Rajapakse’s operation to woo India
By Professor Karthigesu Sivathamby
After assuming the high office as Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda
Rajapakse began his official tours overseas with a visit to New
Delhi, India. That is quite understandable. His remarks on the
objectives of the visit, made on the eve of his departure, reveal
Sri Lanka’s intentions to persuade India to play a more decisive
role in resolving the Sri Lankan crisis.
There have been efforts during the last four years by important
Sinhala political formations, to canvass India to intervene
positively and take a pro-state stand on the Sri Lankan national
question. Even the JVP, which in the 1960s and 1970s adopted
as a pivot of its political strategy an aggressive posture against
Indian expansionism, is now drawing close to India and to certain
leftist groups within India, by giving the impression that it is the
only Marxist party in Sri Lanka to be reckoned with. This campaign
was so successful that the JVP was invited by a leading Indian
Marxist party for its annual general conference.
The JHU too has begun to adopt a friendly attitude towards India.
Earlier, this hard-line Sinhala-Buddhist party always made the
distinction in its rhetoric between Dhammadveepa – the land of
the Buddha – and Big Brother India, which was making a habit of
breathing down Sri Lanka’s neck. This conventional Sinhala-
Buddhist attitude was temporarily abandoned and the JHU too
publicised statements requesting Indian assistances in sorting out
the Tamil problem in Sri Lanka.
That these extreme Sinhala parties should believe India would be
amenable to their persuasions is also quite understandable. The
LTTE’s activities in relation to India – especially the Rajiv Gandhi
assassination episode and the rebels challenging the IPKF’s
military campaign in the northeast – have embittered India-Tiger
relations so badly that a very senior Indian diplomat, the late
secretary, Ministry of External Affairs J. N. Dixit, had visions about
a Sri Lankan Tamil political configuration without the LTTE, and if
that was not possible, at least an LTTE without its present
Whatever might have been the responses and consequences to
this within South Block, at a public level in Tamil Nadu, the
acknowledgment and articulation of Sri Lankan Tamil interests
suffered a definite slump after the murder of Gandhi.
Nevertheless, in the post-1990 period, whenever there were
discussions about a political settlement to the Sri Lankan ethnic
crisis, the Indian central government took up the position that any
solution had to be fair by the Sri Lankan Tamils, while at the same
time reinforce the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka as a single state.
But political changes in Tamil Nadu began to affect the Sri Lankan
state. P. Nedumaram of course continued to champion the rights
of the Sri Lankan Tamils. But ‘Kalaignar’ M. Karunanidhi, leader of
the DMK, was never seen taking a pro-LTTE stand. Nonetheless,
he openly advocated the rights the Sri Lankan Tamils. It was M.
G. Ramachandran who was openly friendly with the LTTE. But,
after his demise the opinion within the ADMK was not too
encouraging for the Sri Lankan Tamils. There was however V.
Kopalasamy, one time leading light of the DMK who later founded
his own party – MDMK. Vaiko, as he is popularly known, began to
argue for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause forcefully, both in Tamil
Nadu and at a national level in India. He did not dilute his stand on
the rights of the Tamils even after the Gandhi killing.
Gandhi’s assassination affected the Indian government to the
extent that it took the step of banning the Tigers within its borders.
The present Tamil Nadu chief minister and leader of the ADMK, J.
Jayalalitha, also adopted a very strong stance against the Tamil
Tigers and took steps to nullify LTTE influence within Tamil Nadu.
More importantly, one of the leading South India-based English
dailies came out strongly against the LTTE, a campaign which
sometimes even went to the extent of not highlighting the genuine
grievances of the Sri Lanka Tamils.
It should also be stated emphatically that the very large number of
Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in the various parts of Tamil
Nadu never expressed any strong opinions about the grievances
of their fellow countrymen.
These factors all added up to a middle-class silence in Tamil
A notable feature in the limited articulation of Sri Lankan Tamil
interests, both in Tamil Nadu and Indian national levels, was that
they were nearly always aired by leaders associated with the
Dravidian parties. Thus, it was either MGR, or Vaiko, or
sometimes K. Veeramani or Dr. Ramdoss, the leader of very
strong caste-based political party in Tamil Nadu. The left parties
were never a part of this group. Even the non-party progressive
elements did not take an active part in highlighting in Tamil Nadu
the grievances of the Sri Lankan Tamils. The Congress Party, of
course, was definitely out of this picture.
While this was the situation on the Indian subcontinent, within the
Tamil Diaspora – especially in the west – there were a few visitors
from Tamil Nadu who, much to the satisfaction of the Sri Lankan
Tamil immigrants, spoke of the suffering of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
It was this political environment, which encouraged the anti-LTTE
and anti-Tamil elements in Sri Lanka to seek establishing friendly
relations with India.
But soon the increasingly pro-Sinhala stance adopted by the
southern political parties in Sri Lanka began to irk the Tamil Nadu
people. In fact, when the JVP was invited by the prominent Indian
left group to its annual general conference, there were murmurs
of popular discontent among the Tamils of India because of the
JVP’s intransigent position on the ethnic issue.
The reason for this is obvious: whatever might be its position in
relation to the LTTE, the Tamil public in South India cannot sweep
under the carpet the trials and tribulations that beset the Tamils in
Sri Lanka. Significantly, one of the reasons for this sympathy is
due to literature – especially contemporary Sri Lankan Tamil
verse – which conveyed to the Tamil Nadu readers, the suffering,
anguish and pain of the Sri Lankan Tamils. This literary output, it
should be said, was not confined to pro-LTTE positions. There
were and are writers who take anti-Tiger stands but who,
nonetheless do not fail to reflect the suffering that many Sri
Lankan Tamils have to bear.
For the last one year, these feelings of sympathy that emerged in
Tamil Nadu were fuelled by political developments on both sides
of the Palk Straits, especially when the notion of a defense pace
with India was mooted by Sri Lanka. Once again, though it was not
advocated in professional manner there arose a feeling in the
general populace in Tamil Nadu that the rights of the Tamils
should and could not be bartered with.
When the election campaign for the presidency kicked off in Sri
Lanka in mid-2005 heightening the voices for a unitary state, the
discourse contributed to rising passions in India. Opinion in India,
(which has had a long history of linguistic federalism) began to
consolidate around the question of the type of constitutional
arrangement that should accompany a solution to Sri Lanka’s
national question. It was after all rather difficult for India, which in
its Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 brought about the unification of
the North and East and proposed the provincial council system, to
watch in silence the demands for the dismemberment of the
northeast and the total devaluation of the system of province-
based devolution of power.
Even the non-LTTE, if not anti-LTTE groups have tried to
persuade India on the need for strengthening the northeast as a
single unit and giving it federal powers equal to, at least India.
And the Indian central government is insisting on a settlement
which should be fair by all the communities, including the Muslims.
Even Janata Party’s Subramaniam Swamy, who is vituperatively
anti-LTTE, came out strongly against the Indian government for
supporting a unitary system in Sri Lanka. He has demanded that
India get Sri Lanka to unilaterally opt for a federal state. In such a
context Rajapakse’s slogan “devolution within a unitary state”
does not wash.
It is in such a politically treacherous atmosphere that Sri Lanka’s
new president flew to New Delhi on 27th December for in-depth
discussions with Indian politicians and policy-makers. Rajapakse’s
main objective was to persuade India to enter the Sri Lankan
peace process to offset the domination of the EU, Norway and the
other co-chairs of the Tokyo donor conference. He has openly
said that there cannot be any solution to the Sri Lanka ethnic
crisis without Indian blessings. He even refrained from including
the Japanese in this equation even though Japan has consistently
taken a pro-Sri Lanka stand. (In his inaugural address after
becoming president, Rajapakse referred to special ties with India
and China. This of course has more problems than what the
president has perhaps grasped.)
The adamant perseverance to bring India into the peace process
was due to another factor too. The JVP, which provides the
numerical strength to sustain Rajapakse’s parliamentary majority,
is against globalisation and hostile towards European / western
economic dominance. Therefore, as much as India’s position on
the Tamil issue, Rajapakse was also keen on Indian intervention
to pacify his coalition partner.
The president has indicated that India should be among the co-
chairs. One does not know the technicalities of such a placement
because India is not an integral part of the aid group, which met in
Tokyo. India also has a problem in that it cannot replace Norway
as a third party facilitator because it has banned the LTTE and
Indian law will not allow it to deal directly with the Tigers.
Meanwhile, as much as in Colombo, there are problems of
domestic and international political uncertainty that have clouded
Delhi in the past five-six months. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’
s government has problems both big and small that will not permit
him to take a determined and unwavering stand on any one of the
South Asian states due military and diplomatic developments in
West Asia. However, it is well-known that major Indian foreign
policy decisions are not taken by politicians in the sense they are
done in Sri Lanka. Foreign policy institutions are important and
Singh himself is a technocrat turned politician. It is his credibility
and accountability that has enabled the government to counteract
problems that arise within the ruling coalition of which he is head,
and from the opposition BJP.
As Rajapakse’s visit to India drew to a close, it became obvious
that much of the fears expressed above turned out to be true. Not
only Singh, but Indian President Abul Kalam, took great pains to
emphasise the need for a federal solution to the Sri Lankan
problem. It is said that during the meeting with the Indian home
minister, officials used the entire session to demonstrate to the
visitor the efficacy of the federation of linguistic states in India.
Both the CPI and CPM too told Rajapakse about the need to
recommence talks and finding a suitable constitutional solution.
And even a perpetual critic of Sri Lanka’s Tamil nationalist groups
like the Chennai-based The Hindu has argued for the need of a
federal solution in Sri Lanka.
More than all this Rajapakse’s visit made the position of the chief
minister of Tamil Nadu was very awkward. A meeting with
Rajapakse could have been used against the ADMK by its political
opponents. Quite naturally therefore, the meeting was called off.
Even Rajapakse’s visit to Guruvayur was routed through Cochin.
The trade and cultural issues apart, has the visit gained anything
for Sri Lanka? One wishes that President Rajapakse had been
better advised on the Indian situation before his visit.