While the Parliament was debating nationalism on Wednesday, some Tamil politicians were lining up to greet the assassin of Rajiv Gandhi.
The two speeches were noteworthy, albeit for different reasons. On Wednesday, while Union Minister for Human Resource Development Smriti Irani spoke in Lok Sabha with histrionics, Sugata Bose of the Trinamool Congress gave a speech laden with history. While Irani exhorted MPs to be sensitive to slogans that denigrate the nation or honour its attackers, Bose reminded his listeners that by today’s standards, Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote India’s national anthem, would be deemed anti-national.
At the time this debate was playing out in the Lok Sabha, across the Vindhyas, in the distant city of Chennai, a 48-year-old woman named Nalini Sriharan was being greeted at her home by Thol. Thirumavalavan, the leader of the regional political party Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi.
Nalini was back at home to attend the last rites of her 92-year-old father. She has been in prison for the past 25 years and was granted parole for a day by the Tamil Nadu chief minister. Although initially handed death sentence, Nalini’s punishment was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment. Her crime: the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
Gandhi’s killing was masterminded by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a militant outfit that waged a secessionist insurgency to create an independent state in Sri Lanka for Tamil people. Every year, VCK celebrates the birthday of LTTE founder Velupillai Prabhakaran, as does Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, another regional party in Tamil Nadu. VCK and MDMK are legitimate and active political outfits in Tamil Nadu. MDMK, in fact, was in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2014 general elections. Nearly 2 million people voted for the MDMK and VCK in those polls.
On Wednesday, Thirumavalavan urged that Nalini “should be allowed to lead a normal life”, as other political leaders who are sympathetic to the cause of the Tamils in Sri Lanka joined in to greet Nalini.
Is Tamil Nadu different?
Leaders of MDMK and VCK routinely put up posters of Prabhakaran and give rousing speeches in his praise. No, these leaders are not in jail for extolling the virtues of a former militant who killed a former prime minister of this country. They actually contest elections and draw the support of 2 million people in Tamil Nadu. And no, these 2 million voters are not in jail either.
How is it that in one of the largest states in India, it is normal for big political leaders to praise the killers of a former prime minister, while in another part, we squirm when a few twenty-somethings sloganeer on a university campus? Are Tamilians anomalous? Turns out, Tamil Nadu ranks among the top of all Indian states in human development indicators, in gross domestic product and across social indicators. This is not to imply that embracing militants is a requisite for a progressive society but to show that perhaps a liberal society’s acceptance of plurality of views is not antithetical to its development.
How is it that in the same country, we are able to tolerate support for killers of a prime minister while also enraging over some rebellious students mouthing slogans of support for another militant? Do the Vindhyas render such starkly different social climates? Should we, as a nation, be proud or ashamed of the freedom that these leaders of VCK and MDMK enjoy in Tamil Nadu? Or do we take refuge under that perennial “diversity of India” notion and accept that both can coexist?
Published on 22 February, 2016 in Scroll