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India and 'the Killing Fields of Sri Lanka'Sam Rajappa, The Statesman
Tamil Nadu is at a boiling point over India’s contribution to the genocide in Sri Lanka.
(NEW DELHI) - THE Sri Lankan High Commissioner to India, Prasad Kariyawasam, now in Colombo for consultations, has sought an appointment with the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, Jayalalitha, in Chennai to extend to her a personal invitation from President Mahinda Rajapaksa to visit Sri Lanka. In its attempt to pamper Rajapaksa to serve the agenda of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, India had betrayed the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils who have been struggling for equal rights with the majority Sinhalese.
While the DMK, an important constituent of the UPA, remained passive content with amassing wealth, even as India extended military, material and moral support to Sri Lanka in its war on its Tamil citizens in the crucial 2008-2009 period, the AIADMK, voted to power in the Assembly election held in April, and its leader Jayalalitha, have chosen a proactive role in rescuing fellow Tamils across the Palk Bay who have been progressively reduced from second class citizenship they enjoyed since independence in 1948 to serfs of the Sinhalese.
David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner, former foreign ministers of Britain and France respectively, after a recent visit to Sri Lanka, wrote: “Tamil life is treated as fourth or fifth class citizens. If foreign policy is about anything, it should be about stopping this kind of inhumanity.” South Block remaining a silent spectator, Chennai has wrested the initiative and Rajapaksa is worried. When the Tamil Nadu Assembly passed a resolution seeking retrieval of Kachchatheevu, a part of Ramanathapuram district which Indira Gandhi illegally ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974, and urged the Centre to call upon the UN to investigate war crimes against Rajapaksa, Colombo dismissed the whole thing as the rantings of a Chief Minister who has no locus standi on foreign affairs.
Even our own external affairs ministry which gave scant regard to public sentiments in Tamil Nadu while gifting Kachchtheevu to Sri Lanka or while fishermen from the State were being shot dead like wanton flies by the Lankan navy seems to have undergone a sea change after Jayalalitha’s assumption of office in Fort St. George.
Foreign secretary Nirupama Rao told a group of Sri Lankan journalists visiting New Delhi last week “the Indian government can no longer remain insensitive to the sentiments expressed by the Tamil Nadu government, the politicians and the people of Tamil Nadu about the issues affecting the Tamils in Sri Lanka.”
The screening of Channel 4’s “Killing fields of Sri Lanka” by a national television channel for three consecutive days last week showing naked Tamil prisoners shot in the head, dead bodies of women who had been raped and dumped on a truck, the immediate aftermath of shells landing on a hospital in a ‘no fire zone’ and the atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces in the final moments of the brutal civil war have left the people nauseated and shell-shocked.
The authenticity of the footage has been confirmed by a forensic pathologist, forensic video analyst, firearms evidence expert and a forensic video expert of international repute. Channel 4’s senior news executive Dorothy Byrne had cautioned viewers not to watch the programme saying “it is horrific, the images will remain in your mind may be for years.” The 53-minute footage is being dubbed in Tamil to be screened by Jaya TV owned by Jayalalitha in the next few days.
Already Tamil Nadu is on the boil for India’s contribution to the genocide Sri Lanka. There is an untold story about how New Delhi became instrumental in the brutality brought out in the Channel 4 documentary. India was hoping for the victory of Ranil Wickremasinghe of the UNP with whom our then High Commissioner in Colombo, Nirupama Rao, had established a close relationship, in the 2005 presidential election. Rajapaksa of the SLFP, a known hawk, won by the narrowest of margins, as President.
Had it not been the boycott of the election by the Tamils in response to a call given by the LTTE, Wickremasinghe would have won easily. Rajapaksa wanted to outlive his image of a hawk and establish rapport with the Indian political leadership but New Delhi repeatedly rebuffed him. This made him realise the importance of involving civil society in Tamil Nadu to resolve the intractable ethnic problem in his country.
His emissaries were scouting for a group in Tamil Nadu who could act as a bridge between the two countries. After much persuasion by Colombo, a small four-member group comprising MG Devasahayam, a former IAS officer and close associate of Jayaprakash Narayan and Mother Teresa as convenor, SP Ambrose, retired IAS officer who was home secretary of Tamil Nadu and Secretary to Government of India, a senior journalist working for a national daily, and a military veteran well versed in Sri Lankan affairs was formed and held its preliminary meeting in Chennai on 10 May 2007, with Sunimal Fernando, adviser to President Rajapaksa, participating. It was unanimously agreed that a military victory for one side without a political strategy to address the grievances of the Tamil community was unlikely to produce a lasting solution to the ethnic crisis.
The group had its first meeting with President Rajapaksa and his team comprising Lalith Weeratunga, secretary to the President, assistant secretary Waruna Sri Dhanapala and adviser Fernando in Colombo on 17 July 2007. Throughout the two-hour discussions, Rajapaksa gave the impression that he was not unduly worried about international criticism of his regime but was greatly concerned about Indian opinion. He fully endorsed the group’s opinion expressed by Devasahayam that the solution to the crisis should emerge from within Sri Lanka and refined through international opinion, particularly from India. After the two-day meetings with the Tamil Nadu group, Rajapaksa said at a public function “we ought to be sensitive and responsive to the genuine grievances of the people in the North-East,” traditional homeland of the Sri Lankan Tamils.
To cut a long story short, the Tamil Nadu civil society group had a series of meetings with Rajapaksa’s team of officials and ministers in Sri Lanka and Chennai to carry forward the progress made so far and agreed upon many steps to resolve the conflict. A crucial conference was held with President Rajapaksa in Colombo on 25 March 2008, followed by a series of meetings with DEW Gunasekara, Sri Lankan Minister for Constitutional Affairs and National Integration, Raja Collure, chairman of official language commission, and others for evolving a political solution and confidence-building measures. An action agenda was set.
The Indian High Commission in Colombo got wind of the Tamil Nadu group’s activities and the Deputy High Commissioner, A Manickam, sought an appointment with Devasahayam. It was fixed at 5 p.m. at the hotel he was staying which was next door to Manickam’s office.
Manickam never kept his appointment but the High Commission later reprimanded the Sri Lankan presidential team for holding peace talks with ‘unauthorised’ persons. The civil society initiative was conveyed to Sonia Gandhi by a Congress member of the Lok Sabha from Tamil Nadu who was trying to sell the idea of panchayat raj system to Rajapaksa to resolve the ethnic crisis.
Unaware of these developments in New Delhi, Devasahayam wrote to TKA Nair, one of his former colleagues who was occupying the post of principal secretary to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on 1 April 2008, recalling the Indian defence ministry’s annual report to Parliament which said: “We strongly believe that there is no military solution.
What is required is a settlement of the political, constitutional and other issues within the framework of a united Sri Lanka which addresses the concerns of all communities, especially that of the ethnic minority.”
Devasahayam outlined the progress made by the Tamil Nadu group and the action agenda that had been set. The letter regretted that government of India, while providing Sri Lanka with weapons systems and training facilities, remained indifferent to activating any peaceful negotiated settlement. It requested the government to support the initiative taken by the Tamil Nadu group to end the long-festering humanitarian crisis. The letter remains unanswered to this day.
It was after this group’s successful initiative that India changed track and gave the green signal to the Sri Lankan government to go all out to decimate the LTTE without insisting on a political solution to resolve the ethnic crisis. According to sources in Colombo, Sonia Gandhi wanted LTTE leader Velupillai Pirapaharan and its intelligence chief Pottu Amman decapitated and pledged all military support to Sri Lanka to achieve her goal.
The then national security adviser MK Narayanan, foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon and the clique controlling the Prime Minister’s Office put Sonia Gandhi’s interest above national interest and actively assisted the brutal Sri Lankan genocide that could be seen in the Channel 4 documentary thus creating the quagmire Sri Lanka finds itself in. This is evident from the fact that while the whole world is seething at what they saw in the documentary, the government of India is deafeningly silent.
There is every possibility of Rajapaksa and company being hauled up before the International Court of Justice at The Hague to stand trial for war crimes and genocide. In the event, New Delhi cannot escape responsibility for this horrendous brutality. The bell is tolling.
The writer is a veteran journalist and former Director of The Statesman Print Journalism School
Originally published by The Statesman in India.
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