Veeragathy Thanabalasingham is the Consultant Editor of Express Newspapers Ltd
The Northern Province Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran, though a reluctant political entrant four and a half years ago, is now projecting himself as a stubbornly principled or perhaps a dogmatic Tamil nationalist political leader whose opinions to a certain extent are influencing the direction of the Sri Lankan Tamil political discourse. Of course not all his views are acceptable, but due to post-war developments, or rather non-developments in the North, he has been able to create an image of himself as a credible leader who won the admiration of several sections of the Tamil community.
In September 2013, Wigneswaran, a former Supreme Court judge, contested the first ever election to the Northern Provincial Council as the Chief Ministerial candidate of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). He won handsomely and was appointed the Chief Minister. However, soon after, he distanced himself from the stand and approach of the TNA and began closely identifying himself with the political forces seeking an alternative leadership for the TNA.
In the Sri Lankan Tamil media, particularly the print media, Wigneswaran has become a very important political personality. His comments and photographs are daily fodder for the Tamil media. So naturally his views on India’s role in Sri Lanka’s national problem got wide publicity. But his comments elicit special attention, particularly as the political groups he has been associating with are seen as being wary of the giant neighbour, and are seen to be depending more on the Western countries and the West-based Tamil Diaspora.
This reality was acknowledged by Wigneswaran during a speech delivered at a meeting of the Tamil People Forum, in Jaffna last week, where he indicated there could be a conflict of opinions among his comrades about continuing to depend on India to find a political solution to the national question. He said:
“Certain political parties are against our maintaining close ties with India. That is perhaps because of their reservation that India was also responsible for what happened to the Tamil people during the last stages of the ethnic war. The situation is different now. There are people among us who strongly believe it would be difficult for the Tamil people of the North and East to realize their legitimate political aspirations without India’s support. It is imperative to remove the differences between us and forge ahead. We have to accept the fact that it is impossible to create consensus among us on each and every issue. But, it is certainly possible to understand each other in the common interest of the Tamil people and march forward.”
Wigneswaran’s remarks came under the scanner in the media, particularly social media, with some critics wondering if the people whom he referred to as ‘those who believe it is impossible for the Tamil people to realize their political aspirations without India’s support’ includes himself as well. Days later, the Chief Minister responded to these comments, expressing concern about how his views on the importance of India’s role and its moral obligation to find a political solution to the long drawn ethnic imbroglio, is being misconstrued as his surrender or appeasement to India. It is significant that Wigneswaran’s response came at a farewell event for A. Nadarajan, Indian deputy counsel in Jaffna, who was returning to India at the end of his term.
Wigneswaran elaborated in the presence of Nadarajan:
“The intervention made by India at various levels for the last four decades in the Sri Lanka’s national problem and India’s importance in the present day geopolitical context make it vital for Tamils to continue their friendship with India with much more honesty and political and diplomatic prudence. This will tremendously help the Tamils’ efforts to claim their right to self – determination within a merged North and East.” It is hilarious to note that my genuine concerns and expectations are dubbed as surrender and appeasement to our grand neighbour. My statement did not warrant such an absurd criticism. India is important to us. We are concerned about India’s security and prosperity. At the same time, my opinions on India are based on the strong belief that the self – determination and socio-economic and political development of the Sri Lankan Tamil people is also important and beneficial to India.”
Neither the Indian diplomatic circle nor media has reflected on Wigneswaran’s observation, which has come out at a time when it is widely believed that India, in the present geopolitical context, is not in a position to exercise any pressure or even intense goodwill on the Sri Lankan government over the Tamil issue.
In this context, it is pertinent to remember the comments made by former Indian foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar during the discussion he had with the TNA delegation led by R. Sampanthan, during his visit to Colombo last year. In a clear exposition of his country’s stand on the Sri Lankan issue, he said India was not ready to go back to the past, even if it was about the 1987 July Indo-Lanka Peace Accord signed by former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and former Sri Lanka President J. R. Jayewardene. He also said much water had been flown under the bridge since the Accord, and advised the Tamil leaders to focus on claiming the rights of the Tamil people by using the various opportunities opened up by the regime change in Colombo.
It was evident that Jaishankar’s comment was articulated keeping in mind the Sri Lankan government’s constitutional reform process. His unambiguous message to the Tamils was that they should not expect India to act in a manner similar to its approach during the latter part of the 1980s.
Recently, a senior Colombo-based Indian journalist told this writer that the High Commissioner of India had informed him India would do anything for the economic empowerment of the Tamil people of the North and East, but when it came to political empowerment much could not be expected.
However, the chaotic political situation in the aftermath of the last month’s local government elections has made the resumption of constitutional making process impossible. The main partners in the National Unity Government, the United National Party and Sri Lanka Freedom Party are not in any position to talk about the resumption of the constitution making process. Neither are other important stakeholders in the Southern polity. As a consequence, hopes of finding a political solution through a new constitution, with the support of the Tamil moderate polity led by Sampanthan, who has been cooperating with the government at the risk of losing the confidence of the Tamil people, has almost shattered. It is in this backdrop one has to view Wigneswaran’s observations on the importance of India’s help and good offices in finding a viable political solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic imbroglio. Will there be any reaction from the Indian government, or from the diplomats of the Indian High Commission in Colombo in this regard?