Last week, I sent a twitter message from Jaffna town which I was visiting after 25 years. “There are more sandbags and police pickets in south Delhi”, I observed, “than there are in Jaffna town.”
This terse message based entirely on my observation provoked howls of protest. Various individuals responded denouncing me as “anti-Tamil” and a stooge of Sri Lankan President Rajapaksha, the latest whipping boy of the morally indignant. It is entirely possible that a brief 24-hour visit to a town where it was once common to find gun-totting members of various para-military factions walking with a swagger, does not qualify me to pass judgment on the totality of the situation in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province.
Yet, it would be fair to say that the Jaffna I returned to was a very different place from the war-torn but sleepy town that existed in the late-1980s. What I encountered was a mid-sized town with good roads and lots of new buildings, bustling with activity. The Nallur temple looked as grand as ever and the Jaffna library whose burning in the 1990s had created so much tension was a picture of old-world serenity. The stadium named after Alfred Durriapah, whose murder was among the first of the LTTE’s ‘hits’ seemed well maintained and there is even an Indian Consulate in place in a carefully renovated bungalow. Yes, there were the occasional signs of the bitter war that had ended barely four years ago; but anyone who didn’t know that this town was once in the frontline of one of the most ugly civil wars of all times would never have guessed.
This is not to say that everything is hunky dory. At a gathering of members of Jaffna civil society, there were voices raised against the acquisition of “Tamil lands” by the Sri Lankan army in its security zone adjoining the airport. There were complaints about “Sinhala colonisation” of areas in the southern regions of the Northern Province. And in Colombo, MPs belonging to the Tamil National Alliance presented us (a five-member team invited by the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies) with a well-written account of Tamil grievances. Its leader, the 80-year-old Rajavardayam Sampanthan, who resembles a majestic Roman senator both in appearance and eloquence spoke about the Sri Lankan Government’s underlying desire to make the Tamil people “extinct” from the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
Yet, at a lunch hosted by businessmen of Indian origin in Colombo, I asked a Chettiar businessman how many Tamils there are in the capital city. “About 30 per cent of the city” he replied. “And do you control 60 per cent of the business?” I asked smilingly. “Only 60 per cent”, he retorted with a tinge of disappointment. “It’s more like 70 per cent” he said with a hearty laugh. Clearly, the noble Sampanthan’s theory of Tamils being an endangered breed in Sri Lanka doesn’t have too many takers south of the Elephant Pass.
The ‘Tamil problem’ that provides livelihood to the global human rights industry and provokes indignation in some circles in India seems essentially a Jaffna problem, and should be renamed as such. At the heart of the problem is the term devolution which was recommended to the Sri Lankan Government as a possible solution to the problem by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) set up by President Rajapaksha in the aftermath of his famous military victory over the murderous LTTE.
For India, which still takes a needlessly gratuitous interest in the internal affairs of a sovereign neighbour, ‘devolution’ basically means implementation of the 13th amendment which formed a part of the embarrassment called the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord signed by Rajiv Gandhi and JR Jayawardene in 1987. This amendment promised two things: the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, the so-called Tamil homelands, and the formation of Provincial Councils, akin to India’s State Governments.
But two problems have arisen. First, the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces was set aside by the Sri Lankan Supreme Court on procedural grounds. Sampanthan calls it a “dishonest judgment” but the de-merger is now a reality. Secondly, it would seem that apart from the Northern and Eastern Provinces, the Sinhala areas aren’t terribly enthused by the idea of Provincial Councils. Yet, elections to the Provincial Councils have been held in all provinces barring the Northern Province. At one time it seemed that the Government was having second thoughts about holding Provincial Council elections in the Northern Province but President Rajapaksha has categorically announced that the democratic exercise will be undertaken in September. The TNA, which is certain to win the election, now says that the powers of the Provincial Councils are inadequate. It wants the local Government to control land and the police. The Government may concede the first point but there is no way it will relax its control over all aspects of security in the North.
Who can blame Colombo for its reluctance? It’s just four years since the LTTE was decimated and it’s just too early for the Central Government to let down its guard. It is not that there is a desire to militarise the province. The Sri Lankan Army is present in large numbers in the Northern Province but it operates well below the radar. Logistically, the army wants to insulate itself in the security zones, build strategically located cantonments and operate as a rapid response force just in case insurgency resurfaces.
Ideally, the TNA should have no problem with this arrangement because its members were also murderously targeted by the LTTE. Moreover, it has declared, perhaps under Indian pressure, that it is committed to the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. It may still believe in emotional separatism but it has formally abjured political separatism and abandoned the erstwhile TULF’s call for ‘self-determination’.
At the same time, its actions suggest that it wants to keep tensions and the ethnic conflict alive. It doesn’t make sense until you realise that Tamil separatist politics derives its main impetus not from the ordinary people of Jaffna who are desperate for a breather but by the Tamil diaspora, the ones who bankroll the seemingly respectable, ‘moderate’ politicians. With a view of the island that is frozen in time, it is the diaspora that is proving to be the biggest impediment to Sri Lanka getting over its troubled history.