Talk of the Palk
There is no shortage of ferment in India’s relations with Sri Lanka. Some of it is manufactured, some of it is genuine and some of it is India’s fault. But compared to the mess it was during the civil war, bilateral relations at the government level are arguably the best they have been since independence.
This is not the impression you would get the ground level. Take a closer look at some of the present sources of friction.
One are the supposed attacks on Indian Tamil fishermen. This has nothing to do with Tamil vs Sinhala squabbles. In fact, many of the incidents are pitching Indian Tamils against Lankan Tamils. The source of the problem: the Palk Straits haven’t been fished for decades and are now a treasure trove of catch. “Lobsters like this,” said one US diplomat to me, stretching his arms to their maximum. Indian fishing armadas, say Indian diplomats, of several hundred ships have been on the prowl. Mark the incidents on the map and the clear majority of them are in Lankan waters.
Two is the issue of a Tamil political settlement in Lanka. This is the nub of the problem. Here Colombo is to blame.
By the end of the civil war, partly thanks to the Tamil Tiger’s silly actions, sympathy among Indian Tamils for their brethren was at a minimum.
A political settlement would have sealed the peace. But the President Mahinda Rajapaksa regime decided not to. Or more accurately it endorsed a political package, promised to implement and then did nothing. The Tamil areas are now a military protectorate.
It didn’t take long for the Indian Tamil parties to realise that the Lankan Tamil issue was about to be resurrected. J. Jayalalitha’s lobbying was the primary reason that New Delhi voted against Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council in August.
This was a clear sign that Eelam was back, even if only rhetorically. Jayalalitha was a sworn enemy of the Tamil Tigers. But she was inoculating herself against what she saw as the coming Eelam virus.
What is needed is a Sri Lankan explanation for their refusal to carry out the political settlement. One hears of theories: hubris after the war, fears about the oversized military, etc. But it hasn’t been made clear to Indians let alone Tamils. New Delhi is sending the message that Rajapaksa is kindling a Tamil problem across the Palk Strait but hasn’t gotten a clear response.
The irony is that in every other way, Lanka has been as agreeable to India as possible. Even on China, they have followed the maxim that running, using ports are fine but don’t allow the Chinese ownership. And Trincomalee remains effectively Indian. Naval cooperation is as close to inter-operability as the Indian system allows. India and Lanka would be in a bilateral golden age — if they got over one small thing.