Originally Published 2012-04-23 00:00:00 Published on Apr 23, 2012
The Indian parliamentary delegation's visit to Sri Lanka was not expected to fast-track a solution to the ethnic issue. Yet, it has facilitated continued Indian engagement on the subject with various stake-holders, the Government, the TNA and the UNP Opposition.
MPs' Sri Lanka visit: A clear message from Indian polity
The six-day-long visit of a 12-member Indian parliamentary delegation to Sri Lanka could not have come at a more inopportune moment in the contemporary context of bilateral relations -- after New Delhi had voted against Colombo at the Geneva UNHRC. Nor did the run-up to the visit augured well for the success of their uncharted mission after the two ’Dravidian majors’ from southern Tamil Nadu withdrew their representatives at the last-minute. Yet, the team’s visit has done consummate good for bilateral relations in general and the Indian polity understanding and approaching the Sri Lankan ’ethnic issue’ in particular. The reverse should also be the same, for a Sri Lankan appreciation of the mood and concerns of the larger Indian polity, going beyond the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu.

Since the visit followed the Indian vote against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC, it was expected to stir ruffled political feathers in Sri Lanka, both from within the Government coalition and more so from the divided and dis-spirited Opposition. Despite the loss of face for the Government and President Mahinda Rajapaksa at Geneva, the Opposition could not capitalise on the international sentiments nearer home. The ’nationalist card’ played out well by the Rajapaksa leadership one more time ensured that the Opposition did not stand a chance of carrying the otherwise unhappy voters, reeling under the pressures of price rise and lawlessness.

When the Indian team reached Colombo, both Governments were busy on damage-control mode after a section of the media reportedly mis-quoted ’Sinhala right’ JHU leader and Energy Minister Champika Ranawakka on Sri Lankan reservations over the Koodamkulam nuclear power project (KNPP) in Tamil Nadu. This meant that the JHU leadership had to play down its known reservations against the Indian vote in Geneva. That a rabble-rouser like Minister Wimal Weerawansa too did not launch off on the anti-India mode when the Indian delegation was in the country showed that President Rajapaksa was in control of the situation, and that the Government’s assessment of India’s ’political compulsions’ on the Geneva vote still held good across the board.

Diplomatic coup, the Indian way

The Indian strategic community would take time to assess the full impact of the twin diplomatic victories registered by New Delhi in recent times. The Geneva vote was one. Belatedly though, it sent out a clear signal to Colombo that New Delhi did remember the past commitments on the ethnic issue, which in turn had gone a long way in India’s sympathy and support for Sri Lankan Government during ’Eelam War IV’ (2006-09). The delegation visit now was the second. This one was different in concept and composition compared to the 10-member team of Indian MPs that visited the war-ravaged areas of Sri Lanka in 2009, only weeks after the conclusion of the ethnic war.

By inviting BJP Opposition Leader in the Lok Sabha, Ms Sushma Swaraj, to head the all-party delegation, the Government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh scored more than a debating point. An Opposition-led delegation conveyed to the Sri Lankan Government the spirit of the all-party approach, as reflected in Parliament, ahead of the Indian decision on the Geneva vote. The latter had meant that the Indian position on the ethnic issue was not shaped exclusively by the ’Tamil Nadu factor’, as had been understood/mis-understood in Colombo. It also conveyed to the decision-makers and the strategic community in Colombo that the ’China factor’ too would go only thus far in shaping New Delhi’s course on bilateral relations, starting with the ethnic issue. By leading the Indian delegation, Ms. Sushma Swaraj conveyed to the Sri Lankans the level of bipartisan or multi-party cooperative approach on the ethnic issue from within the Indian polity.

The Indian coup did not stop there. It was a refreshing experience for the Sri Lankan polity and urban elite to witness the Opposition leader being called upon by the Indian Government to take all the honours that are due to a chief guest at different venues in Sri Lanka, where she distributed Indian aid to the war-affected Tamil population. Chief among them were the distribution of the first batch of houses for the war victims funded by India as part of a massive 50,000-houses scheme. Another was Ms. Sushma Swaraj inaugurating a railway line. Yet another involved her handing over medical equipment to the Jaffna Teaching Hospital, all funded by the Government of India.

It was an equally refreshing experience for Indians in India who were following the events relating to the Indian team visit in Sri Lanka. In the midst of long acrimony between the Government parties and the political Opposition over a variety of governance issues, starting with political corruption, Sri Lanka and the ethnic issue possibly became the only issue over which at least the national/nationalist parties shared a common thread. Yet, from an average Sri Lankan perspective, it was something that their political leaders should emulate from ’elder brother’ India. Most in the Sri Lankan civil society and many in the polity -- Tamil or Sinhala -- have only warm feelings of regard bordering on respect. An occasion that otherwise should have provided ’Sinhala nationalist’ groups, a post-Geneva occasion at India-bashing, the visit provided a cause for them to admire India and the Indian polity, instead.

Dravidian compulsions, competition

In India, the two ’Dravidian majors’, namely, the ruling AIADMK in Tamil Nadu and the DMK may be the losers, particularly if the national parties that formed part of the delegation to Sri Lanka keep up the current stance, tactic and pressure on the Tamil Nadu polity. For, too long have the latter allowed the pan-Tamil polity from the South Indian State to dominate the national discourse on the Sri Lankan issue, and introduce extraneous factors with little or no understanding of the ground reality, despite their claiming ’umbilical cord’ relations with their Tamil brethren across the Palk Strait.

A stage came when the nation’s larger interests were seen as being held hostage to the narrower ethnic concerns of a section of Tamil Nadu’s polity, in the Sri Lankan context, but more so with electoral gains in mind. Their comparing the Sri Lankan situation with New Delhi’s position on East Pakistan of the early Seventies did not hold good anymore for more reasons than one, as was often flagged by pan-Tamil peripheral groups and fringe elements since the height of ’Eelam War IV’. The Indian stand in the years after the anti-Tamil pogrom in Sri Lanka, circa 1983, has not often been retold nearer home, if only not to reopen old wounds in that country. Yet, that story is as contemporary as any other.

In the immediate context of the Indian MPs’ visit, the ’Dravidian majors’ seemed to have been as confused as the smaller parties in the pan-Tamil political pantheon in the State. The latter would have been happy for not being invited to visit Sri Lanka, whose leadership, they despised for crimes committed and not committed. The DMK, which is a partner in the Manmohan Singh Government and the AIADMK with a strong political leader in Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, obviously did not want the fringe groups to re-capture the pan-Tamil imagination, after the two having hijacked the latter’s agenda with their touch and result-oriented action on the Indian vote in Geneva.

The DMK and the AIADMK had limited choice in having to decline participation, once they found that the Sri Lankan Government was as keen as its Indian counterpart in the team’s visit, than they might have anticipated in the weeks immediately after the Geneva vote. They did not want to lose that competitive initiative of the Dravidian political variety to the rest of them, the DMK and the AIADMK having been identified as ’untrustworthy’ partners by the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora groups in particular since the commencement of ’Eelam War IV’.

As ’government parties’ post-war, the AIADMK and the DMK would not have to face the political and constitutional consequences of identifying with a banned outfit in the LTTE that they had feared after the DMK’s experience in the past. Their changed position, and perceived influence on the Indian vote in Geneva meant that not only had they captured the imagination and competitive loyalties of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora. It also meant that as on other issues, the two of them could keep all politics in Tamil Nadu between themselves, to the exclusion of third parties or contenders.

Taking the momentum forward

The success of the delegation’s visit, particularly the role played by national parties, whose perceptions went beyond those of their State units in Tamil Nadu after a point, could mean a consolidation of ’national/nationalist’ sentiments and approaches that go beyond pan-Tamil politics in Tamil Nadu. As is known, apart from the BJP and the Congress (four party representatives were from Tamil Nadu), the CPI-M also had a Tamil Nadu MP on the delegation. As is known, throughout the national discourse on the Geneva vote, both the BJP and the CPI-M had moderated the positions taken by their Tamil Nadu units, even as the State Congress unit sang a different tune from the past, openly urging the Manmohan Singh Government to vote for the US-sponsored resolution in the UNHRC.

Against this, media reports indicated that the decision not to invite the CPI and the MDMK on board may have owed to the perceived disinterest of the host Government to have representatives of the two parties in the Indian team. The MDMK’s political position on the ’ethnic issue’ and its adversarial attitude towards the Sri Lankan State and the Rajapaksa Government are known. In the case of the CPI, a Leftist national party like the CPI-M, perceptions of the ’Tamil Nadu factor’ akin to those identified with the pan-Tamil Dravidian polity, may have been the cause. In the light of the MPs’ visit now, and possible inputs from the Left partner at the national-level, the CPI may be called upon to review its current position, it is believed.

In diplomatic terms, India has wrested the Sri Lankan initiative from the US, which was seen as championing the Tamil cause with the Geneva resolution. During the run-up to the Geneva vote, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the core group of Sri Lankan Tamil MPs that are not in the Government and is against it on the ethnic issue, were seen as approaching the US, over the head of the Indian neighbour. Party leaders also began pairing India and the US as nations whose engagement/intervention could force the Sri Lankan Government to yield to the TNAs’ demands on a negotiated settlement to Sri Lanka’s ’national problem’.

In Colombo and elsewhere, Ms. Sushma Swaraj reiterated the official Indian position of a peaceful solution to the ethnic issue ’within a united Sri Lanka’. Her statements came at a time when in India, the DMK leader, Mr. M Karunanidhi in particular, sought a UN-sponsored referendum for a separate ’Tamil State’ in Sri Lanka. His was a reflection of the demand of the ’Tamils for Obama’ campaign group in an election year in the US. Lest Sri Lanka and the Diaspora should get it wrong from the Indian vote in Geneva, Sushma Swaraj’s reiteration of the acknowledged Indian position should go a long way in asserting continuity in New Delhi’s approach, whichever party or alliance came to power at the Centre after the parliamentary polls in 2014. News reports from Sri Lanka indicated that TNA’s Mr. R Sampanthan, in his team’s interaction with the Indian MPs, asserted that he was proud to be a Sri Lankan - and reiterated at least thrice that they wanted a political solution within a united Sri Lanka.

On issues on the ground, the Sri Lankan Government did not say anything new to the visiting Indian delegation than has already been said. This meant that the BJP as a possible ’government-in-waiting’ and the CPI-M, with a representative in the delegation, would also be party to decision-making in Delhi in the future, whichever way the electoral pendulum swung - and, based on Colombo’s continuing commitments, which has already lost some of its sheen. "We are very, very serious about a political solution," Ms. Sushma Swaraj told newsmen at the conclusion of the visit, the high-point of which was a breakfast meeting with President Mr. Rajapaksa.

The Indian delegation would have found for itself that only 6000 IDPs still lived in the camps, as stated by the Colombo Government for months now. However, their visit also focussed the attention on the rehabilitation away from those living in the IDP camps to their brethren now living in transit camps. Ms. Sushma Swaraj urged the Sri Lankan Government to work for their early re-settlement, and acknowledged the Sri Lankan Government’s commitment to re-settle all IDPs in their homes once the UN certified that all mines had been cleared in their villages and that the place was safe for human habitation. Indications are that the Indian MPs’ will take up with New Delhi the reconstruction efforts that need to be taken for permanent rehabilitation of the war victims, and propose further funding for such projects.

There was concern in the Indian team about the Tamils’ demand for the withdrawal of security forces from the North, where the civilians felt intimidated and overwhelmed. President Mr. Rajapaksa reportedly told them that the Government could not be expected to pull out the armed forces, but he would instruct them not to interfere with civilian lives, as has been the case. More importantly, the delegation underlined the need for the Sri Lankan Government to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). In a way, the team members sought to justify the Indian vote in Geneva, citing how the Resolution there too underscored only this point. Otherwise, the discussions did not refer to either the LLRC or the Geneva vote, two sensitive issues in the bilateral context in recent months.

Media reports quoted Ms. Sushma Swaraj as saying that the team took up with President Mr. Rajapaksa the need for implementing the Thirteenth Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, as a follow-up to the Rajiv-Jayewardene Accord of 1987. She also reportedly referred to the confusion attending on the Sri Lankan Government constantly mentioning concepts such as 13-plus. According to these reports, President Mr. Rajapaksa promised to take the proposal forward, but reference was also said to have been made about the reiteration of the Sri Lankan Government’s promises and commitments in the past, which had not been implemented however.

Ms. Swaraj told the Colombo media that they had urged President Mr. Rajapaksa to be ’persuasive’ with the political Opposition and the TNA for them to join the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), as a way to resolve the ethnic issue through national consensus. According to news reports, Ms. Swaraj proposed this to President Mr. Rajapaksa, when the latter said that he could not coerce the TNA into joining the PSC. An extension of the acknowledged Indian position this -- External Affairs Minister Mr. S M Krishna having backed the PSC proposal as a practical way of finding a solution if it were not to fail as other efforts over the past decades. By fixing the onus of convincing the non-participants on the Sri Lankan Government, political India seems to be coming round to the view that it was up to the Rajapaksa leadership to convince all domestic players about the seriousness of its intentions, as much as it desired an all-party configuration that was not linked to the war-time compulsions and contradictions.

As Ms. Swaraj pointed out, the Indian delegation did not stop with visiting the war-ravaged Tamil areas in the North and the East. They also visited the Upcountry Tamil areas and also the Sinhala South. As she told newsmen, when asked about Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Ms. Jayalalithaa’s reservations to their Sri Lanka visit, "It was not a pleasure trip, it was not a junket." It was much more than that - a success in every other sense of the term, and on the crucial ethnic issue, a reflection of the existing political consensus in India.

The delegation’s visit was not expected to fast-track a solution to the ethnic issue. Yet, it has facilitated continued Indian engagement on the subject with various stake-holders in Sri Lanka, starting with the Government and including the TNA and the UNP Opposition in particular. The delegation however did not discuss power-devolution with other segments of the Tamil-speaking stake-holders, comprising the upcountry Tamil and the Muslim community and their respective polity. Yet, considering the ’difficult times’ in which the delegation visited Sri Lanka, engaging the Government and the TNA, post-Geneva, was a success in itself. On the Sri Lankan Government side, it meant that the Geneva vote was not a distraction. On the TNA front, it implied continued interface with India despite the intervening American interest and engagement.

Post-Geneva, it was an occasion in which the TNA reiterated its position on finding a political solution within a ’united Sri Lanka’, despite Diaspora pressures to the contrary. The Sri Lankan Government, post-Geneva, when it was expected to come under extreme pressure, reiterated its commitment to a negotiated settlement, and more so, from an Indian perspective, to 13-A and 13-Plus. Together, they provided a collaborative reiteration that nothing has changed in India-Sri Lanka relations, with particular reference to the ethnic issue. On the other, it meant that the channels of communication between the Sri Lankan Government and the resident Tamil population, through the TNA, could be revived without much hiccups, despite the intervening breakdown in talks during the run-up to the Geneva vote.

That a negotiated settlement, including the political package and processes, is not going to be easy is acknowledged, otherwise, too. Yet, the Indian delegation’s visit proved that there were no new wounds or re-opened scars on either of these fronts. The Sri Lankan Government’s post-Geneva commitment to India on the implementation of the LLRC Recommendations implied a continuance from the pre-Geneva days, with the Geneva resolution only reiterating what was otherwise accepted, and nothing more in substance.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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