An Indian parliamentary delegation's visit to Sri Lanka sent a clear message to the Sri Lankan government on the need to tackle the political grievances of the Sri Lankan Tamil community. Shubha Singh reports.
The Indian parliamentary delegation's visit to Sri Lanka sent a clear message to the Sri Lankan government on the need to tackle the political grievances of the Sri Lankan Tamil community. The delegation led by Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj conveyed the 'serious' all-party view in India that the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse should take steps towards a political settlement in the country.
The Indian parliamentarians had a hectic schedule visiting the camps of the Internally Displaced Persons, villages in the battle zone, Indian developmental projects as well as meeting a cross-section of leaders in Colombo including several ministers, the Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wikremasinghe, major political parties, members of parliament and representatives of civil society.
One member of the delegation described the tour, saying: "The visit was no picnic. We would start in the early hours of the morning and return after midnight to our rooms. We did not even see the sights of Colombo. We had a very serious agenda; we were fully focused on looking at the conditions of the Tamils of Sri Lanka and talking to different sections of opinion."
While visiting the refugee camps, the MPs found that the majority of the IDPs had been moved out of the camps and there were only about 6,000 IDPs left who were to be rehabilitated in the next few months as de-mining was completed in their areas. The MPs found that "developmental activity was taking place in Sri Lanka. But there was some delays in the Indian aided projects."
Leader of the delegation, Sushma Swaraj told President Rajapakse that his government should take steps to 'persuade' the Tamil National Alliance (the main Tamil party) and the main opposition party, the United National Party to be party to talks on a political resolution. She also spoke of "phasing out of the involvement of the security forces in civilian activities and restoration of civilian administration in the Northern Province."
The visit was in return to the tour of a Sri Lankan parliamentary delegation to India last year. The Indian MPs were to go earlier in the year but their visit had to be re-scheduled. It took place weeks after India dropped its objections to 'country-specific resolutions' and voted for the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution against Sri Lanka. The run-up to the UNHRC vote resulted in an upsurge of nationalistic feelings in Sri Lanka at what was perceived as a 'western targeting' of the country.
Indian newspapers had reported the Indian vote against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC in Geneva last month was dictated by domestic political compulsions in Tamil Nadu as well as by American pressure. This was a view that was taken up by Sri Lankan commentators to criticise the UPA government even though the official reaction of the government in Colombo was guarded and did not mention India at any time.
However, the Indian vote was the result of the government's increasing exasperation at the Sri Lankan government not showing any signs of moving ahead on the issue of a political settlement of the Tamil minority even three years after the civil war had ended.
New Delhi had backed the Sri Lankan government during the last days of the civil war despite the reports of killings of large number of civilians caught in the cross fire between the rebel Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan security forces. The reports had led to widespread anger and anguish in Tamil Nadu at the plight of the Tamil civilians.
At that time, President Rajapakse had assured the Indian leadership that post-the civil war he would devolve power to the north and eastern provinces. He had termed it '13th Amendment plus', indicating that the political package would go much beyond the 13th Amendment that had been promised by former President J R Jayewardene at the time of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord in 1987. The assurance was never implemented.
The 13th Amendment was to devolve some powers to the local administration in the Tamil minority areas. Many of these powers are already in place in other Sri Lankan provinces but not in the northern and eastern provinces.
Indian leaders have been trying to persuade the Sri Lankan government to begin fulfilling its assurances but there is little visible movement in this regard. President Rajapakse announced that he would set up a parliamentary select committee that would go into the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission but the committee is still to come into existence.
The two main political parties in Tamil Nadu, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chose to drop out of the parliamentary delegation, but it is indicative of the popular feelings in Tamil Nadu. There is genuine concern over the lack of a political settlement among the people of Tamil Nadu.
There are a sizeable number of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees living in Tamil Nadu who have not been able to return home as conditions are still very difficult in the Northern Province.