Originally Published 2014-10-20 00:00:00 Published on Oct 20, 2014
Sri Lanka's Northern Province Tamil Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran seems to be sending contradictory signals to India through his actions. On the one hand, he wants India to play an active role in finding a 'political solution' to the ethnic problem. On the other, he boycotted the India-funded Colombo-Jaffna railway inauguration and earlier President's invitation to be part of the delegation to India.
Sri Lanka: TNA sending out confusing signals to India?

In a single stroke, Sri Lanka's Northern Province Tamil Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran seems to have sent out confusing and contradictory signals to India. On the one hand, he wants India to play an active role in finding a 'political solution' to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. On the other, he boycotted the India-funded Colombo-Jaffna railway inauguration.

It was the second Wigneswaran-type 'boycott' of India, citing the presence of President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the reason - however justified or otherwise that be. Earlier, he had stayed away from the Sri Lankan delegation at Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's inauguration in May 2014.

The boycott at the time owed not to who had invited him for participation - the Sri Lankan Government, and not the Indian counterpart. Such a line might have been justified, even if only up to a point. It owed near-exclusively to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa heading the nation's delegation - as was to have been the wont.

In his own way at the time, President Rajapaksa had sent out a signal to the Tamils of Sri Lanka - maybe, as they had apprehended, for India and the rest of the world to witness - when he invited Chief Ministr Wigneswaran (among the nine in the country) to join his Delhi delegation. In his own way, President Rajapaksa was also sending out a positive signal to India, by inviting Justice Wigneswaran to be on that delegation.

This time round on the rail-line inauguration, President Rajapaksa was joined on the inaugural train trip - rather the final leg of it, on which alone the civil work remained to be completed - by Indian High Commissioner Y K Sinha and Sri Lanka's Defence Secretary Gota Rajapaksa.

Independent of Wigneswaran's call, it's a wholly different matter if India would want to get engaged and entangled all over again, after the bitter experiences of the Eighties and the unimplemented parts of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. It had begun with the LTTE not laying down arms, and has continued to date, with the non-implementation of 13-A by successive Governments in Colombo, since.

If the TNA was serious about wanting India to get involved, it could not have let go off the two occasions for its chief minister to meet President Rajapaksa in Indian presence. Media reports had indicated that minus the chief minister, the entrenched TNA leadership had done it during post-war negotiations with the government in Colombo. Wigneswaran's presence at Modi's interaction with President Rajapaksa at the business session a day after the May inauguration would have made the difference.

Political one-upmanship

Wigneswaran's posturing against sharing the dais with President Rajapaksa comes at a time when the ruling TNA in the North is under continuing pressure from itself. Ahead of the Chief Minister's decision to boycott President Rajapaksa's official functions, the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) had passed a resolution to the effect. Justice Wigneswaran's hands were tied, so to say.

The question also remains if the TNA has learnt over the past year of political administration in the North, the division of responsibilities between the elected leadership and the party leadership - and how to make them both work parallel and as effectively as possible. A better idea thus would have been for the Chief Minister and the Government to participate in the presidential functions if they were keen on delivering some relief to the war-affected Tamils of the Province. The party leadership could have continued to agitate for the 'political rights' of the Tamils that they think are still due to them.

One other problem with the TNA leadership is that they have not tuned yet to the post-LTTE competitive politics that is otherwise prevalent in every Third World democracy in particular. If President Rajapaksa was delivering goodies to the Tamil constituents in the Northern Province, he was indulging in competitive politics with possible presidential polls next year in mind. If non-TNA parties in the North forming part of the Rajapaksa dispensation were present, again it's politics.

If the TNA is boycotting President Rajapaksa now, it's not over altruist policy issues alone. It still is not against talking to him or his government on a political settlement to the ethnic issue. Even without drawing that fine-line, their own direction/resolution for CM Wigneswaran to boycott President Rajapaksa also has politics and elections at the core.

In doing so, the TNA seems to be drawing a dividing line between 'our Tamils' and 'their Tamils'. It might thus flow that the TNA can accept only 'our Tamils', in the distribution of Government largesse like land licences for 20,000 or them and the return of gold jewellery stored/pledged in the illegal and defunct 'LTTE bank' - another act performed by President Rajapaksa in the North.


Larger issues remain. The TNA-NPC boycott of President Rajapaksa's programmes in the North is a negative-initiative that achieves nothing. At the same time, the Government in Colombo cannot escape the reality that the 'ethnic issue' is all about provincial rights, under 13-A, to begin with, at the very least or at the very best.

The Tamils and the TNA are touchy more about the non-implementation of two provisions of 13-A, namely, police and land powers for the provinces. Presidential distribution of land licences reportedly to a high number of 20,000 Tamils, while welcome, hits at the persistent Tamil demand for 'land' powers for the province(s). Yet, for the TNA to criticise everything good happening to the Tamils just because it's not done through their good and elected offices can cut both ways, if only after a time. The party has to be cautious about when that break with their cherished constituency happens - or, at least begin to happen. It requires greater political sagacity and electoral experience than what the TNA thinks it now possess.

The other concern should be even greater. Barring vague commitments on behalf of the larger Tamil community, the TNA leadership has not been able to demonstrate its hold over the divided polity that it is, or on the even more divided and divisive Diaspora - when it comes to marketing any political settlement - Indian involvement or not. In the pre-war past, Governments, including those in Sri Lanka and India, paid the price for assuming that the moderate TULF was capable of delivering on its commitments. The LTTE took over from where the TULF was forced to leave.

Worse still, the TNA leadership, rather than leading the community is getting increasingly led by the community. Nothing explains the ground situation more than the NPC passing unilateral private (TNA) members' resolutions near-unanimously against the Centre even though the party leadership in general and the chief minister in particular do not seem to be approving many of them. The question would also remain if the TNA leadership would have been able to market any negotiated settlement to the Tamil masses, starting with the well-entrenched and self-styled civil society, had the Government not aborted it half-way through.

On the Diaspora front, the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), which was projected as endorsing the TNA's commitment to a 'political solution within a united Sri Lanka', has been getting increasingly divided and side-lined over the issue. Even otherwise, the Diaspora space for the GTF was limited and is shrinking - with 'separatist' tendency of political and militant varieties seeking to hijack the centre-stage all over again, separately for now, but possibly together on a later date!

As coincidence would have it, all this came ahead of the European Union court lifting the ban on the LTTE, in force since 2006. In doing so, the lower court judges cited a 'technicality' that the EU decision was not based on independent investigations but on "imputations derived from the press and the Internet". They ordered LTTE assets to remain frozen 'temporarily' and also indicated that a future ban could still happen.

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

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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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