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A 'Primary Role' for India?





“Across the table, yes, the TNA has to decide if it is going to lay down pre-conditions for talks with the Sri Lankan Government, or for the Indian facilitation. The TNA and the LTTE part, other issues and other stake-holders are also involved before any decision could be taken on India playing any role on peace-making in Sri Lanka.”

by N. Sathiyamoorthy

(August 11, Chennai, Sri Lanka Guardian) "India's role (in Sri Lanka) is primary, and India should play that role," reports quoting Tamil Nationalist Alliance (TNA) leader R Sampanthan have said. "Colombo has never come up with a political solution that could pose a 'political challenge' to the LTTE. If that comes up they cannot say no," he is believed to have said further, after talks with visiting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the SAARC Summit in Colombo.

For India to play any role, leave alone a 'primary role', New Delhi should be convinced of the desire of all stakeholders to the 'ethnic issue' wanting it so. Past experience has left a bad taste in India as a whole. This has got reflected in the attitude of the average Tamil and the approach of every major political entity even in Tamil Nadu in recent decades.

Campaigns to the contrary, the Tamil polity and society in Sri Lanka need to understand, could produce political ripples in India for a time but do not going to change the ground situation in Sri Lanka. There has to be either a change of ground situation, or a change of heart on the part of the LTTE – or, both, if India or any other nation or group has to play the peace facilitator's role in Sri Lanka, one way or the other. If such were the case, the TNA would not require anyone from outside, but could don the role itself.

The LTTE leadership is wanted in India, for facing trial in the 'Rajiv Gandhi assassination case'. Both the LTTE and the LTTE-sympathetic TNA have also run down the India-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987, on which the Thirteenth Amendment and the Provincial Councils Act in Sri Lanka are based. The latter provided for the merger of the North and the East.

Having rejected the Agreement outright at one stage, the TNA now wants a part of it. The part pertains to the merger of the North and the East. However, the TNA is silent on the clause for the LTTE to lay down arms before merger. The Provincial Councils Act too had this clause. While striking down the merger, citing what would pass for technical reasons, the Sri Lankan Supreme Court made a pointed reference to the implementation of the clause.

The Sri Lankan Government is not talking about re-merger. If anything, it has often declared that it would be ready to talk to the LTTE if the latter laid down arms. Whether re-merger could form a part of the agenda is a question that the LTTE and the TNA should ask themselves.

As is known, 'merger' under the Provincial Councils Act had to clear a referendum in the East. Doubts thus persisted even at the outset about a uniform support for the merger in the East. It would be more so today, when the Province has been de-merged and has an elected Government.

Apart from the Sinhalese, there is now a section of the 'ruling Tamils' in the East, who may have different views on the merger/re-merger issue. The Muslim community in the East, which is as divided politically as their Tamil brethren, may hold the key. The TNA needs to strategise for facing a referendum if it wants the de-merger/re-merger issue put back on the table. After all, a solution of the kind cannot be allowed to reopen a festering wound.

The TNA has also to be clear in its mind on what kind of 'political solution' it has in mind. It cannot stop with charging Colombo with not coming up with anything – even if the journalistic euphemism in this context referred only to the incumbent Rajapaksa dispensation.

Differences might have surfaced – justified or otherwise – but the India-Sri Lanka Agreement, piloted by UNP President J R Jayewardene, and the 'Chandrika Package' from a rival SLFP Government were in fact efforts by Colombo to end the political stalemate. Both the LTTE and the TNA (or the latter's TULF predecessor as it stood at the time) chaffed at both, just as the much-needed 'Sinhala consensus' too eluded them both.

Later, when the cease-fire agreement (CFA) became a reality, and Sri Lanka had a period of peace and relative prosperity, it was the LTTE that derailed the process. It was true that the predecessor Government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe did not respond in any clear way to the controversial ISGA proposals of the LTTE. That did not mean that the LTTE should have begun taking it out on the successor regime of President Rajapaksa – that too after 'facilitating' his election by enforcing a boycott of the polls by the Tamil community.

Granting that other stakeholders have no problem about India playing a 'primary role', it may now be time for the TNA to decide where it stood vis a vis the LTTE, the Tamil polity, the Sri Lankan Government, and of course, India, too. It is not that it needs to snap the umbilical cord linking to the LTTE, but it needs to decide for itself if it can for a change influence the LTTE on matters of politics, as it would like the rest of the world to believe.Having found a suitable answer for the question, the TNA may then have to find its real place in the scheme of things evolving in the Tamil polity in Sri Lanka – particularly if does not want to be left behind from emerging situations. It has already happened in the East, and is threatening to happen in the North as well – if and when the Government, for instance, decided to conduct popular elections of some kind, with or without an earlier end to the ethnic war in the Province as a whole.

Across the table, yes, the TNA has to decide if it is going to lay down pre-conditions for talks with the Sri Lankan Government, or for the Indian facilitation. The TNA and the LTTE part, other issues and other stake-holders are also involved before any decision could be taken on India playing any role on peace-making in Sri Lanka.

Yet, none can wish away the Indian concerns, flowing from a variety of contexts. It is these concerns that are at the bottom of the Indian interest in the affairs of Sri Lanka. It is also these concerns – including issues of Sri Lankan sovereignty on the one hand, and of the ethnic strife, on the other --- that keep pulling India in, as the key third-nation player in the Sri Lankan context. Some of it would still remain long after the ethnic conflict had been resolved to the satisfaction of all stake-holders from within Sri Lanka.

India may be in the thick of events in Sri Lanka, but is not a part of them. For India to play a greater role than already in seeking to resolve the 'ethnic issue', the TNA delegation – the TNA-LTTE combine would have to display a greater change of attitude and approach. After all, the last time round when India got involved, it was the LTTE and the pre-TNA TULF that had problems with the '87 Agreement. Having said that India could not sign the Agreement for them, they would need to revisit the past and review their own position, if Indian diplomacy would have to have lasting sanctity.

Against this, the Sri Lankan Government of the day had adopted the Agreement, and passed the required domestic laws for implementation. The incumbent has now removed the political anomaly that had impeded the emergence of a 'Sinhala consensus'. After all, the SLFP was opposed to the Agreement, and even the later-day Chandrika Package side-stepped the issue by tending to offer more. It is another matter that the LTTE-TNA rejected it, too.

In a way, if the TNA, and the LTTE too, could come around and acknowledge the India-Sri Lanka Agreement as such, then there would be no need for India to play a role, leave alone a 'primary role'. There would of course be a need for updating the Agreement clauses to reflect the larger and present-day sentiments and thinking, and for coming up with facilitating pieces of legislation.

For this to happen, the TNA would have to talk to the Sri Lankan Government, and with all other stakeholders inside the country, APRC or no APRC. And as Minister Laksman Yapa Abeywardene is believed to have said, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran could well become the Chief Minister, though only of the de-merged North.

That could well be for starters, as starters go. Maybe, there is still scope for re-negotiating a 'Tamil Province', within the APRC or outside it, if only the LTTE and the TNA read the writing on the wall.. This is particularly so, after the LTTE lost the military might to keep the two Provinces together, and is not seen as being able to retrieve the lost ground, or retaining what it is now left with – and literally so.

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

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