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Friday, March 23, 2012

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(Published in The India Site on 24 March, 2012, retrieved from

On May 19, 2009, the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced that his Army had defeated the separatist movement, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and brought peace to the island nation after 30 years. The Fourth Eelam War, like its three predecessors, saw the Sri Lankan government pitted against a militia that wanted a separate state for Tamils to be carved out of the island, the majority of whose population is Sinhalese. This war had begun with the bombing of LTTE camps by Sri Lankan Air Force fighter jets on July 26, 2006, and ended with the killing of the LTTE’s long-time leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on May 18, 2009.

When he took over as President in 2005, Rajapaksa had sworn he would rout the LTTE. In the last phase of a war that stretched over 3 years, his military would crowd the LTTE – and at least 300,000 civilians in the LTTE-administered Jaffna peninsula – into an ever-smaller strip of land, as they pursued the elusive leader of the outfit. They revealed that they had succeeded on May 18, two days after the state of Tamil Nadu in India had voted in a general election.

It suits the governments of both India and Tamil Nadu to brand the rehabilitation of Sri Lankan Tamils, displaced after the war, as well as war crimes allegedly perpetrated by the Lankan military as issues related to “Tamil sentiment”. Political parties in Tamil Nadu, by making the right noises about their “Eelam brothers and sisters”, can assert their “Tamil Pride”, which has long been a key component in election rhetoric. It was Tamil Pride that brought Dravida parties to power in the wake of the series of anti-Hindi agitations they led, to prevent English from being replaced by Hindi as the official language of India in the 1950s and 1960s. And so, Tamil Pride has in a way distanced the state from New Delhi, even while making it necessary for national parties to strike up alliances with one of the Dravida parties in order to get votes from the state. Following this logic, the linguistic ties that Tamil Nadu shares with Sri Lankan Tamils are stronger than the geographical boundaries that make it part of a country where the majority speaks, or at least understands, Hindi.

Viewing the situation in Sri Lanka as a slur on Tamil sentiment is easier for the Indian government to handle. Its statements on Sri Lanka can then be portrayed as attempts to mollify one of its constituent states, rather than as India’s stance in an international debate that will call into question the leadership role the country aspires to in the subcontinent.

Sharing borders with Pakistan and China as it does, India would be practically surrounded by hostile countries if it were to condemn the Sri Lankan government for its conduct of the war. True, it was among 24 countries that supported a resolution against Sri Lanka that was put to vote at the ongoing session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 23 (China was among 15 countries that voted in favour of Sri Lanka, and 8 abstained.) But its statement was guarded.

In the days before the vote, news reports quoted sources at the Indian Prime Minister’s Office saying there are worries that a strong stand against Sri Lanka would lead to questions about India’s own alleged human rights violations in Kashmir. And so, despite voting against Sri Lanka, India issued this watered-down statement: “One has to weigh pros and cons...We do not want to infringe on the sovereignty of Sri Lanka but concerns should be expressed so that Tamil people can get justice and lead a life of dignity.” That seems to indicate that India views crimes against Tamils as the outcome of linguistic prejudice, and makes the statement sound like an obligation to Tamil Nadu.

The truth is, what happened in Sri Lanka during the last phase of the government’s offensive against the LTTE shouldn’t be seen so much in the light of “ethnic conflict” as “systematic genocide”. A documentary aired on March 14 by Britain’s Channel 4, Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished, carries actual footage of Tamils being starved, rebels who have surrendered being shot, and hospitals being shelled. (This can be viewed here. The programme starts about 37 minutes into this streamed video.) This is a follow-up to a Channel 4 documentary televised in June, 2011, which exposed several other atrocities by the Sri Lankan military, in designated No Fire Zones. In response, the Sri Lankan government has made the bizarre claim that Channel 4 is funded by the LTTE.

To understand the conflict in Sri Lanka, the rise of the LTTE, and India’s role in the island nation, we must trace the context to tensions that began nearly 60 years ago. In 1956, eight years after Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, gained Independence from British rule, its Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike brought in the Official Language Act (No. 33), otherwise known as the Sinhala Only Act. This replaced English as the official language of Ceylon with Sinhala. Tamil, spoken by about 29 % of the population, wasn’t recognised. 

This, and subsequent laws that discriminated against Tamil speakers served to alienate Tamils from Sinhalese, and unite three groups of Tamil speakers, who had different ethnic origins – the Jaffna Tamils (who were native to Sri Lanka), Tamils who had migrated from India to work on British plantations (and spoke a different dialect), and Moors (Sri Lankan Muslims who spoke an Arabised form of Tamil). Calls for power-sharing and equal status morphed into demands for autonomy in certain areas, which eventually gave rise to a separatist movement.

Even as Tamil political parties such as the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) put their faith in talks, other groups saw armed resistance as the only solution. In 1972, 18-year-old Velupillai Prabhakaran founded the Tamil New Tigers (TNT), which became the LTTE in 1976. This outfit waged guerrilla war, gaining control of vast swathes of territory in the North and East of the island, where it established a quasi-government. It had a fearsome army, with sophisticated weapons, and a suicide squad called Black Tigers, which carried out political assassinations.

And here’s where India came in.  Leaders of the LTTE shared a rapport with leaders of the Dravida Movement in Tamil Nadu.  India’s ruling Congress Party, which had lost its foothold in Tamil Nadu in the 1960s, needed the support of the Dravida parties. As Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi spoke out in favour of the Tamil separatist movement in Sri Lanka. It is believed the LTTE army even received training in India.

However, India was to change sides after some shrewd manipulation by Sri Lankan President J R Jayewardane, in the course of a war between the government and LTTE that began in 1983. In 1987, India stepped in to mediate when Lanka’s Vadamarachchi operation precipitated a humanitarian crisis in Jaffna. Jayewardane and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, whose provisions included the dispatch of an Indian peace-keeping force. The LTTE, which hadn’t been consulted, rejected this pact and demanded an autonomous state. Sinhala nationalists were furious at the idea of devolution of powers.

The Indian peace-keepers were bitterly resented both by the LTTE and the Sinhalese. Army officers who served with the force have recounted how Prabhakaran repeatedly passed through their lines unharmed, as they had standing instructions not to fire at him. Crippled by poor communication and medical facilities, and outgunned by the LTTE, the beleaguered troops finally left in March 1990. The following year, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by the LTTE.

His killing would prove to be a watershed in India-Sri Lanka relations. It allowed successive Indian governments to condemn an outfit that killed a former Prime Minister of their country, and support the Sri Lankan government’s attempts to eliminate it. (The Chairperson of the ruling UPA is Rajiv’s widow Sonia). It allowed political parties in Tamil Nadu to celebrate as freedom fighters people who were were conducting a brutal guerrilla war. And so, except when election speeches and party alignments demanded, it allowed India to erase the line between the LTTE and the people it claimed to be fighting for.

The Tamils in Jaffna were metaphorically, and during the war literally, trapped between the Tigers and the government. Child soldiers were drafted into the rebel army, often forcefully, and former Tigers who managed to make their escape, such as the writer Shobashakti, have spoken of their disillusionment with the methods employed by the LTTE. The Sri Lankan government, for its part, has detained hundreds of Tamils on suspicion of being Tigers or Tiger sympathisers. Both Sinhalese and Tamil journalists who have spoken out against the government’s policies in the region have been jailed, tortured and killed. A case in point is the editor of The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was shot dead in January 2009.

Tamil Nadu has been either particularly naïve, or particularly stupid, in buying into the theory of “Tamil sentiment”. Only last year, the state witnessed a vociferous campaign against the death sentence given to three convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi murder case, which culminated in a 20-year-old girl, Senkodi, immolating herself in the Indian district of Kanchipuram. She was hailed as a martyr for the cause of Eelam.

If the international community were to equate Sri Lankan Tamils with the LTTE, it would let President Mahinda Rajapaksa get away with gross violations of human rights. His government has claimed that no civilians died in the war, that no heavy artillery was used on the No Fire Zones – lies that have been repeatedly exposed with video evidence. The Sri Lankan government alleges that these videos were morphed.

All inquiries into war crimes have been conducted by government bodies, but even these haven’t given the Sri Lankan government a clean chit. The final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, for instance, admitted that hospitals had been shelled, and civilians killed, albeit “accidentally”.

The government then said 9,000 civilians lost their lives in the last phase of the war, whereas the UN estimates the number to be 40,000. Relief workers told the media repeatedly that supplies were not distributed to civilians who were in desperate need of them. A UN report stated that 330,000 Tamils, displaced by the war, live under squalid conditions in makeshift camps, while the 30-year war claimed 100,000 lives. (Statistics are from the Report of the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts onAccountability in Sri Lanka.) This clearly shows that the Sri Lankan government’s stand is implausible.

India needs to recognise the carnage in Sri Lanka as a brutal violation of human rights by a democratically elected government, and take a strong stance against the country. Sri Lanka, which has sent a 52-member delegation to the UNHRC session, has rejected the resolution, and is likely to lobby for India’s support in the coming days.

If India succumbs, the country will expose a lack of resolve that should put paid to its hopes of obtaining a permanent seat in the Security Council. India has been largely silent about events that have shaken the world, not making even a half-hearted attempt at diplomatic activism as the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East. It’s bad enough when a self-proclaimed aspirant to superpower status ignores events in an adjoining landmass. It would be laughable for it to remain neutral to, or worse, supportive of government-sponsored brutality in the subcontinent. Tamil pride may have led to the inception of the LTTE. But the killing of the 12-year-old child of its megalomaniac leader, the military assault on civilians in Jaffna, and the rape and murder of prisoners of war goes far beyond linguistic prejudice.

India cannot afford to ignore this distinction.


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