What Savarkar and Prabhakaran teach us about federalism

Praveen Chakravarty
November 26, 2022

Praveen Chakravarty is a Congressman curious about correlations, causes & consequences @pravchak

Praveen Chakravarty is a Congressman curious about correlations, causes & consequences @pravchak

Fifty-eight people were injured or killed, including former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, in the brutal incident in May 1991 in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu. Ostensibly, the perpetrators’ ruthless act was to take revenge against the persecution of Tamils in Sri Lanka, which they falsely believed was aided by the Rajiv Gandhi government. The culprits were given a fair trial, found guilty, and sentenced to death.

However, successive DMK and AIADMK governments in Tamil Nadu were sympathetic to the larger Tamil cause and used their powers first to reduce the culprits’ death sentence to life imprisonment, and later to release them entirely. The Governor of Tamil Nadu refused to sign on these orders saying that this was an issue of national interest and referred the matter to the Union government. The Supreme Court ruled that the decision of the state government was binding and thus the convicts were released.

Should the decision of the Tamil Nadu government to pardon the killers be upheld in accordance with the principles of federalism? The Governor did not think so, but the Supreme Court did. Strong proponents of federalism and states’ rights (including this columnist) have long argued for full powers for states to pass laws as they deem fit. In which case, even if staunch federalists find the pardon morally repugnant, should they not accept the decision? Or should there be bounds and limits to what elected state governments can do, in keeping with larger national causes or ethics? If yes to the latter, can there be clear Lakshman Rekhas for separating national and state interests? This is clearly a more complex debate than merely an ethical or a constitutional dilemma of forgiveness.
It is well-known that the 1991 bombing was masterminded by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant outfit that waged a secessionist insurgency to create an independent state in Sri Lanka for Tamil people. Today, there are at least four legitimate active political parties in Tamil Nadu that were founded on such strong Tamil sub-nationalism that they even celebrate the birthday of LTTE founder Velupillai Prabhakaran every year. Nearly five million Tamilians voted for these four parties in the 2021 state election, suggesting that celebrating the assassin of India’s Prime Minister was not a problem for them. In fact, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin even embraced the convicts with wide arms after their release. If such extreme sub-nationalism resonates with the Tamils and the duly-elected state government uses its constitutional powers to respond to this public emotion through a pardon of the assassins of a national leader, arguably then India’s federalism is very strong. But does it weaken India’s moral unity if the rest of the nation is against forgiving the killers of the country’s Prime Minister just based on their Tamil identity?

To be clear, for a vast and diverse nation such as ours where the average Tamilian has culturally, linguistically, demographically, economically and politically almost nothing in common with the average Bengali, federalism in the true sense is an essential ingredient to keep the nation together. But federalism and sub-nationalism are two sides of the same Indian coin. If the politics of nationalism is bad for the country, it follows logically that the politics of sub-nationalism is equally detrimental. Sub-nationalism tugs at the strings of the nation’s unity.

The perpetrators of the 1991 massacre are killers first and only then Tamils. Tamil sub-nationalism cannot overshadow their crime. By pardoning them using the crutch of Tamil sentiment, Tamil Nadu’s political leaders have implied that a convict’s Tamil identity supersedes their morality as a human. The Modi government and other political parties across the country, including the Shiv Sena, have criticised the pardon of these killers. But how is it that some of these same leaders and political parties advocate the pardon of Savarkar, in thought if not in action? It is generally acknowledged that Savarkar had at least a moral influence in the plot to kill Mahatma Gandhi, notwithstanding his legal acquittal. One can quibble about Savarkar’s letters to the British or his courage of conviction but even his most ardent admirers accept his either intentional or inadvertent conspiratorial role in the Mahatma’s assassination.

If political parties and leaders in Tamil Nadu are wrong in celebrating Prabhakaran or exonerating the 1991 killers on the basis of Tamil identity, it is equally wrong to absolve or celebrate Savarkar, driven by Maharashtrian or Hindu identity. The principle behind both these cases is the same, even if they differ in act. One is a constitutional pardon, the other is a cultural pardon. The idea of federalism cannot justify the constitutional pardon of the 1991 convicts because the underlying premise is identity politics, similar to Savarkar’s cultural or historical pardon. The release of Rajiv Gandhi’s killers can neither be justified under federalism nor can it be criticised by those who hail Savarkar. There is an inherent moral contradiction in praising Savarkar and criticising the pardon of Prabhakaran’s people. This column is not about the political philosophy of forgiveness that eminent philosophers like Hannah Arendt have espoused but merely uses these examples to illustrate the fine line separating federalism and ‘identityism’.

Political federalism is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for India’s survival as a nation, but its corollary — sub-nationalism — can be a dangerous road to perdition. In a coin with constructive federalism on one side and dangerous sub-nationalism on the other, one cannot toss it flippantly to let it land on any side. The ability to control and balance these contradictions that spring from the fountainhead of India’s vast ethnic diversity is the true test of its politics and leaders.

(Praveen Chakravarty is a Congressman curious about correlations, causes & consequences @pravchak)



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