Ensure Sri Lanka delivers
The visit by an Indian external affairs minister to Sri Lanka is always an important affair. Sri Lankans of all communities and political leanings watch it carefully. They listen to the statements and read between the lines. To many, especially for the Sri Lankan Tamils and the committed democratic sections of the Sri Lankan and Indian polity, these are moments of hope. S M Krishna has had a busy week in Sri Lanka. Can peoples’ hopes in a post-conflict situation be fulfilled by this visit?
Krishna’s visit has been more than symbolic. He handed over the first lot of 1,000 houses of the total 50,000 that is India’s contribution in post conflict reconstruction in the north of the country that remains easily one of the most devastated regions. This project is the largest among development assistance that India has undertaken in the world. In addition India has promised to pour in money to develop a platform for industry and telecom where Indian business is likely to get a decent share.
However what Tamils and democratic groups’ world over are really looking at are the key words that Krishna uttered and how will India uphold these ideals he committed to on behalf of the Indian people. Krishna hoped that the positive recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) would be implemented and said that India was hoping for a ‘genuine political settlement based on a devolution of power’ that would be ‘building upon the 13th amendment’ and lead to a lasting political settlement. He also said that ‘India will do anything possible to assist in this process’.
But what is the government of Sri Lanka really doing to bring back peace, build confidence and reconciliation between alienated communities; to deliver justice to the victims, the displaced and the missing of this civil war? International bodies that have legitimacy and credibility in recording conflict and post-conflict reconciliation like the International Crises Group, the Human Rights Watch, United Nations bodies, and Sri Lankan democratic and human rights groups as well of many Western governments say that the peace process in Sri Lanka is completely inadequate; that human rights have not been addressed. What is worse is that anyone who takes up these issues is targeted and an atmosphere of fear continues.
True, the LLRC brought out its report after 18 months. This report equally blames both Sri Lankan government policy for not addressing grievances of Tamil people and the Tamil leadership for taking up arms and conducting a fratricidal war. But it makes no effort to hold the culprits of the Tamil genocide responsible for its actions. In effect it takes no accountability and maintains denial. In these circumstances can the victims, the dead and the missing ever claim justice or compensation?
As far as the 13th amendment on provincial councils and devolution is concerned, history has repeatedly shown that since its controversial and divisive promulgation in 1988, the Sri Lankan ruling class only want a unitary system based on the intrinsically anti-democratic principle of majority rule with minimum minority rights. Various political parties have resisted actualising this amendment. The Sri Lankan Supreme Court is of the view that the unitary structure of the constitution remains intact. The Sri Lankan government’s repeated invocations that it will implement this have little conviction and sound like empty rhetoric. Moreover, if the 13th amendment was not put in place during the long years of civil war, will a triumphalist government that believes it has the support of the majority and clubs most opposition as anti-national now implement this?
The bigger question for India is do we want to be associated with these false promises and give assistance on the grounds that Colombo is actually likely to deliver? Or should we lean a bit more on Sri Lanka, given that the Indian tax payer’s money is going in for these big packages while India claims great power status in South Asia? Should we not trap them with their own rhetoric?
India clearly plays a big role in the local politics of Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan Tamils have ethnic links with India’s south despite the fact that are very distinct with their own different traditions and culture. India would like a stable, democratic and territorially integrated Sri Lanka and any conflict there in the past or future flows over and impacts India. The tragic and futile episodes of the Indian Peace Keeping Forces and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi seem to be written into the foreign policy psyche and are often cited as reasons for non-intervention.
But current reality should also be taken into account. The LTTE and insurgency are clearly over. There is no secessionist movement. The Tamil parties and leadership are committed like India is to an integrated, democratic and secular Sri Lanka, but one that also guarantees political and economic power to its north and east where Tamils live. So India needs to play a more pro-active role and put pressure for devolution through the 13th amendment with self-governance. This pressure is not hegemonic or interventionist but moral and normative. It will not go against India but ensure stability in favour of India and South Asia.
India is a great power in the region and aspires for this status worldwide. But what is it doing with this power? India should not deal with Sri Lanka through the prism of a geostrategic competitor like China but use its power for the common good of the region. India will have to show to Sri Lanka that its own success and integration is because of the democratic, federal, secular institutions that have enabled it to resolve many existential crises. The idea of minority rights is deeply ingrained in India’s constitution. Why should it not ask Sri Lanka to implement this in a fixed time-frame, especially since its minority community has suffered so much?