by Kusal Perera
They call it “summer” in Delhi now. It’s no fun to land in Delhi during summer with the temperature blowing over 40 plus 3, 4 or 5 Celsius. When the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa touched ground in Delhi with First Lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa and retinue on Tuesday last, Delhi was surprisingly cool at around 35 degrees Celsius.
Yet, Rajapaksa would not have felt so “cool” when State Minister of External Affairs, Preneet Kaur greeted him on the tarmac on behalf of the Indian government. Kaur is current Maharani of Patiala and was elected to the Lok Sabha from Patiala for the third time. That has not been much qualification to give her a high profile in Delhi politics or in the government. Nor is she, in terms of her office as a State Minister, able to receive a Head of a State.
As Head of State of Sri Lanka and President elect of the Sri Lankan people, the protocol should have had at least a very senior cabinet minister of the Indian Government, if not the External Affairs Minister himself, to receive President Rajapaksa and his delegation, in every sense of good neighbourly diplomacy. They are definitely not hurried, stop gap arrangements, when a head of a state is on an official visit.
India, that often behaves like the “South Asian American” now, has its own way of sending messages. This is one way. The message was simply, plain. India was not happy with what’s happening in post war Sri Lanka and was not going to provide everything the Sri Lankan government wants, the way it wants. But, SL could have assistance the way India provides within its own design.
Delhi also did not want Tamil Nadu fringe politico protesters to stir Tamilean sensitivity over Sri Lankan Tamil people’s misery. Well known LTTE supporters Vaiko, Nedumaran, Thirumavalavan along with the latest entry into Tamilean politics as the “We Thamil” leader, film director Seeman were arrested over “ugly protests” against President Rajapaksa’s visit, but were later released. Tamilean politics in support of the Sri Lankan Tamil people this time cropped up with black flag protests in Bengaluru too. There is a growing pro Tamil sentiment within Karnataka society that shows links with Tamilean politics in TN.
For the first time too in India, some of the mainstream national media that lavishly covered the war against Tamil Tigers, projecting the Rajapaksa regime as heroically fighting “Tiger terrorism”, this time picked up these protests against President Rajapaksa’s visit to India, his first, after being elected for the second term as president. The Indian mainstream media often senses the mood in Delhi, was one explanation for this shift of attitude in the mainstream media.
That explanation was not possible to be assessed on the random and casual coverage President Rajapaksa got on his arrival and stay with small inside reports in print media and extremely short and passing coverage on main TV news. It was a bad coincidence for presidential publicity in India with the Bhopal tragedy hitting headlines and taking up main stories, even after 26 years since it occurred. Fuming anger over very lenient punishment of two year jail terms and bail for appeal for eight indicted persons in a tragedy that reported 15,000 deaths and badly affected a population of 520,000 people, would surely hit the media full face, ignoring any visiting dignitary.
Douglas in the spotlight
The controversial component of the publicity that nevertheless emerged was grabbed by Minister Douglas Devananda. The prestigious English daily from Delhi, Times of India (TOI) carried a long revealing story that Devananda is a “proclaimed offender” as declared by a Tamil Nadu court of law in 1986. If not for the immunity as a member of the official delegation of President Rajapaksa, he could be arrested by any police constable in any part of India without any further warrant, according to Indian Criminal Procedure Code, explained the report.
Minister Devananda who was approached by TOI and the CNN-IBN Live programme on this issue was reported as saying, he is not liable any more for such legal action as the Indo – SL Accord of 1987 provided amnesty to all Tamil political leaders who were up in arms against the Sri Lankan State. The official position of Delhi is that Devananda is a minister and a member of the delegation of President Rajapaksa and has the right to visit India. They also say that Devananda is not in any “watch list” that prevents him from entering India.
That, incidentally, was not the legal interpretation of the lawyer P. Pugalenthy, who filed a “Public Interest Litigation” petition in Chennai High Courts, requesting that Devananda be arrested on arrival in India. The Indo-SL Accord is said to have provided amnesty for all those who waged war against the SL State to enter politics in SL and contest elections. Devananda is charged in Tamil Nadu under India’s Criminal Procedure Code for other crimes that has no relevance to the Indo-SL Accord, is the legal understanding in TN. Devananda has three cases pending on murder, attempted murder, rioting, unlawful assembly and then kidnapping of a boy for ransom filed by the Kilpauk police in May 1989, almost two years after the Indo-SL Accord was signed in July 1987, reported TN press.
Despite Minister Devananda’s controversy, President Rajapaksa had many official engagements, meeting Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and the Tamil Nadu Political Delegation sent by Chief Minister Karunanidhi, in addition to the main discussion with delegates led by Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh. All these discussions had eventually ended up with the displaced and “camped” Tamil people from the Wanni and resettlement and reconciliation that should happen in Sri Lanka.
Numbers apart, the subject had been the content of the programme for resettlement and the subsequent political solution offered for the Tamil people, by the Rajapaksa regime. Tamil Nadu media reported that discussions with President Rajapaksa was not positive on displaced Tamil people and the resettlement that is being carried out is not very constructive and helpful with no concrete answers on “prisoners of war”, as LTTE cadres in detention are defined in Tamil Nadu.
What is not being discussed in the Indian media nevertheless is the socio political impact of the many agreements that were signed by the two governments, with the two heads of state deliberating and agreeing on mutual cooperation. The Indian government, it is said, would provide a soft loan of one billion US dollars on a 20 year credit line, for infrastructure development including repair and improvement of railway transport and a 500 MW coal power electricity plant in Trincomalee. It is also said that the Indian government would assist in the construction of housing with an additional 250 million US dollars, which is a grant and not a loan.
The common adjective to these very generous offers is, “especially for North and East”, where collateral damage leading to a massive human tragedy that is now seen by international human rights and UN experts as necessary to be investigated for possible war crimes and crimes against humanity, was and is never questioned by the Delhi government.
Meanwhile the much agitated Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) was not pressed upon by India says Indian official sources, as that is “not so much about advantages to India, but to Sri Lanka” that unfortunately the Sri Lankan business community is unable to read for their own advantage. It’s not only with CEPA that SL interests are not rightly read.
The agreement to involve a Gujarati based NGO, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in helping “war widows” in SL is one that is being questioned by political circles in Delhi. Their web site introduces the SEWA as a movement that works extensively with unorganised and poor women. Their type of work differ very little from the type of work the Women’s Development Foundation (WDF) in President Rajapaksa’s own Hambantota District do, except in its magnitude, which is possible in India that has crores of such women to work with.
Added, is the market that’s available to exploit for product oriented income generating activities. Given the opportunity and funds, SL women NGOs could be much culturally closer to undertake projects for war widows than SEWA. How, in this context that SEWA was chosen for this work and was entered into an agreement by the two governments, is a political riddle to be answered somewhere, some time.
There were other agreements too that could be considered favourable to India more than for Sri Lanka, just now. In the backdrop of Maoist / Naxal attacks in five states including West Bengal and not counting the long standing Jammu and Kashmir, Naga, Manipuri and Assam conflicts, the two heads of state over saw pacts on mutual legal assistance on criminal matters and the transfer of sentenced prisoners as key steps discussed, aimed at boosting “counter-terror” cooperation.
This in fact was a subject taken up at the recently concluded summit of SAARC heads of state in Thimpu. For India that is in the midst of a debate on how to use the military to engage increasing Maoist insurgency, with suggestions that hint at possible replication of the Sri Lankan model with due alterations, the two agreements aimed at boosting “counter terrorism” can not be without far thinking.
All in all, what is taken as relief by Indian nationalism is the push the Indian government gained through all these seven agreements, to balance off the Chinese presence in Sri Lanka, while also getting Sri Lanka’s pledge that it would support India’s entry into an expanded UN Security Council, where China is already happily using its power of veto.
Trinco for India
Within Sri Lanka, for China’s presence in Hambantota, India will be in Trincomalee, a strategically more important location for India, than the far south. Yet, they have also gained their presence in Hambantota with a Deputy High Commission office, that could give the Indian R&AW a window to the new harbour. With business in the railway transport and energy industry added, India has been rewarded by the Rajapaksa regime for all their covert support during the war against the Tamil Tigers.
Now the question is, how much more could this Rajapaksa regime provide to the Chinese government, if they take all these Indian intrusions as “Indianisation” of Sri Lanka ?
Sri Lanka is surely turning out as a test ground for the two emerging Asian giants to work out their strategic geo political compromises. In the new world that is being fashioned after the global meltdown, neither China nor India can have it their own selfish way, to grow as new giants that would make Asia the epi centre of world capitalism. One cannot swallow the other. How much and how soon is a different question. They would have to compromise on each others presence in the Asia-Pacific rim. Sri Lanka is again a pilot project for such compromises.
That in fact is the importance of Rajapaksa and also his advantage in bargaining on both sides. He may seem for now as an “Indianised” Chinese Rajapaksa. But so far, he has done that job competently, though he has miffed himself on local politics. He certainly gave into India to get out of India and deserved the stay in Shimla, the luxury retreat of the Colonial Britisher