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Sri Lanka: Need Of The Hour, India Should Make Fresh Initiatives – Analysis


By V. Suryanarayan and Ashik Bonofer


Sri Lanka is at the cross roads today. Will President Mahinda Rajapakse, with his massive electoral mandate, turn his back on Sinhala majoritarianism and initiate immediate steps to apply the healing touch and introduce far reaching reforms to usher in a new political order with respect to ethnic diversity and pluralism? Will the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the most representative organisation of the Sri Lankan Tamils, revitalize itself at the grass roots level, and carry on the democratic non-violent struggle for equality and justice, both through parliamentary and extra-parliamentary means?. Will Colombo, without fear or favour, be in a position to win over the estranged international community by making necessary amends and bring those guilty of gross human rights violations to book? Coming months will provide the answer as to which direction the country will take – towards peace and reconciliation or towards continuing bitterness and conflict.

Role of the Diaspora

Few preliminary remarks are in order before we focus on what steps India, along with international community, can take to bring peace with justice in Sri Lanka. Sections of the Tamil diaspora, who still vociferously cling on to old concepts like Tamils are not a minority but a nationality and that their future can be safeguarded only in a separate state of Tamil Eelam are doing great disservice to the cause of the Tamils. They should ask the question, why is it that the Tigers never were able to get the support of Tamil speaking Moslems and Indian Tamil working class in the Malaiham? They should also introspect as to why some national liberation movements, like the anti-imperialist struggle in Vietnam, the liberation movement in Bangladesh and the struggle for separate statehood in East Timor succeeded, where as the struggle for Tamil Eelam came to an inglorious end? In addition to the justness of their struggles and the mass support of all sections of population within their country, the Vietnamese, the Bangladeshis and the Timorese were able to get the support of powerful external forces – Soviet Union and China in the case of Vietnam, India in the case of Bangladesh and the Western world, especially Australia, in the case of East Timor.

If sections of Tamil diaspora who still cling themselves to the dream of a separate state do some introspection, they can easily find the answers. The Tigers, by their many acts of terrorism, not only alienated the international community, but also the greatest friend of the Tamils and the initial patron of the Tamil militants, India. As Neelan Tiruchelvam, a victim of the cult of the bomb and the bullet perfected by the Tigers, has pointed out:

The violence of the victim soon consumed the victim and the
victim also became possessed by the demons of racial bigotry
and intolerance which had characterized the oppressor. These
are seen in the fratricidal violence between the Tamils and the
Muslims, in the massacre at Kathankudy mosque, in Welikanda
and Medirigiya, and in the forcible expulsion of Muslims from
Mannar and Jaffna districts.

While the savage war between the Sinhalese Lions and the Tamil Tigers raged, brutalization of the Sri Lankan Tamil society set in. Rajani Thiranagama has graphically described the end result:


A state of resignation envelops the community. The long shadow
of the gun has not only been the source of power and glory, but
also of fear and terror. In the menacing shadow play forces
complementing each other dance in each other’s momentum.
The paralyzing depression is not due the violence and authority
imposed from outside, but rather of the destructive violence
emanating from within the womb of our society.

Equally relevant, one must understand that the violence available at the disposal of the State is far more destructive and powerful than the weapons in the hands of the militants. With the arms supply dried up the Fourth Eelam War became a war between unequals and the ruthless and inhuman Sri Lankan army, without any qualms of conscience, went for the final kill. As a result the waters of the Nandikadal lagoon were spilled not only with Tigers’ blood, but also the blood of many thousands of innocent Tamils.

What Lessons can be Learnt from the Past?

Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka

The Sinhalese chauvinists may think that in their moment of glory, they can afford to ignore historical realities, which led to the phenomenon of Tamil militancy. If they ignore these realities they will have to repent themselves later. For those who do not learn from history, they will be condemned to relive it. As is well known, the early Tamil nationalists like Ponnambalam Ramanathan and GG Ponnambalam viewed Ceylon as a single political unit transcending ethnic, religious and linguistic differences. Their successors got disillusioned with the political system with the passage of the “Sinhala Only” Act in 1956. Further the irreconcilable perceptions of injustice and relative deprivation of the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Sinhalese – the former being an achieving minority and the latter, the majority community, which felt ‘historically deprived” – further widened the schism between the two. An overview of Sri Lankan politics since independence clearly shows that the Tamils had been mainly “reactive” to Sinhalese politics. Since Sinhalese dominated Governments never fulfilled their hopes and aspirations, frustrations became intense; demands became more radical finally culminating in the demand for a separate state at Vaddukodai in 1976. The politics of Tamil opposition started with the demand for balanced representation and responsive co-operation which spanned the period from 1948 to 1956; the demand progressed to federal state and non-co-operation during 1956-1972; escalated to separatist slogans during 1973-76; and ended with the demand for a separate state in 1976. But while the demands changed, the mainstream Tamil political leadership confined its strategies to peaceful agitation, parliamentary and non-parliamentary alike. From 1979, militancy began to creep into Tamil politics. To Tamil militants parliamentary democracy in Sri Lanka meant the rule of the brute Sinhala majority. They were also not enamoured of earlier forms of peaceful struggle. Gradually militancy began to creep into the struggle and the moderates were sidelined. By 1989, the Tigers became the most important political actor in the Tamil scene.

Relevance of Tamil Nadu Model

Living in Tamil Nadu the Authors are conscious of a different pattern of political developments which took place in India. Chennai’s equation with New Delhi since independence is relatively a success story and both the Sinhalese and the Tamils in Sri Lanka can learn right lessons from Indian experience. If in Sri Lanka the Tamil political parties moved from collaboration with the Sinhalese elite to demand a separate State of Tamil Eelam, the Dravidian movement followed a diametrically opposite course. Those familiar with the contemporary history of Tamil Nadu are more less unanimous in highlighting the important milestones – the formation of the Justice Party and the non-Brahmin movement from 1917; Periyar EV Ramaswamy Naicker’s Self Respect Movement and anti Hindi agitation; the formation of the Dravida Kazhagam in the mid-1940’s and its advocacy of the separate State of Dravidanadu; the formation of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) under CN Annadurai in 1949; the coming into power of the DMK following the 1967 elections; and the domination of the DMK and its offshoot AIADMK in the politics of the State since then. The DMK got gradually domesticated because the Indian political system provided space within which Tamil identity and regional autonomy could be protected and fostered. What is more, these tendencies were evident even before Annadurai gave up the call for a separate state in 1962 and the enactment of the 16th Amendment which proscribed secessionism. The DMK/AIADMK stakes in the unity of the country was further strengthened when coalition governments came to power in New Delhi and the regional parties began to share power in the Centre. The political transformation had been gradual and benign, as a result, political forces like the DMK which used to burn the national flag and Indian Constitution on every conceivable occasion had no qualms of conscience while M Karunanidhi unfurled the national flag from Fort St George on independence day.

Sri Lanka can draw the right lessons from Indian experience, which can be summed up as follows: 1) The reorganization of the Indian states on the basis of language and introduction of quasi- federalism 2) Power is a great aphrodisiac and when put into power and asked to share responsibility, one time secessionist groups get domesticated and 3) Regional parties when they become alliance partners in the Centre develop a national vision. Thus the end result is that one can be a Tamil and, at the same time, be an Indian. The authors feel that Sri Lanka can learn from India’s experience with unity in diversity, pluralist democracy and minority rights.

Inherent Limitations

Before we discuss Indian initiatives for assisting Sri Lanka, especially the Tamil areas, it is necessary to remind ourselves of limitations in the formulation and implementation of bilateral relations. The IPKF experience in Sri Lanka clearly illustrates the inherent limitations of what Indian Army could do in a foreign country. The lesson for us is that the success of Indian diplomacy will depend upon not what we are able to impose on Sri Lanka, but how soon, we, along with the international community, could persuade the Sinhalese and the Tamils, to come to a quick political solution, so that they could live together amicably. But, at the same time, Sri Lanka, is not just another country, what happens in Sri Lanka has its fall out on Tamil Nadu and, therefore, Tamil Nadu should take the initiative to explore new areas of co-operation. The political climate in India is congenial for such a course of action. New Delhi’s perception of the role of the Indian federal units in the formulation of negibourhood policy is undergoing welcome changes. Unlike the era of one party dominance, when New Delhi could afford to ignore the wishes and sensitivities of Tamil Nadu in the name of “good neigbourly reltions”, the political leadership in the Centre today believes in consulting the federal units. Amb. Ranjan Mathai, the Foreign Secretary, articulated this point of view in the context of India-Bangladesh relations. To quote Ranjan Mathai: “In our federal system, nothing is done and nothing will be done without the consultation of the State Government”. The former Foreign Secretary, Amb. Nirupama Rao also echoed the same sentiments when she remarked on her recent visit to Colombo that in formulating India’s Sri Lanka policy New Delhi has to be sensitive to the views of Tamil Nadu.

Marshall Plan

India should go to the relief and succour of the Sri Lankan Tamils in a generous way. What is needed is an ambitious project like the Marshall Plan which led to the economic transformation of Western Europe after the Second World War. The suggestion should be made to Sri Lanka to appoint a Joint Committee of experts, consisting of Sri Lankans and Indians, to make an in depth study and chalk out various measures to bring about the much needed economic change. Major part of the funding, in terms of finance, should come from India and wherever, Sri Lankan technical personnel are not available, India could supply it. In order to avoid delay, Joint Committees could be appointed to ensure time bound implementation. Like the World Bank, the IMF and the ADB, which lays down conditions for aid, India should make it abundantly clear that the pre-requisite for Indian assistance would be the speedy implementation of the devolution proposals to the satisfaction of the Tamils. India should also try to mobilize the support of the international community in this critical area.

Exploit Connectivity

One factor, which we can exploit to mutual advantage, is the connectivity. The Palk Bay which divides Tamil Nadu from the northern parts of Sri Lanka is not a barrier, it had been a bridge throughout history. One solution to the thorny issue of travails of fishermen of both countries is to look at Palk Bay not as a contested territory but as a common heritage. A Palk Bay Authority, consisting of representatives of both countries, should be constituted to determine the ideal annual catch, what type of fishing equipments can be used and how the catch can be shared on an equitable basis. What is more, the fishermen of both countries should be encouraged to enter into joint ventures so that they can go for multi-day fishing in the deep seas. An important lesson that we must remember is that the present difficulties can be surmounted if the connectivity is used as n instrument of cooperation and not as a hindrance. This will lead definitely to a win- win situation.

Restoration of Hindu Temples

There is one subject which deserves the sympathetic attention of Hindu religious organizations. Large number of temples and churches has been destroyed/damaged as a result of savage bombing. While the international Christian organizations have stepped in quietly and the churches are being repaired/restored the same sort of attention is not being bestowed as regards the renovation of Hindu temples. The Hindu organizations like the Visva Hindu Parishad, the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh and religious organizations like the Kanchi and Sringeri Mutts can play a catalytic role. The Sri Lankan Hindus are deeply religious and they look to India, especially Tamil Nadu, for help in this direction. With the help of the local Hindu organizations a detailed study could be made of the temples, the extensive damage caused to them and also the type of assistance required .The restoration/renovation should be undertaken on a time bound basis. The work can be done jointly between Indian and Sri Lankan religious organizations. The Ministry of Hindu Religious Endowments in Sri Lanka could be informed about the progress. It will also be a good idea if villages/towns in Tamil Nadu are encouraged to sponsor the restoration work of one or two temples. Such a gesture will be wholeheartedly welcomed by Tamil Hindus. This Dharmic initiative requires the immediate attention of all concerned.

Educational Opportunities

Equally important is the necessity to provide educational facilities for Tamil children in institutions of higher learning in India, especially in Tamil Nadu. Prof. Suryanarayan went to Jaffna University in January this year for a seminar and number of students surrounded him to find out how they can get admission in colleges/universities in Tamil Nadu. It should be kept in mind that Sri LankanTamils lay great emphasis on educating their children. In normal times, number of Sri Lankan Tamil students used to come to India for higher education. In fact, among the very first graduates of Madras University, which was established in 1857, were two Sri Lankan Tamils – Thamotharan Pillai and Visvanatha Pillai. What is more, there was excellent connectivity between the two countries. One could buy a ticket from Colombo to Madras which included the fare of the train journey from Colombo to Talaimannar, ferry service from Talaimannar to Dhanushkodi and train journey from Rameshwaram to Egmore in Chennai. The Sethu Express used to be called the Boat Mail. The connectivity from Tamil areas in Sri Lanka to India should be augmented immediately by resuming the ferry service between Talaimannar and Rameshwaram and by opening air services between Palaly and Chennai/Tiruchi. The Universities in Tamil Nadu should strengthen their information channels and provide the much needed information about the courses available, the fee structure and hostel facilities. The Sri Lankan Tamil students come from fairly well to do families and most of them will be in a position to meet their educational expenses. For those who lack adequate financial resources, scholarships and free ships should be made available. It should be pointed out that large number of Sinhalese students has been coming to Karnataka every year for higher education. They come on their own initiative and get the required information from the network of old and present students. There is absolutely no reason why the Tamils should be left out in this thirst for higher education in India.

More than the Sri Lankan Tamils, the Indian Tamils who live in the hill country deserve Indian support in the field of education. The Indian Tamils are the most disadvantaged community in Sri Lanka today and the only way by which they can have upward mobility is through education. But the schools in the plantation areas are not up to the mark. They do not have qualified teachers and, what is more, the atmosphere at home is not conducive for education. Liberal scholarships should be instituted for boys and girls from the Indian Tamil community, seats should be exclusively reserved for them at the school and college level so that we extend to them a helping hand in their march towards progress. Prof. Suryanarayan recalls few years ago an Indian Tamil student approached him for admission to the M Phil course and do research under his supervision. Since he was retiring from the University of Madras at the end of that academic year, Prof. Suryanarayan assisted that student in getting admission in Jawaharlal Nehru University. Hardworking and diligent he got his M Phil and PhD degrees and is now working as an Associate Professor in Development Economics in the Open University, Colombo. Dr. Chandra Bose is the first student from the plantation areas to receive a PhD. This year, his son, who has been awarded a Government of India scholarship, has got admission in an Engineering College in Jalandhar. India, especially Tamil Nadu, should go out of the way to assist this Cinderella community of Sri Lanka.

Is Ignorance Bliss?

One major factor contributing to the twists and turns in India’s Sri Lanka policy had been the profound ignorance of senior bureaucrats based in New Delhi about the complexities of Sri Lanka. In his book Assignment Colombo the veteran Indian diplomat JN Dixit refers to one incident pertaining to Romesh Bhandari, then Foreign Secretary to the Government of India. When Romesh Bhandari was the Foreign Secretary New Delhi radically revised its stance on the Tamil issue. Instead of the suave G Parthasarathy who encouraged the moderate Tamil leaders of the TULF to enter into negotiations with the Sri Lankan Government, Romesh Bhandari pressurized the Tamil militants to go to Thimpu to talk to Sri Lankan Government. The Tamil militants had no other option because the senior officials of the RAW had threatened them that India would cut off all assistance if they did not go to Thimpu. The talks ended in failure, Romesh Bhandari was angry and bitter and resolved to deport both Satyendra and Chandrahasan from India. In later months the Government of India had prepared a “non-paper” (non-official paper) which could form the basis of further discussions. On one occasion, Romesh Bhandari and JN Dixit had one-to-one talks. It is better to quote JN Dixit in full: “Later that evening, when we were alone, he asked me whether I had informed the moderate Tamil leaders about the contents of the Non-Paper which were conveyed to the Sri Lankan Government. I told him I had not because I had no such instructions. This was where his vague knowledge about Tamil leadership found expression. He said, “Mani, as soon as your reach Colombo, hand over the documents to Chelvanayagam”. I pointed out that Chelvanayagam had died nearly two decades ago. So handing over the papers to him would not be possible. I said perhaps he meant I must hand over the paper to N Thiruchelvam”. Bhandari was impatient. He said, “Mani, give the paper to Chelvanayagam, Thiruchelvan whosoever it is. All these South Indian names are very confusing”. “I assured him that I would carry out the instructions”. With such an ignoramus as the Foreign Secretary, no wonder, India’s Sri Lanka policy got derailed.

The second incident relates to General Sundarji, Chief of the Army Staff, when the Indian Peace Keeping Force was inducted into Sri Lanka. The talks to persuade the LTTE to accept the provisions of the India-Sri Lanka Accord were running into serious difficulties. Thileepan had died in his fast unto death, Colombo was pressuring New Delhi to take action against the recalcitrant LTTE and it was apparent that India had no other option except to use force against the Tigers. At that time Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi convened a meeting of senior officials to decide the future course of action. The meeting was attended, among others, by the Defence Minister KC Pant, Foreign Secretary KPS Menon, Indian High Commissioner to Colombo JN Dixit, the Chief of RAW SE Joshi and his successor designate AN Varma and Chief of the Army Staff General Sundarji. Now let us quote JN Dixit: “Rajiv’s question was primarily addressed to the then Secretary of the Research and Analysis Wing, SE Joshi who was cautious in his response. He said that the LTTE was not a very trustworthy organization and the agreement in a manner went against their high flown demand for Eelam. Joshi was about to retire. His successor Anand Varma’s response was that the LTTE owed much to India’s support, that it was the LTTE which conveyed the message to N Ram of The Hindu, which initiated the whole process of discussions on the proposed Agreement. Varma expressed the view that if the LTTE was guaranteed an important role in the power structure in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka, and if the merger of the northern and the eastern provinces was somehow made permanent (whatever be the interim political arrangements proposed) and if the LTTE cadres were absorbed into the administrative set-up of the new Province, the LTTE would endorse the agreement especially as it was being guaranteed by India. The general tenor of his advice was that “these are boys whom we know and with whom we have been in touch and so they listen to us”. On the implications of India having to confront the LTTE, Rajiv Gandhi asked then Chief of the Army Staff General Sundarji what his assessment was. The General’s reply was that once the LTTE endorsed the Agreement, they would not have the wherewithal to go back and confront India or the Sri Lankan Government. He went on to say if the LTTE decided to take on India and Sri Lanka militarily, Indian armed forces would be able to neutralize them militarily within two weeks. So there need not be any serious worry on this score”. Instead of marginalizing the Tigers within two weeks, the IPKF got bogged down in the Sri Lankan quagmire, hundreds of Indian jawans sacrificed their lives, many more were wounded and, what is more disgraceful, the IPKF returned from the island without attaining the objectives which New Delhi had laid down.

Knowledge is Power

The United States is the most powerful country in the world today, because it was the first country to realize that knowledge is power, The leading Universities like Harvard, Columbia and Yale attract talents from all parts of the world and they, in turn, propound theories and concepts, which we in the rest of the world, blindly accept. What is more, there are vibrant think tanks like the Rand Corporation, Brookings Institution, Heritage Foundation and the Asia Society. They make critical and benign inputs into the making of American foreign policy.

We in India have yet to catch up with the United States in this direction. There are few think tanks, but most of them are concentrated in the national capital. If Tamil Nadu has to make constructive inputs into the making of Indian foreign policy it pre-supposes that there must be vibrant intellectual debates. Three years ago an initiative in this direction was made and the Center for Asia Studies (CAS) came into existence in Chennai The Center has published number of books, edited volumes, monographs and occasional papers dealing with India’s foreign and security policy. Its website is one of the most popular in the developing world. It is also successfully collaborating with other organizations like the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the Indian Centre for South Asia Studies. Those who are intimately associated with the CAS include retired government officials like S Narayan, B Raman, R Swami Nathan and DS Rajan, retired service officers like Col R Haiharan and Commodore RS Vasan and academicians like Prof. V. Suryanarayan, Prof. P Sahadevan and Prof. Ramu Manivannan. Unfortunately the CAS is languishing today due to lack of financial support. Will the leading business houses and philanthropists step in and give life to this fledgling organisation so that it can continue to uphold the vibrant intellectual traditions in South India?

(Dr. V. Suryanarayan is Senior Professor and Director (Retd), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. He is a former member of the National Security Advisory Board, Government of India. His e mail address: [email protected] and Ashik Bonofer has specialized in South Asian Studies and is associated with the Center for Asia Studies as a Research Fellow. His e mail address: [email protected])


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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