June 7, 2009

India’s stand was shameful, says the ‘Tamil street’

Mangai’s friend, an academic at Jaffna University, left Chennai a week before Sri Lanka announced Prabhakaran and other senior LTTE leaders had been killed in fighting. “We haven’t heard from her since and don’t know if she reached home,” says Mangai, who works in theatre. “I’m worried, but there’s nothing we can do.”
Mangai could be speaking for thousands of Tamils across the water from Sri Lanka. There is an all-pervading sense of disappointment over India’s handling of the situation — its reluctance to insist Sri Lanka end civilian casualties in the war’s final stages; its refusal to address human rights violations of Tamils in ‘welfare camps’. Ravikumar Robertson is typical of the views heard on India’s ‘Tamil street’, a loose way to denote Tamil public opinion. He accuses India of providing “soft support to the Sri Lankan army”. India, he says, “suppressed a freedom struggle. Historically and geographically, Tamil Nadu has strong links with Sri Lanka and India has insulted the feelings of Tamilians by supporting Sri Lanka. Tamils will now have to live as slaves under the Sinhalese”.
Mangai says it’s time “we protest, as Indians (because) India’s stand has been shameful. As a Tamilian, yes, it hurts more.”
To a man, the Tamil street is worried that the issue of equal rights for the 30 lakh ethnic Tamils – the core of the 26-year struggle — may be forgotten in all the rhetoric of Colombo’s ‘war on terror’.
“People have lost sight of the fact that the Tamils were being discriminated against,” says Ponni of the Alternative Law Forum, which is collecting aid and relief material. “It’s become impossible to talk of the rights of civilians without being seen as partisan. The war-on-terror tag has obscured basic issues,” she says.
Mahesh Kumar, a 30-yearold chartered accountant, is outraged. “It’s more than the issue of terrorism. Tamils there don’t have access to water, let alone health and educational facilities,” he says.
Their outrage is reinforced by dismal figures. The UN says that since 2006, there have been around 10,000 victims of forced disappearances, torture and abduction. About 3,00,000 civilians survived bullets and bombs and are now behind barbed wire fences in internment camps. And yet, says an appalled Ponni, India supported Sri Lanka’s actions at a UN Human Rights Commission meet last week. “In the name of regional politics, India, Pakistan and China have stood by Sri Lanka,” she says.
Most Tamils believe India failed to use its clout as a large neighbour to rescue Tamil civilians from LTTE-controlled areas recently. “Even now, they can press for the rehabilitation of those displaced by making provision of aid conditional,” says Ponni.
But there are others who are resigned to no-change. “The current regime (in Colombo) is very determined and no one could have made it change its stand,” says Rohith Pradeep, 29, who lived in Sri Lanka for two decades.
Pradeep believes it’s time to look ahead. “The world is a different place today from what it was in the 1950s. Society today will be more amenable towards equal rights for the Tamils. Sinhalese and the Tamils should reconcile their differences and living together as one nation.”
But that may be easier said than done. The war may have ended, but the Tamil street believes the battle for justice is yet to begin.

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