The intricacies of the Indian factor

Travel broadens the mind, and so, it is a positive development that a delegation from both Indian Houses of Parliament visited Sri Lanka this week. Their brief was to see how the people of this land live, and if they do so in peace. To liken it to the historic visits made by Ven. Mahinda Thera may be going over the top, but it was a welcome visit given the fractured relations between the two countries separated by a narrow strip of sea called the Palk Strait.

Surely, Sri Lanka has been the least of India's neighbourhood worries. The Agni-V intercontinental ballistic missile fired on Thursday enabling India to join the nuclear club was not developed due to any threat from its only southern neighbour, surely.

The diplomatic missiles fired on Sri Lanka nevertheless have been frequent. It is unfortunate that the visiting Indian delegation, partly here to voice their concerns on the minorities living in Sri Lanka, did not have any minority Muslims or Dalits in their own 'Team India'. A Scheduled Caste MP yes, but not from other marginalized communities, who have been at the receiving end of innumerable instances of barbaric roasting by the majority in India from time to time.

The two main Tamil Nadu political parties also opted out. As one pocket cartoonist of a local daily succinctly put it; these Tamil Nadu political parties that howl day in and day out about the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils "may not have wanted to get confused by the facts". It was therefore neither an All Party nor All Community delegation that the Indian parliament could muster.

Still, the visiting delegation would have seen how different communities live in harmony here and the aberrations they hear of are not the rule but the exception as much as they experience in their own country. To say anything else, would be an elasticity of the truth, and it is unfortunate that their parting statement yesterday made no reference to this aspect of life in Sri Lanka.

They however were dismissive of the day dreams of Tamil Nadu leaders who, from their tinted glasses, wish to see a Tamil Eelam on Sri Lankan soil. Make no mistake, India kept saying it respected Sri Lanka's sovereignty right through the years it actively supported the secessionist insurgency in Sri Lanka. Leaders of the Tamil Nadu-based political parties have from time to time spoken of supporting a 'Tamil Eelam' in Sri Lanka. They know they simply cannot utter a word about a Tamil Eelam on their own soil because the Indian Constitution prohibits such talk. It doesn't mind them talking about separate states in other countries.

What the Indian MPs must go back and report is that not all of Sri Lanka is linked to Tamil Nadu. The delegation (five of them were from Tamil Nadu) in their discussions here seem to accept that Indo-Sri Lanka relations cannot be Tamil-centric. Most Sri Lankans are "lovers of India, admirers of her people and followers of her greatest son, Gautama the Buddha", as one former President said on a state visit to India.

Thousands of Lankan pilgrims now fly direct to Varanasi or Buddha Gaya or travel by train through Indian cities to walk on the hallowed ground sanctified by the touch of the feet of the Buddha. There has been a deep sense of affinity between the peoples of the two countries, from time immemorial, something not even the parochial politics of Tamil Nadu or New Delhi has impaired even in the worst of times.

A one-time Sri Lankan Foreign Minister referred to the relations between the two countries being of "irreversible excellence", and he did not, could not, confine it to the political and diplomatic relations but rather to the bonds between the people of Sri Lanka and India.

Much is being made of the Indian delegation's visit coming in the wake of the anti-Sri Lanka vote by India at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva last month, and that this visit was to pacify Sri Lanka. No doubt Sri Lankans would see that vote as a stab-in-the-back. But then they understand the political realities of a complex India.
This is why India's exhortations to follow its model, so far as devolution of political power goes, is taken with a virus guard. Just this week, four Indian Chief Ministers, including the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu went public to say they don't trust the Central Government in New Delhi. These Federal states have all the police and land powers but they are not happy with the Central Government.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in Sri Lanka wants "Indian style devolution" here. India is a sub-continent not a mere country. It is 50 times the size of Sri Lanka. The state of Rajasthan alone is five times the size of Sri Lanka. Tamil Nadu has fifty per cent more voters than Sri Lanka's entire population. Not only must India necessarily have a federal structure, there are those who argue that it must be divided into separate states like in Europe in a European Union. Devolution there is fraught with complexities and complications, more so when it comes to national security issues.

Let's face it. Sri Lanka is wary of the devolution manthra being parroted by India. Many see it as India's attempt to have a proxy or puppet 'Government' installed in the North preferably by its authorized local agent, the TNA. India may have beaten Sri Lanka at the World Cup final last year, but Sri Lankans can recognize a doosra when one comes at them. The problem, however, is that the Sri Lankan President no less has promised "13+" verbally, and to implement the 13th Amendment as far back as in 2009 when a resolution was introduced soon after the military defeat of the LTTE at the UNHRC. India voted for Sri Lanka then. Last year, the Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister went to India and promised the same thing. Now, India wants that promise fulfilled.

Notwithstanding whatever the Sri Lankan President may have said or his External Affairs Minister promised, there is public resistance to giving more powers to the provinces. That of course, does not mean devolution as a means of administrative necessity must be ruled out in its entirety. If devolution of powers in the context of any 13+ is a 'no-no', the District Councils as the unit of devolution and certain administrative powers, including limited land and police powers being decentralized is a 'can-can'.

The Government is caught in its own cleverness and needs to extricate itself. Meanwhile, one can only hope that the visiting Indian parliamentary delegation takes with it a realistic view of Sri Lanka, not one from an imperial standpoint.

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Editorial Archive 2012 
01st January 2012 - The hopes and fears of 2012
08th January 2012 - Education fails
15th January 2012 - Ties with India vital but not at any price
22nd January 2012 - Handling India the President's way
29th January 2012 - Political stability - not autocracy
05th February 2012 - Freedom struggle continues overseas
12th February 2012 - Lesson from the Maldives: Listen to the people
19th February 2012 - Belt-tightening must start at the top
26th February 2012 - Good governance the answer
04th March 2012 - Treasury acting like the Kremlin
11th March 2012 - Women as Agents of Change
18th March 2012 - India: To be or not to be with Lanka
25th March 2012 - Reassess foreign and domestic policies
01st April 2012 - Stop quibbling; implement LLRC report
08th April 2012 - Bouquets for BRICS
15th April 2012 - Hope for the best, prepare for the worst
22nd April 2012 - The intricacies of the Indian factor
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