Sri Lanka’s unending conflict

| by Priyadarshi Dutta

( March 31, 2012, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) What will a UNHRC resolution matter after 500 years — or even 500 days? The Tamils of Sri Lanka will continue to be underdogs and without a political resolution, the sores will continue to fester
Colombo betrayed its complicity to genocide years before the first gunshot was fired in the Lankan civil war. In 1971, to stall the great slaughter in East Pakistan by the Pakistani Army, India had closed its airspace to airplanes from Pakistan. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government, however, had permitted Pakistani aircraft to fly through Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) with refueling facilities at Colombo. Unwilling as she was to withdraw that favour, even in the face of mounting casualties in the East Pakistan, it took foreign minister Sardar Swaran Singh threat of a military intervention to make her acquiesce.
The men behind the butchery in East Pakistan, which claimed an estimated three million lives between March and November 1971, were never brought to justice. General Tikka Khan, the architect of that genocide, continued to live safely in native Rawalpindi until his death in 2002. The Hindus, who in 1971 constituted 14 per cent of East Pakistan, bore the brunt of that carnage. Their condition deteriorated as the initial euphoria over free Bangladesh subsided and the nation became first a de-facto and later, de-jure Islamic republic.
But one never came across Bengali MPs from West Bengal and Tripura (many of themselves refugees from East Bengal) paying even lip service to the safety of Hindus in Bangladesh. They held that the plight of the Hindus in Bangladesh was an ‘internal affair’ that that sovereign country. Actually Nehru had espoused such a line on the minorities left behind in Pakistan. He maintained it even at the face of 1950 carnage in East Pakistan. Subsequently, he signed Nehru-Liaquat Pact (1950) and Nehru-Noon Agreement (1959), which remained dead letters.
Thus one should raise two cheers for the MPs from Tamil Nadu for compelling the Centre to take a forthright position on Sri Lanka issue. By showing solidarity with their brethren across the Palk Strait they did what Bengali MPs thought was redundant for their hapless cousins across the river Padma. India’s vote in favour of a US-sponsored resolution at UNHRC, Geneva has a symbolic value. It conveys a sense that a) India is not a dumb giant; b) It is the immediate neighbour of Sri Lanka; China and Pakistan are not; c) Lankan Tamils are not really political orphans.
But the third cheer for the Tamil MPs must be withheld. They had consistently avoided speaking the fact out that the UPA-I had secretively lent Colombo substantial defence support needed to smash the LTTE without any safety measure for the Tamil population in the island. These were revealed in detail by Nitin Gokhale (Defence and Strategic Affairs Editor, NDTV) in his book Sri Lanka: From War to Peace (Har Anand Publisher, 2009).
Wikileaks’ revelations in March, 2011 indicated UPA-I repeatedly deflected all international attempts to bring a ceasefire in the last days of the Eelam War-IV which accompanied the decimation of Tamil civilian population. Thus the government of India cannot fully disown the responsibility of Tamil tragedy that unfurled in the island in the final days of the uncivil war. The recent anti-Sri Lanka vote in the UNHRC is a partial contrition albeit without confession.
It is a pity that the Sri Lankan Tamil problem has always been viewed through the prism of Tamil Nadu. How I wish Indian history someday records the great veneration for ‘Mother India’ that Lankan Tamils recognisably displayed. “We are nearer to Mother India than even the people of South India itself’ a Jaffna Tamil declared from the podium during Gandhi’s visit to Sri Lanka in 1927. Jaffna students were the first to invite Gandhi in their island before others took up that clue. An account of that visit is contained in Mahadev Desai’s With Gandhiji in Ceylon. The Lankan Tamils were also the first to welcome Swami Vivekananda in the subcontinent in January, 1897. His message of glorifying India as a sacred land (punya bhoomi), which redefined Indian nationalism, was first received by the Lankan Tamils. Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947), the first ‘de-coloniser of Indian mind’, took pride in claiming he was more Indian than Indians. Fascinated by the Anti-Partition movement in Bengal, he saw in the unrest a quest for India’s self-realisation. In his essay Deeper Meaning of the Struggle (contained in Essays in Indian Nationalism, 1905), Coomaraswamy writes, ‘Five hundred years hence it will matter little to humanity whether a few Indians, more or less, have held official posts in India, or few million bales of cloth been manufactured in Bombay or Lancashire factories; but it will matter much whether the great ideals of Indian culture have been carried forward or allowed to die. It is with these that Indian Nationalism is essentially concerned, and upon these the fate of India as a nation depends’.
A Lankan Tamil savant perceived the ‘deeper meaning’ of India’s struggle for freedom. But did any Indian also see the ‘deeper meaning’ in the struggle of Lankan Tamils? Five hundred years from now will it really matter whether the UNHRC vote earned us the adulation or censure of Rajapaksa? It will not matter even after fifty days. But it will matter on which side of moral divide, conviction or convenience, we stood.
The problem of the Lankan Tamils is a political one that Colombo tried to settle militarily. It is one of the few governments in the world to aerially bombard its own civilian population. Sri Lanka is a case of failure of post-colonial nation building on the lines of Cyprus, Lebanon or Sudan. Cyprus at least was privileged to get guarantor powers in form of Britain, Greece and Turkey through the Zurich-London Agreements, 1959.
The demonisation of the LTTE serves actually to scuttle the real debate in Sri Lanka. Its rise was prompted by a failure of a democratic discourse in independent and pre-independent Ceylon. The call for an independent Tamil Eelam was not the brainchild of any militant group. It was adopted on May 14, 1976 by Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), an umbrella group of Lankan Tamil political parties, at Vaddukoddai in Jaffna Peninsula. Tamils had overwhelmingly voted in favour of that idea in the 1977 elections, the last one in united Sri Lanka before the Civil War overtook it. The Vaddukoddai Resolution was the last bow SJV Chelvanayakam, often nicknamed the Gandhi of Jaffna, who since 1956 had democratically worked towards a federation scheme.
The word ‘Tamil Eelam’ in modern times was used as early as 1923 by Sir Ponnambalam Arunchalam, thirty years before Prabhakaran was born. Arunachalam, founding President of Ceylon National Congress, fed up with Sinhalese domineering left its ranks in 1921 to establish Ceylon Tamil League in 1923. Ponnambalam Arunachalam passed away in 1924 while on a pilgrimage to Madurai. But it’s time we realised there’s a fundamental ethnic problem in Sri Lanka, which cannot be resolved militarily.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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