Sri Lanka ‘puts’ the ball back in India’s court on Tamil minority issue – Deccan Herald
For long, India has held onto the view that to resolve the long-drawn-out ethnic issue in neighbouring Sri Lanka, the state has to address the ‘legitimate Tamil aspirations’ but ‘within a united Sri Lanka’. This was also India’s philosophy when it trained and armed Tamil youth in the island nation in the aftermath of the large-scale rape and killings and massive destruction of Tamil businesses and properties in 1983, which in turn led to the community risking their lives in the seas to reach to the safety of Indian shores in Tamil Nadu.
Throughout, India was keen only to ensure that the ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’ (SLT) lived with a sense of security, safety and dignity in that country. The rest, as they say, is history. This was possibly the second legitimate enunciation of the ‘R2P’ (Responsibility to Protect) concept, after the Indian intervention in ‘la affaire Bangladesh’ (1971). The UN introduced R2P into its toolkit for conflict resolution only in 2005.
Read | Sri Lankan Tamils: A devastated people with little hope
After the 1989 unceremonious withdrawal of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF), sent there on the written request of then Sri Lankan President J R Jayawardene, as a follow-up on the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 that he had signed with then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, New Delhi had adopted a hands-off policy on the ethnic issue. This was accentuated after the LTTE’s killing of Rajiv in 1991. Yet, when peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE commenced later in the decade, India kept itself abreast through briefings by the Norwegian peace interlocutors.
After the conclusion of the LTTE war in Sri Lanka and the death of Velupillai Prabhakaran, India has been taking a restricted interest in the ethnic affairs in the south for more reasons than one. First, India wants a stable Sri Lanka and the post-LTTE period was/is still the best time for a negotiated settlement without war, violence and terrorism of the LTTE kind. Two, and even more important, New Delhi wants the Sri Lankan Tamils to live with dignity, honour and security so that refugee influx became a thing of the past.
Three, post-war, if there is no solution now, there could be no solution ever. Already, R Sampanthan, the inimitable moderate Tamil leader’s hold on the mainline, three-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is weakening. His advancing age and failing health, as was predictable, have only led to a silent yet visible leadership struggle, within. Sans Sampanthan, the Sri Lankan government, even if it were to become altruist, may not be able to find the kind of Tamil representation to negotiate a lasting solution.
The issue has gained some relevance now after Sri Lanka’s crisis-ridden President Ranil Wickremesinghe announced that he would invite the Tamil stakeholders for talks after the ongoing budget session ended in the second week of December. The TNA, even while criticising the budget threadbare, did not vote against the same. But that is all to it, so to say.
In his open invite, Wickremesinghe did not mention any details other than declaring that he would ‘protect the 13th Amendment’ to the Sri Lankan Constitution, which flowed from the 1987 Accord. If he thought he could obtain India’s support for his initiative, his thinking was also supported by facts on the ground.
The 13-A gave substantive power devolution to the nine provinces created alongside, through a separate Act of Parliament. It was breached by both sides, with the LTTE still sticking to a ‘separate state’ demand and the government slowly but surely withdrawing much of those powers through executive fiats, one after the other.
As Opposition in the nineties, Wickremesinghe had stalled and burnt the constitution amendment bill inside the Parliament chamber when rival President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga offered a ’13-Plus’ package of her own because she had purportedly used it as a cover to try and extend her term by subterfuge. He has now offered to restore 13-A powers at least, to begin with.
In this, he has the perceived backing of the SLPP parliamentary underwriter, whose support alone has ensured the continuance of his government. SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna) leader and two-term President Mahinda Rajapaksa intervened in Parliament to say that they could consider negotiations for a (new) 13-Plus. His government’s post-war talks with the TNA failed when the latter started talking about the US-initiated ‘war crimes probe’ and the UNHRC in public. This upset the majority of southern Sinhala polity and society, which traditionally are the key determinants to an elected government and political stability in Colombo.
While Wickremesinghe seems to be hinting at open-ended talks, the TNA, after a meeting of present constituents and some of the past members, at Sampanthan’s Colombo house, has set pre-conditions. Included in the list is the maximum devolution of power to the provinces but only after a change-over to a ‘federal scheme’ from the existing ‘unitary’ Constitution. They also want the re-merger of the North and the East, originally granted under the 13-A scheme but de-merged in 2006, when the supreme court linked the merger to the LTTE (voluntarily) laying down arms – which had not happened at the time.
Both conditions are froth with inherent and imminent possibilities of instant failure at the start. The Sinhala South is adamant about not granting federal powers to the Tamils especially, because of genuine apprehensions about the possibility of imminent secession. More importantly, a changeover of the constitutional scheme would also require a public referendum.
No one, other than the Tamils seemingly, wants to risk a referendum, especially during this era of unprecedented economic crisis. They have fresh memories of the ‘Second JVP insurgency’ (1987-89), linked to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and the IPKF, and are concerned about the possibility of political instability. It all flows from the hugely successful ‘Aragalaya’ mass struggle that ensured the exit of all Rajapaksas from elected power, earlier this year.
The re-merger issue likewise involves the Tamil-majority North and the multi-ethnic East, where a referendum under the relevant law. This again leads to the revival of communal hatred, which is the last thing that the nation wants after the ’Easter blasts’, of 2019. In sum, it is a no-win situation from the start, or even before it.
In the midst of all these, a new controversy has arisen after Wickremesinghe supported his predecessor Maithripala Sirisena’s proposal to revive the District Development Council (DDC) scheme, which allowed the Provincial Council system under the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord replaced in 1987. After the Tamil parties strongly criticised him, the President’s Media Division (PMD) clarified that Wickremesinghe favoured power devolution, but not as a replacement for DDC. Tamil parties are not convinced.
If India wields any influence on Sri Lanka, now or later, it should use good offices to ensure that the private lands of the Tamils were taken over for military use during the war and since then used for the resettlement of the Sinhala community end now and progress be made in the power-devolution talks. The Tamils have genuine apprehensions that they would be rendered a minority in their own ‘homeland’ over decades, or would have aggressive adversaries as next-door neighbours with the state backing them.
India has consistently stood for ‘non-interference’, as against the stated positions of its western friends. It prefers ‘internal mechanisms’, in which the Tamils have no faith and with which the West refuses to cooperate in identifying those that had illegally migrated to their respective countries over the past so many decades.
This one is much different from the Tamils’ continual demands on the ‘missing persons’, rendered so by the armed forces during the war and soon thereafter. This is the subject of a series of West-sponsored UNHRC resolutions since 2012. No government can be expected to address this issue satisfactorily owing to genuine fears about the revival of the JVP-like armed struggle (1971 & 1987).
Ahead of Wickremesinghe’s parliamentary announcement on re-commencing ethnic talk, a section of the Sri Lankan media had reported that India’s R&AW boss, Samant Goel, had undertaken a below-the-radar visit to Colombo and met with the president. Goel also reportedly met Basil Rajakasa. The two discussed the revival of talks.
Basil's message to New Delhi is this: “We are ready for the talks. Make the TNA and other Tamil groups see reason and return to the table without pre-conditions and with intent for a negotiated settlement as is possible under the circumstances.” It is a tall task for India to take up even during the best of times. It is more so, with the US-led West on the one hand and the ‘separatist’ SLT Diaspora groups pulling different strings in the Tamil polity.
The reported Indian sullenness towards the Wickremesinghe presidency with Prime Minister Narendra Modi not calling him up personally to greet him on his ascendancy too may be playing out on either side of the ethnic divide. Sri Lankan stakeholders have not missed out on India not inviting Wickremesinghe to Delhi.
To sum up, the ‘wily’ Wickremesinghe, as he is known, like the late Jayawardene, his uncle, seems to be preparing to put the ball back in India’s court, where it may lie dead for long, as used to be the case earlier too – with the Colombo dispensation continuing to take the blame when all of it need not be theirs!
(The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst & political commentator)