There cannot be a better moment for our closest neighbour Sri Lanka where all the planets seem to be smiling in the right houses. Before 1947, the phrase “neighbouring country” stood for Sri Lanka and, some distance away, Burma. Pakistan and Bangladesh are latter-day neighbours. We had little contact with Bhutan until Jawaharlal Nehru made his famous visit riding on ponies for several days. Nepal was a reclusive kingdom.
Special bond with Sri Lanka
There was always a special bond with Sri Lanka. The people of Tamil Nadu had close family and trade links with the Tamil speaking people of Sri Lanka. There was a flourishing trade, and merchants, both Hindus and Muslims, set up shops near the port in Colombo. The streets still bear signs of their presence.
The north and north-east of Sri Lanka is the home of the Tamils. There are also many thousand Tamils working in the tea plantations. The educated, cultured Jaffna Tamil was a pillar of Sri Lankan society, especially in Colombo.
The land was occupied by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British in that order. The British called it Serendip or paradise. Compared to the earlier colonisers, the British were benevolent to a degree and introduced the railway, the post office, the permanent civil service and the judicial system.
Sri Lanka became independent in 1948. The first Prime Minister, D S Senanayake, was a wise and far-sighted leader. It is said that he did not once leave Sri Lanka to visit a foreign country during his tenure as Prime Minister! He was succeeded by his son Dudley Senanayake. Both strived to build a plural society where all citizens were equal. All religions were equally respected. Sinhala, Tamil and English were the three official languages and all official business and commerce—including signboards and nameboards—were in the three languages.
30 years lost
Short-sighted politicians brought ruin. It started with the ‘Sinhala only’ policy. Once the fire of divisiveness was lit, it was fanned by several elements. That fire singed Sri Lanka for nearly 30 years.
There is no need to go into history, especially recent history. The end of the internal conflict was brutal and bloody. There were gross violations of human rights as well the canons of international law. Much of these have been identified, but much more remains to be done.
Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa thought that he would be remembered forever as the President who defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)—and would be re-elected. He was wrong.
In quick succession, the people elected moderate Tamil leaders as chief ministers in the provinces of Jaffna and Trincomalee; an unassuming, low-profile former minister under Mr Rajapaksa as the new President; and an experienced politician as Prime Minister. Mr Maithripala Sirisena, the new President, is widely respected for his humility and integrity. Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe has been Prime Minister twice before and is regarded as resourceful and capable. What is unusual is that the President and the Prime Minister are the leaders of the two parties—SLFP and UNP—that contested the last elections as worthy opponents of each other!
The planets are smiling
None could have predicted that the following three momentous events would happen in Sri Lanka in the year 2015:
* That the SLFP and the UNP would form a grand coalition government, notwithstanding the efforts of a section of the SLFP to undermine the arrangement;
* That the conflict would finally end, the embers of the fire would finally die down, and the Tamils who suffered the most would look forward to living in a united Sri Lanka as equal citizens; and
* That the Tamil-speaking people would have moderate leaders as the heads of the two totally legitimate provincial governments.
What should India do as Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour? Thankfully, the NDA government has continued the projects promised and started by the UPA government, including the ambitious 50,000 houses programme. It is commendable that the government has kept in place the same team in the high commission and the consulate. There is enormous appreciation of India’s support to the nuanced resolution adopted at the last meeting of the United
Nations Human Rights Council. India should press on:
* The housing programme is the flagship of India. India should offer to build more houses for the displaced and affected people as well as for the plantation workers who have suffered for decades.
* India should offer projects to both the Northern and the Eastern provincial governments and encourage them to work towards common objectives.
* India should offer technical help—if help is sought—in drafting the new Constitution that is a promise of the new government.
* India should use its moral authority to press for the implementation of the India-Sri Lanka Agreement and especially the devolution of powers to the provincial governments.
* India should allow the Sri Lankan Parliament and Government to find a way to implement the UNHCR resolution.
* Above all, India must remain in close contact with Sri Lanka. The only minister who has visited Sri Lanka since May 2014 is the Prime Minister! The UPA government was equally remiss. The Prime Minister should despatch one minister every month to Sri Lanka with strict instructions to travel, listen and report (and not to say anything out of turn or tune).