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The 'Indian Visit' and After…

“It was the first high-level meeting of the kind that representatives of the Government of India had with the TNA leadership after the now-famous meeting the latter had with Prime Minister Singh at the Indian capital in December 2006. The message, if any, was possibly this – that the Government of India had not lost hope on the TNA providing viable political leadership to the Sri Lankan Tamil community.”

by N. Sathiyamoorthy

(July 07, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) Enough has been written over the past fortnight about the 'unannounced' visit of the three-member high-power team of Indian officials to Sri Lanka. Media reports and analyses have swung from the plausible to the ridiculous. Included in the first could be the proposition that the Indian team's views on the current phase of the 'ethnic war' in Sri Lanka reflected the international pressures on the Colombo Government to do be good to the Tamil community. At the other end of the spectrum, you had news reports claiming that India was sending troops for the security of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the SAARC summit in Colombo in early August and that already 1,500 Indian soldiers had landed in Sri Lanka.

It is not uncommon for nations to send in their own security personnel handling the innermost or proximate line of VVIP security even while in other countries.

The compulsions of popular democracy being what they are, security personnel familiar with the moods and methods of individual leaders to break the cordon and move freely with the masses would know how to react in given circumstances.

The specially-tasked Secret Service has handled US presidential security for long. India introduced the parliamentary legislation to create the National Security Gurads (NSG) commando force for VVIP security in the aftermath of the 'Indira Gandhi assassination'.

Following the Indira Gandhi assassination, the Indian Navy is also known to be monitoring the seas off the coast on occasions when VVIPs participated in functions/celebrations along the vast coastline.even inside the country. It was this practice that was ridiculed as 'gun-boat diplomacy' by India-baiters in Sri Lanka when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi came to Colombo to sign the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement with President J R Jayewardene in 1987.

The fact that the Indian official team comprised National Security Advisor M K Narayanan, Foreign Secretary Shivshanker Menon and Defence Secretary Vijay Singh this time round conveyed a message of its own. It implied that the vagaries of political influences apart, the Government of India is keen on keeping the all-important bilateral relations with India on an even keel.

It was so under successive Congress-led Governments. It was so also under the BJP Governments of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. On the all-important 'ethnic issue', India continues to maintain that a solution could be found only through political means acceptable to all communities, within a united Sri Lanka.

While in Colombo, the Indian team met Sri Lankan Government officials, starting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa on the one hand, and various hues of Tamil political leaders, including R Sampanthan of LTTE-sympathetic Tamil Nationalist Alliance (TNA), on the other. That they did not meet other sections of Sinhala or Muslim political opinion may be coincidental but it also conveys the seriousness with which New Delhi has begun viewing the emerging scenario on the ethnic front in Sri Lanka.

It was the first high-level meeting of the kind that representatives of the Government of India had with the TNA leadership after the now-famous meeting the latter had with Prime Minister Singh at the Indian capital in December 2006. The message, if any, was possibly this – that the Government of India had not lost hope on the TNA providing viable political leadership to the Sri Lankan Tamil community.

By the same token, the meeting that the Indian team had with other sections of Sri Lankan Tamil political opinion could indicate that India had problems accepting even the TNA as the sole political representative of the Sri Lankan Tamil community in a multi-polar democracy such as existing in the two countries. As is known, the Indian team met Ministers Douglas Devananda and Arumugan Thondaman, and Sitdhathan, in the absence of Anandasangaree, who was not in the country at the time.

Translated, this could mean that India wanted all sections of the Tamil political opinion to work together towards addressing the larger issues and problems facing the community in the island-nation. A unified political voice is what the Tamil community had lacked all along since the nation attained Independence. There can be no satisfactory solution of a long lasting nature unless and until all views and hues merge to form a 'rainbow coalition' that has the larger Tamil-speaking community interests in mind.

Different shades of Tamil political opinion are divided only on the methodology to be employed for achieving a goal, which however remains common. Given the diversities inflicted by the confidence flowing from the 'majority consciousness', the Sinhala polity is deeply divided on ideological grounds. Not wanting to grant the Tamils their due has remained a methodology for the divided Sinhala polity to stake a larger share of the southern vote-bank.

This at least has been the perception of the larger Tamil community that had, consolidated long before the international community entered the scene and India, for instance, got involved in the Eighties. As representatives of the Tamil community – 'sole' or otherwise – the LTTE, and also the pro-LTTE sections of the Tamil polity and society have remained unmoved and unchanged.

There is thus some truth in Sampanthan's perception of the present predicament that he outlined at the Sri Lanka Economic Summit. "The two main political parties of the South, the UNP and SLFP, have played political games with issues of the Tamil people and the LTTE does not know who they can trust. Until a consensus can be reached between these two political parties, nothing can be achieved," Sampanthan said, adding that the LTTE needed to be "politically challenged", for them to give up violence.

In a rare yet brief public statement, India had described President Rajapaksa's revival of the Thirteenth Amendment earlier this year as "a welcome first step". While daring to order Provincial Council elections in the 'liberated' East, President Rajapaksa had repeatedly promised fast-tracked power-devolution as promised under the Thirteenth Amendment. The Government leaders also reiterated their resolve to facilitate rapid rehabilitation and restoration, development and industrialisation of the Province. .

Any unsure approach to the power-devolution process on the part of the Sri Lankan Government at this stage could communicate a wrong message to the larger Tamil community, which seems beginning to come to terms with the ground realities after initial resistance, reluctance and reticence. Any sign of an early relapse could shatter the dispersed clouds of regrouping hopes one more time.

In turn, such a scenario, if allowed to crystallise by any perceived lack of commitment or absence of sure-footedness on the part of the Sri Lankan Government, could mean a lot to the current military victories against the LTTE, and the mood of the international community, which could come under renewed pressure from the LTTE sympathetic segments of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora.

India as the first and foremost underwriter of President Rajapaksa's brave and at times outlandish political moves in this regard cannot afford to fail itself on this score. Nor is it India-centric, as often argued by the LTTE. Larger issues of human sufferings, instability in the neighbourhood and a whole lot of other concerns comprise the process.

Even in the absence of any official statement from either side, the Colombo visit of a high-powered Indian team indicates an abiding Indian interest in the affairs of Sri Lanka. It is also indicative of the continued Indian engagement in efforts to solve the 'ethnic issue', though for reasons flowing from the 'Rajiv Gandhi assassination' and the 'IPKF experience', New Delhi would not want to do business with the LTTE, as it had resolved earlier.

If all this leads to a situation in which there has to be a political solution to the ethnic issue without a negotiated settlement, the shoe is not certainly on India's foot. With that should also go the continual calls for India to play facilitator to a negotiations process, for which the LTTE anyway has pre-conditions that the Sri Lankan Government is unwilling to consider in the first place -- at least from this position of military strength.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), the Indian think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi.)
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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