Hopes and fears mark India’s Sri Lanka predicament

By M.R. Narayan Swamy, IANS,

New Delhi : India is pushing hard for a broader devolution process in Sri Lanka as it grapples with the strategic and diplomatic challenges arising out of the island’s brutal and see-sawing armed conflict.

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Indian policy makers are of the opinion that Sri Lanka needs to go beyond the 13th amendment to the constitution that devolves powers to provincial councils so as to give the minorities a credible say in governance.

India’s message to Colombo is that while there can never be a military solution to the ethnic conflict, New Delhi will assist it wholeheartedly if it forges ahead with a genuine and broader devolution process.

Once the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa held local elections after a long gap in Sri Lanka’s east, India was of the view that balloting should follow for a provincial council. That happened in May.

While not joining the Western chorus on rights abuses in Sri Lanka, India favours conditions to be created for the return of those displaced by fighting in the northeast.

For New Delhi, bombing of civilian areas is a big no-no in the northeast, where thousands have died over two years in fighting between the military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

If development work takes off in the northeast, India would be ready to provide vocational training, renovate hospitals and fund plantation and educational projects. If needed, vocational training can be imparted in India.

Indian aid will also be available for Sri Lanka’s central hills that are home to “Indian Tamils” or Tamils of Indian origin. The Indian private sector will be asked to chip in.

At the same time, a feeling is gaining ground here that the West, which dominated the peace process kick-started by the Norway-sponsored ceasefire agreement, has run out of ideas. But Norway will continue to play a key role.

Any road to peace in Sri Lanka is going to be bumpy. Already, a section of Sri Lankan Tamils are unhappy with New Delhi’s silent diplomacy.

It is not easy, these Tamils argue, to spot the dividing line between India’s limited but open military support to Colombo – the worst victims of whose war against the LTTE are civilians — and the desire to prod Sri Lanka towards a negotiated settlement.

There are more questions. Will the LTTE and Colombo talk again? Will Colombo go back on its pledge not to talk to the Tigers until they disarm? Will the military insist on a fight to the end with its repercussions on neighbouring India? Can the economy sustain this costly war? Will the LTTE’s unhappiness with the international community, including India, come in the way of another truce? Is there a serious mismatch between what the LTTE desires and what the government can offer?

It is in this context that one has to study the hectic two-day visit to Colombo by three senior Indian officials including National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan.

Over Friday and Saturday, Narayanan met President Rajapaksa, his advisors including Basil Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa. All three are brothers.

While all details regarding the talks are yet to become public knowledge, it is significant that Narayanan, during separate meetings with select Tamil politicians, invited the pro-LTTE Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to India but avoided the new chief minister of the eastern province, an ex-LTTE fighter known as Pillayan. When it happens, it will be the second visit to India by a TNA delegation after September 2006.