Ron Ridenour

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India-Sri Lanka at odds over Tamil rights

[April 18, 2014]

India and Sri Lanka have a 2500+-year history of close yet sometimes contentious relationships. The ancient ethnic-religious-territorial conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamils has been the main dilemma for harmony in Sri Lanka since independence from Britain, in 1948. Many Singhalese view India with suspicion, even animosity, fearing it could help Tamils rip the country in two.

Another pressing conflict is the relatively recent killings of hundreds of Tamil Nadu fishermen, and the arrests of hundreds more by Sri Lanka’s navy, which claims Tamil Indians fish illegally in its part of the Palk Strait.

Geologists tell us that Sri Lanka (SL) was connected to India until 7000 years ago. Archaeologists date the first humans in Sri Lanka back to 34,000 years (Balangoda people). The current majority Sinhalese people (Raksha, Yaksha, Deva, Naga mix with Aryans) and the minority Tamil (Dravidian) people are known to have been in SL at least 2500 years. For two thousand years, they lived in separate kingdoms, sometimes in peace, sometimes at war.

The Sinhalese came from India (at least 543 years before Christ) and the Tamils arrived from India, from the Mediterranean, and perhaps from south western Iran. There is disagreement about the dates of both peoples’ arrivals and it is not the task of this author to draw conclusions., and, chapter two.

This essay focuses on the conflict between the dominating Sinhalese and the aggrieved Tamils, and how India is and has been involved. A short history is relevant.

Many centuries ago, Sinhalese Buddhist monks wrote the chronicle poem, Mahavamsa, in which Sri Lanka is viewed as the chosen land for Buddhism—the Theravada version—to which nearly all Sinhalese belong. The work chronicles Buddhism following the death of its originator, Guatama Buddha, and created the myth that Sinhalese people stem from the mating of a lion and a human princess.

There are various interpretations of what the Mahavamsa truly means, just as there are concerning Buddha’s and Christ’s messages since no texts were written during their lifetime, but Buddhism and the Sinhalese were seen to be the preferred people adhering to the preferred religion. Tamils were less worthy, even viewed as sinners and invaders, who could be killed. This view continues today. For instance, Buddhism is the only official Sri Lankan “religion”—it is more a way of life than a religion—and Sinhalese are privileged by law and practice over others in religion, in language, for certain jobs and for higher education. Tamil homes, temples, businesses and lands are being appropriated by Sinhalese in the north and east.

At the time of Buddha nearly all Tamils followed the Hindu religion, which was and is the major religion of India. Once Europeans and Arabs came to Sri Lanka, many Tamils converted to Christianity and Islam, but two-thirds are still Hindu. Indians generally have felt closer to Tamils than to Sinhalese, and have often helped Tamils under duress, especially aiding many to settle in southern India once fleeing from several pogroms committed against them between 1956 and 1983, plus hundreds of massacres.

The “Lest we Forget”-study maintains that, “The problems came to the fore after the British colonial powers withdrew from the island in 1948 giving it a unitary constitution. In effect this constitution handed over the power to the Sinhala majority. It is this unitary constitution and the power in the hands of the Sinhalese that lead to the unrestrained violence against the Tamils and large scale violations of their basic human rights.”

When Britain dominated Ceylon (Sri Lanka), it forced a million Tamils from India to work the island’s tea, coffee, and rubber plantations as bonded labourers. One of the first laws that the newly inaugurated Sri Lankan government made, in 1948, divested these impoverished, indentured Tamils from citizenship and the right to vote. About half of them were repatriated to India in the 1960s. Several hundred thousands still live in SL. Most regained citizenship during the 1990s.

Once the discriminating “Sinhala only” law was made Sinhala became the only official language, in 1956. Tamils began protesting discriminating laws made by the Sinhalese chauvinist-dominated parliament and government by using Gandhi non-violent civil disobedience methods. After nearly three decades of peacefully demonstrating simply for basic equal rights within a federal Sri Lanka without success, and having suffered great loss of life, mutilations, beatings, disappearances, imprisonment, torture, rapes, loss of property, many Tamil youths took up arms to fight for a sovereign nation they called Eelam.

One of the first groups, Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS), began an arms training camp in northern SL in 1975. In 1976, it invited another new group, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to train with it in Lebanon under the direction of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. During the next decade, as many as 40 small and larger Tamil guerrilla groups were started; most dissolved or merged.

Following the pogrom of July 1983, the Indira Gandhi government decided it had to prevent the destruction of Tamils in the north of SL, and stop the unceasing flood of Tamil fleeing refugees to India. It’s intelligence agency, RAW (Research and Analysis Wing), invited EROS, LTTE and three others groups—TELO, Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation; PLOTE, People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam; EPRLF, Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front—for military training in Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. Following training, these groups sometimes fought together against Sri Lanka government forces and sometimes fought one another.

The Indira-led government was forming closer ties with the Soviet Union while the conservative SL government was buying and receiving donated weaponry, military training and intelligence from US/UK/Israel, but also from Pakistan and “communist” China and Russia.

Following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, October 31, 1984, by two Sikh body guards, her son Rajiv became president. He sought to find compromises between the Tamil guerrilla groups and the JR Jayewardene-led United National Party government. He convinced the five India-trained militant groups to conduct a cease-fire even while the SL army continued sporadic raids and massacres. The cease fire did not work. Tamil groups lost patience, some yielded to India and others, namely LTTE, did not.

By January 1987, Jaffna was basically in the hands of the Tigers, which operated an effective government collecting taxes and providing basic social services. Government bombings continued, which led the LTTE to use the suicide belt. The Black Tigers unit offered their lives in attacks against government-military installations, and sometimes killing Sinhalese and Tamil civilians.

Indian Peace Keeping Force

As Jaffna was under siege from the air, India began flying and sailing in relief supplies. Rajiv pressed Jayewardene to the negotiating table. LTTE’s youthful founding leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was excluded from negotiating talks. The two governments agreed there should be a ceasefire and surrendering of Tamil arms, in exchange for the implementation of devolution of some provincial powers under the 13th amendment just signed. Most Tamil armed groups accepted the terms. The LTTE was reluctant but cautiously agreed when India convinced the UNP government to sign the controversial Indo-Sri Lankan Peace Accord.

The accord also called for SL military withdrawal from the north, and India was to keep the peace. But the accord was doomed by India appointing only the EPRLF to administer provincial rule of the North and East, which were to be merged.

The LTTE did deliver some old weapons but kept their best. India’s military force—soon to grow to 50,000—attempted to disarm the Tigers, who fought back. During nearly three years of fighting, the LTTE gained the upper hand not only against the Indian army but also over the Tamil groups who sided with India: EPRLF, TELO and ENDLF.

(Today, those groups, or reconstituted groupings there from, serve under the United People’s Freedom Alliance, with Mahinda Rajapaksa as president since 2005. Tamils in the north and east fear these Tamil paramilitarists for their brutality and complicity with Sinhalese chauvinism.)

The SL military sometimes assisted the LTTE against India but mainly had its hands full with a Sinhalese radical insurgency in the south. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) sought a socialist economy and state, opposed India expansionism, and feared that a Tamil Eelam would be a fifth column in the Sinhalese nation. The JVP was rabidly national chauvinist, and its youth were fierce fighters, having conducted an earlier insurgency in 1971. But the SL military brutally put them down over the next two years. Tens of thousands were killed, many executed upon capture. Their second insurgency was defeated in November 1989.

The last IPKF forces pulled out of the north on March 24, 1990. Well over one thousand Indian troops had died and an equal number of LTTE rebels as well. Upwards to 5,000 Tamil civilians had been killed. And President Rajiv Gandhi would soon be assassinated by a LTTE female suicide bomber, Thenmozhi Rajaratnam (Dhanu), in Tamil Nadu on May 21, 1991. Sympathy for the LTTE and the Eelam cause then fell drastically in India. In Sri Lanka, the government cancelled the 13th amendment provincial powers and continued the war against the Tigers.

Despite the animosity over the Tamil “issue”, trade relations skyrocketed in the 1990s. India exports increased five fold and investments were heavy. The India-Lanka Bilateral Free Trade Agreement of 1998 granted full tax exemption for imported goods from India.

There continued to be bitter reminders, however, of the “Peace Keeping” fiasco years. A 2007 book by IPKF commander Maj. Gen. Harkirat Singh, “Intervention in Sri Lanka: The IPKF Experience Retold”, asserts that India sought to destroy the LTTE and the dream of an Eelam nation.

“RAW began rearming other Tamil groups even while the LTTE was being disarmed in August 1987. The author gave Dixit [Indian High Commissioner in Colombo] the damning videotapes which the LTTE had given him. [The author met Dixit on September 11, 1987.]`According to Dixit, the ultimate objective of the IPKF was to discredit the LTTE in the eyes of the local Tamil population. In short, the IPKF was expected to play a double game. I realised that these tactics would not work since the Tamils had already understood that their aspirations for Eelam could be met only by the LTTE,´” wrote A.G. Noorani in a “Frontline” magazine review.

“`On the night of 14/15 September 1987, I [Harkirat Singh] received a telephone call from Dixit, directing me to arrest or shoot Pirabakaran when he came for the meeting…OFC Lt. Gen. Depinder Singh directed me to tell Dixit that we, as an orthodox Army, did not shoot people in the back when they were coming for a meeting under the white flag.´”

The government of India claims that it supports Tamils’ equal rights while providing aid to the government against terrorism.

“During the course of the [26-year armed] conflict, India supported the right of the Government of Sri Lanka to act against terrorist forces. At the same time, it conveyed at the highest levels its deep concern at the plight of the mostly Tamil civilian population, emphasizing that their rights and welfare should not get enmeshed in hostilities against the LTTE.”

Nevertheless, Major-General Ashok Mehta, another former commander of Indian peacekeeping forces in Sri Lanka said, in May 2009, “We were complicit in this last phase of the offensive when a great number of civilians were killed,” he told The Sunday Times.

The Times reported that “despite being home to 60 million Tamils, India has provided Sri Lanka with military equipment, training and intelligence over the past three years… [and India failed] to use its influence to negotiate a ceasefire for civilians to escape the front line.”

“General Mehta said that the Indian Government, led by the Congress Party, wanted to counterbalance China and Pakistan, its main regional rivals, which had each increased arms sales to Sri Lanka in the past few years. It also wanted to avenge the Tigers’ assassination in 1991 of Rajiv Gandhi, the Prime Minister and late husband of Sonia Gandhi, the current Congress leader.”

UN Human Rights Council

Five years after the ethnic civil war in Sri Lanka was won by the Sinhalese government, with tens of thousands of Tamil civilians killed in the last few months, the UN Human Rights Council authorized its High Commissioner to investigate if human rights abuse has occurred.

On a vote of 23 for, 12 against and with 12 abstentions, the HRC voted to promote “reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka” by having its High Commissioner, Navi Pillay, and her soon-to-be successor:

“To undertake a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties [referring to the LTTE guerrilla organization as well as the government] in Sri Lanka during the period covered by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, and to establish the facts and circumstances of such alleged violations and of the crimes perpetrated with a view to avoiding impunity and ensuring accountability, with assistance from relevant experts and special procedures mandate holders.”

The Commissioner will then “present an oral update to the Human Rights Council at its twenty-seventh session, and a comprehensive report followed by a discussion on the implementation of the present resolution at its twenty-eighth session.” The process could take three years.

This resolution is the fourth since May 2009, and the third sponsored by US/UK and allies. The first resolution, which Western nations voted against, welcomed “the conclusion of hostilities and the liberation [of Tamils] kept by the LTTE against their will as hostages”. It only condemned the LTTE for terrorism against the civilian population while praising the Sri Lanka government for its “promotion and protection of human rights.”

Both rivals India and China voted for May 2009 resolution, which Sri Lanka’s government had drafted and Cuba presented. However in 2012 and 2013, India joined with the West in a slightly critical resolution, which merely called upon Sri Lanka to investigate itself for any possible war crimes committed. China, Russia, Cuba and several progressive Latin American governments backed Sri Lanka. Ironically, SL’s traditional trading and military partners are India and the major Western powers, including Zionist and colonialist Israel.

When the US/UK introduced the tame resolution of March 2013, Tamils in six southern India states demonstrated in the millions, followed by Tamil protest actions in the Diaspora. They denounced the resolution as “ineffectual” for calling upon the Sri Lanka government to investigate itself. Protestors demanded that the SL government be investigated by an independent international body for its war crimes against Tamils. Students were joined by workers, who shut down many work centres. Even film makers and small businesses joined the protests.

The conciliatory role India’s central government played in Geneva led the Tamil Nadu governing DMK party (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagan) to withdraw its participation in the coalition UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government last year.

The biggest surprise in this HRC session is that India abstained instead of voting yes as had been expected—a boon to Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa and a disappointment to Tamils. India maintained that the resolution will “undermine national sovereignty,” that it is an “intrusive approach,” “counter-productive,” and that the tough language “will hinder rehabilitation efforts”.

Some analysts believe that India may also have objected to the resolution because it could set a precedent that might implicate India for its conduct in Kashmir, perhaps even encouraging calls for independence in Tamil Nadu and other states where minorities are the regional majority.
Due to its abstention, India’s Congress party-led government will face even sharper internal criticism from its southern states where more than 100 million Tamils live. It could even tip the balance in the forthcoming national elections. The conservative Bharatiya Janata Party stands an increasingly good chance of winning.

Since Indira Gandhi’s cooperation with Tamil guerrilla groups, followed by the IPKF period, India’s Congress Party has fully backed Sri Lanka militarily. While it does not reveal the extent of military aid given or sold, it is known to have supplied three fast attack boats and a missile corvette (INS Vinash) as part of half a billion dollars in military aid in the last months of the civil war. It is noteworthy to recall that following the 2009 massacre at Mullivaaykkal, SL defence minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa proclaimed that his government had fought India’s war.

An important element in this collaboration is that China worries India, because it provides to Sri Lanka even more military aid, as well as construction and communication assistance. China also receives SL military personnel for training.

Once an agreement was reached about the Hambantota port, in 2007, China gave SL“all the aid, arms and diplomatic support it needs to defeat the Tigers, without worrying about the West,” wrote “The Times of London”.

Since the conclusion of the war, India assures both Sri Lanka’s government of support while touting an image, backed with funds and materials, of assistance for Tamils in their devastated previous homeland. India is providing 50,000 homes for displaced Tamils.

“The conclusion of the armed conflict saw the emergence of a major humanitarian challenge, with nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians housed in camps for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). In June 2009, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh announced a grant of INR 5 billion (SLR 12 billion) for relief and rehabilitation in Sri Lanka,” India’s government states.

India also sends the greatest number of tourists to Sri Lanka. While India’s cultural ties, military assistance, commercial trade, investments, aid and loans are high, China’s presence is dominate.

According to the “Wall Street Journal” (WSJ, March 7, 2014), China’s President Xi Jinping recently told SL Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris that China has an “all-weather partnership” with the island nation. The Asian giant is extending its reach throughout the Indian Ocean. Half the world’s goods transported by sea cross the waters by Sri Lanka. No state with dependency on shipping wants to be isolated from Sri Lankan governments.

China has doubled its trade with SL, from 5.2% in 2008 to 9.6% in 2012. It also provides twice the amount of loans to SL of all Western countries. Sri Lanka has granted China $4 billion in current infrastructure projects, mainly with Chinese loans. A contract recently signed with a Chinese construction company will provide for a new port city in Colombo. China has already built the island nation’s first four-lane expressway, as well as its second international airport and the sea port at Hambantota, which is the world’s first inbuilt harbour carved out of land. This promises to be the country’s primary port of call.

With China solidly behind him, President Rajapaksa defies the West. According to the WSJ article, he said he could withstand any sanctions. And while poverty, unemployment, and increasing authoritarian rule are major issues, SL’s economic growth rate increased to 7.2% in 2013.

China is a main opponent of any investigation or sanctions for human rights abuse. China’s president said that his government opposes “politicizing and imposing double standards on the issue of human rights”, a reference to the US/UK introduced resolution criticizing SL for alleged human rights abuse. On the sidelines, China and Cuba point to the hypocrisy of the accusing nations for their numerous invasions of sovereign states, and massive human rights abuse of many peoples, while they enjoy impunity.

Despite UK’s verbal criticism of Rajapaksa’s treatment of Tamils, Colombo was picked as the city venue for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), in November 2013. The Bandarnaike Memorial International Conference Hall—an "outright gift from the Government and People of the People's Republic of China,” as stated at the summit—was the major venue.

When top leaders of India, along with the queen of Britain, and top leaders of Canada and Mauritius, refused to attend the ceremonies, Colonel R. Hariharan, former head of IPKF’s intelligence branch, said that India’s prime minister’s absence could damage India’s attempts to build stronger bridges with Sri Lanka.

By abstaining from the current HRC resolution, India may be trying to make up for this damage.

In September 2013, just two months before the leadership of the CHOGM was awarded to the controversial government of Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa granted a partial implementation of devolvement of powers to the newly created Northern Province Council.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which represents most Tamils in their traditional homeland, received 79% of the vote, gaining 30 of the 38 seats. The central government coalition, UPFA, won 18% for seven seats, and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress took 1.5% of votes for one seat.

As the upcoming HRC 25th session approached, the NPC called for an international independent investigation into war crimes allegedly committed by the SL government, much to the chagrin of Rajapaksa. This encouraged Tamils around the world to demonstrate all the more for the same. Groups in the Diaspora, as well as Tamils in southern India states, demanded that genocide be added to the proposed investigation.


The Rome-based Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT) found Sri Lanka guilty of genocide at its December 2013 hearings in Berman, Germany. The panel of 11 judges—experts in international law, former UN officials, and peace and human rights activists—also found that the US and UK were guilty of complicity. A decision on whether India, and other states, had also acted in complicity was withheld pending further examination.

The PPT is an outgrowth of the original war crimes tribunal created by Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre during the war against Southeast Asia. Another of its tribunals, in 2010, found Sri Lanka guilty of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. These are the same charges that a 2011 United Nations panel of experts recommended be explored by an independent international investigation.

The PPT decision is important not only for Tamils but for all people of conscience. There can be no denial of the Permanent People’s Tribunal credentials as a voice of conscience. The fact that the Tribunal decision includes the governments of the US and UK as accomplices, makes ridiculous any claim that those aggressive powers are real opponents of Sri Lanka’s government.

Instead of refusing to effectively assist Tamils in acquiring equal rights, an international law advocate Francis Boyle believes that, “India should actively intervene to facilitate the birth of Tamil Eelam.”

Published by Foreign Policy Research Centre

New Dehli, India, March 28, 2014



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