India’s neighbourhood diplomacy is often accused of being ham-handed. Whether it is in dealing with Pakistan or China, the Maldives, Sri Lanka or Nepal, South Block under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has not missed an opportunity to give the impression of shooting itself in the foot.
But with Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka yesterday, it seems some lessons are probably being learnt. For one, a trip to Jaffna has been given a miss, a must in the itinerary of Indian VIPs’ visiting the island nation. One reason could be the new-found confidence that pressure from Tamil Nadu on India’s Sri Lanka policy can be managed, with the state’s ruling party in disarray and the absence of any larger-than-life political personality, like the recently deceased chief minister J Jayalalithaa.
A visit to the northern province would have warranted mouthing the same old platitudes about the need to speed up a political settlement of the island’s protracted ethnic issue, that continues to simmer under the surface despite the annihilation of the LTTE nearly a decade ago.
Delhi’s foreign policy mandarins must have realized that India is in no position to sermonise Colombo on the subject, when it is at a loss as to handle the growing unrest in Kashmir as well as the resurgence of Maoists in Chattisgarh and elsewhere.
Modi, after participating in the UN Vesak Day celebrations in Colombo, also travelled to Dickoya in the island’s central hills, the tea country, where Tamil people of Indian origin are concentrated. Called Indian Tamils, Hill Country Tamils or Up-Country Tamils, these are descendants of people from Tirunelveli, Trichy, Madurai and Tanjore in Tamil Nadu, who were ferried to the island by the British in the 19th century to work in the tea and rubber plantations under inhuman conditions.
Perhaps barring the Veddas, the original inhabitants of the island, the Indian Tamils, bereft of economic and political clout, have faced the worst form of oppression in the island’s political history. Living in abysmal conditions in the infamous line-rooms in the tea plantations, they were stripped off their citizenship no sooner Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, gained independence in 1948.
Instead of putting pressure on Colombo to reverse the decision, India, over a decade later, reached a blatantly unjust agreement with Ceylon, under which 40 percent of the people were given Ceylon citizenship, while the remainder were repatriated to India.
This misguided move on the part of New Delhi enfeebled the Indian Tamil community, who at one time outnumbered the Sri Lankan Tamils, as the indigenous Tamils are called.
According to official figures, they now account for just 4.2 percent of Sri Lanka’s 22 million population. Leave alone New Delhi, even the so-called champions of the island’s minority Tamils in Tamil Nadu hardly bothered about this oppressed community, though they have closer affinity with them than with their Sri Lankan counterparts.
Even the political parties in Tamil Nadu have largely focussed only on the alleged atrocities perpetrated by the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan army on the Sri Lankan Tamils in the island’s north and east, and given scant attention to the plight of the Tamils of Indian origin.
Few in Tamil Nadu, including those leaders most vocal about the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils, are perhaps aware that the Jaffna Tamils generally looked down on the Indian Tamils and used to derisively refer to them as ‘kallathonis,’ a snide reference to their so-called “illegal migrant” status. Before the July 1983 anti-Tamil violence that drove thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils to seek refuge in India, the Indian Tamils were at the bottom of the social hierarchy in the island. Not much has changed since.
The first indication that the Modi government is taking a new look at the Indian Tamils in the island came when Foreign Secretary S. Jaishanker visited the island in February and said that India “will henceforth” give “special consideration” to the Indian Origin Tamils in view of their special needs and their willingness to join the island’s political mainstream.
Mr. Jaishankar made the statement at a meeting with Mano Ganesan, leader of the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) that represents the Indian origin Tamils. The foreign secretary’s statement is considered an indirect criticism of the Sri Lankan Tamil leadership for not playing ball to end the ethnic impasse and an admission that New Delhi had indeed failed to look after the interests of the Tamils of Indian origin.
Modi, in his address to the large gathering in Dickoya, said as much: “You kept your bonds with India alive, (I) assure you that India will support Sri Lanka’s efforts towards your socio-economic development.” The prime minister, certainly, broke new ground in India’s time-honoured relationship with Sri Lanka.