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Indian Tamil vote may be polarized

The minority Indian Tamil community vote may be divided since a young, pro-Tamil Tiger guerrilla political party has decided to contest alone this time.

india Updated: Mar 25, 2004 11:48 IST

The vote of Sri Lanka's minority Indian Tamil community is likely to be sharply divided in the April 2 parliamentary polls because a young, pro-Tamil Tiger guerrilla political party has decided to contest alone this time, threatening the votebank of the community's main representative, the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC).

The newer party, Upcountry People's Front (UPF), is known to be pro- the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Led by an outspoken politician, P. Chandrasekaran, it has tremendous appeal among disgruntled Indian Tamil youths.

Their resentment stems from the fact that Indian Tamils fare worse than their Sri Lankan counterparts on many counts. Their literacy rate is 65 percent while the national figure is 92. Life expectancy of an Indian Tamil is 63 while the country's average is 73. When it comes to daily income, the national figure is US $3 per day while Indian Tamils make only US $1.4.

In comparison to the UPF, the CWC, which was founded in 1950, has great appeal among the older generation of Indian Tamils, most of whom are plantation workers. These people do not want to upset their relations with the majority Sinhala community and are not keen to fight for a change in their status and more rights, something the UPF strongly advocates.

The CWC was instrumental in securing whatever rights the neglected Indian Tamil community won, including citizenship. It was formed following a request made to Indian leaders Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru by the Tamils. The party was considered an undisputed political force in the plantation sector till the emergence of the UPF in 1989.

The base of the CWC is the hill district of Nuwara Eliya in the Central Province, where 60 percent, or 400,000, of the district population are Indian Tamils. The small community numbers around 1.5 million in Sri Lanka.

The threat to the CWC was made apparent in 1994, when the UPF contested the polls and won one out of seven seats from the district. The CWC, which usually wins four seats, retained only three.

The UPF consolidated its base in the 2001 elections, when CWC leader Arumugam Thandaman polled 121,542 preferential (individual) votes while UPF's Chandrasekaran followed close on his heels with 121,421 votes.

Both parties contested in 2000 and 2001 under the banner of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's United National Party (UNP).

But after President Chandrika Kumaratunga dissolved Parliament and declared snap polls in February, the UNP decided it would contest alone this time round. The CWC will stay with the UNP.

Till the nomination deadline of February 24, the UPF was making every effort to align with the LTTE proxy, Tamil National Alliance, the main party for Sri Lankan Tamils contesting in the northern and eastern provinces.

The aim of this move was to form a grand alliance of minority Tamils -- Sri Lankan Tamils in the north and east and Tamils of Indian origin in the Central Province -- in a bid to maximize the pro-LTTE representation in Parliament.

The attempts did not materialize because of regional differences.

Many now fear the UPF's decision to contest alone will expose the divisions in the Indian Tamil vote, and consequentially reduce their already limited political bargaining power.

Remarks S. Arulsamy, a former CWC provincial councilor turned UPF candidate, "The CWC leaders enjoy perks and ministerial privileges. But they fail to address basic issues like housing and unemployment. It is thanks to their lethargy that 90 percent of the Indian Tamils still live as laborers in the plantations."

The UPF is quite popular among Indian Tamil youths who are angry about the lack of employment opportunities and the Sri Lankan Tamil population in the district of Nuwara Eliya.

Says Pujitha Manawadu, Nuwara Eliya organizer of the UNP, "The UPF, with its revolutionary slogans, is attracting the youth vote. Also, with its LTTE links, it will get the bulk of the Jaffna Tamil votes in the district."

Manawadu thinks the CWC will be able to retain the three seats it holds in the district, but adds, "Whichever way the vote goes, the UNP will be the winner. The UPF, through going solo, is likely to help the UNP form the next government if it wins more seats than Kumaratunga's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led alliance."

The parents of Indian Tamils are worried about the CWC's growing popularity. They allege the UPF is instigating youths to revolt and demanding they express solidarity with the LTTE, which has for two decades fought a guerrilla war that has claimed around 60,000 lives and displaced thousands of people.

Complains estate laborer Appadorai Ramanathan from Pedro Estate, Nuwara Eliya, "We don’t like the way Chandrasekaran instigates our sons to revolt. Our living standards are much better now than what they were a few years ago. We enjoy harmonious relations with the Sinhalese. Chandrasekaran's agenda is to upset this stability." Ramanathan has a teenage son.

Chandrasekaran is heavily criticized by nationalist parties like the SLFP, Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Sinhala Urumaya for his publicized remarks that Tamils should fight for a separate state if their demands aren't met.

Discloses casual labourer Suresh Kandasamy, the father of a four-year-old son, "We saw very difficult times but now things have improved. Chandrasekaran's plan is to get our youths to join the LTTE and promote separatism. The CWC is the only party we can trust and we owe almost everything to them."

He adds, "The division of the Indian Tamil vote due to Chandrasekaran's moves will only see us losing our bargaining power."

Arulsamy dismisses the charges against the party and its leader. "There is no basis to these allegations. All we want is unity among Indian and Sri Lankan Tamils."

He offers, "Since it was only the CWC that represented Indian Tamils for the last five decades, people are a little skeptical about the new entrants."

Remarks political analyst Upul Joseph Fernando, "There seems to be a steady increase in Chandrasekaran's popularity. But rather than the quality of politics, it has more to do with people's desire to try various political choices."

Fernando predicts that the UPF is likely to pose a huge threat to the CWC in the near future.

First Published: Mar 25, 2004 11:48 IST