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Reviving pre-Geneva spirit in India ties

1 July 2012 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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By N. Sathiya Moorthy
“Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh) once again underlined the great importance we attach in India to the ability of the Tamil people to lead a life of dignity and as equal citizens of that country,” Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai told the media after the Indian leader had held two rounds of talks with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa on the side-lines of Rio+20 environment summit in Brazil June 21 – a one-to-one, followed by delegation-level talks.

Just a week afterward, on June 29, National Security Advisor (NSA) Shivshanker Menon said thus after separate meetings with President Rajapaksa, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in Colombo: “India has always stood for a united Sri Lanka within which all citizens can live in equality, justice, dignity and self-respect. “

Between them, the two statements should help put bilateral relations in the pre-Geneva mode -- at least as far as the ‘ethnic issue’ part of it is concerned. Prime Minister Singh’s observation was a reflection on the growing ground reality, where Indian concerns on the ‘Sri Lankan issue’ were not confined to the political class in the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu. NSA Menon reiterated, for the people and Government in the host-nation to hear that India stood for a united Sri Lanka.

Menon’s reiteration should be contextualised to the upcoming August 4 TESO conference being organised by former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and leader of the DMK partner in the ruling UPA Government of Prime Minister Singh at Delhi. Karunanidhi’s conference would revive the call for a ‘separate Tamil State’ in Sri Lanka. That way, Menon’s call should also be a message to the Sri Lankan Tamil community, and hard-line sections of the Diaspora, that may have had a different construct on the Indian vote at Geneva UNHRC earlier in the year.



Over the decades, sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil community have succeeded in putting overseas sympathisers of the larger Tamil cause, as different from LTTE terrorism in a corner, hoping that the other side may have reached a point of no-return. Reached they did a point of no-return, but often the pro-LTTE propagandists of the time found themselves losing their credibility and the expected external support for a goal that often turned out to be a ‘separate State’. When clarity returned after LTTE-induced confusion, the Tamils found that host-nations would not want to be associated not only with terrorism and terrorists, but also a ‘separate State’ or separatist cause.

The TNA, whose leader Sampanthan, Menon met, should read the Indian message: that India as a whole, and not just Tamil Nadu, sympathised with the Tamil political cause. Yet, the TNA, among others in the moderate Tamil polity in Sri Lanka, should not be under any illusion that this was support for a separatist cause. To the extent, it is also Indian support for the TNA’s known position of a negotiated settlement – as against the ‘Batticaloa spirit’, which meant different things to different people, and may have been meant to be so.

“Political reconciliation is clearly a Sri Lankan issue, which Sri Lanka has to do,” Menon said. The onus seems to be more on the Sri Lankan State yet he made it clear that “political reconciliation is clearly a Sri Lankan issue which Sri Lanka has to do”. Yet, “it is a process that has ramification for all of us”, as Menon clarified. “And it was not something that started today or yesterday” or a few years ago, he explained further, underlying the Indian concerns without having to spell them out.

Today, the moderate Tamil polity in Sri Lanka is as much confused as it is confusing the rest, the Colombo Government and those outside included. The greater moderates within the Alliance have been seeking to stick to the middle-path, but they need support from the Government in the form of political process. Talking to the Indian media before returning home, Menon said that he was “not going to sit in judgment of anyone in this process”. Nor would he set a date for Sri Lanka to complete the political process. “I don’t think that is the way it is going to move forward,” he said.

It is on ‘processes’ and not ‘policies’ that the reconciliation effort has been dead-locked despite genuine interest in the Government and the TNA for reviving the same. To each one of them, his interest and concerns are genuine, and not that of the other. It is the kind of mistrust that has ruled ethnic relations in Sri Lanka almost since inception, which all stake-holders, starting with the Sri Lankan State, have wallowed in. It has become a reflexive comfort zone that they get cocooned into when faced with reality and is called upon to address head-on.

The immediate choice is between the Government reviving the negotiations with the TNA and the TNA entering the PSC, proposed by the Government. Rather, it is about doing it in a way that both sides feel that their positions are vindicated even before they flagged the issues involved. In a way, it is ego clash. Reviving the negotiations would still be a win-win situation that the Government in particular should acknowledge can set the right mode and tone for the PSC process.  Having stayed away after initiating the aborted last round of talks after the TNA team had arrived at the appointed venue, the Government has something to explain. That can be overcome, maybe, by reviving the negotiations process, if only to lead the TNA to the PSC.
The TNA needs to acknowledge political realities, as read by those concerned and not by it. The Alliance leadership cannot expect to carry every partner or leader or constituency with it until they see an ‘all-acceptable’ political draft on hand. If the TNA still hopes to do so, it would owe not to the inherent strengths of the Alliance or the leadership. It would instead owe to the inherent weakness of such others forming part of the Alliance. It is a reality.  The Government side, it would seem, is not unaware of the same. It is questionable however if they are abusing the TNA’s predicament though claims are to the contrary – and that they have been accommodative, and would remain so.

The TNA leadership has to accept that the Government, despite the massive parliamentary majority and an even greater vote for President Rajapaksa, both in 2010, is an uneasy coalition. President Rajapaksa’s post-war charisma and ‘winnability’ at polls against identifiable contenders is behind perceptions about the parliamentary majority of the Government. Flowing from this is the argument that the Government is stalling, and is not willing. The Government side does not seem to accept that it has a convincing majority that it can convince at will. From self-experience, the TNA should accept the other side’s predicament, as much as it would want the rest of the world too to acknowledge the same in it.

Now that Provincial Council polls are on cards, the Government has to acknowledge that the TNA’s decision to contest in the East, and their demand for early elections in the North should be an opening for them to move forward with the political process. The TNA had boycotted the 2008 Provincial Council polls, months after the ‘liberation’ of the East from the clutches of the LTTE. Going by their other arguments on the ethnic front and reconciliation process in recent months, the ground reality should not have changed. But their mind-set has changed.

If the Government’s concern in the North is that a possible TNA-run administration in the North could lay the foundation for separatism, they only need to relate to the accompanying Alliance charge on excessive military presence in the Province. Other nations, India included, have had vast experience in handling situations. The political process can provide the answers through permanent, constitutional solutions. The power for the Centre to suspend elected Provincial Council administrations in the face of threat to ‘internal security’, accompanied by constitutionally-mandated judicial review at the first instance before further action could be initiated, needs to be considered as a possible way out.



The TNA too has to acknowledge that that world is watching, and is watching for the first time in full bloom, the events and developments in Sri Lanka, as none of them have done it in peace time. It needs to acknowledge that the Geneva vote is neither a licence for a separatist agenda (which the TNA does not profess, however), nor is it a ticket to stalling the political process. The onus for keeping the political process alive will be as much on the TNA as on the Government – and the international community would make the delineation sooner than later.

At some point in the PSC, the Government would have to come up with its observations to the TNA proposals. The Government having reduced the negotiations process as between the TNA and the SLFP leader of the ruling People’s Alliance (PA), the question of two-thirds majority could still lie outside of the SLFP. This would be particularly so when one acknowledged that the divided Muslim polity, all of whom are now in the ruling combine, have the legitimate concerns of their people to flag whenever the reconciliation process regains momentum. It could well be so in the case of the divided Upcountry Tamil polity, too. Within the Government there are other sections of the Sri Lankan Tamil groups that have shared similar views as the TNA on devolution issues and have repeated their electoral performance, however limited it be in the overall Tamil political context.
 
The TNA has not made any serious attempt to bring them around, thus far. Nor has it ever voiced its position with any clarity about the Alliance position on any of the known concerns of these identifiable groups of other Tamil-speaking people. This would mean that either the TNA moves faster on this score or let the natural processes take over in terms of reconciliation. It would boil down to only one thing.

The Government-TNA negotiations, when revived, can at best ‘commend’ a set of proposals for the considerations of the PSC, and cannot have any ‘recommendations’, acknowledged by the Government as such. The trouble for the Government’s parliamentary majority could be embedded in such ‘recommendations’ otherwise. There would then be no guarantee afterward that the stalled political process, when revived, would not go the way of the ‘Chandrika Package’.
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