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Act now! India tells Lanka

Foreign Secy Saran has told Lanka that it needs to get serious about devolution of power to end Tamil separatism.

india Updated: Jul 06, 2006 13:01 IST

After some hesitation and much thinking, India has finally given Sri Lanka its most trenchant message since a peace process began four years ago: Act now, politically, to keep the island nation united.

In his meetings with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and other Sri Lankan leaders over two days, Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran told them that Colombo needs to get serious about devolution of power if it wants to end Tamil separatism.

Sri Lanka was told that its Norway-brokered 2002 ceasefire agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was the start of a peace process, whatever the flaws, and could not be an end by itself.

The polite Indian missive was: the Sri Lankan leadership has to get its act together and devise ways of politically resolving a conflict that has raged for almost a quarter century with no end in sight.

India's understanding is that the security situation in Sri Lanka is very serious and only a working and widely acceptable package that devolves power to the minorities - the absence of which gave birth to Tamil militancy a long time ago - would lighten up the end of the tunnel.

The Sri Lankan decision to set up an All Party Conference and other similar steps aimed at preparing a devolution package has been noted, but the view here is that this should not become a dragging affair.

Saran also conveyed to Rajapaksa, on behalf of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, that India stands by Sri Lanka's territorial unity and opposes terrorism in all forms. India was also ready to share with Sri Lanka its expertise in constitutional matters, an offer that has been made in the past too.

At the same time, however, Sri Lanka needed to act - and fast.

A similar message was also conveyed to opposition leader and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Saran, who returned from Colombo late on Tuesday, did not meet leaders of any other political party, ostensibly due to lack of time.

India has been repeatedly telling Sri Lanka's two main parties - the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party - the need to get together to evolve a political answer to the ethnic conflict, whatever their other differences.

Rajapakse stated that he too favoured power sharing with minorities but his leading ally, the Sinhalese-Marxist Janatha Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), was opposed to any devolution that gave the hint of a federal framework of governance.

Many Sinhalese consider "federalism" a stepping stone to separatism, a view not shared by even moderate Tamils opposed to the LTTE.

Some political actors in Colombo have been telling Indian officials that an "Indian model" of governance - akin to what Indian states enjoy - could be ideal for Sri Lanka.

But all these terminologies fall much short of what the LTTE desires.

The Tigers, who are outlawed in India, remain loyal to their campaign for a Tamil homeland in the island's northeast though they have in the past agreed to look at credible alternatives.

The Indian message to Sri Lanka is also more or less what other international actors in the peace process have been telling Colombo in recent times, privately and publicly.

But there is a growing feeling, right or wrong, that Sri Lanka is not taking advantage of the international sanctions against the LTTE to realise that there can be no military solution to the conflict.

Any full-scale war in Sri Lanka will have major repercussions on India. The number of Tamils fleeing the island to take refuge in Tamil Nadu has touched the 4,000 mark, and that itself is a sign that all is not well in Sri Lanka.