Sri Lanka: Indian PM’s visit on cards?

The week-end Sri Lanka visit of the Indian troika comprising National Security Advisor (NSA) Shivshanker Menon, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and Defence Secretary Pradeep Kumar is important to both the nations for reasons that are more than the obvious. Media reports in the two nations have highlighted discussions that had centred on rehabilitation and reconciliation, ’war crimes’ and fishermen’s issue, including the two Tamil Nadu Assembly resolutions in this regard.

These reports made a passing reference to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accepting the invitation of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa for visiting Sri Lanka. According to these reports, NSA Menon handed over the letter of acceptance from Prime Minister Singh in this regard. The President had earlier invited Prime Minister Singh to participate in the year-long ’Sambuddhatva Jayanthi’ celebrations of the 2600th anniversary of the Buddha attaining Enlightenment.

The last time an Indian Prime Minister undertook a bilateral state visit was in July 1987 when Rajiv Gandhi signed the India-Sri Lanka Accord with President J R Jayewardene. In India, this visit is also remembered for a Sri Lankan naval personnel attacking Prime Minister Gandhi at the honour-guard. No Indian President has visited Sri Lanka in living memory. All visits of successive Indian Prime Ministers to Sri Lanka since 1987, including that of Singh in 2008, were to participate in SAARC Summit. Though efforts were made to provide a bilateral content to the Singh visit, undertaken at the height of ’EelamWar IV’, it was once again restricted to discussions on the sidelines that touched upon the ethnic issue, and also the stalemated Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between the two countries.

For many years now, every President, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, and also the Leader of the Opposition and a host of other Ministers and political leaders from Sri Lanka, have made New Delhi their first overseas destination after assuming office. They have also been visiting the Indian capital more frequently compared to equivalent traffic on the reverse route. This has contributed to consternation in a section of the Sri Lankan establishment. The implied generational gap in perceptions has meant that young leaders, officials and people in Sri Lanka, barring those tasked/privileged to be in India from time to time, have not seen an Indian Prime Minister in flesh and blood, for them to make instant contact and draw implicit conclusions. In the absence of constant interactions of the kind, younger generation Sri Lankans in walks of life have been left to make their own guesses, based on ill-conceived political criticism and ill-informed media perceptions.

Prime Minister Singh was in office when the Sri Lankan State caused the military exit of the militant LTTE. The Indian acceptance of the ground reality, and the consequent support and sympathy extended to the Sri Lankan Government was accompanied by promises from Colombo and consequent expectations in New Delhi on the post-war rehabilitation of the Tamil IDPs and political reconciliation involving their leadership. Both have made a start but little headway, according to critics of the Rajapaksa Government, nearer home and afar. The two Tamil Nadu Assembly resolutions recently were reflective of these concerns. Rightly, Colombo refused to bite the bait. It declined to take official notice of the resolutions and said it would discuss the matters contained in those resolutions only with the Indian counterpart.

Enabling environment and 13-A

While in Colombo, the Indian team met with President Rajapaksa, External Affairs Minister G L Peiris, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, among other officials, and also leaders of various Sri Lankan Tamil political parties 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. We will do whatever we can to arrive at it’.” Tamil National Alliance (TNA) spokesman 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”.

Singling out nations at Geneva?

The Menon statement clearly underlines the fact that India was not dogmatic about 13-A, as attributed by critics in the Sinhala and Tamil communities. In another juncture and another environment, whatever was acceptable to all Sri Lankans, New Delhi would have no hesitation in acknowledging it as such. There, however, was an underlying Indian concern for the Sri Lankan State providing for the operationalisation of the legitimate aspirations of the moderate Tamil leadership, and the latter, particularly the TNA, accepting the ground realities and not sticking to pedagogic positions that had their roots in the pre-war past and had made them suspect in the eyes of the Sinhala majority.

Sri Lankan political/media criticism of the joint statement of May had also referred to New Delhi not supporting Colombo on the ’Darusmann Report’ on ’war crimes’, commissioned by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In the past two years, when India was a member of the UN Human Rights Council at Geneva, New Delhi had not publicised its support, yet was canvassing the Sri Lankan case with fellow-members. So was it in relation to the Indian support for IMF credit-line for Sri Lanka, at the height of ’Eelam War IV’, where it took a more stringent position.

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 ’HR violations’. Considering the content and the timing of the Tamil Nadu Assembly resolutions, and also his pre-visit meeting with Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, it is again a strong statement from the Centre on the matter.

New Delhi’s position in the joint statement, indicating the need for an internal probe into human rights violations, had also been the stand of China, a P-5 member and considered by some in Colombo a red-herring to India. Critics of India on the Darusmann Report are silent on this aspect. Likewise, those who have linked TNA and India far too much in their assessment of the post-war ethnic negotiations, refuse to refer to the former urging Russia and China, the two backers of Sri Lanka at P-5 and elsewhere, to hear them out.

Russian Ambassador Vladimir P. Mikhaylov, who was vociferous in his public defence of the Sri Lankan Government on the Darusmann Report, received a TNA delegation, possibly a first of its kind. The Ambassador later clarified that the TNA delegation did not ask Russia not to support the Sri Lankan Government. “More than that, they assured me that the TNA adheres to peaceful means of political struggle and is going to solve all the existing problems through dialogue.On my part, I reiterated the well-known principled position of the Russian Federation and expressed hope that the dialogue between the Government of Sri Lanka and representatives of Tamil community will bring complete reconciliation in near future,” Ambassador Mikhaylov said in the statement.

Though China has not responded to the TNA request for a meeting with its envoy, a party MP and another sympathiser were reported to have visited Beijing in the year, on invitation. The pregnant Chinese silence in the first fortnight of the publication of the Darusmann Report was deafening. It was followed by nuanced support that referred to internal mechanisms for investigating rights violations in Sri Lanka. The support for Sri Lanka, as coincidence would have it, became louder and clearer only after the Sri Lanka visit of US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake, whose balanced approach was unlike what Washington was purportedly saying earlier.

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

Menon said that officials from both sides would build on the ideas put forward by the fishermen representatives, to try and find a solution. At the JWG meet in Delhi earlier in the year, Sri Lanka was expected to propose a route-map for normalisation on the fishing front, but that did not happen. Given the complexities of the situation, where livelihood concerns on both sides are contested also by considerations of sovereignty and territorial integrity by Sri Lanka, and the consequent calls in Tamil Nadu for the re-take of Kachchativu islet, both sides need to grabble with the related problems even more to arrive at a solution acceptable to all stake-holders, including the two Governments. If unresolved, the vexatious problem could have a lasting impact on bilateral relations in real terms than even the ’ethnic issue’, with which emotional bondage does exist in Tamil Nadu and greater concerns in New Delhi.

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