Public posturing apart, moderate Tamils in Sri Lanka seem to want India to intercede on their behalf all over again and help arrive at a political settlement on the ethnic issue with their nation’s government. As the acknowledged – and proven – voice of the Tamils in the country, especially in the Northern Province, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has a responsibility which is seldom underlined in public discourses and private exchanges. It’s a truth that no stake-holder in the Sri Lankan ethnic context can wish away, or seek to undermine.
The advent of a BJP-led Narendra Modi Government has been an occasion for not only the Tamils but also the moderate Sinhalas in Sri Lanka to hope for positive Indian contribution to help create an overall atmosphere of amity and justice in the country. These expectations had soared ever since media reports and opinion polls had pointed to the increasing possibility of the BJP as a party and Modi as the man coming to rule India for the next five years.
However, extremists on both sides of the ethnic-divide had frowned on an Indian engagement with and in Sri Lanka, post-poll. They had saddled the Manmohan Singh Government with mischievous and misconceived perceptions of inaction.
The early poll campaign in India and its high-pitched media coverage watched in Sri Lanka and elsewhere meant that the hard-line ‘Tamil nationalists’ on the one hand and their ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ brethren on the other had some unintended purchase among the moderates and the common folk alike. Now, with the post-poll reality striking them on the face, some of the self-propagated hope and self-inflicted misgivings are beginning to clear.
Hence, when Prime Minister Modi rolled out the continuance of India’s existing Sri Lanka policy before the visiting President Mahinda Rajapaksa soon after his swearing-in, the hard-liners on both sides of the ethnic-divide were relieved. Sections of the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ forces lost no time in protesting outside the Indian High Commission in Colombo against ‘India’s interference’ (after a senior Minister said as much without naming the country) after the Mahinda-Modi meeting.
Their Tamil counterparts, located mostly overseas but with their mouth-pieces still operating both within Sri Lanka and in the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu, have since started using the ‘I-told-you-so’ attitude and tone in conversations with their moderates. Going by media reports, the TNA leadership seems satisfied with the reiteration of the Indian position ‘go beyond 13-A’ at the Mahinda-Modi meet. But they would like a public demonstration of the same early on, with PM Modi giving them time to hear them out.
For Modi’s government to take them on board seriously, unlike the predecessor governments that have had a history of such high-level contacts with Tamil moderates all along, the TNA may have to demonstrate not only its faith in the political processes but also its hold over the larger Tamil community, and going beyond winning elections by massive margins.
In November 2013, the TNA swept the NPC polls against pro-government Tamil parties, among others. Earlier in the post-war, 2010 presidential poll, the party could garner a majority of the Tamil votes in the country, in favour of the common Opposition candidate, Sarath Fonseka. In doing so, the party campaign trounced independent candidates from the ‘Tamil nationalist’ groups, who could muster only abysmally small number of votes.
In the Indian context, and in the larger context of resolving the ethnic issue through peaceful negotiations, the Tamil moderates, the TNA included, have been sending out confusing signals. Though the TNA may have been engaging ‘Tamil nationalist’ groups, including ‘separatists’ and diaspora factions of every shade, it has not displayed any element of success in public.
There is thus nothing on record to show that other Tamil groups that matter in decision-making and enforcement on the Tamil side are on the same page as the TNA. The party is hoping to bring around them all. Where they are unable to carry a certain section or group, they should display the kind of vigour and vitality to ‘marginalise’ such groups and forces. That has not happened.
Unlimited police powers?
From the Sri Lankan state context, as different from the concerns and considerations of the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ constituency, both within the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and outside, there is nothing to suggest that any agreement with the TNA would not go the way of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, or the Accord-driven 13-A. The latter remains unenforced despite the change of government leadership – party and persona alike. That the militant groups, or even sections of the moderate group or even of the negotiating team, would not go astray, is something that no facilitator has been able to promise.
To any keen and non-partisan observer of the Sri Lanka’s ethnic scene, the ‘Tamil separatists’, whether militant or otherwise, have always seen any gain by the moderates only as a stepping-stone to the furtherance of their long-term goal. Neither the pre-war TULF in its time, or the TNA, post-war, has proved that it could be otherwise. Contextualised in this background, the reluctance of the Sri Lankan State (leaving out the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ chauvinists) would be better understood, particularly in terms of conferring unlimited police powers on a Tamil Province – the NPC in this case.
It will thus be in the interest of the TNA as a party and a TNA-led provincial administration in the North if a via media could be found for apportioning police powers (read: ‘internal security’ powers, in context). The provincial administration should have all powers and responsibilities for community policing and criminal investigation. It should not ask for more, just now.
‘Law & order’, the public face of the ‘internal security’ concerns and apparatuses, could be left to the central government to handle, at least in the interim. If nothing else, the TNA political administrators as individuals and an institution would need time to acquaint themselves with L&O administration, and gain the kind of self-confidence in handling crisis situations that they outright lack just now.
It could also provide an opportunity for the Tamils in general and the TNA administrators and politicos otherwise to gain the confidence of the Sri Lankan State in particular and the ‘Sinhala nationalist’ constituency, a decisive force electorally, before asking for more. If international politics is left out of the UNHRC-linked Sri Lanka discourse, any nation should be looking at this possibility before pronouncing on ‘police powers’ for the Northern Province.
New and parallel track
About the post-war Tamil moderates’ ever-changing stand on India, the less said, the better. Having observed, learnt and understood the Indian politico-administrative systems and psyche over the past decades, more than the changing political leadership and their perceptions at the government-level in Colombo, Tamil moderates, now under the TNA banner, have done little to play by known and accepted rules.
Over the past months in particular, the TNA has done nothing to check, if not check-mate the ‘separatist’ tendencies being aired by their diaspora groups, and the reflection that it finds in the pan-Tamil, divided Dravidian polity in southern Tamil Nadu. This may have also added to the impression, however unjustified otherwise, that the Tamil moderates are not entirely unaware of the one-step-at-a-time approach of the ‘separatists’.
The TNA is yet to explain to itself and the rest of the world about its request for an appointment with Tamil Nadu’s AIADMK Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, after the Indian parliamentary polls, a request/gesture that they did not show to her predecessor, DMK’s M Karunanidhi. This is as far as the gesture goes. But in the larger and more specific context, the TNA’s request needs to be contextualised to Jayalalithaa’s continued support for a ‘referendum’ among Sri Lankan Tamils for a ‘separate State’.
Not only has the Chief Minister had the State Assembly pass a resolution in this regard. She has also got the diaspora included among the prospective voters in a referendum of the kind. In extension, it needs to be recalled that ‘separatist’ elements from within the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora and other ‘Tamil nationalists’ in Sri Lanka have been talking freely of the travails of the Tamils in India, viz, the Cauvery or Mullaperiyar water dispute with neighbouring States, and indicating a desire, hope or expectation for a ‘greater separatist state’.
On the one hand, the question remains if the Indian constitutional scheme is as ‘federal’ as is being made out to be for individual constituents – be it a State or a Union Territory – to interfere with the functioning of the Centre, on specific subjects under the latter’s care. Under the constitutional scheme, security and foreign policy matters are in the exclusive domain of the Centre. State Governments and hence Legislatures should not say or do anything that could be seen as interfering with the constitutional scheme of power-sharing.
In this case, the Tamil Nadu Assembly resolution, as also the Chief Minister’s missives/memoranda to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh earlier, and Narendra Modi now, has sought to question the Centre’s policy-position. From the days prior to the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, India has always stood for a ‘political solution addressing the legitimate aspirations of the Tamils – within a united Sri Lanka’(emphasis added). The TN Assembly resolution and the State Government’s position are indicative of a new and parallel track, to say the least.
It will thus be interesting to note if the twine could at all meet if the TNA leadership were to meet with the TN Chief Minister, or other sections of the State polity, which had stood by the ‘referendum’ resolution – and if so, how and when. Or, what kind of compromises that the party may be called upon to make to evolve a joint position between the TNA and the TN political leadership.
Investing in international community
Independent of the TNA/Tamil approach to the TN politicos is the party’s seemingly shifting stand on India viz the international community. After deliberately getting identified near-exclusively with India in the international community for long, the Tamil moderates seem to have allowed themselves to be influenced in the post-war years by the SLT diaspora groups in western countries. This compares with the TNA’s inability to be the master of the self during the years of ‘Eelam War IV’ and the Norway-facilitated Cease-fire Agreement (CFA).
At creation and afterward, the TNA was seen as a creation and tool of the LTTE more than it may have been true. Today, it has allowed itself to be seen as being at times the tool of the diaspora’s own constituency-driven self-importance. The TNA seems wanting to bring around the diaspora to its moderate position but does not know how to do it. In the absence of an agreeable way forward, it ends up giving the impression of being dilly-dallying on the untenable cause of ‘separatists’.
Almost since the commencement of the US-driven UNHRC process in March 2012 and the preceding months, the TNA was seen as making fewer references to India and giving relatively greater relevance to the ‘international community’ (read: the US and the West). Lately, however, there has been a mix of India and the international community in the party’s public statements.
Even otherwise, the difference is showing. Initially, the TNA maintained a studied silence on the UNHRC resolution until India had committed itself to an ‘LLRC-driven probe’ into ‘accountability issues’. Later on, the TNA has backed an ‘international probe’, as different from India’s considered position of ‘non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation’. This was at the root of India abstaining from the UNHRC-2014 resolution. The US too found at the time that it needed India no more.
It is thus unclear as to what the TNA now expects India to do in helping to arrive at a negotiated settlement to the ethnic issue. Not very long ago, the Government of India under PM Singh had advised the party to join the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), appointed at the instance of the Rajapaksa presidency, to find a negotiated settlement to the vexatious ethnic issue.
Having declined to do so, it is unclear as yet, how in the context of the prevailing TNA position on issues and concerns that are close to the Indian heart in terms of the ethnic issue, the party expects India to intervene effectively. It may still be easy for sections of the Tamils to believe that the erstwhile Manmohan Singh Government or the ‘LTTE-widowed’ Sonia Gandhi leadership of the then ruling Congress-UPA dispensation, had ‘motives’ against the SLT community as a whole.
Having not silenced, or challenged, such positions and posturing at the time, it remains to be seen what the TNA may now have to say or do, if ‘Tamil separatists’ nearer home and afar were to train the guns now on PM Modi, if he were not to heed their one-sided approach to problem-solving.
The solution for the ethnic issue may not be as simple. But for the TNA to help India to help it is similar for the government of Sri Lanka to help India to help it, to resolve this issue and others. Be it the Tamil nationalist/separatist groups, or the international community, the party cannot allow itself to be seen as wanting to hunt with the hound and run with the hare. That run has to stop.
The TNA has to prove itself and the rest that it has brought around the hard-line ‘Tamil nationalist’ and ‘separatist’ sections, or least has the will and willingness, capacity and capabilities to do so. Likewise, on the international front too, the TNA has to show that it’s not using the rest of the world against India, or vice versa. In the past, and even at present, the Tamil moderates in general and the TNA in particular have continually cautioned India against the Sri Lankan government playing the ‘China card’ against India even while swearing by India on all fronts.
There may be an interesting link to the TNA’s position viz the agenda of the Tamil ‘separatists’, and the party’s current dependence on the ‘international community’ – though possibly unintended. After all, the high priests of separatism, going by the name of ‘Trans-national government of Tamil Eelam’ are located in the West.