Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Sri Lanka was replete with ‘firsts’. He was the first Indian PM to visit the island nation in 28 years. He was the first PM to travel to Jaffna, the capital of the Tamil-majority Northern Province. And he was the first to embellish his trip with carefully-crafted gestures, like praying at a Bo tree sacred for the Sinhalese majority, participate in inaugural ‘pujas’ while handing over houses to members of the Tamil minority.
But one aspect of Modi’s visit was a jaded repeat of what successive Indian PMs have parroted for nearly three decades. Like them, Modi too insisted on the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution, which envisages maximum autonomy for Sri Lankan Tamils in the north and east, where a 30-year separatist war killed 120,000 people.
Modi’s efforts to reach out to Asian neighbours, to counter China’s growing territorial and strategic ambitions, are welcome. However, the new Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena’s motley coalition contains a crucial ‘first-time’ element too. Unprecedentedly, it is supported by both Sinhalese chauvinists and Tamil nationalists — and therefore stands the best chance of eking out an autonomy package for Tamils which is acceptable to all sides.
Indeed, Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe confirmed to this writer in January that recent months had seen these very disparate partners discuss and come to a near-agreement on Tamil autonomy based on several proposals available, including those endorsed by prominent Sri Lankans such as former president Chandrika Kumaratunga. The end result, even if not labelled the ‘India-engineered 13th Amendment’, would not deviate from the latter’s key aspects in essence.
Consequently, India’s PMO, which has taken the lead in foreign policy and sidelined the able diplomats of the MEA, should have kept its ear closer to the ground in Sri Lanka, ahead of Modi’s visit. Had it done so, it would have sensed the deep resentment among moderates and nationalists of the Sinhalese majority for India’s erstwhile role in Sri Lanka: Its ‘authorship’ of the 13th Amendment during Rajiv Gandhi’s time in 1987 as well as its dispatch of the IPKF troops thereafter to the keep the peace.
If there is one thing that unites the Sinhalese, it is a dislike for India playing the role of Big Brother over domestic matters in Sri Lanka, especially under pressure from politicians in Tamil Nadu. Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s former ambassador to the UN in Geneva during the last two years of the civil war that ended in 2009, warned in a recent article that Modi’s remarks on the amendment ‘may not have been the best conceivable projection of soft power’ on Sri Lankans. Importantly, Jayatilleka points out that President Xi Jinping of China made no ‘intrusive or potentially contentious’ references of the kind during his visit to Sri Lanka in late 2014. Importantly, both the JHU and the JVP — two Sinhalese nationalist parties in Sirisena’s coalition — have voiced similar sentiments.
Given these resentments, Modi’s invocation of the ageing amendment is a mystery, particularly since the Centre is currently under no pressure from Tamil Nadu. Was Modi merely posturing keeping his party’s political ambitions in Tamil Nadu in mind?
If New Delhi is seriously interested in winning Sri Lanka’s confidence after a long spell of indifference and inactivity, it would do well to step back and let Colombo get on with the question of Tamil autonomy.
Padma Rao Sundarji is a senior foreign correspondent and author of Sri Lanka: The New Country
The views expressed by the author are personal