Monday, September 17, 2012

The State of India-Sri Lanka Relations: Ethnic Issue as an Irritant

Dr. N. Manoharan
Senior Fellow, VIF

In the recent days, the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu has figured in at least four issues pertaining to Sri Lanka: protests against training of Sri Lankan defence personnel in the state, threats to Sri Lankan pilgrims touring the state, turning over of Sri Lankan sports teams, and agitation over alleged attacks on Tamil Nadu fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy. All these have resulted in an unusual response from Colombo in the form of a travel advisory directing its citizens not to visit Tamil Nadu. These incidents have also raised doubts on the upcoming visit of the Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to India. Few months back, the bilateral ties perceivably took a slight dip when India voted for a US-sponsored resolution advising Sri Lanka on post-conflict reconciliation measures. How far have these events impacted bilateral ties between the two countries?

Despite few strains from time-to-time, traditionally, bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka have by-and-large been cordial. India has always stood by Sri Lanka’s difficult times and strived to remove those irritants that stood in the way of maintaining friendly relations. No two countries in the world enjoy bilateral relations as unique as India and Sri Lanka with differing characteristics. India is not only Sri Lanka’s closest, but also important and powerful neighbour. Relations between the two neighbours stretch to more than two millennia in wide-ranging areas – political, economic, socio-cultural and military. In the post-LTTE phase, the bilateral ties between the two countries have revolved around four issues: short and long-term aspects of the island’s ethnic issue, straying of fishermen, economic/trade interactions, and the role of forces inimical to Indian interests. Of all these, the dominance of the island’s ethnic question in steering the bilateral relations is telling.

Since the end of Eelam War IV, India has taken keen interest in the relief, rehabilitation and resettlement of those displaced by the conflict. Apart from providing requisite monetary assistance, India has sent 2,600 tonnes of galvanized steel sheets to construct shelter for approximately 5,000 families living in relief camps in northern Sri Lanka and an additional aid to construction of 50,000 houses to the IDPs. New Delhi has also deployed over eight demining teams in sanitising the conflict areas of landmines and unexploded objects to facilitate resettlement. From time-to-time India expressed concerns to the Sri Lankan government over the progress of the resettlement. To New Delhi, decent resettlement of the IDPs would also take care of hue and cry in Tamil Nadu over the humanitarian issue.

On the long-term aspect of the ethnic issue, India’s consistent position has been in favour of “a politically negotiated settlement acceptable to all sections of Sri Lankan society within the framework of an undivided Sri Lanka and consistent with democracy, pluralism and respect for human rights.” India wants Colombo to deliver a meaningful devolution package to the minorities. New Delhi believed that with the military defeat of the LTTE, the armed component of the Sri Lankan ethnic issue has come to an end, making the conflict resolution easier. However, to India’s disappointment, Colombo has not taken the political process forward. The report of much-hyped All Party Representative Committee (APRC) has long been forgotten. The focus then shifted to the report of Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) submitted in November 2011. LLRC was a good step, but its mandate was very limited. Although it was not 100 percent objective, it was not disappointing either. It tried to do a balancing act containing both positive and negative aspects. On positives it talked about the need for demilitarisation, investigation of disappearances, apart from acknowledging existence of ethnic grievances; surprisingly, it supported devolution of powers to minorities, although did not spell them out. At the same time, it did not fix accountability for human rights abuses during Eelam War IV. On the killings during Eelam War IV, the report reasoned them out as a result of LTTE action and military reaction. Most importantly, the LLRC did not give any action plan on the way forward either on reconciliation or devolution. Yet, to India’s disappointment the implementation of recommendations of LLRC has been lethargic despite gentle reminders. It was in this context India supported US-sponsored resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in March this year. The move was not to upset Colombo, but with good intentions to move the process of reconciliation forward. India is convinced that a successful reconciliation is the first step in arriving at a meaningful long-term solution to the ethnic issue. In the present situation, devolution of powers to provinces through the ‘13th Amendment Plus Plus’ is a realistic option. There will be stiff opposition from the Sinhalese hardliners to this. However, riding on popular support, President Rajapaksa should be in a position to withstand these nationalistic pressures and forge an island-wide consensus for a lasting solution to the ethnic question.

All hoped that with the military defeat of the LTTE there would be a political settlement to the ethnic question. But, the issue lingers on. India has repeatedly conveyed its willingness to do whatever is required for the satisfactory resolution of the ethnic question in a manner that respects the sentiments of all the communities in Sri Lanka. New Delhi must voice its concerns without hesitation to ensure that Colombo moves forward in resolving the ethnic issue at the earliest and in all seriousness. Simultaneously, India, in the short-term, should continue to provide the resources required for the resettlement of IDPs and invest in the economic development of the war-ravaged Northeast of Sri Lanka. This will not only ensure that another armed conflict does not occur, but also open up immense economic opportunities for India. A durable peace in Sri Lanka will also take care of supplementary issues in the bilateral relations like security of Indian fishermen, the space for foreign powers like China and Pakistan in the island and, most importantly, anti-Sri Lankan sentiments in Tamil Nadu.

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