Is TN sinking into insularity?

Some recent developments in Tamil Nadu have taken its much-avowed cosmopolitan spirit to a new low. They have almost overturned one of its own classical Sangam-age poet Kaniyan Poongundran’s famous lines, penned over 2,000 years ago, that “Yaadum oore, yaavarum kelir” (‘To us all towns are one, all men are our kin’).

The developments only reinforce a profound irony of our times: for all the commitment to ‘Inclusive growth and development’, sub-texts of insularity keeps popping up, forcing a re-assessment of the basics hitherto taken for granted. Two recent headline-grabbing episodes in Tamil Nadu forces one to make a reassessment. First, it was the unseemly controversy surrounding the ban on actor-director Kamal Hassan’s latest trilingual blockbuster movie, ‘Vishwaroopam’, which some fringe Muslim groups denounced as being ‘anti-Islamic’ and then relented after chief minister J Jayalalitha intervened and effected a compromise forcing the producer to delete some scenes to enable the movie’s delayed release.

The second jolt was the state declining to host the 20th Asian Athletic Championships (AAC) slated to be held in Chennai in July, on the ground that participation of Sri Lankan athletes would ‘deeply hurt’ Tamil sentiments, as a fallout of new evidences surfacing about Sri Lanka’s ‘atrocities and human rights violations’ against Tamils there in the last stages of the war against Tamil Tigers in May 2009.

Potential law

There was one crucial difference in their manifestations, though. In the first case, the outcry was on the basis of religion – in this instance ‘Islam’- being allegedly devalued by a celluloid depiction of terrorism that could trigger a potential law and order crisis for the AIADMK government. But the second emotional rocker had an ethnic peg, expressing outrage over the continuing injustices to fellow-Tamils across the Palk Straits, particularly after UK’s ‘Channel 4’ showed footages of slain LTTE chief Prabhakaran’s son Balachandran, which suggested that the young boy was brutally killed by the Lankan army and not in any cross-fire.

If the ‘Vishwaroopam’ episode was a sensational individual-versus-the-state faceoff, the cancellation of the Asian athletic meet was of a different dimension altogether. It pits the state against the Centre, what with Tamil Nadu’s political class demanding pro-active steps by India to bring the Sri Lankan government to book for the Rajapaksha regime’s ‘war crimes’ against the Tamils. The AIADMK supremo has even urged India to bring a resolution in the UN along with other countries to impose an ‘economic embargo’ on Lanka until Tamils there got their livelihood rights.

Irrespective of the legitimacy or reasonableness of the issues involved in both these episodes – in fact the dynamics of the Sri Lankan Tamils issue playing out in Tamil Nadu has a much longer history since the 1960s-- what shocked  analysts is the ‘tool-kit’ used to handle such issues. They point out that either seeking to pander to some minority groups or playing to high stakes the pro-Tamil card as in the second case, would do no good to Tamil Nadu’s long-inherited liberal ethos.

 The political compulsion for all the regional parties in a pre-election year was quite obvious. But it took a dissenting voice like the CPI(M)’s state secretary, G Ramakrishnan, to state that despite serious differences with neighbours, ‘sporting activities’ was a good way to continue people-to-people contacts, and the hosting of the athletic games “should not be linked to politics.”

Many Muslim leaders and intellectuals in the state -- whether it was the scholarly Abdus Samad, the freely Sanskrit-verses quoting Abdul Latheef or the distinguished late Madras high court judge, Justice M M Ismail, whose exposition of Kamaban’s ‘Rayamana’ in Tamil was outstanding—were clearly for a more culturally inclusive Islamic identity. But today’s young turks are different, which partly explains their “very strong reaction” to Kamal’s latest film.

For a state hailed as the ‘gateway to the south’, any such back-sliding into exclusivist, isolationist approaches, whether it is religious, linguistic, ethnic or cultural issue, the consequences can be alarmingly dismal. One realistic antidote came from a well known American Islamic scholar, Prof Bruce B Lawrence, speaking in Chennai recently: “The world has become a very different place; what we need is dialogue and goodwill between people of different civilisations.”

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