G Parthasarathy

It’s time to get closer to Colombo

| Updated on: Oct 23, 2013
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By not improving ties with Lanka, India will be conceding ground to China.

A persistent Indian diplomatic effort and growing trust and confidence between New Delhi and Colombo eventually led to Provincial elections being held in the Northern Province last month.

The elections in September were considered internationally as free and fair, despite efforts by the Sri Lankan army to intimidate voters and candidates. Moreover, the TNA has shown statesmanship in the aftermath of the elections. TNA spokesman Sumanthiran rejected separatism and reaffirmed commitment to a United Sri Lanka, where Tamils can live in freedom and dignity. Justice Wigneswaran made it clear that he did not share objections of others about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attending the Commonwealth Summit.

However, New Delhi faces a peculiar dilemma in the Prime Minister attending the Summit (November 15-17) in Colombo. Not only is the Sri Lankan Government keen on Manmohan Singh attending the Summit but Chief Minister Wigneswaran and his colleagues in Jaffna are also keen that Manmohan Singh visits Jaffna, after the Summit, to discuss their concerns and developmental needs.

A visit of India’s Prime Minister to Jaffna, symbolising India’s commitment to their welfare, will give a great boost to the morale of the people of the Northern Province. But strong voices in Tamil Nadu, some influenced by well endowed expatriate Sri Lankan Tamils, would like the Prime Minister to boycott the Summit.

Interestingly, there are differences now between views in Jaffna and in Tamil Nadu not only on participation in the Commonwealth Summit but also on the issue of fishermen from Tamil Nadu.

There are still protests about the action taken by the Sri Lankan Navy against Tamil Nadu fishermen, intruding into Sri Lankan territorial waters, adjacent to the Tamil dominated Northern Province. But, Chief Minister Wigneswaran blames Tamil Nadu fishermen for inflicting misery on Sri Lankan Tamil fishermen. He bluntly asserted that fishermen from Tamil Nadu using big trawlers “came early into Sri Lankan waters, caught all the fish and left the (Sri Lankan Tamil) people high and dry.”

He added that the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister “has a crucial role in addressing the issue of Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters”.

There now appear to be good prospects for dialogue between fishermen in Tamil Nadu and Jaffna to address mutual concerns. The Jaffna Tamils and the Sri Lanka Government are now making common cause to deal with what they believe are illegal intrusions by fishermen from Tamil Nadu.

Fishermen from TN

The ostensibly separatist Tamil National Alliance was swept to power in the recent Provincial elections. Thereafter, on October 7, the highly respected Tamil Jurist and former Supreme Court Judge Justice C.V. Wigneswaran was sworn in as the Chief Minister of the Northern Province in the presence of President Rajapaksa. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid paid a brief visit to Jaffna recently after talks in Colombo. He exchanged views with Chief Minister Wigneswaran on the substantial Indian assistance being channelled to the Northern Province, primarily for relief, rehabilitation and infrastructure. India has extended credits totalling $960 million for upgrading rail communications and renovating and extending rail services from Colombo and across Sri Lanka’s Tamil dominated Northern Province.

Summit offers opportunity

As part of the rehabilitation effort in the war-torn Northern Province, India is renovating the Palaly Airport and the Kankesanthurai harbour. It is also financing construction of 50,000 houses and has provided medical assistance, one million roofing sheets and agricultural implements, for displaced Tamils.

While in Colombo, Khurshid finalised details for construction of a coal-fired power plant in Sampur, through a joint venture between India’s National Thermal Power Corporation and the Ceylon Electricity Board.

The primary interest of the regional leadership in Jaffna is to secure effective and enhanced Indian economic assistance and prepare for hard bargaining for promised devolution of powers.

India’s primary commitment to Sri Lankan Tamils is implementation of the 1987 Rajiv Gandhi-Jayawardene Accord, under which Provincial Councils were established and empowered under the 13th Amendment of the Sri Lanka Constitution.

Sri Lanka has not fulfilled its commitments to India, as it has not empowered the Provincial Government to administer key areas such as Law and Order and Lands. Moreover, the massive presence of the Sri Lankan army and its propensity to intimidate the population, as it did during the provincial elections, is a matter of serious concern. .

Rational reasoning

Emotive and partisan electoral considerations should not guide the conduct of India’s relations with Sri Lanka. India needs a policy of diplomatic and economic engagement and not self-inflicted estrangement with Colombo, as China increases its influence and naval presence across the Indian Ocean Region.

(The author is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan.)

Published on October 23, 2013

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