INDIA AND SRI-LANKA VIRTUAL SUMMIT
By H. L. D. Mahindapala
Managing Indo-Sri Lanka relations is prioritised as the most important item in the agenda of the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry. In fact, the President and the Prime Minister have stretched every nerve since they came into power to go beyond the official diplomatic interactions to maintain a personal rapport of the best kind with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The recent meeting between the two prime ministers was meant to smoothen the rough patches and reinforce the good relations between the two heads of states. The official communique of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (26/9/2020) has classified the meeting as a “Virtual Summit” between the two Prime Ministers. Indo-Sri Lanka relations could not have been considered at a level higher than this “Virtual Summit”.
The “Joint Statement on Virtual Bilateral Summit” issued by the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi should be read against this background of both parties wanting to emphasize the importance of each other in formulating policies for mutual benefit in a region that has been hotting up, slowly but surely, with China muscling in to remind that two tigers cannot hunt in one mountain. With China maintaining its steady pace in the region the question for India is quite straightforward: Can India match the Chinese art of winning and influencing friends in the region?
For instance, in the “Virtual Summit” in Delhi has India taken any new initiatives, breaking away from its failed policies in the past, to pave the path for peace and reconciliation to the North-South crisis which was fuelled to a critical extent by India’s interventionist policies? India has a serious moral and political duty to play a positive role – not a partisan one – having been a part of the problem from the early days. Though India has been parading as the solution it has, in reality, been a provocative source of causing, worsening and perpetuating the problem. It has been consistently rocking the cradle and pinching the baby. For how long can India keep going down this track without destabilising its own position in the region? How many more Rajiv Gandhis and professional soldiers must sacrifice their lives for India to regain its common sense? When will India realise that a failed policy/strategy, laid to rest by the people, cannot be resuscitated to do a Lazarus even if they had Jesus or Sai Baba running the Indian Foreign Office. In any case, how long did Lazarus last after he was revived?
Most of all, India’s diplomats – some of whom are brilliant — must ask seriously whether the time hasn’t come for them to revisit the failed past and learn lessons for a constructive and meaningful future? Or is India doomed to be stuck in the failed past (e.g., Kashmir) and take the whole region into a deep black hole from which none cannot get out?
Take the case of the Joint Statement on the ”Virtual Summit”. It sums up the conclusions of the two prime ministers. It has many positives but one critical lapse makes it look like a pail of sweet white milk with a smidgen of cow dung thrown into it. It is Clause 7 of the Joint Statement that sours the whole text.
It says: “7. Prime Minister Modi called on the Government of Sri Lanka to address the aspirations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace and respect within a united Sri Lanka, including by carrying forward the process of reconciliation with the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa expressed the confidence that Sri Lanka will work towards realizing the expectations of all ethnic groups, including Tamils, by achieving reconciliation nurtured as per the mandate of the people of Sri Lanka and implementation of the Constitutional provisions.”
In this para the two contradictory positions have been juxtaposed in precise terms bringing out the stark differences in the approach to the vexed issue of “Tamil aspirations” and India’s interventionist role in it. For his part, Narendra Modi is talking only of the “aspirations of the Tamil people”. Mahinda Rajapakse, on the contrary, is responsible for all the communities – just not the Tamils – and he focuses on “the expectations of all ethnic groups, including the Tamils.” It is in the interests of Modi domestic politics to plug the narrow interests of the Tamils only. Mahinda has a larger constituency. His constituency is the whole nation and he has a clearly defined mandate to look after the interests of all communities. Modi cares only for his Indian interests.
In the Joint Statement Modi is reiterating the failed policy of India that (1) destabilised the oldest democracy in Asia, (2) reinforced the fascist power of a Tamil Pol Pot in the North of Sri Lanka and (3) led to “the defeat of the fourth largest in the world”, as claimed by the LTTE, which had the power to even assassinate Rajiv Gandhi, the Prime Minister, humiliating India in the eyes of the world. Indian strategists should also realise by now that the Thirteenth Amendment has not worked for the Tamils who were supposed to benefit most by it, and to India’s status as a mighty force in the Indian Ocean Rim, (the fourth largest army could not even disarm Prabhakaran as promised in the Indo—Sri Lanka Agreement), or protect its own Prime Minister within its own borders. At best, reiterating the Thirteenth Amendment (i.e., the Tamil issue) gives India an opening to interfere in the domestic politics of Sri Lanka. The Thirteenth Amendment is stoked from time to time to sustain and protect Indian interests in the Southern flank which can’t be left open for rivals to exploit. It is also one of the tools in the neo-imperialist armoury of India which is yet to learn that imperialism is a force that can ricochet and the destroy the imperialists more than their victims. India is a tragedy surrounded by the angry victims of the (unintended) consequences of its arrogant and short-sighted foreign policies.
Pushing the failed Indian line, Modi has once again “called on the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the “Thirteenth Amendment”. It is, as everyone knows, an Indian creation to further Indian interests. Moreover, it is raised as a reminder to impress that it is India’s prerogative to dictate what is good and bad for Sri Lanka. Mahinda Rajapakse, quite rightly, has countered this “exhortation” by emphasizing reconciliation “as per the mandate of the people of Sri Lanka and implementation of the Constitutional provisions.” These are two conflicting positions. The Thirteenth Amendment project directly the Indian interests. And Mahinda Rajapakse is saying, quite bluntly, that he is there to protect the Sri Lankan interests. He is insisting that he has a mandate to fulfill and that is to obey the will of the people and not the will of a foreign power. Also, with the additional rulings from the Supreme Court he has obligations to the Constitution and he cannot override those to satisfy foreign interventionists pursuing their interests. Besides, the “mandate of the people of Sri Lanka” given to him this time round has, more than at other times, rejected any external interventions in the domestic affairs.
In short, the Thirteenth Amendment remains as a pathetic monument to India’s diplomatic folly. It has been rejected by the Sri Lankan minorities and the majority. It was meant to solve mainly the problem of Prabhakaran. He brazenly rejected it and took the next step of assassinating the Indian Prime Minister who imposed it against his will. It was supposed to satisfy the political “aspirations” of the Tamils. But to this day it stands as the most dysfunctional solution – as dysfunctional as the Americans planting Din Diem, a Catholic in Buddhist Vietnam, as their puppet. A common feature of imperialists is to plant their puppets and solutions in foreign/occupied territory which invariably drag them into black holes. Sri Lanka, in short, was India’s Vietnam. India gained nothing. India saved nothing. Modi’s latest statement is a confession of the fact that its Thirteenth Amendment has failed. If it was successful there would have been no necessity to raise it again. Adding insult to Indian injury, the people in all the provinces have been functioning happily without the Provincial Councils for the last two years. So, what is the use of a solution that is superfluous and unwanted by the majority and the minority?
The Indian experience of dealing with its own major minority is also instructive in dealing with Modi’s insistence on the full implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment. Let us, for instance, restate the formula in the Joint Statement substituting the Muslims in India to that of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Let us consider a similar summit meeting with Modi, and Imran Khan, the Pakistani Prime Minister, who recently twittered that the Muslims in India are worse than the Jews in Hitler’s Germany. Let us imagine that Imran Khan had said that India should “address the aspirations of the Muslim people for equality, justice, peace and respect within a united India, including by carrying forward the process of reconciliation with the implementation of the countless UN Resolutions on Kashmir”. Well, how would India react to this counter move by Pakistan? If Modi thinks that his solution is good for Sri Lanka why isn’t the same solution good for India to solve he longest running international crisis point in Kashmir? Wouldn’t India consider that to be a direct intervention in its the domestic affairs?
Besides, India has applied all its diplomatic, political, international and military forces to resolve the issue of “Tamil aspirations” which has several layers of meaning, including separation, and failed. If India with all its might could not implement its own formula for the betterment of the Tamil people, disarm the Tamil terrorists they armed, and stabilise the region for its own interest what is the purpose of going down the failed track again and again?
Above all, the rationale on which Modi’s argument for the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment is coloured by a political narrative overloaded with distortions, fiction, and concoctions. There would have been some justification for the claim of the Tamils to be the victims of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority if, as they claim, the Sinhala-Buddhist had done one fraction of what the Tamil Vellalas and the ruling elite of Jaffna had done to the oppressed outcasts who were treated as despised pariahs kept outside their sacred domains of
Jaffna. Any accusation against the Sinhala-Buddhist must be compared with the subhuman treatment of the Tamil minority by the Vellala majority. The high-caste Vellala elite ruled Jaffna with an iron-fist, overseeing every aspect of Jaffna society from the womb to the tomb. The low-caste Tamils were not allowed to walk in God-given sunlight. They could not bury their dead if they did so according to Hindu rites – privileged ritual reserved only for the high caste. They could not worship the same God in the Hindu places of worship. They couldn’t drink a sip of water from Vellala wells. Their schools were burnt. Vellala caste fascism bred the political fascism of Prabhakaran who killed more Tamils than all the other forces put together. Killing Tamils by Tamils was a part of Tamil culture ever since Sankili marched down to Mannar on the eve of Christmas 1654 and massacred 600 Tamil Christians for owing allegiance to the Portuguese king. Prabhakaran was his avatar.
The Vellalas were the most privileged caste/class in Jaffna. They dominated Jaffna society from feudal times. They did not given inch to any other rival caste. They were the owners of land, temples and schools – three of the commanding heights of Jaffna society. With their education they occupied key positions in the colonial administrations. They had the ear of the colonial masters and as their sub agents in the colonial administrations they had the power of the state behind them. Maintaining the caste supremacy was their primary political mission. One of the last acts of Sir. Ponnambalam Ramanathan was to go on a mission to the Colonial Secretariat to urge the preservation of the existing caste system that enthroned the Vellalas as the supreme masters of Jaffna. He argued that it was a system necessary for the maintenance of law and order. In other words, on the eve of independence they were the most privileged community in Sri Lanka., sitting on the right-hand side of the ruling British gods. When G. G. Ponnambalam went before the Soulbury Commissioners and complained of discrimination by the Sinhalese against the Tamils, the British Commissioners who examined the details dismissed it as having no validity.
In essence, the Vellala Tamils, who were also the political masters of Jaffna, were the most privileged community in Sri Lanka. For them to claim to be the discriminated victims of the majority Sinhalese has been a common political ploy to gain political sympathy and through that political mileage. It is a narrative that they sold successfully round the world, including the Foreign offices of India and, believe it or not, Sri Lanka too. This ideology of victimology has been used to great advantage by the Vellala Tamils to project themselves as the victims of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. It is this ideology that has influenced the foreign policies of ill-informed global foreign offices. So, when Modi “called on the Government of Sri Lanka to address the aspirations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace and respect within a united Sri Lanka,” he was parroting the usual litany of complaints of the most privileged community in Sri Lanka.
Looking back at the history of the Vellalas (aka, the Tamils), it can be asserted incontrovertibly that never in the history of Jaffna has the Tamils (meaning all layers of Jaffna society) ever reached the heights of equality, justice, respect and dignity as in the post-independent years of what they call “the Sinhala state”. Take, for instance, the national flag. There are 193 flags flying at the UN. Never in the history of Jaffna Tamils did they ever have a place of recognition and respect internationally as in the Sri Lankan flag. Not even in the Indian flag – the one and only homeland of the Tamils. When the heads of states stand up for the Sri Lankan flag they also stand up for the Muslims and Tamils. Under which Tamil ruler did the Tamils receive this honour?
Take also the national currency, stamps, and other national symbols. Tamils have been given their due place of respect in every respect. But the reality has been distorted to demonise “the Sinhala state’”. R. Sampanthan goes around the world complaining that the Tamils have lost their dignity, respect, equality and justice under the Sinhala state. What respect and dignity did he get from the one and only Tamil state established by the Tamil Pol Pot? Did he ever have the right to act on his own in his Tamil state? In which state did he find the right to dissent and act independently with dignity? When he and his fellow MPs were taking orders from his Tamil Thallivar which state gave him his due dignity and the respect that any individual deserves? Did he feel like a better human being when he was in Prabhakaran’s state or in the ’Sinhala state”? Oh, by the way, when the Vellala gangs cracked the heads of the protesting low-caste with bottles filled with sand in Maviddipuram when they were demanding the right to worship their God in the Hindu temples where was he? Did he fight for the dignity and the rights of the Tamils who were oppressed and kicked around as a subhuman species? The Tamils also talk of peace. Who declared the war in Vadukoddai and ran it for 33 years, causing untold suffering to the Tamil people?
Consider also the case of R. Sampanthan who is a lawyer. Did he find justice in the Tamil courts of Prabhakaran or in the courts of “the Sinhala state” presided, sometimes by his fellow-Tamils like Justice C. V. Wigneswaram? Did he ever as a lawyer fight for justice in Prabhakaran’s courts? Did he ever fight for the rights of the abducted Tamil children in the courts in Vanni? Did he ever complain to the Indian Prime Minister or the American Ambassador that there is no justice in Prabhakaran’s courts? That narrative was never told. Only the “Sinhala state” was demonised. The list is unending. As I said earlier, there has not been a period in the history of Tamils better than the last 72 years under “the Sinhala state”. Yes, there were horrendous and condemnable periods during which the Sinhalese behaved like beasts. No decent Sinhalese is proud of those instances. Without making excuses, all those instances have been a part of human history. No community is exempt from violence. But, on balance, judgments are passed on the greater evil. Invariably , fallible and fallen man has to be judged not on the blameless ideal but on the lesser evil which is the fairest judgement available to us all. On that score, the Sinhalese have strived to build a culture that should provide “a fit-dwelling for all men” (Mahavamsa). And that includes the Tamils.
Mahinda Rajapakse has reiterated that message at the Summit in India. His act in India at the Summit was on a low key than the time he was confronted by David Milliband and Richard Kouchener, the two foreign ministers of UK and France respectively. But the message was the same and couched in diplomatic terms. While cheap politicians go for the size of coconuts in the market place the people take the measure of their leaders by the size of the giants they take on in defending the nation. It is acts like this, where he stands up for the nation, that makes him the most popular leader. Who can blame him for winning votes without trying?,