Sunday, June 07, 2009

My article in FORCE: Act Now, Big Brother!

FORCE Magazine asked me to write for them during my visit to Sri Lanka between April 23 and May 27. My dispatch has been published in their current issue (June 2009) as part of the cover feature on securing India's neighbourhood. Here it is:

Act Now, Big Brother!
by Shiv Aroor

As the proverbial dust settles – if it ever really does settle – on Sri Lanka’s war against the Tamil Tigers, the country now totters in circumstances it was ill-prepared for. Ill-prepared, that is, unless it opens itself to an overwhelming amount of external influence. With what the government has called the “world’s largest rescue operation” of close to 300,000 Tamils slowly but surely turning into a catastrophic matrix of uncertainty for an entire community, the Sri Lankan government has still to provide any specific roadmap for their restitution beyond the vague, emotional calls for national reconciliation. It seems to be the case that not a single government ministry or department in Sri Lanka has a clear idea of what it has to do now. And that’s where the irony begins. Because no matter how many times President Mahinda Rajapaksa emphasises the need for a local solution and no matter how many times the international community is vilified, perhaps rightly sometimes, for its perceived double-standards on the Lankan operations, the journey from hereupon for Sri Lanka will involve a powerful foreign hand, and lots of foreign money. But strategic and economic influence is merely an end – the emerging humanitarian crisis is the means.

India has sent many tons of food and aid, and most recently dispatched two special envoys with over Rs 500 crore to be used specifically for the political rehabilitation of the Tamils. One could argue endlessly about India’s foreign policy as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, but the one thing you can say without doubt is that is has been shaky and inconsistent at the best of times. The Indian High Commissioner in Colombo was furious when I asked him how he was countering the Chinese influence on the island – he thundered “Look around you. The culture here is Indian, not Chinese.” And while that’s certainly true, many Sri Lankans believe that the uniqueness of the country’s current circumstances offer it the opportunity to shake off the past and push ahead with new friends, new solutions. Remember, an overwhelming number of adult Sri Lankans grew up watching India openly support groups that Colombo officially called terrorists. The influence of ‘Big Brother’ across the Palk Strait is never understated, but time has only barely healed the scars of resentment.

With an almost unanimous perception that the military onslaught was briefly paused for the Indian elections means that expectations from New Delhi now are justifiably high. National Security Advisor MK Narayanan has put it down to the indispensability of a political solution, charged with the promise that the 13th Amendment – a constitutional clause that provides for devolution of political powers to provinces – will be implemented in the true spirit of its intention to provide for a degree of political autonomy to areas with dominant Tamil populations. Of course, now, the geography of Sri Lanka has changed. There are no longer any Tamil-dominated areas. If they haven’t fallen to collateral waste, every last Tamil from the North and North-East now sits in any one of a handful of relief camps, clustered around the Vavuniya area. The facilities there include a well-praised Indian field hospital, recently shifted from Pulmodai on the East coast, where a small team of Indian doctors has spent over a month now treating a literally endless stream of patients. Injuries sustained in the crossfire apart, the camps have obviously bred diseases, sickness and a gargantuan measure of displacement trauma that will have to be addressed in its own right. The horror of displacement is the one illness that binds every last survivor in the camps.

The question now, of course is, what does Sri Lanka expect from India? And more importantly what do the displaced Tamils expect from a country they unwaveringly looked at as the mothership. Colombo now needs India for the gritty, unenviable task of making the North safe. Many Tamils in the camps are willing to forgive what they perceive as India’s detachment during the current operations, if only India guarantees that it will get them a future of honour, economic independence and a degree of political autonomy that puts them on par with the Sinhala majority. The political history of the island would blunt the sentiments of even the most pathological optimist, but Sri Lankan Tamils nurse fervent hopes that these are changed times. At any rate, the Tamil question may never be resolved with any measure of haste, considering that there are challenges ahead that threaten life and limb more than social inequalities.

One of the biggest, most immediate and challenging tasks is the de-mining of the Northern areas. Thousands upon thousands of landmines were apparently planted by the LTTE without record across enormous swathes of land to blunt the Sri Lankan Army offensive. The Army progressively cut a fine line through the vast minefields into the war zone – at least 800 soldiers reportedly died in landmine blasts during these operations. Unless the North is satisfactorily de-mined, nobody can go back. According to one report, the Northern part of Sri Lanka could be more heavily mined now than Afghanistan was in 2001. A team of Indian military de-mining engineers will assist Sri Lankan authorities to kick-start an exercise that could, according to the Lankan Peace Secretariat, take up to five years. Indeed, it could be marked out by international agencies as a mine-contaminated zone forever.

The other area which India will be expected to contribute heavily towards is the rebuilding of the North. I travelled from Kilinochchi to the banks of the Puthumathalan lagoon on May 2 – a mere sample of the area of operations. The entire zone is an unending canvas of destruction. Not a single building stands still. Operations have reduced the area to a veritable graveyard of twisted metal and concrete. The only humans that you can still see there are army troops, who stand on guard against possible revenge attacks by any survivors from the Tamil Tigers.

The word opportunity is used a lot in Sri Lanka these days. This is an ‘opportunity’ for the Tamils to shake off their marginalised past. This is an ‘opportunity’ for the government to establish a truly multi-ethnic society void of Sinhala chauvinism. This is an ‘opportunity’ for India to leave its past foreign policy blunders behind and get right back on track. This is an ‘opportunity’ for New Delhi to counter Beijing’s rapidly rising strategic influence in the Indian Ocean Region. This is also an ‘opportunity’ for South Block to prove that, when it comes to the neighbourhood, India does not always have to be resoundingly impervious to reality. With a relatively stable government in harness in New Delhi, and local Indian political equations suitably realigned, there is every ‘opportunity’ for a new complexion to Indo-Lankan ties – ties could benefit Colombo, and at the same time address Indian concerns.

R Sampanthan, leader of Sri Lanka’s Tamil National Alliance (TNA), and one of the most vocal Tamil politicians in the country, says, “India is very clearly back in the picture. There can be no question about it. India is going to be fully involved both in the matter of resettlement of displaced people, as well as extracting assurances about the collective political future of Sri Lankan Tamils.” It is Sampanthan’s use of the phrase “back in the picture” that is operative here. A full retinue of Tamil politicians, who flocked to India House in Colombo on May 21 to meet Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and National Security Advisor MK Narayanan, urged the special envoys to ensure that India did not waver from its commitment to the Tamil cause this time around. Their request is not without reason. The Manmohan Singh government is seen as having fully supported the Mahinda Rajapaksa government in its operations against the LTTE, at the risk of appearing to wash its hands off the Tamil question, and what aid agencies have almost unanimously called a humanitarian crisis.

Something that troubles island Tamils no end is the Sri Lankan government’s categorical and persistent refusal to acknowledge that a humanitarian crisis has precipitated as a result of its military operations. They feel that while temporary displacement and collateral damage can somehow be understood – if not condoned – as the fallouts of any military intervention, the government’s stubbornness in recognising the situation as a crisis portends ill. Getting the Sri Lankan government to start its journey towards reconciliation by at least recognising that it has a humanitarian problem of enormous proportions on its hands, is also something that island Tamils expect from India. For now though, the wave of euphoria that sweeps Sri Lanka will not permit the establishment from giving up the notion that the military operation has simply constituted the world’s largest rescue operation. Some argue that the ‘rescue operation’ was the means, and the humanitarian crisis, the end, and the two were therefore not comparable no matter which way you look at it.

There are a large number of Tamils who simply don’t believe that there’s a better life instore for them. Their logic is that when the Sri Lankan government was materially threatened by the presence of the LTTE and the geographical consolidation of the Tamils in the North and East, its policy was one of prejudice. And that now with control of the entire island – not to mention the entire Tamil population – it has no incentive to change its policies towards the island’s largest ethnic minority. The very same Tamils also view President Rajapaksa’s call for “magnanimity in victory” as representative of the lingering systemic condescension with which the majority Sinhala population supposedly regards the minorities. They believe, not without reason that while a lot has changed over the years, the essential sentiments that were enshrined in President Samuel Bandaranaike’s notorious Sinhala Only Act of 1956 – an Act widely believed to have sparked off the impulse towards Tamil separatism – continue to prevail in spirit.

Possibly the most ironic and perverse era of India’s relations with Sri Lanka was in the late eighties. It was a time when Rajiv Gandhi’s peacekeepers were engaged in full-frontal battle with the Tamil Tigers, while wounded Tigers were being treated by the boatload on Indian territory and sent back to continue fighting Indian soldiers. It was also a time when the LTTE, supposedly the enemy of Sri Lankan sovereignty, was being secretly armed by the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa himself, all in an effort to settle political scores with Rajiv Gandhi. It’s probably representative of just how deeply twisted the transpirations were that both Gandhi and Premadasa were summarily assassinated by the Tigers shortly thereafter.

There is, then, an overwhelming expectation from India not to allow the ghosts of the past to revisit this stunningly beautiful island. They say conflict is power. It certainly is political and diplomatic power. But if India is to live up to its Big Brother sobriquet, without any of the devious Orwellian connotations, it will be expected to act sensitively, act prudently, and most importantly, act now.

©Copyright 2009 FORCE Magazine


Anonymous said...


Tejaswy said...

I am really concerned about the string of pearl made by china and china tying to make a port in china

Anonymous said...

to shiv

where are the pics inside of phalcon????

vasanthakumar said...

China already need Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. If they want Sri Lanka & Tamil Nadu definitely we Tamils in Tamil Nadu will support China. Becuause India betrayed Tamils.

Anonymous said...

"vasanthakumar said... "


Anonymous said...

"vasanthakumar said... "


INDIAN said...

@ vasanthakumar......

^$%^ #$% @$$0LE!!! &(%^&^ Main kya bola woh Samajhle beta..... 'Big Brother' Shiv wont allow me to post some sweet words for ya, isliye tu bach gaya!!

Anonymous said...

Shiv, from when did u started anchoring sports news ??
I saw u hosting some T-20 WC programme on HT.

Anonymous said...

Indians are getting very paranoid about China. Military, Media and people anre making threats againsts China. Chinese are sitting there laughing.

Anonymous said...

Now I know Shiv u will be heading to Paki to cover their final moments with taliban(really don't know who's final moments - whether their army or taliban)

Anonymous said...

very incisive article. congratulations on writing for force mag shiv. good step for you.

the terminator said...

A very good article without mincing words about the current situation in India.

India might think of itself as the Big Brother but it is sad to note it has not played its part adequately.

Its foreign policy is and has been wanting in diplomacy of high calibre. It could have played a key role in the Sri Lankan/Tamil Tigers episode but it squandered all moves by its myopic policy of victimising the Tamils by proxy at the hands of the Sinhala government because Rajiv Gandhi was assasinated by the LTTE.

While India was sulking away about the LTTE hand in Rajiv's murder, the Chinese quietly stepped in and now the Sri Lankans are rejoicing at the expense of the poor Tamils.

To be a Big Brother, it is not enough to be big in size. It also needs the political will to mollify the feuding parties and at the same time ready to wield the big stick if the circumstances warrants it.

India cannot play the role of Big Brother if it cannot understand the sentiments of its people in Tamil Nadu. Sad to say the Central Government dominated by people from the north, even today, does not seem to realize that the Tamils in Tamil Nadu are Indian citizens. Those in Sri Lanka and other parts of the world are PIO whose fate would be decided by Delhi's indifference or worse still, inaction.

Let us not just talk about the 'string of pearls'. What has India planned to counter it? Don't just sweep it under the rug as something to do with the security of the nation. India need not publish its intentions on the topic but has it any strategies to counter it? God alone knows!

Coming back to the Sri Lankan question, it is about time that India steps in forcefully and demands that the Sri Lankan Tamils are rehabilitated and treated equally as citizens in every sphere of Sri Lanka. India should present the Sri Lankan government with a roadmap for the Tamils and see to its implementation. If India hasn't the political will and nerve to see through its implementation, then it might as well accept the present status quo not only in Sri Lanka but also in Arunachal Pradesh, but also all the other parts of India that is claimed by the Chinese.

In short, give up all pretences of being a super power. Just kowtow to the Chinese and accept their hagemony.

Atty said...

The concerns about the rising Chinese influence in Sri Lanka may be over stated.Its true that China is reaching out to the Indian ocean littorals but in case of Sri Lanka her influence may not be that alarming.Sri Lanka is wise enough to understand who is its neighbour and big brother.There is nothing that has been said or done by its leaders publically that could tantamount to an anti-India shift towards China.It takes a good 15 days of sailing for Chinese ships to even reach Sri Lanka - leave alone establishing bases there.Sri Lankans at large view India as a friend - their religion and broad culture was exported from India.They know they have no one else around to turn to in times of emergencies - like the Tsunami of Dec 2004.Thats why you have their military training with us.They welcome Indian tourists without a Visa -what more do you want?India has no choice but to enagage Sri Lanka into a meaningful dialogue and get equal rights for the Tamils.Sri lanka has no choice but to do just that - if they dont then the whole vicious cycle which Shiv has narrated will repeat itself.

Anonymous said...

There is no reason to worry about China in strategic sense, since we are already crippled domestically thanks to politicians.

We cannot compete with Chinese. It is the bitter truth all Indians recognize once they visit hina and see the level and type of infrastructure they have built in last ten years.

India had a headstart and has the "benefits" of a democracy, but the reality is China is more prosperous and its people happier.

captainjohann said...

Hi Shiv,
The Sri lankans are very clever people.They signed the pact with late our beloeved Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and called it Jeyavardnae/Rajiv pact.They never wanted to implement it.They just wanted Indian army to fight the Sri lankan Tamils.The tragedy is known to us.
Now also they are trying to EXPORT THE TAMILS TO TAMILNADU AND create a Tamil seperatist problem in India.This is what the Budhist clergy of the world wants dominated by Thailand,Myanmar and SriLanka with help from Japan.China is NOT the problem.The problem is the MILITANT BUDHISM. i WILL NOT BE SURPRISED IF THEY LINK UP WITH DALIT BUDHISTS IN INDIA LOCATED IN KUSHINAGAR.
I even expect ANTI BRAHMINSM to raise its head in India with IndianTamilBrahmins from Subramaniaswamy,Cho,N.Ram of Hindu and other opinion makers being anti/LTTE

Prranjal Shrivastav said...

It's so sad to realize that the so-called BIG BROTHER is the utter weakling. The India's foreign policies are nothing but confused attempts to support a weak stance with in it's neighborhood. the similar issues are very obvious within the nation's internal policies as well where the vast weakling majority is actually controlled by the so called united minorities as well as the huge tax paying general category is deprived of every benefit to feed the vote banks of SC, ST & OBCs. The Lankans had pushed the Tamils into forming LTTE & the liberation tigers were fighting for the right purpose but a country which itself have a history of freedom fights, actually helped the evil Lankans against it's own people, the Tamils. it's not tamils but sinhalis who are rouges & terrorists & i highly support the execution of Rajiv Gandhi for his ill treatment against tamilians. when will that time come when India will threat pussy cats like Srilanka against opposing the right to it's people & will. i think at least iran & iraq do hail from such prestigious communities who can stand & fight for what they think is right. SHAME INDIA SHAME!