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Redefining India's Policy in Post-War Sri Lanka

There was some thought about titling this presentation as “Fashioning a New Policy Towards Sri Lanka”, till I remembered that there are too many constants levied by geography, history, demography and strategic considerations that one can only think of refining and fine-tuning India’s policy in post-war (and post-election) Sri Lanka and not of really fashioning a new policy. India and Sri Lanka are so close that there is not enough sea between them for both to have the full limits of their territorial waters in accordance with international law. The International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL) in the Palk Strait curtails the extent of the territorial waters to much less than the normally permissible limit. So, the Palk Strait is in reality a shared legacy and waterway and should not be treated as a contested territory. Historically, particularly during the period when both countries were governed by colonial Britain, the movement of people and goods between the two countries was practically unregulated. Demographically, there is a sizeable minority (3.5 million out of 21.3 million) of Tamil-speaking people (of Indian origin) in Sri Lanka. A look at the map of the area will show the strategic importance of Sri Lanka to India’s security and economic well-being and that an orderly neighborhood is an Indian strategic imperative. Constants in India’s Policy a) India has to maintain cordial relations with the elected government in Sri Lanka and with all the major political parties in the island. b) India has to ensure the stability and territorial integrity of the Sri Lankan state. c) India has to strive for the persons of Indian origin to be treated as equal citizens, without any adverse discrimination because of their language or their origin. d) India has to develop very close and productive relations with Sri Lanka in the fields of security & national defence, economic development & cooperation, bilateral trade, infrastructure development, education and public health. e) Overall, India has to make herself so much a part of Sri Lanka’s well-being, security and development that the dependence on (and influence of) China, Pakistan, Iran and other non-regional actors does not grow any further. Post-War and Post-Election Refinements The civil war situation is over and President Rajapakse has got the double mandate that he wanted. One cannot disagree with Barbara Crosette, UN correspondent for The Nation and a former New York Times correspondent and bureau chief, when she wrote on 18 February 2010 that “Sri Lanka has never had a better chance than it has now to stamp out the last fires of ethnic hatred, violence and mindless chauvinisms that have left more than 80,000 people dead in civil wars”. The President’s election victories, following the military defeat of the LTTE, have placed him in a unique position to resolve the ethnic problem. He had also kindled general expectation that he would take this up after the elections. He has however neither offered a creative solution nor a time-bound path for reconciliation. As Col. Hariharan has written, Rajapakse thrives on divisive politics and hence there is a feeling of uncertainty about how he will function in his second term, particularly when he has no military agenda to pursue. After winning the presidential election in January 2010 and his ten-party-alliance’s victory in the parliamentary election on 8 April, the apprehension is that President Rajapakse may become increasingly autocratic, thus harming the possibility of a lasting peace between the Tamils and Sinhalese and also threatening the multiparty democracy that has been in vogue in Sri Lanka. India faces the major task of making special efforts to persuade the President to improve the lot of the Tamils and to persuade the Tamils to talk to and cooperate with the President towards that end. India will not be alone in this effort. US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Robert Blake, told the BBC in an interview on 9 April 2010 that the USA feels that Mahinda Rajapakse should reach out to the Tamils in the new political environment following the defeat of LTTE. “It is important that they (Tamils) feel that they are going to be able to live a future of hope and of opportunity that the internally displaced people that are now in camps – there are still approximately 100,000 of them – be allowed to go back to their homes.” The Indian government has to maintain its firm stand that the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka has to be resolved through a negotiated, permanent political settlement based on credible devolution of powers within the framework of a united Sri Lanka; and acceptable to all communities in Sri Lanka, including the Tamils and the Sinhalese. This would require the full implementation of the 13th Amendment and the early announcement of a credible devolution package. The package would have to include devolution of powers to a Tamil-majority province in relation to sensitive subjects such as land and the police, even though the centre may retain some over-riding powers (to protect national security and territorial integrity) on both these issues. Suitable models are available in India and in Northern Ireland. The Government of India should take steps to work with the Government of Sri Lanka in order to encourage large scale and effective people-to-people relations, for the mutual benefit of the two countries and their populations. The nearly half a million strong Sri Lankan Tamil diasporas has so far been more or less ignored by India. Active dialogue with the groups and efforts to convince them that cooperative (even if demanding) approach to the Sri Lankan Government would be more helpful to the Tamil cause than continued support of the idea of an independent Eelam, may be worthwhile and productive. India’s policy in Sri Lanka has in the past ranged from intervention and mediation to facilitation, but never isolation or neglect. The twin track of diplomacy and coercion has to be changed to diplomacy and incentives. Economic Nature abhors a vacuum and India should try to fill the space as much as possible. India should seriously consider a very pro-active role in the restoration of the war-ravaged economy of Sri Lanka, without being coy about her preference for the rapid return to normalcy in the Tamil areas in the north and the east and for helping those areas to reach at least the same levels as the rest if Sri Lanka. There should no hesitation to adopt a policy of providing funds (as grants or loans) for infrastructural, educational, public health and job creating projects in these areas, in the same manner as the Government of India would assist a State in India that had suffered comparable distress. Massive support for building approach roads, schools, hospitals etc. would pay rich dividends by way of goodwill and stability. In the areas of trade and commerce, India could be much more generous in offering concessions based on “asymmetric reciprocity”. The Government of India may also usefully consider giving tax concessions and other incentives to Indian industrial houses and entrepreneurs to invest in infrastructural and job-creating enterprises throughout the island, with special emphasis on the north and the east. India could be more open in stating her preference for helping the Tamil majority areas in the fields of education, public health, job opportunities, trade/commerce, investments etc. This approach might also produce a positive side effect of making the political parties of Tamil Nadu happier. India had sanctioned the equivalent of USD 1.75 million in May 2009 for reconstruction activities. A part of this amount is being spent on the supply of 530,000 Metal Roofing Sheets and 400,000 cement bags (the first lot handed over on 1 April 2010) for distribution among the resettled population in the Northern Province, through the Sri Lankan Ministry of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services. Such directly felt and traceable help deserves to be increased manifold. India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, after her three-day visit to Sri Lanka (early in March 2010) spoke of India’s intention to continue supporting the task of development and reconstruction in the northern and eastern regions. She announced India’s support for housing projects to be taken up in the Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts for the benefit of the IDPs. This will include setting up temporary shelters, repairing and rehabilitating damaged houses and building new houses. The Foreign Secretary also indicated that additional Lines of Credit are being considered for railway projects in northern Sri Lanka. There is an urgent need to follow up on these assurances, without the normal procedural delays.

On 6 January 2010, India and Sri Lanka signed a Line of Credit agreement for $67.4 million to fund the second phase of upgrading the Southern Railway Line from Colombo to Matara. The Export-Import Bank of India had earlier provided $100 million Line of Credit for the first phase, under an agreement signed in July 2008. The project will double the average operating speed to 80 kmph, allowing an express train to cover the Colombo-Galle distance within two hours. Fishing in Palk Bay The ticklish issue of fishing in Palk Bay may seem to be (at the same time) political and economic, but is basically a human issue. Prof. Suryanarayan and I have written often suggesting the creation of a joint Palk Bay Authority to ensure the equitable sharing of the marine resources for sustainable fishing. Sustenance and development of fishing resources, environmental protection of bio-diversity, cooperative utilization of the marine resources etc. could come within the ambit of this authority. Primarily, the governments should mostly facilitate people-to-people agreements between the fishing communities. This would require significant changes in the thought-processes of the bureaucracies of both countries. Such changes can come if the political leadership shows the way. Defence Cooperation In the post-war scenario, without any fear of being accused by Tamil Nadu political parties of helping in the war against LTTE, India should take the initiative of placing on the fast track the proposal for a Defence Cooperation Agreement. There is already a history of military cooperation between India and Sri Lanka, since independence. It could be argued that if Sri Lanka has sought defence supplies from Pakistan or China in recent times, it was mainly due to exasperation with India’s policy approaches and reluctance or hesitation to supply the military equipment needed by Sri Lanka. Conclusions Sri Lanka has emerged stronger and more stable after the military success in the Eelam war and the two elections at the national level. It has to build on this position through sagacious and appropriate political dispensation to prevent the resurgence of Tamil militancy. The President should not hesitate to seek from India such political/economic/military help that Sri Lanka may need. India, on her part, should not hesitate to provide all the needed help, subject only to any limitations imposed by her supreme national interests. India will therefore have to refine her political, economic and military policies towards Sri Lanka, to make itself more relevant to Sri Lanka than other nations.

In the process of refining and fine-tuning her policy towards Sri Lanka in the current situation, India needs to be particularly careful to avoid giving any impression of condescending and/or patronizing attitudes, as that would only serve to antagonize the proud President and people of Sri Lanka. ———————— [This note formed the basis of the presentation by Mr R.Swaminathan,on 13 April 2010 at the two-day National Seminar on Ethnic Reconciliation, Economic Reconstruction and Nation Building in Sri Lanka, organized at Chennai (on 12 & 13 April) by the Indian Centre for South Asian Studies and Center for Asia Studies. Mr R.Swaminathan is currently the Chairman of the International Institute of Security and Safety Management, New Delhi and and Vice President of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. He is former Special Secretary, DG (Security), Government of India and can be contacted at]

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