Sri Lankan Tamil Issue: What Should India Do?

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksha’s visit to India has predictably ruffled the feathers of a few Tamil Nadu politicians. They demanded Indian government to cancel the visit, close Sri Lankan high commissions in India and some fringe elements have even gone to the extent of asking for Rajapaksha’s trial in the International Criminal Court.

While being ruthless in crushing LTTE and killing its chief Prabhakaran, Rajapaksha turned out to be a wily operator vis-à-vis India in the post war period. He took complete advantage of the desires of China in containing India and blocked India from taking any effective measures in censuring him, as per the demands of Tamil Nadu political parties some of which were members of the UPA, for the loss of innocent lives.

When it comes to the real interests of Sri Lankan Tamils, the mainstream political parties of Tamil Nadu, other than making periodic noise, especially when out of power or when falling out of favour with the ruling party in the centre, have done absolutely nothing. Particularly culpable is the DMK, which roamed the corridors of power in Delhi for well over a decade now.

Many fringe parties, on the other hand, entertained a romantic notion of an independent Tamil Elam that would one-day even cause Tamil Nadu to secede from India to form a grand Tamil Nation. These parties maintained covert contacts with LTTE and may have even provided a base for LTTE in India. Many a times in the past, one can read in vernacular press the stories of the leaders of these parties secretly visiting Sri Lanka to meet Prabhakaran and his army. These stories along with accounts of LTTE’s military successes and its leader’s gumption against the marauding Sri Lankan army helped fuel Tamil nationalism among this fringe in India. Decimation of LTTE, at the hands of Rajapaksha, dealt a deathblow to an independent Tamil Eelam and this is definitely good news for India.

At one point in time, LTTE along with multiple other militant and political organizations such as TELO, EPRLF, PLOTE, ENDLF enjoyed widespread sympathy among the Tamilians in India. After several blunders such as shootouts and assassinations in Madras and ending with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, LTTE lost the sympathy of mainstream Tamilians. But, the general sympathy for the Sri Lankan Tamilians is, rightfully, still intact.

This sympathy the state and central governments in India shall not ignore. Ignoring this would just build resentment among Tamilians in India. The general feeling among Tamilians is that Sri Lankan Tamils have lost their only voice and that if India does not take their case, then no one would.

Solutions coming out of political parties in Tamil Nadu are characterized by a complete lack of originality and creativity and have only been empty rhetoric along the lines of an independent Tamil Eelam. There is no denying that Rajapaksha and Sri Lankan have army committed gross human rights violations during the decisive war with LTTE. But, political parties should realize that asking India to censure Rajapaksha or ending diplomatic ties or demanding a trial in an International court are completely counter productive at this point. Rajapaksha enjoys considerable support in Sri Lanka and any measures by India against Rajapaksha would antagonize Sri Lankans which would be counter productive to the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils. Furthermore, the Chinese interest in Sri Lanka would warrant that India, considering its national interest, works with Rajapaksha rather than against him. Paradoxically, the best way for India to help Sri Lankan Tamilians is to develop a better relationship with Rajapaksha and increase its leverage with the Island nation.

Indian help to Sri Lankan Tamils should focus on both short term and long term. Short-term efforts could include targeted Indian investments in the Tamil areas and other measures such as providing access to Indian education and employment for Sri Lankan Tamils (with utmost care taken to keep the erstwhile LTTE cadre out). Though some of these may well be mere gestures, they will go a long way in creating confidence among Sri Lankan Tamils and to assuage the feelings of Indian Tamils. In the long term, India should ensure that Sri Lanka effectively ends any form of discrimination against the Tamils and have their rights restored under the Sri Lankan constitution.

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Shankar Parasaram

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