Amiable Nirupama visits a different Lanka

Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao was visiting Colombo this week, and the announcement was greeted with the typical speculation that surfaces whenever an Indian dignitary of high rank visits this country. ‘What is the motive’, is the usual question.
That uneasiness is understandable. India, larger than this island nation in size, population and economic strength, has in recent times, been viewed with suspicion in this country, and that is not because of historical stories of the Ramayana vintage.

In the early ’70s, when two female political heirs, Sirima Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka and Indira Gandhi in India, ruled the two countries, Indo-Lanka relations were at its best. The personal chemistry between the two ladies, no doubt, contributed greatly to this.
When J.R. Jayewardene assumed office in mid-1977, Indira Gandhi too, had been ousted from power. The two new elder statesmen, Jayewardene and Morarji Desai continued the Indo-Lanka bond, but, by early January 1980, Gandhi had returned to power, signalling an about turn in bilateral relations.
Jayewardene’s patronising attitude towards Gandhi, and his perception that she was first and foremost a friend of his main rival Sirima Bandaranaike, no doubt contributed, but the Indian Premier only aggravated the issue by tacitly providing support for Tamil militancy on Indian soil.

It was all downhill from then on in Indo-Lanka relations. Nevertheless, Colombo could not keep New Delhi out of the equation, and Indian mediation on Sri Lanka’s ethnic issue, personified by the likes of Gopalaswamy Parathasarathy, Romesh Bandhari and Jyotindra Nath Dixit, continued.

By 1987, Rajiv Gandhi had succeeded his mother Indira, but little had changed in terms of the Indian attitude towards Sri Lanka’s ethnic question. To be fair by New Delhi, it had to always weigh the Tamil Nadu factor, vis-à-vis its own electoral politics, especially when shaky coalitions were in government.
Perhaps the nadir of bilateral relations came when India air-dropped ‘parippu’, when the Sri Lankan military was poised to make significant gains in their battle against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It was a signal to Colombo that New Delhi’s intentions had to be respected.

Jayewardene buckled under this pressure, called off the military offensive and invited Rajiv Gandhi to Colombo, to sign a hastily drafted Indo-Lanka Accord. Gandhi was nearly killed, when he was assaulted by a naval rating at a guard of honour, but the provincial councils thus introduced, stand to this day.
Soon, under the terms of the Accord, Indian troops were in the North and East. It was an uneasy time, with an insurrection in the North and in the South. Ranasinghe Premadasa’s advent to power saw the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) being virtually frog marched back to India.
Since then, tensions between the two nations have eased somewhat, despite the periodic escalation of the war against terrorism in Sri Lanka. A not insignificant factor for this was the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, on the orders of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

That, set in the context of global ire against terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, and India’s own battles against terrorism, saw a paradigm shift in New Delhi’s attitude towards the Sri Lankan conflict. It may have supported the Tamil cause, but it no longer supported terrorism or the LTTE.  
The acid test came in the final Eelam War. It is now no secret that Velupillai Prabhakaran was holed up in the Nanthikadal lagoon- when he could have escaped, to try and live to fight another day- because he hoped that other countries, notably India, would intervene and force a halt to the Sri Lankan military offensive.

That did not happen, despite the ruling Congress party being subjected to immense pressure, because of elections in Tamil Nadu. For this, due credit must be given to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, as well his foreign policy advisors and New Delhi’s representatives in Colombo.

Sri Lankans who waited with bated breath for yet another ‘parippu’ invasion from across the Palk Straits, are grateful that India allowed it to prosecute the war against terror to a finish. Thus, Foreign Secretary Rao’s visit does not deserve a sinister interpretation or undue suspicion.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa has succeeded in establishing excellent relations with India at a crucial hour, a task at which some of his more astute predecessors failed. He has also publicly expressed Sri Lanka’s gratitude to India for its non-interference, as well as naval support in the final Eelam War.

We expect Foreign Secretary Rao to impress upon the Sri Lankan government the need to evolve a political solution that meets the aspirations of all communities in this country. But New Delhi, no doubt, understands that such radical change cannot be undertaken amidst the hurly burly of electioneering.
Yet, a gentle reminder from New Delhi is not unwelcome. And Nirupama Rao will surely appreciate that the Sri Lanka she visits now is quite different from the uncertain, terror ridden country that she left four years ago, to be New Delhi’s envoy in Beijing. India can heave a sigh of relief because of that. So can we.