The 45-minute interview which the Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh gave to Sri Lankan Tamil MPs in New Delhi on Friday is touted by the TNA as signalling a significant shift in New Delhi’s Sri Lanka policy.
The TNA expects India to take up the Tamils’ legitimate grievances with the Sri Lankan government more actively and firmly than before, and turn Colombo away from the military path to the path of meaningful political negotiation with the LTTE.
But perceptive observers of the India-Sri Lanka scene in Colombo say that the assurances given by the Indian Prime Minister are unlikely to be translated into action in any significant way.
The reasons cited are primarily two:
(1) The Sri Lankan government is determined to continue its policies even if these run counter to India’s declared policies. The government, in addition, has the full backing of the majority Sinhala community on the Tamil issue.
(2) New Delhi itself is not very serious about taking concrete or significant action. The objective seems to be to help its ally in Tamil Nadu, Chief Minster M Karunanidhi, contain a growing pro-Sri Lankan Tamil and pro-LTTE agitation in the state.
SL government’s resolve
The Mahinda Rajapaksa government in Sri Lanka is convinced that its Tamil/LTTE policy is politically sound and eminently in the interest of Sri Lanka.
There is no sign of any dilution of the government’s thinking even though the international community, including India, has been telling it to give up the military option and move firmly, concretely and significantly towards addressing the immediate and long term demands of the Tamil minority.
The need to contain the LTTE and ensure security is felt to be so great that the creation of 250,000 refugees and a food shortage in Jaffna with a population of 600,000 are not seen as being a big price to pay.
Sri Lanka forces continue to bomb and shell the Tamil North East. And there is no sign that the A9 land route to Jaffna will be re-opened.
Even on the day the TNA MPs were meeting the Indian Prime Minister, the Air Force bombed Mullaitivu, where the LTTE chief, Prabhakaran, is said to be hiding.
And even as the meeting was going on, the Sri Lankan government went ahead and took practical steps to de-merge the North-Eastern Province as per the judgement of the Supreme Court.
A separate Governorship was created for the new Eastern Province and Rear Admiral Mohan Wijewickrama was appointed Governor.
The de-merger was sought by the Sinhalas and the Muslims, and bitterly opposed by the Tamils who saw it as a means to disunite the Tamils.
India too supported the merger, and had, in fact, brought it about through the India-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987.
Of course, it cannot be denied that the LTTE has also been responsible for the current intractable state of affairs. It has been triggering the civilian exodus by using civilians as human shields and recruiting forcibly. It has contributed to the food problem in Jaffna by not giving food ships the necessary security guarantee.
It is felt in Colombo that Manmohan Singh’s latest moves are primarily meant to contain the pro-Sri Lankan Tamil and pro-LTTE agitation in Tamil Nadu, rather than to signal any firm action against the Sri Lankan government, whether diplomatic, economic or military.
India has made it clear that it will not sell lethal weapons to Sri Lanka, and "suspended" the export of explosives to that country, even for peaceful purposes.
But Home Minister Pranab Mukherji said in Chennai on Friday, that India had no intention of "directly" interfering in Sri Lanka. He also made it clear that the training of Sri Lankan defence personnel in Indian training establishments would continue.
As for economic sanctions, none is on the cards. In fact, India and Sri Lanka are now poised to sign a deal to set up a large coal fired power plant somewhere near Trincomalee port.
The Sri Lankan government wants it to be set up in Sampur across the Bay, a militarily strategic area which was recently captured from the LTTE. The Sri Lankan Tamils are expected to oppose Sampur as the location. They also complain that Sampur has been denuded of Tamils since it was captured.
India’s stand on the question remains to be seen.
The Manmohan Singh government is constrained by coalition-government politics to help its ally the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi, to accommodate a pro-Sri Lankan Tamil and pro-LTTE upsurge in the politics of Tamil Nadu.
Karunanidhi has to go along with this agitation to avoid isolation. And by extension, New Delhi also has to go along with him, given the spreading sentiment in the state.
In this context it is significant that the TNA’s delegation included Suba Veerapandian, a committed and vocal pro-LTTE leader from Tamil Nadu. He went as the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister’s personal representative.
Be that as it may, Manmohan Singh and Karunanidhi seem to have a limited objective - to smother the agitation in Tamil Nadu, at least for the time being, or prevent its immediate radicalisation.