When Karunanidhi became chief minister for the first time following Annadurai’s death in 1969, he proudly announced that he had chosen a hymn in praise of Tamil Tai (Tamil mother) to be sung at all government functions. The song, Neerarum Kadaluduththa, composed by Professor Sundaram Pillai, became in effect the anthem of the state.

The metaphor of the Tamil language as mother and the Tamils as her children strengthened the emotional appeal of the language issue, evoking feelings of devotion to the mother tongue and serving to unite all Tamils, irrespective of caste, gender and even borders. The involvement of Tamil Nadu and its political leaders in the Sri Lankan Tamil issue should be seen in this context.

Before the 1980s, there was little popular concern in Tamil Nadu about discrimination against Tamils in Sri Lanka. But 1981 onward, the harrowing stories narrated by Tamil refugees arriving in Tamil Nadu, the burning down of the famous Jaffna Public Library over 31 May-1 June 1981 and the week-long anti-Tamil violence in Sri Lanka aroused widespread anger and sympathy for the Sri Lankan Tamils. Soon thereafter, MGR and Karunanidhi met Indira Gandhi separately in Delhi, urging the prime minister to protect Sri Lankan Tamils.

The Dravidian party leaders competed with each other in supporting and patronising the rival militant Sri Lankan Tamil groups, many of whom took refuge in Tamil Nadu.

Activists of the DK, the DMK and smaller Tamil parties forged close links with Sri Lankan Tamil militant groups and conducted an extensive drive throughout Tamil Nadu to build public awareness and support for their cause. The DMK demanded protection of the civil rights of Sri Lankan Tamils and came out in support of eelam in its manifesto.

The AIADMK under MGR also spoke up for their Tamil brethren in the island nation, and they supported agitations for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause, at least partly in order to contain Karunanidhi who tried to project himself as “thamizhina thalaivar” (leader of the Tamil community). The Congress government at the Centre too aided MGR’s efforts.

As chief minister MGR could give more patronage to the militants and had thus won over the Liberation of Tamil Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE). He got them to promise not to take any help from the DMK. But though MGR did not officially support their demand for Eelam, he reportedly provided armed support to their secessionist movement.

Riding the tiger

There were, however, limits to the empathy with which people of Tamil Nadu regarded Sri Lankan Tamils. Though Dravidian activists referred to Sri Lankan Tamils as “blood of our own blood”, this was perceived by the general public as mere rhetoric, since there were historical and cultural differences between the Tamils of India and Sri Lanka.

Gradually, sympathy in Tamil Nadu declined because the Sri Lankan refugees brought violence and unrest along with them. Suddenly, country bombs began exploding in rural areas of Tamil Nadu, while thefts and loot were on the increase in urban areas. The Sri Lankan guerrilla groups were engaged in a fratricidal war. There was general public apprehension at the speed with which the groups, especially the LTTE, were spreading their network all over the state by the late 1980s.

Karunanidhi had been disillusioned with the militant groups even earlier, soon after he convened the Tamil Eelam Supporters Organisation (TESO) conference on 4 May 1986 in Madurai, inviting leaders from all over India. The idea was to advise all the militant groups whose goal presumably was the same – to strive for a separate Eelam or for greater autonomy in governance – to come together.

NT Rama Rao, chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, HM Bahuguna and leaders from Punjab, Kashmir and Karnataka attended, all with one pertinent question. They agreed that the Sri Lankan government’s repressive actions needed to be condemned and they must all jointly impress upon the Indian government to take this up with seriousness. But were all the militant groups together?

Karunanidhi assured them of having categorically told the groups to work together. They had given him their word and he believed them.

On what basis did Karunanidhi give this assurance? He had no direct contact with Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the LTTE. It was MGR who was his patron – he allegedly gave Prabhakaran Rs 4 crore and forbade him to have any dealings with Karunanidhi.

‘Shocked and repulsed’

Though Karunanidhi was genuinely concerned about the plight of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, he felt the LTTE had betrayed his trust more than once, by resorting to violence. He recalled, “We were all moved by the Tamils’ plight. Those boys, Prabhakaran and his companions, looked so innocent and gentle in their manner. But when their violent deeds came to light, I was absolutely shocked and repulsed.”

Karunanidhi knew Sri Sabaratnam, leader of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation, and had become fond of him. When he got information that Sabaratnam had been captured by the LTTE and was to be executed, Karunanidhi urgently called up “Baby” Subramaniam, the head of the LTTE’s education division, to tell him that Sabaratnam was like his brother, even closer than his brother, and he should not be killed. Soon thereafter, he was shocked to learn that Sabaratnam had been tortured and killed on 6 May 1986, just two days after his TESO conference in Madurai.

Rajiv Gandhi, then prime minister, wished to solve the problem by persuading the militant groups and the Sri Lankan government to come to the table for a dialogue. Sri Lankan President JR Jayewardene didn’t like the Tamil Nadu chief minister MGR and other leaders giving arms and cash to the LTTE. The LTTE, the most ruthless of the groups, was the stumbling block. Since Prabhakaran had received a lot of help from MGR, he was expected to listen to him. But Prabhakaran was not amenable to holding any talks, and MGR asked the Tamil Nadu IGP Mohan Das to confiscate all the weapons given to Prabhakaran.

In protest, Prabhakaran went on a fast. Fearing it would upset prospects of a peace accord the Centre announced it was neither consulted nor informed. Karunanidhi too joined the bandwagon and criticised MGR’s orders against Prabhakaran.

While Karunanidhi had often spoken against the LTTE’s violence, he was against the arms being taken back from them, which according to him had been given for their self-defence in the civil war in Sri Lanka.

Faced with criticism from the Centre and fearing the consequences of Prabhakaran’s fast, MGR retreated and the weapons were handed back to Prabhakaran.

India then held talks with the Sri Lankan government to try to negotiate peace between them and the militant groups. MGR, as chief minister of Tamil Nadu, was called for the talks, and asked to negotiate with Prabhakaran. Prabhakaran remained steadfast in his refusal to participate in the peace talks, and MGR returned to Chennai disappointed. Nevertheless, the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord was signed on 29 July 1987 in the presence of the other militant groups in Colombo.

Four days later, at a meeting convened by the Congress party at the Marina in Chennai, MGR (his party was once again an ally of the Congress) lauded the decision to send the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to Jaffna for the protection of the Tamils.

The IPKF debacle

What the Indian government did not expect was that the LTTE and the IPKF would battle each other. Prabhakaran and his followers were convinced that the IPKF had been sent to undermine their position. The general public in Sri Lanka had initially welcomed the IPKF, but with constant conflicts between the IPKF and the LTTE, they were now wary about its presence.

Under pressure to react, Karunanidhi, once again chief minister, spoke critically of the Indo-Sri Lanka accord and severely condemned the excesses of the IPKF. He had once requested the Centre to send the Indian army to protect the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Now he demanded that it be called back.

In 1989, V.P. Singh became the prime minister, heading the Janata Dal coalition government after Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress were defeated in the general elections held that year. V.P. Singh realized that sending the IPKF to Sri Lanka had been a mistake and asked them to return to India.

When the IPKF troops landed in Chennai in 1990 Karunanidhi, who was chief minister, refused to go and receive them. He felt compelled to keep up his image as ‘the protector of the Tamil community’. Though he had expressed his disapproval of the LTTE’s ruthless killings of fellow militants and Sri Lankan leaders, it was a grave misjudgement on his part to have encouraged the LTTE to roam freely and spread their wings in Tamil Nadu, not realising it would be a threat to the security and sovereignty of the country as a whole.

N Ram observes, “There was no love lost between Kalaignar and Prabhakaran” as he was “very moderate and was against violence”. Yet why Karunanidhi hesitated to take strict action to curb the militants even when he was in power is a question that remains unanswered.

Karunanidhi The Definitive Biography

Excerpted with permission from Karunanidhi: The Definitive Biography, Vaasanthi, Juggernaut Books.