Bringing hope

Print edition : November 06, 2009
in Colombo

In Chennai, T.R. Baalu (third from right) and some other members of the delegation of MPs from Tamil Nadu before they left for Colombo.-A. MURALITHARAN

The visit to Sri Lanka of a group of 10 Members of Parliament of the ruling combine in Tamil Nadu from October 10 to 14 was the first of its kind since the struggle by the Tamil parties in the island nation for their political, economic, cultural and linguistic rights acquired a militant character three decades ago.

Unfortunately, despite the enormous potential it had to provide a much-needed healing touch to the minorities and the symbolic significance attached to it, the mission was mired in needless controversies even before the MPs arrived at the Katunayaka International Airport at 1-30 p.m. on October 10. And the heat and dust it generated is not expected to subside well after the delegation submits its report to Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi.

Overzealousness on the part of the ruling alliance in Tamil Nadu and the Indian mission in Colombo to shield the MPs from the media, including the Colombo-based Indian contingent, was primarily responsible for the mess.

The cussed attitude towards the media only helped reinforce the suspicions in the ranks of the opposition that the mission, apart from being brazenly partisan in its constitution, had a hidden agenda. However, the simple truth is that despite the best efforts of the MPs and the officials in the Indian mission every single action of the delegation during its five-day stay (barring the meetings with representatives of the Tamil and Muslim parties at India House) was in full public glare.

It is a mystery what prompted the Tamil Nadu ruling combine to exclude the opposition parties from the mission when it had everything to gain and nothing to lose by having them on board. After all, for several months now President Mahinda Rajapaksa has extended an invitation to both Karunanidhi and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) chief Jayalalithaa to lead an all-party delegation to the country to see for themselves the ground realities rather than rely on second-hand accounts.

Hopefully, the Chief Minister will, in the next few days and weeks, be able to mollify the opposition and build on the positive outcome of the MPs mission, considering that the welfare of Sri Lankas Tamils is at the core of the agenda of every party in Tamil Nadu in particular and India in general. The anxieties of the political parties in Tamil Nadu about the life of Tamils, both Sri Lankan and those of Indian-origin in the plantation areas, is not difficult to understand given the centuries-old bond.

The representatives of the ruling combine the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Congress and the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi in the course of their stay did succeed, albeit partially, in reassuring the 2.4 lakh war-displaced Tamils, currently housed in government-run welfare villages, that they would tell New Delhi to prevail upon Colombo to ensure their resettlement in their original places of habitation and to expedite the process for resolution of the ethnic conflict with meaningful devolution of powers.

By allowing the Tamil MPs from India, though they did not represent all sections of the Tamil polity, to visit the refugee camps in Vavuniya, the Jaffna peninsula and the plantation sector in the hill district where Indian-origin Tamils are settled, the Rajapaksa regime conveyed a clear message that Colombo understands the political sensitivities of the people of Tamil Nadu.

There were avoidable occurrences, including the high-handed behaviour of a senior member of the delegation with the woman District Collector of Vavuniya. Karunanidhis daughter Kanimozhi showed her human side by rushing to comfort the visibly hurt Collector and preventing a potentially ugly situation.

The delegations visit to the East was cancelled for reasons not clear yet. The Eastern Provincial Chief Minister, Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyan, is at loggerheads with his erstwhile mentor V. Muralitharan (Col Karuna), now a Minister in the Rajapaksa government.

The MPs got an audience with, among others, President Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremenayaka, Senior Adviser to the President Basil Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and had extensive interactions on a range of issues relating to the war-displaced and to finding a solution to the ethnic conflict.

In their meetings with Tamil and Muslim party representatives, they asked some searching questions, including questions about the fate of the 10,000-odd cadre of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who are in the custody of the Sri Lankan authorities and whether India could have at any stage stopped the war. They were told that the suspected Tiger cadre were safe and that it was too late for New Delhi to have averted the military defeat of the LTTE.

The pro-Tamil National Alliance (TNA) team complained to the MPs that Colombo was not serious about resettling the refugees as it had other plans for the Wanni area, previously controlled by the LTTE. The government categorically refuted the charge and asked the TNA to produce proof.

The TNA delegation pointed out that only 50 days remained for the Sri Lankan government to fulfil its promise to resettle 80 per cent of the refugees in 180 days. True, time is ticking away and Colombo may not be able to keep its promise given the enormous tasks ahead, including the demining of and the creation of rudimentary infrastructure in the war-ravaged north.

Rauff Hakeem, the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), told the delegation that any settlement of the North Eastern question would have to take into account the Tamil-speaking Muslims also, as they suffered under the LTTE and were marginalised by Sinhalese majoritarianism. There was consensus on the subject.

The most significant element of the mission was the visit to Jaffna and the Manik Farm camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Vavuniya, where most of the war-displaced are housed.

In Jaffna, in response to a request by the leader of the delegation, T.R. Baalu, the people who gathered outside the Jaffna Library talked about the difficulties faced by fisherfolk owing to constant poaching by Indian fisherfolk in the territorial waters of Sri Lanka. They also asked India to help Sri Lanka find a political solution to the Tamil cause.

One member of the public complained that a number of issues were brushed under the carpet in the name of development. He wanted action taken immediately to ensure that normalcy returned. Another person wanted the 13th amendment implemented as early as possible and the high security zone restrictions in the peninsula removed.

In his response, Baalu said the delegation was there on the instructions of Chief Minister Karunanidhi given in consultation with the Union government. He said they would visit the IDP camps and hoped that the government of Sri Lanka would expedite the resettlement process.

The implementation of the 13th amendment as a political solution to the Tamil cause is essential, but it needs adequate time since the war ended only recently, he reportedly said. In her remarks, Kanimozhi said the MPs would extend assistance through the Government of India to the Sri Lankan Tamils, helping all citizens to live with equal, legitimate rights.

Jaffna University students, in their interaction, suggested that the Indian government should consider allocating some seats for Sri Lankan students in Indian universities, especially in medical and engineering courses.

The MPs meeting with Rajapaksa was described as productive and cordial. In response to their concerns over the possible difficulties the war-displaced could face with the onset of the monsoon, they were told that the government was taking all possible steps to minimise the suffering.

I dont want to keep them in camps, but unless the demining is complete the government is helpless. My government is committed to [finding a] political solution but it will have to be acceptable to all stakeholders in Sri Lanka and satisfy our neighbour, Rajapaksa told them on the evening of October 13.

Said a member of the delegation: We came to Sri Lanka with a certain mindset and are returning on a positive note. We hope and pray the government and all other parties deliver on their commitments and promises and make everyone in the country, particularly Tamils, feel as equal citizens.

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