In October 1987, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was compelled to act, when the LTTE embarked on a rampage of killing Sinhalas in Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, then attending a Commonwealth Summit in Canada, deputed me to meet Tamil Nadu chief minister M G Ramachandran (MGR), then convalescing in the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, to explain the background to the IPKF crackdown. Despite impairment in his speech, MGR acknowledged that the LTTE had crossed the threshold of India’s forbearance. He instructed his government to crack down on its remaining cadres in Tamil Nadu. MGR was bemused by the support being extended by his rival, M Karunanidhi, to the LTTE, as barely two years earlier the DMK leader had condemned the LTTE for killing his protégé in Sri Lanka, Sri Sabaratnam, chief of the LTTE’s armed rival, the TELO. Clearly, partisan politics, more than humanitarian concerns, has motivated leaders in Tamil Nadu in the past, though current Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has taken a consistent position against the venality and depredations of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
While India’s foreign policy is premised on the principle of non-interference in other’s internal affairs, it has necessarily to be compromised when people of Indian origin face discrimination and violence on grounds of race, religion or language—be it in the US or UK, Uganda or Kenya, Fiji or Sri Lanka. Not surprisingly, foreign countries then tell us that we should not be oversensitive when they voice concern at what they believe are manifestations of discrimination against ethnic or religious minorities in our country. India has, therefore, to tread carefully in its approach to the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka. The issue came into focus in New Delhi again, when Jayalalithaa made it clear during her first visit that after the LTTE was eliminated in 2009, displaced Sri Lankan Tamils have been persistently deprived of basic human rights. She also alluded to the problems arising from Tamil Nadu fishermen being treated brutally by the Sri Lanka navy, when straying into Sri Lankan waters.
The problem of fishermen can be dealt with in negotiations with Sri Lanka, by working out modalities to observe the provisions of the 2008 agreement that excluding what Sri Lanka considers as “sensitive areas”, there would be “practical arrangements” to deal with bonafide Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen crossing the International Boundary Line. Sri Lanka would be well advised to see that the spirit of this agreement is respected by its navy. But, beliefs that India can rescind the 1974 and 1976 agreements, on the uninhabited Kachativu Island, appear to be misplaced. The proposed transfer of Beru Bari to Bangladesh (earlier East Pakistan) involved a transfer of what was clearly Indian territory. The demarcation of the maritime boundary, under which India acknowledged Sri Lankan sovereignty over Kachativu, was, however, based on the internationally recognised principle of the median line and in consonance with Article 15 of the Law of the Seas.
The ethnic conflict left over 3,00,000 Tamils, described as “Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)”, in refugee camps. India has committed Rs 1,000 crore for their rehabilitation, including provision of materials for rebuilding homes. Large-scale medical assistance has also been extended. A programme to reconstruct 50,000 houses was undertaken in 2010 and Tamil farmers assisted with supply of seeds, tractors and agricultural implements. In long-term, the best way for the Tamils to be assisted would be to set up educational and vocational training institutes in the Tamil-dominated northern and the mixed ethnic eastern provinces in Sri Lanka. Moreover, Indian industry should be facilitated to invest in IT parks and industrial units in these areas. The issue of devolution of powers to Tamils in Sri Lanka will require imaginative diplomacy by New Delhi. Dealing with welfare issues will also require a robust Centre-state partnership, devoid of partisan politics.
The writer is a former diplomat