“Eelam and Kerala share similar history. We were ruled by the same colonial powers, the Portuguese, Dutch and later English. Kerala is not very far from Eelam and the war in Eelam was something happening right in front of our eyes. Yet Eelam never became the agenda before any political organizations in Kerala. Keralites were in the streets in solidarity with Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan. This never happened in the case of Eelam,” said Dr Vinod Krishnan from Kerala in an exclusive interview to TamilNet this week. Dr Krishnan, an academic researcher involved in studies related to social exclusion in South and Southeast Asia, is currently attached to the Centre for Research and Education for Social Transformation (CREST) in India.
Dr Krishnan’s interest in the Eezham question spans over four decades. He has been documenting the struggle since 1977 and has been independently campaigning for the rights of Tamils in the island through Malayalam media in Kerala.
“In the beginning it was just an academic interest, but following the Black July riots of 1983, I became more interested in the Tamil issues in Sri Lanka,” Dr Krishnan, who was speaking to TamilNet on various facets of Indo-Eezham discourse said.
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Questioned on the disinformation campaign in the mainstream media of India, against the Eezham struggle, the researcher said that they were only distancing themselves from the struggle and this doesn’t mean that they were against the Eezham Struggle.
“Media alone cannot be blamed for this. Hardly was there any group in India that was involved with advocacy in support of Eelam,” he said.
However, he admitted that some national media in India like The Hindu did take a very clear position and this stance of theirs resembled that of the mainstream media of Sri Lanka.
“Organized attempts should have been made in India to use mass media advocacy strategically in support of Eelam struggle,” Krishnan said pointing to the absence of strategy on the part of the political parties like the DMK and AIADMK.
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On Indian foreign policy and genocide of Eezham Tamils, the researcher’s response was that India could have very well averted the genocide had it sympathetically handled the Tamil issue.
As of today, only the global Tamil diaspora would be in a position to internationalize the plight of Eezham Tamils and the younger generation should not forget it, Krishnan observed.
In his opinion, Muslims should have been the natural allies of Eezham Tamils in the struggle of self-determination, but there was a major tactical error on the part of Eelam leadership.
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Caste is a major aspect of Dr Krishnan’s studies. To a question on the issue of caste among Eezham Tamils compared to the issue in India, the researcher said that one position that particularly interested him was the seriousness with which the Vaddukkoaddai Resolution addressed it in 1976.
“This Declaration had wider implication too. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which later became the most powerful force that fought for freedom literally abolished caste in the areas controlled by them and any overt act relating to caste was considered punishable by LTTE.”
“There is no parallel anywhere in the history of political mobilization in India,” Dr Krishnan commented, adding “however its impact is not very clear and a comparison with anti-caste movements of India at this point cannot be easily done.”
On a recent effort by a group of Indian Dalit leaders to install Dr Ambedhkar’s statue in Colombo, in collaboration with Mahinda Rajapaksa, Dr Krishnan said, “Installation of Dr.Ambedkar’s statue in Colombo has no significance, whatsoever, for Dalits of India. But for Sri Lankan State, it has.”
While media, political parties including the Tamil parties and human rights groups in India fail in creating public opinion in favour of the struggle of Eezham Tamils, the Sri Lankan State, which qualifies to be called as “Buddhist State”, is using all possible means to create public opinion in India in favour of it, Krishnan added.
Full text of the interview follows:
TamilNet: What made you interested in the struggle for Tamil Eelam?
Dr. Vinod Krishnan: My interest in the struggle for Tamil Eelam began with the interest in Sri Lankan politics. Sri Lankan polity of the late seventies particularly interested me, following the victory of Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) in the parliamentary elections of 1977. In the election TULF, which faced the electorate demanding an independent nation literally swept the election in the north and the east and had become the principal opposition party in Sri Lankan parliament. How a political formation that openly advocated an independent nation within Sri Lanka taking up the role of the principal opposition party in the parliament fascinated me. It was unimaginable how in a country like Sri Lanka that had a track record of anti-Tamil attitude, emergency, curb on press, and silencing of opposition could afford a formation like TULF as principal opposition in parliament. In the beginning it was just an academic interest, but following the Black July riots of 1983, I became more interested in the Tamil issues in Sri Lanka.
TamilNet: What made you interested in this caste annihilation aspect to begin with? How do you think we have fared in comparison to the situation in India?
Dr. Krishnan: The Tamil inhabited areas in Sri Lanka, particularly northern areas, had a very rigid caste system. It was a very hierarchical society with Vellalas, the numerically dominant community occupying the highest position with the Panchamars, the Dalits lying in the bottom of the hierarchy. The caste system existed among the Tamil dominated areas had some peculiarities too, in comparison with India, particularly with Tamil Nadu. Here even the Brahmins had a subservient role to the Vellalas in the local caste structure. Though the Tamil nationality question in Sri Lanka had obtained attention outside the country, nothing was known about the plight of the Panchamars there who were victims of severe caste oppression. They formed almost ten percent of the Tamil population in the north. They had no right to enter temples. They were denied right to dress the way they prefer. They were not allowed to enter teashops. There were attempts to mobilize the Panchamars even before the independence of Ceylon from Britain in 1948. But for the major political parties of the Tamils like Ceylon Tamil Congress and its offshoot Federal Party, caste inequality never became an important issue to address. Caste oppression was so severe that the Ceylon parliament had to take up legislative measures in the fifties against caste discrimination. Almost all political parties seeking autonomy were Vellala dominated and Panchamars it seemed never aligned with these formations. Interestingly it was the Communist Party of Ceylon, which was not really in favor of autonomy of Tamil areas, were in the forefront of Panchamar mobilization after the independence. The Communists were in the forefront in the temple entry and the teashop entry movements of the sixties. The Panchamar movement like the Tamil Minority Mahasabha was in open conflict with the dominant Tamil parties in Ceylon owing to their caste composition. Even when Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) was formed as a common platform of Tamil political parties demanding sovereign Eelam, the Panchamars remained outside it forming Tamil Minority Liberation Front, which independently sought Tamil autonomy.
This complex relation of caste and ethnicity in Tamil areas interested me and I was gathering data to understand how inclusive Eelam struggle was. I was also interested in the how national liberation movement addressed caste question and whether national identity surpassed the caste identity during the freedom struggle, especially in the context of severe caste conflict. One position particularly interested me was that Vaddukoddai Declaration of 1976, which seriously addressed caste as an important issue. It for the first time caste was highlighted in the context of Tamil movement for autonomy in Ceylon. The Vaddukoddai Declaration, the first authentic document on Tamil Nation in Sri Lanka, endorsed by all Tamil political parties strongly advocated a casteless society. It seemed the Pachamars positively responded to the Vaddukoddai declaration and distanced themselves from caste mobilizations that might sabotage freedom struggle. This Declaration had wider implication too. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which later became the most powerful force that fought for freedom literally abolished caste in the areas controlled by them and any overt act relating to caste was considered punishable by LTTE. There is no parallel anywhere in the history of political mobilization in India. However its impact is not very clear and a comparison with anti-caste movements of India at this point cannot be easily done.
TamilNet: There has been a significant disinformation campaign in the mainstream media in India against the Eelam struggle. How do you view this? What has been your experience with trying to counter this?
Krishnan: We cannot conclusively say that the mainstream Indian media was consistently involved with disinformation campaign against Eelam struggle. I have been documenting the news items related to Tamil Eelam in the nineties and found that Eelam movement did obtain reasonably good media attention. Many newspapers even wrote editorials against the IPKF intervention in Sri Lanka. Even after LTTE was banned in India following the death of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, national media did telecast live the famous Kilinochi press conference of Veluppillai Prabhakaran in 2002. However national media in India was not very sympathetic to the Eelam struggle. This does not mean that they were against Eelam struggle. They were distancing themselves from the struggle. Unlike the Tamil media in India, the national media by and large never took a position. They were “independent” in a sense that they were not concerned about creating public opinion in India in favor of Eelam. Media alone cannot be blamed for this. Hardly was there any group in India that was involved with advocacy in support of Eelam. Media advocacy, if at all existed, was confined just to Tamil Nadu.
When we discuss disinformation by the mainstream media we must remember this too. Some “national media” in India did take a very clear position on Eelam struggle. For instance The Hindu, which has wide readership in South India, was open and consistent in their stance on Eelam. However this stance of theirs resembled that of the mainstream media of Sri Lanka.
In the case of Kerala, the State where I am from, the vernacular media did very good coverage on Eelam struggle, starting from the eighties. But here too the media did not attempt to create a public opinion in favor of Eelam struggle. Eelam and Kerala share similar history. We were ruled by the same colonial powers, the Portuguese, Dutch and later English. Kerala is not very far from Eelam and the war in Eelam was something happening right in front of our eyes. Yet Eelam never became the agenda before any political organizations in Kerala. Keralites were in the streets in solidarity with Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan. This never happened in the case of Eelam. Vernacular media did highlight the issues, but distanced themselves from it. In Kerala too was there any group that lobbied media or seriously engaged in advocacy in support of Eelam.
In the eighties as students, we have been doing some independent pamphleteering in support of Eelam, especially after the Black July, not under the auspices of any forum. But such activities had limitations in reaching a wider audience. During the final days of war in 2009, vernacular media was sympathetic to the Tamil cause to a certain extent. Tamil issue was the focus of prime time news in the visual media in Kerala. However, it did not generate the public opinion the way it should have. It was surprising that Kerala never witnessed a single demonstration those days, expressing solidarity with the Eelam Tamils. This silence from the part of Keralites had ideological, ethnic and religious connotations. Organized attempts should have been made in India to use mass media advocacy strategically in support of Eelam struggle. Political parties like the DMK and AIADMK should have designed a strategy considering the increasing role of regional parties in national politics. Unfortunately it never happened.
TamilNet: What do you think about the role and extent of Indian involvement? Is Indian foreign policy responsible for the genocide?
Krishnan: We cannot deny the fact that India had genuine interest in Eelam in the eighties, owing to geopolitical reasons. India did openly support the formation of an independent Eelam and even provided training for the Tamil groups, probably due to its own security concerns. In the eighties, being in the Soviet block, India was concerned about the pro-American tilt of Sri Lankan Government. Soviet Union, with which India had strong diplomatic relation, too was concerned about the pro-US turn of Sri Lankan polity. Internationally many expected the creation of an independent Tamil Eelam with overt support of India. However due to certain diplomatic lapses, Indian role in the island took a complex turn. Major mistake from Indian side was the Indo- Sri Lanka peace accord, signed between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene in 1987, without the consent of LTTE. By 1987 the national liberation movement of Tamils in Sri Lanka was almost indistinguishable from LTTE. But the peace accord was signed without the consent of LTTE. India should have acknowledged the role of LTTE and proposed a tripartite agreement. Further India should have strongly demanded devolution of power as envisaged in the peace accord, when LTTE agreed to lay down arms. Unfortunately it did not happen and the outcome was the conflict between LTTE and Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). India- Tamil relationship got deteriorated since the conflict between IPKF and LTTE intensified. LTTE also underrated the support of India in the creation of an autonomous, if not independent, Tamil ruled region in Sri Lanka. Since 1991, following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, Indian relationship with the Tamils further worsened, resulting in Indian denunciation of Tamil cause.
But by 2009, the situation was different. LTTE had weakened. Jaffna had fallen to Sri Lankan forces. East no more was a war-ridden territory. In the pretext of fighting LTTE, which was confined to a few pockets, numbering a few hundreds, the Sri Lankan forces besieged the whole Tamil population in the north. The outcome of which was predictable. It is very unlikely that Indian military intelligence was unaware of the possible genocide in Tamil inhabited areas. Considering India’s role in the Tamil politics in Sri Lanka since the eighties, India should have intervened. India should have internationalized the issue of military atrocities in Tamil areas. It should have raised the issue before international forums. Many might not be aware of the fact Tamils of Sri Lanka were the people hoisted Indian flags on the top of houses on August 15, 1947, celebrating India’s freedom from Britain. India very well could have averted the genocide, had India sympathetically handled Tamil issue. It was indeed a failure of Indian diplomacy.
TamilNet: Recently, a delegation of Dalit leaders from India met Mahinda Rajapakse and it was agreed to install Dr. Ambedkar’s statue in Colombo. Sri Lanka is clearly playing into the fault-lines. What do you think of such an effort of Sinhala Buddhism?
Krishnan: This has to be analyzed in backdrop of public opinion in India on Eelam issue. Media, political parties including the Tamil, human rights groups etc never seriously attempted creating public opinion in India in favor of Eelam struggle. It did not happen during the time of conflict. Even now it remains so. On the contrary Sri Lankan State, which qualifies to be called as “Buddhist State”, is using all possible means to create public opinion in India in favor of Sri Lankan State. Installation of Dr.Ambedkar’s statue in Colombo has no significance, whatsoever, for Dalits of India. But for Sri Lankan State, it has.
TamilNet: Sri Lanka’s recent spate of attacks on the Muslims?
Krishnan: With the annihilation of Tamil Liberation movement, Mahinda Rajapakse government needs to invent new enemies, real or hypothetical to keep his clout over the Sinhalese. Muslims form nearly 8% of the population; numerically it is a community as big as the Tamils. They speak a different language. Culturally and religion wise, they are distinct from majority Sinhalese. They had a history of conflicting relationship with Sinhalese. With this background Muslims qualify the criteria to be considered as a tangible enemy by the Sinhala chauvinists. One cannot rule out the possibility that the violence against the Muslims in Sri Lanka had the patronage of the State and it would escalate in the coming future. When speaking about the Muslims, I must add this also. . Majority of the Muslims, the Moors, speak Tamil. However they were never enumerated as Tamils during Sri Lankan census. Like the Tamils they too were the victims of majoritarian politics of Sri Lanka. Muslims should have been the natural allies of Eelam Tamils in their struggle for self-determination. In the 1977 parliamentary elections, Muslim United Liberation Front candidates contested the election under TULF ticket. Unfortunately political leadership of Eelam Tamils never negotiated with the Muslims for a broad alliance at later stage. This was a major tactical error from the part of Eelam leadership.
TamilNet: Any message to the global Tamil Diaspora. Also, what do you think is the way forward?
Krishnan: As of today, only global Tamil diaspora would be in a position to internationalize the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka. They should keep the issue alive raising it before international forums and human rights groups. The younger generation of the diaspora might not have experienced the tragedy that their previous generation experienced. They should always keep in mind that their homeland is where their parents and grandparents suffered and where their people suffer now.