By N. Sathiya Moorthy*
It’s the first bilateral visit of its kind that has remained a low-key affair, particularly for the southern Tamil Nadu polity – hence for the national and even regional media as well. That owes to the greater realisation across the state that the new government in Sri Lanka should be given a chance, and that the views of the peripheral sections of the pan-Tamil polity and civil society nearer home are at variance with the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people in the island nation.
The current public opinion in Tamil Nadu is shaped by the strong and repeated backing that the moderate Tamil National Alliance (TNA) gets in every one of the post-war elections in Sri Lanka, even to the near-exclusion of the position taken by Justice C.V. Wigneswaran (retd), the ‘hard-liner’ party chief minister of the Northern Province. There is thus an inevitable realisation also about the dichotomy in the Tamil Nadu polity/civil society approach, which is at variance with the positions taken by the TNA.
In a way, on all issues involving Indian interests, concerns and participation, Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Ranil Wickremesinghe have more or less reiterated the known positions of their respective governments. These views have not changed dramatically either. What has changed, instead, is the leaderships in the two countries, more so in Sri Lanka where the predecessor presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa had been continually in the eye of one international storm after another.
Independent of what the UN Human Rights Council probe report has had to say on ‘war crimes’ and ‘accountability issues’ in Sri Lanka – which boils down to nothing new or shockingly unknown before — India has reiterated its 2014 position taken by the then Manmohan Singh government against an international inquiry. In a way, the changed US/UNHRC position is akin to the continual India-Sri Lanka stand favouring a domestic inquiry, though technically for different reasons.
However, the US and the UNHRC, with the EU alongside, have declared that they would be sort of monitoring the progress made by the domestic mechanisms, promised and volunteered by the Sri Lankan leadership of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. This may have provided unintended breathing space for India too, but New Delhi need not wait until it arrives to decide on the future course, should one fine morning the international community (read West) were to feel dissatisfied still with the Sri Lankan domestic mechanism.
The Centre should use the time between now and the time Sri Lanka is expected to report finally back to the UNHRC on its findings and follow-up action, to engage the TNA on the one hand, and the Tamil Nadu government, legislature and the mainline polity on the other. The latter would be a tougher task and the political priorities and ideological prejudices of the ruling party at the Centre should not come in the way of the Indian government doing the right by India, the nation.
Ahead of the 2016 assembly elections in Tamil Nadu and also the Narendra Modi leadership’s greater proclivity to look at the distant horizon than the immediate neighbourhood and even the interior nation, India should not lose sight of the more problematic possibilities lying ahead, even while hoping and working for its avoidance.
In the light of repeated Tamil Nadu Assembly resolutions on ‘accountability’ issues in Sri Lanka, the like of which was passed unanimously on the very day the UNHRC probe report was tabled in Geneva, and constant Tamil Nadu political pressure on the Centre to take a particular line of the Sri Lankan issue for which there is no Tamil political support even in that country, India needs to re-tune and fine-tune its collective responses in future.
If India still has to take any line that is at deviation from the current one, it should be through consultations, and mutual respect for constitutional provisions. It cannot be based on the Centre’s initial indifference of the past kind getting overnight replaced by internal pressures. The Modi leadership can start with discussions/discourse viz the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Tamil Nadu unit, whose Tamil TV talk show guests often talk at variance with the policies furthered by the party-led government at the Centre.
Retrieving the Initiative
In doing so, India needs to retrieve the initiative from the West, where it now rests, and also work assiduously with the stakeholders in Sri Lanka where alone the final solution to all of the ethnic problems reside.
In doing so, India needs to breathe in deeper and persistent inquiry and, greater clarity about its own role, priorities and concerns viz Sri Lanka and the issues in that country, and involving Colombo than ever before since the two nations attained Independence successively in the late ‘40s.
For their part, the Sri Lankan stakeholders, the TNA included, need to stand by a declared position (collective, wherever possible) on any competent role for India, consistent with the acceptance of the undeniable Indian perception that Sri Lanka lies in its traditional sphere of influence and that India has an equally undeniable role in the neighbourhood context to protect Sri Lanka and also its citizenry.
Deep sea fishing
The relative lull on the ethnic front viz India could also provide the right atmospherics for the two sides to find a permanent solution to the fishermen row. Both prime ministers have reiterated their predecessor governments’ known position on a dialogue-based solution, deriving from the ‘humanitarian problem’. Neither has qualified the ‘humanitarian’ aspect one way or the other, but there has to be a greater acknowledgement on the Indian side that the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen are the greater sufferers, even granting that the Tamil Nadu fishermen too have been hit.
For his part, Prime Minister Modi has acknowledged for the first time possibly that India was looking at deep-sea fishing without describing if it could be the final goal to end the current malady. Despite its tough position on the Indian fishermen’s ‘traditional rights’ in the ‘historic waters’, and also over the Katchchativu issue the Tamil Nadu government seems to have acknowledged the long-term inevitability of the need to diversify and encourage deep-sea fishing in a big way.
The 50 per cent subsidy programme for deep-sea vessel conversion initiated by Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa has yet to receive the kind of financial grant sought by the state government. Prime Minister Modi should fast track the same and create, by involving the state government (and setting aside all political interference and party interests from every side), a workable solution that does not demand amends and changes with every change of government, either at the Centre or the state. It could be a pilot project, whose benefits may be replicated elsewhere across the country.
Pending the Tamil Nadu position and the Supreme Court case on related issues, including Katchchativu, there is also an urgent need for the Centre and the state to coordinate their efforts to discourage the southern coastal fishermen to risk their lives and livelihood on a deadly mission. Going by the claims of the Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen in the North, their seas could be laid bare any time soon.
A third issue that might have been of concern for and in Tamil Nadu during Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s visit does not seem to have been addressed at the Delhi talks. The European migrant crisis may have silenced Western initiators of moves for India to repatriate the 100,000-odd Sri Lankan refugees residing in government-run camps across Tamil Nadu. While issues remain, there is a need for India to educate its Western/UN counterparts that the known Indian position owes not necessarily to similar issues elsewhere in the country, but more to the traditional Indian culture that negates saying ‘No’ to guests, particularly those in distress.
The Modi-Wickremesinghe meet could not have come at a better time for India and for bilateral relations as a whole. After the China-centric hiccups caused during the final months of the Rajapaksa rule, the Wickremesinghe visit now has ‘re-stabilised’ bilateral relations. But on every front, including China, there has not been any forward movement worth the name during the Delhi talks.
Sure enough, every time the Sri Lanka Navy arrests “Indian poachers” in “our waters”, Tamil Nadu would recall not only the Delhi talks but also Prime Minister Modi’s re-assertion of the unmentioned Indian position on continued defence ties and training with Sri Lanka. To the extent the Sri Lankan government gets out of the ‘accountability’ mess and finds a political solution to the ethnic issue, the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the international community would be satisfied.
India can breathe easy on the Sri Lankan front only when the fishermen row, the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) issue and the Katchchativu case also reach a finality, and almost simultaneously. That might be easier said than done, and more difficult than Sri Lanka resolving the ethnic and accountability issues. Until then, even if the two nations were to sign the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), as India has desired and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe promised in Delhi, despite protests and promises to the contrary in Colombo, and decide on a land bridge, the traditional hiccups could still come in the way.
*N. Sathiya Moorthy is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation. He can be reached at [email protected]