Is India washing its hands off Sri Lankan Tamils?

To say that the political decimation of the parties that claim to speak for the Sri Lankan Tamils has been completed is an understatement. It was a rout. The Tamil National Alliance was all but swept away in the unprecedented flood of support that marked the return of the Rajapaksas to pre-eminence in the Sri Lankan polity.

But what was equally remarkable was the swiftness with which Prime Minister Narendra Modi called to congratulate the Sri Lankan leader, even as parliamentary poll results were coming in on August 7. It underscored India’s growing concern that in light of China’s Ladakh ingress and the challenge posed to India’s land and maritime frontiers, Colombo cannot be allowed to slip back into China’s zone of influence. But is India ready to heed the rise of Sinhala nationalism over the cause of the Tamil minority as geopolitical constraints take primacy?

India’s foot-dragging when Mahinda Rajapaksa, as president, was looking for investments to reboot his country’s post-war economy has not been forgotten by the new first family of Sri Lanka, which did not take kindly to being treated like a minnow left dangling by the big fish. Today, more so than ever, Colombo’s strategic importance to India, sitting as it does at a key intersection in its southern backyard—where the sea lanes from the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea connect to the Indian Ocean, and where China has acquired one critical port after another—can no longer be ignored.

In addition to the $400 million currency swap, the hungry minnow is asking for a $1.1 billion swap and a moratorium on a $900 million loan. These are requests that must be fast-tracked. In return, Delhi needs to ensure that the Rajapaksa regime dials down the anger of Sri Lankan workers over the Colombo Port East Container Terminal contract that was awarded to India (and Japan). Manufactured protests or not, it may take some doing.

As former Sri Lankan diplomat Dr Palitha B Kohona says, the manner in which former premier Ranil Wickremesinghe “parcelled out real estate and parted with Sri Lanka’s crown jewels” as part of his foreign policy balancing act is resented. The Colombo Port project was largely effected to assuage Indian concerns about both the Hambantota Port project being given to the Chinese by then president Mahinda Rajapaksa and the immediacy with which he was co-opted by Chinese President Xi Jinping into the signature Belt and Road Initiative.

Clearly, India cannot allow the Colombo project to slip through its fingers. It must also continue to stay invested in revitalising the Palaly airport in Jaffna and the Kankensanthurai port while building homes for displaced Sri Lankan Tamils across Kilinochchi, Vavuniya and Mullaitivu in Tamil majority provinces. But the vote of no confidence in the TNA—reduced to a mere 10 seats from 16—and the victory of only a handful of luminaries like the former chief minister of Jaffna, lawyer-turned-politician C V Wigneswaran, who heads the Tamil People’s Alliance, and the Ponnambalam legatee Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam of the Tamil National People’s Front reflects the rapidly shrinking space occupied by Tamil politicians.

The only opposition of any consequence, the newly formed Samagi Jana Balavegaya led by Sajith Premadasa, has a miniscule 54 seats against the 145 seats of President Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Perumana in the 225-member Parliament. Premadasa, whose father Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated by the LTTE, is unlikely to take up cudgels for the Tamils. Neither is former president Maithripala Sirsena and former PM and United National Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, both reduced to irrelevance.

As the Rajapaksa clan moves to secure a majority in the House, when Parliament convenes on August 20, to scrap the 19th Amendment that limited presidential powers by reaching out to like-minded smaller parties, the fate of the controversial 13th Amendment is lost in the din. The cornerstone of the Sri Lankan Tamils’ quest for greater devolution of powers to the provinces is an unnecessary imposition to the Rajapaksa government and the Sinhala majority, an intrusion in their internal affairs.

The 13th Amendment, part of the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord of 1987 that promised greater powers to the provinces, was repeatedly raised by Delhi with one eye on the domestic Tamil vote. But with a post-Jayalalithaa Tamil Nadu’s deafening silence to poll results, PM Modi—who needs the AIADMK to shore up his numbers in the Rajya Sabha and factors Indian Tamil sentiment into the BJP’s electoral strategy—will weigh whether voicing concerns over the amendment (and India’s Tamil fishermen routinely held by the Sri Lankan Navy) is worth rattling the Rajapaksa cage when it knows this does not sit well with Lanka’s new ruling family.

Gotabaya, validated by parliamentary polls, reflects the trust that the people of Sri Lanka have in the man who ended the 30-year reign of terror by the Tamil Tigers chief Prabhakaran. With a tough crackdown on the Muslim community vulnerable to radicalisation by the Islamic State Khorasan, who were behind the 2019 Easter bombings, his stock runs high.

One of his first moves to tighten direct control of the north and east could come now, from abolishing the provincial councils that run the provinces, making the 13th Amendment redundant. Dr Kohona says, “The provinces have been administered for the last two years without provincial councils, which are anyway a huge drain on the exchequer. It’s time we looked at abolishing them.” The Modi government, aware that Sri Lanka is one of a handful of countries that has refused to comment on the changed status of Jammu & Kashmir to a Union Territory, may choose to say nothing; more so when the prickly issue of the ‘disappeared’ is all set to be raised by the UNHRC early next year.

Rohan Gunaratna, professor of security studies at Nanyang University, Singapore, points to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s “brilliant ties with India when he was defence secretary, that enabled Sri Lanka to defeat the LTTE” as a relationship the president wants to maintain, while “building equidistance between a declining West, a rising China and a rising India”. The trick for India will be on how to spin that ‘equidistance’ to its advantage without completely vacating its advocacy of the Sri Lankan Tamils’ cause. (New Indian Express)

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