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Spotlighting Lankan Tamils

by Anuradha Chenoy, 7 July 2011

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New Indian Express, 7th July, 2011

Jayalalitha has submitted a memo to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that lists demands from post-conflict Sri Lanka. She has said that the Sri Lankan regime should be held accountable for war crimes during the last days of the fratricidal war with the LTTE, where thousands of civilians were killed, hundreds of thousands became refuges, Tamil areas of the North were reduced to rubble, and humanitarian assistance to Tamils denied. Jayalalitha has asked that the Government of Sri Lanka to immediately transfer adequate powers to the Sri Lankan North and East so the Tamils can have autonomy of governance, a long standing demand of Tamils. Ms. Jayalalitha has insisted that India should impose economic sanctions against Sri Lanka if they do not comply. In effect India should change its policy to Sri Lanka.

Jayalalitha’s position will have shaken the Rajapakse regime in Sri Lanka, especially since the Tamil Nadu Assembly passed a unanimous resolution on this. Rajapakse however, even in the face of facts verified by UN bodies of civilian massacres, has continuously denied the brutalities of his army in its final triumph. He has refuted United Nations reports and resolutions. Reports show, that the rehabilitation of Tamil refugees is not only unsatisfactory but that their homes and livelihoods are not being returned to them.

The Rajapakse regime has mobilized majority Sinhala nationalism to consolidate his power by closing any discussion on what the postwar order should be. He has curbed dissent and increased military controls, declaring that “There are no minorities in this country; after the conclusion of the war all Sri Lankans are divided into two main categories - patriots and traitors” (May, 2009). This kind of oppression on minorities and independent voices cannot bring peace to Sri Lanka. It is generating new grievances, and will damage democracy and pluralism. It is bound to have severe long term repercussions.

Jayalalitha’s words will also disturb the complacent czars of the Indian foreign policy establishment. As the International Crisis Group noted in a recent report on India and Sri Lanka, India is a country with the greatest influence over Sri Lanka, but its policies to encourage the Sri Lankan Government towards a sustainable peace are not working. This is because even though India is giving significant aid, it is not putting sufficient pressure to ensure that de-militarization of the North takes place. It is not loud enough that minorities get their dues rights, are fully rehabilitated and that democratic freedoms and institutions that were curbed because of the war are re-instituted.

India instead, is more interested in regional geopolitics of competing with China and Pakistan and does not want to alienate the Sri Lankan regime. China’s growing influence on Rajapakse regime is seen as a potential de-stabilizing factor in India-Sri Lanka relations. Second, India needs Sri Lankan support for its aspirations for a Security Council permanent seat. Third, it wants Sri Lanka to keep its economy open for Indian business. Fourth, India has had a history of counter-productive interventions in Sri Lanka and fears a nationalist backlash.

At the same time, should Indian foreign policy to a neighbor like Sri Lanka be based on such unwarranted fears about India’s interests? Why will Sri Lanka not develop relations with China, even if India does everything to placate the current regime? Should norms and values that India hold dear like minority rights be sacrificed at the altar of geopolitical gains? Is a militarized, authoritarian Sri Lanka of greater interest to India or a democratic stable one? Moreover, India’s own Tamils are saddened and restive to see the plight of Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka, surely that should be part of India’s realist calculations as well!

It is great, that after Jayalalitha’s dramatic victory and unambiguous statements, Indian policy on the minority question in Sri Lanka has become more pro-active. Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and advisor Mr. Menon made a hurried but relevant trip in June to Colombo and argued for: a devolution package building on the 13th Amendment; a genuine reconciliation process; early and just settlement of displaced persons; investigations into human rights violations and restoration of normalcy.
But despite the Indian foreign secretary’s persuasive powers, the Sri Lankan regime is unlikely to budge so easily. India will have to do more than one visit and some good statements. It’s support for negotiations between the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil National Alliance, that began in January 2011, needs to be pressured to move much faster within a fixed timetable. The talks should have devolution of powers and demilitarization as priority objectives. India should monitor its aid and rehabilitation projects and have transparency and oversight mechanisms for these. India should insist on working through the local government in the North and East for its rehabilitation packages to ensure that aid gets to where it is most needed.

The Rajapakse response has been that Sri Lanka will not deal with India’s states (Tamil Nadu), but with India. But Mr. Rajapakse should know that India unlike Sri Lanka is what its states make of it. That Indian federalism, despite all its shortcomings, like Indian secularism and pluralism is the backbone of Indian democracy. So instead of rejecting the resolutions of the Tamil Nadu Assembly, he would be wiser and Sri Lanka a better place to live for both majority and minority communities, if the Sri Lankan State structure were to accommodate institutional mechanisms of devolution.
And what better time to do this than after a triumphal victory? This should surely address the anxieties of the Sri Lankan State and give it an opportunity to renew its social contract with all its peoples. Churchill had said “in war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity.” It will be useful to follow such advice, since it appears to have worked well in history. Rajapakse will serve the Sri Lankan nationalist cause more if delivers minority rights and reassures his majority community that they can be secure and progress faster when their policies and state institutions are inclusive rather than exclusive and jingoist. The Sri Lankan opposition also should not indulge in nationalist outbidding each other. Such haggling has lead Sri Lanka through enough tragedies.

And as for India’s policy in Sri Lanka, they should thank Ms. Jayalalitha in reminding them that India’s legitimacy in South Asia and indeed internationally will not lie in its deft geo-political maneuvers but in the values and norms that an aspiring great power exhibits.

Anuradha M. Chenoy is professor, School of International Studies, JNU. Email: Chenoy at


The above article from New Indian Express is reproduced here with the permission of the author and is for educational and non commercial use.