Hot on the heels of passing a resolution in support of an international war crimes investigation in Sri Lanka, the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) has passed a resolution calling for direct flights to India from Jaffna and Trincomalee (the latter is not even in the Northern Province and therefore outside the Council’s jurisdiction). The resolution [...]


North; Diaspora and India


Hot on the heels of passing a resolution in support of an international war crimes investigation in Sri Lanka, the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) has passed a resolution calling for direct flights to India from Jaffna and Trincomalee (the latter is not even in the Northern Province and therefore outside the Council’s jurisdiction). The resolution also called for Kankesanturai to be developed into a major commercial port so that trade with India could be vastly increased.

Significantly, the Tamil National Alliance member who proposed the resolution avoids calling upon India to relax the visa restrictions placed on his countrymen and women, including those whom he represents lest he offend the country in which his party has one leg all the time. He does not breathe a word against his overseas patron saint though he is all sound and fury against the Government of Sri Lanka.

The Government has reacted immediately, as it is wont to do, in rather pedantic fashion. It has cited the 13th Amendment and recited the provisions of devolved powers. Notwithstanding those limitations, utilising Jaffna and Trincomalee as hubs for greater inter-connectivity with the southern Indian region (not just Tamil Nadu, but the states of Kerala, Andhra, now Telengana, Karnataka and even Maharashtra) is something that should bring in huge economic dividends not just to North Sri Lanka but the entire country. There are indeed mutual benefits to be reaped by both the Northern Province and the rest of the country by ‘feeding’ on the huge, largely untapped markets of southern India.

One has to face it; Sri Lanka has to live with India until the tectonic plates shift to an extent that the geographic positioning of Earth takes a different shape. Therefore, to look at India with its teeming millions as a potential market is a proposition worth considering. The inherent dangers however are India’s foreign policy designs on Sri Lanka and the fear of being swamped by the sheer numbers of India.

It is a fact that relations with India that Sri Lanka’s former Foreign Minister once described as “irreversibly excellence” have now plunged into what they were in the post-1977 period when India conceived and engineered a separatist insurgency in Sri Lanka. Today, India is voting against Sri Lanka in Geneva in as unfriendly an act as can be.

In this context, it is interesting to see what a group of former diplomats from the Foreign Service, academics and economists from both countries have to say. They have seen the events unfold over the years, and with the benefit of hindsight this Indo-Lanka Joint Study Group, set up to initiate a discreet and informal dialogue to explore ways to strengthen the relations between the two neighbours has come up with a string of recommendations worthy of consideration by the political leadership of both India and Sri Lanka.

They have referred to challenges both countries will have to face in the future and the need to cast aside mutual suspicion and apprehension of each other’s motives. They call for a firmer foundation for closer cooperation in the fields of security, trade, education, health, culture and so forth.

They have identified India’s aggressive stand on the ‘ethnic problem’ in Sri Lanka as one of the causes for the deteriorating ties and Sri Lanka’s failure to fulfil certain bilateral commitments on the ethnic issue; coercive diplomacy leading to provocative statements and postures by both countries; the lack of adequate follow-up to the military victory in Sri Lanka with a political process; and the lack of rapport at leadership level including the paucity of high-level visits from India to Sri Lanka as some of the main drawbacks.

They recommend helping Sri Lankan enterprises plug into India’s supply chains, in both manufacturing and services and the building of strong links with entities in southern India –something a regional air service between the two countries will no doubt help; stronger links between the two Central Banks; jointly combating terrorism, trafficking in narcotics, people-smuggling and other forms of transnational organised crime; the need to set up a Joint Mechanism for the conservation of fisheries and marine resources in the Palk Strait amongst a host of other suggestions – and the need for both countries to refrain from raising in multilateral fora, issues which would best be dealt with at bilateral level.

This exercise by like-minded senior professionals from the two countries must not be an exercise in futility. While one would expect the mandarins (or is it the Brahmins) in New Delhi to take a look at these recommendations, or at least consider them for further discussion by the many think tanks in that country, how they would fare in Colombo is alas, a foregone conclusion. The Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of Foreign Relations and Strategic Studies which was established to take up such issues is still in its infancy, still dealing with book launches and lectures and the issuing of appreciations. It has yet to sink its teeth into serious foreign relations and strategic studies matters.

The Chief Minister of the Northern Province speaking at a lecture in Colombo on the subject “current situation in the Northern Province’ has given his views on what is amiss in his province. He refers to livelihood matters, but utters nary a word about the Indian fishermen poaching in ‘his waters’ and stealing the fish of ‘his people’. He also calls upon the Diaspora — and he is referring to the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora — for a “smooth flow of funds from our brethren abroad”– and thereby chips in towards post-war rebuilding in his province.

He speaks of ‘brain gain’ and hopes the Diaspora professionals who left Sri Lanka will come back with technical input and knowledge capital. That might be wishful thinking. He then laments that all this might be frustrated by restrictions on dual nationality. On the one hand he thinks that foreign remittances to the North are spoiling the youth; on the other hand he goes on to speak of funds from the Diaspora to jumpstart the Northern economy.

Last year in May, we made this call. We asked the same Diaspora to ‘walk the talk’ and help in the post- war recovery of the Northern Province– unless they wanted the province and its people to remain poverty-stricken, destitute and down in the dumps — so that they can keep blaming the Government in Colombo for the misery of ‘their people’. Many of them funded the war, they must now fund the reconstruction.

We said it then, and we say it now; the Northern Province needs infusion of capital and the Diaspora cannot wait for the Government in Colombo to do very much more than it is already doing. The Diaspora has a vital role to play in reconciliation and rehabilitation nearly five years after the end of what was indeed a tragic chapter in this country’s history.

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