If the political parties in Tamil Nadu do not conduct themselves with a sense of balance and responsibility and indulge in competitive exploitation of the discontent in certain sections of the population over Sri Lanka-related issues, they may end up by creating passions beyond control in both countries.
All right-thinking Tamils should be concerned over the acts of anger directed against two football teams of Sri Lankan students in Chennai and against Sri Lankan Christian pilgrims in southern Tamil Nadu in recent days. This resulted in the football teams having to go back to Sri Lanka and in anxieties over physical security among the pilgrims. There is a reason to suspect that some of these incidents were more politically-orchestrated than spontaneous expression of anger by the local people against the Sri Lankans.
There is a genuine anger among sections of the people of Tamil Nadu against the Sri Lankan Government over the following aspects of its policies towards the Sri Lankan Tamils:
■ The lack of progress in finding a political solution to the aspirations of the Tamils.
■ The lack of a sincere enquiry into the death of a disproportionate number of Tamils during the last hours of the Sri Lankan Army’s assault to kill Prabhakaran, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and capture the LTTE headquarters thereby defeating the LTTE’s insurgency.
■ The perceived use of disproportionate force by the Sri Lankan Navy against Indian Tamil fishermen who mistakenly fish in Sri Lankan waters, leading to frequent deaths of our fishermen.
This anger has been turned by the local political parties against the Government of India also for the following reasons:
■ The perceived reluctance of New Delhi to exercise adequate pressure on President Mahinda Rajapaksa to make him fulfil his commitments to the Tamils and the Government of India on their political future and protect our fishermen.
■ The unwillingness of the Government of India to take any punitive action against the Sri Lankan Government by way of suspending the military-military relationship between the Armed Forces of the two countries. Under this relationship, officers of the Sri Lankan Armed forces are permitted to join training courses in different training institutions of our Armed Forces.
In view of the forthcoming elections to the Lok Sabha in 2014, there has been a competitive exploitation of all these issues by many of the political parties including the ruling AIDMK and the opposition DMK in the hope of winning poll dividends.
The anger, which was initially against the Sri Lankan Government, has been turned into anger against the Sri Lankan people, mainly Sinhalese, coming to Tamil Nadu for private reasons such as pilgrimage, tourism, sports etc. Fortunately, till now, the exploited anger has not led to any untoward incident of violence against the Sinhalese. If the temptation to politically exploit this anger by different parties is not resisted, there is a danger of a backlash by the Sinhalese against the Indian nationals (not necessarily only against the Sri Lankan Tamils) working in Sri Lanka.
In recent years, India’s economic relations with Sri Lanka have considerably improved and a number of Indian companies have established their branches in Sri Lanka. There has also been an increase in the number of Indian Tamil tourists visiting Sri Lanka. If there is a backlash against them, we might be faced with a vicious circle of ethnic violence in the two countries.
There never was much popular support for the LTTE in Tamil Nadu. Nor were there strong feelings of solidarity between the people of Tamil Nadu and the Sri Lankan Tamils living in refugee camps in Tamil Nadu. When the LTTE was defeated by the Sri Lankan Army and Prabhakaran killed in May,2009, the reactions among the people of Tamil Nadu were fortunately low.
If a politically-motivated attempt is made now to rouse the feelings of the people of Tamil Nadu over the attitude of the Sri Lankan Government towards the Sri Lankan Tamils, the resulting passions may take unpredictable shape.
The Government of India finds itself in a dilemma. The protection of the people of Sri Lanka visiting Tamil Nadu is the responsibility of the Government of Tamil Nadu. The Government of India cannot act unilaterally in the matter. In view of the 2014 elections, no party is prepared to adopt a reasonable attitude. Even the DMK, which supports the Dr.Manmohan Singh Government in the Centre, has joined the anti-Sri Lanka campaign in Tamil Nadu unmindful of the difficulties of New Delhi.
The Government of India is not in a position to exercise adequate pressure on the Rajapaksa Government either on the issue of the political future of the Sri Lankan Tamils or for the protection of our fishermen. Nor is it in a position to force the Government of Sri Lanka to hold an enquiry into the violation of the human rights of the Sri Lankan Tamils.
In view of the strong political and economic support for Sri Lanka from China and Sri Lanka’s developing relations with Pakistan, we do not have much of a card for coercive diplomacy against Colombo. The Government of India has to do the best of a bad bargain.
The dilemma faced by the Government of India is partly the result of its failure to foresee and pre-empt the politically caused emotions with an eye on the 2014 elections. Unless it persuades the ruling ADMK to tone down any politicisation of the problem, the DMK, its ally, is unlikely to co-operate with it. It would not like to be projected by the ADMK as not being supportive enough of the Sri Lankan Tamils and our fishermen.
The only way of dealing with this issue is through a possible quid pro quo by conceding the demands of the Tamil Nadu Government in other matters not having an impact on our foreign policy in return for its giving up its present policies relating to Sri Lankans.
To address the sensitivities of the Tamil Nadu Government, the Government of India could also modify its policy in relation to the training of Sri Lankan Armed Forces officers in our training Institutions. In future, training slots could be offered to the Sri Lankan Armed Forces only in respect of those courses where the training is imparted in institutions outside Tamil Nadu.
This is a tricky political matter to which a solution based on an all-party consensus with the political parties of Tamil Nadu has to be found by our Prime Minister asserting his authority and taking the necessary initiative. His reluctance or inability to exercise authority could make the situation messier.
By B Raman
[The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi.]