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India feels threat of Balkanisation

As India struggles to maintain a ceasefire in Kashmir, its territorial integrity comes under yet more threats, this time from secessionists in the south of the country, reports Luke Harding

Special report: Kashmir

Monday November 27, 2000

There is one word, which every senior Indian government politician dreads. It begins with S: secessionism.
Ever since India achieved its independence from Britain, various ethnic groups within the subcontinent have demanded independence.

There have been insurgencies in the north-eastern states, the Punjab and Kashmir. It is Kashmir, above all, which has come closest to breaking away from New Delhi. An uprising against Indian rule in the valley, abetted by Pakistan, has been going on now for more than 10 years.

Pakistan feels it was cheated out of Kashmir at Partition. India insists that Kashmir is an integral part of the Indian state. To let it go, so the thinking goes, would lead to India's inexorable Balkanisation.

And yet the latest, and most insidious, threat to India's territorial integrity comes not from the north but from the south. To be precise, Tamil Nadu, a region of some 60m Tamils, who ostensibly have little in common with their Hindi-speaking northern neighbours.

Over the weekend, a series of posters sprung up next to bus stations in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, featuring Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who celebrates his 46th birthday today. He is dressed in military fatigues and smiles into the camera. Mr Prabhakaran has spent the last 17 years masterminding a deadly guerrilla war in Sri Lanka. His aim is a separate Tamil state in the north of the island.

But to the alarm of India's Hindu-nationalist leaders, Prabhakaran's influence is steadily growing within Tamil Nadu itself.

This was dramatically illustrated two weeks ago when the bandit, Veerappan, himself a Tamil, finally released his matinee idol hostage, Rajkumar, after holding him in the jungle for 108 days. The man who negotiated Rajkumar's release was P Nedumaran, a known LTTE supporter, and extreme Tamil nationalist politician.

As the hostage crisis dragged on, it became clear that Veerappan was working closely with a previously obscure radical Tamil nationalist group, the Tamil Nationalist Liberation Army. Some sources suggest that Nedumaran came bearing a message from Prabhakaran, and it was this that swung Rajkumar's release. They also suggest the payment of a hefty ransom, which will almost certainly be channeled towards the extremist Tamil movement.

With Rajkumar free, Indian special forces are now poised with the backing of New Delhi to launch a commando operation to flush Veerappan out of the Tamil Nadu forests. But the operation has another subtext: to crush the growing threat of Tamil separatism.

It was, of course, an LTTE suicide bomber who carried out the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, India's prime minister, in 1991. The organization has been proscribed in India ever since. Tamil nationalist groups have enjoyed only sporadic support over the last 10 years, but the Rajkumar affair appears to demonstrate that they are now gaining ground.

Only a narrow coastal channel separates southern Tamil Nadu from Sri Lanka's Jaffna peninsula. Were the LTTE ever to succeed across the water, so the reasoning goes, it would be only a matter of time before they turn their attention to liberating their ethnic Tamil brothers in Tamil Nadu itself.

Within Sri Lanka, Prabhakaran's customary birthday message is more keenly awaited this year than usual. In May, the LTTE seemed on the brink of a decisive victory, when they came within a few miles of recapturing Jaffna, the town they lost to Sri Lankan government troops five years ago.

Since then the Sri Lankan army, aided by new Israeli hardware, has decisively halted the LTTE's advance. Earlier this month, the Norwegian special envoy, Eric Solheim, met Prabhakaran. He announced that the rebels were ready to resume talks without preconditions with the Sri Lankan government, raising hopes that a negotiated solution to Sri Lanka's protracted civil war might just be possible. Such an outcome would also delight the weakening Indian state, as it finds itself held to ransom by one bandit, and the darker, more menacingly chauvinist forces that he represents.


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