Waving the Tamil card

BY MAYA RANGANATHAN| IN Regional Media | 02/09/2011
The rejection of the clemency petition of those involved in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination and the debate over capital punishment has provided the opportunity for some Tamil publications to wave the ethnic card again,
writes MAYA RANGANATHAN. Pix: Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan
Even as the national media was weaning itself from the staple diet of Anna Hazare’s fast, the regional media in Tamil Nadu moved on to another issue, an issue that could be built to a similar crescendo and could evoke equally strong emotions among its readers. On August 27, 2011, the date of the hanging of the three convicts holed up in the Vellore prison in connection with the assassination of former President Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 was announced and the regional media in Tamil Nadu has been occupied with little else since .

Relating as it does to one of the most dastardly political crimes in recent memory in the State and the fact that the  last hanging in the Vellore prison was 28 years ago, it is clear why the issue featured on the front page of every newspaper in the region, English or Tamil.  Besides, it also turned the spotlight on one of the most contentious issues in ‘human rights’ and jurisprudence --  whether civilised society should use capital punishment as a deterrence when world over it was abhorred.

However, what adds significance to the issue in Tamil Nadu, a region that is in ‘close proximity’ to the Tamils in Sri Lanka, is that the three convicts to be hanged were not only Tamils but were supposedly associated with the struggle to free the Tamils from the ‘oppressive’ Sri Lankan state. Both Murugan and Santhan are Sri Lankan Tamils and Perarivalan hails from Jolarpet in Vellore district in Tamil Nadu. Scholarship and opinion is divided over the nature of the connection between the Tamil-speaking populations in India and Sri Lanka and elsewhere. For instance, Krishna (1999) has pointed out the divergences in the two Tamil nationalisms. Popular English press in the region and a few Tamil publications have viewed the Sri Lankan Tamil ethnic issue through the prism of Indian nationalism. However, political leaders such as Vaiko of Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and P Nedumaran of Tamil Eelam Supporters Co-ordination Committee and a majority of the Tamil publications, especially the magazines, consider the ties between the Tamils in Sri Lanka and India as ‘umbilical’. The difference in approach was most apparent in the divergent narratives in the English and Tamil popular magazines during the days leading up to the denouement of the civil war in Sri Lanka in May 2009.

The dichotomy between the English and the Tamil press is visible this time round too. Among the English dailies, it is only The Hindu that has made clear its stand against capital punishment repeatedly; The New Indian Express and The Deccan Chronicle  Times of India,  DinamaniDinakaran have, in their editorials berated the undue delay of 11 years and 4 months in deciding on the clemency petition and cited various reasons in support of  abolishing capital punishment. They however, underplay the ethnic angle but argue on humanitarian grounds for the revocation. and has lamented the ethnic colour lent to the issue by the Tamil Nadu legislature by passing a resolution calling for the commuting of the death sentences. On the other hand, Tamil dailieshas blamed the delay in deciding on mercy petitions by the President for the current clamour in the State for revocation .

What is of most interest and significance are the frames employed by popular Tamil magazines to cover the issue. For the Vikatan group of publications that has for some years now been unabashedly sympathetic not just to the Tamil cause but also to the violent means of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to the extent of deifying LTTE leader supremo V Prabhakaran, this was an issue too good to ignore. Junior Vikatan dated Aug 31, 2011 reproduced an appeal made by Perarivalan to Chief Minister J Jayalalitha. The story ended with the following lines, freely translated: “Will the three forsaken lives be saved by the legal struggles? They await with tears, the Tamils who only know to suffer!”  The issue also carried an interview with Congress functionary Tiruchi Velusamy, whose affidavit led to the constitution of the Multi-Disciplinary Monitoring Agency (MDMA) to probe the conspiracy angle, raising doubts about the manner in which the probe was conducted implying that the real culprits were let off scot-free for political reasons. Another report in the same issue quotes Tamizharuvi Manian, an advocate who quit the Congress party in 2006 in protest against its stand on the Sri Lankan ethnic issue, urging the Chief Minister to cut the noose hanging over the heads of the three Tamils.

The agenda is followed in the current issue dated Sept 4, 2011 that reports the immolation of 20-year-old Chenkodi in protest against the death sentence, followed by a report on the fast-unto-death by three female advocates of the Madras High Court since Aug 26, 2011. Another report highlights Vaiko’s efforts on behalf of crores of Tamils to persuade a busy Ram Jethmalani to make time to save the three Tamil lives. It is reported that a visibly-moved Jethmalani told Vaiko, “The lives of three Tamils are most important. Payment is of no concern.” Yet another is a piece on the sombre mood that prevailed among the three convicts in the high security Vellore prison when the news of rejection of clemency petition was conveyed to them by their lawyers. It even paints the jailors as downcast as they had become fond of the convicts. In another report, Ranganath in whose house in the outskirts of Bangalore, Sivarasan and Subha spent their last days, implicates self-styled Godman Chandraswami in the case, which is countered by former SP Ragothaman. The lone report that stands out contains the statements of TNCC-I chief K V Thangkabalu and state BJP president Pon Radhakrishnan who warn that democracy will be compromised if the death sentences are not carried out.

Kumudam Reporter in its issue dated Sept 4, 2011 carried on its cover page a picture of Harithra, the daughter of Murugan and Nalini born in prison and now a medical student in the UK, and a cover story on her pleading for the life of her father, who she claims is innocent. In an interview format, the question and answers are rounded off with the comment: “those concerned, please heed to Harithra’s pleas.” The current issue dated Sept 8, 2011 carries a report describing the emotionally-surcharged atmosphere in the Madras High Court when the case for stay of the hanging was heard, when ‘the entire Tamil community waited with bated breath.’ The report ends with the line “it has been proven again that just struggles will end in victory.”

The reasons for the employment of the Tamil card lie not just in the cultural, social and political, but in the economic too. In a State that has been left bereft of the ‘other’ with the end of the anti-Hindi agitation, the oppressed and victimised Tamils in neighbouring state have allowed for the anointment of a new enemy. Unlike the Tamil dailies, both the Vikatan and Kumudan group of publications are paid subscription sites. The former charges in Indian rupees as well as US dollars, but the latter charges only in US dollars. While online readership figures are not readily available, from the online interactions in the Vikatan website it is clear that a sizeable number of readers are of Sri Lankan Tamil origin spread across the world. The inclusive Tamil identity is perhaps aimed at them. But it is not without takers in the State as well, as can be seen from the agitations  that follow and fuel the media frenzy. 


Krishna.S, 1999, Post Colonial insecurities: India, Sri Lanka and the Question of Nationhood, Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, pp.59-101.
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