By Izeth Hussain –
The world is clearly witnessing a transition to a new world order which can also be seen as having as its obverse side a new imperialism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the US became the sole super power, with a global reach of hard power and soft power that could not be matched by any other. At the same time it showed that it did not want any other power to emerge with any power outside its territorial borders. That was shown most clearly by the US push to extend NATO right up to the borders of Russia. But in recent times, by its actions in Ukraine and elsewhere, Russia has been successfully asserting it claim to have a special position in its near broad. China also is asserting its claim to have a special position in its near abroad – the South China Seas – where it is facing potentially militant opposition from the US. In this situation it has to be expected that India too will want to assert a special position in its near abroad.
There is, of course, everything to be said for a transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world. The terrible fate of Iraq alone demonstrates the undesirability of the former. There is also something to be said for the concept of the “near abroad” as a requisite for the security of strong states – which can attract more dangerous enmity than the weak ones. The problem is that the “near abroad” can slide into the “spheres of influence” of the old order, signifying a range of unequal relations from a loose hegemony to outright colonialism. Critics of India would say that the refusal to hold a plebiscite on Kashmir and the absorption of Sikkim point to an enormous appetite for real estate, while its breaking up of Pakistan, the reduction of Bhutan to satellite status, the periodically troubled relations with Nepal and for some time with Bangladesh, all point to a powerful neo-imperialist drive in India. I have held that it was not a neo-imperialist drive but security preoccupations – arising from the manifestations of American and Chinese power – that led to unsatisfactory relations with India’s northern neighbors. That factor did not apply to the South of India except for a brief period under President JR, which I believe was the main reason why our relations with India were for the most part excellent. But now the geopolitical configuration in our region has changed qualitatively and fundamentally with China manifesting an important presence in Sri Lanka that cannot be wished away.
It is in this perspective of a novel geopolitical configuration that I want to make some observations on the ethnic problem. The concrete question that I want to address is whether or not India might slide into a neo-imperialist position in Sri Lanka without quite intending it. My starting point is that we don’t have a purely indigenous Tamil ethnic problem at present. The Tamils rebelled, they were decisively defeated on the battle-field, and would normally be expected to bear the fate of the defeated. The reasonable expectation is that the Tamils would have come to be treated more or less like the Muslims: some amount of discrimination, but not to the extent that it should cause legitimate international concern and intervention. The Tamils would have come to be treated like innumerable minorities all over the world.
Where, then, is the problem? A possible answer is that the Peace Accords of 1987 continue to be valid, and consequently India insists on the full implementation of 13 A. Those Peace Accords should be taken together with the dispatch of the IPKF troops which were meant to tame the LTTE military rebellion and set the stage for a political solution. The IPKF failed in that task, but our troops succeeded in 2009. It became arguable that the then Government had earned the right thereby to work out its own political solution and implement it, regardless of 13 A and without allowing any devolution at all if that seemed to be suitable. It also became arguable that 13 A was acceptable only because of the myth of the military invincibility of the LTTE which seemed to leave no alternative to a political solution on the basis of a wide measure of devolution. I believe that the then Government committed a monumental blunder in reiterating the commitment to the full implementation of 13 A. I believe that the argument I am advancing here – which sets aside the Peace Accords as having been superseded by developments on the ground – is a powerful, indeed an irrefutable one.
But India cannot be expected to agree because it has to contend with another reality on the ground that cannot be wished away: the Tamil Nadu factor that I have defined as the core factor in the ethnic problem. If there were no Tamils in Tamil Nadu, if there was no fall-out there as a consequence of what is done to the Tamils here, there would be no Tamil ethnic problem with an international dimension. The importance of the Tamil Nadu factor was shown in 1983 when huge numbers of SL Tamils fled into Tamil Nadu. Sentiment there which had been resolutely against the idea of Eelam became sympathetic towards it, and Delhi felt itself obliged to give serious military training – which had been of a token order previously – plus weapons to Tamil militants. It is the Tamil Nadu factor that explains a seeming anomaly: Chief Minister Wigneswaran, a member of the conquered is known for striking belligerent postures towards the conqueror, the Sinhalese. That is possible only because he believes that behind him is the power of Tamil Nadu and behind that the power of Delhi.
The Tamil Nadu factor is the core factor behind our ethnic problem, but that does not mean that we should over-estimate its importance. In recent weeks there have been more than one insightful article making that point from the Indian side. The two groups of Tamils across the Palk Straits share the same religion, language, and culture, but that commonality does not amount to an identity. They remain distinct and their interests can be expected to diverge. That has been shown by the decades during which marauding Tamil Nadu fishermen have been depleting our marine resources to the detriment of SL Tamil fishermen. That was shown by the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi which lost Tamil Nadu support for the LTTE. It was also shown by the fact that the problems of the SL Tamils had no traction at all at the recent Tamil Nadu elections.
At the same time, however, we should not under-estimate the importance of the Tamil Nadu factor. I read recently that Chief Minister Wigneswaran had declared during his 2013 election campaign that the problems of the Sri Lankan Tamils are no more than a tennis ball that is banged to and fro by two contending sides in Tamil Nadu. But he changed his tune completely after becoming Chief Minister. We have to wonder happened during the intervening period and what might be going on beneath the visible surface. What furthermore are we to make of Jayalalithaa’s reiteration of her commitment to the establishment of Eelam? Is it no more than part of her fulminations against her bête noir, Karunanidhi? She is a practiced politician who has shown impressive political savvy in retaining power, and furthermore has a high reputation for performing what she promises. I would image the Tamil Nadu factor as a quiescent volcano which will probably remain quiescent for the foreseeable future. The problem is that it has the potential to erupt suddenly. I doubt that Delhi will sleep easy until the ethnic problem finds a definitive political solution.
Such a solution could be in the offing. There is no reason why modifications cannot be made over police and land powers and agreement be reached between the TNA and the Government on the basis of a modified 13 A. Problems can be expected to arise thereafter when a draft agreement is put to the people. The familiar allergy to any substantial measure of devolution can be expected to erupt, and the Government may find itself unable to deliver. Is the same dreary old narrative to be repeated over and over again, decade after decade, into an endless future? Two options seem to be available. One is for India and the international community to lay their hands off Sri Lanka, stop interfering in our internal affairs, and allow us to find a solution by ourselves. I believe that it can be done without too much difficulty once the emphasis is shifted from devolution. The other option is for India to play a decisive role in persuading the Tamils to accept a solution based on minimum devolution. If the ethnic problem goes on unresolved, India could increasingly come to be seen as being engaged in the neo-imperialist bullying of a small neighbor.