The visit by Sri Lanka's President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has reaffirmed the country's close ties with India and provided both sides the opportunity to signal a readiness to take the bilateral relationship to a new level. This was reflected in the joint statement by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Rajapaksa, and the host of agreements to strengthen and expand bilateral cooperation. It was the first time in a quarter century that New Delhi played host to a Sri Lankan head of state who arrived without the burden of a raging ethnic conflict back home. Mr. Rajapaksa, whose political stock following his presidential and parliamentary election triumphs is unmatched among leaders in the region, did not have to seek support for his government nor assistance in a devastating civil war. For three decades, the Tamil question, and unease with the way successive Sri Lankan governments handled it, dominated ties between the two neighbours. With the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam eliminated as a military entity, the Sri Lankan leader clearly wants to reformulate the bilateral relationship. That he is prepared to go the extra mile for this is evident from his agreement to an Indian consulate in the southern city of Hambantota where China is assisting in building a modern port, in addition to the already agreed diplomatic outpost in Jaffna.
India too is eager to look at its relations with Sri Lanka through a post-LTTE lens. In this, the immediate issue has been the resettlement of all the Tamils displaced during the final stage of the military operations against the Tigers. In addition to the grant of Rs. 500 crore for the humanitarian relief, rehabilitation, and resettlement of internally displaced persons, the infrastructure development, and other assistance being provided by India for projects in Northern Sri Lanka, New Delhi's decision to assist in the building of 50,000 houses is a timely initiative. But as a good neighbour, India must make a much bigger, and qualitatively more significant contribution, to the development of the war-ravaged North, and the rehabilitation and rebuilding efforts for the Tamils.
While the assurances given by President Rajapaksa give rise to the hope that the longstanding political grievances of the Tamil people will be addressed in a just manner, it is no surprise that the joint statement reveals differences over how to go about resolving this question. New Delhi expects “a meaningful devolution, building upon the 13th Amendment…[to] create the necessary conditions for a lasting political settlement,” in other words implementation of the 13th Amendment with significant enhancements. Mr. Rajapaksa, on the other hand, has recorded “his determination to evolve a political settlement acceptable to all communities that would act as a catalyst to create the necessary conditions in which all the people of Sri Lanka could lead their lives in an atmosphere of peace, justice and dignity, consistent with democracy, pluralism, equal opportunity and respect for human rights.” Expressing his resolve “to continue to implement in particular the relevant provisions of the Constitution designed to strengthen national amity and reconciliation through empowerment,” he shared with Dr. Singh his ideas on “conducting a broad dialogue with all parties involved.”
This requires, first, political will on the Sinhala side to find a just and enduring solution. It also implies responsibility on the part of Tamil parties to make up their minds quickly on what kind of devolution, development, and future they want for their people within a united Sri Lanka. They must overcome their differences and liberate themselves from the separatist mindset of the Prabakaran era, which prevented even so-called moderates from making any workable proposals in talks with successive Sri Lankan governments. They must move forward in the confidence that Sri Lankan Tamils are a hard-working, educated, brave, and resilient people with many talents. Given a congenial socio-political environment, generous development assistance, peace and stability, and a decent measure of self-administering opportunities, they can shape a bright future for themselves as part of a united nation.
The setting up of a ‘Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation” is a positive step President Rajapaksa has taken towards bridging the deep ethnic divide. Under its terms of reference, the Commission, which has eight reputed representatives from the Sinhala and Tamil communities, is to go into the events of the period, February 2002 to May 2009, “their attendant concerns and to recommend measures to ensure that there will be no recurrence” of such a situation. Some objections have been raised to the limited period covered by the terms of reference as well as to the absence of a mandate for the Commission to inquire into the alleged excesses committed by the Sri Lankan military in the final days of the war. But in balance, the Commission is a good opportunity for both the majority and minority communities to put the past behind and move forward to live harmoniously in a united Sri Lanka. South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Committee, from which the Sri Lankan experiment takes its inspiration, was also not a perfect model but it helped the country close the chapter on apartheid and progress. In Sri Lanka, years of war and attrition have damaged both communities. The Commission can surely help begin the process of healing.
From 1991, successive governments in New Delhi have conducted Sri Lanka policy on sound and constructive lines. The time has come to take the bilateral relationship to a new level by exploring its full potential. As part of this, rising India must – without imposing itself – continue to encourage the Sri Lankan leadership to find a satisfactory resolution to Tamil grievances within an improved devolution framework.