Wednesday, December 17, 2008
ON the morning of October 6, India’s National Security Adviser (NSA) M.K. Narayanan, in what is termed as “a departure from the norm” in diplomatic parlance, summoned the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner to India to express “India’s grave concern and unhappiness” over the course of the ongoing military confrontation between the Sri Lanka security forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam (LTTE). It is only natural that the action triggered questions as to what prompted the Indian government to engage its seniormost official tasked with national security to “summon” the number two in the mission of a neighbouring country, with whom India has a special and cordial relationship.A two-paragraph statement released by the Ministry of External Affairs on the meeting leaves little scope for doubt that it is the most forceful articulation by India on various aspects relating to the ongoing war and the ethnic conflict since open hostilities broke out between the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE in July 2006. The Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner was summoned by the NSA today to express India’s grave concern and unhappiness at the growing casualties of unarmed Tamil civilians as a result of military action. The escalation of hostilities in the North and the resultant fallout was leading to a great deal of concern in India. It was pointed out that there was need for the Sri Lankan government to act with greater restraint and address the growing feeling of insecurity among the minority community. To stem the deteriorating humanitarian situation, the need to revive the political process was highlighted. It was essential that vital supplies to the affected population were not disrupted in any manner. “Serious concern was also expressed at the continuing attacks on Indian fishermen, including the recent incident on September 27-28. This was not in keeping with the spirit of the understanding reached between India and Sri Lanka and recently reiterated in meetings held at the highest levels. The Sri Lankan Navy should cease such attacks and not lose sight of the humanitarian and livelihood dimensions of this issue.”
Lanka-watchers were not exactly surprised at the missive but were certainly left wondering about the concrete nature of India’s concerns and, most important, what exactly New Delhi had in mind when it talked about the need “to revive the political process”. The doubts lingered especially as the Mahinda Rajapaksa government has kept India in the loop on every single political and military initiative it has launched in the past two years. Such was the convergence in the thinking of Colombo and New Delhi that India was the only country to characterise the interim report of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) in January as a “welcome first step”.
Further, there was no build-up in the two capitals that could explain the summoning of the diplomat. From the perspective of Sri Lanka, there was no major change in the ground situation in the conflict zone in the North where the LTTE continues to hold some territory against mounting odds. The displacement of 200,000-odd citizens trapped in the warn-torn territory is something that began on August 3 when the military crossed the border of Kilinochchi district. Incidentally, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in Colombo on that day to attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit and made use of the opportunity for a detailed interaction with President Rajapaksa on the sidelines of the summit. The Indian side did not go public with any signs of alarm in the island nation.
Further, Manmohan Singh and Rajapaksa were in New York in the last week of September to participate in the United Nations General Assembly sessions. It is customary for the Prime Minister to meet important heads of state, particularly from neighbouring countries, on the sidelines of the General Assembly. Manmohan Singh and Rajapaksa were slated to meet, but presumably owing to scheduling problems the interaction did not take place. With the 123 nuclear deal with the United States hanging fire, the Indian establishment did not consider a meeting with Rajapaksa a top priority.
So, what is the reason for the abrupt summoning of the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commissioner? To borrow a cliche from Sri Lanka Minister and Defence spokesperson Keheliya Rembukwella, in the perception of Colombo it could have been the result of “domestic political compulsions”. The Minister was responding to a question at the routine weekly briefing on a flurry of statements on the situation in the island nation emanating from the southern Indian State of Tamil Nadu. Going by press reports, political parties in the State are vying with one another to express concern over the plight of innocent Tamil citizens in the battle zones in Sri Lanka.The chorus on the humanitarian crisis rose suddenly when the Communist Party of India (CPI), the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Congress joined voices with the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK). The political atmosphere in the State got surcharged when the CPI announced that the AIADMK would join the token strike it planned to express solidarity with the innocent citizens trapped in the war zone.
For reasons that are not clear, the AIADMK stayed out and announced its own programme. Later, the party’s general secretary Jayalalithaa made it clear that her party was concerned about the common people and not the LTTE. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, who was the target of attack by rival political parties, was left with little choice on the subject. After a marathon session with his senior leaders on the morning of October 5, he issued a statement exhorting the people to send lakhs and lakhs of telegrams to the Prime Minister, asking him to “intervene immediately and stop the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka”.
Karunanidhi urged the Central government not to be deterred by the undesirable events of the past and instead take action to prevent racial killings. He told the Prime Minister to treat the statement as a matter of extreme urgency and act accordingly. The Prime Minister telephoned Karunanidhi on October 6 and discussed the issue. At a meeting in Chennai on the same day, Karunanidhi said, “We may have to consider the next step if the Central government fails to take immediate action. If it fails to find a solution to the problems of the Tamil people, we may be forced to consider whether this government is necessary.”
Clearly, it is pressure from various parties in Tamil Nadu that appears to have forced New Delhi to summon the Deputy High Commissioner. Political circles in Sri Lanka aver that India chose the NSA for the job as he represented the Prime Minister directly and thus wanted to convey a strong message.
However, contrary to expectations, the action of the Government of India did not trigger any panic in Sri Lanka. On October 7, Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama made use of the opportunity provided by the assassination of a former Army General and United National Party (UNP) leader, Janaka Perera, by a suspected woman suicide cadre of the LTTE in Anuradhapura to issue a detailed response to the Indian move.
His message to India was polite but unambiguous: Please do not mistake the wood (Tigers) for the trees (Tamilians). “While our security forces are engaged in their present humanitarian operation to free our people from the fascist and dictatorial control of the LTTE terrorists, who are now confined to their last strongholds in parts of the Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts, critics of Sri Lanka and sympathisers of the LTTE are attempting to portray a misleading and totally false notion that the government is opting for a military solution to address the problems of the minorities. It is unfortunate that some of our friends too have been influenced by this malicious propaganda,” he told Parliament in a suo motu statement.
He further argued that the onus was on the international community to support Sri Lanka by taking concrete and tangible measures to combat terrorism. “Those who criticise the government for terminating the Cease Fire Agreement with the LTTE should be reminded that it was precisely the ending of this farcical and non-existent truce, in January this year, that ended the LTTE monopoly of Tamil politics and paved the way for the breakaway faction of the LTTE in the Eastern Province to transform itself into a recognised political party, the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP), which contested two elections and won a popular mandate to govern the region.”
Referring to Narayanan’s expression of concern on the situation in Sri Lanka, the Minister reiterated the government’s policy of maintaining a close dialogue with India, with whom “we have a time-tested relationship based on mutual goodwill and trust”. The last paragraph was the clincher. “It is very important that all those who are concerned about Sri Lanka, including the welfare of the Tamil community, should perceive the marginalisation of the LTTE in the correct light. LTTE does not represent the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. Therefore, military action against the LTTE should never be perceived as action against our brethren, the Tamil community. We are concerned about them and will work with them to ensure their welfare, security and aspirations since they are our fellow citizens,” it read.
On the same day, President Rajapaksa met Indian High Commissioner Alok Prasad to discuss the Indian concerns and assured him of all possible measures to allay New Delhi’s apprehensions. He followed it up with a meeting of the APRC on October 11 in a bid to send out the message that the “political process” to find a solution to the ethnic conflict acceptable to all was very much alive. At the meeting, he reiterated the call to the LTTE to lay down arms, surrender and enter the political mainstream.
A statement by the Presidential Secretariat said that Rajapaksa summoned the APRC to apprise its members of the current developments on the “operations to eradicate terrorism, establish peace and restore democracy throughout the country”. In its interim report, the APRC had recommended steps for full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, made in the aftermath of the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, holding of elections to the Eastern Provincial Council and an interim political set-up in the North before the holding of elections to the Northern Provincial Council.
With the main opposition, the UNP and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), staying out of the APRC, the body is reduced to a group of parties aligned with the ruling combine. The TMVP, led by rebel LTTE leader Vinayagamoorthi Muralidaran, widely known as “Col” Karuna or Karuna Amman, is the new entrant to the APRC. “However difficult it may be, it is my belief that the efforts to find political solutions to political issues should be continued. It is my belief that there are no military solutions to political questions. The people have elected us to realise their aims and aspirations. It is our duty to ensure to the Tamil people of the North the same democratic rights as enjoyed by the people in all other parts of the country. Military operations have become necessary to eradicate terrorism from the country and enthrone democracy throughout the land,” Rajapaksa told the members of the APRC.
Karuna Amman, who was inducted into Parliament recently, took part in the deliberations. The statement issued by the Secretariat quoted him as saying that he had been with the LTTE for more than 22 years and knew by experience that when the LTTE came forward seeking peace it was always to strengthen itself further. On earlier occasions, incumbent governments, possibly by mistake, had encouraged the LTTE by giving it arms and money.
“He recalled his own participation in several rounds of talks with the government held under international sponsorship. They had come to an understanding to accept a federal system as a solution. However, Anton Balasingham, without consulting [LTTE supremo] Prabakaran, had issued a statement stating that they were willing to consider a federal system. When he discussed this with Prabakaran, he rejected the idea of federalism. He wanted the talks dragged for at least five years till the LTTE obtained enough arms to strengthen itself further,” the statement said.It is indeed a delicate moment for India. With general elections a few months away and a growing clamour in Tamil Nadu for a more active role by New Delhi to alleviate the sufferings of innocent Tamil citizens, India has to do a balancing act. Colombo understands the Indian predicament and does not want to add to its discomfiture by any rash talk even though it is not in a position to satisfy fully the conflicting constituencies in Tamil Nadu.