By Commodore R. S. Vasan
The recent happenings in Tamil Nadu and the aggressive stance of Jayalalithaa the Chief Minister against Sri Lanka does not augur well for the bilateral relations of the two countries and for the future of Tamils in the Island. The attacks on the Sri Lankan citizens irrespective of their background in different parts of Tamil Nadu shows the state in poor light. The incidents witnessed in the recent past needs to be examined dispassionately.
As far as the training of the defence personnel from the Island are concerned, first, it was the demand for returning the airmen under training in Tambaram, then it was the demand for the two officers undergoing the Staff Course at Defence Services Staff College in Coonoor to be sent back. According to the published reports, the airmen from Tambaram were shifted to another training base. The Minister for State Pallam Raju has clarified that the Sri Lankan defence forces would continue to receive training in India. This further angered Jayalalithaa who remarked that it was “reprehensible attitude” of the center and an insult to the Tamil sensitivity? The political parties in Tamil Nadu have joined hands in protesting the presence of the Sri Lankan defence personnel in the country for training. Unfortunately, the objection is not just to the presence of the military personnel alone but also to any Sri Lankan team or individual visiting Tamil Nadu for any purpose.
The Government of Mahinda Rajapaksa has come in for a lot of criticism from many nations for the alleged war crimes committed during the concluding phase of the war in which the LTTE was defeated. India voted against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR resolution in March 2012, while it did help in redrafting the resolution to safeguard the sovereignty of Sri Lanka by allowing inspections by external teams only with the concurrence of the SL Government. The regional parties in Tamil Nadu have every right to apply direct pressure on the UPA Government and indirect pressure on the elected Government in Sri Lanka for speedy resettlement, rehabilitation and fair treatment of the displaced Tamils in a time bound manner. However, the action of the State Government and some sections of the Tamils to indiscriminately target all Sri Lankans visiting Chennai is counterproductive and in bad taste.
The ugly quarrel of Tamil Nadu should not be with the people of Sri Lanka who enjoy traditional ties and historical relations with their counterparts in India. The uncivilized attacks on some 184 pilgrims’ from Sri Lanka who were visiting a church in Tamil Nadu for religious purposes demonstrates the sullen behavior of the regional parties even to such nonpolitical visits . Even in January this year, there were attacks on some Buddhist monks from the Island to Chennai and their place of stay was vandalized. An official who permitted a football match last week in Chennai was suspended showing the high degree of intolerance. A statement attributed to the leadership claimed that it hurt the sensitivities of the Tamils! After all this was just a friendly match and to punish an official for allowing this match and for displaying such contempt for a visiting sporting team again shows the administration in poor light. Whatever has happened to the concept of “Athithi Devo Bhava” a traditional respect accorded to a guest who is treated as god ?The citizens of Sri Lanka in any capacity do not represent Mahinda Rajapaksa or his policies just as any Indian visiting other countries does not represent Manmohan singh. The Sri Lankans would like to visit India either for religious purposes, leisure, shopping or for visiting their friends/relatives. By preventing such visits even by law abiding citizens of a neighbouring country, Tamil Nadu has shown the level to which it can stoop to serve its political ends.
The convoluted attacks on its citizens has prompted the Sri Lankan Government to issue a travel advisory to its citizens to avoid travel to Tamil Nadu unless inescapable. This issue of travel advisory has been carried in the front pages of Shanghai daily this morning (04 Sep 2012). It only shows that China is closely monitoring the developments in Tamil Nadu and would use every opportunity to entrench itself deeply in Sri Lanka by now offering all the facilities sought to be denied to Sri Lankans by the political parties in Tamil Nadu.
Coming to the much debated issue of fishing, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu routinely accuses the Sri Lankan navy of harassing the Indian fishermen and sends out letters to the Prime Minister. The undisputed fact of the matter is that Tamil Nadu fishermen regularly fish in disputed waters of Sri Lanka. The fishermen from Sri Lanka a majority of whom are also Tamils come in to conflict with Tamil Nadu fishermen over depleting resources. Whether it is right or wrong, the demarcation of the International Maritime Boundarly Line (IMBL) in 1974 has ceded Kachchativu to Sri Lanka. The Indian fishermen are known to use the banned bottom trawling methods which denude the fishing grounds. The methods and the aggressive behaviour of the Tamil fishermen have led to clashes at sea. Whenever they are attacked in Sri Lankan waters, the complaint is that they were attacked in Indian waters. This is done to ensure that the compensation claims if any are entertained by the TN Government. No claims would be admitted for incidents in Sri Lankan waters. In a recent report provided by the Government based on an RTI, it has been indicated that all the attacks are shown as having taken place in Indian waters in the FIRs, Regrettably, there is no record of any joint investigation or evidence to prove or disprove the alleged attacks. This needs to be remedied by having an apparatus that caters to joint investigation using modern aids that are available. During the quarterly IMBL meetings held between the Indian Navy, Indian Coast Guard and the Sri Lankan maritime forces, data on the location of the naval and other surface units is exchanged and by and large the radar pictures taken by the naval units clearly indicate the IMBL violations by large number of Indian fishing boats. Yet, even without any investigation it is alleged that the Indian fishermen were attacked in Indian waters. There has been any number of recommendations by experts, academia and the NGOs about finding a lasting solution to the problems of fishermen. Many options have been provided for consideration of the stake holders. Unfortunately, there is not much headway to provide alternate means of employment and equipping the traditional fishermen with better skills and equipment for deep sea fishing.
When it comes to Sri Lanka, it is clear that the State and the Centre’s views are contradictory on most occasions. The UPA Government was accused of providing military hardware along with China and other nations to defeat the LTTE a terrorist organization. Even Jayalalithaa did not have a second opinion about banning the LTTE and had constantly supported actions to defeat them. The Indian Government has done well to clarify that it will continue to train the military personnel from our neighbouring countries. The State has to realize that the training of military personnel from our neighbouring countries has a strategic connotation and has brought the military personnel of the countries closer and enables cooperation for taking on the common threats in the region by bilateral agreements. It also provides many options for future. By denying training to Sri Lanka or any other nation, India would lose out an opportunity to engage with the military establishment and maintain lateral interactions at appropriate levels in our neighbourhood. As has been demonstrated, the military personnel at different levels who are exposed to the excellent training facilities and infrastructure in India would remain India’s friends forever.
It is relevant to recount the proceedings of the visit of the Nigerian Chief of Navy to Kochi in in late 90s. At an evening reception hosted by the Southern Naval Command for him, he was categoric that it is entirely due to the training received in India that he was able to rise to the top post in the Nigerian Navy. By recognizing the training potential of the Indian Navy, he directed his top brass at that time to send more officers and sailors for training in India. Any efforts to send back the military personnel from Sri Lanka now would only back fire and will adversely impact on the military to military and bilateral relations. As in the past, such an action would drive Sri Lanka in to the open arms of China and Pakistan who would be more than willing to train the Sri Lankan personnel to derive similar strategic and tactical benefits enjoyed by India hitherto.
In conclusion, it is evident that the ruling party and other regional parties in Tamil Nadu have missed the wood for the trees. By not being able to differentiate between the citizens of Sri Lanka and the party in power; the regional parties are causing long term damage to the historical relations of the people of both the countries. India needs to ensure that the people of Sri Lanka feel welcome in any state of India. Surely India does not want to see its citizens being attacked in any other country including Sri Lanka. As for as the war crimes are concerned, the resolution of the United Nations Human Rights Council should be allowed to take its course by applying international pressure and by having oversight responsibilities. The UPA Government by coordinated action with global players has to ensure that the promises made by the Rajapaksa government are met. The State on its part needs to play an active role in shaping the policies of the Centre to ensure that the Sri Lanka Tamils are well integrated in a prosperous society in India’s neighbourhood. Nothing that is done in India should alienate the communities even more. The Tamils in Sri Lanka for no fault of theirs and by irresponsible actions of some Tamils in Tamil Nadu will be targeted objects of hate and ridicule in a country where they are trying to settle down post war.
(The author is presently the Head, Strategy and Security Studies at the Center for Asia Studies at Chennai and can be contacted at [email protected] The views expressed are his own.)