Indian Parliamentary Delegation: How long should Thamils wait for justice, dignity, equality and self-respect?

By: Veluppillai Thangavelu

Although, the Indian parliamentary delegation led by the charismatic Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Smt. Sushma Swaraj has returned to New Delhi after a 6 days hectic visit to Sri Lanka, the debate about the success or failure of the visit still hangs in the air. That the delegation was led by the Leader of the Opposition showed the bipartisan or multi-party cooperative approach on the Thamil issue within the Indian polity.

The Indian coup did not stop there. It was Smt. Swaraj who performed all the honours where ever she went whether opening the railway line laid by India or the distribution of Indian aid to the war-affected Thamil population. Such understanding is rarely witnessed even in the West and demonstrates the fact that India's foreign policy on Sri Lanka is bi-partisan between the government and the opposition.

The joint delegation was tasked to interact with the top leaders across Sri Lanka's political spectrum and assess progress on rehabilitating the IDPs and other development projects initiated by India.

The delegation was supposed to consist of 14 parliamentarians from 9 prominent political parties from both the houses of Parliament and scheduled to start on 16th of April, but it encountered set-backs from day one. Chief Minister and AIADMK General Secretary Selvi Jayalalithaa withdrew her nominee terming the proposed visit a mere “eyewash” and expressing doubt whether there would be any genuine interaction between Indian MPs and Sri Lankan Thamils.

In what was a major embarrassment to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre, DMK president M. Karunanidhi also withdrew his nominee from the delegation. “There were examples in the past that tell us that such delegations would not serve any useful purpose, therefore, the DMK will not be part of the delegation,” DMK president M. Karunanidhi told reporters. Originally, the DMK had nominated T.K.S. Elangovan to represent it in the delegation. Two other parties the Trinamool Congress and Janata Dhalam also withdrew their nominees which saw the original 16 reduced to 12 man delegation.

With both the DMK and the AIADMK staying away from the delegation, Thamil Nadu was represented by four Congress MPs – E.M. Sudarsana Natchiappan, Manick Tagore, N.S.V. Chitthan and M. Krishnasamy – and CPI (M) member T.K. Rangarajan. MDMK general secretary Mr. Vaiko described the move to send a parliamentary delegation to assess the rehabilitation and political process in Lanka a ‘drama' staged by the Central government. He told reporters that the delegation was an eye wash and it would do no good to the Thamil people. "If the Centre really wanted to help the Tamils, then it should urge the Sri Lankan government to withdraw the troops from the Northern and Eastern parts of Sri Lanka, remove forced Sinhalese settlements and the international community to create a conducive atmosphere to hold a referendum on the question of Tamil Eelam."

Both Selvi Jayalalithaa and M. Karunanidhi had valid reasons to be pessimistic about the usefulness of the delegation after perusing the agenda. In October, 2009 only months after the end of the war 10 MPs led by T.R. Balu, Minister for Shipping visited Sri Lanka. The delegation comprised only members of DMK, Congress and Viduthalai Chiruthaikal Katchi (VCK), a composition that drew criticism that it was not a parliamentary delegation but only a UPA team that it spent more time in wining, dining and receiving gifts than visiting camps for the displaced Thamils and interacting with them.

The criticism about the inadequacy of the agenda set by the delegation forced Foreign Ministry of India to revise same to accommodate visits to meet the IDPs first hand. In a statement, the Ministry said the delegation will start its programme in Northern Sri Lanka with a visit to the IDP Camp at Manickam Farm in Vavuniya.

"The primary focus of the delegation will, however, be in the areas recovering from thirty years of conflict in the North and East of Sri Lanka where development assistance projects for the resettlement and rehabilitation of IDPs and reconstruction of areas affected by the conflict are being undertaken by India, and the MPs were scheduled to visit Vavuniya, Mullaitivu, Jaffna, Kankesanthurai, Kalutara, Dickoya, Hatton and Batticaloa where Indian assistance projects are under implementation" the Ministry of External Affairs said. India is engaged in building Sri Lanka's railway system and the northern port of Kankesanturai, besides building 50,000 houses for Thamils displaced by the war.

Had the Foreign Ministry did their home work in time by including visits to people affected by the war and living in temporary camps without basic facilities, the AIADMK and MDK might have joined the delegation instead of staying away from it.

When the Indian joint parliamentary delegation reached Colombo, Sri Lankan government was busy on damage-control after JHU leader and Energy Minister Champika Ranawakka raising Sri Lanka's reservations over the Koodamkulam nuclear power project (KNPP) in Thamil Nadu. Another rabble-rouser Minister Wimal Weerawansa too was spitting fire calling for the boycott of US goods.

The delegation toured Sri Lanka between April 16 and 21. It had a punishing schedule starting the day as early as 8.30 am till 10.00 pm visiting North-eastern provinces which bore the brunt of three decades of bloodshed, besides making a visit to central and southern parts of the island. The delegation also interacted with representatives of the Sri Lankan government as well as political parties representing various sections of the Thamil community.

The delegation met with Sri Lankan parliament's Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa, Minister for Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa, External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris and the Leader of the House in the Sri Lankan Parliament Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva. The delegation also had talks with the Thamil National Alliance (TNA) and the stalemate over the latter's demand of giving revenue and police powers to the Northern and Eastern provinces under the 13th Amendment plus approach.

Normally visit by an Indian Parliamentary delegation involves a few courtesy calls, exchanging pleasantries, a little bit of sight seeing and even shopping. But, this time around, several Ministers, the Leader of the Sri Lankan Parliament, 39 MPs, representatives of the main Thamil parties — all had meetings with the delegation, and had extensive discussions on the present situation in Sri Lanka. The delegation also met representatives of the Thamil United Liberation Front (TULF) and Ceylon Workers Congress. The TULF handed over a memorandum which made it clear that a “meaningful devolution which can meet the aspirations of the Thamil people, based on the Indian model only can bring permanent peace and reconciliation among the various communities.”

The delegation used Sri Lankan government helicopters to visit Manickam farm in Vavuniya, and inspected various Indian development projects in Sri Lanka. Despite heavy presence of the army and Government Ministers the Manickam farm families in the camp vented their anger at the government's failure to resettle them in their own homes. They complained about the poor quality of rice and other foodstuffs dole to them by the government. They said they are unfit for human consumption. Recently a cyclone slammed several tarpaulin huts in this camp.

When the delegation visited the Thamil-dominated northern and eastern provinces the people demanded the withdrawal of the Army. They complained about the intrusion of the army in every facet of their social life. “They come to birthday parties uninvited or enter temples,” Thamils told the delegation members.

Before the departure Smt. Swaraj had a one to one meeting with President Rajapaksa where she conveyed the concerns of the Indian government. Mahinda Rajapaksa told Smt. Swaraj she could only request the TNA and not force them to be part of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) which had been tasked to work out an acceptable solution to all stakeholders. “We told [Sri Lankan] President Mahinda Rajapaksa that this stalemate has to be broken, he [Mr. Rajapaksa] said we can't bring them [the Thamil National Alliance, the credible representative of the Thamils living in the Northern Province] by force. I said yes, you can't bring them by force, but you can bring them by persuasion,” said Smt. Swaraj. TNA has refused to nominate its members to the parliamentary committee as it feels the process would be meaningless unless its key demands were met.

One of the many points Smt. Swaraj raised in the meeting with the President related to the Army's increasingly embedded role in society in the Northern Province. “We told them [the government] that Army is interfering in their [Thamils'] personal life, in their civil life. And the President was very candid. He said he would see to it that the Army would not interfere in their civil life,” Smt. Swaraj said. Speaking at the press conference held in Colombo Smt. Swaraj suggested urgent consultations to create conditions for launching of the Parliamentary Select Committee. The delegation hoped that the Sri Lankan Government will seize this window of opportunity and follow an enlightened approach to reach a genuine political reconciliation, based on a meaningful devolution of powers. This should take into account the legitimate needs of the Thamil people for equality, dignity, justice and self-respect.

Smt. Swaraj also underlined the “need for expeditious implementation of the measures proposed by the LLRC. This concerns information on missing persons and detainees, investigation of cases of disappearances and abductions, promotion of a trilingual policy, reduction of high security zones, return of private lands by the military and demilitarization, including phasing out of the involvement of the security forces in civilian activities and restoration of civilian administration in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka."

Commenting on the resettlement process of the IDPs Smt. Swaraj said that they witnessed an improved situation in the resettlement process of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the Sri Lanka’s war ravaged north, but said that there are significant numbers of IDPs are in transit camps or with host families.

After returning to New Delhi Smt. Swaraj briefed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh a first-hand assessment on the post-war situation in the country. National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon and Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai were present during the meeting held on Monday, the newspaper said.

Smt. Swaraj told journalists on April 24th (Tuesday) that during her recent meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa she discussed devolution of powers to provinces, as envisaged in the 13th Amendment to the island nation's Constitution and urged that the Government hold negotiations with the Thamil National Alliance (TNA) to resolve the grievances of Thamils.

“TNA wants a negotiated settlement. Its members say they are proud to be called Sri Lankans. They are against violence and stand for an undivided Sri Lanka. So we asked the government, what is the hitch? We made a fervent appeal to both parties — the Thamils and the government — for settling the issues,” Smt. Swaraj said. She said the decision of India to vote in favour of the U.S.-sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Commission was raised by Sri Lankan leaders. Colombo was upset with New Delhi for voting on the resolution. Smt. Swaraj said the hosts were informed that the resolution only talked about the need for the Sri Lankan government to implement the recommendations of a commission appointed by its President.

She said there was nothing extraordinary in the UNHRC resolution. It was pointed out that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) “is their baby” and so they should go by its recommendations but “they had no answer.” After returning to New Delhi Smt. Swaraj was in for a surprise. According to the Colombo based Island newspaper President Rajapaksa did not made any promises to Smt. Swaraj on the 13th amendment. When S.M. Krishna visited Colombo last January he was also treated in the same fashion. Mahinda Rajapaksa has been taking not only India, but the UN as well for a jolly ride ever since the end of the war. Smt. Swaraj noted that there were "underlying issues" which the government of Sri Lanka had committed "both to India and the international community." In fact Smt. Swaraj listed the promises, including the enforcement of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and "going beyond it" when she met the president. Smt. Swaraj cited at least 4 previous commitments made by Mahinda Rajapaksa and his Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris.

    (1) The Joint Statement issued by UN Secretary General and the government of Sri Lanka on May 23, 2009. This was after UNSG Ban Ki-moon visited Sri Lanka. Among other matters, the joint statement noted, "President Rajapaksa expressed his firm resolve to proceed with the implementation of the 13th Amendment, as well as to begin a broader dialogue with all parties, including the Thamil parties in the new circumstances, to further enhance this process and to bring about lasting peace and development in Sri Lanka." (2) The joint media statement on May 17, 2011, after the visit to New Delhi by External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris noted that "a devolution package, building upon the 13th Amendment would contribute towards creating the necessary conditions for such reconciliation." (Hindu – 1.2.2012). (3) The three-page resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council on May 27, 2009 praising Sri Lanka for ending hostilities and urging "the international community to co-operate with the government of Sri Lanka…." The 12 point resolution welcomed UNSG's visit and said "it endorses the joint communiqué issued at the conclusion of the visit…" It welcomed the "recent reassurance given by the President of Sri Lanka that he does not regard a military solution as a final solution, as well as his commitment to a political solution with the implementation of the 13th Amendment to bring about lasting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka."

    (4) The assurance given to Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna by Mahinda Rajapaksa after a breakfast meeting with him on January 17, 2012. S.M. Krishna said in a statement: ‘I discussed this matter [political solution for Thamils] with His Excellency the President this morning. The President assured me that he stands by his commitment to pursuing the 13th Amendment [to the Sri Lankan Constitution] plus approach.’

To this list must be added what Smt. Swaraj told a news conference President Rajapaksa would enforce "provisions of the 13th Amendment and "go beyond it". Based on past experience sceptics are asking whether the talks between India and Sri Lanka has become a mere ritual. Also the question how far India is prepared to deliver on its promise to ensure "the legitimate needs of Thamil people for equality, dignity, justice and self-respect in Sri Lanka?"

Seeking to mollify Sri Lanka after the vote against the resolution in the UNHCR, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wrote on March 23, 2012 to President Mahinda Rajapaksa telling him that India made all efforts and succeeded in introducing an "element of balance" in the US-sponsored resolution. Shorn off diplomatic niceties, it meant India diluted the resolution in Sri Lanka's favour. The Prime Minister was responding to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s March 19th message in which he had sought India’s support to fend off the U.S.-sponsored resolution.

In the same letter the Prime Minister reiterated India’s conviction that “a meaningful devolution package, building upon the 13th Amendment, would lead towards a lasting political settlement [of] … all outstanding issues, in particular the grievances of the Thamil community in Sri Lanka … and create [a] condition in which all citizens of Sri Lanka, irrespective of their ethnicity, can find justice, dignity, equality and self-respect.” India, he said, would continue its engagement “with the shared objective of building a stable, secure and prosperous environment in Sri Lanka."

At Dambulla Buddhist monks and Sinhalese goons attacked and damaged a mosque that has existed for 60 years. The government instead of arresting the attackers has given 6 months time to relocate the Mosque to some where else. Some Buddhist monks have said that they intend to demolish 72 structures in the Dambulla area, including the mosque and a Thamil Hindu temple. In September 2011, a Muslim shrine in Anuradhapura was demolished by a group of marauding Buddhist monks.

Only last month, a battalion of Muslim Ministers notorious for opportunistic politics descended in Geneva to canvass Islamic Countries to vote against US resolution. Not only Muslim Ministers even prominent Muslim Ulamas travelled to Geneva. There were solidarity demonstrations in support of the government in Muslim dominated towns and villages. Yet, an ungrateful Government wants to relocate the Mosque because of pressure from extremist Sinhala - Buddhist monks. Mahinda Rajapaksa has not learnt any lessons from the past. Or he is interested in a genuine reconciliation between the Thamils and the Sinhalese. He is using the 300,000 strong army to accelerate the militarization, Sinhalization and Buddhistization of the Northeast. While Buddhist viharas, stupas and statues of Buddha are mushrooming, destruction and desecration of Hindu temples and Christian churches are also rising.

The chances for a just and reasonable settlement to the vexed ethnic problem are fading by the day. Despite the US resolution passed at the UNHRC on March 22, 2012 it is business as usual in Colombo. Even to this day those who are critical against the Sri Lankan government’ policies continue to disappear in “white vans without number plates”. Attacks on journalists and places of worship go un-investigated and unpunished.

Unfortunately, Mahinda Rajapaksa is in no mood to mete out justice, dignity and self-respect to Thamil people. His cavalier utterances belie India's convictions seeking a meaningful devolution, building up on the 13th Amendment. The Thamil people are only fed on a diet of hopes, indefinite talks and empty promises.

India's foreign policy towards its neighbour has become erratic, capricious and unfocussed. The twin evil of Sinhalization and Buddhistization which pose a grave threat to Thamil people identity are ignored. There is no monitoring or follow up action on the part of the government Ministers and bureaucrats. There has to be a paradigm shift in India's foreign policy, if India is serious about restoring justice, dignity, equality and self-respect to Thamils. This unsavoury situation has forced Thamil Nadu political party leaders and the Thamil Diaspora to re-think and re-define their strategy. They are calling for a UN supervised referendum on independence of Thamil Eelam. DMK patriarch M. Karunanidhi has renewed his call to India to support a referendum on the formation of a separate Thamil Eelam. He cited Kosovo, Montenegro, South Sudan as examples. Thamil Eelam Supporters Organization (TESO) has been revived. Other parties like the MDMK, PMK, VC and DK have made similar declarations for a UN supervised referendum. T.R. Balu, DMK MP raised the referendum question in the Lok Sabha saying ”India should prevail upon the UN for carving out a separate Thamil Eelam from Sinhala-dominated Sri Lanka as the 'tyranny' in the Thamil areas was continuing." In a land-marked case the Canadian Supreme Court ruled on August 20, 1998 that under international law colonies and oppressed people are entitled to secede if a clear majority of the people in Quebec vote in favour in a referendum. (emphasis mine)

As Maria Orte told member countries at the 19th sessions of the UNHRC that for Sri Lanka, time is slipping away as the international community has waited nearly three years for action. President Mahinda Rajapaksa thriving on 'triumphalism' and ’populist authoritarianism’ remains defiant, unrepentant and brutally honest. He spews belligerence even after vanquishing the "enemy" always seeing a Tiger behind every shadow. He does not believe that anyone in the international community is seriously willing to stop him. According to him “there are no majority or minority communities in Sri Lanka, there are only patriots and traitors.” He also says his people will not kill him like Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi!

All said and done, how long should Thamils wait for justice, dignity, equality and self-respect?

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