Nadu and the central government to dictate the levels of acceptability. While commutation of death penalty shows the humanitarian side and upholds the spirit of the law, making that the platform for the release of the convicts is unacceptable. The onus is on the principal political parties in Tamil Nadu to define and re iterate the line between supporting Sri Lankan Tamils and idolizing a terrorist act.