Delhi Shouldn’t Ditch Sri Lankan Tamils

The four-day state visit to India by the Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena, which begins today, becomes a challenging diplomatic initiative by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is a diplomatic tango with a difference because India’s domestic politics, national security, geo-strategy and economic interests get intertwined here.


Making an ‘all-round success’ of Sirisena’s visit is impossible. What Modi can hope to achieve would be to engage the new leadership in Colombo in a friendly spirit and to inject mutual trust and confidence in the relationship. But ultimately, personalities do not matter so much in inter-state relations.

Sirisena has prepared his visit with meticulous care. Colombo expects Delhi to appreciate that this is Sirisena’s first visit abroad as president, and to take note of it as a special gesture. To be sure, Sirisena has assured himself of a warm welcome and a successful visit (from his point of view). Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera held consultations in Delhi last month, which not only tested the waters but estimated the authenticity and depth of various stated Indian concerns and priorities.

Unsurprisingly, Sirisena would have anticipated that his hosts in Delhi would raise the Tamil problem. He has done a smart thing by putting his cards on the table even before his arrival in Delhi.

First, he has tapped into the groundswell of support for him in the western capitals by demanding and getting an immediate reprieve on the human rights report under the UN’s preparation. Samaraweera’s mission to Washington, London and New York in the recent weeks virtually ensured that the US-sponsored UN report on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka will not see the light of the day at the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council [UNHRC] in Geneva next month.

That is to say, Sirisena has no need to request Modi for a favor at the UNHRC. Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes would be from now onward a ‘bilateral issue’ between Colombo and Washington (and London). The meeting between Samaraweera and UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon in New York recently gave the impression that Ban understood this state of play perfectly well.

In sum, Sirisena now has a fair chance to ‘nationalize’ the UN’s human rights file – that is, Colombo taking the steering wheel, which in turn makes redundant the need for an international enquiry.

No doubt, the Tamil-dominated provincial council in Jaffna is greatly concerned over such a thing happening and has passed a strongly worded resolution insisting on international intrusive investigation. But, ironically, this resolution by the Tamils puts Delhi on the horns of a dilemma, whereas, Sirisena can afford to be dismissive about it, given the Anglo-American support he enjoys.

Clearly, the Modi government’s leverage over the leadership in Colombo to influence the latter’s approach to the Tamil problem – for example, on the implementation of the 13th Amendment, as promised by successive Sri Lankan governments – is going to be even less than the UPA government’s.

Secondly, Sirisena has announced some sops to the Tamils just before the visit to India. He has decided to release and to resettle around 1000 Tamil families displaced by the war in the north. Such tokenism helps Sirisena. In a major speech this week, he underlined that his intentions are good, but he needed time. “As a government we understand the need to act in a manner that will bring about unity and reconciliation among our people, and as a government recently elected there is a need for necessary time to achieve this,” Sirisena said addressing Colombo-based foreign envoys. No doubt, it holds a big message to his hosts in Delhi as well.

Thirdly, Colombo has let it be known that soon after Sirisena’s India visit, he is deputing foreign minister Samaraweera to travel to Beijing to prepare for a state visit by him to China next month. Sirisena has also decided to continue with the $1.4 billion Chinese project to develop Colombo Port. Besides, there have been many policy statements by the Sri Lankan officials, including Sirisena himself, underscoring the new government’s intention to further build on cooperation with China.

This is not surprising not only because Sri Lanka desperately needs economic assistance from China – nearly three-fourths of Sri Lanka’s national revenue will be used up in debt servicing alone – but the strong political ties with China create diplomatic leverage for Colombo to negotiate optimally with Delhi or Washington.

There are no serious contradictions in the Sino-Lankan relationship. Not only is it time-tested, it is also pragmatic and is based on mutual benefit. Simply put, it is inconceivable that Colombo will want to deny itself the enormous economic spin-off from China’s Maritime Silk Road strategy.

On the other hand, the Modi government’s approach seems to be to envelop the Sirisena government with rings of goodwill so that it begins to roll back the Chinese presence in Sr Lanka. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is due to visit Colombo later this month and Modi himself next month. Is it diplomatic overkill? Time will tell.

The Sri Lankans are hard-headed practitioners of diplomacy. They will insistently look for tangible gains and will not hesitate to take unilateral advantages. On the Indian side, however, the Hindutva folks in the corridors of power in Delhi seem to fancy that an India-Lankan dalliance can be built on the quick sands of ‘civilizational ties’ (read Buddhism). But in reality, they blithely overlook that the Sri Lankans know the region’s history well enough and have always viewed their country as the last remaining citadel of Theravada Buddhism in South Asia.

The point is, at various times, different Indian governments have tried various formulae to ‘entrap’ the Sri Lankan elites, including through attempts to make that country’s national bourgeoisie ‘stakeholders’ in trade and economic ties with India. But our best-laid plans inevitably unraveled when they hit the iceberg lurking below the placid waters – Sri Lanka’s Tamil problem.

Can Modi be trying a new trick to liberate himself from the fate of the king of Corinth in the Greek mythology? The task is no doubt Sisyphean – having to roll up the huge stone up the hill that might finally escape his grasp and roll back down the slope again.

Indeed, the Modi government seems to be preparing for a clean break with the past. The right-wing nationalist forces mentoring the Modi government seem willing to put ‘national interests’ above the popular feelings in Tamil Nadu. They all but worked out a Faustian deal with the former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and seem to be wanting to try it out now on Sirisena.

Amazingly enough, in an entire article of 1350 words devoted to Sirisena’s visit, the BJP general secretary and RSS leader Ram Madhav did not care to devote a single line to express support for the Sri Lankan Tamil’s grievances regarding state-sponsored repression and discrimination. Simply put, Madhav didn’t consider it important enough as an issue and he doesn’t see why the Sri Lankan Tamil problem should figure as an  issue between Modi and Sirisena and spoil their party in Delhi.

This is a dangerous gambit that can end up playing into Colombo’s hands, since the Sri Lankans will only feel vindicated in their long-held belief that the Tamil problem in their country was never really felt in the blood and felt along the heart by the North Indians (whom they slyly call ‘Aryans’ like themsleves) who never sincerely shared the anguish of the people of the southern state of Tamil Nadu or had empathy for Dravida politics.

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