By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Astute Observers consistently following the erratic course of Sri Lankan Tamil politics were in for a pleasant surprise last week. The premier political representatives of the Sri Lankan Tamil people configured electorally as the Tamil National Alliance(TNA)embarked on a passage to India to meet the recently elected Prime minister Narendra Modi and key officials in New Delhi.
The element of pleasant surprise in this exercise was due to the fact that a trip to New Delhi by the TNA was not expected to materialise until after the advent of the 2015 new year.
Repeated efforts by the TNA to meet Modi in New Delhi since May this year when Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) became the 15th Prime minister of India had been unsuccessful for a while.The TNA had been politely informed that a TNA visit was most desirable but the Indian premier’s diary was full with engagements for the rest of the year. This however did not deter some TNA bigwigs from making periodic announcements in the Tamil media that the party would go to New Delhi very soon to meet Narendra Modi.
Things began changing rapidly a few weeks ago. The TNA was quietly informed that a meeting with Modi was possible after mid –August and that a TNA delegation comprising its leader R.Sampanthan, national list parliamentarian MA Sumanthiran and Northern Chief minister CV Wigneswaran would be most welcome in New Delhi. The TNA was also advised to avoid details of the trip being publicised in the media as the Colombo Government may object to the trip beforehand if information got out prematurely.
PASSAGE TO INDIA
Internal differences surfaced within the TNA on the envisaged passage to India. TNA stalwart and senior parliamentarian Somasundaram Senathirajah alias “Maavai” was opposed to the idea of chief minister Wigneswaran being included. Senathirajah who was the near unanimous choice of the TNA to be Chief ministerial candidate for the north had later stepped down in favour of Wigneswaran due to the vehement insistence of TNA Leader Sampanthan who strongly backed the retired supreme court judge.Sampanthan had even threatened to quit politics if Wigneswaran’s candidacy was rejected.Currently there exists a cold war in the Northern council between Wigneswaran and a cabal seeking to undermine him.
It was therefore decided to keep Wigneswaran out on the pretext that the TNA delegation should consist of only Parliamentarians and not Provincial councillors.It was also decided to expand the proposed delegation.Leaders of constituent parties such as Suresh Premachandran of Eelam Peoples Revolutionary Liberation Front(EPRLF)and Selvam Adaikkalanathan of Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) were to be included also. Two other constituent parties the Tamil United Liberation front(TULF)led by Veerasingham Aanandasangaree and Peoples Liberation organization of Tamil Eelam(PLOTE) led by Dharmalingam Siddharthan were ignored as has been the practice within the TNA where the Ilankai Thamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK),EPRLF and TELO rule the roost.
ITAK Secretary “Maavai”Senathirajah was also included in the TNA delegation. So too was Batticaloa district MP Pon. Selvarajah to avert complaints about the Eastern Tamils being neglected.Thus it was a six – member TNA delegation that went to India.Interestingly the TNA delegation consisted of persons whose names or nom de guerres began with the letter “S”. Names such as Sampanthan, Senathirajah, Selvarajah and Sumanthiran on the one hand and nom de guerres like Suresh and Selvam on the other.
Even as preparations were being made for a TNA visit to New Delhi the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa was kept in the dark.Despite numerous intelligence personnel being deployed in monitoring activities the powers that be failed to obtain even an inkling of the envisaged TNA trip to India.Furthermore Colombo was lulled into a sense of false complacency by Indian political personality Dr. Subramanian Swamy whose pronouncements in Sri Lanka conveyed the impression that Prime Minister Modi would meet with the TNA only if prior approval was granted by Mahinda Rajapaksa.
DR. SUBRAMANIAN SWAMY
Dr.Subramanian Swamy is a maverick politician who has been bitterly opposed to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE)in the past.In recent times he has moved close to the Rajapaksa regime. Thus Swamy’s perceived discomfiture over the surprise trip by the TNA to New Delhi was relished by many. Democratic Peoples Front(DPF)leader Mano Ganesan described the TNA visit as a slap in the face of Subramanian Swamy.
It is however unclear as to whether Subramanian Swamy was simply shooting his mouth off on his own or whether he was manipulated by the Bureaucratic Brahmins of New Delhi in this regard. Those familiar with the Kautilyan intrigues and manoeuvring of South Block may very well opine that Swamy was a witting or unwitting pawn in the affair.He may have been utilised to put Colombo off guard at one level while quiet efforts were being made at another level to arrange the TNA visit to Delhi.
Those who remember the twists and turns of Indo-Lanka relations may recall the immediate set of events preceding the Vadamaratchi operation launched by the Sri Lankan armed forces in May 1987.Colombo’s envoy in New Delhi Bernard Tillekaratne discreetly sounded out former Indian Foreign secretary Romesh Bhandari about what New Delhi felt about the proposed attack. Bhandari contacted officials in South Block unofficially and gave the green light to Colombo. “Operation Liberation” was launched and the armed forces made rapid advances. New Delhi however reacted strongly and wanted Colombo to call it off. Pressure was exerted further by the infamous “Operation Poomaalai” where Indian aircraft violated Sri Lankan airspace and air dropped food parcels over Jaffna. Later Bhandari was to lament in private that he had been given dead rope by his erstwhile colleagues in South Block.
Whatever the role played by Dr. Swamy in this regard there is no denying that the Government was extremely irritated by the surprising suddenness of the TNA trip to India.The well –informed Political Editor of the Daily Mirror’s sister paper “Sunday Times”in last Sunday’s political column revealed in detail the angry response of President Rajapksa who had conveyed his feelings to TNA leader Sampanthan through an emissary.President Rajapaksa had reportedly reminded Sampanthan that ultimately the TNA had to come to him for a solution.
News reports in the Indian media stated that Prime minister Modi had urged “all stakeholders in Sri Lanka to engage constructively, in a spirit of partnership and mutual accommodation, towards finding a political solution”.More importantly Modi emphasised that the Thirteenth amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution should be the basis of the envisaged political solution . A report in the “New Indian Express” stated thus“This(solution)should be built upon the 13th amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution”he said referring to the India backed amendment of the 1980’s which called for devolving autonomus powers to the Tamils”.
Against this backdrop it could be seen that the TNA passage to India and Prime minister Modi’s emphasis on the 13th amendment has caused much disappointment in the corridors of power in Colombo. As a result Dr. Subramanian Swamy who was the toast of the Sri Lankan establishment for weeks turned into overburnt roast overnight.Narendra Modi hailed for months as having broken free of the shackles of Tamil Nadu chief minister Ms.Jayalalithaa Jayaram is now being faulted. The TNA is being criticised for running off to other countries instead of participating in the Parliamentary select committee. “The TNA may go anywhere but it is in Sri Lanka that a solution can be found”is the current govt sentiment.
All these developments,events,responses and reactions show that even after decades of interaction with our giant neighbour,Sri Lanka is yet to comprehend the nature of inter –state relations vis a vis India and understand the basics of Indian policy towards Sri Lanka.Sections of opinion within both the Sinhala and Tamil communities share alike this inability or unwillingness to recognize the reality of what actually prevails on ground namely the India facilitated Thirteenth Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution.Interestingly both Sinhala and Tamil hardliners are united in their opposition to the 13th amendment for different reasons.Sinhala hardliners think the full implementation of 13th Amendment provisions would lead to secession while Tamil hardliners opine that implementing the 13th amendment would kill the idea of “Tamil Eelam” for ever.
It may be appropriate at this juncture to briefly examine the situation that prevailed in 1987 when the 13th amendment was enacted and the events that led up to it.It would also be pertinent to delve into the past and focus on the contours of Indian policy towards Sri Lanka that prevailed then.The crux of the matter is that the basics of the policy framework exists even now.Governments and Prime Ministers may come and go but the underlying strand of policy if formulated on the basis of a country’s interests will remain for ever.The style of execution may vary under different rulers or regimes but the substance or core elements remain unchanged.It is the inability or unwillingness to understand this elementary fact that leads to false expectations and resultant disappointment.In the case of Sri Lanka and India there is also the complicated issue of what is termed as the “intermestic”factor.
The term “Intermestic” was first used by Henry Kissinger to explain international issues having domestic economic implications like for instance the middle-eastern situation abroad impacting on the price of gas in the US. The term coined by Kissinger took the “inter” from International and “mestic” from Domestic.
It was however veteran Journalist Mervyn de Silva who popularised the term in Sri Lanka.Mervyn was then editing the “Lanka Guardian” fortnightly and writing a weekly column for “Sunday Island”. Mervyn applied the term to all issues crossing the boundaries between the International and the domestic and belonged to both spheres thereby necessitating this sub-category.
According to Mervyn, Sri Lanka’s Tamil issue was for Sri Lanka a domestic issue with an international spillover and for India it was an international issue with a domestic spillover. Hence for both Colombo and New Delhi it should be regarded as INTERMESTIC, i.e. “at the interface of the international and the domestic”.
The term intermestic comes to mind against the backdrop of the new Indian Prime minister’s meeting with the TNA. While Indo-Lanka relations will continue to remain cordial, observers of South Asian regional politics are able to detect some contradictions emerging between New Delhi and Colombo on certain matters. Chief among them is the prickly Sri Lankan Tamil issue.President Rajapaksa’s reaction to the TNA trip as reported by “Sunday Times”is indicative of this.
Indian involvement in the affairs of its neighbours has been described as benign intervention by Indian academics and analysts. Generally Countries act in their own self – interest but often attribute lofty motives for such actions
The undermining of the Rana family and empowerment of the Shah dynasty in Nepal,the dismemberment of Pakistan and creation of Bangla Desh, the Indo-Lanka accord and induction of the Indian Army as a peace-keeping force in Sri Lanka and the quick action in Maldives to crush a coup d’etat aided by Sri Lankan Tamil militants of the PLOTE (Peoples Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam ) are some instances of Indian benign intervention.
Needless to say all these cases of benign intervention also served India’s interests in the region. But such is the nature of international relations. All countries have their own interests at heart and smaller entities identifying common interests with larger interests and harmonising accordingly have greater chances of bettering the prospects for themselves.
In the case of Sri Lanka the twin tenets of basic Indian policy was preserving the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka on the one hand and ensuring the rights of the minorities particularly the Sri Lankan Tamils on the other. This framework in essence was conditioned by the intermestic factor.
The 1983 July anti-Tamil pogrom saw more than 100,000 Tamils fleeing to Tamil Nadu as refugees. The presence of Tamil refugees on Indian soil was the “locus standi” for India to seek a greater role in Sri Lanka.Instead of reaching out to the affected victims of the July 1983 pogrom and alleviating their hardship the JR Jayewardena regime was hell bent on appeasing the majority. Blaming the victim syndrome was at its best.
The Govt introduced the sixth amendment to the Constitution disavowing separatism. All MP’s were required to take an oath to that effect to retain Parliamentary membership. The Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) with sixteen MP’s in Parliament refused to take the oath on a matter of principle. As a result they forfeited their seats. The Sri Lankan Tamil voice was effectively driven away from Parliament.
Several ex-TULF MP’s including Opposition leader Appapillai Amirthalingam took up residence in Tamil Nadu. With more than a hundred thousand refugees on its soil providing a locus standi , New Delhi offered its good offices to mediate and bring about a negotiated political settlement.
There was an imperative need for India to intervene at that stage. The Sri Lankan Tamil issue was a crucial emotional issue for Tamil Nadu at that time. There was a fear that the mood may turn volatile and result in a law and order crisis.Also there had been a flourishing secessionist movement in Tamil Nadu at one time. It had been checked and transformed democratically. The former Tamil separatists were well integrated into the Indian fabric.Now there was apprehension that the fabric may be torn and separatist tendencies revived because of the Sri Lankan Tamil crisis impacting on Tamil Nadu.
If secession was encouraged in Sri Lanka that could have a demonstration effect on other states including Tamil Nadu in India. If the Tamils were allowed to be continuously victimised in Sri Lanka that too could radicalise Tamil Nadu in the long term These parameters necessitated in India fashioning policy ensuring both the unity of Sri Lanka as well as Tamil rights.
The fundamental difference in New Delhi policy towards Pakistan in 1971 and Sri Lanka in 1987 was that in the case of the former it suited Indian interests to fracture Pakistan and create Bangla Desh while in the case of the latter, Indian interests were better served by preventing dismemberment of Sri Lanka and unifying the Island.
ARC OF ENCIRCLEMENT
The intermestic nature of the issue had two additional aspects too. One was that New Delhi at that time feared an arc of encirclement by “hostile” forces. India feared a Washington-Tel Aviv-Islamabad axis. The Jayewardena govt was seen as a Western puppet and lackey.It was necessary therefore to win over Colombo and bring Sri Lanka within Indian orbit. The Tamil issue provided an opportunity to de-stabilise Sri Lanka and pressure Jayawardena into submitting to Delhi diktat.
The other was the personality factor. It is a fact that basic policy is formulated by the bureaucracy in India and that the political executive is guided by it. Individual leaders by force of their personalty may effect a change in the style of implementation but cannot effectively change the substance of policy.What happened here was that Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was not very fond of President Jayewardena or Prime Minister Premadasa. She enjoyed close rapport with TULF leaders particularly Amirthalingam. This personality factor also played a significant part in the politics of that time.
In short there were three basic reasons for Indian intervention in Sri Lanka then.
Firstly the Jayewardena Govt was spurning “non – alignment” and taking Sri Lanka into a pro – Western orbit. Under prevailing conditions of the day New Delhi feared a Washington – Tel Aviv – Islamabad axis. India needed to bring Sri Lanka to “heel” and keep out undesirable elements out of the region.
Secondly there was the domestic imperative. There was much concern in Tamil Nadu for the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Tamil Nadu was once home to a flourishing separatist movement. India was concerned about the fall – out from Sri Lanka on Tamil Nadu if the conflict escalated here.
Thirdly there was the unacknowledged personality factor. Indira Gandhi was personally hostile to Jayewardena and Premadasa. At the same time she had a soft corner for the TULF politicians who remained loyal to her when in the opposition. The UNP on the other hand made fun of her defeat and cosied up to bete noir Morarji Desai.
This confluence of factors deemed it necessary that India make a “benign” intervention in Sri Lanka
1)to help resolve the ethnic conflict within a united Sri Lanka but in a manner acceptable to Tamils,
2) make Colombo accept New Delhi’s hegemony over the region and appreciate Indian security concerns and teach the Jayewardena regime a lesson while rewarding the TULF.
In such a situation the Indian state trained and armed Tamil militants into guerrilla organizations. The idea was to fight and de-stabilise the North-Eastern provinces to a great extent.
Thereafter the Colombo govt would be compelled to turn to Delhi for assistance.That moment would be seized. Tamil Eelam was never on the cards.
CONTINUITY IN POLICY
Meanwhile Indira Gandhi was assassinated and her son Rajiv Gandhi succeeded her. Rajiv’s ascendancy saw the veteran Gopalaswamy Parthasarathy being ousted as India’s special envoy to Sri Lanka on the Tamil issue. Foreign secretary Romesh Bhandari functioned as emissary. Despite these changes the basic continuity in policy remained.
There were many twists and turns but India’s strategy worked to a great extent. But after the military operation in Vadamaratchy in May 1987 it appeared that Colombo was on the verge of wiping out the LTTE. At that point India demonstrated very clearly to Colombo that it would not be allowed to crush Tamil militancy . India violated Sri Lankan air space and dropped food parcels over the Jaffna peninsula on June 4th 1987.
To his credit Jayawardena read the writing on the wall correctly.
He caved into Indian pressure and the Indo-lanka accord was signed on July 29th 1987. That treaty gave India a right to be involved in the affairs of Sri Lanka.
The Indo – Lanka accord was not perfect. It did not rectify all problems concerning Tamils. But it provided a good and great beginning. The Indo-Lanka accord recognized Sri Lanka as a multi-ethnic,multi – religious nation. Thus both the mono-ethnic claims of Sinhala supremacists and the two nation theory of Tamil separatists were negated.
It recognized the Northern and Eastern provinces as historic areas of habitation of the Tamil and Muslim people where they lived with other ethnicities. Thus the Tamils and Muslim right of historic habitation was recognized but there was no exclusive rights. The North-Eastern region belonged to all ethnicities.
Moreover the opportunity to create a single Tamil linguistic province was made available at that time. Both provinces were temporarily merged with the proviso that a referendum should be held in the Eastern province to either approve or reject the merger.
A scheme providing devolution of powers on a provincial basis was brought in. Provincial councils with powers allocated on provincial, concurrent and reserved basis were set up. Tamil was elevated to Official language status.
All those convicted of “terrorist” offences were given official pardon. All militants who took to arms were given a general amnesty.
It appeared then that the basic grievances and legitimate aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils could be redressed and accommodated if and when the Indo-Lanka accord was gradually implemented. Besides India was there to underwrite the accord and guarantee its implementation.
The 13th Constitutional amendment was drafted in Colombo. An Indian Constitutional lawyer was consulted in an advisory capacity.Given the opposition mounted by the SLFP and JVP then it was feared that any Constitutional amendment requiring an Island – wide referendum would not be ratified if the Supreme court decreed so.
Thus the powers and composition of the envisaged Provincial Councils through the 13th amendment were somewhat restricted. The Supreme Court allowed it without a referendum because of this. Even then the nine Judge bench was divided five to four. Interestingly three of the Judges voting in favour were from the Tamil, Muslim and Burgher ethnicities. All four opposing were Sinhala.
New Delhi however extracted a promise in writing from JR on Nov 7th 1987 that he would devolve more powers to the PC’s within a specific time frame.But events took a different turn and this promise was never adhered to by JR or successive regimes.
The accord bestowed upon India the responsibility of ensuring and protecting Tamil interests in Sri Lanka. The Indo-Lanka treaty was “forgotten” for many years but remained valid.It could be activated if and when necessary. Until and unless both countries jointly repudiate it the Indo – Lanka agreement will continue to be there. It cannot be unilaterally abrogated by one country. The Accord provides India with a permanent “say” in the affairs of Sri Lanka.
Prime Minister Modi’s “invitation”to South Asian heads of state for his swearing in ceremony indicates that the new BJP regime will strive to re-assert its authority in the South Asian region.The presence of neighbourhood leaders at the ceremony evoked memories of a by gone era where vassal state rulers congregated at the crowning of an emperor or monarch to pay homage.According to analysts the new Indian Govt of Narendra Modi will confidently establish its dominance amidst smaller countries of South Asia as the “pivotal” and “pre-eminent”power.
Against that backdrop it seems crystal clear that the Indo –Lanka accord provides India greater leverage in the affairs of Sri Lanka.Even if it was brought into being by a Congress govt a BJP Govt cannot discard it.This is why Prime minister Modi wants a solution in Sri Lanka to be built on the basis of the 13th Constitutional amendment which was enacted because of the Indo-.Lanka accord.
The July 29th 1987 Indo-Lanka accord was ushered in by a Rajiv Gandhi led Congress Govt but even a Bharatiya Janata party govt led by Narendra Modi cannot but try and implement it fully 27 years later in 2014.It is in this context that Narendra Modi’s emphasis on building a solution based on the 13th constitutional amendment needs to be viewed by both the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil National Alliance.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org