T-junction in the road

Saturday, 21 April 2012 00:52 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Sutirtho Patranobis and Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

Hindustan Times: THEN – At one point in May, four years ago, it seemed a golden age in India-Sri Lanka relations was imminent. Tamil Tiger supremo V. Prabhakaran had been killed and the 26-year-old Lankan civil war had come to an end. India was pleased. Both sides were one the need to defeat the LTTE. The omens were good: the final battle took place as Tamil Nadu went to the polls — and the pro-Tiger parties lost heavily.

The Tamil insurrection was over. Lanka, it seemed, had been purged from Indian domestic politics. New Delhi’s relief at ending the region’s bloodiest conflict, one that had led India’s largest overseas military intervention and Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, led it to brush aside allegations of large-scale Tamil civilian deaths.

There was also a remarkable degree of contact between New Delhi and almost all the players in the Lankan polity. The Tamil parties, especially the umbrella Tamil National Alliance (TNA), looked to India. Military to military ties were excellent. Even ultra-nationalist Sinhalese parties had toned down their anti-India rhetoric. The January 2010 Lankan presidential elections were unprecedented as both the incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa and his opponent, former Army Chief Sarath Fonseka, wooed India.

NOW – Two years later the T-word is back.

Colombo was shaken and shocked by India’s decision to vote against them this month at the UN Human Rights Commission. Referring to Rajapaksa’s failure to seek a Tamil political settlement, the resolution prodded Colombo to “reach a political settlement on the devolution of power to the provinces”.

The Sinhalese were apoplectic. “India has not only dealt a killer blow to India-Sri Lanka relations, but also to reconciliation efforts between Sinhalese and Tamils,” one Rajapaksa hatchet man, Minister Champika Ranawaka, wrote in a Sunday paper.

But the vote sent two messages. One, say Western diplomats, India was increasingly frustrated at Rajapaksa’s unwillingness to take even baby steps for the Tamils. Colombo didn’t even want to recognise it had to win the peace after winning the war.  

“There’s been a lot frustration with Rajapaksa’s refusal to implement even what his own promises,” say Indian officials privately. At senior levels in New Delhi there’s a belief the vote had its uses when it came to pressuring Colombo, at least once India got the resolution’s wording diluted.

Two, Lanka’s stubbornness was forcing its Tamil policy back into Indian electoral calculations. The UN vote was part of a larger political deal by New Delhi with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, J. Jayalalitha. While she has never been an LTTE supporter, she seems to fear Tamil minority rights could become a voting issue in future and sought to cover her own flanks.

Why is Rajapaksa stonewalling? One theory is a sense of invincibility. Winning the civil war made him believe he really has nothing to fear. Rajapaksa’s trademark response to problems has been long speeches and lengthy promises that are then forgotten.

Tamil academics and activists believe the regime is just not interested in any settlement with the minority community.  “I think the Rajapaksas sincerely believe that some mega infrastructure projects, a pinch of cultural pluralism and some economic giveaways are reconciliation. They really believe most Tamils can be won over that way,” says Tamil commentator Tisaranee Gunasekara.

Rajapaksa’s sense of power stems from his complete control over the Army. With an estimated 300,000 men under arms, Sri Lanka is among the world’s most militarised societies.

The military has been given a free-run in the Tamil-dominated north and east. New cantonments are being built, Army personnel run shops and Tamils are being shouldered out of their traditional fishing areas. In these areas, as a British diplomat who visited there says, “Civilian authority is completely subservient to the military.”

NEXT: More altercations with India may be in the offing as New Delhi presses home that it cannot keep waiting forever.

Ex-President Chandrika Kumaratunga recently wondered at her successor’s talk of “China, Iran and Myanmar” as Lanka’s new global friends. But New Delhi is insouciant about the so-called “China card” being flaunted by many small neighbours. “Bluff,” say Indian officials.

There are some signs of change. Colombo quietly walked away from a threat to try and block the Kudankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu.

Lanka and India are still closer than they have been in decades. But getting Rajapaksa to grasp the nettle of a Tamil political settlement will be a long drawn-out diplomatic and political process.