by Kuldip Nayar
I wish I knew what India’s policy on Sri Lanka is. It now favours reconciliation between the Tamil minority and the Sinhalese majority. Not long ago, it stood for devolving power to provinces in a federal structure. True, the two communities have no other option except to co-exist, as they have been doing all these years. But the lackadaisical attitude towards Tamils, particularly in all walks of life, has to go before they gain confidence that they are equal citizens.
I wish Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had made a statement on Sri Lanka in his maiden press conference at Delhi. He has to put pressure on President Rajapaksa to make his promise on decentralisation of power good. Even in the midst of fighting against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Sri Lankan government was voicing such a promise.
Some argue that New Delhi should have intervened before the decimation of the LTTE so that it could have had some room to prevail upon Colombo to accommodate the Tamils. Authentic reports have it that India supplied weapons to the Sri Lankan army even during its operation against the LTTE. Colombo should have been made to give Tamils concrete concessions at that time and it would have done so because it wanted to finish the LTTE once and for all. But, on the contrary, India never withdrew its hand from supplying arms to Colombo.
Probably, New Delhi did so because it could never get off its chest that it had committed the original sin of training and arming the LTTE. Then the policy of India was to create a force which would help the Tamils, who were being evicted from their land in the north and who were maltreated all over, without getting their due. It is unfortunate that the LTTE became a Frankenstein and came to nurture the ambition of an independent state.
Maybe, the menace that the LTTE subsequently became had to be ended in the way President Rajapaksa scotched it. In a way, New Delhi should have been happy that the force which killed Rajiv Gandhi has been eliminated. Yet there is a feeling in South Block that its say at Colombo has been further reduced. But then, this is because India had no persistent policy. It reacted according to situation that would prevail in Sri Lanka.
If only New Delhi had a set goal to win a place for Tamils under the sun, it would have settled the matter long ago even during the time of President Jayawardene, who told me once that Rajiv Gandhi was the captain of the ship and they would do whatever he commanded.
Why the vague word of reconciliation has been substituted in place of concrete devolvement of power is because of the panic that has gripped New Delhi after Beijing has announced a large investment in Sri Lanka and given an undertaking to develop the Trincoomali port. Instead of ticking off China for its blatant policy of encircling India — Beijing is making larger investment in Nepal too — New Delhi has made a retreat on its resolve to enforce a federal structure in Sri Lanka.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi could have given an ultimatum to the Manmohan Singh government on Tamils in Sri Lanka. But he, during his visit to Delhi, was interested only in saving Union Telecommunications Minister A. Raja who is mixed up in the Rs 40,000-crore scandal involving 2G mobile bands. Even when Karunanidhi talked about the Tamils, he did only cursorily.
Meanwhile, more and more stories of what the Sri Lankan army did to thousands of civilian Tamils, caught in the crossfire between the LTTE and the Colombo forces, have come to light. It was terror perpetuated on innocent men, women and children. Some 20,000 Tamils were killed. Sexual abuse and the rape of women were yet other atrocities clearly proved against Sri Lankan military and they would amount to crime against humanity and Geneva Convention.
One aspect of the government policy that facilitated a variety of atrocities was the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) of 1979 which designated the LTTE forces as “terrorists.” It further undermined some of the safeguards in the justice and military legal systems, leading to significant abuse. Evidence shows that maltreatment of the dead also took place.
The resulting atrocities of rape, torture, assassinations, “disappearances” and withholding of food, water and medical supplies brutalised and threatened the survival of the Tamil community. The use of artillery and illegal weapons such as white phosphorus and cluster munitions places the government outside accepted international legal standards. It is not surprising that charges of atrocities, ethnic cleansing and indeed genocide have been levelled at Colombo. War crimes and crimes against humanity clear appear to have been committed.
The Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT) on Sri Lanka has already held an inquiry. In its report, it has regretted that after repeated pleas and in spite of the appalling conditions experienced by Tamils, the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Security Council failed to establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate those responsible for the atrocities committed. The tribunal has emphasised that if normal conditions are to be restored in Sri Lanka, the government must establish, as a matter of urgency, an independent and authoritative Truth and Justice Commission to investigate crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by parties in conflict.
Colombo has appointed an eight-member Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission on the events ranging from the aborted ceasefire pact in 2002 to the military defeat of the LTTE in May last year. But the Commission is looked at with suspicion because there has been a big gap between the words and deeds of the government where it concerns issues of human rights, good governance and accountability.
What President Rajapaksa does not realise is that he has vanquished the LTTE but not the sense of grievances nursing in the hearts of Tamils. If he does not do anything to win them over, some other LTTE would emerge. Already the Tamils living abroad have begun telling the international community that Pesident Rajapaksa has no intention of treating the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan Tamils at par. This can damage his and his country’s credentials of being democratic.
Therefore, I come back to the question that I asked in the beginning. What is India’s policy on Sri Lanka? New Delhi has been trying to convince it to adopt a federal system and decentralise power for the last two decades with no results. What is on its agenda now?