Three years ago when the war was over in Sri Lanka and the LTTE defeated, this writer had observed in a discussion with a Sri Lankan diplomat that winning the war was the relatively easy part; the more difficult part — of reconciliation and winning the peace had now begun. If this was not done well and quickly enough, the situation could deteriorate just as easily and may be even worse with repercussions beyond Sri Lanka. Fears in New Delhi are precisely these.
Today, the Tamil-populated Northern Province remains the most militarised and does not have an elected provincial council. The political process has not really begun. It is true that this is an internal political process, but as a neighbour, India would want to remain interested to ensure early reconciliation.
There are several opposing interests at work, Chennai against New Delhi, Colombo versus the Northern Province, Sinhala versus Tamils, Colombo versus the Tamil diaspora and Colombo suspicious of New Delhi. There are anxieties in New Delhi too that the pace that Colombo has adopted in reconciling is painfully slow and there is not enough desire to speed this or act in a manner that would bring satisfaction to the Tamils.
The recent shifting of the Sri Lanka Air Force technical personnel on training at Tambaram, Chennai to Bengaluru at the insistence of the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was a result of her confrontation with her rival, M Karunanidhi the DMK leader. The AIADMK leader has also demanded that India should insist that Sri Lanka hold a referendum for the creation of Tamil Eelam. This is in direct conflict with the Indian stand for a united Sri Lanka. The demand that international action be taken against the Sri Lanka Army and politicians for alleged war crimes has also not gone down well in Sri Lanka. Colombo and the Sinhala population felt let down with India’s vote against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Commission.
Colombo’s slow response has resulted in rumblings within the Tamil diaspora and there are indications that the LTTE is getting a fresh lease of life. The Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam formed just as the LTTE faced defeat, is now understood to be active in 12 countries. Another group, the Global Tamil Forum, is active in the UK and has been campaigning for an international investigation of war crimes. Possibly more such groups will begin to act together with Karunanidhi having revived Tamil Eelam Supporters Organisation working with the Tamil diaspora. There is great danger that both the Tamil Nadu parties would, in competition with each other, exacerbate the situation.
New Delhi must stop viewing its foreign relations with Colombo from the Chennai prism alone just as it was a mistake to view our relations with Bangladesh through Kolkata’s priorities. Tamil aspirations in Sri Lanka are important but there are other abiding interests too.
In fact it is precisely this kind of talk about Tamil Eelam emanating from Tamil Nadu that would worry a smaller country like Sri Lanka and affirm suspicions in the minds of the Sinhala majority about the intentions of Chennai and New Delhi. We need to be building bridges, literally, across the Palk Straits not creating bigger ditches. These bridges have to be not just between Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu but all the way up to Odisha inclusive of other southern states for the mutual economic and development benefit of the region.
Sri Lanka sits astride the Indian Ocean whose importance will grow in the decades ahead. So will Sri Lanka’s importance as China, the US and India become more active in the littoral and on the high seas, trying to protect their economic and security interests. While national reconciliation, rehabilitation and fulfilling political aspirations would be beneficial to Sri Lankans and Indians, the protection of India’s national interests are solely New Delhi’s concern.
These concerns will not be met through the dharma of coalition politics but through a stronger national concern that prioritises these interests over electoral compulsions. We cannot have a situation where our regional leaders want to run a foreign policy independent of the Centre.
The waters are choppy, there are obstacles and future turbulence is feared unless both New Delhi and Colombo act together with finesse and soon.
The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)