By N Sathiya Moorthy
President Maithripala Sirisena’s maiden overseas visit after assuming office to the northern Indian neighbourwill be noted more for what was left unsaid in public than said. Official pronouncements and announcements on the visit did not refer to the two T-words’ the Tamil issue and the Thirteenth Amendment. The Indian grace in this regard in particular should go a long way in sending out clear signals to the stake-holders in Sri Lanka, where their own venues and avenues for finding a solution should like inside the united Sri Lanka and not outside.
It’s not as if the Indian leadership would not have referred to the two issues of inherent concerns to the nation at the bilateral talks. Yet, they did not find any direct or even indirect mention either in President Pranab Mukherjee’s speech at the Rashtrapati Bhavan State banquet, or in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s joint media statement with the visitor. Back in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s Cabinet Spokesperson and Health Minister, Rajitha Senaratne, has since clarified that the Indian hosts did not insist on the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment on power-devolution. Senaratne was on President Sirisena’s team to India.
It’s possibly for the first time since India facilitated 13-A that the nation seems to have taken a deliberate decision to try and take bilateral relations forward without constant reference to the Tamils’ ethnic issue and a negotiated settlement thereof. It however does not mean that India is disengaging itself totally from the ethnic issue. It could only mean that India wants to give the new leadership in Sri Lanka time and space to negotiate a political solution acceptable to all stake-holders in the island-nation.
Where Indian concerns were directly involved, PM Modi did discuss the fishers’ problem with President Sirisena. He also referred to the discussions, to encourage the fishers from the two countries, to return to the negotiations table, to address what both nations for long have acknowledged as a livelihood concern.
The two sides also discussed the early return of over 100,000 war time Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, two-thirds of them housed in Government-run camps in Tamil Nadu, to their homeland, another issue directly involving and impacting upon India.
In context, the Indian position during President Sirisena’s visit on the ethnic issue might have also been a departure from the earlier maiden overseas visit of new Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. In Delhi less than a week after assuming office, Minister Samaraweera did mention the ethnic issue, political solution and the UNHRC probe even while talking to the media. Ahead of his India visit, TNA leader R Sampanthan too had hoped for the Samaraweera visit to help find an early solution to the ethnic issue and related concerns.
As Samaraweera pointed out on the occasion, President Sirisena, in the company of post-poll Prime Minister Ranil Wickemesinghe had replaced ex-military officers as Governors in the Tamil-centric Northern and Eastern Provinces. The new Government had also commenced work on returning whatever Tamil civilian lands as possible from the possession of the armed forces. As coincidence would have it a Tamil Justice K Sripavan, had become the Chief Justice of Sri Lanka under the new dispensation.
Yet, sections of the Tamil nationalists in Sri Lanka and elsewhere seem to continue displaying the kind of ignorance and impatience, which had been their hallmark through the past decades. Any reference to the ethnic issue at Delhi in the changed context and evolving circumstances in Sri Lanka would still have been criticised, making it all a thankless initiative one more time.
By not mentioning the ethnic issue, India has also put the ball silently back on the Sri Lankan court not just for the new Government to handle. It’s for all stake-holders out there, to sit around the table and find a negotiated settlement. In the past, when India saw problems for Sri Lanka to sign the CEPA after both sides had initialled it, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told President Rajapaksa on the sidelines of the Colombo SAARC Summit (2008) that India would wait until they were ready.
Genocide or suicide?
As coincidence would have it, the day the Sirisena-Modi talks were being held in Delhi, the UNHRC in Geneva announced its decision to defer the independent probe team’s report on accountability issues in Sri Lanka by six months, to the September session. There, the reasons for the deferment was spelt out specifically that the new leadership needed to be given time to make its own assessments and take new initiatives that the predecessor leadership of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa had failed to take.
The shared position taken by India and Sri Lanka during the Sirisena visit on the twin concerns of political solution and accountability issues flow from the fact that the ruling Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province Council (NPC) had extended unconditional support to the Sirisena candidacy in the 8 January presidential polls in that country. India in particular would be well aware that the inherent inconsistencies in the preached positions, particularly within the divided and at times divisive Tamil polity in Sri Lanka, could make a final solution that much more difficult. Yet, there was no harm trying, and no harm creating the right climate for the same.
There is nothing to suggest that the two nations are overly concerned about the NPC’s genocide resolution. But they could not have been totally unconcerned, either. It is one thing for Tamil hard-liners (read: ‘separatists’, if you want) to say all that has been said in the 11-page resolution. It’s another matter altogether for the constitutionally-mandated Council in general and the elected Chief Minister to be party to the resolution.
By piloting the resolution and seeing it through, Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran, a retired Judge of the Sri Lankan Supreme Court may have conferred greater respectability and questionable legitimacy on what prima facie might sound less patriotic and more anti-national from a larger Sri Lankan context.
Having given out every sign that he was a party to the ruling Tamil National Alliance’s (TNA) leadership decision to extend unconditional support to the Sirisena candidacy in the presidential poll, it might have been surprising, if not shocking for other stake-holders, to see him squeeze out settling-down time from the new Government even before it had settled down.
The Sirisena camp had laid out a 100-day programme for all-round reforms ahead of the presidential polls. The TNA leadership acknowledged that the ethnic issue was not one of them. They readily conceded that the ethnic issue would and could be taken up for consideration only after a new Parliament had been elected. The Sirisena programme promised fresh parliamentary polls to be ordered on 23 April, as the last act of the new government under the 100-day programme.
In this background it’s anybody’s guess why Chief Minister Wigneswaran should shoot himself in the foot, and that of fellow-Tamils. The separatists among Tamil nationalists to which clan he may belong have always demonstrated their calculated clamour for a particular tactic: Heads I win, tail you lose. If they are still serious about pushing the Tamils living back in the country and the international community into acknowledging and accepting the idea of a separate state they may be continuing to express the erstwhile LTTE’s suicidal tendencies. It’s not without reason.
While sounding legal and emotional at the same time, the prime-movers of the resolution this time would have been fully aware that the genocide resolution would not achieve much this time round at the very least. By seeking to harass the new Government in Sri Lanka when it could ill-afford it and embarrass friends and sympathisers elsewhere, they may have also lost the post-war political battle for a separate state, if it was one.
Despite controlling territory and running a parallel administration, from police stations to post offices, currency to courts, the LTTE could not find a single and remotely interested/disinterested nation to recognise it under the international law.
In this virtual world, the TNGTE’s (Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam) virtual government cannot expect anything better. Unlike in the distant past when the genocide resolution said it all had begun, today the international community is glued on to realities on the ground.
Today, the international community cannot be easily distracted or deceived through tactical blunders of the kind in which the LTTE came to excel in after a time. The LTTE’s gaps showed as much in the political arena as in the military field. And for those sitting in the ivory towers of the TNGTE and the like, to expect/want more and more of innocent Tamils back home in Sri Lanka to be made sacrificial goats at the altar of their own political expediency and personal convictions, is a far shot that could only backfire.
The grand strategy of the Tamil separatists in the past had been to convince them that the whole world was conspiring against it all the time and that they have only themselves to rely upon. They have never contextualised their attitude and approaches to the global mood of the changing times. Instead, they are stuck with selective global methods, not applicable to all times and circumstances. Feeling cheated has remained their birth-right, and it does not always sell as they have been finding out at every turn, but without making amends.
In the past year, when then President Rajapaksa invited Chief Minister Wigneswaran to join his India delegation for Prime Minister Modi’s Inauguration, he had causes to decline it. He was not hurting President Rajapaksa but his Indian host, in a way. This time round, CM Wigneswaran’s leadership to the genocide resolution might have precluded President Sirisena from inviting him on board, if it were under consideration.
Either way, Wigneswaran lost one opportunity after another to discuss the ethnic issue with the Indian leadership, that too in the presence of his own governmental leadership. As facilitator to the 13-A initiative to end ethnic strife and signatory to the preceding Indo-Sri Lanka Accord initiative, India would then have been involuntarily invited on board from where it had left in a huff long ago, after slain President Ranasinghe Premadasa showed the door to the IPKF.
The LTTE’s mindless assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the Accord signatory, first, and possibly Premadasa, later, only compounded the consequent complications and complexities.
Over the post-war years, the Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) community and polity, nearer home and in the Diaspora, seemed to have concluded that the present-day BJP-NDA Government could be persuaded to move away from the acknowledged Indian position on the ethnic issue and attendant aspects by slinging mud at the predecessor Manmohan Singh Government and the Sonia Gandhi leadership of the Congress rival.
It has only exposes their inadequate understanding of Indian politics and Indian polity. National parties in nations such as India and Sri Lanka have shared a common perspective on issues of larger national interest. Having convinced itself that the majority Sinhala polity in Sri Lanka was only indulging in competitive Buddhist nationalist politics, these groups and leaders have casually extended and expanded their theories to include India in the league.
It may have owed also to some perceived successes that they have/had achieved in the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu. It’s truer of some western nations and constituencies, where the SLT Diaspora votes are decisive.
It’s thus that the SLT groups of all hues and convictions would have been surprised to see in official photographs, Congress president Sonia Gandhi being seated to the right of President Pranab Mukherjee at the State banquet for Sirisena. As is customary, to President Mukherjee’s right was Sri Lanka’s First Lady, Jayanthi Pushpa Kumari. Seated across the table were President Sirisena and Prime Minister Modi.
It may have nothing to do with the ethnic issue per se, but has everything to do with the personal equations that still existed between India’s national leaders, going beyond political compulsions. It’s the kind of relationship that the SLT community and social leadership is unable to digest in the case of the competing Sinhala leaderships nearer home, and unlike anything that they are familiar with in southern Tamil Nadu.
Among other portfolios, President Mukherjee had held both Defence and External Affairs in his long politico-ministerial career. Thus, he had handled/addressed Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue in all its facets and phases. He was privy to what was said and heard. His sane advice would also be readily available to Prime Minister Modi, both at the official and personal level. All of it goes beyond his Congress political past.
Whatever the reason and justification, the mainline DMK and AIADMK in southern Tamil Nadu have been surprised into silence on the absence of the T-words, after the Sirisena visit. Unlike those Tamil Nadu parties that do not hope to be in elected power in the foreseeable future, they know the Indian political behaviour and constitutional constraints in commenting on issues that involve a good neighbour.
It’s more so when you have a strong leader and a stronger government at the Centre than at any time since the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord. PM Modi might not have had the need or opportunity to demonstrate it thus far. Given a chance, however, he might not be able to escape the responsibility that goes with the public perception in his favour, either.
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: email@example.com)e was