Kashmir episode puts India on horns of dilemma in Sri Lanka


India’s recent act of revoking constitutional provision that had granted special autonomous status to the Muslim-majority region of Jammu and Kashmir, is now haunting its position with regard to Hindu Tamil minority in Sri Lanka.

Experts and politicians in India’s southernmost state of Tamil Nadu fear that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the new Sri Lankan president, riding on the nationalist campaign, will follow Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s footsteps by denying promised devolution of powers to the northern and the eastern Tamil dominated provinces.

During his visit to Sri Lanka’s northern province of Jaffna in 2015, Modi had called on the majority Buddhist Sinhalese government to fully implement the 13th amendment, a 1987 constitutional provision on greater autonomy, in the reconciliation process with Tamil Hindus.

“We believe that early and full implementation of the 13th Amendment and going beyond it would contribute to this process,” Modi had said.

Recalling the statement of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa — elder brother of the newly elected president — author and commentator Shastri Ramachandran told Anadolu Agency that India will no longer be able to convince Colombo to devolve powers to Tamil minority regions.

In the run up to the election campaign, elder Rajapaksa and leader of now ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), said that the devolution debate in the country would now consider the developments in Jammu and Kashmir.

To avoid any diplomatic and domestic fallout, India has made a quick move by dashing External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar off to Colombo, a day after Rajapaksa was sworn in as the new president.

The minister met the new president and extended an invite from Modi to visit India, which Rajapaksa has accepted. Jaishankar became the first foreign dignitary to call on the new president. Rajapaksa’s visit to India is being scheduled for Nov. 29, which will be his first visit abroad after taking charge.

India’s Tamil Nadu politician and lawmaker, V. Gopalasamy, best known by his mononym Vaiko, said Modi government has entangled India in “quicksand”, having diplomatic ramifications in the region.

Gopalasamy along with other major Tamil parties had vociferously opposed New Delhi’s actions in Kashmir, believing that they will caste shadow on Tamil politics, not only in India, but also in Sri Lanka.

He also believed the election of former Defense Minister Rajapaksa was an important development, presenting diplomatic challenges for New Delhi.

“In the latest elections, the Tamils have majorly voted for Sajith Premadasa, since they feared more trouble to come their way if Gotabaya wins. But it is saddening to note that the inflammatory speeches of Gotabaya had helped him secure victory by getting the votes of the majority,” Vaiko said.

“Tamils have seen enough troubled phases in the past. But justice will one day triumph,” he said, adding that responsibility to safeguard the interests of Sri Lankan Tamils now fully rests in the hands of the Indian government.

Sri Lanka’s poll outcome replica of India

Ramachandran — who has authored books on India’s neighborhood, more so on Nepal and Sri Lanka — said the outcome of Sri Lanka election was a replica of return of Modi, who rode on a Hindu nationalist vote bank.

“Identically, Gotabaya had unleashed a Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, during his election campaign. He reflected voter’s aspiration for a strong leader, same as Indian voter choose Modi in last May,” said the author, while drawing parallels between Indian and Sri Lankan elections.

“In our case, the [India’s] ruling BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] unleashed a fear from Pakistan and Muslim communalism, in Sri Lanka, the SLPP raised the bogy of India and Tamils,” he added.

Rajapaksa defeated his nearest rival, the outgoing Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa, by a respectable 1.3 million vote margin in a nationwide poll on Nov. 16. He got a groundswell of support in all the Sinhala Buddhist electoral districts of the south, west, and central provinces.

M K Bhadrakumar, a former Indian ambassador, believed that Sri Lanka is getting a new government bearing striking resemblances to India — riding on the wave of cultural nationalism.

He said the impression that India and the West had conspired to throw Mahinda Rajapaksa government out in 2015 refuses to go away in Colombo.

Elder Rajapaksa had accused India of intervening in the internal affairs of the island nation and claimed that this was the reason that he lost in 2015. He had also forced India to recall the Sri Lanka station chief of its external intelligence wing Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), K. Ilango, who, he believed was accused of engineering a political combination against him.

Tamil political parties had presented a 13-point charter of demands including, “evolving a political solution through a federal arrangement, with a recognition of a separate sovereignty status for the Tamils and their right to self-determination, rejecting a unitary state; conducting an international probe of war crimes; repealing the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act; stopping Sinhala-Buddhist ‘colonization’ of the north and east; and enabling investments from Tamil diaspora to enhance development and employment in the war-affected areas.”

Rajapaksa, however, rejected the demands. Bhadrakumar predicted that the Sri Lankan Tamil community was at a precarious position and stands dispossessed by Colombo and disowned by New Delhi.

Tough times for Tamils

“There is no way Rajapaksa will accept federalism in Sri Lanka. The Tamil community will have to come to terms with the grim implications of it and learn to live with what is on offer,” Bhadrakumar said.

The former Indian envoy also felt that under the new government, a significant expansion of Chinese presence in Sri Lanka is expected, given China’s financial muscle and aggressive business practices.

Ramachandran said India should not make the Chinese presence an issue to pull down its relations with Colombo. “India should accept that its neighbors have as much right to do business with China, as New Delhi is itself doing. China has legitimate interests in these countries,” he said.

The analyst, who in the past has headed editorial management of two Chinese dailies in Beijing, said India should take advantage of Rajapaksa’s outreach to Modi and respond positively to his overtures. But he also agreed that dealing with Tamil issue in domestic politics would pose a bigger challenge for Modi.

Majority of the population in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu have affiliations and links with Tamils in Sri Lanka. Described as the second most sensitive region in India after Jammu and Kashmir, Tamil Nadu will see assembly elections in 2021. Ramachandran said the local political parties in Tamil Nadu will make treatment of Tamils in Sri Lanka a big electoral issue.

“The bottom line is that Gotabaya will be no less a strongman than Prime Minister Modi. It will be exceedingly foolish to adopt a prescriptive attitude toward Colombo. Any such attempt will meet with rebuff. Success lies in carrying the new president along,” the former envoy Bhadrakumar said.

Since 1987, India has heavily invested in Sri Lanka’s Tamil politics. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had brokered a deal with his Sri Lankan counterpart J. R. Jayewardene in July 1987, which stated the devolution of powers to Tamil dominated province. It was proposed to give self-rule to Tamils within Sri Lankan borders.

In November 1987, the Sri Lankan parliament passed the 13th amendment to its 1978 constitution to establish provincial councils and declare both Sinhalese and Tamil as national languages. But successive governments in Colombo have not implemented the amendment, which were then awaiting the end of militant group Tamil Tigers’ influence in Tamil areas.

The Tamil Tigers — demanding the secession of Tamil provinces — had rejected the deal.

On May 20, 1991, they assassinated Gandhi when he was campaigning in parliament elections in Tamil Nadu. The militant group was apprehensive that if Gandhi returned to power, he would dispatch Indian armed forces to enforce the deal.

He had earlier expressed his displeasure at the withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force from Sri Lanka by the Vishwanath Pratap Singh’s government.
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