10 September 2014

Next Move on Lanka Policy

The recent visit of a six-member Tamil National Alliance (TNA) delegation to New Delhi marks an important milestone in India’s Sri Lanka policy. The delegation had a free and frank exchange of views with the prime minister, the minister for external affairs and the national security adviser. In a conversation with this author, Sampanthan pointed out that the talks were highly rewarding and instructive. New Delhi reiterated its commitment that it stood solidly behind TNA in its objective to get substantial autonomy to Tamil areas within a united Sri Lanka. Narendra Modi urged all stakeholders to engage constructively in a spirit of partnership and mutual accommodation to find a political solution on the basis of the 13th Amendment. In a rare gesture of goodwill the delegation called on former prime minister Manmohan Singh and requested him to inform the present government as to how Mahinda Rajapaksa had gone back on the solemn commitments he had made to the Government of India.

The visit is significant for another reason. Colombo had played up certain statements made by Indian friends of Mahinda Rajapaksa that the BJP-led government has revised its Sri Lanka policy. Subramaniam Swamy is reported to have stated that the prime minister will not meet the TNA without prior approval of the Sri Lankan government. He had also remarked that there was no ethnic problem in Sri Lanka, but only a linguistic problem. He also stated that in India there were certain states which did not have police powers, which was music to Sinhalese ears. Avadash Kaushal, recently appointed Indian adviser to the presidential commission on disappearances and war crimes, expressed his disapproval of the TNA visit to New Delhi and asked, “How will we in India feel if Sri Lanka calls and talks to Indian separatists?”

The above statements do not reflect the reality of the situation. Since July 1983, India is actively involved in the ethnic imbroglio. It was due to New Delhi’s good offices that the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) was persuaded to come back to the negotiating table, though the party had decided in the Mannar convention not to have any more talks with the government. From their goal of an independent state of Tamil Eelam, TULF scaled down its demand to a union of states within a united Sri Lanka. However the hope that Annexure C, drafted in consultation with New Delhi, would form the basis of negotiations was soon shattered. The all -party conference ceased to be a conference of recognised political parties, with a number of them walking in and out as and when it suited the government.

What was highlighted was the fact that the present dialogue with TNA was an integral part of India’s continuing engagement with all stakeholders. It was not intended to promote separation; on the contrary, its objective was to foster unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka.

A careful analysis of peace initiatives since 1987 clearly shows that Sri Lanka has gone far beyond the 13th Amendment. Therefore, New Delhi should insist that all home grown solutions put forward at regular intervals — the Mangala Moonasinghe report, the draft 2000 constitution, report of the expert committee appointed by Tissa Vitharana — all of them, in addition to 13th Amendment, should form the basis of negotiations. Also, the dialogue between the TNA and the government should immediately resume. The parliamentary select committee, where the TNA will be a miniscule minority, is intended to impose the will of the brute Sinhala majority. Simultaneously, New Delhi should mobilise the support of the United States and European Union and make a joint demand for resumption of direct talks between Colombo and TNA. 

Subramaniam Swamy’s statement that Sri Lanka does not have an ethnic problem, but only a linguistic problem, is far off the mark. Significant sections of Sri Lankan population feel that the Tamils had to face innumerable problems since the dawn of independence, relating to language, land colonisation, education, employment opportunities, militarisation and security of life. In fact, in its 1977 election manifesto the United National Party (UNP) spelt out these grievances and assured that if voted to power it would hold an all-party conference to find an amicable solution. Such an assurance enabled Jayewardene to get the solid support of minorities outside the north and the east. But after his landslide victory, there was a lot of foot dragging which disillusioned the Tamils; militancy gradually crept into Tamil politics, culminating in the ethnic riots in July 1983.

It will be a step forward if the government of India deputes a team of experts, well-versed in Tamil, to study the manifold problems faced by the Tamils — the efficacy of rehabilitation measures, the on-going Indian projects and bottlenecks in their implementation, the tragic plight of Tamil widows, travails of Indian and Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen in the Palk Bay, on-going militarisation and impact of high security zones, fears of land colonisation, tragedy of the hill country Tamils who migrated to the north after 1977 ethnic riots, why the refugees in Tamil Nadu are reluctant to go back to Sri Lanka, fears of LTTE resurgence, radicalisation of the Muslim community and, above all, obstacles confronted by the TNA government in administering the Northern Province. Their report could form the basis of fresh initiatives in India’s policy.

The TNA should join hands with Tamil-speaking Muslims and hill country Tamils in their joint endeavour to find amicable solutions to their manifold problems. As far as Muslims and hill country Tamils are concerned, being non-territorial minorities, devolution to the provinces will not be a panacea to their problems; what is required is devolution from provinces to Pradeshiya Sabhas and entrenched constitutional provisions to protect their linguistic and cultural rights. The Sinhala fear that devolution to provinces will be the first step towards separation can be assuaged by incorporating iron clad guarantees in the Constitution to prevent such a possibility.

A redeeming feature is that Tamil Diaspora, which fuelled the Tiger war machine, is today involved in considerable soul searching. Many influential leaders in the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), which was established in 2009 after the end of the war, have realised the futility of armed struggle. It will be in New Delhi’s interest to open a dialogue with them and explain the emerging trends in India’s Sri Lanka policy.

The author is former Director and Senior Professor, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras.

E-mail: suryageeth@gmail.com

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