There has been a reset in India’s Sri Lanka policy which is at variance with what Narendra Modi and Sushma Swaraj had stated in public in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Addressing an election rally in Chennai on 13 April and another in Ramanathapuram on 17 April, Modi said that just as the Sri Lankan Navy targeted Tamil Nadu fishermen, Pakistan’s Navy attacked fishermen from Gujarat. The weak UPA government of Manmohan Singh had failed to protect these fishermen. If the BJP was voted to power, his government would protect fishermen from both these States, Modi said.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, as one of the SAARC Heads of State, was an invitee to the swearing-in ceremony of Modi as Prime Minister in May. In his talks with Rajapaksa and his entourage, Modi made it clear that his government expected Sri Lanka to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, an outcome of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka agreement.
Rajapaksa tried to prevaricate, saying such things could not be done overnight. Modi reiterated it was more than five years since the civil war in the island nation ended and the LTTE was decapitated. Departing from the normal practice of issuing a common statement after such talks, Sri Lanka issued a separate statement which said: “President Rajapaksa described the initiatives Sri Lanka has taken with regard to rehabilitation, resettlement, reconstruction and the ongoing reconciliation process in the country. President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Modi also discussed the issue of fishermen of both countries and measures that can be taken to find a permanent solution.”
There was not a word about Modi raising non-implementation of the 13th Amendment. Incensed by this lapse, Sujatha Singh, Foreign Secretary, joined official spokesman Syed Akbaruddin to stress that the 13th Amendment was the core subject of discussion between the two leaders. To add to the embarrassment of the Lankan entourage, its only Tamil member, Yogeswary Patgunarajah, Mayor of Jaffna representing the Eelam People’s Democratic Party of Douglas Devananda, said in an NDTV programme that Rajapaksa in his talks had agreed to grant police and land powers to the Northern Provincial Council.
Subsequent developments in Colombo indicate a volte-face by the BJP on the ethnic crisis in Sri Lanka.
A day after his return, Rajapaksa asked his minister Nirmal Siripala de Silva to address a press conference in Colombo to clarify his position to the Sri Lankans. The minister said the 13th Amendment was forced on Sri Lanka by India and that there were practical problems in implementing some of its provisions. Stating that Colombo would always cooperate with India, De Silva said that only the Parliamentary Select Committee could decide on the future of 13th Amendment. De Silva is the chairman of the 19-member PSC to recommend and report on political and constitutional measures to “empower the people of Sri Lanka to live as one nation.”
It may be recalled Sushma Swaraj, External Affairs Minister, led a parliamentary delegation to Sri Lanka in April 2012 when she was the Leader of the Opposition. Addressing a press conference in Colombo on 21 April 2012, she said Rajapaksa had given her an assurance that he would implement 13th Amendment and go beyond. When a journalist pointed out that some ministers had denied such assurance by the President, Swaraj said: “There is no question of ministers saying and denying anything. The President himself said he would concede both the 13th Amendment and the plus.”
Groundwork for resetting the Modi government’s policy on Sri Lanka was done by a high-powered BJP delegation comprising Subramanian Swamy, Seshadri Chari of the RSS, Suresh Prabhu of the Shiv Sena, Prof Madhav Nalapat of Manipal Academy and senior journalist Swapan Dasgupta to Colombo for a seminar ostensibly on “India Under Modi: Relevance for the Region and the World,” held under the aegis of the Bandaranaika Centre for International Studies.
Introducing Swamy, chairman of the BJP Committee for Strategic Action, Sunimal Fernando, adviser to President Rajapaksa, said if the BJP leader was to contest an election in Sri Lanka, he would have a resounding victory. A common theme of the panelists was that political parties in Tamil Nadu had been using their political clout to pressurise the Union government on Sri Lankan issues. But the Modi government was in a position of strength and was not dependent on any regional party. They were of the view that foreign policy was the exclusive preserve of the Centre and that they could swing it to fall in line with what Rajapaksa stands for.
Ever since the end of the civil war in 2009, Rajapaksa has been promoting Sri Lanka as a unitary state of Sinhala Buddhists. He said the country no longer had minority communities. It had only patriots and traitors. Swamy told the seminar, “We in India are proud that your President was able to defeat terrorism which could have grown into an even more threatening menace.” He wondered whether the human right issues raked up by the UNHRC were “contrived to belittle the importance of this victory.” No country had such a clear success in eliminating terrorism as Sri Lanka, he said.
Referring to non-implementation of the 13th Amendment, Chari said it was the product of a particular situation that existed in 1987. In the changed circumstances all stakeholders should have a re-look at the 13th Amendment. The pronouncements of the team hogged headlines in the Sri Lanka media which left no one in doubt that it was out to craft a new axis between the BJP and Rajapaksa and the 13th Amendment could be consigned to the waste paper basket.
It is noteworthy the March 2014 UNHRC resolution began by saying, “Alarmed at the significant surge in attacks against members of religious minority groups in Sri Lanka, including Hindus, Muslims and Christians..” The Sinhala majority considers its victory over Tamils as a ratification of its divinely ordained dominion with other groups occupying a subordinate position. On India’s abstention from voting on the resolution, Chari said, “The BJP has always held views contrary to the former Indian government on the voting in 2012. However, in 2014, good sense prevailed and India abstained. I strongly believe that both India and Sri Lanka should resolve this issue and collaborate to get the resolution completely withdrawn.”
People living in a democratic country should be treated as equals, irrespective of language, ethnicity or religious beliefs. But in Sri Lanka, the minorities are being crushed by the tyranny of the Sinhala Buddhists who constitute nearly 80 per cent of the population. The Northern and the Eastern Provinces, traditional homeland of the Tamils, were once strewn with thousands of temples, churches, mosques, schools, libraries and statues of eminent persons and historical monuments. Many of them have been razed to the ground.
All the five renowned Hindu shrines that existed long before the advent of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Thirukketheeswaram, Thirukkoneswaram, Naguleswaram, Munneswaram and Thondeswaram are now under the control of the armed forces or Sinhala Buddhists. Having subjugated the Tamils, the Sangha, as the Theravada Buddhist monks are referred to, has turned its attention on Muslims, who are also Tamil-speaking. In September last year, about 100 Buddhist monks demolished a Muslim shrine in the ancient city of Anuradhapura and set a Muslim flag on fire claiming the land had been given to the Sinhalese 2,000 years ago. Since then, the Muslims have been at the receiving end.
The current focus of the Rajapaksa government appears to be to use the BJP to consolidate Sinhala Buddhist ethno-nationalism to usher in Boddhistva in Sri Lanka, even as the RSS and the Sangh Parivar are pushing the Modi government to step up the Hindutva agenda. It would be a betrayal of the Sri Lankan Tamils, the majority of whom are Hindu.
Another victim of this reset in India’s Sri Lanka policy is the fishermen community in Tamil Nadu whose right to fish in the Palk Strait is protected in both the 1974 agreement of ceding Kachchativu to Sri Lanka and in the 1976 agreement on redrawing the maritime boundary between the two countries.
Both Modi and Swaraj assured the fishermen during the election campaign that their traditional rights in the Palk Strait would be protected if the BJP is voted to power. The fishermen are now asked to eschew their rights and switch to deep sea fishing, away from the reach of Sri Lankan Navy.
(The writer is a veteran journalist and former Director of The Statesman Print Journalism School.This opinion piece appears in “The Statesman”of September 3rd 2014)