Justice CV Wigneswaran, chief ministerial nominee of Sri Lanka's oppositional Tamil National Alliance (TNA) for the forthcoming northern province elections spoke to Padma Rao Sundarji. Here's the exclusive interview:
HT: President Mahinda Rajapaksa's decision to hold elections in Sri Lanka's Northern Province (NP) in September, for the first time in the history of the region rocked by 30 years of Asia's bloodiest civil war and despite opposition from Sinhala chauvinist coalition members is being touted as 'historic'. Equally so, your nomination by the hitherto fractious five parties of the oppositional Tamil National Alliance (TNA), as its candidate for chief minister. The jubilant Sri Lankan media is calling you the 'next Laxman Kadirgamar': a tough-talking, legal eagle who will not stand bullying by the Colombo coalition. And yet, you told a local channel that you "feel like a person who has jilted his lover and is getting married to the person his parents found for him". Why the despondency?
Justice CV Wigneswaran: I used the analogy to indicate that I am giving up something I have loved all my life to take on something I am obliged to do. My life has been quiet: I have been largely involved in religious activities and my profession. But for a long time, my friends, others lawyers, judges and my students were pushing me to enter politics.
The most difficult argument to counter was when they asked me why, if I took the advice of the Bhagwat Gita to perform one's duties seriously, was I shirking my responsibility? Then, the TNA's five component parties finally saw eye-to-eye over one single candidate. So I had to accept it.
Why this euphoria over me? So far it has been only about politicians. I suppose I bring a fresh air of perception. Politics has no meaning for me. I am also not interested in this post. I am just taking on a job. If it is possible to do it, I will, otherwise I'll just turn back and go away.
HT: The TNA has always been accused of supporting the ousted Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and a separate state for Tamils. More than 100,000 people were killed in the civil war. Indeed it is the reason why Sinhala chauvinists fear that an -almost certain - TNA victory in the NP in September could mean a resurgence of separatism. And yet, you say you want to achieve equal rights for Tamils within a united Sri Lanka. How can the two concepts go hand-in-hand ?
Wigneswaran: Up to about 1977, there was great passiveness and hopelessness in the Tamil community because they had tried all peaceful means. There was even a resolution by some Tamil leaders declaring that only God could help us. Then the younger ones took to arms.
The perplexed Tamil leadership tried to stop them, direct them. When our leaders, too, began to be killed, the leadership went dormant. Thereafter, there was only the gun and the barrel. Being party to violence was never the style of the elder Tamil leadership, so they had to bide their time and wait for the violence to abate. The LTTE were defeated in 2009. But the problems of Tamils remain unsolved, so the TNA is back in the fray.
HT: Why does the TNA want international opinion on the future of Tamils in Sri Lanka? Surely that is an internal matter ?
Wigneswaran: I primarily mean India, of course. When a wife is beaten up by a husband, it is not an internal affair. Neighbours have a duty to intervene. When we are precariously at the mercy of 150,000 occupational troops in the Northern Province and our rights are being affected, naturally we have to discuss this first with the government of Sri Lanka.
But if there is still no salutary effect, it is natural to then turn to our next-door neighbour. But if even India is not in a position to help because of her own trade, commerce and other strategic reasons, we would have to speak to others who are interested in human rights.
HT: But India doesn't allow anyone to give it advice on how to handle, say, the Kashmir issue or the Naxalite insurgency either. In fact, India is criticized all over Sri Lanka including in the NP for 'interference'. So why India?
Wigneswaran: Here's a counter-question: There are 150,000 Sri Lankan troops in NP - very close to your nuclear reactors in southern India. Chinese nationals have been seen in boats which went to the island of Kachhathivu with our navy.
Would these things not be considered a threat to India's security? Would you say: oh, those are Sri Lanka's internal matters? Look at the 13th amendment on devolution of power to the NP that was eked out by India and has already been trimmed and re-hashed in Colombo several times.
Currently, Sri Lanka's parliament is even discussing scrapping it altogether. India cannot be non-committal even if she wants to.
HT: As a legal luminary, you've had your differences with Mr. Rajapaksa - most recently, when you said that the impeachment of the former chief justice by his government was "illegal and flawed." How does this bode for your future relationship with the President ?
Wigneswaran: My comments on the impeachment were not a personal affront to the President but a reference to the legality of the move. In fact and after I made those remarks, his government looked at my views pragmatically, not personally and has now appealed to the Supreme Court to set aside that order. I don't think Mr Rajapaksa bears any antipathy towards me.
HT: You remarked that former LTTE cadres in Sri Lanka today have been declaring their allegiance to Mr Rajapaksa's government under duress. Are you implying that there is still a strong, latent feeling of separatism alive in sections of Sri Lankan Tamil society both within and outside Sri Lanka?
Wigneswaran. Not at all. These are people who had fought for separatism and were at the forefront of the war. Being under the control of the government for the past 2-3 years, I just wondered whether these were really their personal views.
I am not saying they still nurture separatism. Of the various sections of Tamil diaspora overseas, the ones who lost family members and all they had during the riots of 1983 are naturally embittered and still speak of a separate state. Our government must therefore be pragmatic and help us Tamils in the north and east look after ourselves and at the same time, be part and parcel of the national affairs of Sri Lanka.
If such conducive changes come about within Sri Lanka and things improve for those who are currently living under an occupational army, why would even that section of the Tamil diaspora - or anyone within the country - talk of separatism?
HT: One of the biggest bones of contention between members of Mr Rajapaksa's ruling coalition and the TNA in the debates over elections has been to allow - or not allow - police and land powers to be given to the provincial council of the NP, as envisaged by the 13th amendment engineered by India. But given that the NP has just emerged from a long and brutal conflict, how realistic is that expectation? Would you be willing to make a compromise, say, like a phased handing over of police and land powers by the central government in Colombo?
Wigneswaran: It should be the other way round. Police and land powers should be granted to the local people first. Certainly, the presence of the armed forces can then be phased out gradually. Four years have passed since the end of civil war, the Tigers are long gone, so why on earth is there still an occupational army in place?
There are tremendous problems being faced by the people there. Their lands have been taken over by the army, they are unable to get back to their original positions, they live in makeshift houses, there is cultural degradation. How can law and order be in the hands of people not indigenous to an area?
HT: What would be the most constructive role India - and Tamil Nadu politicians - could play in the 2 months before the provincial elections, one that would not ruffle the feathers of either Sinhala chauvinists in southern Sri Lanka or Tamil voters in the NP?
Wigneswaran: India can make sure that our army returns to its barracks, that election ID cards are not snatched away, mysterious bombs don't scare people away from voting. It can ensure a fair and clean election by placing observers there and convincing our government to see what the Tamils really want, instead of forcing the election to reflect a different idea.
It is natural for friends in Tamil Nadu to show emotions but the Sri Lankan issue is being used there for political gains. To them, I will only say this: You are welcome to give us any other kind of support but please allow us to work out our own solutions to our own problems within a united Sri Lanka.