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India urged to act to help Tamils live in dignity in Sri Lanka: Can Modi pressure the Rajapaksas?

It is open to speculation what and how much India can do for the minority Tamils vis-à-vis Colombo, which is slowly again extending a hand of friendship to New Delhi after trying to prop up China as a counter, writes M R Narayan Swamy for South Asia Monitor

M.R. Narayan Swamy Jan 11, 2022
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Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi

In a development of regional political import, leaders of 10 Sri Lankan Tamil political parties – including those with pro-LTTE tendencies – have come together to urge India to goad Colombo into taking steps to let Tamils live in peace, dignity and self-respect in the island nation’s northeast. After shunning New Delhi for a long time, the leaders have overcome internal differences to appeal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to again pay due attention to Tamil interests while dealing with the Sri Lankan leadership. 

In a memorandum to Modi to be submitted to the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo on Tuesday or Wednesday, they have pointed out that for over 40 years India has actively worked to find “a just and lasting solution that satisfies the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil speaking peoples… We remain committed to a political solution based on a federal structure that recognizes our legitimate aspirations”. 

The signatories include R. Sampanthan, MP, Mano Ganeshan, MP, Mavai Senathiraja, C.V. Wigneshwaran, MP, A. Adaikalanathan, MP, Darmalingam Siththadthan, MP, V. Radhakrishnan, MP, P. Digambaram, MP, K. Premchandran and N. Srikantha. 

13th Amendment 

The underlying demand is that Sri Lanka, despite many promises, has pulled away from the 13th amendment to the Constitution that came up in the wake of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord to devolve powers to provinces so that Tamils, as a minority, get to enjoy a piece of governance in the north and east. 

The Tamil parties want the restoratsion to the provinces all provisions relating to law and order, finance, land, education and agrarian services. They also want provincial council elections to take place in line with assurances given by the government to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reforms. 

The parties want to be implemented in word and spirit the use of Sinhala and Tamil as languages of governmental use and recognition of both languages as national languages and English as the link language.  

They want an immediate end to all attempts by Colombo to systematically change the demographic pattern of the north and east, described as the traditional homeland of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. The Archaeological Department, Mahaweli Authority, Forest Department, Wild Life Department, Tourist Board and the Defence/Internal Security Ministry must cease activities that seek to destroy evidences that confirm the north and east as historical habitation of the Tamils. 

Sinhala domination 

The Tamil parties complain that Tamil villages in the border areas between the northern and eastern provinces are altered by either attaching them to Sinhala areas or bringing Sinhala villagers into Tamil areas to alter the ethnic composition to make Tamils minorities in their own areas.   

They want the axing of the Prevention of Terrorism Act or PTA as it is mainly against the Tamils and Muslims. All those held under the PTA should be released. 

With a view to get adequate representation to racial and political nationalities and minorities living scattered in the island, whether Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim or any other, small political parties representing such interest groups must be enabled to enter parliament and provincial councils. Hence, the proportional representation method must continue. 

The leaders want the Presidential Commission on “One Country One Law” to go as it will prevent Tamils and Muslims from practicing their customary laws and preserving their culture, customs and practices.  

The memorandum has pointed out that when President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa visited India in November 2019, Prime Minister Modi stated: “We openly exchanged views on reconciliation in Sri Lanka. President Rajapaksa told me about his inclusive political outlook on ethnic harmony. I am confident that the government of Sri Lanka will carry forward the process of reconciliation, to fulfill the aspirations of the Tamils for equality, justice, peace and respect. It also includes the implementation of the 13th amendment.” 

Colombo lets down Tamils 

After promising repeatedly to implement the 13th amendment, the Tamil parties say that Colombo has acted dishonestly. 

“Successive Sri Lankan governments have not only failed in the full implementation of the provisions in the Constitution with regard to devolution and parity of status to the Tamil language but have unilaterally reacquired powers and institutions from the provinces, which continues to date.  

“In addition, lands belonging to the Tamil speaking peoples are continuing to be grabbed by the State under various pretexts, with a view to radically alter the demography of the North and East. This must be halted immediately, or else the provisions of the Indo-Lankan Accord will be rendered nugatory.” 

Finally, Modi has been requested to urge Sri Lanka to fufill all its promises made from 1987 – the year New Delhi and Colombo signed an accord under which Indian troops were deployed in the island’s northeast to end Tamil separatism. 

Ever since the Sri Lankan military wiped out the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Colombo turned its back to the promises it made over the decades regarding power-sharing with the minorities. The Rajapaksas in particular have been engaged in aggressively promoting a Sinhala-Buddhist platform. 

Delhi's response 

It is open to speculation what and how much India can do for the minority Tamils vis-à-vis Colombo, which is slowly again extending a hand of friendship to New Delhi after trying to prop up China as a counter. Beijing’s aggressive moves have not been totally to the liking of many Sri Lankan leaders. 

One thing is clear. There is a visible change in thinking in sections of Tamils who had been taking potshots at India since the LTTE insurgency was crushed, blaming New Delhi for the development. Large sections of the Tamil diaspora have also come to believe that Tamil aspirations in Sri Lanka cannot move forward without the blessings of India.  

Just what Modi can do remains to be seen, as Tamil aspirations in Sri Lanka are closely linked with the politics of the southern Indian states of Tamil Nadu whose people have cross-strait links with Sri Lanka's Tamils.  

(The writer is a veteran journalist, author and Sri Lanka watcher. The views expressed are personal)

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