By Namini Wijedasa –
For the first time ever, Colombo last week issued a travel advisory requesting Sri Lankans not to travel to the Indian state of Tamil Nadu “until further notice.” And across the Palk Strait, the Indians were rather taken aback.
“Travel advisory” is a dirty term in Sri Lanka. While some governments take it at face value, here it is viewed as a political tool used predominantly by the West to penalize regimes it doesn’t like. Now Colombo is using the same tool “against” India.
New Delhi did not issue a travel warning when Indian spectators were repeatedly harassed during the India-Sri Lanka cricket series in July-August. R.K. Radhakrishnan, The Hindu newspaper’s Colombo-based correspondent, tweeted widely about hostility towards Indians (including obscenity-strewn verbal assaults and objects being thrown at them) during four of the cricket matches.
But officials from Sri Lanka’s Ministry of External Affairs said earlier in the week that the advisory was temporary. The warning followed several developments in Tamil Nadu. Chief Minister Jayalalitha Jeyaram in August asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to stop training Sri Lankan service personnel in her state. She then ordered out two Sri Lankan schools’ football teams from Tamil Nadu saying their presence “hurt the sentiments of the Tamil people.”
The immediate trigger, however, was the mobbing on Monday of 184 Sri Lankan pilgrims visiting the ancient Poornimatha Church in Thanjavur. Despite heavy police security, protestors later stoned the buses that were taking them to the airport for an early flight home.
Indian media then reported that some demonstrators on Thursday tried to barge into a hotel in Madurai alleging it employed Sri Lankans – and calling for their immediate expulsion. While diplomats downplay these incidents so as not to exacerbate tensions, it is not yet certain which way the pendulum will swing.
There will be disagreement on whether what transpired at the cricket matches in Sri Lanka was as serious (or as organized) at what is happening now in Tamil Nadu. But one concern is this: The animosity displayed against Indians during the ODI series preceded the unpleasant events in New Delhi. This means that anti-Indian sentiment in Sri Lanka is a deeper phenomenon not connected exclusively to Tamil Nadu politics.
Diplomatic sources said there is concern in India that its subjects would be similarly treated when they visit Sri Lanka for the T20 World Cup from September 18 to October 7. Whether or not New Delhi takes the path of travel advisories remains to be seen.
But one thing the Central Government in India must do is to rein Tamil Nadu in.
Violence against ordinary citizens is a deliberate act of provocation. Surely it would be easier to stop such criminal activity than to reverse the damage caused by it to bilateral relations? The attacks on Sri Lankans in Tamil Nadu – whatever the ideologies that might be fuelling them – are acts of aggression against foreign nationals on Indian soil.
Indians have condemned the acts, carried out mainly by “small” Tamil political outfits such as Naam Tamizhar Iyakkam and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi. The first is led by Seeman, a film director and actor; the president of the second is Thirumavalavan, a Chennai lawyer. Editorials have criticized Tamil Nadu politicians for their short-sightedness and called on the centre to act.
Three wise monkeys
“While these things are happening in Tamil Nadu, the central government in New Delhi seems to be playing the role of the three wise monkeys – see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” reflects John Gooneratne, a senior, retired diplomat and keen observer of India-Sri Lanka relations.
“From the Sri Lanka side, these are foreign citizens visiting India,” he said. “It is not merely a ‘state problem.’ There is a central government aspect. When service personnel from Sri Lanka are not permitted to train in Tamil Nadu and the centre tries to accommodate them elsewhere, the centre is fuelling the issue.”
One question being asked about the outbreaks in Tamil Nadu is why they are happening now. India-based sources say it is the result of a build up of anti-Sri Lanka sentiment by pro-LTTE groups.
People in the state of Tamil Nadu are being heavily lobbied by LTTE support groups in the West. Upset by the LTTE’s defeat, these groups are still wedded to the separatist ideology. Vast sums of money (earlier spent on arms procurement) are expended on lobbying in Tamil Nadu. Booklets, pamphlets, CDs and other material containing reams of allegations against the government and Sri Lankan troops are circulated.
“Eventually all this has an effect,” one source said. “And the effect of it on Tamil Nadu is bigger. That is what is happening…combined with the general feeling that Sri Lanka is a little slow in implementing political reconciliation efforts.”
The idea, then, is to cause a rupture between India and Sri Lanka – at any cost. And back in Sri Lanka, extremist elements are responding in kind. Occasionally, the government also steps in to arouse the public against India. This is analyzed in some quarters as playing into the hands of the Tamil diaspora. But it does provide a convenient escape for the government when local issues get too difficult to handle.
Besides, India can get cocky. “They do have a role and that role is recognized,” Gooneratne commented. “You can have different views about whether it is excessive or not. Because when India takes to advising Sri Lanka on the type of government structure it should follow, local or otherwise, then it is trying to prescribe something. And that is not something India takes kindly to when others do the same to her.”
The danger today is that, if the situation in Tamil Nadu takes a turn for the worse, Sri Lankans – who are already equating that state with India – will harden their position.
“There is a feeling that Sri Lankans in general don’t understand Tamil Nadu and India,” said one foreign policy observer, requesting anonymity. “India is much bigger than Tamil Nadu. All the issues Sri Lanka is now facing are in Tamil Nadu but we fail to recognize the difference. Even at highest level, people in Sri Lanka tend to equate Tamil Nadu with India. We think that developments in Tamil Nadu are inspired by the rest of India which is not true at all.”
What happens in TN, stays in TN
Gooneratne also pointed out that the anti-Sri Lanka campaign is “a very local Tamil Nadu issue.” “You don’t have it occurring anywhere else,” he said. It is a Tamil Nadu issue largely spearheaded by two groups. One is headed by Seeman and the other by the indefatigable Vaiko. They always get some kind of returns when they take up the issue of Tamils in Sri Lanka.”
These groups find it useful to keep the Sri Lanka issue active so that they have support whenever an election comes round. “Even when elections are not imminent, they keep stirring,” Gooneratne said. “And they learnt to stir the pot from leaders at higher levels, namely Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha Jeyaram.”
Since Karunanidhi is not in the local power structure, Jayalalitha is turning a blind eye. She knows what is happening but is not actively against it because clamping down might be negative to her. Meanwhile, Karunanidhi sometimes plays the role of supporter, and sometimes tries to play statesman.
Sri Lanka must realize that the exploitation of the local Tamil issue in Tamil Nadu is now an embedded feature. The very large numbers of Tamils there feel they have a certain stake in following developments here. Meanwhile, the Indian government plays a significant role in rehabilitation and reconstruction of the north and east.
What happens next? Some analysts warn that things can snowball unless the two governments get actively involved. But damage control at higher level – regardless of the continuing “aberrations” in Tamil Nadu – has so far been swift and effective.
Sri Lankan diplomats in India have “very wisely” downplayed the tensions in Tamil Nadu. They have kept the focus on Sri Lanka’s overall “strong and robust” ties with India, thereby ensuring that the temperature does not rise further.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa is due in India on September 21 for a ceremony to lay the foundation stone for a Buddhist university at Sanchi, in Madhya Pradesh. Vaiko has already said he will take 30 busloads of protestors there. Unless Indian police take strong measures, emboldened demonstrators will stage another politically embarrassing show – this time in another Indian state. What happens in Tamil Nadu will no longer stay in Tamil Nadu. These dangers make it all the more necessary for this issue to be discussed and tackled bilaterally, at the highest levels.
In the final equation, however, it is Sri Lanka’s failure to find a solution to longstanding Tamil grievances that will provide ammunition to these groups in India and elsewhere in the world.
“Tamil Nadu has been patient,” said an Indian commentator, wishing to remain anonymous. “But they are running out. People really want to see some action. There are 60 million people in Tamil Nadu. Even if one or two million think like this, it means something.”
Genuine post-war reconciliation, he pointed out, still seems a long way off. “Instead, the government now seems to want Tamils to reconcile with what they have got, what they are given,” he said. “The manifestation of impatience in Tamil Nadu was wrong. You can’t harass or attack people. That’s why everybody in India also condemned it, including Tamil parties. There is no public support, civil society support, media support and obviously no judicial support for it.”
That may be true. But the Sanchi visit will be the test of just how determined the centre is to put a stop to the madness.
Courtesy Lakbima News