|Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse (R) arrives at Indira Gandhi airport in New Delhi on Nov 25, 2006 as Indian Minister of Panchayati Raj Mani Shanker Aiyer (L) looks on. Photo Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images
President Mahinda Rajapakse’s visit to India this week was overshadowed by Tamil Tiger leader Vellupillai Pirapaharan’s Heroes’ Day address declaring a resumption of the struggle for independence.
Sri Lankan and other media have made much of Delhi’s call for negotiations to end Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war, suggesting it was a rebuff for the LTTE’s ‘call for Eelam.’
But experienced political journalists saw India focusing on a different set of concerns – that of the hardline Sri Lankan government’s conduct vis-à-vis the Tamil minority.
Delhi’s reassertion of the need for a negotiated solution is a direct rejoinder to President Rajapakse, whose government, expanding its defence budget by a staggering 45% and stepping up its vilification of the LTTE, has publicly taken up a military solution to the ethnic question.
India is particularly frustrated by Sri Lanka’s persistant use of indiscriminate and excessive force resulting in the triggering of a massive humanitarian crisis in the Northeast and the deaths of large numbers of civilians in air and artillery strikes.
Lastly, India is also frustrated at the Sri Lankan government’s uncompromising approach to reaching a political solution with the Tamils
Not only is there no sign of a credible proposal from Colombo to put on the negotiating table, but the Rajapakse administration has actively begun dismantling a cornerstone of a future solution, the merged Northeast province.
The Rajapakse administration’s pointed ignoring of repeated Indian entreaties to preserve the Northeast merger, also a crucial pillar of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, has also irked Delhi.
India’s mounting displeasure on all these scores was conspicuously apparent in the dropping of customary diplomatic practices at the end of President Rajapakse’s three-day visit, which included a meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
After the leaders’ meeting there was no photo opportunity for reporters, nor were official photographs released.
Even Sri Lanka’s flagship state-owned paper, the Daily News, had to settle for carrying a picture of Rajapakse’s meeting with Indian Opposition Leader L. K. Advani on its front-page on Thursday.
There was, notably, also no joint statement by the two leaders after their hour-long talk.
It was left to India's External Affairs Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, to make comments to the press and answer reporters’ questions.
Notably, President Rajapakse’s much publicized demand that the Indian Navy should commence joint patrolling with the Sri Lankan Navy was firmly rejected. India was (only) prepared to assist the Rajapakse government with ‘non-lethal’ military assistance, Mr. Mukherjee said.
Moreover, Delhi is impatient for a political solution.
An Indian foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters: “We conveyed our long-standing position on the need for a negotiated political settlement that is acceptable to all sections of society.”
The hackneyed expression – ‘a solution acceptable to all’ – has specific connotations when India reiterated it to President Rajapakse: the solution must be acceptable to the Tamils.
The Sri Lankan leader has repeatedly been making much of his efforts to forge a southern consensus – a euphemism for a solution acceptable to Buddhist hardliners and Sinhala nationalists.
The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between President Rajapakse’s ruling SLFP and the main opposition UNP has not spelled out the terms of a political solution with any clarity – whilst it echoes the hardliners’ rhetoric of defeating terrorism and separatism.
And while the UNP says is it is prepared to support the merger of the North and East, there is no sign the SLFP is going to table the matter in Parliament to allow the proper process for merging to be followed.
The Indian stand is that a referendum can be held in Sri Lanka's northeast to decide if it must remain one or split up into two when there is a conducive atmosphere.
But the Rajapakse government’s position is that there must be referendum in the east before the merger can go ahead (in a reversal of the terms of the Indo-Lanka Accord which says the merger must stand till a referendum on demerging is held).
Seasoned observers could have predicted that a cool reception for Rajapakse was on the cards even before he left for Delhi.
Last week Prime Minister Singh made his sentiments on developments in Sri Lanka clear in a letter to Y Gopalasamy (Vaiko), leader of the MDMK.
The symbolism of the Premier’s letter to the stridently pro-LTTE Tamil Nadu party was itself striking (especially since the letter was undoubtedly intended to be made public).
So was its unmistakable tone and contents.
“The latest incidents in Sri Lanka leading to the loss of many innocent lives, mainly Tamils including women and children, are a matter of the utmost concern and sorrow to all of us,” Mr. Singh said.
“We have consistently pointed out that there is no justification for violence of this kind and that the killing of innocent people, especially of women and children, is not acceptable.”
“We have taken great care not to provide Sri Lanka with lethal offensive items of military hardware, specially of the kind that could be used against the Tamil population.”
“We have, at every opportunity, also impressed upon the Sri Lankan Government to respect the rights and privileges of the Tamils of Sri Lanka as citizens of the country. This is again being conveyed to Sri Lankan authorities.”
“We will reiterate to the Government of Sri Lanka that they must find a political solution through negotiations that would meet the genuine and legitimate rights of the Tamils, rather than adopt tactics that lead to the death of innocent people.”