As the provincial election campaign came to a close, the incident where some Sri Lankan pilgrims were attacked by Tamil extremists in Tamil Nadu overshadowed everything else.
The election was completely forgotten due to this incident.
Even though it took place overseas, this is a matter that affects the humblest village yokel in Sri Lanka because so many Sri Lankans visit India on pilgrimage. The traders in Buddha Gaya and other places frequented by Sri Lankan pilgrims actually speak a little Sinhala even though there aren’t any books to teach foreigners how to speak Sinhala.
This highlights how important the Buddhist pilgrims coming from Sri Lanka are to those traders. Free access to India is important for all Sri Lankans down to the humblest peasant who dreams of making the pilgrimage to India at least once in his lifetime.
On Wednesday last week, Rajya Sabha TV, a media outlet owned and operated by the Indian upper house of parliament had a special programme on Sri Lanka on its political talk show the ‘Big Picture’ with Girish Nikam as the anchor and the participation of DMK Rajya Sabha member Vasanthi Stanley, Vidutalai Chitrugal Kachchi, Lok Sabha member Thol Tirumaavalavan, Professor S.D.Muni of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis and Pramit Choudhuri Foreign Editor of the Hindustan Times.
The title of the Talk show which centred around the attack on Sri Lankan Catholic pilgrims in Tamil Nadu was titled “Has Indo-Sri Lankan relations turned Tamil Centric?”
In introducing the topic, anchor Nikam stated that the recent attack on Sri Lankan pilgrims in Tamil Nadu has brought into sharp focus the uncertainties affecting the relationship between the two countries and that the political parties in Tamil Nadu which are involved in a game up of one upmanship with regard to the Sri Lankan Tamil issue has virtually set the agenda for the Indian government as far as relations with Sri Lanka are concerned.
He said that the attacks on the Sri Lankan pilgrims and the decision of the Tamil Nadu government to send back two Sri Lankan football teams is unprecedented and that the shifting of Sri Lankan armed forces personnel to Bangalore has added to the souring of relations and that the tendency of the Indian central government to allow the Tamil Nadu political parties to hold the relationship between the two countries to ransom has not helped in the present circumstances.
Responding to a question posed by Nikam as to whether India has always looked at Sri Lanka through the prism of Tamil Nadu, Prof. Muni said that while Tamil Nadu is a big factor, there are other factors like the strategic location of Sri Lanka and the Chinese presence and the economic factor with trade and investments between the two countries having grown phenomenally in the past 15 years
But he conceded that on occasion, Tamil Nadu does set the agenda for bilateral relations because of the ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka and the manner in which the civil war was concluded in 2009 which Muni described as ‘a ruthless massacre’. He said that the competitive politics in Tamil Nadu complicates the whole matter
When Tirumavalavan was asked whether he does not find this targeting of Sinhalese pilgrims in Tamil Nadu disturbing, he agreed that it was against human rights but he wanted to know why nobody is talking about the people suffering in Sri Lanka and that the military was ‘everyday doing atrocities against lay people’ and that they are ‘doing rape’, encroaching lands and abducting many youths and that these ‘happenings are going on every day’. He added that the whole world knows that Rajapaksa murdered more than 40,000 people in Mullivaikkal.
(When the UN Secretary General’s advisory panel published their unofficial report on Sri Lanka, They said in that report that there were ‘credible reports’ to show that around 40,000 civilians could have died in the conflict. They said this while cautioning in paragraph 53 that what appears in their report should not be taken as established facts and that stricter rules of evidence have to be applied to ascertain the truth. Yet, the figures mentioned in that report are being used as established facts.)
No Tamil aspirations in India
When asked whether the solution to that is to drive away people who come to India from Sri Lanka, Tirumavalavan said that was to attract the attention of the government to the problem. He stated that the central government is not bothered about ‘the feelings and aspirations of the Tamil people’. (Then he corrected himself and said ‘the sentiments’ of the Tamil people. Only Sri Lankan Tamils can have aspirations. Indian Tamils are not supposed to have any aspirations.
Even sentiments are not allowed to the Tamil Nadu Tamils by the 16th amendment to the Indian constitution. Thus, any ‘sentiments’ they may have to relate not to the Tamils of Tamil Nadu but the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Tirumavalavan had to watch his step because the Indian 16th Amendment is so strict, that if he was asked by the anchor to elaborate on these ‘aspirations’ of the Tamil people that the Indian central government is insensitive to, that talk show could have got him kicked out of parliament.)
Both the Tamil Nadu politicians Tirumavalavan and Vasanthi Stanley stated that Sri Lanka was having a relationship with Pakistan and China – by which they were probably trying to win wider Indian support for their cause by portraying Sri Lanka as an enemy of India. The DMK parliamentarian also stressed the fact that it was the DMK that ‘made’ (she repeated the word ‘made’) India support the US resolution against Sri Lanka in the Human Rights Council, in order to focus the attention of the entire world on the war crimes that have been committed in Sri Lanka.
Both the Tamil Nadu parliamentarians said that they are not justifying what happened to the Sri Lankan pilgrims but that the Indian central government should ask themselves why such things are happening in Tamil Nadu.
The DMK parliamentarian expressed his displeasure at the fact that when Tamil Nadu fishermen are attacked, they are called ‘Tamil Nadu fishermen’ and not Indian fishermen. She wanted to know why the central government does not consider them Indian fishermen and take action? Tirumavalavan chipped in by saying that whenever guns are fired at Indians from Pakistan there is retaliation but when Sri Lankan guns are fired at Indian fishermen, no action is taken.
Pramit Choudhuri of the Hindustan Times explained that the Rajapaksa government has not fulfilled its ‘own promises’ made to effect a political solution to the Tamil minority. Choudhri said that the non-deliverance of this political settlement has resulted in the reinjection of the Tamil issue into Tamil Nadu. He said that he had met Chandrika Kumaratunga a few months ago and that she was complaining that she does not understand what is wrong with Rajapaksa and that she supported the same political settlement when he was her minister but when becomes president in his own right he puts it aside.
(Our friend P.K.Balachandran was for many years the Colombo correspondent of the Hindustan Times. He has since joined the Indian Express. He seems to have failed to brief his former bosses in India that Chandrika Kumaratunga has no political base in Sri Lanka now and that the book written about her by Victor Ivan after she lost power “Choura Regina” (which can be translated as Bandit Queen) hold the all time best seller record for a Sinhala book which says something about her current status in Sri Lankan society.)
Choudhri also said that Rajapaksa is scared of his army because the army is so large in relation to the population of the country. His figures were based on the fact that the army was over 150,000 as against a population of 12 million. (He’d been using 1971 population figures to calculate the proportion of the armed forces to the population of Sri Lanka.) And on that basis he even said that Sri Lanka is the most militarised nation in South Asia having more soldiers per capita than even Pakistan.
Prof Muni said that Rajapaksa was using both China and India’s economic interests in Sri Lanka to ride roughshod over the need to give a political settlement to the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Tirumavalavan complained that everybody seemed to be concerned only with Indo-Sri Lankan relations and not about the Tamils.
The ‘stolen’ Indian money
Another interesting point that was discussed was that two years ago, Rs. 10 billion was allocated for rehabilitation in Sri Lanka by the Indian central government and that there is nothing being said about how that money was spent and whether the money has really reached the Tamil people. The DMK parliamentarian Vasanthi Stanley was insisting that this money has been taken by the Sinhalese themselves or the military. When the anchor asked them whether that was just a suspicion, the DMK parliamentarian insisted that this was not a suspicion but what was said in reports published by other nations. She never mentioned who has written those reports.
(It was only a few weeks ago in July this year that the Indian High Commission in Colombo signed agreements with UN-HABITAT, International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in partnership with Sri Lanka Red Cross, National Housing Development Agency (NHDA) of the Government of Sri Lanka and Habitat for Humanity, Sri Lanka signaling the launch of the next phase of the Indian Housing Project for 43,000 housing units in Northern and Eastern Provinces.
According to the Indian High Commission, beneficiaries will undertake the construction/repair of their houses and funds will be released directly by the High Commission of India into the bank accounts of beneficiaries based on certification of progress of work. So this 10 billion has not been released yet to anybody even though Tamil Nadu politicians were telling the Indian public that the Sinhalese and the military has taken that money.
Clearly, Sri Lanka needs the services of a public relations company in India that will lobby both the Indian central government and the Tamil Nadu political parties and especially the media to tell them the correct facts about Sri Lanka. The Foreign Editor of the Hindustan Times came for a talk show on Sri Lanka without even knowing what the population of this country now is. Even he was unable to tell the Indian public that this money has not been given to anyone in Sri Lanka yet.
The whole of India is groping in the dark with regard to Sri Lanka and no good will ever come of such a situation. The Sri Lankan government needs to launch an awareness campaign in India by lobbying strategic individuals. This lobbying may not change the attitude of those seeking to inflame matters in Sri Lanka for their own benefit such as the politicians in Tamil Nadu. But it will at least help those who have no such interests to present the proper situation to the Indian public. The Sri Lankan government should not allow this regime of half truths to prevail any longer in India without a vigorous counter-campaign.
The DMK parliamentarian Vasanthi Stanley also asked if the Indian central government was doing the correct thing with regard to Sri Lanka, why did the Tamil politicians from Tamil Nadu have to disrupt the functioning of parliament for two days to make the Indian government support the US sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka and that the Indian government was not doing it on their own.
She in fact said that when they met the Indian PM a few days earlier to discuss the fishermen’s issue, he had told them that for the first time in the history of India, they signed a country specific resolution because Tamil Nadu insisted on it.
At the end of the show, anchor Nikam, asked Professor Muni what the solution to the problem is and how the Indian government can ‘force’ the Sri Lankan government to implement a political solution to the problem. (What was remarkable throughout this talk show is that nobody questioned the right that India had to discuss a political solution in Sri Lanka.
Choudhri appeared to be scandalized by the fact that Sri Lanka has not fulfilled its ‘promises’ to India to implement a political solution. One would think that as a journalist, he would have questioned the right of India to even discuss such a matter with Sri Lanka since Sri Lanka does not discuss the need for a political solution in Kashmir with India.
Despite the otherwise reasonable positions taken by Nikam and Choudhry, they never thought fit to pose the question as to what right the Indian government had to be dictating terms to a sovereign country.
Krishna ducks the debate
Early on in the programme, Nikam did tell the two Tamil Nadu parliamentarians that India cannot dictate to Sri Lanka that they should not have relations with Pakistan and China but it did not occur to him that India had no right to extract promises from Sri Lanka about a political solution and change the way the country is governed. During this entire talk show nobody even mentioned the problem that is the root cause of all this unrest in Tamil Nadu – Tamil separatism in Tamil Nadu which finds expression through support for Sri Lankan Tamil separatism because the Indian laws are so strict.
Everybody is ducking the core issue which is not the plight of Tamil people in Sri Lanka but Tamil separatism in India. Everybody appears to think this problem in Tamil Nadu will go away if Sri Lanka somehow implements a ‘political solution’.
This tendency to duck the issue was evident the next day in the Rajya Sabha when the External Affairs Minister ducked a call to attention of a matter of urgent public importance raised last Thursday by Dr V.Maitreyan (representing the AIADMK) to call the attention of the Minister of External Affairs to the situation arising out of repeated attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy. This raising of a matter of public importance in the Rajya Sabha was obviously a way of deflecting the attention of the Indian public away from the assault on Sinhala pilgrims in Tamil Nadu. The session in the Indian Rajya Sabha went as follows.
DR. V. MAITREYAN (TAMIL NADU): Sir, I call the attention of the Minister of External Affairs to the situation arising out of repeated attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen by Sri Lankan Navy.
MR. DEPUTY CHAIRMAN: Now, the Minister to make a statement
DR. V. MAITREYAN: Sir, where is the Minister? (Interruptions) Sir, the Minister of External Affairs is not there. (Interruptions)
MR. DEPUTY CHAIRMAN: The House is adjourned till 2.00 p.m.
The House then adjourned at three minutes past twelve of the clock.
The House reassembled at two of the clock,
MR. DEPUTY CHAIRMAN in the Chair.
CALLING ATTENTION TO SITUATION ARISING OUT OF REPEATED ATTACKS ON TAMIL NADU FISHERMEN BY SRI LANKAN NAVY – contd.
MR. DEPUTY CHAIRMAN: Honourable Members, Shri S.M. Krishna, Hon. Minister for External Affairs has requested to allow his statement to be laid on the Table of the House. (Interruptions) He has also apologized. (Interruptions) I am allowing Shri S.M. Krishna to lay it on the Table. (Interruptions) You can lay it on the Table. (Interruptions)
THE MINISTER OF EXTERNAL AFFAIRS (SHRI S.M. KRISHNA): Sir, I rise to respond to the House on the Calling Attention Notices regarding the situation arising out of repeated attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan navy.
In his statement to the Rajaya Sabha, Krishna emphasised the following points:
-The Government of India attaches the highest importance to the safety, security and welfare of Indian fishermen. The government has taken up issues relating to incidents of firing on or apprehension of our fishermen with the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure that the Sri Lankan Navy acts with restraint and our fishermen are treated in a humane manner.
-As soon as the reports of apprehension of Indian fishermen are received, the Government through diplomatic channels takes up the matter of their expeditious release and repatriation with the Sri Lankan authorities. As a result, the fishermen apprehended by the Sri Lankan Navy have been released and repatriated expeditiously.
Presently, there are no Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan custody on fisheries related charges. However, some Indian nationals have been arrested in Sri Lankan waters on charges of smuggling narcotics and contraband. Officials from our High Commission in Colombo and Consulate in Jaffna Lanka are in regular touch with the detained Indian nationals and extending all possible consular and legal assistance to them.
-An understanding reached with the Sri Lankan Government on 26th October 2008 put in place practical arrangements to deal with bona fide Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line. After this, incidents of attack and apprehension of bona fide Indian fishermen by Sri Lankan authorities have significantly come down.
-There is also a need to sensitize the Indian fishermen to respect the international Maritime boundary line and not stray into Sri Lankan waters.