Lanka & the Lakshman Rekha
New Indian Express, (Chennai), January 18, 2008, Friday.
SCHEDULING problems. That is how Prime Minister Manmohan Singh opted to resolve the controversy surrounding his anticipated visit to Colombo for the 60th Independence Day celebrations of Sri Lanka on February 4. The disappointment in Colombo was understandable especially when the Indian leader was expected to be the chief guest.
Since becoming President in November 2005, Mahinda Rajapakse has visited India thrice; two state visits in December 2005 and November 2006 and the summit meeting of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in April 2007. Manmohan Singh who was happy to host him, however, had to operate under different sets of constraints.
India is yet to come to terms with its bitter experience vis-a-vis its southern neighbour. If the ill-conceived Indo-Sri Lankan Accord of 1987 and the subsequently deployment of Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) to fight the Tamil Tigers were not sufficient, the brutal assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a female suicide bomber in 1991, virtually ended Indias involvement in the Lankan civil war. By encouraging Norwegian mediation, New Delhi has largely washed its hands off the long standing conflict.
As the current head of the SAARC, the Indian leader would be making an official visit to Colombo before handing over the responsibility to the latter. But to participate in such a visible event like the Independence Day celebrations was not something that India could contemplate easily.
Yet, New Delhi cannot ignore the Sri Lankan policy towards the ethnic conflict. Despite the costly war and human losses, Colombo has not formally abandoned the military option. It is hopeful of 'resolving' the problem by eliminating the cadres of Tamil Tigers. Media speculation about the health and welfare of LTTE supremo V Prabhakaran is part of this military option.
New Delhi should also remind Colombo that even if a complete military 'victory' over LTTE, if that is ever possible, will not resolve the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka. Tamil militancy gained prominence because of the systematic marginalisation of the Tamil minorities and not the other way around. One Muttiah Muralitharan or Lakshman Kadirgamar does not make Sri Lanka as a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural republic.
Secondly, New Delhis avoidance of a mediatory role and its desire for good neighbourliness should not imply that India is turning a blind eye to the destruction of innocent civilians, especially women and children, by the Lankan army. Because such violence evokes strong resentment and public anger within the country, New Delhi will have to abandon its deep slumber over Sri Lanka.
However, if it wants to avoid revisiting the saga of the 1980s, New Delhi has to draw its Lakshman rekha not only vis-a-vis Colombo but also vis-a-vis Chennai.
The events of the 1980s were also a reminder of the tensions within India's foreign policy: conflicting perceptions, one might even say interest, between New Delhi and Chennai visא-a-vis Sri Lanka. The ethno-national links with Sri Lankan Tamils play out strongly in the Tamil Nadu politics. Driven by narrow worldview and electoral calculations, many have turned a blind eye to blatant act of terrorism pursued by the Tamil militants or the widespread presence of child soldiers in their ranks. With the result, not many were abhorred by widespread fratricide and elimination of prominent non-LTTE personalities.
While Rajiv's assassination was a setback, pro-Tiger sentiments are still visible. Thus, even while being Chief Minister M Karunanidhi could openly eulogise a slain LTTE leader, without New Delhi making a murmur. All said and done, technically S P Tamilselvan was a member of a banned 'terrorist organisation' for its suspected involvement in Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. Surviving on the support of the 39 MPs from the state, however, the ruling UPA does not have the stomach to annoy the Dravidian leader. The political compulsions of the state thus, are so strong and paradoxical that pro-LTTE and anti- LTTE forces often co-exist amicably; just as J Jayalalithaa is happy with pro-LTTE Vaiko the Congress survives on the DMK.
It is time, New Delhi draws its Lakshman rekha vis-a-vis the politicians of Tamil Nadu, especially those members of the UPA coalition. As a democratic country India would have to listen, accommodate and reflect concerns and aspirations of all segments of the population. The right of different groups to influence policy is a pre-condition for democracy. A contrary view regarding the rights of different ethnic, religious, linguistic and political groups would mean end of democracy in India.
Such a right is also essential in the foreign policy arena. Strong ethnocultural heritage and linkages have enabled a number of groups to articulate stands vis-a-vis certain aspects of Indian foreign policy.
The Bengali elite for example, wield considerable influence upon India's policy towards Bangladesh. Same is true for Kashmiris vis-a-vis Pakistan. As publicly stated by the Prime Minister in September 2005, India's policy towards Iran has a Shia component.
Similarly, the people of Tamil Nadu who share strong ethno-national and linguistic heritage and affinity with the Tamils of Sri Lanka, has an inherent right and duty to influence India's policy regarding Colombo, especially over the ethnic conflict. A contrary position will be untenable in a democracy. Hence, despite the lame excuse of 'scheduling problem' it is widely recognised that the reluctance of Manmohan Singh to visit the island republic at this juncture is primarily due to pressures and demands from his coalition partners, especially the DMK and its allies.
As a democracy, New Delhi cannot ignore the concerns of various ethnic, national and religious groups while formulating its foreign policy. At the same time, it is essential to recognise that interests and positions of a particular group will not always be in sync with wider national interest.
As with corporate lobbying, ethno- national groups would advocate positions which are not beneficial to the larger society and this is true for Tamil politics.
While Singh's visit would have strengthened the position of President Rajapakse, it would also be interpreted as a sign of Indian endorsement of the military option and the Lankan abrogation of the ceasefire agreement with the LTTE. Hence, not going to Colombo is the best option, despite the stated reasons.
At the same time, Singh will not be able to put off visiting Sri Lanka forever, especially with Colombo hosting the SAARC summit later this year. So, pressures from Chennai will resurface.
Many in the state would see electoral dividends from the stronger Indian stand towards Sri Lanka. The active involvement and eventual intervention in Sri Lanka in the 1980s were the result of New Delhi accepting the demands of the leaders of Tamil Nadu.
Driven by emotions, the political forces in the state pushed for a course that eventually proved disastrous for all. One should at least learn from the past. Put it differently, Chennai can influence but not set New Delhi's agenda regarding Colombo. Even geography says it: Sri Lanka is east of Tamil Nadu but south of New Delhi.