Colombo, December 6 (NIA): The late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa’s involvement with Sri Lankan affairs began 33 years ago after the July 1983 anti-Tamil riots and the exodus to Tamil Nadu which they triggered. The involvement of the “iron lady” was wholeheartedly welcomed by the Tamils of the island but was abhorrent to the majority Sinhalese.
In 1983, Jayalalithaa was a green horn in politics, having joined the party All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) only a year before. But she had been made Propaganda Secretary the very next year thanks to her special relationship with co-star and political mentor, M.G.Ramachandran (MGR), who was the founder chief of the party and Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.
It was in the latter part of 1983 that more than a 100,000 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees poured into Tamil Nadu, pushed out by the anti-Tamil riots in Sri Lanka in July that year. Sensing a great political opportunity to whip up pro-Tamil sentiments, the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) led by M.Karunanidhi took the lead in organizing support for the beleaguered Sri Lankan Tamils. This left AIADMK Supremo and Chief Minister M.G.Ramachandran with no option but to climb on to the “Eelam Tamil” bandwagon as staying away from it would have been politically suicidal.
The party was galvanized and the new and attractive Propaganda Secretary J.Jayalalithaa, was the public face of a pro-active AIADMK on the Sri Lankan issue.
But once the public fervor died down, the Indo-Sri Lankan issue was taken over by the Central government, and Chief Minister MGR resorted to secret dealings with the LTTE, Jayalalithaa totally ceased to have a role in the matter. A firm believer in non-violence and an Indian nationalist to the core, she was shattered by the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991. She rode the anti-LTTE and anti-DMK wave in the elections that followed and became Chief Minister in 1991.
But by 1991, Tamil militancy and the counter-measures taken by the Sri Lankan navy in the Palk Strait had revived the “Kachchativu” issue. Tamil Nadu fishermen, suspected to be aiding the LTTE and other Sri Lankan Tamil militants, and poaching in Sri Lanka waters, were hunted down and shot by the Sri Lankan navy leaving many injured or dead. Jayalalithaa blamed the transfer of Kachchativu to Sri Lanka by two treaties in 1974 and 1976 for this because Tamil Nadu fishermen contended that they were being attacked near Kachchativu around which they had a right to fish as per an understanding between India and Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan navy, on the contrary, argued that Tamil Nadu fishermen were intruding well beyond Kachchativu and poaching in Sri Lankan waters.
But Jayalalithaa stuck to her guns, and got the State Assembly to pass a resolution seeking the “retrieval” of Kachchativu as it had been handed over to Sri Lanka disregarding historical antecedents, without consulting the stakeholders in Tamil Nadu, and circumventing parliament.
The Kachchativu issue also helped her browbeat the DMK leader Karunanidhi, who according to Jayalalithaa, had pussy footed on this issue when in power. To prove her superior credentials as a defender of Tamil Nadu fishermen’s rights she had approached the Supreme Court in 2008, something Karunanidhi had not even considered.
Successive Central governments (and of course Sri Lanka) have held that the Kachchativu issue had been settled in 1974 and 1976 and that there could be no going back. But Jayalalithaa has kept the issue alive as the fishermen continue to contend (against scientific evidence) that they do not cross Kachchativu where they have a “traditional right” to fish.
However, Jayalalithaa had tried to divert Palk Strait fishermen from shallow water trawling to deep sea fishing and sought about INR 1055 crore from the Center for the switchover. In the absence of Central funds, she had started a project costing INR 51 crore on her own. In the meanwhile, poaching Tamil Nadu fishermen were being routinely arrested by the Sri Lankan navy and their trawlers were impounded forcing Jayalalithaa to write to the Centre for strong action against Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan Tamil Political Issue
Jayalalithaa got involved in the Sri Lankan Tamil political issue only in 2011 when a post-war humanitarian crisis in Northern Sri Lanka drew international attention. The treatment of the 300,000 war displaced persons in camps, and charges of war crimes leveled by human rights organizations and the UN, began to draw the attention of politicians in Tamil Nadu. On coming to power in 2011 Jayalalithaa proactively got the State Assembly to pass a resolution seeking economic sanctions against Sri Lanka and action against Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and others “war criminals”.
She held Karunanidhi also complicit in this, as he had allegedly only pretended to be acting to stop the carnage in Sri Lanka in 2009.
With the UN Human Rights Council ,acting at the behest of the US, began passing stringent resolutions against Sri Lanka seeking an international judicial mechanism, Jayalalitha, in 2013, got the State Assembly to pass a resolution alleging genocide and calling for economic sanctions and a referendum on forming a separate state for the Sri Lankan Tamils. A State Assembly resolution demanded a total Indian boycott of the Commonwealth Heads of Government of Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo in 2013.
In June 2015, when there were indications that the US would water down the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka, virtually giving up the demand for an international judicial mechanism, Jayalalithaa got the Tamil Nadu assembly to pass a resolution asking India to convince the US stick to its earlier stand.
These bold and uncompromising actions were much appreciated by Sri Lankan Tamils who had reposed great faith in her. But the majority Sinhalese community were very apprehensive about Jayalalithaa. But despite that, leaders of the majority community like President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe lauded her after her demise.
“She was dearly loved by her people” Sirisena said, and Wickremesinghe described her as a “stateswoman who did much to build a strong sense of fellowship between India and Sri Lanka.”
(The featured image at the top shows fledgling party leader Jayalalithaa galvanizing the AIADMK on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue in the 1980s)