The curious case of Jayalalithaa and Tamil Eelam

None of India’s neighbours influence electorates in State Assembly elections as magnanimously as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean — Sri Lanka. Tamil Nadu (TN) Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s disapproval of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presence during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony is the tip of the iceberg. Intriguingly, Amma’s (Mother’s, Jayalalithaa is endearingly referred so) diplomatic war against the Sri Lankan government is a recently revived phenomenon.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. Source: PTI


Initial dismay

It was the year 2002 and Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition government had refused to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). Then TN’s Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa was rampantly exploiting this draconian legislation to suppress pro-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) voices in the state. The state government under provisions of POTA even jailed Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) leader, V Gopalasamy (Vaiko) on July 11, 2002 for his LTTE sympathiser activities.

MDMK had won four seats in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections by fervently campaigning on the Tamil Eelam agenda. Ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) won 10 seats while competing Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) captured 12. The DMK and MDMK allied under the NDA coalition and gained considerable relevance in national politics through their roles in the central government. Realising the threat from political rivals gaining the electorate’s consent, Jayalalithaa suppressed any voices that canvased on the cause.

MDMK leader Vaiko was arrested for his LTTE sympathiser stance by the Jayalalithaa led AIADMK government in 2002. Source:
MDMK leader Vaiko was arrested for his LTTE sympathiser stance by the Jayalalithaa led AIADMK government in 2002. Source:

In 2002, LTTE’s war for a separate Tamil Eelam (nation) within Sri Lanka peaked. Contrastingly, in Tamil Nadu, Jayalalithaa extended the ban against the LTTE for assassinating former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Interestingly, she requested the ban on the LTTE during her first tenure as TN’s Chief Minister in 1993. By 2002, the state assembly even passed a resolution demanding the arrest and extradition of LTTE chief Prabhakaran. Back then, dominant paradigm ordained support for the Tamil diaspora paralleling as support for the LTTE. Despite this, Jayalalithaa openly expressed her discontentment with the Tamil Tigers.

Of changing of hearts

Hardly a decade past and Jayalalithaa manoeuvred an astonishing volte-face on the Tamil Eelam cause. In 2011, she pursued the Indian government for an economic embargo against Sri Lanka and moving the UN against Rajapaksa for genocide and war crimes. Rajpaksa is facing dissension for allegations of war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan army while browbeating and annihilating remnant LTTE cadres. Jayalalithaa even banned Sri Lankan cricketers from participating in any Indian Premiere League (IPL) matches within Tamil Nadu in March 2013.

The same month, TN’s state assembly recommended a UN led referendum in Sri Lanka seeking the creation of a separate state for the Tamil diaspora. In the same resolution, the state legislative sought an international probe on war crimes committed during the conflict against the LTTE. October 2013 saw the TN assembly passing resolutions seeking to bar India’s representation at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka. Earlier this year, she went to the extent of granting clemency to convicts of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

AIADMK founder Marudhur Gopalan Ramachandran (MGR) during a meeting with LTTE chief Prabhakaran.
AIADMK founder Marudhur Gopalan Ramachandran (MGR) during a meeting with LTTE chief Prabhakaran.

A bit of history

Anti-Sri Lanka sentiments brewed exceptionally under Jayalalithaa’s political mentor and AIADMK founder, Marudhar Gopalamenon Ramachandran (MGR). The Sri Lankan born Tamil cine star harboured the LTTE, allowing their training camps to run from safe havens in Tamil Nadu. MGR’s decade long rule (1977-1987) was instrumental in eliminating competing militant organisations within Sri Lanka and allowing the LTTE to fortify itself.

MGR was not the only patron of Tamil militants active in Northern Sri Lanka’s Jaffna Peninsula. Political rival Muthuvel Karunanidhi led DMK blatantly favoured fellow militant organisation Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO). Embracing the Tamil Eelam cause was a distinct feature of election propaganda of both AIADMK and DMK until Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

Karunanidhi remained conspicuously stoic as AIADMK waged war against LTTE sympathisers in 2002. Vaiko’s arrest triggered the DMK’s withdrawal from the NDA, citing the central government’s refusal to repeal POTA. Politically, this was a precursor to the 2003 Tamil Nadu assembly by-elections when Karunanidhi realised the revived acceptability of the Tamil Eelam cause.

An electoral issue

Jayalalithaa adopted an Eelam sympathising stance after her defeat in the 2006 assembly elections to the DMK. Understandably, the 2011 elections witnessed both regional juggernauts scatter for brownie points from the state’s electorate by vocally resonating these demands. By resurrecting this agenda, parties capitalise on the Tamil electorate’s sympathy towards their ethnic brethren in Sri Lanka. Surprisingly, Tamil Nadu’s voters tend to overlook the stark vagaries in these parties stance towards the Eelam issue. The Pearl of the Indian Ocean inadvertently languishes due to the populist politics of neighbouring Tamil Nadu.


One thought on “The curious case of Jayalalithaa and Tamil Eelam

  1. Its a well written article about an important issue that has been dominating the politics of the state for many years,informative and complete.

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