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Visit of Indian MP’s is a beginning in bridging the India-Sri Lanka communication gap

By N Sathiya Moorthy

The delegation may not be as representative as it could have been, and should have been, but the initiative goes a long way in crossing the mental and physical barriers of politicians from each country understanding the other.

Leader of the Opposition in Indian Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj, being warmly received by President Rajapaksa-Pix by: Sudath Silva-courtesy: InfoLanka.com

The communication gap, which is both unnatural and unrealistic, in bilateral relations, starting with the crucial ethnic issue, at the non-official levels, is a reality that needs bridging.

A beginning was made when a team of 10 Indian MPs, all from southern Tamil Nadu, visited the affected areas not long after the conclusion of ‘Eelam War IV’ in May 2009. Last year, a team of Sri Lankan MPs of all hues, ethnic and political, visited India and the Indian Parliament.

Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa headed this team. The boycott of the team and its programmes in New Delhi by the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu, citing the ‘ethnic issue’, exposed their ignorance.

Five of the 11 Sri Lankan MPs were Tamil-speaking, including TNA’s Selvam Adaikalanathan. The TNA and the Government were talking about a political solution at the time. It is elusive now, after the Government rather pulled out of the talks during the run-up to the UNHRC vote in Geneva. Post-Geneva, and still linked to the ethnic issue, the Indian visit now has shown the multi-layered nature of bilateral relations.

It is a reflection of the collective concern of political India to the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka. This concern was echoed in the Indian Parliament during the run-up to the Geneva vote. There is another facet to the Indian team’s visit.

Sri Lankans need to imbibe the spirit of multi-polarity/bi-polarity of the Indian political scheme. It is difficult to fathom if any Sri Lankan Government in India’s place would have encouraged the BJP Leader of the Opposition to lead an overseas delegation. Sushma Swaraj the BJP Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and a prime ministerial hopeful is daggers drawn at the Government on all issues. It is still likely that she would do precisely that on her visit, too, once back home.

The Government of the day, headed by Congress Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, did not flinch on this score. Instead, it provided for a broad spectrum discourse to future Indian approach to the ethnic issue. This would guarantee continuity to New Delhi’s policies on this front. Not that it has been lacking in the past. More importantly, it gives adequate exposure to all sections of the Indian polity, starting with that in Tamil Nadu, aspects of the Sri Lankan ethnic situation that they might not have heard, or listened to, earlier.

The Tamil Nadu politicians’ knowledge is confined at best to decades, and is not based on independent study or understanding. They have fed always on their ‘umbilical cord’ brethren, that too from among the ‘Sri Lankan Tamil’ community.

Yet, DMK leader M Karunanidhi wanting India to back demands for a referendum in Sri Lanka’s North and the East is rather a reflection of the Diaspora’s concerns, reflected in the electoral position of ‘Tamils for Democrats’ in the distant US. It is not reflective of a ‘political solution within a united Sri Lanka’, as under-scored by the TNA and the rest, back home. To the extent, the TNA too has been called upon to clarify from time to time that it would not waver.

The tentativeness of the post-war situation has not removed mutual doubts and suspicions in the minds of the stake-holders in Sri Lanka. It is no different in the case of the Sinhala polity. Unlike their Indian counterparts, most of them freely visit south Indian cities, until the Jayalalithaa- led AIADMK Government in Tamil Nadu was called upon by circumstances to issue an advisory to the contrary.

Yet, their visits are confined to temple visits – Tirupathi or Puttaparthi for the Sinhalese, Tiruchendur and Madurai for Tamils, Velankanni for Christians and Nagore for Muslims, who also have live family ties.

Such has been the bane of bilateral relations that Sinhala hard-liners do not hesitate to flinch from their known positions if it meant taking a pot-shot at the Indian neighbour. Decades after the demise of the militant form of JVP, the party is yet to review India-bashing from Rohana Wijeweera’s ‘five classes’ for his cadres.

The latest one however reportedly related to Energy Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, who is a member of the JHU. According to a section of the Indian media, copied by counterparts in Sri Lanka, Minister Ranawaka contested the safety factor for Sri Lankans, flowing from the Koodamkulam nuclear power station in Tamil Nadu.

As recalled by Dr. R.L. Wijayawardana, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority in Sri Lanka, the Minister had called for Sri Lanka to go nuclear to meet its energy needs of the future. On a visit to India later, he visited the Kalpakkam nuclear power station, near Chennai, and – yes, and also Koodamkulam – and wanted one for his country, too. In between, the two countries were talking about Koodamkulam power for Sri Lanka, through under-sea cables.

If it did not happen, it owed to the delays in the execution of the Indian project, not otherwise. It is anybody’s guess why and how Minister Champika should have been misquoted or his reported position linked to India’s Geneva vote. If Sri Lanka, or Minister Ranawaka had reservations on Koodamkulam, the best time to air them, as they would have known, was when the anti-Koodamkulam was at its peak in Tamil Nadu, and not weeks later.

There is another angle to the episode. Minister Champika’s reported reservations, since denied and also sorted out by New Delhi and Colombo, meant that the Sri Lankan Government and identifiable pan-Tamil groups in Tamil Nadu backing the Diaspora position on the ethnic issue would have been on the same page on Koodamkulam.

It’s thus interesting to note that peripheral Tamil Nadu groups either held back their reaction or did not know how to react after a Sri Lankan Minister hated by their Diaspora compatriots took off from where they had left.

Instead, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa protested loudly to Minister Champika’s ‘interference’ in India’s internal developmental issues. The two had taken opposite positions on Sri Lanka’s earlier reservations to the Sethu Samudram project. At the time, Colombo had cited as reason, possible environmental degradation of the shared seas – but not extended to a share in the fish-catch, or to the business of the Colombo port.

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