Last week’s ‘pilgrimage to India’ by the delegation of Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leaders had an element of subservience shrouded in subterfuge. Details of the visit were hard to extract though our Political Editor managed to ferret out most. The TNA issued no statement, and the Indian Prime Minister’s Office issued a standard ‘nothing in [...]


TNA must engage Lankan leaders, not Indian


Last week’s ‘pilgrimage to India’ by the delegation of Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leaders had an element of subservience shrouded in subterfuge. Details of the visit were hard to extract though our Political Editor managed to ferret out most. The TNA issued no statement, and the Indian Prime Minister’s Office issued a standard ‘nothing in it’ statement. One is tempted to paraphrase what Winston Churchill once said in a radio broadcast on Russia – that these talks were a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma – but there is a key – the key is India’s national interest.

If one was to put it in the mildest possible way, the TNA visit was a discourteous one vis-à-vis the Government of Sri Lanka, with whom the TNA is also trying to strike a deal on power sharing. It also stirred the communal pot, and that would be eventually to its detriment, in the long run.

The Government of Sri Lanka whined that the new Government of India, installed in May this year, ought to have met a Sri Lankan Government delegation first, before meeting a political party from Sri Lanka, and particularly one that was to complain about the Government. Protocol and niceties in international relations nowadays have all gone by the board, but such an accusation is not quite correct; the new Indian Government did have substantive talks at summit level the day after the Indian PM took his oath of office, and then the two Ministers of External Affairs did meet in July.

The Tamil politicians of the North have long looked across the Palk Strait for succour and deliverance. They have exploited at every given opportunity the pan-Tamil sentiments of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to give them leverage in their negotiations with the Colombo Government. Their constant refrain has been the purported victimisation of a minority in Sri Lanka while at the same time using the superior numbers in Tamil Nadu to overwhelm a community in Sri Lanka that is, in fact, a minority in the regional context.

Whining as the TNA would have done to “Mother India” last week, and opening talks with the ruling BJP members in Chennai, it is pertinent to recall that the TNA seems to have won dividends by relying on India and Tamil Nadu in the past – and will, no doubt, look for dividends in the future too. The TNA’s constant lobbying of the previous Government in New Delhi together with the ‘coalition compulsions’ that Indian politics was entrenched in at the time, won it the creation of the Northern Provincial Council.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa capitulated to the pressure exerted by that Indian Government through the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolutions in Geneva and the Commonwealth summit (CHOGM) in Colombo. It was a quid pro quo. To get India’s vote and support in Geneva and the CHOGM, the Rajapaksa regime caved in to yielding the Northern Provincial Council. Now it is battling to keep the Council under lock and key – after the horse has bolted. The Chief Minister is strait- jacketed. Leave aside asking for additional powers under the 13th Amendment which helped create Provincial Councils, the Chief Minister doesn’t even have the powers other Provincial Councils in the ‘South’ have.

A case in point is the creation of the Chief Minister’s Fund which has been blocked. Here, the Chief Minister is asking for a Fund that would attract Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora funds for the development of the North. The otherwise vociferous, always complaining Diaspora has been slow in sending money for projects in the North other than small amounts to their families or school. The Chief Minister cannot seek these funds even though a Cabinet Minister is allowed to write direct to Muslim Heads of Governments asking for funds to help ‘his community’.

Take the recent drought. Asked if the Diaspora sent any assistance to people suffering from one of the worst droughts in recent times, one Government Agent in the North said there was no need for funds because Colombo provided assistance, while another said Colombo does not allow funds to be channelled direct. Colombo, no doubt, has concerns over direct funding, even if it is to be channelled through the Finance Ministry.

The TNA’s dalliance with India does not help allay those concerns. And the message from the new Indian Government seems to have been just that. Allay the perceived or real fears of Colombo, and win their trust. If the TNA was expecting a moral victory from going to New Delhi to brief the new Indian Prime Minister it may have come away somewhat disappointed. On the flip side are the consequences with the ‘Southern’ electorate which sees the TNA as a proxy party of India – a fifth column; ‘sheep in tiger clothing’ – and clearly, the higher echelons of the Government feel that their agenda is to win what the LTTE could not on the battlefield.

There is a ring of truth in President Rajapaksa’s words when he says that wherever the TNA may go, it has to come to him for a solution for its demands. The TNA may well be buoyed by its ability to have constituted the Northern PC through Indian intervention, but in the larger scheme of things, the country remains divided by this ‘Palmyrah curtain’ and efforts by well-meaning citizens, both in the ‘North’ and the ‘South’ to forge unity and reconciliation are being scuttled, at every turn, by the TNA and as a reaction to it, by the Government, each blaming the other without seeing the mote in their own eyes.

The TNA has to decide if it wants to work with the majority or keep protecting its turf and vote base by beating the communal drum; in the process depriving the people it represents of whatever is available to the people in the rest of the country. The TNA cannot hide its past of having encouraged the Northern militancy, which eventually consumed even the party. A respected secular Tamil leader V. Anandasangaree recently referred to the political skulduggery indulged in by TNA leaders to wrest control of the politics of the North. He laments that the next generation of TNA leaders are also hitching their political stars to the same communal wagon.

One thing is a certainty; that is that the TNA did not tell the Indian PM that the Northern Province it represents is the only province in the country that is virtually exclusively the preserve of one community in this otherwise multi-racial country. There are hardly any non-Tamil Government servants, especially in the Jaffna district. The thousands of Sinhalese and Muslims who lived and worked in the North had been chased away during the three decades-old separatist insurgency, and the TNA is doing nothing to bring them back and restore the status-quo. And now it complains of discrimination.

Swearing affidavits before the Supreme Court that they stand for a united Sri Lanka is a start to win back the lost trust but it must be accompanied by a genuine desire to work towards a united, unitary Sri Lanka. The TNA has a valid argument to object to a Parliamentary Select Committee packed with hardline Government MPs often seen as a mere rubber stamp of the Executive President to discuss its issues on the National Question. Even the other Opposition parties have objected to it. But the underlying message their leaders got from the new Government in India itself was to “Engage” (with the Sri Lankan Government). If the TNA is to have a wider view of what is best, not for itself, but for its people and to bring them into mainstream Sri Lanka that is what it must do, surely.

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