V Suryanarayan /30 May 2011
In her first interaction with the media, soon after unprecedented electoral victory, Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa assured the people that she will exercise pressure on the central government to revise its Sri Lanka policy not only to expose the heinous crimes committed by the Sri Lankan government during the last stages of the fourth Eelam War and bring the guilty to book, but also
to ensure that justice is done to the Tamils in the island nation. Jayalalithaa’s timely appeal in support of the Sri Lankan Tamil cause has been welcomed by Tamils across the world. However, it raises one important question — what is the role of federal units in the making of Indian foreign policy?
In a large country like India foreign policy towards neighbouring countries will have its immediate fallout on contiguous Indian states. India-Pakistan relations will have its fallout on Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat; policy towards China will affect Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal and Jammu and Kashmir; policy towards Nepal will have profound consequences on Bihar, Sikkim, Uttaranchal and Uttar Pradesh; India-Bhutan relations will have its effect on West Bengal, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim; equations with Myanmar will affect Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur, India-Bangladesh relations will impinge upon West Bengal, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura and Assam and the policy towards Sri Lanka will have its consequences on Tamil Nadu.
Under the Indian Constitution the formulation and implementation of foreign policy comes under the exclusive jurisdiction of the central government. In actual practice, on several occasions, New Delhi has sacrificed the interests of the contiguous Indian states. Such a policy has also created frictions between the central government and the federal units. The problem is not peculiar to India; it is common to many countries like the United States, China and former Soviet Union. In Yugoslavia, before its disintegration, the federal units had their departments of foreign affairs. Lest I be misunderstood, I am not advocating that the federal units should administer foreign policy; what I am pleading for is a mechanism by which the interests of contiguous Indian states are fostered and protected by the central government. What is good for the people of Tamil Nadu need not necessarily be bad for the government of India. To put it differently the federal units must make their benign inputs into the making of India’s neighbourhood policy.
A few illustrations are given below to drive home the point how the conduct of India’s Sri Lanka policy has adversely affected the interests of Tamil Nadu. The Sirimavo-Shastri Pact, 1964 by which New Delhi decided to confer Indian citizenship on large sections of Indian-origin Tamils in Sri Lanka was not only a reversal of the time-tested policy of Jawaharlal Nehru, it was also concluded without taking into consideration the wishes of the affected people in Sri Lanka. All important leaders in Tamil Nadu — Kamaraj Nadar, V K Krishna Menon, C N Annadurai and P Ramamurthy — expressed their opposition and indignation. However, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, advised by the then Commonwealth secretary C S Jha, was more interested in befriending the Sri Lankan government than in protecting the interests of the people of Indian origin.
The second example is the conclusion of the maritime boundary agreements between India and Sri Lanka in 1974 and 1976. As a result of these agreements not only the island of Kachchatheevu, which belonged to the Zamindari of Raja Ramnad, was ceded to Sri Lanka, the traditional fishing rights enjoyed by Indian fishermen were also given up. Faced with a similar situation in the 1950s when the central government decided to transfer Beru Bari to East Pakistan, B C Roy, then West Bengal chief minister, took the issue to the Supreme Court, won the case and prevented the ceding of Indian territory. No satisfactory explanation has been given as to why a judicial remedy was not resorted to by the Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam government in Tamil Nadu in 1974 to prevent the transfer of Indian territory of Kachchatheevu to Sri Lanka. The tragic fallout is that the rich fishing grounds on the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay has become a bone of contention between Tamil Nadu fishermen and the Sri Lankan Navy, leading to the death of several Indian fishermen.
It is not proposed to analyse the sharp twists and turns in India’s Sri Lanka policy during recent years, but one fact must be underlined. There are obvious limitations as to what India can do to influence the domestic developments in a neighbouring country, but Sri Lanka, as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told the Lok Sabha in 1983, is not “just another country”, India has vital stakes not only in its stability, but also in the dignity and welfare of the Tamils. Based on this premise, New Delhi not only helped the Tamils to internationalise the gross human rights violations, but also made it clear to Colombo that it will not remain a silent spectator if a military solution to the problem was pursued. So effective was India’s policy that when Indian planes air dropped food and medicines in Jaffna in May 1987, not even one country raised its finger against India. But much water has flowed through the Palk Strait since 1987. More tragic, India’s Sri Lanka policy changed for the worse. When the war against the LTTE degenerated into a war against Tamil civilians during the last stages of the Fourth Eelam War and when nearly 40,000 innocent Tamils were massacred, India remained a silent spectator. Adding to this India also bailed out Sri Lanka in the United Nations. To our shame, in the United Nations we were in the company of China and Russia.
Given this, Jayalalithaa’s welcome statement holds out the promise that Tamil Nadu will not remain a mute witness if distortions take place in India’s Sri Lanka policy.
V Suryanarayan is senior research fellow, Center for Asia Studies. E-mail: