Indo-Sri Lanka Relations Put To The Test
- Indian HC in Colombo shocked by SL travel advisory
- MR likely to meet Manmohan on the 20th
Despite statements made to the contrary by the two governments, relations between India and Sri Lanka hit a major snag last week when a group of 184 Sri Lankan pilgrims to Velankanni in South India were attacked by anti-Sinhala protestors.
The attack on the pilgrims was one in a series of attacks and harassments suffered by Sri Lankans visiting South India.
In fact, it was considered the last straw by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, which also considered it the best opportunity to take a step against South India.
Sri Lanka’s relations with South India have been that of a love-hate relationship. Although there is a close socio-economic link between the two, they are divided over the ethnic issue.
The Rajapaksa government however became the first to issue a travel advisory against visiting South India.
The President was asked to grant approval to issue a travel advisory on South India soon after news of the attack on Sri Lankans was received on Monday night.
The first to be informed of the incident in South India was Deputy External Affairs Minister Neomal Perera, who was Acting External Affairs Minister at the time.
A majority of the 184 pilgrims in Tamil Nadu were from Chilaw, which is Perera’s constituency.
When the incident took place, he received a call at around 7.30 p.m. from one of the pilgrims who was in a panic saying they were under attack.
Soon after speaking to a few of the pilgrims, Perera had alerted President Mahinda Rajapaksa of the situation in South India.
The President had then directed him to immediately attend to providing security to the Sri Lankans.
Perera had then called the Sri Lankan High Commission in India and informed them of the situation and asked the officials to immediately mobilize a team to meet with the pilgrims and to arrange for special security. He had also informed the Indian High Commission in Colombo about the incident and asked the officials take steps to ensure the safety of the Sri Lankans in South India.
However, when Perera had requested for additional security to be provided to the Sri Lankans in Tamil Nadu, the Indian High Commission had merely said that they would look into it.
Senior members of the government by then were in discussion about the plight of the Sri Lankans.
Some members of the government had requested the President to take stern action since the attack on Sri Lankans in South India was a continuous process and that New Delhi was turning a blind eye to the issue.
Perera had then proposed that Sri Lanka issue a travel advisory on South India given the hostilities faced by Sri Lankans.
After careful consideration, it was finally decided to issue a travel advisory on South India which was approved on Monday night.
However, the Rajapaksa government says the advisory will be removed once the conditions in South India improve where the Sri Lankans are concerned.
The group of 184 Sri Lankans comprising both Sinhalese and Tamils had traveled to visit the Poondi Madha Basilica, about 30 km from Thanjavur to participate in the two-day annual festival.
The Indian media had stated that the police had said activists of Naam Tamizhar Iyakkam headed by film director Seeman, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi and P. Nedumaran-led Tamizhar Desiya Poduvudamai Katchi had staged the protest demanding that the Sri Lankans return home.
The incident came a day after the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa Jeyaram ordered the officials to send back two Sri Lankan school football teams, which had come to play a friendly match.
The Indian media also noted that pro-LTTE Tamil parties in the state have recently become increasingly hostile to visiting Sri Lankans.
The Indian High Commission in Colombo was shocked by the government’s move to issue a travel advisory against Sri Lankans visiting South India – mostly because the government had decided without any consultations with the Indian High Commission.
A senior official from the External Affairs Ministry said that New Delhi knew about the Sri Lankan travel advisory before its High Commission in Colombo.
It is learnt that the Indian High Commissioner has expressed his displeasure at the issuance of the advisory without any consultation with the High Commission.
However, soon after Sri Lanka issued the travel advisory, the Indian government expressed concern over the incident that took place in Tamil Nadu.
“We have noted the travel advisory that has been issued by the Government of Sri Lanka for its nationals visiting the state of Tamil Nadu,” the Indian government said.
The Indian government said it was in close consultation with the concerned state governments and has taken and will continue to take all measures to ensure the safety, security and well-being of Sri Lankan dignitaries and visitors to India, including to Tamil Nadu.
“In certain instances, it has been noticed that important visits have taken place without prior intimation to the concerned authorities,” the Indian government said.
Nevertheless, the nationalist constituent partners of the Rajapaksa government, the NFF and JHU condemned the attack and held the Central government of India responsible for the attack on Sri Lankan pilgrims.
The two parties pointed out that Sri Lankans visiting India, especially South India have been continuously harassed and the Central government had failed to take any action about the matter.
“Tamil Nadu is a state in India and the Indian government has to take responsibility for what happened to the Sri Lankan pilgrims,” a JHU spokesperson said.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa however said last week that he would go ahead with his planned visit to Madhya Pradesh in India. The President is expected to lay the foundation stone for a Centre for Buddhist Studies in Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh.
Rajapaksa is to meet with Indian government officials in New Delhi as well.
The President at a meeting with media heads at Temple Trees on Friday had said he would visit India as planned on the 19th of this month.
Sources from the External Affairs Ministry said the President would meet Indian Premier Manmohan Singh on the 20th.
Rajapaksa was extended an invitation to visit New Delhi by Singh when the two leaders met on the sidelines of the Rio+20 summit in Brazil a few months back.
The President had also told the media heads that New Delhi’s response to the incident in Tamil Nadu has been very positive.
Meanwhile, the Express News Service has quoted VCK leader Thol Thirumavalavan as saying that the Sri Lankan President should not be allowed into the country (India), as he had allegedly “committed genocide against the Tamils” in the neighboring nation.
“I will be meeting the Prime Minister or Minister of External Affairs in this connection, in a couple of days,” the MP had said.
Asked about the stand of the Centre that Sri Lanka is a friendly nation, he had said, claiming that Sri Lanka is friendly itself is an insult.
“The island nation is having cordial relations with China and Pakistan. However, India’s friendly gesture towards Sri Lanka remains unreciprocated,” he has added.
Making way for Pillay
Amidst the drama between India and Sri Lanka, the Rajapaksa government is now preparing for a visit by UN officials to the country.
A team of officials from the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva is to visit the country on the 14th to lay the groundwork for UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay’s visit to Sri Lanka.
External Affairs Ministry sources said the team would comprise two technical officials from Pillay’s office who would visit the country to prepare for her visit and to assess the ground situation.
During their stay in the country, the UNHRC officials are expected to study the situation in Sri Lanka paying much attention to the resettlement of the war displaced.
However, their agenda during the trip is yet to be finalized.
Meanwhile, Sri Lankan Ambassador to Geneva, Ravinatha Aryasinha will lead the Sri Lankan delegation for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on November 1st.
The Rajapaksa government has decided not to send a ministerial delegation to address the UPR since the government considers it not to be a “high level session.”
A government minister said, “The UPR is a procedure, so there is no need to be excited about it.”
However, in the country report presented to the UNHRC by Sri Lanka, it states, “Sri Lanka accords the highest priority to active participation in the multilateral treaty framework relating to human rights and is party to seven core human rights treaties. The international Conventions subscribed to by Sri Lanka have been given effect to in accordance with the constitutional process through specific constitutional provision, the enactment of substantive legislation and through subsidiary legislative instruments. Sri Lanka also continues to actively engage with the OHCHR and an invitation was extended in 2011 to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit the country.”
The 30-page report explains the progress made in relation to human rights in the country and the on-going programmes.
In conclusion, the Sri Lankan report states, “Sri Lanka views its progress in the field of promotion and protection of human rights not only as an end in itself but as an indispensable component of peace building and reconciliation after a nearly 30 year conflict against terrorism. This is readily apparent from the observations and recommendations of the LLRC. Sri Lanka is also of the view that the equal enjoyment of human rights without discrimination is the best guarantee of non-repetition of conflict. To this end the genuine and consistent commitment of the nation, her Government and her people to the realization of all rights: civil and political, economic, social and cultural including the right to development is critical to future well-being and collective progress.”
A Sri Lankan Pilgrim’s Tale
The pilgrimage to Velankanni by a group of 184 Sri Lankans turned sour following violent protests in South India and they are yet to overcome the physical and mental scars of the journey.
Roshan Fernando together with nine members of his family from Chilaw had left the country on a Mihin Lanka flight on the 2nd to visit Velankanni for a pilgrimage.
He said that his group included 106 persons while another group of pilgrims had left the country on the 1st also to visit the same venue.
“There were a total of 184 Sri Lankans visiting Velankanni via Trichy and Madras,” he observed.
Fernando and the rest of the pilgrims had traveled to Poondi Madha Basilica in four buses.
“We stayed at a lodge near the church. On the 3rd we attended the service at the church and returned to the lodge where we cooked and had lunch,” he recounted.
At the same time, police personnel in uniform had visited them at the lodge and taken down their details including passport details.
“Another police officer came in civvies a few hours later to double check our facts,” Fernando said.
“Some members in the group who had been visiting the church for several years heard that there was going to be a protest and we were asked to stay inside,” he added.
The pilgrims had stayed in their rooms and the church priest had also asked them not to come out of their rooms.
“At around 4.30 p.m. we heard a loud noise and we saw the protestors marching towards the church,” Fernando said.
About 200 protestors carrying red flags, shouting anti-Sinhala slogans had made their way towards the church.
“They shouted in Tamil saying that the “Sinhala dogs must be chased” and “Sinhala dogs have to be killed.” The women and children were upset when they saw the angry protestors,” Fernando said.
About ten policemen had stopped the protestors from making their way to the lodge where the Sri Lankan pilgrims were staying.
Fernando had then got his brother-in-law to get an Indian SIM card and had made a telephone call to Deputy External Affairs Minister Neomal Perera, who is also from Chilaw.
“The Deputy Minister asked us to remain indoors and stay calm that he would inform the Sri Lankan High Commission in India about the situation. An official from the High Commission called and said that special police protection would be sent for us,” he explained.
The police team had arrived at around 8 p.m. and the pilgrims had been told that protection would be provided for them to leave the area. The church priest had also advised the pilgrims to leave before the situation got worse.
The police had said they could not provide continuous protection and the situation was uncertain. They had assured protection to the pilgrims up to the airport.
“We made a request from the police to help us visit Velankanni since it was an annual trip made by us and there were several new members who had joined the group. The police asked us if we had the buses ready and we said that there are seven buses ready to take us,” Fernando said.
The pilgrims had left their lodge at around 1.30 a.m. under police protection and had made their way to Velankanni between 7.30 and 8 a.m.
“We got two rooms at a lodge near the church and all 184 pilgrims used the toilet facilities and refreshed themselves,” the pilgrim observed.
Two officials from the Sri Lankan High Commissioner’s office had come and met the pilgrims at the time.
However, due to the prevailing situation at the time, the pilgrims had looked at the church from the outside and had started their return journey to the airport.
Twenty minutes into the drive, a group of around 200 protestors carrying flags like those of the LTTE organization had started to attack the buses. The police personnel providing security to the pilgrims had ordered the bus drivers to proceed without stopping.
“The protestors started to throw stones and some even hit the windows with poles. We asked all the women and children to lie on the floor of the bus and we covered our heads with our bags and baggage. Broken glasses fell everywhere and some of the passengers were injured in the attack,” Fernando said.
To add to the commotion, one of the seven buses had experienced a flat tire. Passengers in the bus had to be divided and taken aboard the other buses under police protection.
Meanwhile, some of the protestors had attacked the driver of another bus and taken away the key. The passengers of that bus also had to board the remaining buses.
“Out of the seven buses we were then left with five buses and 184 people had to travel in five buses,” Fernando said.
The pilgrims managed to make their way to the airport and the special Mihin Lanka flight to bring them back had reached the Trichy airport at around 9 p.m. on the 4th. They had returned to Sri Lanka at around 12.30 a.m. on the 5th.
“Our journey would have ended in a great tragedy if we were not immediately brought back to the country,” Fernando said.
He noted that children who had participated in the trip are still in shock and are disturbed even when they hear the word ‘India’.
“The minor injuries will heal, but the memories of the horrific trip will not leave our minds easily,” Fernando said.