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FeaturesNewsSpotlighting Lankan Tamils – An Indian perspective

Spotlighting Lankan Tamils – An Indian perspective

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”But despite the Indian foreign secretary’s persuasive powers, Colombo is unlikely to budge so easily. India will have to do more than one visit and some good statements. It’s support for negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil National Alliance, that began in January 2011, needs to be pressured to move much faster within a fixed timetable. The talks should have devolution of powers and demilitarisation as priority objectives
Anuradha M Chenon

Jayalalithaa has submitted a memo to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that lists demands from post-conflict Sri Lanka. She has said that the Sri Lankan regime should be held accountable for war crimes during the last days of the fratricidal war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), where thousands of civilians were killed, hundreds of thousands became refuges, Tamil areas of the north were reduced to rubble, and humanitarian assistance to Tamils were denied. Jayalalithaa has asked that the Colombo to immediately transfer adequate powers to the north and east of the island nation so the Tamils can have autonomy of governance, a long-standing demand of Tamils. Jayalalithaa has insisted that India should impose economic sanctions against Sri Lanka if they do not comply. In effect India should change its policy to Sri Lanka.

Jayalalithaa’s position will have shaken the Rajapaksa regime, especially since the Tamil Nadu Assembly passed a unanimous resolution on this. Rajapaksa however, even in the face of the United Nations verifying that civilian massacres took place, has denied the brutalities of his army in its final triumph. He has refuted UN reports and resolutions. Reports show, that the rehabilitation of Tamil refugees is not only unsatisfactory but also their homes and livelihoods are not being returned to them.

The Rajapaksa regime has mobilised the majority Sinhala nationalism to consolidate his power by closing any discussion on what the post-war order should be. He has curbed dissent and increased military controls and declared on May 2009 that: “There are no minorities in this country; after the conclusion of the war all Sri Lankans are divided into two main categories — patriots and traitors”. This kind of oppression on minorities and independent voices cannot bring peace to Sri Lanka. It is generating new grievances, and will damage democracy and pluralism. It is bound to have severe long-term repercussions.

Jayalalithaa’s words will also disturb the complacent czars of the Indian foreign policy establishment. As the International Crisis Group noted in a recent report on India and Sri Lanka, India is a country with the greatest influence over Sri Lanka, but its policies to encourage the Sri Lankan government towards sustainable peace are not working. This is because even though India is giving significant aid, it is not putting sufficient pressure to ensure that demilitarisation of the north takes place. It is not loud enough that minorities get their due rights, are fully rehabilitated and that democratic freedoms and institutions that were curbed are reinstituted.

India instead, is more interested in regional geopolitics of competing with China and Pakistan and does not want to alienate the Sri Lankan regime. China’s growing influence on the Rajapaksa regime is seen as a potential destabilising factor in India-Sri Lanka relations. Second, New Delhi needs Colombo’s support for its aspirations for a UN Security Council permanent seat. Third, it wants Sri Lanka to keep its economy open for Indian business. Fourth, India has had a history of counter-productive interventions in Sri Lanka and fears a nationalist backlash.

Should Indian foreign policy to a neighbour like Sri Lanka be based on such unwarranted fears about India’s interests? Why will Sri Lanka not develop relations with China, even if India does everything to placate the current regime? Should norms and values that India hold dear, like minority rights, be sacrificed at the altar of geopolitical gains? Is a militarised, authoritarian Sri Lanka of greater interest to India or a democratic stable one? Moreover, India’s own Tamils are saddened and restive to see the plight of Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka. Surely that should be part of India’s realist calculations as well.

It is a positive sign that after Jayalalithaa’s victory and unambiguous statements, Indian policy on the minority question in Sri Lanka has become more proactive. Foreign secretary Nirupama Rao and national security adviser Shiv Shankar Menon made a hurried but relevant trip in June to Colombo and argued for a devolution package building on the 13th Amendment; a genuine reconciliation process; an early and just settlement of displaced persons; an investigations into human rights violations and restoration of normalcy.

But despite the Indian foreign secretary’s persuasive powers, Colombo is unlikely to budge so easily. India will have to do more than one visit and some good statements. It’s support for negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil National Alliance, that began in January 2011, needs to be pressured to move much faster within a fixed timetable. The talks should have devolution of powers and demilitarisation as priority objectives. India should monitor its aid and rehabilitation projects and have transparency and oversight mechanisms for these. India should insist on working through the local government in the north and east for its rehabilitation packages to ensure that aid gets to where it is most needed.

The Rajapaksa government’s response has been that it will not deal with India’s states (Tamil Nadu), but with India. But Rajapaksa should know that India, unlike Sri Lanka, is what its states make of it. That Indian federalism, despite all its shortcomings, like Indian secularism and pluralism, is the backbone of Indian democracy. So instead of rejecting the resolutions of the Tamil Nadu Assembly, he would be wiser and Sri Lanka a better place to live for both majority and minority communities, if he were to accommodate institutional mechanisms of devolution.

And what better time to do this than after a triumphal victory? This should address the anxieties of Sri Lanka and give it an opportunity to renew its social contract with all its peoples. Winston Churchill once said: “In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity.” It will be useful to follow such advice, since it appears to have worked well in history. Rajapaksa will serve the Sri Lankan nationalist cause more if he delivers minority rights and reassures his majority community that they can be secure and progress can be faster when their policies and state institutions are inclusive, rather than exclusive and jingoist. The Sri Lankan Opposition also should not indulge in nationalist chest-thumping outbidding each other. Such haggling has led Sri Lanka through enough tragedies.

As for India’s policy on Sri Lanka, New Delhi should thank Jayalalithaa in reminding it that India’s legitimacy in South Asia, and indeed internationally, will not lie in its deft geopolitical manoeuvres but in the values and norms that an aspiring great power exhibits.

Anuradha M Chenoy is director, Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, Jawaharlal  Nehru University. E-mail: chenoy@gmail.com

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