The Sri Lankan Tamils issue has over the years been a major poll plank for political parties in Tamil Nadu but does it still strike a chord with the TN electorate?

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news 2021 Tamil Nadu Assembly Election Saturday, February 27, 2021 - 17:56

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet's recent report on post-war reconciliation in Sri Lanka has once again helped to draw the attention of the international community to the alleged human rights abuses during the civil war. The report, which is highly critical of the Lankan government, stated that nearly 12 years after the end of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, domestic initiatives have repeatedly failed to ensure justice for victims and promote reconciliation. The report also noted that the space for civil society and independent media, which had grown significantly, is now rapidly shrinking.

Across the Palk Straits, the Sri Lankan Tamils issue has over the years been a major poll plank for political parties in Tamil Nadu. However, despite recent attacks on Sri Lanka’s minorities, the issue appears not to have triggered large protests, which was a regular feature during the civil war. 

Speaking to TNM, Ramu Manivannan, Professor and Head of Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Madras, however, said it's not right to say that the people of Tamil Nadu have lost interest in the Sri Lankan Tamils issue because there are no massive protests happening. “First of all, all the protests organised in Tamil Nadu over the issue have not yielded any response from the Union government. So lately people have turned to new ways like networking with people globally through social media. Even the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights' report people are reacting and discussing on social media in a big way," he said.

Writer and DMK functionary Salma, however, pointed out that people of the state are more concerned about the loss of lives, job loss and their day-to-day struggle for survival following the COVID-19 pandemic.

And while the people of Tamil Nadu may be preoccupied with issues closer to home, with Assembly elections fast approaching, the Sri Lankan Tamil issue is back on the political radar. 

In December, the DMK’s party Treasurer and MP TR Baalu shot off a letter to the Union government demanding that Prime Minister Narendra Modi intervene to stop the abolition of the provincial councils in Sri Lanka. Not to be outdone, the ruling AIADMK took a swipe at the DMK, accusing it of hypocrisy by posting an old picture of TR Baalu and DMK MP Kanimozhi with former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on Twitter. 

The BJP too, which hopes to open its account in Tamil Nadu, reiterated that the Sri Lankan Tamil issue has been taken up with Colombo. During his February 14 visit to Chennai, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said his government is committed to ensure that Tamils in Sri Lanka live with equality, justice, peace and dignity. 

And although the Sri Lankan Tamils issue continues to be a poll plank in Tamil Nadu in 2021, the question is will parties go beyond mere rhetoric? 

Stating that his party continues to campaign for the rights of Sri Lankan Tamils, VCK MP and writer D Ravikumar stated that on February 23, he had participated in a webinar organised by the Dravidian Professionals Forum on UNHRC and Future of Sri Lankan Tamils —An International Perspective. 

Ravikumar noted that on January 31, 2021, his party leader Thol Thirumavalavan wrote to President Ram Nath Kovind seeking the Union government to bring a resolution in the UN Human Rights Council insisting that the North-East is the traditional homeland of the Tamil people as agreed in the Sri Lanka-India Accord of 1987 and urged the Sri Lankan government to immediately stop the occupation of the land.

Ravikumar alleged that even when the UN session is in progress neither the AIADMK nor the BJP government at the Centre cared to speak about the issue. These parties and the Tamil nationalist movements have only used the issue for their political gains, he alleged. "If they were really concerned about the plight of Eelam Tamils, now, when the UN session is in progress, they would've raised their voice," the MP said.

On Thursday, Ravikumar demanded the AIADMK government to pass a resolution in the state Assembly seeking a probe by the International Criminal Court (ICC) into war crimes and genocide committed by Sri Lankan government against the Tamils.

Thirumurugan Gandhi of the May 17 Movement, who has accused the DMK and the then Congress-led UPA government of failing to intervene in the final stages of the war and preventing large-scale human rights abuses on Tamils by the Sri Lankan army, admitted that focus of the Assembly Elections will be local issues. With democratic spaces continuing to shrink in India the predominant issue during this Assembly election would be the misrule of the AIADMK government and the BJP-led government at the Centre. 

"The Sri Lankan Tamils issue will only be an undercurrent during the polls" he said. 

However, DMK’s Salma alleged that the AIADMK and its allies have in the past only used the Sri Lankan issue to corner former Chief Minister and DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi as long as he was alive. “These parties hardly had any concern for the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka. After Karunanidhi's death in August 2018, the issue of Sri Lankan Tamils has hardly hogged the limelight in the state,” she noted.

As far as the ruling AIADMK goes, senior party leader E Madhusudhanan told TNM that only Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami and Deputy CM O Panneerselvam can comment on Sri Lankan Tamils issue.

AIADMK leader in the Rajya Sabha A.Navaneethakrishnan also said, "These are policy matters on which the Chief Minister or the Deputy Chief Minister could comment."

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