Colombo Telegraph

India’s Vicarious Involvement In Sri Lanka’s ‘Tamil Question’ – Merger Of North & East Or Not

By Vishwamithra1984

Man is like a rope: both break at a definite strain…the solution is not splicing the rope; it’s lessening the tension.” ~Jack Vance

We may need India’s backing in the international arena in time to come. We may need India’s help to persuade the more extreme elements in the Tamil leadership community to adhere to this and reject that. We may need India’s support to sustain a more enduring peace, not as it is today- a mere absence of war and militancy- we might even need India’s whole-hearted patronage to convince the world leaders not to interfere with our internal political matters at all. Yet when, as per Indian Express of February 20, 2017, India’s Foreign Secretary states that ‘India will not be pressing Sri Lanka to merge the Northern and Eastern Provinces to form a single Tamil-majority, Tamil-speaking province as envisaged by the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987’, India has willy-nilly assured Sri Lanka and its Muslim community some lasting respite- that the ‘merger issue’, as it is called now, would be in the back burner, at least for some time.

The Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord was signed in Colombo on 29 July 1987 between Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayewardene. The primary purpose of the Accord was to resolve the Sri Lankan Civil War by enabling the thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka and the Provincial Councils Act of 1987. While its opponents condemned the Accord as a sell-out to the Indian-backed Tamils and their militant leaders, its supporters promulgated that it was the bedrock on which the whole socio-ethnic relations rested. Among the significant points of the agreement, the Sri Lankan Government made a number of concessions to Tamil demands, which included, among others, devolution of power from Colombo to the provinces, merger (subject to later referendum) of the northern and eastern provinces and official status for the Tamil language.

What irked most of the Sinhala chauvinists was the merger, not proposed but which became a fait accompli after the signatures of Gandhi and Jayewardene were placed, between the Northern and Eastern provinces into one. Although it was worded as subject to a referendum to be held later only in the Eastern Province, the pronouncement of the merger held stood between these two provinces as from the date the Accord was signed.

R. Hariharan writing a column to The Hindu in July 2010, almost exactly after one year after the crushing blow dealt to the Tamil militants led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) and Prabhakaran, opines thus: ‘The Rajiv-Jayewardene Accord was perhaps too ambitious in its scope as it sought to collectively address all the three contentious issues between India and Sri Lanka: strategic interests, people of Indian origin in Sri Lanka and Tamil minority rights in Sri Lanka. Its success depended on sustained political support from both the countries. So the Accord got sidelined when political leaders who were unhappy with the Accord came to power in both countries almost at the same time. As a result, the Tamil minorities, who had put their faith in it, were in limbo. These unsavory developments have clouded the understanding of the positive aspects of the Accord. After all, it was the Accord that enabled Sri Lankan Tamils to gain recognition for some of their demands in Sri Lankan politics and in the Sri Lankan Constitution.

A lot of water has passed under the proverbial bridge since Hariharan wrote his piece. It is eight years since the end of the war for Sri Lanka. The political leadership in Sri Lanka has changed from one of family-driven to more dilute among non-family members. Yet the Joint Opposition whose only raison d’être seems to be the protection and safeguarding of their loot, once again is raising the racial cry. Race and religion, as against any other social factor, have collectively determined the course any country takes in order to preserve its sovereignty on the one hand and the kind of government it wants to have on the other. It is in this context that the merger-issue needs more and more attention from our leaders. However unpalatable for the Tamil leadership, demerger of the North and East should remain off the table. Merger of the North and East is not negotiable as much as a separate state of Elam was.

The Tamil leadership in Sri Lanka cannot and should not disregard the overwhelming numbers and their influence of the Muslim population in the East. A merger of these two provinces would give the Tamils in the North a decided advantage and hereby subjugate a people, Muslims, who have been living among the Sinhalese areas as cohabitants for centuries. The leadership of the Muslim communities from pre-Independence ear to date have been embedded in our national issues, from the schools takeover to economic suppression to getting rid of a would-be-dictatorial rule of the Rajapaksa family. The Muslim community’s involvement at the grassroots level is total and their marriage at the level of politics supersedes that which came from the Tamils.

Nevertheless, the current leadership of the Tamils, as it is ostensibly limited to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), is mainly represented by Sampanthan at the center and Wigneswaran in the Northern Province. More often than not, both Sampanthan and Wigneswaran seem to be at loggerheads. They might be united under the banner of the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces, but the narratives that cascade form the respective lips tend to go in different directions. Wignesvaran seems to adopt a more belligerent stance and Sampanthan is opting for a more diplomatic path.

In the meantime, both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, as opposed to the leaders of the previous regime, are fervently trying to float a reconciliation-oriented policy between the two peoples and their leaderships. One great advantage of the success at the last Presidential Election of Maithripala Sirisena is this great proactive stance taken by President Sirisena who is more akin to Chandrika Kumaratunga than the nationalist Rajapaksas. Treading dangerously along this reconciliation path is not enough. The danger dwells in its un-appealability to the self-driven emotions of the majority Sinhalese Buddhists. Convincing the Tamil leadership on the unsuitability and futility of a merger between the North and East coupled with maintaining extremely profound and sincere relationship with the Muslim leadership are a twofold path the current Sinhalese leadership has to follow.

We are today In the midst of pitiful statements and articles by ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa. So far only Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has responded convincingly and compellingly to these ludicrous utterances of Rajapaksa. However, it is in the earnest and vested interests of the Rajapaksas and their cohorts to paint a picture of appeasing regime; as a regime that has no inner strength to forcefully segregate the Tamils from mainstream Sri Lanka. The word ‘segregation’ has not entered into the local vocabulary in the context of racial relationships. But it is a word that must be used in all our communications and narratives.

In 1963, June, American President John Kennedy made his famous ‘Civil Rights Address’. Some parts of that speech still resonate today: “This is one country. It has become one country because all of us and all the people who came here had an equal chance to develop their talents. We cannot say to ten percent of the population that you can’t have that right; that your children cannot have the chance to develop whatever talents they have; that the only way that they are going to get their rights is to go in the street and demonstrate. I think we owe them and we owe ourselves a better country than that”.

The lesson that we Sri Lankans, especially Sinhalese Buddhists, need to take is that although the Northern Tamils account for less than 10%, they have the same rights that any Sinhalese Buddhists who constitute nearly 70% of the population have. If we cannot safeguard the rights of a smaller number we simply cannot safeguard the rights of a larger number. It may be extremely difficult to drive in such positive social dynamic down the throats of a segment of our society who have been conditioned over the centuries on negative bases by those political leaders who have been on the fringes of social thinking. But those fringes became the mainstream after 1956. That is another reality we have to deal with today, not tomorrow or day after, but today.

*The writer can be contacted at vishwamithra1984@gmail.com 

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