Sri Lanka: Emerging Trends And Perspectives From Tamil Nadu


By V. Suryanarayan and Ashik Bonofer

Sri Lanka watchers in Tamil Nadu were hoping that the Governor’s address to the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly on June 3, 2011 will be in conformity with the poignant statement made by Jayalalitha to the media soon after her spectacular electoral victory. In that statement Jayalalitha solemnly assured the people of Tamil Nadu that she will exercise pressure on the Central Government to revise its Sri Lanka policy not only to expose the heinous crimes committed by the Sri Lankan Government during the last stages of the Fourth Eelam War and bring the guilty to book, but also to ensure that justice is done to the Tamils in the island nation. The reference to Sri Lanka in the Governor’s address, in contrast, was matter of fact and in many ways was a dampener to millions of Tamils across the world who expected a more forthright and assertive pronouncement. A former senior civil servant told the authors that while the first statement was an illustration of the heart swaying the head, the second was a political declaration of a government which was keen to maintain cordial relations with New Delhi.

The reference to Sri Lanka is contained in the concluding part of Governor’s address. It touched upon the living conditions in the refugee camps and the desire of the State Government to enable them to live in dignity in the State. The second reference was to the “pathetic life of subjugation” in which the Sri Lankan Tamils were living in their homeland. The Tamil Nadu Government “urges” upon New Delhi to impress upon the Sri Lankan Government the “need for taking up immediate measures to rehabilitate the Tamils in their own area”. There is no reference to the crimes committed during the Fourth Eelam War, how to bring the guilty to book and what is more, the contours of a political solution to the ethnic problem so that the Tamils could live in dignity in a united Sri Lanka. The Authors hope that these issues will be raised by the Government of Tamil Nadu with the Central Government at appropriate time. It is crystal clear that the State of Tamil Nadu cannot be insulated from Sri Lanka. We are like Siamese twins, what afflicts one will affect the other. It should be the primary objective of the Governments in New Delhi and Chennai to impress upon Colombo that a political system in which multiple identities can co-exist harmoniously is the need of the hour – a Tamil can be a Tamil while being a loyal Sri Lankan citizen.

Preliminary Observations

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

Two preliminary remarks are in order. There is an understandable divide between rhetoric and reality. Given the competitive nature of Dravidian politics, statements are frequently made to score debating points over political opponents. Once voted to power, the ruling party has to cope with the realities of governance and, in the Indian context, foster cordial relations with the Centre, while, at the same time, make benign inputs into the making of India’s Sri Lanka policy. Modifications and adjustments in policies and programmes inevitably take place. It is proposed to illustrate this point by highlighting the changed nuances in Jayalalitha’s policy on the thorny issue of the travails of Tamil Nadu fishermen in the Palk Bay region.

Unfurling the national flag from the ramparts of Fort St. George on August 15, 1991, Chief Minister Jayalalaitha called upon the people of the State to take a pledge to retrieve the Island of Kachchatheevu ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974. According to the prognosis of her government, the root cause of the misery and suffering of Tamil Nadu fishermen in the Palk Bay region was the “gifting away” of the island to Sri Lanka. In subsequent statements she asserted that she was willing to argue the case with the Centre and “if necessary, even prepared to fight on the issue”. It was pointed out by discerning critics that abrogation of international boundary agreements, however unjust they might have been, can not be a viable option. In his speeches and writings Prof. Suryanarayan, one of the authors of this essay, argued that India had signed maritime boundary agreements with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Maldives. There is a certain amount of sanctity about international agreements. If India abrogates any of these agreements unilaterally, its image in the comity of the nations will take a nose dive. Keeping this reality in mind Prof. Suryanarayan suggested two courses of action. The first was to get the island of Kachchatheevu and surrounding seas in “lease in perpetuity” (Tin Bigha in reverse) and an agreement by which licensed Indian fishermen would be permitted to fish in Sri Lankan waters up to five nautical miles (following the precedent of the 1976 Agreement by which Sri Lankan fishermen were permitted to fish in the Wadge Bank). Jayalalitha modified her stance, accepted these two suggestions and has, on number of occasions, written to New Delhi to put forward these proposals to Colombo. But in the present context, where the Indian fishermen go deep into Sri Lankan waters and pose a threat to the livelihood of Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen, fresh thinking is called for. Prof. Suryanarayan, along with former civil servant R. Swaminathan, has pointed out that a permanent solution can be found only if the interests of fishermen of both countries are kept in focus. Dialogue among fishermen of two countries is the need of the hour. What is more, it is necessary to look upon the Palk Bay not as a contested territory, but as a common heritage. Historically, the Palk Bay was not a barrier it was a link between the two countries. Keeping in mind the livelihood of fishermen and the necessity to maintain marine ecology, solutions have to be found. Prof. Suryanarayan and R Swaminathan have reflected on this subject and have given some constructive suggestions in the occasional paper entitled Contested Territory or Common Heritage: Thinking Out of the Box, published by the Center for Asia Studies. . The Authors hope that these suggestions will receive due consideration from the governments in Chennai, New Delhi and Colombo alike.

Refugee Issues

Chief Minister Jayalalitha deserves kudos for the welcome initiatives mentioned in the Governor’s address relating to the plight of 73,450 Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in 115 camps scattered throughout the State. It is necessary to remind ourselves that these refugees have come from a poor country to a poorer country. It’s not roses, roses all the way in Tamil Nadu, but what makes Tamil Nadu attractive for the Sri Lankan Tamils is the fact that there is no insecurity in the State. There are no midnight knocks by the Sri Lankan armed forces nor are their children forcibly recruited into the baby brigade of the LTTE. In addition to the financial doles, the refugees are also permitted to work, which enables them to supplement their income. The refugees also have fully utilized the educational opportunities available in the State and many of them have qualified in professional courses like medicine, engineering, agriculture and computer science. The assurance that efforts will be made to improve the living conditions is welcome, because in many camps there is insufficient drinking water. Sanitation is also very poor. The refugees will welcome these initiatives, because in her earlier dispensation, following the dastardly assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, many refugees had to return to Sri Lanka much against their wishes. Human Rights organizations like the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch complained that India was violating the principle of non-refoulement, which is the cardinal principle of international refugee law. It may be recalled that the Narasimha Rao Government permitted the UNHCR to open an office in Chennai with the limited mandate of finding out whether the repatriation was voluntary or involuntary. The UNHCR in Chennai has been doing commendable service in this direction.

Equally welcome is the Government’s decision to provide “employment training” to the refugees in the camps. As a result of the protracted ethnic conflict, killing of several civilians and the migration of large number of Sri Lankan Tamils abroad, the Tamil areas lack trained manpower. It will be a good idea if New Delhi can persuade Colombo to undertake a survey of manpower requirements. Based on such a study the refugees in Tamil Nadu could be given vocational training so that when they return to Sri Lanka they will become productive citizens. Financial assistance for this purpose can be raised from UN funding organizations.

Our historical experience will further strengthen the case for vocational training to the refugees. It may be recalled that following the signing of the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact, 1964 large number of Tamils of Indian origin were granted Indian citizenship and repatriated to India. The repatriation started only in 1968 and proceeded slowly till July 1983. The intervening years between the grant of Indian citizenship and repatriation to India could have been utilized by the Government of India to provide vocational training to these people. Unfortunately most of the repatriates were sanctioned business loans (78.8 per cent), these people did not have any business acumen and the petty business that they started after coming to Tamil Nadu soon failed. Except the fortunate few (5.3 per cent) who were able to get jobs in tea plantations, for the overwhelming majority of repatriates it was bitter home coming. Subjected to untold suffering, few repatriates ended as bonded labourers in Kodaikanal and others eked out a subsistence living in Kotagiri. Many repatriates understandably were bitter about the policies of the Government of Tamil Nadu. Muniamma, an old repatriate lady, whom Prof. Suryanarayan interviewed in a squatter colony in Kotagiri, exclaimed, “Idu Tai Nada, Nai Nada!” (Is it mother country or country of the dogs?). If we do not learn from past mistakes, we will naturally stand condemned. As TS Eliot had written in the Four Quartets, “We had the experience, but missed the meaning”.

Plight of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)

Equally noteworthy is the reference in the Governor’s address to the plight of the internally displaced persons (IDPs), who are “leading a pathetic life of subjugation in their homeland”. The address adds that the Central Government should impress upon Colombo to undertake “immediate measures” to rehabilitate the Tamils in their homeland. It may be recalled that soon after the end of the conflict, 3, 00,000 hapless Tamils were huddled in Mainik Farm. The International Crisis Group has documented their pathetic life, without food and drinking water, privacy and proper shelter. There were cases of disappearances and the Government has not so far given the details. Many of them are suspected to have been killed. There are allegations of women being subjected to sexual attacks. Since the non-governmental organizations were kept out of the scene, we do not exactly know what happened during those days of subjugation and terror. The Sri Lankan Government claims that the process of rehabilitation of the IDPs has been successfully completed and there is no more internally displaced in the Tamil areas. But according to informed Tamil sources, those who have been rehabilitated continue to live not in their original homes, but among relatives and friends. It may also be mentioned that nearly 70,000 among the IDPs are people of Indian origin, who moved to the Northern Province following the ethnic clashes in the plantation areas in 1977. Some of them do not have even citizenship papers or proper identity cards. Improvement of their living conditions should receive the immediate attention of the Government of India.

New Delhi had been sensitive to the plight of the internally displaced. An important step to ameliorate their suffering was the starting of a hospital to provide medical relief. New Delhi also has done commendable work in demining operations, so that the IDPs could return to their original homes. India also has sent 500 tractors so that agricultural operations could commence, but allegations have been made in the Sri Lankan parliament that most of these tractors are being used in the Sinhalese areas. The announcement that New Delhi proposes to construct 50,000 houses for the IDPs was heartily welcomed by the Sri Lankan Tamil community, but the sad fact must be underlined that even after the expiry of several months, the work in this direction is yet to commence. Is the Government of Sri Lanka putting obstacles on the way is a moot question. It may be relevant to mention in this connection that Colombo had been cultivating Beijing and Islamabad to checkmate the growing influence of India in Sri Lanka. Pakistan and China have, for their own reasons, found convergence of interests with Sri Lanka. The two governments have been backing the Sri Lankan Government in international forums. According to media reports two Chinese business houses, China Electrical and Technologies Corporation and Chinese Poly Technologies substantially financed the international seminar Defeating Terrorism: Sri Lankan Experience held in Colombo at the end of May 2011, to synchronise with the second anniversary of the defeat of the Tigers.

The reconstruction of the war ravaged economy must receive serious attention of Colombo, Chennai and New Delhi. To illustrate, the railway line between Omantai and Jaffna is not yet restored, the A9 highway which links Vavuniya with Jaffna is still in a dilapidated stage in several places, the Kankesenturai harbour has not yet become operational and air service between Palaly and Trichy/Chennai has not started so far. While restoration of churches has begun in a modest way, thanks to the munificence of international Christian organizations, the Hindu temples are yet to be restored to their original glory. Chennai should impress upon New Delhi and Colombo to undertake these works on a war footing. In the course of his visit to Jaffna University in January this year, Prof. Suryanarayan talked to groups of students who were keen to enroll themselves in institutions of higher learning in Tamil Nadu. It will be a timely gesture if the Government of Tamil Nadu could respond favourably to their thirst for higher education. The Indian Consulate, which has started functioning in Jaffna, can play a catalytic role in this direction by providing students with up-to-date information on facilities for higher education available in Tamil Nadu.

Role of the Think Tanks

The Authors believe that though foreign policy comes under the exclusive domain of the Central Government, Tamil Nadu should and could make constructive inputs into the making of India’s policy towards Sri Lanka and countries in Southeast Asia. But if Tamil Nadu has to play such a role, it pre-supposes that we have dynamic think tanks which undertake in-depth studies and assist in policy formulations. Two Think Tanks – Center for Asia Studies (CAS) and Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) – are doing pioneering work in this direction. Started by a group of enlightened former bureaucrats, academicians and former service officers, the CAS and C3S have already made a distinct mark in the intellectual life of the country. Their faculty includes former bureaucrats like Dr. S. Narayan, B Raman and DS Rajan; academicians like Prof. V. Suryanarayan and retired service officers like Commodore RS Vasan and Col R Hariharan.

The website of the C3S is one of the most popular websites in the developing world. And the CAS, during the last two and a half years of its existence, has brought out nine books and monographs and published 180 articles, both in English and in Tamil, and organized number of seminars and lecture discussions. The two think tanks are also interacting with institutions of higher learning in southern states to sensitise the student community about India’s changing strategic environment and foreign policy goals. But the two institutions are unable to expand their activities due to lack of financial support. It will be a good idea if the Government of Tamil Nadu, under the new dynamic Chief Minister, comes forth to support these two fledgling institutions, while, at the same time, ensuring their academic and administrative autonomy.

(Prof. V. Suryanarayan is Senior Research Fellow, Center for Asia Studies, Chennai. He is also the President of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. His e-mail address: suryageeth@sify.com and Ashik Bonofer is Research Fellow, Center for Asia Studies, Chennai. His e-mail address is bonofer@gmail.com)

About the author:

SAAG

SAAGSAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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