Not pooja but prudence

With the advent of the monsoon comes the thunder and rain. Across the narrow Palk Straits, there is more -- political thunder and hot air. (Please see the Political Commentary, alongside)

Elections are round the corner. Politicians and political parties need to get the people's vote. And there is no more emotive issue in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The Sri Lanka Government adopted a cavalier approach to this fire burning in the neighbourhood with the Cabinet spokesman saying "We have not been informed" -- a kind of naive 'if we are not told it's not happening' approach.

This did not last long, and this week, the Central Government of India in New Delhi, under intense pressure from its political allies in Tamil Nadu, formally conveyed the concerns "being expressed in India" to the Government of Sri Lanka.

There is a distinct difference in this message to the belligerent tone from New Delhi in 1987 when the Sri Lankan Forces were advancing into the Vadamarachchi area and running through LTTE defences. The military intervention by India to that exercise is history and one would expect India to be understandably angrier with the LTTE and a whole lot more prudent now. The editor of The Hindu newspaper said this week, soon after pro-LTTE activists burnt their newspapers for criticising them, that since 1991 (presumably when former Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi was murdered by the LTTE) no Tamil Nadu party has dared campaign on a pro-LTTE platform.

Through it all, one thing has stood, however strained and tested -- the bond between the peoples of the two countries. The Indian Government must surely rue its decision to foist an insurgency in Sri Lanka, once its friendliest neighbour. It was the adventurism of external intelligence agencies who found a willing partner in a slighted political leader to destabilise the neighbourhood.

One-time Prime Minister Morarji Desai refused to subscribe to these machinations, but his period in office was short-lived. India discarded its old (Mahatma) Gandhian policies and embraced the new (Indira) Gandhian policies. Today, that gung-ho policy seems to have mellowed.

Any Sri Lankan Tamil will testify about the treatment he receives from the Tamil Nadu authorities. No doubt, the Tamil Nadu state administration has provided the refugees some relief by way of housing and education, but then, the Sri Lankan insurgency is their own making. They have reaped what they sowed. In the immediate aftermath of the '83 riots, a reputed Indian magazine India Today interviewed plantation Tamils who had been repatriated to India under the Sirima-Shastri Pact. Told about the massacre of innocent Tamils in Sri Lanka, they shot back; "It is better to die in Sri Lanka than live in Tamil Nadu like this". This is probably why, despite all the hardships, other than for a few thousands, some of them prompted to leave by the LTTE themselves so as to create headlines in Tamil Nadu, the vast majority of Sri Lankan Tamils have opted to remain in the island.

The Sri Lankan politicians of the Tamil National Alliance were reportedly travelling to Chennai to stir the pot by giving exaggerated casualty figures of the fighting in the Wanni. This week, former Australian Foreign Minister and current UN Special Envoy to Cyprus, Alexander Downer, a highly respected figure in world affairs was in Colombo to deliver the Lakshman Kadirgamar Memorial Lecture. He spoke of the newly emerging concept in international law which tests the traditional theory of sovereignty -- the controversial 'Responsibility to Protect' or 'R2P' principle. This advocates the right of the 'international community' under the mandate of the UN to intervene in any country, irrespective of its sovereignty, if there is mass-scale genocide or other humanitarian crisis. Lest he be misunderstood, Mr. Downer added that Sri Lanka was nowhere near that benchmark. And then, he sounded a cautionary note -- that very often, foreign intervention can aggravate an already existing problem.

India learnt that lesson when the LTTE bit the hand that fed it. Today, Indian business interests in Sri Lanka are such that any hint of a recurrence of the anti-Indian feeling of the 1980s would be utterly detrimental to Indian investment.

Sri Lanka has already paid a high price. Now, the Government is being arm-twisted into implementing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which was force-fed back in 1987 as a political panacea for the LTTE demand for a separate state. This country has been saddled with a dead-duck Provincial Council system purely to assuage India's mantra for a political solution in Sri Lanka. But yet, Sri Lanka must accept the real-politik of it all; not necessarily paying pooja at India's feet, but to do much more in reaching out to a beleaguered Indian Government and an emotive Tamil Nadu constituency. The message that this is a war against the LTTE and not the Tamils must ring louder in those centres across the northern seas.

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