By N Sathiya Moorthy
The Monday morning arrest of former Minister of State and ruling UNP’s known Tamil woman’s face, Vijayakala Maheswaran, that too on what could tantamount to ‘terrorism charges’ has raised more questions than answering any. Though Vijayakala may not have non-UNP Tamil sympathisers and supporters thus far, her arrest, even more than her controversial speech on the LTTE, may have won her friends and voters, already, back home in Jaffna Peninsula.
The arrest follows weeks of intermittent reports, deriving from her public speech at a Government function in Jaffna some months ago. It was a political speech, so to say, but Vijayakala seemed to have touched some raw nerves at the wrong places in Government and politics. She spoke about the sense of insecurity of and for women in the Tamil areas, which has forced people to think that they needed the LTTE back.
Terrorism apart, the LTTE’s bloody reign in the Tamil areas for close to three decades had driven the fear of god into petty criminals and other wrong-doers, big and small. A disciplined and disciplining outfit that it was and a disciplinarian that LTTE supremo Prabhakaran was, there was no gainsaying that there was no room – leave alone time and mood – for anything but bloody clashes with the armed forces on the one hand and fellow-Tamil militant groups on the other. Crimes, barred under the nation’s penal laws and the common man’s moral code was no-no, punishable with execution, LTTE style.
Scapegoat or what
The first and foremost question that comes to mind is if Vijayakala has been made a political scapegoat for those pandering to ‘Sinhala nationalist’ sentiments, when presidential poll talks have been bothering the nation more than any other single subject. It is one thing for Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is also Vijayakala’s party boss, to ask her to quit ministerial office, pending an internal inquiry first, and also a police investigation.
It is another matter in bigger crimes of the kind, including the multi-billion ‘Central Bank bonds scam’, no one was even summoned to the police station for a formal inquiry until the political pressure became unbearable. By readily submitting to the political Opposition’s demand for a Presidential Commission, incumbent Maithripala Sirisena, and also PM Wickremesinghe, not only sought to ease the political pressure on the young coalition Government for the time. They were also seeking to delay taking the scam to the police.
Not in the case of Vijayakala Maheswaran, who anyway was/is less of an active politician and more of the widow of slain parliamentarian Maheswaran. His death caused her nomination for the UNP ticket, and her Tamil woman identity made her a junior Minister. But today, a singular public speech for which alone she has been quoted in the past decade or so, has not only made her an alleged ‘criminal’ under the law but even more of a popular face than otherwise.
Yet, the question remains, why Vijayakala and Vijayakala alone? If it was acts of crime other than of the ‘pro-LTTE variety’ then there are enough ministers even of Cabinet rank, who should have been hauled up for other offences. If it was the ‘LTTE-sympathy kind’, then again there are enough Tamil leaders from regional and sub-regional Tamil parties, and not just representing the Tamil community, who have said enough.
With the ministerial berth gone and the police case following now, Vijayakala can now forget getting a UNP nomination for a Jaffna seat in the parliamentary polls of 2019. Before that, it is not impossible that she may have to lose her parliamentary seat, too, like the ministerial berth otherwise. Under the PR poll-scheme, her seat, in that case, could go to another UNP leader.
Thankfully, there won’t be fresh elections for that seat, if and when it fell vacant on this count. And Government parties don’t want any elections any time sooner if they could avoid. Already, Minister Faizer Musthapha has indicated that the pending Provincial Council polls across the country could be delayed more than already.
For now, Vijayakala’s arrest may have stolen the headline for a day. It may have also deflected the nation’s attention from more pressing problems facing the Government and the ruling coalition, and its individual partners. One swallow a summer does not make, and one solitary arrest or one day’s headline does not take away the problems facing the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe leadership.
If there were to be evidence that Vijayakala had done more than making that otherwise caution-filled speech, to show that she had more than even sympathised with the LTTE, the Government leadership will have lot more to explain. If not, there can be problems galore on that score too, and Vijayakala could well become one more ‘Tamil victim of the great Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinistic conspiracy’.
Who knows, Vijayakala’s defence might then challenge her arrest on larger issues, going up to the Supreme Court. In this era of heightened rights to speech and speech alone, the Supreme Court in neighbouring India decided about a decade ago that ‘speaking in support of an organisation banned under anti-terrorism law does not amount to an act of terror, punishable under the special law for the purpose’.
The case incidentally involved the LTTE. The alleged ‘offender’ was southern Tamil Nadu political leader Vaiko, whose name is not unfamiliar to Sri Lankans, both Tamils and Sinhalas. Yes, Vaiko had spoken in a public rally, backing LTTE, and the Government of AIADMK Chief Minister Jayalalithaa had him arrested dramatically, as he arrived from a US trip – and at the airport, after days of pre-publicity and media speculation.
If Vijayakala’s arrest is aimed as a warning to other ‘pro-LTTE’ public speakers, political leaders and editorial writers in the Tamil areas and language in particular, then there could be more of it coming. After all, the Tamil-majority Northern Province’s controversial Chief Minister, former Supreme Court Justice, C V Wigneswaran, has led his TNA-led Provincial Council to pass close to 50 resolutions that could be dubbed ‘anti-national’ otherwise, if not ‘pro-LTTE’ and literally so.
In his controversial(?) UNGA address only weeks ago, President Sirisena just dismissed the co-sponsored UNHRC resolution on ‘war crimes probe’ and ‘accountability issues’ as if they were never there on the table at any point in time during the post-war past. He told the world to stay away, and in the same vein declared that his Government has been progressing steadily on ethnic reconciliation.
Back home, Sirisena promptly declared, that too in the company of TNA boss and Parliament’s Leader of the Opposition, R Sampathan, to tell the armed forces to vacate all ‘occupied lands’ in the erstwhile Tamil-inhabited war areas in the North and the East – and, all of it by the year-end. Whether he had conferred with the armed forces for one last time before making the announcement, or if the security agencies would want to abide by the ‘presidential directive’ made from a public platform.
Vijayakala’s UNP, under Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, did not react either way in any serious manner to Sirisena’s UNGA address and also to his direction for the armed forces to return the Tamil lands to their owners. Nor has the armed forces, nor the ubiquitous UNP Cabinet rank Minister, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, who had led the armed forces in the decisive ‘Eelam War IV’.
Interestingly, the SLPP-JO of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa too has been looking the other way on both issues, and for most parts. They all want the Tamil votes, whatever the number. Even more importantly, they do not want the world to continue thinking that they all are ‘Tamil-unfriendly’, yet.
But then Vijayakala’s arrest, for a speech that she had made four months ago, and which the speaker possibly and the rest of the nation, mostly, have forgotten, does not send out the message that this Government loves Tamils more than the previous Rajapaksa regime, and also demonstrably so. The demonstration, in the form of the arrest now, says exactly the opposite, instead.
Better or worse still, the Government and the UNP leadership went through motions of internal inquiries and external consultation (with the Attorney-General’s Office, in the case of the police investigations), as if to be seen as being fair and non-partisan by the alleged offender. That, to Vijayakala and many Tamils, for right reasons and wrong, may have been the most hurting part in the whole episode!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:firstname.lastname@example.org)