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On Indian Foreign Minister S.M.Krishna’s visit

 How is it that the Indian government is now taking an extraordinary interest in people of recent Indian origin in the Vanni? Is there a fear that their domicile in the Vanni could be challenged? Is there a security issue arising from that for Sri Lanka? Shouldn’t there be investigations over that? Does it give rise to settlement of others also in the Vanni and the East and make the claim of the so called Sinhalese colonization of the North and the East absurd?

by Bandu de Silva

(November 19, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Indian Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna is scheduled to make the much awaited visit to Sri Lanka between November 25 th and 26th. That is he is going to be the first important foreign visitor to meet President Mahinda Rajapaksa soon after his inauguration into the second term of office. The inauguration itself is not going to be a mere Constitutional event this time. From all indications it is going to be accompanied by much jubilation and a week long celebration in which the theme of war victory is sure to rank high with a number of shows on schedule.

My first comment is on the timing of Foreign Minister Krishna’s visit. A thought that passed in my mind as an India watcher ever looking for stronger Indo-Lanka relations was how good it would have been for the future of Indo-Sri Lanka relations had the visit of the important visitor from neighbouring friendly country been timed with the inauguration of our popular President’s second term in office. It might appear that the importance of a visit on an occasion like this is recognized only when grater powers mark such events and not vice versa. But diplomacy is a strange game. It not only uses Protocol but also breaks Protocol when the need arises. Presently, the presence of President Mohamed Nasheed of Maldives, Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley of Bhutan and President of The Pakistan Senate from SAARC countries are scheduled to be present at the inauguration of the President while China is sending the Chinese Presidential Envoy Sang Guowei and India some unnamed Indian officials (Lanka Puvath).

A thought that passed in my mind as an India watcher ever looking for stronger Indo-Lanka relations was how good it would have been for the future of Indo-Sri Lanka relations had the visit of the important visitor from neighbouring friendly country been timed with the inauguration of our popular President’s second term in office. It would have added prestige to the grand occasion in the little neigbouring country. Or is the timing of Indian Foreign Minister the next best thing that could have been arranged when the warmth of the Sri Lankan celebrations was still on? A kind of [Indian] jugglery, perhaps, one may say! That is a case of not being there; but coming as the first important visitor to greet the President after his inauguration into his second term of office! It is also curious that according to reports the Indian visit would be followed by that of the President of Pakistan. All this might appear as one trying to make an unnecessary evaluation of things but to a mind like mine familiar with Protocol and Indian thought the situation cannot be left alone as mere coincidence. One cannot forget that the visit of the Indian Minister was on the cards for at least three months and was conceived partly as a response to Chief Minister Karunanidhi’s pressure on New Delhi, while the Presidential inauguration was on schedule much longer. My thoughts also go back to events around the time of Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao’s visit to Colombo, after talk of a high-powered visit. That seemed a stop gap arrangement in view of pressure from Tamil Nadu. For the Foreign Minister himself to have responded immediately to Tamil Nadu pressure could not have very welcome in Sri Lanka. So a subaltern was sent as a special envoy in the Foreign secretary and she talked tough. Diplomacy is a strange game. It not only uses Protocol but also breaks Protocol when the need arises.

The answer then to the somewhat puzzling timing of the Indian Foreign Minister’s visit could be an obvious one. Just as much as there were other priorities for India like the visit of President Obama at the beginning of this month, on President Rajapaksa’s inauguration here in Sri Lanka to reckon with, India could also be seen not wanting to send wrong signals to Tamil Nadu over it’s kin-relationship politics. That is what might have resulted from the Foreign Minister’s presence here at the time when the inauguration of the President for all intents and purposes is not so much the constitutional event it ought to be but something more than that as I remarked earlier. It is then the celebrating element [for wrong reasons as some in India may conceive it] that New Delhi would be concerned about. That could arouse local political fallout situations in India. To destroy the leverage that Tamil Nadu kin-relation politics has offered for India for arms-twisting in Sri Lanka would mean loosening on the agenda of keeping the island nation within the Indian orbit. That is how it has always been in indo-Sri Lankan relations so far.

Now what does India expect in Sri Lanka through the high powered political visit following that of the special Indian envoy, Foreign Secretary Rao? Much of the post-war attention was concentrated on getting the GOSL to expedite the settlement of IPDs. We in Sri Lanka may not have realized it but for India (read Tamil Nadu), it is an emotional issue arising from an exaggerated kin- relationship even more than a humanitarian one. The sting has been removed from that issue now when the nearly 250,000 IDPs who were held in government run transit camps have been reduced to less than 20,000 in number. However, the issue is not yet over. It may not be over 11,000 LTTE cadres on whom investigations and procedures have to be gone through but over the settlement of the IDPs in their original homes and building homes for them. The Indian government itself battling terrorist problems could no be seen interfering with the Sri Lankan government’s agenda on LTTE cadres in custody, not even as a humanitarian issue. India did not show such concerns over JVP suspects held earlier. It was clear from the statement of Indian Minister P. Chidambaram when he met President Rajapaksa on the sidelines of the concluding ceremony of Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, as reported in Deccan Herald, that the Indian government had told the Sri Lankan President that significant progress had to be made to expedite the work and the President responding that the work will commence after the monsoon rains were over. Obviously, the reference was to the Indian- gifted construction of 50,000 houses.(Deccan Herald November 7, 2010).

Apart from this what other Indications are there of Mr.Krishna’s agenda in Sri Lanka? Attention was drawn around August to Minister Krishna wanting to kick off the construction of the Indian loan-financed sections of the northern railway from Omanthai to Palali and from Medawachchiya to Mannar through Madu. One can understand the Indians wanting to make big news of the inauguration of this work, especially, the section from Madwachchiya to Mannar which could restore the old communication links with India. One has to recall also that during Rao’s visit she said: “Beyond rehabilitation, we have to look at development, we have to look at livelihoods, we have to look at communications, all these aspects. So, we are looking at an integrated manner in which we can help the people of the Northern Province and the Eastern Province [of Sri Lanka]."

The other proramme included in the visitor’s agenda from the Indian side is the opening of the two Indian Consulates-General.(The Island, November 6). While these cannot be Mr.Krishna’s major concern in Sri Lanka, it seems to me that both these events point to India’s plans to be heavily involved in the welfare of the Tamils of Sri Lanka besides the security interest attached to the Hammbantota port . That seems to her response to Tamil Nadu pressure if that did not arise from policy considerations in India’s overall interests. Upul Joseph Fernando’s recent article on Hambantota Consulate which seemed to be a bit inspired writing, mafe things much clearer. This inclusion also sends an important signal both to the Sri Lankan government and others that Sri Lanka very much remains India’s own region of influence, if not Tamil Nadu’s backyard as E.M.V.Naganathan once asserted in these columns. As I observed in my article on New Indian Consulates in Sri Lanka, published in these columns recently, the fact that that the Moneragala District is to be detached from Kandy Deputy High Commissioner’s Office and reassigned to the Hambantota Consulate General, points not only to the importance attached to Hambantota Consulate but also India’s plans to continue to use the presence of the recent Indian–origin population in the country to serve her interests in the island. One may even recall the apprehensions in the days of the State Council, when Sri Lankan (read Sinhalese) leadership expressed fears that India was trying to use the presence of people of recent Indian origin as a move to build a “fifth column’. The issue has turned the full circle. Now, it is not only the issue of people of recent Indian origin, but also the so called Sri Lankan Tamils with whom a newly discovered kin-relationship has been conjured up in the 1980s. The balance even shifted from the issue of people of recent Indian origin to the kin-relationship with Sri Lankan Tamils. It may interest one to read a book like John Perkins’s recent work “Confessions of an American Hitman”, to get an idea of what foreign Consulates-General in a country is capable of doing. Hambantota, the Chinese built port, to be used more for bunkering initially, has great interest to India with hers and the U.S.’s ,mutualobseesions on the growing Chinese blue water capacity. Hambantota is described as the “Pearl” in the Chinese network of ports round South Asia!

This brings me to delve further into the issue of the kin-relationship between Tamil Nadu and the Sri Lankan Tamils. Doesn’t the kin-relationship prove the point that the major element of Sri Lankan Tamils is a new element – a colonial plant in the island? That is how kin - relationship, can be raised now while the major group of Sri Lankans, the Sinhalese, who claim such relationships do not receive such response from Indians though their whole history is one of Indian descent and connections. That subject is confined only to rhetoric on public platforms. The kin-relationship with the Sri Lankan Tamils then is a recent memory, the Dutch being responsible for creating that situation by introducing during the tobacco boom of the 17th and 18th centuries of large scale south Indian Vellala migration to the Jaffna peninsula. Other introduction of South Indians into the Tank country and the East took place during the British administration. The policy was manifest even as late as 1911 at the Durbar of Tamil chieftains held by Governor McCullum in Jaffna. The claim that Sri Lankan Tamils came to the island before the Sinhalese, a claim that has not been substantiated, seems to get lost in this kinship claim with no one claiming any such kinship with the Sinhalese who form the vast majority of the population even today.

As I wrote recently in these columns commenting on the recent visit of Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao whom I see as one of J.N.Dixit’s mould – she seemed to claim so once when she defended Dixit at the time she was Indian High Commissioner here – who has been pursuing the point of view of the Indian bureaucracy, if not used by the government as a subaltern to articulate the Indian government’s political agenda in Sri Lanka at such level. A point that I did not comment in that article was the interest the Indian Foreign Secretary, Rao, showed in the settlement of people of Indian origin among the IDPs in the Vanni. This is a new angle which deserves a comment.

She reminded the Sri Lankan government of the obligation to settle people of (recent) Indian origin in the Vanni as a priority. Who are these Indian nationals? How did they come to be domiciled in the Vanni? No explanation has been forthcoming. I can conceive of two categories. The first is the illicit immigrants who came to the island in large numbers in the late 1950s and early 1960s and were employed in farms in the Vanni acquired by well to do Jaffna Tamils like the Sittampalams (Vavuniya) and the Naganathans (Mannar ). The other category is the estate labourers who were illegally settled in the border areas of Mannar district around Madu Church by Norwegian NGO Red Barna in collaboration with the Church, and those from Estates who were illegally provided with land by Tamil Land Officers in the Northern and Eastern provinces. Among them were those granted Indian citizenship under the Srima Shastri agreement of 1964 who went underground and moved to the Vanni where labour was much in want. (Jayasinghe, Indo-Ceylon Problem, p.446.)

How is it that the Indian government is now taking an extraordinary interest in people of recent Indian origin in the Vanni? Is there a fear that their domicile in the Vanni could be challenged? Is there a security issue arising from that for Sri Lanka? Shouldn’t there be investigations over that? Does it give rise to settlement of others also in the Vanni and the East and make the claim of the so called Sinhalese colonization of the North and the East absurd? As I raised in my article on Indian Consulates in Jaffna and Hambantota, how is it also that the Indian government continues to keep on interesting itself on people now accepted as Sri Lankan citizens. See my remarks on the transfer of consular work of the Moneragala district to the Hambantota Indian Consulate to be opened.

David Soysa writing in The Sunday Island of November 7, 2010, has surfaced another interesting point where he stated that the U.S. Pentagon issued Operational Guidelines on 23. 06. 2005 declaring that the sea between India and Sri Lanka was International waters and not historical as stated in an agreement signed by India and Sri Lanka. Using this evidence, this former Sri Lankan shipping expert sys India no longer could hide the real objective of the Sethu Samudram project that it was designed to serve a vital strategic need of the Indian navy.

Why Indians motives are suspect here? 

Prof. Rajiv Wijesinghe in his presentation “Indo -Lanka Relations: Past, present, and future” at the Indo-Sri Lankan Dialogue at the Indian International Centre, New Delhi, on 21-22 October 2010 observed that “…..except for during the disastrous Jayewardene years, relations between India and Sri Lanka have been positive and productive, and both countries have indeed worked overtime since the dangers of those years to ensure that they were not repeated. However, he said, we have to bear in mind that there would obviously be individuals in both countries, official as well as unofficial, who are still affected by the memory of those years, and who would therefore advocate measures, whether in terms of what is seen as self-defence or otherwise, which would affect good relations. We need to be wary about such individuals, in particular because some of them are acting in good faith, and ensure that their recommendations are neither followed nor given prominence. I should note that India has generally been more efficient about this at the Centre, given the more adult approach of your media to reporting on political relations between the two countries.”

Granting the occasion and the mood Prof.Wijesinghe’s remarks are understandable. But there are good reasons why some individuals are still affected by memory of the past years, more than by events of the J.R. Jayewardene years in Sri Lanka and the Indira Gandhi years in India followed by Rajiv-Gandhi years and J.N.Dixit brinkmanship – Wijesinghe sees only the Jayewardene faltering – by what India has been doing historically, in relation to Sri Lanka. To put it simply, India has not played a straight bat in Sri Lanka in the pre-and post Independence period especially, on the issue of the so called people of ‘recent Indian origin’ in Sri Lanka. This is something that old timers like me and my former diplomatic colleague Stanley Jayaweera and others who are still on the scene cannot forget easily. The former top Civil Servant and diplomat, W.T. Jayasinghe, whose typical Civil servant approach even impressed J.N.Dixit, has left the record for posterity through his monumental work, “The Indo-Ceylon Problem”. That veritable record explains the way India came to dominate over a small neigbour on the issue of over 800, 000 people of Indian origin who were virtual guest workers in Sri Lankan plantations brought here by the British colonial administration to work in Coffee plantations. These people were introduced to the island not just as an economic measure to meet the crisis of plucking the first coffee berries from the Kandyan plantations which were established using Sri Lankan Kandyan labour, but also as part of colonial policy of substituting the local population with foreign ones, as practiced in colonies following the Harrinngton’s Irish paradigm, first proposed for Britain’s first colony, the Ireland. The plans were even mooted to extend the use of Indian labour for food crop cultivation even in the former Eastern province which included the present Uva Province and parts of the NCP. As late as 1911, under Governor Mc Cullum, the idea was to settle Indians in the Vanni and Eastern province. That saw settlements like Gantalawa and Tampalagama which were agricultural land belonging to the Buddhist temples at Trincomalee during Portuguese times settled with Indian and Jaffna Tamils. The original farmers retired to Kottiyarama when the Portuguese destroyed the three Buddhist temples at Trincomalee and Francis Xavier converted the Terunnanse and the Ganninanses administering the temples. (Queyroz).

In 1964, one may have thought the Sirima Bandaranaike and Bahadur Shastri agreement as a “ground-breaking” situation but the reality is a different one altogether. Not many realize that while Shastri was showing to be more accommodating over the issue than his predecessor, that India was virtually begging General Ne Win of Myanmar (then Burma) not to throw the Indians out of the country. That was when the military leadership in Rangoon enforced ‘virtual forced repatriation’ of Indians out of the country. Prof. V.P. Dutt commenting on the low key reaction of India to the military junta’s move, observed that it was due to visible deterioration of New Delhi-Rangoon relationship and the incalculable risk that an overthrow of the Burmese government by Chinese supported insurgents would have on India. The numbers involved were not small, and could have reached 400,000 Indians. India did not make a public outcry but took recourse to quiet diplomacy. It was Shastri who visited Rangoon in December 1965 to discuss the issue with Ne Win. India had other problems with Myanmar like the demarcation of the boundary and preventing Naga insurgents using the Burma route for training in China and East Pakistan. Later Mrs Indira Gandhi too had to visit Rangoon to get reassurances over these security problems. So one sees the contrast over the issue of Indians in the two countries. Perhaps, Bahadur Shastri who was sensitive to the duplicity of the Indian bureaucracy became more conciliatory despite bureaucratic intransigence.
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W.T. Jayasinghe writing retrospectively in “Indo-Ceylon Problem” quoted the proverbial pharse “Parturiunt montes, nascitur ridiculus mus” (Mountains were in labour, a tiny mouse was born” to describe the situation of the 1964 agreement and its aftermath. (The appropriate Sinhala adage was “Kandak vilila kendak bihi kala”). As expected, the Agreement was sabotaged by the Indian bureaucracy. The Indian negotiator had warned Jayasinghe waging his index finger at him after the Agreement was signed that “not a single person would be taken back”. The Indian High Commission in Colombo failed to furnish the Sri Lankan Department with the lists of the persons applying for Indian citizenship. Commenting on it Jayasinghe wrote. “ ….gave rise to doubts on India’s commitment to implement the agreement to its conclusion.” (pp.374/375). As a result, the work of preparation of registers of persons to be granted citizenship of the two countries was could not be proceeded with. The rest is history.

India’s dealing with Sri Lanka on the follow up on the Srima-Shastri Agreement of 1964 is far worse than the training of Sri Lankan Tamil insurgents by RAW shortly after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared in Madras that India had no right to interfere in internal affairs of Sri Lanka, the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987 under Rajiv Gandhi which demonstrated total insensitivity towards a friendly neigbouring state or what happened over the Sethu Samudram project which was officially inaugurated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh after telling the younger Sri Lankan President Kumaratunga just a week or so earlier that Sri Lanka’s worries would be taken care of - the inventory is too long and distasteful - that it is not easy not to think of these let downs when one thinks of Indian attitudes. J.N.Dixit put it rightly when he repeated a former French Minister’s adage that in state relations “there are no permanent friendships but permanent interests”. With the manner India scuttled the Srima-Shasrti agreement, she has no moral claim to insist that Sri Lanka abides by the Rajiv-Jayewardene Accord which was forced on Sri Lanka making capital out of Sri Lanka’s difficult situation at the time including threats of invasion. (Natwar Singh made this threat to Foreign Minister A.C.S. Hamid who related it to me in Paris, knowing my old friendship with the former Indian diplomat later turned politician).

Have any lessons been learnt from these past events? Not as far as I see. Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao’s reminder to the Sri Lankan government of the obligation to settle people of (recent) Indian origin in the Vanni as a priority should not be taken lightly.

Future Indo-Sri Lankan relations

What other issues would Foreign Minister Krishna press during his visit? One has to recall that he is now being quoted by Sri Lankan Tamil spokespersons (Sri Lanka Guardian) of having told Lok Sabha that India expected the GOSL to devolve power going beyond the 13th Amendment. Recalling also the subaltern noises that Foreign Secretary Rao has been making in New Delhi and during her recent visit, which was a precursor to the Foreign Minister’s visit (see Sathiya Moorthy) and Minister P,Chidambaram’s statement at the Congress sessions at Virudhanagar on July 17th 2010 are indications, that two Tamil provinces [perhaps another later] would have their own governments in two year’s time, the issue of devolution of power possibly, going beyond the 13th Amendment, one may wonder how this key issue of devolution of power to the Tamils could be kept out of the agenda. That is what Tamil Nadu seems to expect out of this visit. India has remained quiet over the issue of re-merger of the North and the Eastern provinces since the decision of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka but one can see quiet moves to support the Tamil political parties Forum with such an agenda in view.

A different Strategy

It seems to me that India is now trying to use a different approach from the highhanded ‘stick’ policy followed by Indira Gandhi who instructed the RAW to train Sri Lankan Tamil militants in the use of sophisticate arms, in sabotage and demolition work,(training in sabotage and demolition was to be deployed against foreign shipping in Trincomalee harbor –See Shelton Kodikara) and Rajiv Gandhi-J.N. Dixit company- imposed ‘unequal treaty’ to gain a foothold in Sri Lanka with the dual purpose of keeping the Chinese influence out and complete India’s strangle hold on the island. The new strategy is seen to seek to serve the Rajapaksa government in the much wanted economic assistance to what Foreign Secretary Rao said, “[going] beyond rehabilitation, we have to look at development, we have to look at livelihoods, we have to look at communications, all these aspects……[So, we are] looking at an integrated manner in which we can help the people of the Northern Province and the Eastern Province [of Sri Lanka]."

India can also meet other expectations of the Rajapaksa government in the field of foreign investment. But India will be well entrenched in the North and the East and perhaps, in the Estate areas too. That will not be in the economic field alone. Aren’t the signs clear that India once again wants to have its “Vartharaja Perumal” (Perumal also means “King”) in the North and the East and is working towards it through the encouragement given to creating the Tamil Political Parties Forum. Rao was also extending an invitation to Chief Minister Chandrakanthan and Muslim Congress leader, Wasn’t the game plan clear?.

Why is India trying to play hegemonic policies once again, this time in a different way but with the same effect. If President Obama could raise expectations of U.S. billion dollar investment from Indian business houses, couldn’t nearby Sri Lanka too invite Indian Industrial giants to turn the country into one Indian industrial estate of the Singapore type?

Ordering a new relationship

The far more important thing is for India to order her relationship with Sri Lanka eschewing hegemonic considerations as New Delhi’s seems to be intent upon and kin-relationship as advanced by Tamil Nadu not without New Delhi’s nod as they now stand. Is it not time that New Delhi stopped patronizing Tamil Nadu on kin- relation politics in Sri Lanka if a lasting friendship to be build up on the basis of mutual confidence? India, the bigger partner owes this responsibility as the cultural colossus and one looking for world power status. Sri ^Lanka has an older and longer history of political cohesion running into over two millennia, which India did not experience over such long duration until the time of British Raj. Even on the eve of independence the question arose if Britain should let India fall apart into numerous divisions which it was earlier! In contrast, people have lived in this country without ethnic and religious strife until problems were created as part of colonial policy by the Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries through demographic changes introduced in the Jaffna peninsula and elsewhere. The Vellalas alone retained their identity while others mingled into the Sinhalese and Tamil society. The British followed suit in the rest of the island. (See my article” Colonial Role in Tamil Expansionism” published in The Island of 26 June 2002).

As I have often remarked the two countries commenced their post-independence relations on a negative note with a “problem” in their respective hands which came to be known as “indo-Ceylon Problem.” How cleverly, the colonial powers designed to keep centres of power separate and divided as it is now attempted in the resource-rich Middle East and Central Asia. But isn’t it time that a more positive relationship should be established based on the long standing common cultural background the two countries share? The main thing is to remove suspicions and the causes which lead to suspicions. No amount of economic packages which the journalist Namini Wijedasa inventorised (Lakbima news , October 31, 2010), nor what Rajiv Wijesinghe listed (Transcurrents, November 5, 2010) as positive areas on which future relations could be anchored provide a firm basis for a lasting friendship between the two countries until the major inhibiting factors like kin-relationship based politics of Tamil Nadu and the suspicions are removed. The orientation of these packages India is offering to the North and the East and plantation areas, though understandable, and deserve priority, cannot also remove growing suspicion over India’s intentions. This is where China seems to be making more visible progress. On the inauguration of the President itself while India is obsessed with Tamil Nadu politics China seems to have made a diplomatic gain.

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