Institutt for sosialantropologi

A Transnational Political Engagement: Solidarity, Nationhood and Pan-Tamilness among the Tamils of Tamilnadu


Master's thesis submitted at Department of Social Anthropology, spring 2015.

By: Aththan Jayapalan
Supervisor: Associate Professor Tone Bringa

In this study I will explore and investigate the development of the contemporary student agitation which has unfolded in the Southern Indian state of Tamilnadu since 2008 and been axed around the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils.

The research concerns Indian Tamil activists in the city of Chennai, and their subjective and collective understanding of the political engagement towards the Tamils of North-East Sri Lanka. Likewise it is also a study of the political literacy, identities and actions of the Tamilnadu students and through them that of the general solidarity movement for Eelam within the Indian state of Tamilnadu. Extensive research on the political history of the Tamil regions of India and Sri Lanka will be elucidated in this thesis to provide the context which facilitated the contemporary developments in Tamilnadu.

Furthermore my interests lie in tensions between the identity category of Indian promoted by the Indian nation-state and the permeating ethnic identity category of Tamil in Tamilnadu. The tension is prevalent as the pro-Sri Lankan Tamil agitation highlights Tamilness and scrutinizes Indian-ness, as a result of linkages between the Indian Central government and the Sri Lankan government. I will also explore the uniting factors which transcend traditional elements of differentiation among Indian Tamils and contribute to the activation of an overarching Tamilness and political identity.

The overall theoretical focus will be on forms of transnationalism and nationalism. The activism which I study is transnational as well as of nationalist orientation, yet does not adequately fit into either dominant forms of nationalism or the concept of long distance nationalism. Hence transnationalism is discussed as the theoretical vehicle I prefer in conceptualising the political engagement of Indian Tamil youth towards the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils. Such an engagement over time has had an effect on the conceptions of Tamilnadu students and activists regarding nationhood, identity and political processes on international, regional and national levels. Globalization processes, the internet and other information sharing factors also prove to be components in facilitating furthered transnational interaction between Tamilnadu Tamil and Sri Lankan Tamil activists in a common political engagement for Eelam.

The thesis is thus a study of political engagement driven by ‘cultural connectedness, ethnic sentiments and ‘primordial’ loyalties in the contemporary world. Yet the engagement towards Sri Lankan Tamils, a population considered externally and internally as distinct from the Indian Tamils, constitutes transnational interaction and linkages, and therefore cannot be reduced to nationalist orientations. My thesis thus concerns, transnationalism, nationalist orientations and political engagement in the contemporary global era.