NEW DELHI // Sri Lankans have been warned against travelling to Tamil Nadu after an attack on pilgrims and the expulsion of a school football team, by groups protesting alleged atrocities against the ethnic minority.
Tamil Nadu's three main political parties have all been critical of Sri Lanka's treatment of its Tamil-speaking minority. They allege that the Sri Lankan government was guilty of war crimes against Tamil civilians in 2009, in the final stages of a 26-year civil war against Tamil militants.
The Indian state is home to about 60 million Tamils who have ancestral links with Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil minority.
The issue of Sri Lankan Tamils remains "extremely emotive" in Tamil Nadu, said Dr V Suresh, president of the Tamil Nadu chapter of People's Union for Civil Liberties.
"People are still feeling tremendous turmoil for the tens of thousands of Tamils killed" in the final stages of the war, and so "emotions are heightened", Dr Suresh said.
Nearly 180 pilgrims, touring churches in central Tamil Nadu, were in buses that were stoned by protesters, even as they were cutting short their visit and driving to the airport to fly back to Sri Lanka.
Members of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), an extremist political party in Tamil Nadu, had stood in vocal but mostly peaceful protest near the churches in Tiruchi that the Sri Lankan pilgrims visited on Monday.
But on Tuesday afternoon, the Tamil Nadu police started to fear a breakdown in security and bundled the pilgrims into seven buses, to be taken to the Tiruchi airport and flown back to Sri Lanka.
En route, however, another group of protesters started to throw stones at the buses. No one was hurt, although three of the buses were damaged. Police arrested 30 MDMK members following the incident.
According to media reports, most of the Sri Lankan pilgrims were Tamil - the very community whose interests in Sri Lanka the MDMK claim to champion.
Dr Suresh said the attacks were of "great concern" and appealed to all political parties and organisations to make a distinction between the Sri Lankan state and the Sri Lankan people.
On Tuesday, the Sri Lankan external affairs ministry advised its citizens to avoid travelling to Tamil Nadu, citing "the increasing number of instances of intimidation of Sri Lankan nationals visiting Tamil Nadu".
About 200 Tamil shopkeepers demonstrated yesterday near the Indian Embassy in Colombo, demanding Indian authorities ensure the safety of Sri Lankans visiting India.
On Tuesday, the Indian external affairs ministry also issued a statement of reassurance, confirming that the government would "take all measures to ensure the safety, security and well-being of Sri Lankan dignitaries and visitors to India, including to Tamil Nadu".
According to the ministry, India issued 200,000 visas to Sri Lankan visitors last year.
The attack in Tiruchi was the latest in a chain of incidents in which Tamil Nadu's politicians have expressed hostility to the idea of Sri Lankan visitors to their state.
Over the last month, Tamil Nadu's chief minister, J Jayalalithaa, demanded on two separate occasions that Sri Lankan defence personnel not be trained in her state.
She called the training programmes - organised by the federal government - "anti-Tamil," adding, "Tamils want action against Sri Lanka for war crimes and they will not accept this."
When a group of nine Sri Lankan air force officers were shifted for training instead to Bangalore, Ms Jayalalithaa angrily remarked that "instead of sending these personnel back to Sri Lanka, the Government of India exhibited excessive enthusiasm and concern for these personnel".
On Sunday, Ms Jayalalithaa also ordered a school football team visiting from Sri Lanka to be sent home, instead of permitting it to play friendly games against local teams.
M Karunanidhi, the leader of the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which sits in opposition in the Tamil Nadu assembly to Ms Jayalalithaa's All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, said in a statement on Wednesday that "sending back the Sri Lankan players and the attacks on pilgrims will affect bilateral relations."
Cultural and sporting ties, he said, should be maintained, even though the DMK would continue to oppose the training of Sri Lankan military personnel in India.
The Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse is scheduled to visit India later this month. Vai Gopalasamy, popularly known as Vaiko and the founder of the MDMK, has indicated that he and members of his party would plan a black-flag protest in the town of Sanchi, where Mr Rajapakse intends to inaugurate a Centre for Buddhist Studies.
* With additional reporting by Associated Press