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President Rajapaksa's New Delhi visit: 'Much ado about few things'

Jun 17, 2010 9:24:57 AM- transcurrents.com

By Col R Hariharan

From Indian point of view the much hyped visit of Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa to New Delhi from June 8 to 11 can be summed up in one sentence as much ado about few things, with apologies to Shakespeare.

Shorn of usual diplomatic fillers, the tangibles in the joint statement issued at the end of the visit were on three tracks. One set formalised projects already in the pipeline for sometime and included financial incentives from India to push them forward. The other set attended to easing structural arrangements (i.e., agreements, MoUs, statement of intentions) to promote better relations and trading arrangements. And the third set related to rehabilitation largesse from India.

But there was little or no animation of perennial issues discussed in the joint statement. There were very few hopeful signs to progress three gritty issues rehabilitation, devolution, and strategic security. Overall, the impression created after the Presidents visit is that India had tacitly agreed to let President Rajapaksa handle these issues at his own pace in his own style. I will be happy if those involved in the process prove me wrong.

The Indian Prime Minister making the inane statement that a meaningful devolution package, building upon the 13th Amendment, would create the necessary conditions for a lasting political settlement, creates the impression that sidelining of the Tamil issue appears to have been accepted. In the last three years India's representatives have said the same thing a number of times. And Sri Lanka's response had been more to buy time than make any real progress on the issue.

President Rajapaksa does not talk any more about the 13th amendment or even the 13th amendment +. So not surprisingly in the joint statement he made no commitment to implement the 13th amendment which in any case has been pushed to the realms of relevance. The President merely reiterated his determination to evolve a political settlement acceptable to all communities that would act as a catalyst to create the necessary conditions in which all the people of Sri Lanka could lead their lives in an atmosphere of peace, justice and dignity, consistent with democracy, pluralism, equal opportunity and respect for human rights. Towards this end, the President expressed his resolve to continue to implement in particular the relevant provisions of the Constitution designed to strengthen national amity and reconciliation through empowerment.

Have we not been hearing similar dialogue for a long time now between Sri Lanka and India? It is difficult to understand how the mere repetition of implementation of13th amendment as a mantra from Indian side and the flowery rhetoric on democracy, pluralism et al from the Sri Lankan side are going to improve the lot of Tamils. Are we not thinking of any other options? Apparently not; otherwise it would have found a place in the joint statement.

So it is no wonder Tamils on both sides of the Palk Strait feel they have been let down very badly by India. The window dressing offered by arranging a meeting between the visiting President and the members of parliament from Tamil Nadu might satisfy the ruling coalition party leaders but not the people. The rhetoric and political manoeuvring on this count to be wearing thin as people are waiting to see visible action on all fronts from Indian side.

Of course, later in Chennai Home Minister P Chidambaram, presumably on a mission to enlighten Tamil Nadu on the takeaways, highlighted Indias allocation of Rs 1000 crores to build 50,000 houses for people in north and south left to fend for themselves. And he explained that the money would be directly given to householders through banks.

While this is laudable, the process of rehabilitation has remained good in parts like the proverbial curates egg. But what is the overall architecture for enabling the people ravaged by war to resume normal life and join the national mainstream? Without such an architecture bound by a time frame, accountability from both sides and integrated execution, these welfare measures tend to get dislocated, downgraded or even get hijacked. For instance, in the east infrastructure facilities have made good progress, but peoples struggle for livelihood continues as before.

When the Eelam War raged there were protests in Tamil Nadu by pro-Eelam and pro-Tamil Tigers segments of political parties on happenings in Sri Lanka. Then these were joined in by protests on human rights violations and humanitarian issues and war crimes. The protests were neither large nor spectacular. But they were there.

During President Rajapaksas visit this time - a year after the war - the protests have become significant because there is no Prabhakaran or war to give a boost to these protests. The protests had gathered sufficient public and media attention, even without the orchestration provided by the war.

The pro-Eelam leaders Vaiko and Nedumaran and about thousand followers courted arrest while protesting against the Presidents visit. These protests have to be studied in sequence of Sri Lanka-centric events that have been happening. First there was pressure on film personalities to boycott the International Indian Film Awards function in Colombo. These were followed by protests in other forms in Tamil Nadu. There are indications of simmering discontent over Sri Lanka policy increasing into effervescence.

A Public Interest Litigation filed in the Madras High Court sought issue of directions to the government to arrest Sri Lanka Minister Douglas Devananda, who was part of President Rajapaksas entourage. The PIL alleged Devananda was a proclaimed offender, wanted in a slew of cases including murder in Tamil Nadu.

The moot point is the Tamil Minister, well known for his strong anti-Prabhakaran stance and equally strong support to the President, had visited India and Tamil Nadu a number of times even at the height of the Eelam War. And nobody thought of raising the issue on such occasions earlier. Why now, after the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and decimation of its leadership? Clearly the PIL was aimed at embarrassing New Delhi and the visiting dignitary.

The other incident was more sinister. Thanks to alertness of railway staff, the Rock fort Express train going from Kumbakonam to Chennai escaped from accident after a metre-long portion of the railway track was found blown up at Sithani, about 25 km from Villupuram junction on the railway link to Chennai. The incident happened a day after President Rajapaksa flew out of New Delhi. High-power gel-type explosive device ignited by electric power had been used indicating familiarity with handling of explosives.

It was powerful enough to create 80-cm crater and blow up the sleeper along with a piece of the rail. The Police were quick to suspect the Tamil Nadu Maoist elements and later the Tamil Tiger acolytes in the act of sabotage. Both are capable of organising the sabotage. Even though they failed to derail the train, with their act they have sent a strong message of their extreme frustration at Indias inability to respond to the Tamil problems in Sri Lanka.

During the Eelam War, there were a few instances of the LTTE elements and the Maoists coming together for mutual benefit. But caught between the turbulence of caste politics and the allure of Dravidian political idiom, Maoists were always weak force in Tamil Nadu. Even those few fell out with the all India body of the organisation in the eighties over the question of supporting Tamil nationalism. They could not survive as a cohesive entity in the face of the Tamil Nadu police dragnet. So they scattered and have become embedded in one or more of the half a dozen small Tamil political outfits.

These fringe outfits have diverse agendas, but are united in the struggle to preserve exclusiveness of Tamil identity and Tamil nationalism which they feel are threatened by New Delhi and Colombo. They are unhappy that even the Tamil Nadu chief minister Karunanidhi, who used to tacitly support the Tamil identity issue, has joined the national political mainstream and let them down.

It is doubtful whether the disparate groups can come together to form a mighty insurgent body in Tamil Nadu like the LTTE and wage war as Prabhakaran did. That may never happen. But they represent the extreme edge of the anger many Tamils are feeling over Indias failure to respond positively to attend to the Tamil grievances in Sri Lana. This is more so because India had vigorously championed their cause in the past. This feeling has many takers among Sri Lankan Tamils both at home and abroad.

Usually police are left to handle developments of extremism in a knee jerk reaction. However, in Tamil Nadu the approach has to be more nuanced. We need to pay serious attention to the issues that have generated the discontent and act to produce visible results in Sri Lanka. And political parties of Tamil Nadu have a large responsibility in suggesting and steering New Delhi to positive courses of action than merely acting as listening posts, playing politics.

(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: colhari@yahoo.com