India-Sri Lanka Tight Rope Walk

182

India baiters are having a field day in the blogosphere of Sri Lanka. All because of Karunanidhis and Kanimozhis. This is not the first time that Tamilnadu politicians had offered a stick to the Lanka politicians to beat them. And certainly, this is not going to be the last time either. This is the flip-side of relations between two countries separated by a narrow strip of sea column.

Frankly, the old fox of Dravidian politics has surprised his friends and enemies alike by picking up the ethnic Tamil issue of the island nation. Also by fixing a two-week deadline for Manmohan Singh government to put its act together. Conventional wisdom is that he sees in Singh a weak prime minister and by piling up pressure, he wants Delhi to force Colombo to stop ‘hostilities’ against the Tigers. Several commentators in Chennai, Delhi and Colombo paddle the theory that Karunanidhi wants to insure his party’s fortunes in the elections which are due to Indian Lok Sabha in less then six months.

Dr Subramanian Swamy, the one and only Tamil politician who heads a one-man All India Party (Janata Party) was the first to come up with the theory. There is some merit in his line, undoubtedly. But it doesn’t answer if not all at least some questions. First and foremost, why did Karunanidhi give a two-week deadline to Manmohan Singh to act? There is a corollary to this question and it is no less interesting. He had stated only a week back in ‘Murasoli’ (DMK daily) that he was not going to pull down the Singh government. What made him change his mind and call for the resignation of 39 lawmakers from the state?

Admittedly, not many took seriously, the ‘all-party’ meeting staged by Karunanidhi in Chennai on Tuesday Oct 14. May be because it was any thing but an all-party affair. Jayalalithaa Jayaram, who heads the rival All India Anna DMK, did not attend the meeting. So did her camp follower, Vaiko, who is the chief of MDMK, a breakaway DMK party. Vaiko swears by his loyalty to LTTE. For publicly speaking for LTTE, he was jailed once by none other than Jayalalithaa who was the chief minister of the day. More over, it is alleged that LTTE funds Vaiko just as it does many Tamil politicians. Yet, he did not join the Karunanidhi conclave.

To that extent the Tuesday meeting stood devalued. Therefore, its resolution ‘The Centre should stop the 30-year-old civil war that has resulted in thousands of Tamils’ deaths in Eelam’ carried no conviction with a section of the political class and even the media. Subramanian Swamy was unable to hide his glee. He declared the meeting a ‘non-event’. Jayalalithaa called the initiative an ‘eye wash’.

Both simply ignored the reference to ‘Eelam’ in the resolution. It is for the first time the term ‘Eelam’ has figured in the DMK led political lexicon in recent years. But it was not an official document of the Tamilnadu government as some trans-world wire services and Lanka press said. Put differently, the outcome of Oct 14 meeting did not carry official stamp of Tamilnadu government.

ULTIMATUM TO DELHI

In a manner of speaking, the Tuesday meeting and its ‘ultimatum’ to Delhi acquired some significance a day later on Wednesday. That is because Karunanidhi’s poet turned politician daughter Kanimozhi resigned from Rajya Sabha, the second chamber of Indian Parliament. Her announcement meant that the notice was not an empty rhetoric. Interestingly, however, she took care to down play the significance of her resignation. Firstly, she handed over the resignation to her father, who is the unquestioned boss of the DMK. Second she said it was post-dated. On both counts, it is clear that they were resorting to posturing. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has gallantly risen to the ‘bait’; declared the situation in Sri Lanka was cause for ‘serious concern’ and stuck to the familiar position – the authorities in Sri Lanka should work for a negotiated settlement instead of looking for a military victory. He also spoke of his concern over the harassment and killing of Indian fishermen near Katchativu by Sri Lankan navy. The Karunanidhi conclave also passed a resolution on the fishermen issue but it did not get the focus.

Now there are umpteen ways of looking at the development. One can go to the extent of saying that there is confusion in India’s approach to Sri Lanka and that Delhi is hostage to Chennai politics of one-upmanship. One can also argue that Indian politicians are trying to bail out LTTE, a terrorist organisation and its Prabhakaran, an internationally wanted criminal and proclaimed offender. Some also aver that as the ‘Brahma’ (creator) of LTTE, Delhi is unwilling to see the end of the Tigers. One blogger thundered thus: “You (India) have told us (Sri Lanka) that we should revive the so-called political process between terrorists and the government. Why don’t you tell that to George Bush namely that he should enter into a political process with al-Qaeda giving them want they want and have peace thereafter?”

These arguments reflect the mindset of an argumentative Asian and miss the trees for the wood.

Some media despatches said Manmohan Singh was not walking the tight rope on Oct 15 when he voiced concern over the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils in the war zone of the country. This is absurd. His government will survive with or without DMK support in Parliament. Any how its term is coming to an end. More over, Singh government did not stop President Rajapakse’s campaign against the LTTE. In fact, it turned a ‘blind eye’ to the military offensive. So did Karunanidhi government in Chennai.

Both were forced to speak their mind mid September not on the offensive per se but on the attacks against Indian fishermen. Both Delhi and Chennai maintained discreet silence when on September 8 two Indian technicians were injured by LTTE straffing in Vavuniya. These technicians did not go for a picnic to Sri Lanka’s war zone. They were there manning a radar which India has supplied.

Consider another important issue – the two- week deadline set by Karunanidhi. Why two weeks? Why not one week or say even 48-hours? More so as the Lanka army is said to be about 1.6 kms short of Kilinochchi (as of Oct 15). Karunanidhi critics may say this deadline is a give away to his lack of seriousness. If that is the case, my dear, why make a fuss?

SYMPATHY FACTOR

Outpouring of sympathy in Tamilnadu for ethnic Tamils across the Palk Strait is not a new phenomenon. It was there to witness even before the LTTE became a factor on the Sri Lankan scene and Colombo messed up its Tamil problem with its short-sighted jingoistic policies. Tamilnadu will continue to be sympathetic towards Tamils of Sri Lanka whether they are in Wanni or Jaffna or Colombo. What is wrong? That is human nature. Why should Sri Lanka leadership be concerned? What moral right do they have to complain when they have miserably failed to win over the Island’s own “Expatriate Tamil Brigade’ and make them distance from the LTTE?

Friends of India should appreciate one more reality- India has always believed in and practiced the maxim – people of Indian origin should become a part of the soil where they had migrated long years ago. That is why it did not rally in support of Mahendra Pal Chaudhry, Fiji’s first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister who faced music at the hands of army. Whether it was Uganda when Dada Idi Amin kicked out the Asians most of them Indians or the West Indies or in recent times in Malaysia where the Hindu minority found confronted problems, Delhi did not act like the self-styled guardian of global Indians and Hindus.

Till the eighties, this was Delhi’s policy towards Sri Lanka too and it is reflected in the agreements of the period like the one in 1974 (on Katchativu) and in 1976 (maritime boundary).

If there is a change in the India – Sri Lanka equation qualitatively, blaming Delhi leads Colombo nowhere. It should do some honest soul searching. Whether it should begin in 1971 when Sri Lanka allowed Pak air force and navy its airspace and ports on their way to Dhaka is a matter of detail. They may go back a little in history and pick up the threads from the days immediately after independence.

If hot-headed strategic planners and thinkers want to limit themselves to the Jayewardene era and there afterwards, well, no problem. Make his address to the SAARC summit in Bangalore the bench mark and reference point.

If some one wants not to dwell into history and confine oneself to recent times, then the best starting point is Mahinda Rajapakse’s tryst with his presidential election.

The fact of the matter is we, south Asians, are never short on memory; some of us tend to be economical with memory, though.

What is at issue in the Sri Lankan conflict – for that matter India-Sri Lanka relations -is not Chennai factor. It is recognizing the identity of Tamils in the island nation.

Political strategist, Basil Rajapakse, who is also senior Presidential Advisor, has said on record that Colombo has got maximum support to crush LTTE. In a recent interview (to the Sunday Observer), he said, “India has always been with us. We got maximum support from India to crush the LTTE”. He also spoke of ‘justifiable’ concerns of India and said these would be addressed.

What are these concerns? As identified by Basil Rajapakse ( in an interview to The Sunday Island), these are civilian causalities, supplies of food, medicines, and clean drinking water, and shelter for 1,60,000 people displaced from their homes in the conflict zone besides the problems faced by Indian fishermen.

There is no need for an expert to say that the onus of addressing humanitarian concerns always rests with the sovereign government. In the instant case, as the Inter Press Service (IPS) reported as recently as September 22, supplies to Tamil Rebel Areas are firmly in the government hands. The responsibility has fallen on Colombo shoulders because UN and other international humanitarian agencies have moved out of the area.

Failure to address the issue will only give a talking point to the LTTE which is bent upon using the locals as its human shield and gain the (misplaced) international sympathy. So much so, it is in President Mahinda Rajapakse’s interest to come to grips with the problem before diplomatic advisories start pouring in from all over.

A word about Indian fishermen and their travails in Katchativu. Six Indian fishermen were rescued on October 6 by a group of Sinhalese fishermen. “We cannot forget their (Sinhalese fishermen) help. It was divine providence. We were drifting on the high seas from September 16 as our trawler developed a technical snag about 40 nautical miles from Chennai coast,” the trawler driver Vinoth was quoted as saying by the New Indian Express. A week later on October 12, 66 Sinhala fishermen were caught and their 12 boats seized when they were catching ‘tuna’ fish within the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone without valid documents.

A comment on the arrest posted on a Lanka daily by Shan Nalliah, Norway summed up the issue neatly thus: “Poor fishermen- no matter who they are but it is disappointing to note insensitive comments. These guys expect different rules, one for Indians and the other for Sri Lankans. Many of them bluntly say SL navy was right to shoot and kill TN fishermen for poaching in SL sea border. Why don’t they look the events the other way round? Be thankful guys, so far not a single SL fisherman had been killed by the Indian coastguard”.

I rest my case.

Eom