India appears to be in the process of re-shaping and re-orienting its policy on the Sri Lankan ethnic question once again. This was evident during the visit of the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to Sri Lanka from May 11 to 12.
Modi found time for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a group of Sri Lankan Tamil parties, only at the fag end of his visit. The appointment was given only at the eleventh hour, and the meeting which took place at the airport lounge just before Modi’s departure, lasted just 15 minutes.
This sharply contrasted with his engagement with the Indian Origin Tamil (IOT) estate workers and their leaders in the Central Highlands of the country. He opened a hospital for them, addressed a mammoth public meeting and had talks with their leaders.
Modi’s visit showed that India’s emphasis has noticeably shifted from the Sri Lankan Tamils’ issue to issues of the Indian Origin Tamils (IOT) – ie. from the indigenous Tamils of Sri Lanka to Tamils who were taken from India to Sri Lanka by the British to work in British-run coffee, tea and rubber plantations between 1823 and 1939.
Frustration With Sri Lankan Tamils
India’s shift is rooted in two factors: Its 34-year experience in trying to solve the Sri Lankan Tamil question has not yielded results. In fact, the involvement has taken a heavy toll in terms of money and lives. India lost 1,500 soldiers and a former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in trying to bring the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels to accept the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987.
India’s efforts to get political power devolved to the Tamils through the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 failed also because of Colombo’s obduracy. Even after the successful conclusion of its military campaign against the Tamil Tiger militants in 2009, Colombo has been reneging on its promise to devolve power to the Tamils forgetting that India helped it fight the Tigers on the understanding that after the war, power will be devolved to the Tamils to bring the curtain down on the ethnic question.
To this day, eight years after the end of the war, the India-Sri Lanka accord remains unimplemented in its essentials. India’s frustration with Colombo only increased when the latter failed to honor its solemn pledges to the international community on post-conflict reconciliation measures including devolution of power to the Tamils.
From Political To Economic
In the meanwhile, India had changed its foreign policy orientation from the political to the economic. New Delhi is now more interested in promoting trade and investment rather than securing for various communities their political and economic rights.
Apart from an economic self interest characteristic of a developing nation, New Delhi also believes that economic engagement with other countries will strengthen its ties with those countries and give it political clout.
New Delhi also believes that marginalized and depressed communities will be able to enhance their political power if they get economically empowered. Economic engagement with India through trade, investment and India-funded development projects will lead to economic empowerment, which will eventually lead to political empowerment.
Pursuing this line, India had tried to get the Sri Lankan Tamils to use the economic opportunities provided by India after the end of the war. Trade and investment exhibitions were held in the Tamil-dominated Northern Province and railways were restored. But the Sri Lankan Tamils showed no interest in using the opportunities. Their leaders and opinion makers actually spurned these efforts saying that they expected India to do only one thing – get them a political solution which it promised 34 years ago.
Political Solution A Far Cry
But there is little that India can do to bring about a political solution as events from 1987 show. Even the India-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987, which was backed by a military threat, did not work. India could only force Colombo to sign an Accord but it could not force it to implement it. As the saying goes: “You can take the horse to the water, but you can’t make it drink.”
As on date, while the Tamils are continuing to spurn India’s offer of help to improve their economy, at least a section of the leadership of the majority Sinhalese community in South Sri Lanka, is open to accepting India’s plans to boost trade and investment in mutual interest.
The government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is certainly interested. Even a staunch opponent of the government and a Sinhalese nationalist leader, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is interested, as was evident during his meeting with Modi on May 11.
Therefore, India sees openings for itself in the Sinhalese South, rather than the Tamil North. India is keen on having a hold on the Colombo and Trincomalee ports – the former because 70% of that port’s business is with India, and the latter because it has strategic value in the light of India’s plan to keep the Bay of Bengal as an Indian lake safe from Chinese intrusions.
Renewed Ties With Indian Origin Tamils
India is looking to re-build its ties with the Indian Origin Tamils (IOT) in the plantations. The IOT community is about 1,500,000 strong. In colonial times the welfare of the IOT was partly the government of India’s responsibility and the latter had posted an Agent in Kandy. To this day, there is an Indian diplomat posted in Kandy as an Assistant High Commissioner.
After India and Sri Lanka got independence in 1947-48, the Sri Lankan government denied citizenship to the IOT and wanted them to get back to India. But India would not take them as it felt that overseas Indians should become citizens of their host countries. This resulted in the IOT remaining “stateless” for years. The problem was partially solved in the 1960s when the Sirima-Shastri pact gave some Indian and some Sri Lankan citizenship, leaving a residual category as “stateless”. Eventually, thanks to the foresight and political bargaining skills of the IOT leader, S.Thondaman, all IOT got Sri Lankan citizenship.
However, the IOT remained the most backward of the main communities in Sri Lanka. They continued to live in crowded estate ‘Line Rooms’, had little education and economic opportunities. They had no land to build their houses and government welfare schemes were denied to them because they were supposedly looked after by the plantation companies they worked for.
The government of India, which had previously had some scholarship schemes for the IOT, stepped up its aid. After the war, a project to build 4,000 houses for them was started. And on May 12, Prime Minister Modi announced the decision to build 10,000 more. The IOT leaders have asked for a total of 20,000 which in all likelihood, New Delhi will give.
Modi and the government of India are pleased that the IOT and their leaders are themselves seeking development assistance from India, unlike the leaders and opinion makers of the Tamil North who not only do not want such assistance but mock at it as an unwanted gift.
The IOT, besides being of recent Indian origin, are also part of the Indian Diaspora in contrast to the indigenous Sri Lankan Tamils who are not. Successive Indian governments have interacted with and fostered relations with the Indian Diaspora through the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO). IOT are part of it and as such their leaders have had opportunities to attend GOPIO conferences, interact with top Indian leaders and businessmen and present papers on their condition and aspirations.
Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka this time round is a clear indication that henceforth India will focus on the Indian Origin Tamils and the Sinhalese majority in the south with only a marginal involvement with the issues of the Sri Lankan Tamils.