Last month, Sri Lanka witnessed a regime change as the Rajapaksa brothers came back to power. While Gotabaya Rajapaksa became the president, his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa has been appointed the prime minister. Both have faced allegations of ordering war crimes during the last stint in power, when thousands of Tamil civilians were killed by the Sri Lankan military in the final stages of the civil war in 2009.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first visit abroad was to India last week. He met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi after India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar went to Colombo to personally deliver the invitation.
However, the Sri Lankan president’s comments after his meeting with Modi have raised concerns about how the new regime will handle the question of the country’s Tamil minority. Rajapaksa made it clear in an interview to The Hindu that devolving political rights to the Tamil-dominated areas will not be his priority. Rather, he will focus on the regions’ economic development.
The majoritarian language he deployed to make this point was startling. Full devolution of powers as per the Indo-Sri Lankan accord of 1987 will not be implemented “against the wishes and feeling of the majority [Sinhala] community”, he said.
The comment invited sharp criticism from politicians in Tamil Nadu, who urged the Modi government to ensure the safety and dignity of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Many in the southern Indian state feel that economic development without consummate political rights will lead to a demographic alteration of the Tamil regions, given the difference in prosperity between Tamils and majority Sinhala population.
However, as The Indian Express argued, Modi is in no position to push Sri Lanka on the question of rights for Tamils after what his own government has done in Kashmir. The Centre removed the special status given to Kashmiris under the Indian Constitution in August and enforced a complete lock down of the region to stop people from protesting. Some of the restrictions on communications continue to date.
In a way, what India has done in Kashmir is to reverse the devolution of some rights agreed to around the time of Independence, when the region acceded to India. Having acted in this manner at home, it will be impossible for the Modi government to demand a higher degree of rights and autonomy for a minority population in another country. This is possibly what emboldened Rajapaksa to make the statements that he did right after a meeting with Modi. During the meeting, the Indian prime minister said he was confident that the Sri Lankan government would pursue a process of reconciliation to meet the “aspirations of equality, justice, peace and respect of Tamils”.
Persuading Sri Lanka to devolve rights to the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka is a commitment that successive Indian governments had made. This culminated in the Indo-Sri Lankan accord of 1987. While parties in power may change in India, this should not affect the policy of the government. In its eagerness to keep the Chinese away from Sri Lanka, the Indian government should not ignore its promises to Tamils across the Palk Straits.