When opposition in Sri Lanka forced Karunanidhi to shelve visit

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When opposition in Sri Lanka forced Karunanidhi to shelve visit

The DMK was vociferous in its support for the Sri Lankan Tamils. Karunanidhi moved a resolution at the DMK general council meeting in 1956 against the ‘Sinhala Only’ policy. The DMK also opposed the Srimavo-Shastri Pact. Here, Karunanidhi greets Prime Miniter Sirimavo Bandaranaike at the Madras airport on January 22, 1974. 
| Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

A controversy broke out earlier this month over the non-telecast of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin’s recorded video message at the ‘Naam 200’ event organised in Colombo to commemorate the 200th year of the arrival of Indian-origin Tamils in the island nation. There were allegations that the message was not telecast because the Indian government had objected to its inclusion in the programme at the eleventh hour. Historically, the Tamil Nadu Chief Ministers always had to tread a delicate path in their relationship with the island nation owing to the complexity of the problems faced by the Tamils there. It is perhaps not just a coincidence that no sitting Chief Minister has ever visited Sri Lanka.

A cultural tour

It is worth recalling an instance in which a Chief Minister had planned a visit to the country but had to cancel it. In the late 1969, the then Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi, informed a group of Sri Lankan journalists visiting Madras that he was planning a cultural tour of the country in January 1970 following an invitation from Tamil organisations there. Opposition to the visit was immediate from some Sri Lankan political parties and Buddhist leaders. There were concerns that his visit would complicate the political situation and affect the elections planned in the island nation. The Sri Lankan newspapers discussed the issue, which was raised even in Parliament. Karunanidhi subsequently said that if the Sri Lankan government felt that his visit would affect the elections, he would cancel it. The visit did not happen. In fact, Karunanidhi was not the first DMK leader to face such an opposition. Actor-politician M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), who was born in Sri Lanka to Indian parents, faced opposition ahead of his visit to adjudicate a beauty contest, along with fellow actor B. Saroja Devi, in 1965. The Sri Lankan government, however, allowed his visit, but kept a watchful eye on him. MGR received a rousing reception from the Tamils during his visit.

Emissary of Annadurai

After the DMK came to power, when DMK leader C.P. Sitrarasu visited Sri Lanka in July 1967, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, then the Leader of the Opposition, refused to meet him unless he obtained clearance from the Protocol Division of the Ministries of Defence and External Affairs. Sitrarasu had said he had come as a special emissary of Chief Minister C.N. Annadurai to clear her misconceptions about the DMK’s intentions. However, Bandaranaike had told the media that “not one but even ten Annadurais would not be able to allay her fears about DMK designs on Ceylon” and she was quite sure that her views were shared by every Sinhalese in the country.

The strong opposition was due to the serious apprehensions the majority of the Sinhalese had about the DMK. The party was vociferous in its support for the minority Tamil population in Sri Lanka. It was Karunanidhi who moved a resolution at the DMK general council meeting in 1956, condemning the ‘Sinhala Only’ policy. The DMK also criticised the Srimavo-Shastri Pact of 1964 on the repatriation of a significant number of the hill country Tamils to India. Importantly, though by then the DMK had given up its demand for a ‘Dravida Nadu’, it was perceived by the majority Sinhalese as a separatist party with ambitions to even annex the Tamil-dominant north and eastern parts of Sri Lanka to the ‘Dravida Nadu’.

The key reason for the suspicion was the functioning of the Ceylon Dravidar Munnetra Kazhagam (Ceylon DMK), which was inspired by the ideologies of Dravidar Kazhagam founder ‘Periyar’ E.V. Ramasamy and led by A. Ilanchezhiyan, a hill country Tamil. The government proscribed the Ceylon DMK because of fears that it might work for secession of the Tamil regions from Sri Lanka.

P. Muthulingam, a political commentator and activist from Sri Lanka, who had recorded the history of the Ceylon DMK in his book Ezhuthatha Varalaru (Unwritten History), said the party worked for the hill country Tamils to get Sri Lankan citizenship and advocated eradication of castes and superstitious beliefs. He said Ilanchezhiyan was firm in his belief that Sri Lankan Tamils should have their own leadership and should not bank on Tamil Nadu leaders. Yet, the Ceylon DMK was made out to be a separatist party connected to the DMK, he said.

Assurances went in vain

Assurances from the DMK and the Ceylon DMK that they were not working together went in vain. Even while expressing his plan to visit Sri Lanka, Karunanidhi had said the DMK had nothing to do with any Tamil organisation in other parts of the world and the party’s political ideology was meant only for India. He also regretted that some newspapers in Bombay, Delhi, and Calcutta saw his becoming the Chief Minister as a threat to Sri Lanka and Indian interests.

Thirunavukkarasu Sritharan, president of the Social Democratic Party of Tamils, said the apprehensions about the DMK at that time should also be seen in the context of how the Sinhalese perceived themselves as a minority in the world, while the Tamils outnumbered them with their huge presence in India. In December 1978, the Chief Minister, MGR, had scheduled a visit to Sri Lanka after touring Japan. However, he had to skip Sri Lanka because of a cyclone that had hit the island nation and many places in Tamil Nadu. K. Kamaraj visited Sri Lanka in 1953, when he was the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee president, to inaugurate a memorial for Mahatma Gandhi at Nuwara Eliya. Thus, the spell of Tamil Nadu Chief Ministers never visiting Sri Lanka continues.

(The article relied on material from The Hindu Archives.)

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