BY SWAPAN DASGUPTA
Popular interest in history and even contemporary politics is invariably enhanced by posing the vexed what-if question. To those terribly agitated over the Indian prime minister's participation in the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Colombo later this month, there is a counterfactual question that is worth posing. Had the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam succeeded in their bid to carve an independenteelam out of the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka, would its supremo, Velupillai Prabhakaran, have chosen to apply for membership of the Commonwealth?
How liberation movements conduct themselves after winning power depends on many imponderables. To that extent it is impossible to be certain about how a victorious LTTE would have conducted itself. However, one thing is certain: the philosophy, the methods and the overall orientation of the Tamil Tigers were always at odds with everything today’s Commonwealth stands for. The LTTE’s unwavering faith in a one-party State, its total intolerance of all dissent within the Tamil community, its targeted assassination of all those it considered its enemies and the ruthlessness with which it conducted its 20-year war against the Sri Lankan State set it apart from other similar movements in South Asia.
Regardless of the fact that a large number of LTTE supporters in the Tamil diaspora located in Europe, North America and Australasia were middle-class professionals and law-abiding citizens of their adopted countries, they bankrolled a vicious war machine that can only be compared with the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia. This apparent contradiction needs to be explained, if not politically, then by using the tools of social psychology.
Yet, whatever complex explanations may be proffered to explain this bizarre schizophrenia, one thing is very clear: the LTTE could not have been defeated with the rules devised by the Marquess of Queensberry. A ruthless and fanatical army that showed scant concern for collateral civilian casualties needed an equally determined response.
That the final months of the war led to unspeakable brutalities and what are called ‘human rights abuses’ is well known. Some of these transgressions have been documented by both propagandists and well-meaning human rights bodies. But it would be a travesty to believe, as is often the case these days, that the departures from a gentlemanly conduct of war was the prerogative of the Sri Lankan army alone. No history of the civil war will be complete if it ignores the fact that the responsibility of the non-State player was far, far greater.
What is interesting is that the whole world was aware of the true nature of the LTTE and quietly encouraged the Sri Lankan government to finish the job as quickly and efficiently as possible. This included New Delhi which, in spite of calling for a peaceful, negotiated settlement of the problem, wanted an end to the LTTE problem once and for all. This was not because there is some residual support for Sinhala chauvinism in South Block. The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa was given the diplomatic and military space to go for broke precisely because there was a deep understanding of the long-term threat the LTTE posed to both countries. India’s present-day ambivalence has its roots in domestic politics and not in the diplomatic and military assessment of the rebellion.
Those who have mounted a sustained campaign to force the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to skip the CHOGM in Colombo beginning November 15 have targeted Rajapaksa. This is understandable. Apart from being perceived as the victor of the civil war and the man who re-united the island, the Sri Lankan president has come across as a man who is not amenable to pressure, both domestic and international. A leader with a firm grip on the public pulse, the president is keenly aware that the psychological scars of a long-standing ethnic divide can only be healed by a combination of peace and prosperity. His blunt style and his insufficient personal commitment to a devolution package that was thrust on Sri Lanka by Rajiv Gandhi in 1987 has made him an object of suspicion for those who feel he is instigating Sinhala chauvinism. But his critics forget that governing Sri Lanka democratically calls for a deft balancing act and, in particular, being mindful of the deep Sinhala distrust of weakness. Translated into an ethnic mould, it implies being forever vigilant that the yearning for Tamil autonomy does not descend into a revival of separatism.
Actually, India has little reason to complain about Rajapaksa’s balancing act. Immediately after the civil war ended, New Delhi’s thrust was on the revival of ‘normal’ politics in the Tamil-majority areas through the devolution of power. Fears were expressed that the president would ride the crest of Sinhala triumphalism and dilute the 13th amendment — which New Delhi views as an article of faith solely because it was negotiated by Rajiv Gandhi. It was well known that Rajapaksa personally favoured district councils over provincial councils. However, notwthstanding his personal preference, the president has stuck to the commitment he made to India.
Likewise, fears were expressed that the elections to the provincial council in the Tamil-dominated Northern Province would be put off indefinitely and that any election would be unfair. The September election which produced a conclusive majority for the Tamil National Alliance and the election of a well-respected former judge of the supreme court as chief minister has put an end to these fears. Rajapaksa, it is clear, has stuck to his side of the bargain.
Under the circumstances, it makes no diplomatic sense for India to succumb to the extremist pressure of the Tamil diaspora and the regional parties of Tamil Nadu. A multilateral CHOGM is not the occasion for grandstanding. Neither is it the appropriate forum to raise new issues centred on the internal governance of Sri Lanka. These must await a more relevant occasion, if indeed they have to be pressed. India would have been happy to attend a CHOGM at, say, Islamabad, in spite of the deterioration of bilateral relations with Pakistan. Why should it be different for Sri Lanka?
For a small country that has only just come out of an extremely damaging civil war, the CHOGM is an opportunity to showcase the return to normalcy. For Sri Lanka, India is the big neighbour and Sri Lankans, cutting across the ethnic divide, look to India as a benign presence in the region. Manmohan Singh may not be the flavour of the season within India but he represents India internationally and is the symbol of India. His ungrudging presence will be a major signal to Sri Lanka that New Delhi values its deep ties with the island.
Boycotting the meet would be churlish. Such a short-sighted move will not weaken Rajapaksa politically. Instead, it will be regarded as an affront whose impact will be felt long after Manmohan Singh retires to a Lutyens’ bungalow to pen his memoirs. And, as for the cabinet ministers from Tamil Nadu who are urging New Delhi to be reckless, their unsafe Lok Sabha seats will not be made safe by an impulsive boycott.
For long, Manmohan Singh has been berated for yielding to the line of least resistance. Although rather late in the day and bereft of any wider electoral significance, he can afford to take a stand and do the right thing by travelling to Colombo.