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Sri Lanka And India: From Geneva To Geneva – Analysis

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By N Sathiya Moorthy

The India visit of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in September, to be followed by a TNA delegation in the first half of October, “at the invitation of India” are both the first of their kind after the US-sponsored UNHRC vote at Geneva in March and the otherwise scheduled Universal Periodic Review (UPR) later in the year. India voted in favour of the US-sponsored ‘anti-Sri Lanka’ resolution and is one of the three nations chosen by draw of lots to ‘assess’ (read: assist) the UPR process on Sri Lanka. That all three nations happened to be voting-members at the UNHRC in March and also voted in favour of the US resolution has confused stake-holders in Sri Lanka enough. Consequently, the Indian vote then and India’s role now as an interlocutor (if that could be the word) at the November UPR on Sri Lanka have lent new meanings to what New Delhi could and should do at Geneva, and also new urgency to the current visits of Sri Lankan stake-holders to the Indian Capital.

India - Sri Lanka Relations
India – Sri Lanka Relations

As is known, the UPR process covers every UN member-country by turn once in four years, and in Sri Lanka’s case, it is independent of the UNHRC resolution of March and the built-in follow-up thereof. Independent of the UNHRC vote and the UPR process, perceptions have always differed within Sri Lanka on what the Indian neighbour should do, and could do, under any given set of circumstances at any given point in time over the past decades, to (help) resolve the vexatious ethnic issue in the island-nation. Independent of the party in power, the Government of the day, and without reference to the composition, the Tamil leadership(political or politico-military as was the case with the LTTE), both sides have wanted New Delhi to support their case, nearer home and afar.

In the process, both stake-holders have always wanted India to accept their ideas, and none else, though they would be mouthing platitudes to the contrary. They have always expected/ wanted India to market their ideas of and/or for a solution to the other stake-holders too. They grudge compromising their positions on issues, which otherwise is what negotiated settlements are all about. Nor would they concede that their own ideas keep changing with every change in the wind-direction, in terms of politics or military successes (but one-sided after the exit of the LTTE). Such changes, while expected to be perceived by the rest as an element of accommodation after wisdom had dawned on the stake-holder concerned, have often been dictated by politico-military compulsions of the times. True change-of-heart and a consequent spirit of accommodation have been conspicuous by its absence.

More to the ‘Tamil Nadu factor’

Perceptions about an Indian role in India have also been dictated by the ‘Tamil Nadu factor’, to a greater or lesser extent. It does not necessarily relate to what the Tamil Nadu polity or society wants for their ‘umbilical cord’ brethren across the Palk Strait. It has more to do with the electoral perceptions about the stability of the ruling dispensation at the Centre, or the electoral chances of the individual. This perception pertains not to the two ‘Dravidian majors’ or other peripheral groups and fringe elements eternally exerting competitive pan-Tamil pressure on one another. It pertains to the perception of the national parties that often lead the coalition dispensation at the Centre, and individual leaders of those parties representing/wanting to represent those parties in Parliament.

The Centre’s perception is thus shaped not just by the ground realities and ground reports in Sri Lanka but also by the ground realities and ground reports in Tamil Nadu, though only after a point – and there again, only up to a point. At the end of the day, the Government in New Delhi has to be as sensitive to ground realities in a constituent State of the Union as much as to those of and in another nation, however close it may be in physical, political and geo-strategic terms. The fact is that such perceptions in Tamil Nadu, and by extension in Delhi on the political front, are ill-informed and un-educated, at best. The reverse is true of the Sri Lankan political perception, Sinhala and Tamil, about India in general and Tamil Nadu in particular. Conclusions based on such information, or lack of it, are bound to be flawed, and at times absurd.

Media reports indicate that the TNA delegation is set to call on senior leaders of the BJP Opposition and possibly counterparts from other national parties while in New Delhi. In Chennai, they plan to meet with various sections of the Tamil Nadu polity when they are in India this time. That should include AIADMK Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and her DMK predecessor M Karunannidhi, among others. This is possibly the first time in years that the moderate Tamil polity in Sri Lanka is doing a round of Tamil Nadu political parties, something that they could not visualise prior to the Indian vote in Geneva. Nor had they wanted to participate in the DMK’s ‘EROS conference’ subsequently. They seem wanting to keep the Tamil Nadu parties briefed directly, and replace the Diaspora route too, possibly. They seem wanting to keep the Tamil Nadu parties on the side after the Diaspora purportedly obtained the Indian vote at Geneva.

TNA as ‘interlocutor’

Some Indian media reports on President Rajapaksa’s confabulations with the Indian leadership, including President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, both delegation-level and one-on-one, speak of New Delhi wanting the TNA to be considered as an ‘interlocutor’ to the ethnic discourse in the island-nation. The dictionary meaning of the word ‘interlocutor’ has a wide and technically conflicting reach in context. Thus the TNA could be considered either as speaking for the Tamils or as a panellist in the TNA, or as a facilitator between the Sri Lankan Government and the larger Tamil community on the other, or all this and more – including facilitation involving the non-Government sections of the Sinhala polity.

What would matter ultimately is not what New Delhi perceives as the role for TNA but what the TNA and/or the Colombo Government perceives as the party’s role. Within the TNA and the Government too, the perceptions, differ. In these months after the Indian vote in Geneva, such perceptions also flow from the TNA’s assertion that “India and the international community” would obtain their rights for the Tamil community. Ahead of visiting New Delhi, the TNA has added that if the Sri Lankan Government did not grant those rights to the Tamils, they would be left with no choice but to launch a non-violent struggle for the purpose. What message, if any, the TNA has for the Indian interlocutors needs to be clarified, if not in public.

In the past, the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil polity have heeded the international community (India included) and the Tamil leadership (read: the TULF in the Eighties, and the LTTE afterward) on their terms. When the war winds were against them, they would resort to double-talk, which would be conveniently re-interpreted at a more favourable time as meaning the exact opposite thing. One thing about the Rajapaksa leadership is that the rest of the world knows where it stands – and what positions it would not want to take.

However, what seems to have bothered the Indian interlocutor between Sri Lanka and the rest of the world is the wide and perceived gap between war-time commitments of Colombo and post-war action/inaction on the peace and power-devolution front. Nations are known by what they say and do, and what they say and do on behalf of such other States. It is one distinguishing factor between a State and a non-State actor, particularly in times of conflict. The State thus has more to gain in terms of credibility, and even more to lose over perceived lack of credibility than a non-State actor placed in its position. After all, the State is a continuing and constant entity unlike any other, unmindful of leadership changes and domestic political and policy differences.

In the post-war period, the TNA was sticking to specifics in a political negotiation without reference to earlier reports and recommendations available to the Government on power-devolution and political solution. Post-Geneva, they are referring those documents, which are voluminous, though not contradictory, and also to ‘basic issues’ that remain vague as much in their minds as to the outside world. It is not just the Rajapaksa leadership that feels unsure of itself in dealing with the TNA. Successive Governments in Colombo have felt uncomfortable over the blow-hot-blow-cold engagement with the Tamil leadership of their times. The Sri Lankan State as an institution thus has drawn definitive conclusions, drawing excessively from institutional memory. Such memory, while having to be acknowledged as a reality, often side-steps what the Tamils are not tired of listing out as the ‘un-kept promises’ of successive ‘Sinhala-Buddhist Governments’.

Post-war, the TNA has been publicly committing itself repeatedly to un-repudiated talk of a ‘political solution within a united Sri Lanka’. This has however been come to be described as’only the first step’. The Sri Lankan State is perturbed about the possibility of a return to the unwelcome past. Whether moderate or militant, Tamil leadership in Sri Lanka have upped their claims (as if they were only ‘maximalist’ in terms of bargaining power) whenever they have seen a favourable international mood. With that has also gone their earlier acceptance of something less. This has put successive Sri Lankan Governments on the defensive, the latter weighing every Tamil word with extra caution, and using the later-day generalisation outright repudiation of the Tamil leadership to deny even what had been agreed upon. The merry-go-round does not seem wanting to stop.

Complexities of ground realities

Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue is not a simple issue. It’s no more about language rights of the minority Tamils as had begun in the Fifties. It is not about ‘meritocracy’ either, as the Tamils thought they had reasons to project the ‘Standardisation scheme’ of the Seventies. The war, violence and external mediation have all contributed to it. The stake-holders have made it complex and complicated over the years. The stake-holders have also diversified and are different in their perceptions and priorities from one another. There cannot be a simple or simplistic solution that can work. No one seems to be believe that there is a fit-all solution, nor do they believe in one, if offered. Yet, they want the rest, and also the rest of the world to believe that there is one. The complexity of human ingenuity has ensured as much.

New Delhi needs to acknowledge the complexities of internal politics in Sri Lanka – not only within the individual communities but also within individual political parties. Truth be told, the ethnic issue has come at times as a saving grace for incumbent leaderships, Sinhala and Tamils, to deflect internal crisis from sweeping them off the ground. The ruling UPFA is at best an amalgam of various interest groups within the SLFP leader on the one hand, and the larger alliance otherwise. Every time there is a pause on the ethnic front, differences within the Tamil leadership has come out in the open – again independent of the political and militant characteristic of such leadership. The current visits of the Government and TNA leaderships to New Delhi are not without such signals from the ground.

Historically, for the stake-holders in Sri Lanka, intransigence has not remained a negotiations tactic. It has become a strategy, derived from a mind-set. Inclusiveness, too, has layers and layers – Sinhalas vs Tamils, Tamils vs Muslims, and Tamils vs Upcountry Tamils. In all this, regional denominations and domination matter even more. These are appreciated too much inside the country than what they are worth in political terms, and too little by the international community – at times, India included.

Be it bilateral negotiations or the PSC route, which the Sri Lankan Government has divined in more recent months, either way, the trickle-down effect of the political negotiations could hit a road-block at some point. It is thus for the stake-holders to identify the issues and hurdles unforeseen by the rest of the world from their close quarters and closer perceptions and have their answers ready for acceptance by other stake-holders involved. The alternative would be to tell a different story to the international community that is impatient after a point, or blame the international community for their own failures. The ethnic issue has straddled through both in its chequered career.

Negotiations between nation-States at the highest levels provide for one-to-one discussions which is believed to address, if not achieve, more than delegation-level talks. It could not be otherwise between India and Sri Lanka, and the recent India visit of President Rajapaksa. Back home in Sri Lanka, the rumour-mill and media-speculation would have unattributed versions of what transpired at such in-camera sessions. This has pressured Governments over a time. In discussions with the international community, the TNA delegation keeps a watch on itself. Apprehensions on what all was told, or was not told, gets relayed back and pressures the party. Either way, the results are the same. There is no forward movement. Backward movement could not be ruled out.

Whether it is the US or China, or whoever, all with a veto-vote in the UNSC, India needs to acknowledge that they are in Sri Lanka not for altruistic reasons alone as they would want the world to believe. Their concerns are India’s concerns, and they are also India’s concerns. India needs the neighbours more, and the stake-holders all are not unaware of it. All of them need India even more but they do not want to be aware of it, either. The extra-regional equations have changed in the neighbourhood through the ‘Cold War’ era and afterward, but the overall Indian concerns have remained where they used to be. The post-Cold War muddling of the shared Indian Ocean waters with Sri Lanka by extra-regional nations and non-State actors have been more than in the Cold War era. It should concern all neighbourhood nations. India at its centre cannot escape the apprehensions owing to historic reasons, and responsibilities because of regional realities.

Pre-Geneva vote, India had stated that the TNA should join the PSC process. There is nothing to suggest that this position has changed. Tactically or otherwise, the TNA has been expressing a readiness to join the PSC process, but has its own concerns – real, imaginary and also tactic-driven. They want the Government-initiated negotiated process to reach a logical conclusion before they could join the PSC with an idea about the direction that the parliamentary process would take. If nothing else, the Sri Lankan Government has not clarified why it dumped the bilateral talks with the TNA in favour of the PSC process, overnight. Convincing others about the preference comes only afterward. For its part, the TNA too has not explained the gap between its prescription ‘within a united Sri Lanka’ and possibilities of ‘being the first step’. These are not tactical, either. Both sides have a lot more to explain than is understood and conceded. Thereby hangs the tale!

Of immediate concern to the TNA – and by extension any international interlocutor, starting with India, and to the Sri Lankan Government, too – are the internal dynamics of the five-group/party Alliance that keeps shifting and changing all the time, particularly after the conclusion of ‘Eelam War IV’ and the consequent exit of the LTTE. Whether it believes in the possibility or not, a perception is still emerging that it is the ethnic issue and intermittent elections that is keeping the TNA united and alive, too. This aspect of the ground reality is punctuated by occasional TNA calls for uniting all Tamil-speaking peoples in the country and equally by the absence of initiatives/actions from its part. It is the kind of initiative the TNA wants the Sri Lankan Government to take on the larger questions pertaining to the ethnic issue. For the latter to happen, the TNA has to prove that it is what it claims it is, and not just a shadow of what it is otherwise perceived to be! A problem that India or any other member of the international community – or, the Sri Lankan State – would face while dealing with the TNA, whose internal squabbling refuses to go away, whatever the reason, whatever the justification, and whatever the solution.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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