Padma Rao Sundarji, courtesy of The Asian Age, 6 April 2016, where the title is “A bridge too far?”
Early last year, Sri Lanka elected a new government. One of the first things that new President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe did was to promise better relations with India. Ties had soured under ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sri Lanka had grown closer to China. The cold shoulder was not Colombo’s alone. New Delhi’s Sri Lanka policy had suffered due to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA)’s overall paralysis too. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) had pulled out in protest over India’s reticence over the wording of a UN resolution against Sri Lanka for alleged human rights violations during the 30-year long civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Even as New Delhi under UPA-2 meekly watched and did nothing, China — which had already extended its Indian Ocean sprawl — was awarded Colombo’s lucrative $1.5 billion Port City project.
But that was then. Last year saw many mutual gestures and “first-time” official visits. Narendra Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister ever to visit Jaffna and attend much-publicised milk-boiling, house-warming ceremonies by displaced Tamils who received the keys to some of the 50,000 houses India is building for them.
So is the Sri Lanka-India relationship finally back on track? Surprisingly, no. Deadlock persists over old issues while new ones have added fuel to the fire. India-bashing in the region is common and tiresome to well-meaning Indians. If one were to go by what our neighbours claim, then from floods to earthquakes, from potato blight to drought in sub-Saharan Africa could have all been caused only by India’s Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW). The Sri Lankan public is not spared of this inherent mistrust of the big neighbour. India’s population is 1.2 billion, Sri Lanka’s just under 22 million; India is 40 times the size of Sri Lanka.
But when have governments ever taken public mood in the other country into consideration when crafting bilateral goals? Take the so-called “Tamil question”. Even under Mr Modi, New Delhi continues to parrot the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, which was co-authored by Rajiv Gandhi in 1987. The amendment envisages maximum autonomy for the Tamil regions of Sri Lanka, but also the devolution of land, police and financial control to the provincial governments in question.
This mechanical insistence on something that was crafted almost 30 years ago is baffling.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) majority government, unlike the Congress during the UPA years and earlier, is under no pressure from Tamil Nadu coalition allies, for one. Then, several Sri Lankan committees examining the question of Tamil autonomy have maintained that the unrealistic caveats in the 1987 Amendment have long been overtaken by both the passage of time and events. One of the bloodiest civil wars in the world raged in Sri Lanka between then and now. More than 120,000 people were killed. The LTTE had occupied vast swathes of the country. Terrorism flourished with the help of influential overseas Tamils who provided money and weapons, tolerated in the name of a “freedom struggle” by their Western host-states. A frisson of discontentment and insistence on a mythical “Eelam” continue to be injected into native Sri Lankan Tamils by illegal organizations formed abroad by LTTE cadres who fled the country.
Further, the LTTE destroyed and devastated the entire Northern and Eastern Provinces. There was no Sri Lankan police force left in LTTE-held territories. Statistics show that domestic violence and petty crime registered a marked rise in the formerly embattled Tamil provinces after the end of the war. In addition to intelligence, Sri Lankan generals say that policing is the other role they are forced into from their big command bases in Tamil provinces, until such a time that a full-fledged local police force completes training and begins operations.
Finally, there is the land question. Lands occupied by the Army during its final manoeuvres against the LTTE have been partly returned to their rightful owners. But the LTTE had also destroyed municipal records, while thousands of Tamils had abandoned their properties and fled the war. Consequently, the task of identifying the rightful owners of many properties is proving to be an uphill task.
No sovereign state or Army would agree to demilitarise a region where terrorism flourished, where overseas escapees or foreign countries still try to keep separatism alive, where one of the world’s deadliest terror groups had invented and perfected the art of suicide-bombing, forcible recruitment of child soldiers and frequent employment of civilians as human shields in conflict zones. Would India agree to pull out the Indian Army from Jammu and Kashmir after hard-won successes at curtailing cross-border terrorism and mushrooming local networks? Then why the insistence on the 13th Amendment in its outdated entirety in Sri Lanka?
The only answer can be that the BJP has its eye firmly on the upcoming Assembly polls in Tamil Nadu and wants to, therefore, keep the options of alliances with regional Tamil Nadu parties — almost all of which are stridently anti-Sri Lanka — open.
There are other bugbears, too. India’s “lack of interest” in resolving the issue of poaching by Indian fishermen, a trade imbalance between the two nations, the dominance of Indian goods on the Sri Lankan market and a new trade agreement which thousands of Lankan citizens are up against, for the — if irrational — fear of their tiny country being flooded by Indian doctors and IT professionals.
And finally, even though the Supreme Court long stalled the ambitious Sethusamudram shipping canal project, the minister for road transport and highways and shipping, Nitin Gadkari, last year announced that the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has agreed to fund a land-bridge between India and Sri Lanka and that it had been discussed by the two Prime Ministers. Thousands of incensed petitioners have appealed to the ADB. Public wrath last week forced Mr Wickremesinghe to deny Mr Gadkari’s claim. The Lankan head of government will be on an official visit to Beijing next week. Analysts say that ties and — likely even the “frozen” Port City project — will be revived.
“Our government wants to show that all is hunky-dory in relations with India”, says analyst Rajeewa Wijeweera. “But Lankans have neither forgiven nor forgotten India’s involvement with the LTTE. Of course we are suspicious.”