Indian parties play Tamil card

The plight of Sri Lanka's Tamils has become an emotive election issue in southern India.

    The UN estimates that 50,000 civilians are still trapped in the war zone [AFP]

    Anxiety is mounting within India's ruling Congress party that the plight of Tamil refugees fleeing the Sri Lankan army's onslaught on Tamil Tiger rebels is reverberating far away, across the Palk Straits, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

    The Straits are the narrow strip of water separating north Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu where the suffering of the Tamil civilians caught up in the fighting has erupted into an emotive election issue.

    Indian Tamils have deep ethnic and cultural links to Tamils in Sri Lanka.

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    The Sri Lankan army's offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has focused attention on the attitude of the Congress-led federal government towards the plight of Tamils and prompted fears within the Congress that it could lose votes in Tamil Nadu if its rivals succeed in portraying New Delhi as indifferent to the plight of Tamil refugees.

    In one of the most closely contested elections in recent history every seat counts and experts say Tamil Nadu is a key state for the Congress.

    In the 2004 election it won 10 seats, while its regional ally, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), won 16 seats.

    However, opinion polls suggest the Congress may not do so well when voters go to the polls in Tamil Nadu on May 13 in the last phase of polling in the marathon general election.


    M. Karunanidhi, the DMK leader and chief minister of Tamil Nadu, has attacked the Congress-led government for not putting pressure on Colombo to agree to a ceasefire and to protect Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the LTTE leader he called a "Tamil hero".

    Karunanidhi called a general strike in Tamil Nadu on Thursday to highlight the issue.

    "Now that the 25-year-old civil war in Sri Lanka is coming to an end and Prabhakaran could be killed or captured, Karunanidhi wants to win votes by attacking the Congress for not caring about Tamils," said analyst Inder Malhotra.

    As the Sri Lankan army advances on Mullaittivu, the last strip of territory controlled by the LTTE, tens of thousands of Tamil civilians have fled. Some of those refugees have sailed across the Palk Straits to coastal villages in Tamil Nadu.

    J. Jayalalitha, the opposition leader in Tamil Nadu, despite being critical of the LTTE, accused the Congress-led government of looking the other way while Colombo perpetrates "genocide" against the Tamil minority.

    "No one expected the final assault to happen at election time. It always pops up in Tamil Nadu politics whenever anyone thinks the issue can be milked for votes. It's totally irresponsible, competitive politics," said B. G. Verghese, a visiting professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

    'No grudges'

    Many Indian Tamils initially supported Prabhakaran's fight for an independent Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka. But this support evaporated when an LTTE suicide bomber assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, a former Indian prime minister, in 1991.

    Rajiv's widow, Sonia Gandhi, is president of the Congress party and her son Rahul is tipped to be a future prime minister.

    Her daughter Priyanka, while campaigning in her brother's constituency, described her feelings toward the LTTE.

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    "India can never forgive them [the LTTE] for his assassination. However, as a person I do not have any grudges against him [Prabhakaran] and do not hate him," she said.

    The Congress party's policy is that if Prabhakaran fails to swallow the cyanide capsule carried by all Tamil Tigers and is arrested, New Delhi will demand his extradition to face trial in India for Rajiv Gandhi's assassination.

    But in Chennai, the state capital, a Congress leader who did not wish to be named, said the timing of the Sri Lankan army's offensive was "awful" for his party.

    "We don't really want him captured alive and brought to India. Putting Prabhakaran on trial would be a huge headache and a controversial issue with Tamils," he said.

    Treading a fine line

    Sri Lanka expert and analyst Shylashri Shankar says that while Indian Tamils feel a tremendous sympathy for Sri Lankan Tamils, they make a distinction between ordinary Tamils and the LTTE.

    "What Karunanidhi is doing is trying to connect the LTTE with the cause of the Tamil minority in the minds of the electorate," Shankar said.

    "To some extent, his play could work because he is raising the obvious question of who, after Prabhakaran, will represent and protect Tamils in Sri Lanka."

    However, the DMK's vacillation on the Tamil issue may pose a problem for Karunanidhi.

    Despite its members threatening to resign back in October if the Indian government did not call for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka, for the past few months Karunanidhi has been quiet about the Sri Lankan army's relentless march to gain control of Tamil-controlled territory.

    "He has to tread a fine line between sympathising with the Tamils and yet not praising Prabhakaran too much because Tamils are ashamed about the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi," said C. Lakshmanan, an assistant professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies.

    However, in this competition to demonstrate the greatest support for Sri Lanka's Tamils, the Congress has already succumbed to pressure tactics.

    After initially appearing hesitant over Thursday's general strike, the Congress subsequently came out in favour of it and backed Karunanidhi's demand for an immediate ceasefire in Sri Lanka.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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