By V Suryanarayan
During President Rajapaksa’s visit to New Delhi, the problems and prospects of India-Sri Lanka relations came under close scrutiny. The joint statement spelt out the directions in which bilateral relations are likely to proceed ahead.
Understandably there was a lot of euphoria in Sri Lanka, but discerning Indian observers did not share this sense of optimism. New Delhi is not happy with Colombo’s lukewarm response on the issue of finding a speedy solution to the ethnic issue. More disconcerting, important provisions of the 13th Amendment are being jettisoned.
A year after the decimation of the Tamil Tigers, normalcy is yet to return to the Northern Province. During April-May 2009, the war against the Tigers degenerated into an inhuman war against Tamil civilians. Due to savage aerial attacks and unhindered use of artillery, several innocent people died, residential areas were devastated, and hospitals, schools and places of worship were razed to the ground. Estimates of the dead during these gruesome days vary from 7,000 to 30,000, without taking into consideration those who died due to lack of medical facilities and deprivation of essential food items. Over 3,00,000 persons were displaced, of whom around 63,000 are still in ‘relief centres’, a euphemism for refugee camps.
The Tamil leader Anandasangari has recently drawn attention to the tragic plight of Tamil children, conscripted by the LTTE. After the war, these children were detained by the Sri Lankan armed forces. The armed forces went to the relief centres and asked the children to report to the authorities. Assurance was given to the parents that these children would be quickly released. The promise has not been kept. Many children are still incarcerated. The tragedy is that several hardcore elements of the LTTE, who conscripted these children into the ‘baby brigade’, escaped from the Manik Farm after bribing Sri Lankan authorities.
A parliamentary delegation of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which visited Vanni recently, has highlighted that 80 to 90 per cent of the houses are either destroyed or badly damaged. The arrangements made by the government are ‘woefully inadequate’. The recent announcement that the government of India proposes to construct 50,000 houses for the displaced has been heartily welcomed. It may also be mentioned that New Delhi had provided 4,00,000 cement bags for the use of the returnees. If agricultural operations are to be resumed it is necessary to repair the small and medium tanks. Fishing has come to a virtual standstill, the fishermen should be provided with fishing gear. Places of worship are yet to be restored. The schools are in very bad shape, they must be repaired soon, so that when the new academic session starts, children can go back to school.
One facet of the internally displaced has not attracted much attention in India. A good number of the IDPs in Vavuniya district are people of Indian origin. There was endemic poverty in the plantation areas in the 1960’s and 1970’s. This was an offshoot of the bankrupt economic policies of the SLFP government. The government banned the import of essential food items and also put restrictions on the movement of food articles to the plantation areas. In order to escape the grinding poverty, the Indian Tamils migrated to the north, where new land was being brought under the plough. Most of them became wage labourers of absentee Sri Lankan Tamil landlords. Compounding their distress were the ethnic riots of 1977, 1981 and 1983. Coupled with the sense of insecurity was their legal status of statelessness and growing unemployment. The trickle gradually became an exodus. When the ethnic conflict escalated the Indian Tamils were caught between the two warring groups and became displaced. They have no permanent houses to which they can return, they have lost all contact with the hill country. Many do not have citizenship papers or identity cards. The government of India should immediately bring the plight of these people to the attention of the Sri Lankan government and ensure that they are provided with legal documents, proper employment and a secure life.
I came across a small group of Sri Lankan refugees when I visited Rameswaram and Mandapam in March-April last year. They had come from Mullaitivu and after undergoing several trials and tribulations reached the shores of India. A few of them died on the perilous journey because they did not have food and drinking water. These hapless people told me that given an opportunity all Tamils living in the war zone would have loved to come to Tamil Nadu as refugees. However, the Sri Lankan Navy had extended complete control over the Sri Lankan side of the Palk Bay. What is more, the Indian Coast Guard was exercising strict vigil to prevent the movement of refugees into India.
It may be worthwhile to compare the policies of the government of India on two occasions; the first during the riots of 1958 and second during the last stages of the Fourth Eelam War. When the communal riots took place in 1958 in Colombo and the Tamils were massacred by the lumpen sections of Sinhalese population, some Indian property was badly damaged. Y D Gundevia, then Indian high commissioner, called on governor general Oliver Goonetilleke and a hot exchange of words ensued. Goonetilleke was determined to restore law and order and a state of emergency was proclaimed. More relevant, with international assistance ships were arranged so that Tamils, who felt insecure, could move to the safety of the Jaffna peninsula. There were 2,000 Sinhalese who were living in Jaffna at that time and they were brought to Colombo. When the Tamils were facing their worst humanitarian crisis during the last stages of the Fourth Eelam War, New Delhi should have tried to evolve a mechanism by which the innocent Tamil civilians trapped in the war zones could have been moved to safe and secure areas. Not only did New Delhi not make any efforts, India unfortunately provided complete impunity to the Sri Lankan government by never condemning the flagrant human rights violations.
On a few occasions India defended Sri Lanka as in the United Nations and in multilateral forums. We were in the exalted company of China and Russia on these occasions! And the self-proclaimed champions of the Overseas Tamils in Tamil Nadu preferred to fall in line with the Centre. A Sri Lankan academic told me that the Sinhalese will be eternally grateful to New Delhi for checkmating the government of Tamil Nadu at that time. Our hands are tainted with the blood of innocent Tamils; and all the perfumes of Arabia, as Lady Macbeth said, will not sweeten this little hand.
Dr. V. Suryanarayan is Senior Professor (Retd), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras.