A reassuring mission

Published : Jun 24, 2000 00:00 IST


THE two-day visit of External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh to Colombo, beginning on June 11, came at a time when relations between New Delhi and Colombo were threatening to derail following the controversial suggestion by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. K arunanidhi of a Czechoslovakian-type division of the island-nation to resolve the ethnic crisis. Colombo was already not too happy with some of the statements emanating from the Indian shores. Karunanidhi's advocacy of a de jure split of Sri Lanka on the lines of the Czech-Slovak separation was greeted with dismay by the Chandrika Kumaratunga government.

According to a Sri Lankan official, Jaswant Singh's visit was "timely" as "otherwise, mutual apprehensions and misunderstandings would have harmed bilateral relations". In order to express its appreciation of the Indian initiative, the Chandrika Kumaratu nga government will send a "special envoy" to New Delhi soon. Another official said that Jaswant Singh's visit had put India's policy framework for the island in a clear perspective. His reiteration of New Delhi's continued support to Sri Lanka's unity a nd integrity and efforts to find a political solution to the conflict were reassuring, the officials added.

Sri Lanka had reasons to be upset with the attitude adopted by New Delhi since the fall of Elephant Pass in April. The Indian government, while swearing by the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka, did nothing concrete to help the troops defend Jaffna. Inste ad, since early May, India sought to give the impression that Jaffna city was on the verge of being captured by the LTTE and that the best option before Colombo was to plan for a speedy evacuation of its troops from there. In the second and third weeks o f May, Indian mediapersons were in Colombo in anticipation of the fall of Jaffna.

Another sore point was the A.B. Vajpayee Government's policy of showing sympathy towards the demands of certain Tamil Nadu-based political parties that India should treat with parity the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. India had stated that no peace deal was possible in Sri Lanka without the LTTE on board, while at the same time reiterating that the "unity and territorial integrity" of Sri Lanka was not negotiable. The LTTE, Sri Lankan officials argue, is a terrorist organisation responsible for, am ong other things, the murder of a former Indian Prime Minister. Besides, they point out, there are other groups representing Tamils.

An official said that none of the Tamil Nadu parties had expressed any concern for the future of more than a million Indian Tamils who live in the central region of the island. "They are a poor and deprived lot. Tamil politicians in India should speak on their behalf too." A chauvinistic Sinhalese backlash in the event of the troops facing serious reverses would not differentiate between the peace-loving Tamils of Indian origin and their ethnic cousins in the north. A Sri Lankan official said that it wa s dangerous to encourage ethnic nationalism in the Indian subcontinent, which was already plagued by communal feuds.

Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Prakash Karat, described Jaswant Singh's visit as a "damage-limitation exercise" that came in the wake of Karunanidhi's statement. "It would have been better," he said, "if Jaswant Singh had undertaken the visit earlier." The last high-level contact between India and Sri Lanka was in early May, when Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar met Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh in New Delhi.

BRIEFING mediapersons in New Delhi after his visit, Jaswant Singh said that hopes about an early start of the process to resolve the long-running civil war were high. "I have no doubt that the process will start soon," Jaswant Singh said, and added that the growing consensus among the Sinhalese community in favour of substantive autonomy for the Tamils, coupled with the realisation of the need for a ceasefire, would facilitate the peace process. The Minister said that all the leaders he spoke to in Colo mbo - Chandrika Kumaratunga, Lakshman Kadirgamar, Opposition Leader Ranil Wikremesinghe and leaders of moderate Tamil parties - wanted an early cessation of hostilities and were of the view that a "political process must conclude within a reasonable time -frame".

Jaswant Singh said that the main purpose of his visit was to reassure Sri Lanka about India's commitment to its sovereignty and integrity and to convey India's strong interest "in the earliest possible exploration of lasting peace to the conflict". He al so told the Sri Lankans that India would like them to ensure that the political process for the devolution of powers was expedited. He, however, hastened to add that the decision on devolution was the prerogative of the Sri Lankan Parliament. Jaswant Sin gh reiterated the Indian government's position that it would not get into "fire-fighting" on the island and that it had "no desire to intrude upon the sovereign political terrain of Sri Lanka." He clarified: "The question of military involvement in Sri L anka is not an option we consider as open."

Jaswant Singh made a significant offer to Sri Lanka - a credit facility of $100 million on terms to be mutually worked out. The possibility of Sri Lanka purchasing wheat, rice and sugar on a counter-trade basis from India was also discussed. This gesture was also timely. Countries such as Pakistan and China have already extended credit worth millions of dollars to the island-nation.

Sri Lanka has earmarked $800 million for the war effort this year. India's soft loan will come in handy to boost the beleaguered nation's economy. According to Sri Lankan officials, the LTTE generates $4-5 million every month. Sixty per cent of its earni ngs come from clandestine business enterprises, which include trading in narcotics, they say. The rest, according to official estimates, come in the form of donations from the Tamil diaspora.

ACCORDING to informed sources, New Delhi appears to be reconciled to the Norwegian peace initiative, despite initial misgivings. Both New Delhi and Colombo have described Norway's role as that of a "facilitator". According to Sri Lankan officials, Norway 's role is only to bring the LTTE to the negotiating table. "Norway is the only country acceptable to the LTTE," an official said. This is one reason why the Sri Lankan government did not stop LTTE ideologue Anton Balasingham from undergoing a kidney tra nsplant operation in Norway last year.

Colombo is pleased with the appointment of Gopal Gandhi as the new Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka. Gopal Gandhi was first posted in Sri Lanka in the early 1980s when relations between the two countries were at their lowest ebb. According to Sri La nkan officials, despite the unfriendly environment, Gopal Gandhi, who was posted in Kandy, became a popular diplomat and made excellent contacts among a wide cross-section of Sri Lankan society. Not many people know that he has authored an authoritative book on Sri Lanka.

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