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Suspicion in Sri Lankan Political Circles About Excessive Influence of “Tamil Nadu Factor”in India’s Sri Lanka Policy is Based on Ignorance

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BY N Sathiya Moorthy

Independent of India’s vote, if it came to that at the UNHRC meeting at Geneva in March, there is an urgent need to de-politicise the nation’s ‘Sri Lanka policy’ nearer home.

TESO Event on Nov 12 2012 marking the meeting with UN officials- pic: twitter.com/Kaiaignar89

This has more to do with the attitude and approach of political parties in southern state of Tamil Nadu, where the two ‘Dravidian majors’ are vying with each other and also peripheral groups, on what’s good for the Sri Lankan Tamils in that country, and consequently what should be New Delhi’s Sri Lanka policy.

The Sri Lankan State and the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa are opposed to ‘international intervention’ in the internal affairs of the nation. On different occasions since the conclusion of ‘Eelam War IV’ in 2009, they have had differing views on power-devolution under the Thirteenth Amendment to the nation’s Constitution, flowing from the India-Sri Lanka Accord, 1987.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), electorally the most popular of all Sri Lankan Tamil parties in that country, has demanded improvement upon 13-A, and a re-merger of the North and the East, after they were de-merged by a Supreme Court order in 2006. It wants a prime place in political negotiations, which the Government feels is akin to the ‘sole representative’ status sought by – and denied to – the LTTE in its time.

As the spokesmen of the residual Tamils staying behind in the nation after decades of war and overseas migration, the TNA wants the army to minimise its public presence in the Tamil areas, and is not opposed to the continuance of army camps in the region. Visibly, it has less appetite for ‘accountability issues’ flowing from allegations of ‘war crimes’ on which a section of the international community is keen on. On the Tamil front, these issues are closer to the heart of the hard-line sections of the Tamil Diaspora. The Dravidian polity in Tamil Nadu and the peripheral groups in the State, otherwise, seem to identify themselves more with the Diaspora talk than the perception of the TNA, based in turn on the ground realities. While the Tamil Nadu sentiments and concerns are understandable, their deviation from the TNA’s position on the specifics is striking.

Collective campaign

Whenever Provincial Council elections are held, the TNA, like the State’s Dravidian majors in the ruling AIADMK and the DMK parent-rival, has a greater chance of forming an elected Government in the Tamil Northern Province in Sri Lanka than any other group at the moment. Sympathisers and supporters of the ‘Sri Lankan Tamil cause’ elsewhere should thus reflect the TNA sentiments, if their collective campaign has to coincide somewhere and bear fruit.

Instead, the Tamil Nadu parties are talking in extreme and at times exceptional terms. MDMK leader Vaiko’s most recent protest outside an UN agency office in the State capital of Chennai is a case in point. After a year-plus long campaign and rallies for the UN to take up ‘accountability issues’ and impose economic sanctions on Sri Lanka, the latest MDMK rally was to demand action against UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other senior UN officials, for allegedly “standing by when Tamils were being killed in Sri Lanka”.

It is unclear how Vaiko wants the charge investigated or who should be initiating the demand at the government-level. All through ‘Eelam War IV’ and afterward, too, he has found fault with the Government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi and the Congress leader of the ruling UPA coalition, and also the DMK partner from the State.

Vaiko’s new turn comes after a week of protests his party had heralded, independent of similar campaigns by other political parties and groups in the State, against President Rajapaksa visiting India on a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya in northern Bihar State and Tirupati in southern Andhra Pradesh. Vaiko led a protest outside of Prime Minister Singh’s official residence in Delhi, while his party cadres, having infiltrated into Tirupati before the security forces got into the act, courted arrest while protesting the Indian permission for President Rajapaksa to visit the country.

Over the past year, the DMK has revived the moribund ‘Tamil Eelam Supporters Organisation’ (TESO), which held a lack-lusture revival conference in Chennai last year. TESO, with increasing DMK participation, dispatched party Treasurer M K Stalin, son of former Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, along with other leaders and parliamentarians to the UN, UNHRC, and to overseas missions in Delhi, since November. Stalin also recently visited Dubai for addressing the immigrant Tamils, from India and Sri Lanka.

A reluctant participant to the ‘ethnic issue’, Stalin, who is in the race for succeeding his father to the party mantle, seems to have found a vibrant, if small, constituency that was neither that of the DMK in recent years, nor that of his at any time. This has upset the traditional role and calculations of other pan-Tamil peripheral groups, for whom the ‘Sri Lankan issue’ had lent political relevance and sustenance, or whatever remained, independent of their strong sentiments, which should not be a suspect, however.

On the Government front, AIADMK Chief Minister Jayalalithaa has since reiterated the demand contained in a unanimous resolution last year, for sanctions against Sri Lanka. She also caused this year, too, for Governor K Rosaiah’s customary annual address to the State Assembly refer to the ethnic issue and also the fishers’ problem, two persisting concerns in Tamil Nadu, on relations with neighbouring Sri Lanka.

Whither accord?

For his part, V Narayanaswamy, Union Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s office, too has been referring to the Sri Lankan issue and the UNHRC vote, whenever he is in native Union Territory of Puducherry or adjoining Tamil Nadu. As if to assuage the Tamil sentiments nearer home and otherwise, he declared that India would vote with the US on a Sri Lanka resolution at Geneva, this yea, too, though no official word was available on the subject, otherwise.

In doing so, Narayanaswamy referred to the India-Sri Lanka Accord, and wanted the Colombo dispensation to stand by it. However, he did not comment if the Tamils in Sri Lanka (read: TNA) would be satisfied with it, or if New Delhi was capable of persuading the latter, to accept the 13-A as it stood, even if the Sri Lankan Government was ready to implement the existing constitutional provision in that country.

Negotiating with the US

The Indian vote for the US resolution at Geneva last March flowed from the inability of the UPA Government to convince the two Houses of Parliament, why New Delhi was unable to persuade Sri Lanka to stand by its political commitments on rehabilitation and reconciliation issues. Cutting across regional and ideological lines, all political parties the two Houses of Parliament, standing as one, as much as told the Government that it voted for the US resolution unless there was substantive evidence than available that Sri Lanka was serious about a negotiated settlement to the ethnic issue.

Media reports have since indicated that India negotiated the clauses of the resolution with the US, given the intricacies involved. Having protested too loudly and too long during the run-up to the Geneva vote, Colombo could not have been expected to lower its standing among committed voting-members, or the local constituency back home. It remains to be seen how Sri Lanka would go about the matter this time round.

The question is if Sri Lanka would want to engage the West, the US in particular, on the resolution. Though President Rajapaksa had given an indication of his Government’s position by criticising the West’s posturing in his Independence Day address, Colombo may still need to relate to the realities of the situation. If nothing else, as early as May 2009, only days after the conclusion of the ‘ethnic war’, Sri Lanka was actively engaged in coming up with a counter-resolution at the UNHRC, praising Colombo, and defeating the original one against the Government, as brought forth by the European Union (EU).

Today, Sri Lanka does not have friends like India and China, who had worked with Pakistan, as voting-members in the UNHRC to make the 2009 resolution possible. Nor is China and Russia voting-members this time round. Months after presidential polls in the US, and the appointment of a new Secretary of State in Sen John Kerry, the US may end up reviewing Sri Lanka policy, requiring a leeway in the interim. That could also be when Sri Lanka may learn how far altruist the US concerns are. So could India, whose mutual dependence on Sri Lanka is as much, and at times more than the post-Cold War mutuality of interests involving the US.

There is a lurking suspicion in Sri Lankan political circles, particularly of the non-Tamil variety, about the excessive influence of the ‘Tamil Nadu factor’ in India’s Sri Lanka policy. It is based on as much ignorance about Indian politics in general, and Tamil Nadu politics in particular. It is similar to the ignorance of Tamil Nadu politicians about the ground realities in Sri Lanka, and the consequent political positions taken by the TNA on the ‘ethnic issue’, as different from pro-LTTE Diaspora groups. There is a need for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans to acknowledge that the Indian vote in Geneva owed mainly to the un-kept promises from the war years, and less to do with the ‘Tamil Nadu factor’. In the existing confused scenario, it has become easy for blaming the ‘Indian vote’ on the ‘Tamil Nadu factor’, which however has become louder by the day. In this, the role played by international NGOs, both of the Diaspora variety and others, cannot be over-looked however.

The latest are Left-leaning militant groups in Bihar, who protested President Rajapaksa’s arrival at the Patna Airport, en route to Bodh Gaya. The self-deluding nature of the exercise can be self-defeating too. Any resolution to the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka has to be found within that country.

The current efforts, including those of the TNA, to internationalise the issue has meant only one thing over the past year and more. Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans, including the TNA, have stopped talking about finding a solution to the ethnic issue. In the drift created by the Government, in the company of the TNA, has meant that other issues have taken the centre-stage, and taken over the same.

With the UNHRC meeting every six months, they may remain there for long – engaging all the energies of the Colombo dispensation, now and later, from which no reprieve could emerge, either for the Government or for the Tamil population. For that to happen, the Government should go back to the negotiating table, taking the TNA with it, too – both with full realization that there is only so much the international community can do, either way, particularly if the other side is reluctant, if not reticent.

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

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