Saturday, February 22, 2014


A more readable and abridged version of this article is published on  

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 CafĂ© 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.

Monday, February 17, 2014

“20 Rupee Pepper Spray for a 2 Lakh vote victory”

A pepper sprayed parliament, with an allegedly tabled bill, will now attempt to deliberate on how to tear up one of India’s large states! We have successfully reduced a decision on the division of A.P to something like a last over clobbering in a T-20 match! Trust me, we will get lower. We have that great ability to show that we can fall deeper, just when everyone thought this is as low as it gets. As we wait to define another new low, the question now is why did the division of one of India’s large states become fodder for such atrocious moments?

Calculative and cold businessmen turned MPs, like Lagadapatti Rajagopal, do not ‘gas’ parliament out of emotion. Soon after his pathetic behaviour and almost comical interviews on national television, he called several journalists and suggested that the’ 20 rupee pepper spray act’ would give him a “2 lakh vote victory in Vijayawada”! That was the cold calculation and it is a reflection of the nature of politics the congress party has pursued on the Telengana issue

Pepper spray was just one more act in a long list of absurdities that Congress politicians from Telengana and Seemandhra have enacted. Each one of them claimed to have submitted a resignation, but none of it was ever accepted. This drama ensured that congress lasted a full term in Hyderabad and can now attempt to salvage, as much as possible, from the 42 seats that are on offer. The mere fact that a congress chief minister openly defied the party’s decision, even launched a public revolt and yet remained C.M is proof enough that Kiran Kumar Reddy’s moves have had the approval of his bosses in Delhi.

A former congress leader from Telengana who shifted to the TRS said “The strategy seems to be to table the bill knowing fully well in the last few days it will not be passed and then go in an alliance with the TRS to try and sweep the 17 seats”.  He argues that “If the congress was genuine about Telengana, they could have done it a year ago. The reason they do it now is because they would be routed in the 17 seats if they did not table the bill”.

 If true, that strategy would have a benefit in Seemandhra as well. If the bill is not passed by parliament, then Kiran Kumar Reddy who has been leading the charge against bifurcation, could go to the polls on a plank that he ensured the state was not divided. That would make the party at least relevant in what is increasingly being seen as a Chandrababu Naidu versus Jaganmohan Reddy battle for the 25 seats in Seemandhra. 

Congress’s Nizamabad M.P and a strong supporter of bifurcation Madhu Goud Yaskhi rubbished that analysis. He says “The congress party is deeply committed to a separate Telengana and will ensure that the bill is passed.  If the BJP does not do a U turn then bifurcation will be a reality”. That stand puts the onus on the BJP.

 The BJP has taken a categorical stand in favour of bifurcation, but is under pressure from potential ally Chandrababu Naidu to defeat the bill. In fact a leading businessman in touch with Jaganmohan Reddy told me “Jagan offered to go in a pre-poll alliance with the BJP if they took a stand against Telengana”. But, the party did not want to be seen as shifting sides in the last minute. A senior journalist in Delhi says “The party does not want to let the congress blame them for going against Telengana. But they will not make it easy”. In the end it seems like everyone wants to show they want a Telengana, but it goes against their electoral calculations to make it a reality.

 The other possibility that is being suggested is this. The Congress takes the risk and pushes through with the bill. Kiran Kumar Reddy breaks away and forms his own outfit. They see what they can scrounge in 2014 and then come back together post the elections. I wonder if that could happen because if that was the case then Kiran should have quit by now. He had said ‘the moment the bill is tabled I will quit’ and when asked why he didn’t he said “But the BJP has said the bill is not even tabled”! I believe he has sent a message that he is likely to resign now, I am still waiting for him to do so as I write.

 Far away from parliamentary politics, in the dry confines of Vijayawada, an old friend of mine made an interesting argument. Ram Pulla Reddy told me “People in Vijayawada or Visakhapatnam would actually benefit from a division. Their cities would come under greater focus and everything will not be centered on Hyderabad. The problem is that this whole thing has been portrayed as a betrayal”. He says the narrative left a feeling of “Hyderabad being snatched away and people from Seemandhra have no stake there”. That narrative is a direct result of the jingoistic politics we have seen.

The entire Telengana dispute is over Hyderabad. Geographically, it is in the heart of Telengana and simply cannot be shared. As per the present proposal, the city would serve as a ‘common capital’. Practically, that would mean that Seemandhra is headquartered inside another state! Given the acrimony that has played out, there is a genuine fear amongst those in Coastal Andhra and Rayalseema over how this will work out.

Interesting proposals for a phased division, sharing of Hyderabad for a limited period of time and building another capital city before dividing, have fallen on deaf years. At the moment, it seems the whole exercise has reduced to ‘politics of posturing and dramatics’ that could re write electoral realities.  The final proof of the congress pudding is in its eating. If the bill is not passed then it will further prove that this was all a drama. If, by some miracle, it is passed then it would be the worst time for a state to be divided. Either way A.P will suffer.  My only fear is that ‘Pepper spray’ may not be the last act in this drama for a Telugu vote that is deeply divided on sub regional sentiments!