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24 September 2012, Gateway House

Mending India-Sri Lanka relations

It is evident that Tamil Nadu plays a large role in shaping India’s policy towards Sri Lanka. The recent visit to India by Sri Lanka’s President, coming promptly after aggressive rhetoric from Tamil Nadu, is yet another sign that foreign affairs cannot be outsourced to regional or state governments.

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Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has come and gone. Not just did he lay the foundation stone for a Buddhist studies university in Sanchi, he held the first substantive bilateral discussions in two years with India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, on September 20 in New Delhi.

The dialogue may not have even happened, given the animosity shown to Sri Lankans in Tamil Nadu.
On September 2, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha pettily sent back a group of school children from the Hillburn International School in Ratnapura, Sri Lanka. The students were in Chennai for a football game. Jayalalitha also suspended an official of the Jawaharlal Nehru indoor stadium in Chennai who had invited the Sri Lankan students.  Shortly thereafter, a group of Sri Lankan pilgrims were attacked by pro-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) forces based in Tamil Nadu. Ironically, the pilgrims were Tamil. Clearly, the lunatic fringe takes its cue from the State.

Penalising ordinary people for the sins of their government doesn’t work. If atrocities were committed against innocent Sri Lankan Tamils in the wake of Velupillai Prabhakaran’s end in May 2009 and the decimation of the LTTE, functionaries of the Sri Lankan State must be held responsible.

At the same time, the defeat of the militarised LTTE in Sri Lanka, which remains a banned organisation in India, stands as a strategic success for India. Support for the legitimate aspirations of Tamil Sri Lankans has nothing to do with backing an organisation which assassinated not just a former Indian Prime Minister in May 1991, but systematically annihilated hundreds of Tamil leaders in Sri Lanka.

In her previous avatars as Chief Minister, Jayalalitha showed little love for the cause of pro-LTTE groups, who are obviously enjoying the moment in Tamil Nadu. Their desire to ensure that India-Sri Lanka relations are derailed has been whetted by the Chief Minister’s recent statements and actions.

In 1992, Jayalalithaa was one of those who demanded a ban on the LTTE. In July 2002, she complained to then Union Home Minister L.K. Advani about the “audacious and outrageous statements” made by MDMK leader Vaiko, “openly professing his allegiance to the LTTE”. (Her police later arrested Vaiko under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, or Pota.)

“You will appreciate that unless such provocative outbursts are dealt with firmly, with an iron hand, supporters of several fundamentalist organisations such as SIMI (Students Islamic Movement of India), Al Qaeda etc., will get emboldened and may not only resort to similar explicit professing of support to such dangerous organisations, but will also expect the government to remain a mute spectator,” she said in a letter to Mr. Advani.

Quite apart from the obvious double standards of 2002 and 2012, there is the small matter of India’s relationship with Sri Lanka and the fact that thousands of Indians live in Sri Lanka and many more visit that country.

On September 19, the Indian cricket team played Afghanistan in the opening match of the ICC T20 world cup tournament in Colombo. The match passed without incident, with India winning. But what if some lunatic Sinhala groups had stoned the bus carrying the Indian team? Is that what the government of India wants? Jayalalitha’s actions have exposed all Indians to greater risk from extremist elements in Sri Lanka while Delhi has remained a spectator to her antics.

Certainly, Chennai can and should have a role in shaping policy towards Colombo, but Delhi has to be the final decision-maker. Foreign affairs cannot be outsourced to a state government – whether it is Tamil Nadu or West Bengal.

The decision to send back Sri Lankan school footballers and expose pilgrims to attacks has made India look poorer in the neighbourhood and beyond.

Indian officials said that President Rajapaksa did not raise the issue of recent protests in Tamil Nadu during the delegation-level talks with Prime Minister Singh, but they were not privy to the discussions of the two leaders in a restricted format.

A quiet, uninterrupted dialogue between India and Sri Lanka is definitely the need of the hour given the fissures that developed after New Delhi’s vote against Colombo at the UN Human Rights Council in March this year. Rajapaksa’s visit was a step in that direction.

Amit Baruah is the South Asia Studies Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

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