Even they are not convinced that Tamil Nadu’s Dravidian parties take up their cause for anything other than their own competitive political gains

If the pressure being brought to bear by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and other Tamil political parties and groups on the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to take a strong stand against Sri Lanka in the Human Rights Council (HRC) is aimed at helping the Tamil minority in that country, it is unlikely to achieve that objective.

In fact, it is quite likely to have the opposite effect of painting Sri Lankan Tamils as a fifth column for Tamil nationalist or Eelamist designs emanating from Tamil Nadu, and increasing the political polarisation in that country.

This is not to say that the Rajapaksa government is blameless in the way it has treated the violations of human rights against Tamil civilians by Sri Lankan forces and of international laws of conduct by soldiers in combat. Its cavalier attitude to reports of civilian casualties during the war, and towards post-war ethnic reconciliation also does it no credit.

Where Sri Lanka erred

It would have been the easiest thing for President Mahinda Rajapaksa to be magnanimous in victory. Admitting in 2009 that Tamil civilians had been killed in the fighting; apologising for those killings; immediately investigating reports of violations by the Sri Lankan Army of the No Fire Zone and probing the cases of missing people. This would have been the most politically graceful, as well as effortless, way forward.

Mr. Rajapaksa could have even gone as far as make a national apology for the 1983 anti-Tamil riots, the turning point of the conflict in Sri Lanka, and he would have gone down in history as a different sort of leader, as a statesman. Instead, he allowed narrow triumphalism to set the national agenda, to the point where resolving the Tamil question is now seen by Sinhala nationalists as unnecessary. Since the end of the war, revisionists have ensured that the Sinhalese majority thinks of the conflict only as a series of atrocities committed by the LTTE, and the LTTE as a group created by India, while the Sri Lankan military remains stationed all across northern Sri Lanka, as if in readiness for another war.

Devolution

The government’s decision to set up a parliamentary committee to find a political solution to Tamil aspirations is hardly adequate, especially as reports by previous committees have been unceremoniously shelved. From the pronouncements of those close to Mr. Rajapaksa, the future of what little devolution now exists in Sri Lanka is uncertain. By the time the much-delayed elections to the Tamil-dominated Northern Province are held, as stated by him in September this year, it is not clear how much power will be devolved.

The protests

So it will not be wrong to say that Sri Lanka’s obstinate reluctance to deal with its national question is squarely to blame for the churning in Tamil Nadu today. But protests in Tamil Nadu by political parties and students are hardly going to push Colombo to take the right steps. Indeed, all this only makes it easier for the Sri Lankan government to dismiss any Indian effort to make it do the right thing as inspired by the “Tamil Nadu factor,” and therefore, not take it seriously.

Even Sri Lankan Tamils are not convinced that Dravidian political parties take up their cause for anything other than their own political gains. The half-day Marina hunger strike by DMK leader M. Karunanidhi in the closing stages of the war against the LTTE in 2009, still evokes much derisive laughter among Sri Lankan Tamils, and has also gone down as a lasting symbol of the cynical use that Tamil Nadu parties make of the Eelam Tamil cause.

Sri Lankan Tamils also know more than anyone else that such shows by Tamil Nadu politicians only heighten the siege mentality of the Sinhalese, who have always regarded Tamil Nadu with suspicion, and the island’s once secessionist Tamil politics and militancy as not just influenced, but directed by Tamil leaders in the southern Indian state.

View on resolutions

Any move by New Delhi to strengthen the U.S-sponsored resolution before the HRC at the behest of the DMK is hardly going to persuade Sri Lanka to do what is right and just. If the Rajapaksa regime did not feel pushed by the 2012 resolution, in many ways the real wake-up call, it is hardly worried by the 2013 one.

As India did not so long ago, Sri Lanka views resolutions against it in the HRC as driven by lobbies with agendas against the country, especially when sponsored by a country accused of rights violations across the globe, and is able to find enough political support within for this view. In any case, the HRC resolutions are not binding.

How then to get Sri Lanka to take the right steps towards national reconciliation? The answer lies in India, but it is located in New Delhi, not in Chennai. On Tuesday, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi took the extraordinary step at the Congress Parliamentary Party meeting, of expressing her party’s concern for Sri Lankan Tamils.

“The plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka is close to our hearts. Our support for equal rights and equal protection of the laws to them has been unwavering since the days of Indiraji and Rajivji.

“We are most pained at the manner in which their legitimate political rights continue to be denied to them. We are anguished by reports of unspeakable atrocities on innocent civilians and children, especially during the last days of the conflict in 2009,” she said.

This should have been New Delhi’s line from the start, one that it should have used in hard-edged, but quiet diplomacy with Sri Lanka.

But it allowed itself to be scared by the “China card,” real or not, being waved at it by Sri Lanka, and by our own strategic thinkers. New Delhi does itself and Sri Lankan Tamils a big disfavour by shaking the dust off its Sri Lanka policy from March to March, HRC session to HRC session, crisis to crisis for the UPA coalition from its Tamil Nadu partner, instead of framing one that is confident, non-reactive and long term.

Mrs Gandhi’s statement on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue was the strongest from any Indian leader in more than two decades. And it is all the more remarkable for one who has suffered personal loss at the hands of the LTTE. Unfortunately, it will not carry the moral edge that it should, likely as it is to be seen as nothing more than a plunge by the Congress leader into Tamil Nadu’s competitive Eelamist politics, a move to save her party from a total eclipse in the State, made under the assumption that this is an issue that will sway voters one year from now.

nirupama.s@thehindu.co.in

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