By Col. R. Hariharan
Here is my response to specific questions raised by media on the Indian parliamentary delegation’s visit to Colombo on April 16, 2012.
1. Is this parliamentary delegation on a goodwill visit or fact finding mission to Colombo?
The visit is a reciprocal visit from our parliament after a parliamentary delegation from Sri Lanka visited India. Such delegations are regularly exchanged between many countries; in fact a Sri Lanka parliamentary delegation visited Pakistan in February 2011. So the overall objective of this delegation is also presumably to increase the goodwill between Indian and Sri Lankan parliamentarians.
But viewed in the rather strained situation of Indian vote for UNHCR resolution on Sri Lanka, it has assumed a lot of political overtones both in India and Sri Lanka. Any Indian parliamentarian going to Sri Lanka has to look at the progress made in rehabilitation and reconstruction programmes for Tamils in Sri Lanka for which India has allotted large sums of money. So from that point of view this delegation also has a “fact finding” mission; however, in the present political context it will have enlarged responsibility on understanding the human rights situation also. And for any real “fact finding” goodwill of Sri Lanka is also needed; so if you want positive outcome, you cannot separate the two objectives as they are complimentary rather than contradictory.
2. The visit of the delegation became controversial particularly after Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Ms Jayalalithaa condemned the move and withdrew her representative from the delegation and the DMK also pulled out thereafter. Under such circumstances, do you think goodwill would be increased between the two countries by the delegation’s visit?
There is no doubt that both countries need to build upon the goodwill already existing at all levels. This requirement has become more urgent after it was eroded both in India and in Sri Lanka after India voted for the UNHCR resolution on Sri Lanka. From this point of view, sending a parliamentary delegation was a laudable initiative to improve the relations.
There is a large Tamil constituency in India which has been concerned at Sri Lanka’s insensitivity and callousness in not responding to international concerns on allegations of human rights violations and war crimes perpetrated against Tamils in Sri Lanka. The ethnic reconciliation process is also making tardy progress. Actually India’s vote for the UNHCR resolution reflected these concerns; however, Sri Lanka does not seem to be very keen to address these concerns with any urgency.
Moreover, there had been a lot of political grand-standing between the two Dravidian parties over the Sri Lanka Tamil issue ever since allegations of Sri Lankan army war crimes triggered strong emotions in Tamil Nadu. By virtue of DMK’s participation, the ruling coalition in New Delhi has also become target of AIADMK’s barbs on Sri Lanka issue.
The cock fight between the two parties became acute when they smelt blood with India’s vote in the UNHCR; so the dramatic last minute pull out of the AIADMK from the delegation was probably on the cards to increase its impact and embarrassment to the Centre, and the DMK following suite in such eventuality was equally certain.
Under these circumstances, it is doubtful whether the visit of a delegation would add any goodwill unless both countries had planned and prepared for it well in advance. I have my reservations on whether such preparation was done in this case.
I had expected the visit of the delegation to be postponed as the circumstances are not suited to produce best results. But New Delhi appears to have succumbed to other internal and international compulsions. The delegation is headed by opposition leader Mrs Sushma Swaraj and her views have to be respected as it could generate avoidable polemics. Moreover, already the visit was postponed once due to the recent state elections in the North.
Apart from attending to the sensitivities of Southern Tamil constituency, the government has to keep in view the larger need to firm up its strategic relations with Sri Lanka. So probably it went ahead with the visit to show New Delhi’s solidarity with Sri Lanka despite the hiccups in the post UNHCR period. So we have the visit mired in controversy even before it took off.
One can only hope the delegation uses the opportunity to improve the lot of Tamils there as well as to reinforce India-Sri Lanka ties.
3. Do you think an opportunity to assess the ground situation in Sri Lanka on the condition of Tamils was lost by the two Dravidian parties boycotting the delegation visiting Sri Lanka?
The visit did offer a valuable opportunity to both AIADMK and DMK to understand the situation in Sri Lanka first hand. If they had really wanted to improve the lot of Tamils in Sri Lanka, they could have got in touch with Sri Lankan Tamil political and civil society leaders and based on their feedback worked out an itinerary for the delegation to understand the ground situation. It would have indicated critical areas that required immediate action from both Colombo and New Delhi. And the two parties could have based their decision to participate in the visit based on the replies from Colombo and New Delhi.
But unfortunately this is not the way most of the political parties conduct themselves in this country. And Tamil Nadu is no exception. During the last three decades, there is a deadly contest between the two Dravidian stalwarts. Their focus is on proving who is a greater champion of Tamils, rather than who can produce better solutions to peoples’ problems.
Confrontation rather than finding common ground to evolve solutions has become the favoured option. And the coalition politics at national level has further aggravated this race between the two major Tamil Nadu parties.
The Sri Lankan Tamil issue has been a long standing victim of this unproductive, polemical politics. It is being milked now to kindle strong passions and emotions by all regional parties. And even national parties appear to be preparing to join them, if we go by political indicators. So most of the Tamil Nadu political leaders are not prepared to listen to moderate Sri Lankan or Indian Tamil voices and prefer sensational and negative outpourings from sections of Tamil Diaspora. And Sri Lanka’s studied indifference to taking positive action, has helped them further go ahead with this style of politics.
While AIADMK has opted for a confrontational path with Sri Lanka on the Tamil issue, DMK’s confused and reactive responses show it wants to retain its hold in the Centre while trying to maintain an aggressive posture on Sri Lanka. As a result of this unseemly competition, objectives of both parties are short term and immediate. At present neither party appears to be keen on using goodwill with Sri Lanka to the advantage of Tamils, or avoid provocative posturing and use their political clout to pressurise New Delhi to help Sri Lankan Tamils.
4. This appears to be a very pessimistic assessment; so what is the way forward?
It is realistic rather than pessimistic assessment. Ideally to resolve this issue, India needs a strong national leadership determined to achieve results. That does not appear to be in the horizon; so we will continue to have a lot of foot dragging on Sri Lanka issue also.
I don’t see either the coalition compulsions or competitive politics of Tamil Nadu ending in the near future, so both the Dravidian parties will continue to wield influence in New Delhi. Ideally, if the Sri Lanka issue ceases to be relevant to state politics as it happened after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination both the parties will lose interest in using it.
The only way for this to happen is for Sri Lanka to proactively take genuine action to respond to the peoples’ concerns. It has to be more systemic than the cosmetic attempts now being made. Then only the Tamil Diaspora’s voices would become more constructive than critical.
So Sri Lanka has a not so visible, but larger, responsibility in this imbroglio. Will Sri Lanka do it? That is another question and a much bigger subject.
(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: email@example.com)