Sri Lanka: Reading between the lines on Indian delegation to Colombo - By Col. R. Hariharan
By Col. R. Hariharan, SAAG, 23-Apr-2012 - There are both positives and negatives in the reports on the Indian parliamentary delegation’s six-day visit to Colombo. The reports include a statement of Mrs Sushma Swaraj, the multi-party delegation leader issued at the end of the visit, as well as inputs on the press conference she addressed in Colombo.
But what was left unsaid can be read between the lines in these reports. These are equally important to gain a balanced perspective on issues that impact India-Sri Lanka relations.
Despite the polemics generated in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka after the two major Dravidian parties boycotted the delegation, the delegation appears to have done a fairly good job bringing back the focus on the post-war issues critical for the growth and sustenance of India’s friendly relations with Sri Lanka. In this respect, this delegation defied Ms Jayalalithaa’s description as a “mere eye wash”.
In fact it has done a more creditable job than the Kanimozhi led-delegation of Tamil Nadu MPs (belonging to DMK, Congress and Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi) which visited Sri Lanka (October-2009) on “a fact-finding mission” that came out as a botched-up political PR job. Mrs Sushma Swaraj, experienced leader of the opposition in parliament from the BJP, ably led the delegation and had a clear agenda focusing on current issues bugging India-Sri Lanka relations. The BJP has been sympathetic to the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils and wanted India to take a strong stand on some of the basic issues. The Congress members, known individually for their clarity on Sri Lanka issue, probably had a competitive interest in performing better than the BJP. All these things have contributed to the delegation’s performance.
President Rajapaksa’s assurance on 13th amendment
According to Colombo media report, Mrs Swaraj told the news conference President Rajapaksa had given assurance to the delegation that he would enforce provisions of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and “go beyond it”. The Daily Mirror, Colombo said “However, presidential spokesperson Bandula Jayasekera, who was present at the news conference, declined to comment on Ms. Swaraj’s statement.”
It further added: “When a journalist pointed out that government ministers had denied reported assurances given by President Rajapaksa to Indian External Affairs Minister Krishna in January, the Indian Opposition Leader replied, there is no question of ministers saying and denying anything. The President himself said he would concede both the 13th Amendment and the plus.”
However, The Hindu says: “Asked if she or the delegation brought up with the President the fact that he had made promises of devolution and a political solution in May 2009 (to U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon), in July 2010 (to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh), in January 2012 (to External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna), she said: ‘We emphasised this point in every meeting. Even today with Mahinda Rajapaksaji and, as you rightly said, we also reminded them that you have given assurance to the Prime Minister of India, the Hon. External Affairs Minister of India and even to me, as the Leader of Opposition [in the Lok Sabha] when I called on him”.
“But they say that Parliamentary Select Committee will discuss this and they said that we are very, very serious. We said that you are not only talking about 13th Amendment but also 13th Amendment plus. That means something more than the devolution of power,” she added.
This would show that there is no change in President’s game plan in dealing with Indian leaders – agree with what they say and carry on as before. As it is going to be business as usual in Temple Trees, we can expect the ‘un-reconciled’ reconciliation process to drag on further. What is going to be New Delhi’s next move? New Delhi may have no easy answer for this in present scheme of things; probably it would mean starting all over again as King Vikramaditya did in the classical Indian tale.
Political process for reconciliation
The delegation clearly spelled out its views on the political reconciliation process. It suggested Sri Lanka should seize window of opportunity and “follow an enlightened approach to reach a genuine political reconciliation, based on a meaningful devolution of powers, which takes into account the legitimate needs of the Tamil people for equality, dignity, justice and self-respect*. “We have been assured in the past that this will be done within the framework of ‘Thirteenth Amendment-Plus” *[emphasis added].
It urged all stakeholders including the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to move towards an early political settlement. It also said conditions for launching of parliamentary select committee need to be created by all stakeholders.
This highlights (probably for the nth time) India's unhappiness at the lack of progress in the reconciliation progress. But are the other stakeholders listening?
Reconstruction and rehabilitation
The delegation’s statement, while noting the improved situation regarding the resettlement of IDPs, found significant number of IDPs continued to be in “transit situations or with host families.” It reminded all concerned [perhaps including India] “Our task will not be complete until they return to their original homes. Similarly, while there has been substantial progress in the area of rehabilitation and reconstruction, a lot remains to be done.”
In other words, the progress made in the resettlement process is not enough; it will have to be speeded up and India was “prepared to assist in whatever way possible” in this process.
On reconstruction projects aided by India, the delegation expressed satisfaction, though there is a lot still to be done.
Implementing LLRC recommendations
One of the important points of the delegation's talks during the visit was the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) recommendations. Mrs Swaraj has clarified that the delegation “brought out clearly the need for expeditious implementation of the measures proposed by the LLRC with regard to information on missing persons and detainees, investigation of cases of disappearances and abductions….It is important that these are pursued with a sense of urgency. This is the message we have conveyed to our Sri Lankan friends”.
On the recent UNHRC Resolution on Sri Lanka and obliquely to India’s support to it] she is reported to have said that all that it was asking was to implement the LLRC recommendations which were “Sri Lanka’s baby”. Her query ‘What was wrong with a Resolution asking the country to implement her own Commission’s recommendations?’ is worth pondering.
What she left unsaid was that India was not happy at the absence of follow up action on measures proposed by the LLRC relating to individual freedom - disappearances, prisoners, etc - which are well within the realms of administration to implement within the exiting legal framework. And time is the essence of Sri Lanka’s sincerity in responding to these ‘doable’ concerns. Nothing illustrates the current dismal state of individual security than the “mysterious” disappearance and reappearance of Prema Kumar Gunaratnam and Ms Dimuthu Attygalle belonging to the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), newly formed out of dissident members of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), that happened on the eve of the Indian delegation’s visit.
Reducing army presence in the North
During her interaction with the press, Mrs Swaraj said the issue of increasingly embedded role of army in society in Northern Province also came up when they met the President. “We told them [the government] that Army is interfering in their [Tamils'] personal life, in their civil life. And the President was very candid. He said he would see to it that the Army would not interfere in their civil life,” she added.
This is not the first time the issue had come up in India-Sri Lanka interactions. It is not clear why President Rajapaksa is not confident of reducing army’s visible presence in every aspect of life in Northern Province. Is the Tamil Nadu political rhetoric in support of an independent Tamil Eelam making Sri Lanka nervous, or is it providing an excuse to keep large formations of army in Northern Province? Tamil Nadu leaders may think about it before they make inflammatory statements, if they are serious about Sri Lankan Tamils plight.
A time-bound agenda for Sri Lanka
One of the requirements of the much maligned UNHCR resolution was Sri Lanka should come out with a time-bound plan for implementing the recommendations of the LLRC. The Indian parliamentary delegation has made Sri Lanka’s job easy by listing the items still outstanding in Sri Lanka’s post war recovery. It is contained in the final paragraph of the delegation's statement:
“Our discussions over the last four days have brought out clearly:
The need for expeditious implementation of the measures proposed by the LLRC with regard to information on missing persons and detainees,
Investigation of cases of disappearances and abductions,
Promotion of a trilingual policy,
Reduction of high security zones,
Return of private lands by the military and demilitarization, including phasing out of the involvement of the security forces in civilian activities and restoration of civilian administration in the Northern Province.
We have noted the assurance given by the Government of Sri Lanka in Parliament that it will ensure the withdrawal of security forces from community life and confine their role to security matters.”
All that is required is to check-list the items on a time scale to monitor progress made; but the question is who will do it – President Rajapaksa’s government? Tamil polity? India? UNHCR? I think all of them have to do their bit so that Sri Lanka comes true to its 18th century name ‘Serendip’ (lucky find).
(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: email@example.com)