With a population of barely 20 million, people in Sri Lanka have, in recent years, shed earlier prejudices and fears about India. Roughly one-third of its Tamil population of 3 million are descendants of Indian workers.
Facing discrimination in the years following independence, Tamils who have inhabited the island’s north-east for centuries, resorted to an armed struggle, in which India rather unwisely associated with armed Tamil groups in the 1980s. Nevertheless, the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord provided substantive autonomy to the Tamil-dominated north.
This Agreement’s provisions were enacted as the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lanka Constitution. India, thus, has a historical role and responsibility in facilitating the devolution of powers to the Tamil-majority northern province.
MOOD IN TAMIL NADU
After the ethnic conflict became an armed insurrection in the 1980s, sentiments in Tamil Nadu were inflamed. While the AIADMK under M. G. Ramachandran initially backed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the DMK-led by M. Karunanidhi, chose to back the rival Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO). Karunanidhi strongly condemned Prabhakaran for assassinating TELO leader Sri Sabarathinam in 1985.
While he later proclaimed that Prabhakaran was not a terrorist, he asserted in October 2012 that India cannot forgive the LTTE for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. This recent statement came after the culmination of the bloody civil war in 2010, when Prabhakaran was killed.
In the meantime, Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa moved swiftly to up the ante on the horrendous deaths in the last days of the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict. Impartial international observers, however, acknowledge that while there were excesses by the Sri Lankan armed forces, the LTTE could not be exempt from blame, because of its use of civilians as human shields — a tactic it regularly used against the IPKF in 1987-88.
The DMK responded by organising mass agitations, demanding that India should take the lead in getting Colombo condemned for “genocide”.
FOREIGN POLICY COMPULSIONS
Given the present domestic environment, New Delhi is having a difficult time getting Colombo to ease up on its military presence and organise free and fair elections in the Tamil-dominated north. With the Congress Party lacking a leadership with a mass base in Tamil Nadu, New Delhi is unable to explain to the people of the State as to why reason has to prevail over emotions in the conduct of foreign policy.
It was just not understood in Tamil Nadu that however hard New Delhi might have tried in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), any Resolution moved by India describing Sri Lankan actions as “genocide”’ would not have picked up even five votes in the 47-member UNHCR. South Korea was the only Asian country, apart from India, to support the Washington-backed UNHCR Resolution. Even Japan abstained.
The US alone was capable of getting its nuanced Resolution passed and that too with only 25 out of 47 members voting in its favour. Washington was in no mood to accommodate even minor Indian amendments.
Carried away by the overblown propaganda of Sri Lankan Tamil expatriates from countries such as the US, Canada and the UK, the main political players in the State are advocating a course of action, which will leave India with no leverage to influence events in Sri Lanka.
The presumption of those wanting to get Sri Lanka condemned appears to be that a small neighbour will just crumble before the power of big, neighbouring India. They fail to understand the complexities of the present world and the limitations of power, even of the high and mighty. The mighty US now finds that use of power, or coercion is challenged by countries in its neighbourhood, ranging from Cuba and Venezuela to Brazil and Argentina. China cannot restrain Vietnam from balancing its power through links with the US, Japan and India. Russia cannot raise a finger against former Soviet Republics in its neighbourhood asserting their independence.
Those in Tamil Nadu, demanding an Indian economic boycott of Sri Lanka and withdrawal from power and infrastructure projects there, mistakenly believing that Sri Lanka cannot manage without us, forget that there will be Chinese, Japanese, South Korean and ASEAN bidders ready to joyously replace us.
Moreover, if Sri Lankans start doubting our intentions, they will only further strengthen their already well-equipped and battle-hardened armed forces, with Chinese equipment, to counter external meddling. We are already isolated in Asia, because rhetoric is prevailing over reason on how to handle developments in Sri Lanka. .
DEVOLUTION OF POWER
There are two important tasks New Delhi needs to concentrate on. First, reconstruction and rehabilitation in the northern province need to be intensified. Second, the Sri Lankan Government and the recalcitrant Tamil National Alliance in Sri Lanka have to be persuaded to sit together and agree on measures to suitably implement the 13th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution, to effectively empower the Government and Provincial Legislature in the North after elections in September 2013.
Sri Lanka, in turn, would be well advised to thin out the intrusive presence of its military in its embattled north.
(The author is a former Member of the Indian Foreign service and has served as head of the Sri Lanka desk and High Commissioner to Pakistan.This article was published in “The Hindu” on March 27, 2013)