With a population of barely 20 million, people in Sri Lanka have, in recent years, shed earlier prejudices and fears about India. Roughly one-thirds of its Tamil population of 3 million constitutes the descendants of Indian workers who sought employment there during colonial rule. They live in the central and southern regions and have elected leaders who have a working relationship with the Sinhala majority. Facing discrimination in the years following independence, Tamils, who have inhabited the island’s northeast for centuries, resorted to an armed struggle, in which India rather unwisely associated with armed Tamil groups in the 1980s. Nevertheless, the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord provided substantive autonomy to the Tamil-dominated north. This agreement’s provisions were enacted as the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lanka Constitution. India thus has a historical role and responsibility in facilitating the devolution of powers to the Tamil-majority northern province.
After the ethnic conflict became an armed insurrection in the 1980s, sentiments in Tamil Nadu were inflamed and assumed partisan political dimensions between the two major parties, the AIADMK and the DMK. While the AIADMK under MG Ramachandran initially backed the LTTE, the DMK led by Mr Karunanidhi, who is today the only leader in independent India to be elected as Chief Minister on five occasions, chose to back the rival TELO. Mr Karunanidhi strongly condemned Prabhakaran for assassinating TELO leader Sri Sabarathinam in 1985. While he later proclaimed that Prabhakaran was not a terrorist, he asserted in October 2012 that India cannot forgive the LTTE for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. This statement came after the culmination of the bloody civil war in 2010, when Prabhakaran was killed.
While both the DMK and AIADMK governments have performed far better in economic and social development in Tamil Nadu than most other state governments in India, Mr Karunanidhi has opted for dynastic succession, handing over the reins of power to his third son Stalin. This proposed change has come at a time when DMK functionaries and even members of Mr Karunanidhi’s family are facing investigations and charges of corruption in the 2G spectrum scandal. In the meantime, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa moved swiftly to up the ante on the horrendous deaths in the last days of the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict. Impartial international observers, however, acknowledge that while there were excesses by the Sri Lankan armed forces, the LTTE could not be exempt from blame because of its use of civilians as human shields — a tactic it regularly used against the IPKF in 1987-1988. The DMK, with its disciplined party cadres responded by organising mass agitations and whipping up public passions, demanding that India should take the lead in getting Colombo condemned for “genocide”.
Given the present domestic environment, New Delhi is having a difficult time navigating its way to get Colombo to ease up on the heaviness of its military presence and organise free and fair elections in the Tamil-dominated north. This process should lead to the establishment of a significantly empowered provincial government to address the day-to-day needs and aspirations of the Tamil people. With the Congress party lacking leaders with a mass base in Tamil Nadu, New Delhi appears to lack the potential to directly explain to people there why reason has to prevail over emotions in the conduct of foreign policy. A number of basic issues were never understood in the debate in Tamil Nadu. It was never realised that however hard New Delhi tried in the UNHRC, it was inconceivable that any resolution moved by India describing Sri Lankan actions as “genocide”’ would have picked up even five votes in the 47-member UNHCR. South Korea was the only Asian country, apart from India, to support the Washington-backed UNHCR resolution. Even Japan abstained. The US alone was capable of getting its nuanced resolution passed and that too with only 25 out of 47 members voting in its favour. Washington was in no mood to accommodate even minor Indian amendments.
Carried away by the overblown propaganda of Sri Lankan Tamil expatriates from countries like the US, Canada and the UK and determined to leave no stone unturned to use outrage in Tamil Nadu for political advantage in the forthcoming general elections, the main political players in the state are advocating a course of action, which will leave India with no leverage to influence events in Sri Lanka through a combination of persuasion and subtle diplomatic pressure. The presumption of those wanting to get Sri Lanka condemned appears to be that a small neighbour will just crumble before the power of big neighbouring India. They fail to understand the complexities of the present world and the limitations of power, even of the high and the mighty. The mighty United States now finds that use of power or coercion is challenged by countries in its neighbourhood, ranging from Cuba and Venezuela to Brazil and Argentina. China cannot restrain Vietnam from balancing its power through links with the US, Japan and India. Russia cannot raise a finger against former Soviet Republics in its neighbourhood asserting their independence.
Those in Tamil Nadu demanding an Indian economic boycott of Sri Lanka and withdrawal from power and infrastructure projects there, mistakenly believing that Sri Lanka cannot manage without us, forget that there will be Chinese, Japanese, South Korean and ASEAN bidders ready to joyously replace us. Moreover, if Sri Lankans start doubting our intentions because of shrill calls for “Eelam” from Tamil Nadu, they will only further strengthen their already well-equipped and battle-hardened armed forces with Chinese equipment to counter external meddling. We are already isolated in Asia because rhetoric is prevailing over reason on how to handle developments in Sri Lanka. There is no alternative to imaginative diplomacy to persuade the Sri Lankan government to move along the path of reconciliation.
There are two important tasks New Delhi has to concentrate on. Firstly, efforts for reconstruction and rehabilitation in the Northern Province need to be intensified. Secondly, the Sri Lankan government and the recalcitrant Tamil National Alliance in Sri Lanka have to be persuaded to sit together and agree on measures to implement the 13th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution to effectively empower the government and the provincial legislature in the North after elections in September 2013. Sri Lanka, in turn, would be well advised to thin out the intrusive presence of its military and end military interference in civilian matters, in its embattled north. All this is feasible only if Sri Lankans regard India as a well-meaning and friendly neighbour.