The Indian state Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister, a former actress of the silver-screen, has suddenly become oh so prudish that she takes offence at a cartoon illustrating an article posted on Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) website that depicted her writing ‘love letters’ to the Indian Prime Minister. The reference, she complained, was “highly [...]


Fish and Tamil Nadu CM’s chips


The Indian state Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister, a former actress of the silver-screen, has suddenly become oh so prudish that she takes offence at a cartoon illustrating an article posted on Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) website that depicted her writing ‘love letters’ to the Indian Prime Minister.

The reference, she complained, was “highly objectionable… derogatory and disrespectful”. Yet this is the same Chief Minister who nearly lost her saree when she was manhandled as she came into the State Assembly. The same Chief Minister who had her opponent, the DMK leader, arrested at midnight and taken away in his underwear by policemen on her orders. One wonders how such hardened politicians could take umbrage over a cartoon, in bad taste though it was.

True, a Government website ought to have been more circumspect, especially when the two Governments in question are tip-toeing into a new phase of bilateral relations that had soured in recent times. The Government should not have given opportunistic politicians in the southern Indian state the slightest chance to whip up anti-Sri Lankan sentiments with the new administration in New Delhi by taking this incident to the highest levels and even to Parliament. Such ‘accidents’ in the field of news dissemination are not uncommon, even in India, and a polite expression of ‘sincere regret’ may have been more appropriate.

Instead, the over-the-top “unqualified apology” given by the Sri Lankan Government has seen billboards appearing in that state as shown in our Page 2 picture today.
The Chief Minister’s complaint is only over the cartoon, and not so much the contents of the article that dealt with a serious on-going issue — the insidious and illegal poaching by Tamil Nadu fishermen in Sri Lankan waters. Her view on the poaching question is akin to a thief breaking in to someone else’s house and saying that the house belonged to him — or her.

The new BJP Government, despite professions of its principled stance in governance, has not shifted from the ‘look the other way’ policy of its predecessor, the Congress Government, on the poaching issue. In Tamil Nadu, the reaction to the cartoon has been a backlash common in that state. In politically motivated and orchestrated attacks, the SriLankan Airlines office in Trichy has been targeted, a Lankan-owned furniture shop in Coimbatore destroyed, and a visiting schoolboy cricket team asked to head home.

It was similar to the reaction over the Prophet Mohamed cartoon in a Danish newspaper, except that the Chief Minister is not a prophet – yet. She is a politician, in a democracy, and a political leader must get out of the kitchen if he or she cannot handle the fire. Clearly this incident had different and more sinister undertones. The Tamil Nadu politicians, who want to prove they are more Tamil than the others (even though they are depriving the poor Tamil fishermen of the north of Sri Lanka of their livelihood), are looking for a straw to cling on, to scuttle any attempts by the new Indian Government in New Delhi at normalising relations with Sri Lanka.

That is why the reaction to the cartoon was a diabolic ploy. In Sri Lanka poaching is a defence matter as well. It is the Sri Lanka Navy that is receiving flak for arresting Indian fishermen. The Tamil Nadu Government already has an axe to grind with the Lankan defence establishment for eliminating the LTTE, whom they bred and fed. They grabbed the opportunity therefore to pounce on the MoD and to poison the Prime Minister’s mind.

Meanwhile, the poaching issue remains unresolved. The whole question is not just about the livelihood of Tamil Nadu fishermen who have already exhausted stocks by over-fishing in their waters, but one that involves the Tamil Nadu state Government’s revenue sources and its links with the political parties of the state. The Sri Lankan Government would do well to remember that Tamil Nadu is fertile ground for the BJP Government to move into, and make its entre into the south having made a clean sweep of the north. For this the BJP will need to play to the sentiments of the Tamilian people accustomed to whipping this country. The Tamil Nadu state elections are due in early 2016 and the BJP is eyeing the state now in the hands of the Chief Minister’s party (AIADMK).

For now, the new Government in New Delhi seems, ex-facie, reluctant to be dictated to by the federal states, especially when it comes to foreign affairs matters. It seemingly has some sympathy for the Colombo Government that faces similar pressures from the Northern Provincial Council. But it is a lesson on what thin ice Colombo is skating on when dealing with India.
Wake up, take your place
At a time when the President of the Bar Association (BASL) is being tailed by a law enforcement spy agency in some cloak and dagger, not-so covert operation, comments made at a memorial oration by the head of the Department of Law of the University of Peradeniya merit some reflection.There is broad agreement, Prof. Deepika Udugama believes, that something is radically wrong with our political culture which she refers to quite bluntly as the “political rot”. But, she adds, only a few acknowledge the linkage between civic disengagement and the crisis in democracy.

In other words, it is the apathy of the public, the silent majority so to say, and their stoic silence on issues that affect their lives and that of the nation. Then, you find the deliberate and systematic exclusion of the public from matters that impact on socio-economic-political life on the singular basis that periodic elections are the be-all and end-all of the citizens’ participation in nation-building.

The learned professor goes on to say that the uppermost solution to the problematic trajectory of governance is the need for good laws, but quickly adds a caveat; “We see how laws, including the Constitution are so blatantly violated with impunity today”. Her point is that, looking to the future, a whole new mindset is required; one that must begin with a change in the education system. The system must transform students from merely passing exams to encouraging free thinking, rewarding unorthodoxy and outspokenness, volunteerism and civic duty, and to assess a whole range of skills before judging a student’s academic performance. That requires a radical out-of-the-box approach, but the US educational system already has such a system in place for study.

As for the present situation, the citizens need to decide “whether we are going to wait for change or recognise our power and worth as citizens and be the driving force of the new beginning we wish for”. The professor may not really be advocating an ‘Arab Spring’ style popular uprising, but rather for each citizen to be more civic conscious on the state of the union and active in supporting measures for good governance instead of leaving it to a coterie in power and place to determine the future of 20 million people.

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