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Millennium Post

A tough call

The choice Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has to make is a tough one. Whether the emotive rationale of Singh’s senior colleagues like finance minister P Chidambaram and other Tamil Nadu politicians to not attend the CHOGM meet would eclipse the rest of the government’s ‘national interest’ rhetoric in favour of the meet, remains to be seen. The case in point appears to be one of regional politics versus national interest. New Delhi’s diplomatic acumen to cajole some of their own would also be put to test. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meet (CHOGM) is scheduled to take place from 15-18 November. The indecision pertains to the plight of Tamils living in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. The Tamil minority in island nation alleges atrocities against them by the Sri Lankan government.

Division within the government

A tug of war has erupted within the Congress party with its ministers from Tamil Nadu including finance minister P Chidambaram on one side and remaining on the other. On the one hand the ruling party (including ministry of external affairs and prime minister’s office) is of the view that attending the CHOGM meet would bolster ties between two countries, eventually leading to a solution of Tamil minority rights issue. In contrast to this stand, the other group is doubtful of Sri Lanka’s intentions and they seek actions first.

The camp opposing the visit argues that reasons like Lanka not implementing the devolution of powers under the 13th amendment, regional council still not been given powers to maintain law and order and Colombo’s tough actions like arresting of Indian fishermen despite several protests raises doubts. PM’s visit, according to them, would only make Lanka act tougher. They further argue that New Delhi should first seek some positive response before taking any further steps.

Till now five ministers - Minister of State in the PMO V Narayanasamy, Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan, Finance Minister P Chidambaram, Shipping Minister G K Vasan and Defence Minister A K Antony have expressed their reservations about the meet. All have urged the Prime Minister to take a decision which would not exclude interests of Indian-origin Tamils in Sri Lanka.

On the other hand, the government says the PM should go to Lanka in national interest. They reason that CHOGM is a multilateral meeting, and India is a founding member of the Commonwealth. Besides, Colombo is a lynchpin of New Delhi’s Indian Ocean Region (IOR) strategy.

MEA has said the heads of state of all major Commonwealth countries, including the UK and Australia, will be there. They also argue that in the run-up to CHOGM, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government has taken important political steps on Indian request, which included holding elections in the Northern Province and putting on hold its plans to dilute the provisions of the 13th amendment.

Furthermore, India would not be able to prevent dilution of the 13th Amendment only when New Delhi shows some resilience. Besides, Indian fishermen would be at the mercy of Lankan security forces and India would not be able to influence them if the PM does not go.

MEA spokesperson, Syed Akbaruddin in a statement had recently said ‘All aspects of the country’s national interest, foreign policy priorities and international obligations are being considered, while the government consults all stakeholders before deciding on the level of participation.’

Thirteenth Amendment

This amendment ensuring devolution of powers to provinces hold the key to this particular issue between India-Sri Lanka. According to this amendment the central government in Sri Lanka would devolve powers to the provinces which would ensure decentralisation. In such a case the plight of areas like Jaffna which is Tamil dominated would be in hands of the provincial governments. Many in New Delhi argue that the delivery of the promised devolution based on the 13th Amendment is perhaps the only safeguard for the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Already a strong message has come from C V Wigneswaran, the new Tamil National Alliance (TNA) chief minister of Lanka’s Northern Provincial council. In a recent message to the Indian government he urged Singh to attend CHOGM. This was the first time a Tamil party has been allowed to form a provincial government by Colombo. New Delhi hopes that the presence of Wigneswaran and proper implementation of thirteenth amendment are signs of a better political future for the Tamil minority in the island nation.

On the other hand, there is rhetoric that Sri Lankan government do not intend to devolve power to the provinces. A Supreme Court judgement had recently said that powers over land remained with the Centre which only fuelled concerns about its intentions amongst the Tamils.

The Tamil Nadu assembly had unanimously adopted a resolution last month that said India must boycott the session to register its protest against the Sri Lankan government’s failure to investigate and punish those who allegedly persecuted the island’s ethnic Tamils in the final phase of the civil war that ended in 2009.

International concerns

Apart from Canada which has boycotted the meet on grounds of empathy for the Tamil cause, all other countries are in favour of the meet.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had recently said, ‘It was important to engage with Sri Lanka as it rebuilds itself in the aftermath of a bloody 30-year civil conflict.’ ‘It’s our view that Commonwealth countries should work with Sri Lanka to meet the challenges that they face and we certainly will be encouraging countries to do that,’ she added.  ‘We have sent that message to Canada in a number of ways. They make their own decision obviously.’ Likewise other ministers of Commonwealth countries pressed for India’s participation in the meet.

They also urged Indian to participate at the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Co-operation (IOR-ARC), initially known as the Indian Ocean Rim Initiative, which is an international organisation with 20 member states. India had asserted its stance in favour of Lankan Tamils’ in March 2012 when it voted for a US-backed resolution urging Sri Lanka to probe rights abuses in the war on the Tamil Tigers, which resulted into Colombo blaming strategic alliances and domestic political issues in Tamil Nadu for the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution.

Before the entrenchment of friction between the two neighbours, it would be in favour of both to find out a peaceful solution to the lingering issue of justice to Tamils. Certainly dialogue is imperative for taking such a course. While regional parties need to give Colombo a chance, the PM should make sure that the situation does not exacerbate, if at all his government locks the decision to go ahead with the meet.
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