M S M Ayub (Daily Mirror)
Hard on the heels of his “fast unto death” in prison calling for his release on bail, National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa was again in the news and became a laughing stock by calling for the hoisting of the black flag against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the latter’s visit to Sri Lanka to participate in the United Nations’ International Vesak Festival. Pathetically there were no takers for his call even within his political group, the Joint Opposition. Also the government very cleverly countered the call by tying it up with the main event where the Indian leader was to attend, the International Vesak Festival. They interpreted that Weerawansa was calling for the hoisting of black flags on the day of Vesak.
It was while addressing a massive crowd that had thronged the Galle Face green for the May Day rally that the former Minister called on the countrymen to hoist black flags to protest against the Indian Premier’s visit. Although no politicians in his camp joined his call, his view was indirectly supported by some of them after Modi concluded his tour. Citing the Indian Premier’s address to the people of Indian origin in Norwood the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya leader Udaya Gammanpila who always competes with Weerawansa in racially motivated utterances, said that Modi had treated Sri Lanka as another State of India. Former head of the Civil Security Department and former MP Sarath Weerasekara also had expressed similar views against Modi’s speech in Norwood. However the stories about their opposition to the Indian Prime Minister was overshadowed by the stories in the media of a meeting their leader, the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother former Defence Secretray Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had with Modi during the latter’s visit to the island. In fact their protest was countered by the Rajapaksa-Modi meeting.
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Before his meeting with Modi, Rajapaksa attempted to save Weerawansa from the predicament the latter had been facing due to the black flag call and owing to his would-be meeting with the Indian Premier. Responding to a question by the journalists during one of the casual meetings he has been having with them daily, after his downfall in 2015, Rajapaksa denied that the NFF leader had made such a request, in spite of the NFF leader having made it before the massive crowd that attended the JO’s May Day rally. Interestingly, the meeting with the former President and the Indian Premier had taken place according to the Indian High Commission, at the request of the former while his loyalists were furious over the latter’s address to the people of Indian origin. However, the opposition to the Indian Premier’s visit to the areas where the people of Indian origin live is not without basis. The argument behind the opposition was that when the people of Indian origin had already been assimilated into the Sri Lankan society, the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to them is divisive in nature.
The argument is further vindicated by a request last year by a leader of the very community of Indian descendants, Co-existence, Dialogue and National Languages Minister, Mano Ganesan, said that his community should no longer be referred to as former Indians, as they have already become fully-fledged Sri Lankans. However Mr. Ganesan was in the forefront in welcoming the Indian leader who while addressing the plantation workers in Norwood reminded them of the Indian ancestry, while people like Gammanpila were saying that the Plantation Tamils were fully-fledged Sri Lankans. Nevertheless, Modi has not visited only the plantation areas where the Tamils of Indian origin mainly live. During his visit to the island in 2015 he also toured another Tamil dominated area, the Northern Province. Nobody protested against that tour to the war ravaged province. The fact remains that the Indian Premier had not forgotten politics during both his visits. Although some leaders of the current government said that the latest visit of the Indian leader who is considered by many as a Hindu extremist, had only a religious significance, as he was to attend only the Vesak celebrations, he could not or did not hide the political aspect in his tour.
However, the meeting between the former President and the Indian Prime Minister was indeed a slap in the face of those who protested the visit of the latter before and after it, especially the NFF leader who wanted the Sri Lankans to fly black flags during the visit. Their plight was further aggravated by another statement by another bigwig of the Joint Opposition, Professor G.L.Peiris who is also the leader of the JO’s official political party, the Podujana Nidahas Peramuna. The former External Affairs Minister said that the meeting between the Rajapaksas and Modi was confidential. It is amusing to note the leader of the JO having a confidential meeting with an Indian leader while his loyalists were berating him for treating Sri Lanka as another State of India, and Rajapaksa himself accusing the government of having secret agreements with India on the eve of Modi’s visit. In spite of Rajapaksa and his loyalists attempting to take political mileage from the Indian Premier’s Sri Lanka visit, as people craving for power again, the Rajapaksas very well know the weight of the geo-political reality in respect of Indo-Sri Lanka relations. This had been clearly manifested in an interview the former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had with the Indian journalist V.K. Shashikumar, which was published by the Media Centre for National Development on May 18, 2010.
Gotabhaya told the Indian journalist as to why India is exceptional to Sri Lanka in its foreign relations. He said “We knew that only India influenced us militarily. India is a huge power in our neighbourhood and our proximity to Tamil Nadu with 60 million Tamils sensitive to what’s going on in Sri Lanka made the situation extremely complex for us. We knew that while other countries could or would resort to economic sanctions, only India had the power to militarily influence the course of our war operations.” He pointed out how India scuttled the Operation Liberation or the Operation Vadamarachchi in 1987 which would have been successful in defeating the LTTE, by launching the “Operation Poomalai” involving its air force.
Nonetheless, Sri Lankan individuals and groups in politics have used the anti Indian feeling that is deep rooted in the Sri Lankan masses, especially the Sinhalese to find a way out of the political mess they were in or to outsmart the opponents.The wary attitude towards the Indians stems from the history taught in Sri Lankan schools which elaborate the Indian invasions against Sri Lanka as a result of which the kingdom of Sri Lankan kings had been pushed down southwards from Anuradhapura to Gampola and Kandy via Yapahuwa, Dambadeniya and Kurunegala.
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna attempted to capitalize this anti-Indian feeling to the core during its two insurrections in 1971 and 1988/89. Before the first insurrection the senior cadres of the party held a lecture under the topic of “Indian Expansionism” for their newcomers and the second insurrection was directly against a rebellion against the so-called Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) that had been deployed in Sri Lanka under the highly controversial Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987. However, former leader of the JVP, Somawansa Amarasinghe, who was only a polit-bureau member to save his life during the government’s crackdown during their second insurrection, had later thanked the former Indian Prime Minister V.P. Singh for helping him to flee the country.
It would have been very easy for Weerawansa to take an anti-India stance and call for the hoisting of black flags against the Indian Premier, as he had entered politics as a young JVP cadre amidst a bloody armed struggle by his party, the JVP with slogans against the Indian armed forces whom they called an army of monkeys, likening them to Rama’s army of monkeys deployed against the Sri Lankan King Ravana. However, as happened many a time the anti-India struggle this time also proved to be just a political gimmick.