An attempt to grasp India’s advice to Sri Lanka on Tamil Nadu concerns

Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao recently summed up the last forty year’s history of Indo-Sri Lanka relationship at a meeting with the visiting Sri Lankan and Maldivian journalists in New Delhi on July 5. She said that the Indian government cannot remain insensitive to the sentiments of the Tamil Nadu government, about issues affecting the Tamil-speaking people in Sri Lanka. She also, in a way, had theorized the relationship between the two counties in one sentence.

The statement by Rao who was also the High Commissioner to Sri Lanka between 2004 and 2006 was supplemented with another angle of the story by the Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister Professor GL Peiris three days later in Parliament. He said that Sri Lanka would not be able to achieve its development goals without India which was going to play a vital role in achieving such targets. Speaking during an adjournment debate, Professor Peiris told Parliament that no country could formulate its economic development goals in isolation.

With the statement by the Indian Foreign Secretary a series of incidents, mostly unpleasant, took place between the two countries for the past half a century would be called back to one’s mind, probably from arming, funding and training of the Sri Lankan Tamil armed groups and pressurizing Sri Lankan leaders to negotiate with those groups in  the early eighties by the Indian authorities. Sri Lanka has paid dearly in its failure to grasp the importance of the concerns of both India and Tamil Nadu in the seventies and eighties.

The iconic of all the events between India and Sri Lanka was the military meddling by the former into the latter’s affairs in 1987 following an imposition of a political treaty on the latter under duress. Although India was somewhat humiliated in this manoeuvering as both Sri Lankan government as well as the LTTE and the island’s Tamil people on whose behalf India was said to have intervened, stood against it later, the giant neighbour showed what it was and what it can do, if necessary.

India’s concerns as well as those of Tamil Nadu have not been a secret or something that had been ignored by the Sri Lankan leaders after late nineties, presumably owing to the country having burnt its fingers by mismanaging the relationship between the two countries in eighties and early nineties. Hence, governments of President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, during the peace process with the LTTE, made it a point to keep India abreast on the goings on.

Mahinda Rajapaksa regime seems to have realized this vital fact as fundamental in dealing with the LTTE. In an interview with the Indian journalist V K Shashikumar, which appeared in the “Indian Defence Journal” in October 2010, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, while recalling Vadamarachchci debacle, had to say this: “We knew that while other countries could or would resort to economic sanctions, only India had the power to militarily influence the course of our war operations.”

In the same interview Mr. Rajapaksa related a story that would depict vividly the Indian influence on the war, even when the victory was within reach. He says:  “A day before Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi went on a fast on April 27, 2009 in Chennai protesting against the SLAF offensive against the LTTE, Menon (former Foreign Secretary, India and  the now National Security Advisor Shiv Shanker Menon) called me on my cell phone at 4.30 pm. …..Within six hours of Karunanidhi going on fast we could defuse the crisis in Tamil Nadu by issuing a statement announcing the end of combat operations and shelling inside the ‘No Fire Zone’, which led to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister ending his fast.”

Presient’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunge too in an interview with the Daily Mirror last year referred to this incident and said “With the halt in use of heavy weaponry the Congress gained strength and the victory in Tamil Nadu can be attributed to this decision by the Government of Sri Lanka.” One might argue that these incidents point to the length and the width of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. However, addressing Tamil Nadu concerns seems to be vital for the reconciliation here.

However, as in the case of Sri Lanka, Tamil Nadu politics, especially in respect of Sri Lankan ethnic issue, is driven mainly by blind emotions and not by pure reason or logic. For instance, the politicians in the State who even did not wave a black flag when LTTE leadership including its supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran was decimated in May, 2009 all of a sudden began to cry foul as elections were approaching. As the Sri Lankan politicians do, Tamil Nadu leaders too are marketing the communal feelings to win elections. 

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