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India's reluctant diplomacy in Lanka
Sukumari Surpana in Colombo
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Coverage: The war in Lanka

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October 22, 2008

The second of a three-part series on the war in Lanka and its implications for India

Part I: Sri Lankan tsunami in Indian politics

From December 2005 till the last week of September 2007, Sri Lanka [Images] was a little more than a footnote in the squabbles of political parties of Tamil Nadu. It figured in the radar of New Delhi [Images] as a blip tilting heavily in favour of Colombo, marking a major shift in the carefully pursued policy of neutrality since the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May 2001. The Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam led by Vaiko has been vociferous on paper in advocacy of cause of Lanka Tamils but could not even persuade change the mind of its major political partner, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The Pattali Makkal Katchi led by Dr Ramdoss too was vocal but can not be granted any benefit as his party is partner in the Dr Singh government and hence cannot seek immunity from its actions.

Events in Tamil Nadu focused on Lanka acquired a momentum of their own when the CPI announced that the AIADMK would join the token strike it planned on October 2 in solidarity with their brethren in the neighbouring country. At the last minute the AIADMK stayed out and announced its own programme. Later, J Jayalalitha made it clear that the concerns of her party related to ordinary folk and not the LTTE [Images]. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, who was the target of attack of several of his rival parties along with the prime minister, was the last to arrive on the scene.

Obviously feeling cornered on October 5 after a marathon session with his senior leaders he issued a statement calling on the people to send lakhs of telegrams to the prime minister with the wording, 'Intervene immediately and stop the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka'.

Karunanidhi urged the central government not to be deterred by the undesirable events of the past, but to take action to prevent racial killings. In it he told the prime minister to treat the statement as an SOS alert and act accordingly. The prime minister telephoned Karunanidhi on October 6 and discussed the issue.

At a meeting in Chennai on the same day Karunanidhi said, "We may have to consider the next step if the central government fails to take immediate action. If the central government fails to find a solution to the problems of the Tamil people, we may be forced to consider whether this government is necessary."

For almost two year prior to the frenzied activity in the DMK camp in the first week of October, the plight of Tamil Nadu's fisher-folk caught by the Lanka Navy after straying into its waters was the only prominent and consistent issue raised by Karunanidhi. The script of the drama had become too familiar. The Tamil Nadu chief minister would dash off an emotional letter to the prime minister leading to an unannounced visit of the National Security Advisor, M K Narayanan, to Chennai for behind the curtain parleys. The familiar refrain of a triumphant Narayanan after the session with the chief minister ran as, 'The Centre would take up all the relevant issues with the Sri Lanka government'.  

Within hours after the October 5 outburst of Karunanidhi, the NSA did something out of the ordinary. In a move that raised political and diplomatic eye-brows the NSA summoned the Sri Lankan deputy high commissioner to India to express what was termed as 'India's grave concern and unhappiness' over the course of the ongoing military confrontation between the Sri Lanka security forces and the LTTE. Why was the MEA bypassed and what was New Delhi attempting?

A two-paragraph demarche was stuffed into the hands of the bewildered Lankan diplomat. It read, 'The Sri Lankan deputy high commissioner was summoned by the NSA today to express India's grave concern and unhappiness at the growing casualties of unarmed Tamil civilians as a result of the military action. The escalation of hostilities in the north and the resultant fallout was leading to a great deal of concern in India. It was pointed out that there was need for the Sri Lankan government to act with greater restraint and address the growing feeling of insecurity among the minority community. To stem the deteriorating humanitarian situation, the need to revive the political process was highlighted. It was essential that vital supplies to the affected population were not disrupted in any manner.

'Serious concern was also expressed at the continuing attacks on Indian fishermen, including the recent incident on September 27-28. This was not in keeping with the spirit of the understanding reached between India and Sri Lanka and recently reiterated in meetings held at the highest levels. The Sri Lankan Navy should cease such attacks and not lose sight of the humanitarian and livelihood dimensions of this issue'.

Ironically, it is the most strident move by New Delhi since the current phase of hostilities in June-July 2006. Though strong in words, it was woefully short in substance, leaving everyone to guess on the concrete nature of Indian concerns and, most important, what exactly New Delhi has in mind when it talks about the need 'to revive the political process'.

The reason is the Rajapaksa government has kept India in the loop on every single political and military initiative it has launched in the last two years plus. Such was the convergence in the thinking between Colombo and New Delhi that the latter was the only world capital to characterise the January interim report of All Parties Representatives Conference as a 'welcome first step'.

There was no buildup in the two capitals which explained the summoning. From the perspective of Sri Lanka, there was no major change on the ground situation in the conflict zone in the north. Displacement of civilians even in the north is a phenomenon which began on August 3 when the Sri Lankan military crossed the border of the Kilinochchi district. Incidentally, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] was in Colombo on that day to attend the SAARC summit and had a detailed interaction with President Rajapaksa on the sidelines of the summit.

Further, the Indian prime minister and the Sri Lankan president were in New York in the last week of September to participate in the United Nation General Assembly. Dr Singh and Rajapaksa were in fact slated to meet but presumably due to scheduling problems the interaction did not take place. The Indian establishment obviously did not consider a meeting between Dr Singh and Rajapaksa a top priority. So, what accounts for the abrupt summoning of the Sri Lankan deputy high commissioner? Clearly, it is pressure from various parties in Tamil Nadu which appears to have forced the hand of New Delhi. The guess in political circles of Sri Lanka is that India chose the NSA as he represented the prime minister directly and wanted to give an impression to various constituencies in Tamil Nadu that it was getting tough with Colombo.

To be concluded tomorrow.

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