Unease in Delhi

Published : Feb 01, 2008 00:00 IST

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan in New Delhi on October 13, 2007.-V. SUDERSHAN

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan in New Delhi on October 13, 2007.-V. SUDERSHAN

The strong statement by India can be construed as being critical of the Sri Lankan governments decision to end the ceasefire formally.

Sri Lankan President

The January 2 decision by the Sri Lankan government to officially pull out of the 2002 Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) officially has not come as a surprise to New Delhi. After all, the country has been in a state of undeclared civil war for the last two years.

Ever since assuming office in November 2005, the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa has been looking forward to a military solution to end the 25-year-old conflict. Indian officials point out that on the campaign trail Rajapaksa had promised to abrogate the Norwegian-facilitated peace deal and defeat the Tigers militarily. His election manifesto, titled Mahinda Chinthanaya (Mahinda Thought), had called for the review of the CFA and the bolstering of the military.

It is no secret that New Delhi would have preferred a victory for Ranil Wickremesinghe and the United National Party (UNP) in the last elections. Wickremesinghe was for a negotiated settlement of the long-running ethnic conflict, which was having an adverse impact on the countrys economy.

New Delhi had seemingly given up on efforts to persuade the Rajapaksa government to give peace efforts another chance. Indian officials said that there was very little they could do to persuade a President who, buoyed by recent successes, was convinced that he was on the verge of scoring a decisive military victory over the LTTE.

The External Affairs Ministry issued a strong statement, which could be construed as being critical of the Sri Lankan governments decision to end the ceasefire formally. India strongly believes that there is no military solution to the issue, the Foreign Ministry spokesman said. At the same time, we are acutely conscious that what is required in Sri Lanka is a settlement of political, constitutional and other issues within the framework of a united Sri Lanka with which all the communities of Sri Lanka are comfortable. The statement went on to stress that it was only through such a settlement that a lasting peace can return to that troubled country.

The Indian government has expressed the hope that any step that leads to a reduction in levels of violence and human suffering in Sri Lanka is welcome. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee strongly reiterated this during an interaction with an Indian news agency. He said that India favoured a political, not a military, solution to the conflict in Sri Lanka. Despite some initial misgivings, India had also supported the Norwegian facilitation in the peace process. New Delhi welcomed the Geneva talks of February 2006 and the commitments made by both sides to uphold the ceasefire agreement.

After his victory in the November 2005 elections, the first foreign visit Rajapaksa made was to India, at the end of the year. Later, he met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Havana in September 2006. Rajapaksa came again on an official visit to India in December 2006. The last visit by an Indian Prime Minister to Sri Lanka was by Atal Bihari Vajpayee during the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Colombo in 1998.

Bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka remain strong. The Free Trade Agreement (FTA), the Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement (DTAA) and the Bilateral Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement (BIPPA) between the two countries are illustrations of the close ties.

There was talk about the two countries signing a wide-ranging defence agreement during the presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga. A draft agreement was on the anvil but New Delhi seems to have had a change of mind on the issue. India continues to train Sri Lankan soldiers, and the two countries cooperate in surveillance activities around the waters surrounding the Jaffna peninsula. And on May 2006, India extended the ban on the LTTE by another two years.

Recent developments are unlikely to impact adversely the close ties between India and Sri Lanka. At the same time, the Indian government has been urging Colombo to put forward a credible devolution package at the earliest. India has expressed its readiness to share its constitutional experience on the subject.

Internationally, some of the donor countries may have a rethink. According to the statement issued by the five Scandinavian and Nordic countries that have provided truce monitors to the island, the ceasefire had saved as many as 10,000 lives in the first three years when there were relatively few violations. After 2005, when violence escalated, the casualty rate increased dramatically. Most of those affected have been minority Tamils and Muslims. As many as 250,000 people have been displaced from their homes since July 2006. The dismantling of the international monitoring mission following the abrogation of the ceasefire could lead to an escalation in the already high level of violence. The government as well as the LTTE have kept other independent observers and the media out of the conflict zones.

An indication of New Delhis apparent unhappiness with the turn of events will be the absence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the 60th anniversary celebrations of the island- nations independence on February 4. There has been a lot of criticism from political parties in Tamil Nadu, which are allies of the Congress party at the Centre, about the Sri Lankan militarys prosecution of war crimes and the treatment being meted out to the Tamil minority in that country.

They are especially upset by the military onslaught on their linguistic compatriots on the island. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president M. Karunanidhi had written a poem in the memory of the slain chief negotiator of the LTTE, S.P. Tamilselvan. Political parties such as Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam demanded that the Indian Prime Minister should not visit Sri Lanka at this juncture as it could be interpreted as a tacit support to the hawkish line being pursued by the Rajapaksa government.

Indian officials, however, say that the Prime Ministers office never gave any firm dates for an official visit to the country. Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama who had earlier announced to the media about the Indian Prime Ministers impending visit, later clarified that Sri Lanka was not looking at a fixed schedule for Manmohan Singhs visit.

We want the Indian Prime Minister to pay a bilateral visit since no Indian Prime Minister has paid a bilateral visit in the last 20 years, he told the media in Colombo. The last bilateral visit by an Indian Prime Minister was made in 1987, when Rajiv Gandhi was in Colombo to sign the India-Sri Lanka Accord.

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