Dawn of a new age in Lankan Tamil politics

     The election result in the Northern Province redefines relations between Jaffna and Colombo. India should use it as an opportunity to strengthen ties between Colombo and New Delhi.

Tamils in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province have struggled for over five decades to secure grassroots devolution of power. Sri Lankan Tamil leader SJV Chelavanayakam was able to negotiate agreements with Prime Ministers S Bandaranaike and DS Senanayake in 1957 and 1965. In the 1965 Agreement, Sri Lankan Tamils agreed to the devolution of limited powers to District Councils, with use of Tamil permitted in District Courts. But, even these expectations were not fulfilled. It was only after direct Indian involvement and facilitation that meaningful powers were devolved to Provincial Councils in Sri Lanka under the 13th Amendment of its Constitution. A persistent Indian diplomatic effort and growing trust and confidence between New Delhi and Colombo, eventually led to Provincial election being held in Northern Province last month.

The ostensibly separatist Tamil National Alliance was swept to power. Thereafter, on October 7, the highly respected Tamil jurist and former Supreme Court Judge, Justice CV Wigneswaran, was sworn in as the Chief Minister of Northern Province, in the presence of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is, however, still imperative to replace manifestations of Sinhala triumphalism in the ethnic conflict, by statesmanship and reconciliation. The election in September was considered internationally as free and fair, despite efforts by the Sri Lankan Army to intimidate voters and candidates. Moreover, the TNA has shown statesmanship in the aftermath of the election. TNA spokesman MA Sumanthiran rejected separatism and reaffirmed commitment to a united Sri Lanka, where Tamils can live in freedom and dignity. Justice Wigneswaran made it clear that he did not share objections of others about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attending the Commonwealth Summit.

Interestingly, there are differences now between views in Jaffna and in Tamil Nadu not only regarding participation in the Commonwealth Summit, but also on the issue of fishermen from Tamil Nadu. There are still protests about the action taken by the Sri Lankan Navy against Tamil Nadu fishermen, intruding into Sri Lankan territorial waters, adjacent to Tamil-dominated Northern Province. But, Chief Minister Wigneswaran blames Tamil Nadu fishermen for inflicting misery on Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen. He bluntly asserted that fishermen from Tamil Nadu, using big trawlers “came early into Sri Lankan waters, caught all the fish and left the (Sri Lankan Tamil) people high and dry.” He added that the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister “has a crucial role in addressing the issue of Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters”. There now appears to be good prospects for dialogue between fishermen in Tamil Nadu and Jaffna to address mutual concerns. The Jaffna Tamils and the Sri Lankan Government are making common cause to deal with what they believe are illegal intrusions by fishermen from Tamil Nadu.

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid paid a brief visit to Jaffna recently after talks in Colombo. He exchanged views with Chief Minister Wigneswaran on the substantial Indian assistance being channelled to Northern Province, primarily for relief, rehabilitation and infrastructure. India has extended credits totalling $960 million for upgrading rail communications and renovating and extending rail services from Colombo and across Northern Province. As part of the rehabilitation effort in the war-torn Province, India is renovating the Palaly Airport and the Kankesanthurai harbour. It is also financing construction of 50,000 houses and has provided medical assistance, one million roofing sheets and agricultural implements, for displaced Tamils. While in Colombo, Mr Khurshid finalised details for construction of a coal-fired power plant in Sampur, through a joint venture between India’s National Thermal Power Corporation and the Ceylon Electricity Board. The primary interest of the regional leadership in Jaffna is to secure effective and enhanced Indian assistance and prepare for hard bargaining for promised devolution of powers.

India’s primary commitment to Sri Lankan Tamils is the implementation of the 1987 Rajiv Gandhi-Jayawardene Accord, under which Provincial Councils were established and empowered under the 13th Amendment of the Sri Lanka Constitution. Sri Lanka has not fulfilled its commitments to India, as it has not empowered the Provincial Government to administer key areas like law and order and lands. Moreover, the massive presence of the Sri Lankan Army and its propensity to intimidate the population, as it did during the provincial election, is a matter of serious concern. Quite obviously, these are issues that can be addressed only if India misses no opportunity to get Sri Lanka’s partner countries and more importantly, it’s neighbours, on occasions like the Commonwealth Summit on November 15-17, to persuade Colombo to move in the right direction.

The 53-member Commonwealth of Nations is committed to discussing issues including “democracy, human rights, good governance, and the rule of law, individual liberty, egalitarianism, free trade, multilateralism and world peace.” The Colombo Summit is a forum where only one (Canada) out of 53 member Governments will not be participating. The other Heads of State will meet privately at a ‘retreat’, which will be a useful occasion to collectively persuade President Rajapaksa to fulfil his commitments on the ethnic issue.

New Delhi faces a peculiar dilemma in the Prime Minister attending the Commonwealth Summit. Not only is the Sri Lankan Government keen on Mr Singh attending the Summit, but Chief Minister Wigneswaran and his colleagues in Jaffna are keen that he visit Jaffna, after the Summit, to discuss their concerns and developmental needs. A visit by India’s Prime Minister to Jaffna, symbolising India’s commitment to the Tamil welfare, will boost the morale of the people of Northern Province. But, strong voices in Tamil Nadu, some influenced by well-endowed expatriate Sri Lankan Tamils, would like the Prime Minister to boycott the Commonwealth Summit.

In Sri Lanka, India’s commitment has consistently been towards securing the devolution of powers to Northern Province in accordance with the 13th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution, and to the security and welfare of displaced Tamils in Sri Lanka. Emotive and partisan electoral considerations, rather than rational reasoning about what really the Sri Lankan Tamil leadership in Jaffna wants from India, should not guide the conduct of India’s relations with Sri Lanka.

More importantly, India’s policies in its neighbourhood must be guided by its larger national security interests and the prevailing regional and global realities. Sri Lanka is strategically located and India needs a policy of diplomatic and economic engagement and not self-inflicted estrangement with Colombo, as China increases its influence and naval presence across Indian Ocean Region.( Indian Strategic Studies)

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