By Harshmeet Singh
Narendra Modi’s visit to war torn Jaffna in Sri Lanka is significant in more ways than one. Only the second international leader to pay a visit to Jaffna after Britain’s David Cameroon in 2013, the Indian PM handed over more than 27,000 homes to the local Tamils who were left without a roof after the deadly civil war.
The housing scheme, aimed at benefitting the war victims at Ilavalai in Jaffna, has been funded by the India and is a part of the reconciliation process undertaken by the Indian Government.
Jaffna has been the flashpoint of hostility between India and Sri Lanka for close to 30 years. Considered as the bastion of the Tamil Tiger forces, Jaffna was the site of outbreak of the civil war. Assassination of Jaffna’s mayor was the first major operation carried out by Prabhakaran. Soon after, Jaffna became the point of violent exchanges between the LTTE and Sri Lankan government, with the former maintaining its hold inside the area and latter attacking from outside in order to regain the territory.
Jaffna presents a classic case of a prosperous city being destroyed by war. Before the unfortunate Sri Lankan Civil War, Jaffna was the second most populated city in the country after Colombo. The majority of local population in the city comprises of Sri Lankan Tamils. The growing animosity between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils in Sri Lanka was constantly fuelled by the Government after Sri Lanka attained independence from Britain in 1948.
Liberation of Tamil majority areas, a key demand of the Tamil nationalist parties, was never taken seriously by the Government. Growing discrimination against the Tamils in Sri Lanka in terms of civil rights meant that the situation was soon about to be turned violent. Discontent among the Sri Lankan Tamils gave rise to a number of armed groups which were ready to wage an armed battle against the government. LTTE, led by Prabhakaran, was the most ferocious of these groups and either suppressed or merged other groups with itself.
India’s connection with Jaffna
Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to the island nation in 1987 was nothing less than a disaster. He was attacked by a naval soldier while inspecting the naval guard of honour at Sri Lankan President’s house. That action of the naval soldier trying to swipe off Rajiv Gandhi’s head with the reverse rifle was captured by media from all over the world. That one act summed up Sri Lanka’s feelings towards India at that point.
India’s involvement in Sri Lankan conflict can be owed to Tamil Nadu’s growing influence on the national politics due to the era of ‘coalition governments’. A strong supporter of Sri Lankan Tamils’ independence, Tamil Nadu government ensured that India supported the Tamil rebels in the northern province of Jaffna. Many people also believe that LTTE’s euphoric rise was only possible because of RAW’s training, arms and monetary help.
In 1987, while the LTTE was said to be breaking down against the Lankan forces, Indian air force was directed by the Indian Government to drop tonnes of food packets over Jaffna to ensure that the rebels’ resistance doesn’t break down. During Rajiv Gandhi’s visit, the two countries signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord which resulted in the introduction of the 13th amendment in the Sri Lankan constitution. The accord was aimed at providing equivalent civil rights to the Tamils.
The agreement also included the decision to post the Indian Peace Keeping Force in the conflict hit areas to ensure a cease fire and surrender of arms. This move turned out to be a blunder as more than 1,500 Indian soldiers lost their lives fighting LTTE after Prabhakaran refused to surrender. Prabhakaran wasn’t keen on accepting anything other than an independent Tamil Eelam. LTTE’s hatred against Rajiv Gandhi for ‘compromising’ with the Sri Lankan Government resulted in his assassination in 1991. Post the assassination, India decided to step back from the conflict and remain a neutral observer.
Far from being normal, thousands of Sri Lankan military troops are still stationed at Jaffna, despite the official end of the civil war many years ago, as if reminding the citizens that they will never be far from the site of a gun and bullet.
Significance of Modi’s visit
PM Modi’s historic visit to Jaffna and call for ‘equitable development and respect for all citizens in the island nation’ is an effort to heal the wounds of Tamils who suffered immensely at the hands of the conflict. His meeting with the Sri Lankan president is being considered by many as India’s attempt to establish closer relations and steering Sri Lanka away from the Chinese influence. Modi extended a support of $318 millions to assist Sri Lanka in changing the fortunes of its shabby railways network. During his visit, Modi also flagged off a train service to Talaimanner, the closest point to India, signalling the completion in work of the Northern Province Railway Line.
Modi’s call for devolution of power in the favour of Tamils, along with establishment of a cultural centre in Jaffna with India’s financial help is aimed at erasing the memories of Rajiv Gandhi’s visit and presenting India as a true partner.