Thursday, June 23, 2011

The island nation has a split personality

By Iftikhar Gilani | Tehelka

The Sri Lankan government’s decision to delay offering political package to Tamil-dominated north and eastern provinces has caused much heartburn in India. Apprehending its repercussions in Tamil Nadu, where the state Assembly, on two consecutive days, passed separate resolutions on the issue, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sent National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, foreign secretary Nirupama Rao and defence secretary Pradeep Kumar to impress upon Colombo the urgency of an early solution to the power-devolution and rehabilitation concerns.

India’s views is that despite Sri Lankan forces having successfully wiped out the militant face of separatism, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the separatist mindset and yearning for empowerment and preserving ethnic identity remains strong in the minds of Tamils. After stamping out militancy, the political sagacity demands to attend to bruised egos. Instead, the game plan of Colombo seems to assimilate Tamils in the larger Sri Lankan identity and forget granting any political autonomy or self-rule to the region.

What haunts India is its own track record. Sri Lankans are whispering that they have studied India’s experiences of wiping out insurgencies and separatism. Over the past 60 years, India has tackled insurgencies, militancy and voices of separatism in a similar fashion. Right from the 1950 Delhi Agreement between Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and Jawaharlal Nehru, 1975 Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Abdullah Accord, 1986 Rajiv Gandhi-Harchand Singh Longowal Accord and other agreements with insurgent groups in the Northeast, the government of India has hardly kept the commitment. The sublime principle is that once the uproar, disruptions or insurgencies are over, forget the issue. This dangerous mindset keeps the issue ignited for future generations.

A top Sri Lankan diplomat unequivocally said that the focus of his country was on reconciliation and reconstruction. Amongst a host of measures, he mentioned setting up of a Commission of Reconciliation, which will seek a restorative, and not retributive, justice. In other words, military personnel involved in heinous crimes and massacres will be reprimanded and allowed to escape from the jaws of justice.

So far, Sri Lanka has shown the numbers of surrendered LTTE cadres to claim that it has brought normalcy in the region. Out of 11,260 surrenders so far, Colombo claims to have rehabilitated 6,500 cadres. The government is banking on increasing economic activity to keep Tamil nationalism at bay. In a typical government of India approach towards Kashmir problem, Sri Lankan diplomats have adopted 1995 PV Narasimha Rao line that anything short of separatism is acceptable. But, like the Indian government, Sri Lanka also feels shy of opening up its cards and putting the political package to parliamentary scrutiny.

It is believed that Sri Lankan leaders have told Indian negotiators to give them time to evolve a system of governance. They are now openly telling Indian interlocutors, that the Indian standards and concept of centre-state relations were not applicable in the island nation. They maintain that Colombo was ready to increase the Tamil representation at the centre to assimilate them with the majority Sinhalese community, but it will not grant autonomy to Tamil-dominated regions to make it susceptible to secessionism at any time in future.

The Indian team in Colombo met President Rajapakse, external affairs minister GL Peiris, defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse, among other officials, and also the leaders of various Tamil political parties, which are not part of the government. After the talks, Menon was quoted as saying that “the quicker Sri Lanka can come to a political Arrangement, in which all communities are comfortable, the better it will be for everyone. We will do whatever we can to arrive at it”. Tamil National Alliance spokesperson and Parliament member Suresh Premachandran said that the “Indian team did not suggest any political settlement but assured ‘full support’ for the Tamils’ demand for a life of dignity and security in Sri Lanka”.

Menon clarified that the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, dealing with power-devolution, was ‘their amendment’: “We struck the India-Sri Lanka Agreement and gave them an enabling environment. Now, if they want to do better than the 13th Amendment let them do it. They all must feel comfortable with it,” he said. The Sri Lankans are also reluctant to implement the 13th amendment, which is already a part of Constitution. Though it should be an obligation for Colombo to implement this law, it is getting lost in political lexicon. The lawmakers now say that the 13th amendment could be a process to begin with, and a political package can be built on this amendment. The Sri Lankans also talk about New Delhi not supporting Colombo on the Darusmann Report on war crimes, which was commissioned by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In the past two years, when India was a member of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, New Delhi had not publicised its support for the report, yet it was pushing for the Sri Lankan case with fellow members.

In Colombo, Menon clarified that Sri Lanka did not seek India’s support on the Darusmann Report. According to him, India was against singling out nations at the UNHRC, and that the veracity of reports of 40,000 civilian casualties at the hands of the Sri Lankan armed forces could be questioned. In the global context, talking out against ‘singling out’ of a nation is a significant Indian position on ‘war crimes’ and human rights violations.

The Colombo discussions between India and Sri Lanka naturally referred also to the fisher folk’s issue, which could be a real thorn in the bilateral relations, independent of the ethnic issue and negotiations in Sri Lanka. Post-war, the problem of fisher folks from the two countries sharing the Palk Strait has become a livelihood issue. The Joint Working Group of officials from the two countries met in New Delhi recently, and the representatives of fisher folks too have been exchanging visits, to understand the inherent problems, before being able to address mutual concerns.

Notwithstanding the revival of the India-Sri Lanka ferry service between Thuthookudi and Colombo and host of measures to promote people-to-people contacts, there is no choice, but to discuss and implement a political package, where the Tamils of the north and eastern provinces feel politically, culturally and emotionally empowered. Otherwise, the ghost of LTTE may return. While helping Colombo to attain this objective, India should also look at its own track record.

© Tehelka

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